Category Archives: communication

Why waste such a valuable space?

I hate complaining.

Wait, that’s a lie; in fact I actually like complaining. I like looking at a problem or some sort of sub-optimal condition and say, if you just changed that bit, if you just dropped that thingummy, it would be so much easier for the people who come into contact with it. I make a living from telling people what is’t optimal in their product, service, website and then offer suggestions based on research, information from users, and solutions other people have come up with. I’m a bit like an iron, smoothing out the wrinkles of experience. *groan*

So, you might say, complaining is my job. Yes, I like complaining. I spent 15 minutes on the phone with Apple yesterday whinging about how even though it let me type spaces in my password, didn’t flag it was an issue in the error checking, and accepted my entry; it still failed my login attempts because my pass had spaces which they didn’t record. I’ve never met a coder who hadn’t read the XKCD Password Strength comic so there’s no excuse for not testing predictable use cases. Really.

But this post isn’t about Apple, it’s about a different music service.

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Humanising the product

I ordered a book from a US online book retailer who redistributes used books in decent condition at a reduced cost compared to new books.

Besides a noble act, recycling, using some of the profits to support global literacy and reducing landfill, they also communicate on a very human and personal level, so that when the book is ready to be shipped, the book (!) writes you a letter. As below.

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Hello Joseph,

(Your book(s) asked to write you a personal note – it seemed unusual, but who are we to say no?)

Holy canasta! It’s me… it’s me! I can’t believe it is actually me! You could have picked any of over 2 million books but you picked me! I’ve got to get packed! How is the weather where you live? Will I need a dust jacket? I can’t believe I’m leaving Mishawaka, Indiana already – the friendly people, the Hummer plant, the Linebacker Lounge – so many memories. I don’t have much time to say goodbye to everyone, but it’s time to see the world!

I can’t wait to meet you! You sound like such a well read person. Although, I have to say, it sure has taken you a while! I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but how would you like to spend five months sandwiched between Jane Eyre (drama queen) and Fundamentals of Thermodynamics (pyromaniac)? At least Jane was an upgrade from that stupid book on brewing beer. How many times did the ol’ brewmaster have one too many and topple off our shelf at 2am?

I know the trip to meet you will be long and fraught with peril, but after the close calls I’ve had, I’m ready for anything (besides, some of my best friends are suspense novels). Just five months ago, I thought I was a goner. My owner was moving and couldn’t take me with her. I was sure I was landfill bait until I ended up in a Better World Books book drive bin. Thanks to your socially conscious book shopping, I’ve found a new home. Even better, your book buying dollars are helping kids read from Brazil to Botswana.

But hey, enough about me, I’ve been asked to brief you on a few things:

We sent your order to the following address:

Joseph Ortenzi
123 Your Street
Sydney, NSW 2000
AU

Order #: XXXXXXXXXXX

We provide quick shipping service to all our customers. You chose International Mail shipping, your book should arrive within 10 – 21 business days. Some shipments may take slightly longer to arrive.

At this time, we are not able to offer tracking on our International Mail shipments.

If you have any questions or concerns, please email my friends in Customer Care at help@betterworldbooks.com. If you could please include your order number (XXXXXXXXXXX) that would be very helpful.

Eagerly awaiting our meeting,

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation

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One way of personalising an otherwise impersonal service, with a very human voice.

Nice

test for failure, not success

I’m visiting Toronto at the moment and had an experience with a boutique hotel and their website.

As you can see, their room request form is wonderfully simple and usable in design.

Availability request form

It was easy to use, clear and offered just the right amount of options to get the request in. Very pleasing. I’m willing to forgive the copy being sub-standard since the form is so straightforward and is exactly what I need from a booking request.

Unfortunately the message that followed was less than useful.

Lack of availability at the Gladstone Hotel

in text:

You requested:
1 () room for a 3 night stay, arriving on Thursday, October 14, 2010, departing on Sunday, October 17, 2010, to accommodate 1 adult per room.
Room Availability
.. Requested daily number of rooms is greater than maximum.
Click ‘Change Request’ to revise your selections.

I’m not sure what they think I might conceivably derive from this response, but what I actually did was book a room in another hotel down the road, where I could get the sort of room I wanted and the booking was straightforward, and more importantly, successful. I contacted the hotel to let them know of the error, trying to be helpful and the response I received was that the site was not “broken”. I was told the error arose because there were no vacancies on Oct 14. They did not explain why the error message did not say this. They did not try to discover where I experienced a problem, but to their credit, asked several questions to attempt to find me a room, albeit 2 days later.

.. Requested daily number of rooms is greater than maximum.

This clearly is a statement that was never tested with users, for I cannot imagine a test user understanding what went wrong here. Not only was the information supplied unhelpful, clicking either button (Change Request or Continue) produced an application error (Error:500) and stopped me in my tracks. There was no further progress possible. You should attempt to never deliver an application error to your customers and this article from Smashing Magazine might help give you inspiration on what types of response you can give. It shows 404 errors (page not found) but with some clever coding, you could also use it for application errors, like Twitter does when their servers are feeling a bit stressed, causing them to deliver the Fail Whale page. In fact, the Fail Whale is so popular it has it’s own fan club. You should be so lucky with an error page!

This to me was an obvious example of where user testing would come in handy, in particular, testing what happens in the system when someone tries information that produces an error or is outside of expected inputs. If I had changed my dates (not possible in this example) I may have received a better response from the site, perhaps.

It appears to me they spent little if any time working out what would happen if something went wrong and the system needed to deliver an error message. They also didn’t spend any time testing what messages would be delivered to users under different, normal circumstances, like when a room is not available for a desired date.

A valuable lesson is that when planning, building and testing, you need to make sure your communications are succinct and clear, and to test that your error messages make sense to they types of users who come to your site. In addition, you need to prepare for when things go wrong, when people break the bounds of expected or calculated behaviour, and not just when they make choices you are prepared for.

How much business or attention are you losing by not having thought of the errors deeply enough?

User experience in a nutshell

User experience in a nutshell, thanks to the always interesting XKCD:

university website Venn diagram

While I was at UX Australia last month I saw a load of venn diagrams, many of them useful as a conversation-starter, to focus on the subject, but to me they ended up mostly saying: “this bit in the middle is what I want to talk about”. My problem with venn diagrams is they can be created without meaning or value and  are indicative only of one’s intentions, one’s desires, one’s own perspective, not a truly factual or researched mapping.

But I like this cartoon as it describes almost every initial meeting or workshop moment I have experienced with a client in the past.

Very often the problem with a User Experience exercise is that the client wants what is on the left and the user wants what is on the right and for some reason, the left often wins. I completely understand why they find the left important and the right scary, but isn’t “a little scared” where you need your clients to be, in order to push forward with improvements, or truly deliver on their real business goals?

Very often the information on the right is readily to hand  but they fear it is problematic or scary to release all of it or to set up the workflow and administration for it to happen. But they’ve come to you to deliver a solution to their problems, and it may be that the way to do it is to ignore their “delivery” problems and solve their user’s problems first.

You should always “scare” your clients, just a little bit, and definitely within their tolerance, but scare them a little. They’ll often understand it if you make it easy for them to do so.

What this election lacks

This is one of my favourite scenes from one of the ten top films of all time.

Fantastic story, brilliant script and a cast that grits and grumbles through a film that will leave you drained. There’s no high-speed fight scenes, no time/space/body-shifting heroes, no fantasy land; but since 1976, Network feels as modern a story as it did then. It informs us deeply about the world we live in, the machinations of the powerful and the television that dominates our lives now. Crammed with intelligently written scenes, full of a richness of meaning and purpose. Not to mention a very embryonic form of  social media.

The full scene, below, is brilliant if you have the time, but the clip above gives you the meat of the argument.

Apologies for the  French subtitles as everyone else only shows the truncated scene. Only the French understand mise-en-scéne and the second clip above captures the drama and operatic scope of the scene, from Howard’s lonely, determined, rain-soaked march to the thunder and passion of the entire city screaming into the night.

If only the current Australian election were able to elicit passion on this scale.

To the moon, and beyond

People of my age remember watching men walk on the moon, on our television sets, when we were young kids.

I have no doubt, it shaped us profoundly and irrefutably. Practically, in the way we viewed the world & humanity, and spiritually, in how we saw our fragile breed, riding this blue marble.

in the 40 years since that landing, I probably thought about being an astronaut a million times, I’m sure. I’m not alone among the people who abandoned sporting and historical heroes to replace them with the riders of rockets to the unknown; with heroes of the future; with the scientists and engineers who made things happen, as much as with the rocket pilots themselves.

Millions of people will write about what the anniversary of the moon landing means to them. I won’t add to it. Instead I’d just like to say “thank you”.

I’d like to thank the millions of people who made it happen, from the astronauts themselves, to the parents of the factory worker who tightened any one of the thousands of bolts on the LEM, or approved the velcro strips as they slid past them on the quality assurance table. They’re all in there. They were all important.

The Apollo missions marked the age I was a child of, Aquarius, and influenced my era in ways we have yet to fully explore. And fortunately, we’re still learning from it, and still pushing the boundaries.

And to those who think it didn’t happen? Sorry. I don’t believe you.