Design of Flow

There are a few topics, that I want to write about the next times, I’ve already mentioned them in my previous post, but I’ll define them once more.

  • Goal based design
  • Flow design
  • Emotional / experience design
  • Play and fun as a way to achieve goals

They are all part of the same process, and describe our relation with technology, we create and use technology, not because we are such fan of technology an-sich, but because we want to get something done.

It’s important not to confuse goals with tasks, as Norman points out, tasks change with every update of technology, I used to write a letter with a pen, than I switched to typewriter, than I used Word to write it, and now I’m even using WordPress to express myself. So the technology, and tasks have changed pretty dramatically over the last decades. The goals however -to bring an idea across- is already the same for millennia. So by looking at how to get the most done, we shouldn’t focus on how to preform a certain task as optimal as possible. Instead we should ask ourselves (as creators and users of technology) how we can achieve a certain goal as easy and good as possible. (There are some nice books about order versus chaos, and how much wasted time there is spent on creating order in systems that function as well with a little mess)

Constructing Flow
A flow is a certain series of sub-task that together will form a finished task. Flow is where man and machine meet for the first time, the person want to achieve a certain goal and is using certain technology to reach that goal. (Or the other way around, certain technology can facilitate certain goals but needs users to achieve those). Flow is also the name of a state of being.

Most of us have experienced a mental/emotional state where all of our attention (or energy) is totally focused on an activity. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) named this state “flow,” based on how participants in his studies described the experience. (source)

To facilitate a flow therefore, a website should focus on delivering only those tools the user needs on that particular moment. You can already see the problem here, how does a website (that is most likely been build to support multiply goals by users with different flows) facilitate a user with the the flow that will work best on that moment. There are a few known solutions already, but all seem to have their down sides. To name a few:

  • A user can hide the non necessary tools (as WordPress does)
  • Depending on a predefined kind of user the interface will have certain features (Photoshop and Dreamweaver for example)
  • The Interface can learn from your actions (text input on the iPhone in theory) and MS Office 2003 (?)
  • Facebook and Linkedin (at least in the past) have a you are now on 30% do something to go to 40%

As you can see from the last example, both designer of the flow and user of the flow run in the same problems. The designer does not know what each specific user want to do at each moment, and can’t therefore not optimize that particular flow. And the other way, the user might know what to achieve but will not no what the most efficient way is to achieve the goal. From the list above, hide and move at own choice and being encouraged to explore the rest of possibilities seem to be the best solutions, since they don’t force the user to make decisions / or make decisions for the user without informing. Enable and encourage to play seems like the best solution. (And also why an undo function is so important (2)

Emotional design II

First lets find a place for emotional design, as far as I consider, we should keep it as far from the new age crap as possible, but we should acknowledge that we are humans, and we use a lot of emotional power to make decisions and not only rational constructed thoughts. Because the decisions made are not rational or well thought out, they are however real and can also be tested, just not as easy as just asking the question. Another point where we should keep design away from is being purely business (money?) driven, as a designer I would state ‘create great products that users love, and the money will come’. A good example where money focus will lead us appeared in an article on UxMatters. this article mentoined emotional design as a selling’ point beyond user experience design itself (or maybe not beyond, but as an important part of). The post is both worrisome as fascinating

By leveraging the science of persuasion in new and insightful ways and designing specifically to optimize the elements of persuasion, emotion, and trust, we can systematically influence customers’ online behaviour. (source)

Not only becomes a website a place where people can get a happy experience, you might also get the feeling that people are subconsciously forced to inhale whatever business has cooked up for them. It has quite an unethical feel surrounding it, than again, if it makes the people happy, why not. As appears in the comments, the blog post turns out to be one large commercial for a user experience company. Though, it touches some interesting points, where usability is not enough to create a good site.

Emotional feedback

The last point in this post (that is already all over the place) is the point Norman makes about how people are extremely well equipped for social interaction -and his chapter about how robots should have emotions- made me wonder how we could apply those ideas to web interfaces. The idea that interfaces can be more than just stating facts is slowly becoming common ground. Flickr keeps us learning different languages to say hello in, Wakoopa allows you to reach all kinds of awesome levels, and also the 404 messages of many website have become opportunities to engage people.

To end this rambling, here are some nice slideshows:

Social Networks, who are they

Lately I’ve spent some time in trying to map the ‘true essence’ of social networks, as always with true essence they refuse to be mapped. Here is my attempt though

There are (should be) three mayor components in any social network

  • Users – this might be members, visitors, creators, editors, (who knows even spambots), someone needs to be willing to do something though.
  • Actions – having user is not enough, a social network should also enable these users to do things, to alter the status quo, to change reality.
  • Objects – last there need to be things that user can preform actions on -to be visible in a digital world you will need to create, alter, reflect on media objects
  • Time

In other words we could state the goal of a social network is to ‘enable people to perform actions that will change what was there previously’

If you would be willing to follow my thoughts this would mean something for many of the current social networks out there, because it is NOT (only) about publishing (blogging, writing, uploading photos, uploading films) it’s fine if you want to focus on that, but don’t call yourself a social network. It is also NOT (only) about activity, displaying activity (twitter, friendfeed, facebook wall anyone. It is (here it comes) about the following three things:

Social networks should enable users to prepare, act, reflect:

Enable a user to see what is going on:

  • Enable a user to see what is going on (activity feed) (real time)
  • Enable a user to create, reply, act, do, take the action (publishing)
  • Enable a user to know what effect this action had

To enable this, social networks should rebrand themselves as social collaboration tools and focus on

  • Providing quick insights on what is going on
  • Making actions disturbingly easy
  • Provide an easy way to know what happened after you acted

You now might want to read more at Boxes and Arrows and read about Google Wave

And more important pleaes leave me your thoughts on what you think are important actors when we think about social networks

Planning design ahead

One of the questions that has kept me awake last weeks is ‘how can you create design visions?’ , how can you set a direction of the path the design is taking. How can you set goals for design five years ahead. For business planning these questions are still tough but they’ve got a history of business planning of several centuries to get inspiration from, and they have the numbers, so their goals are more easy to measure. For example: By the end of the year we want to have ten mayor clients and a turn over of one million, check at the end of the year, 9 clients, nine hundred thousand turnover, almost there only ten percent off.

Measuring user experience
Design is measurable in goals of clicks, visits and conversion, but does this equal user experience too? If your conversion goes up by 10 %, does that mean the user experience went up by 10% too? One way of approaching this problem is by measurement, although not as easy as financial goals, there are several methods available to measure user experience, and get their experience expressed in numbers (for example see here: Measuring Usability and a paper about Single Usability Metric or Usability Benchmarking or the work of Nigel Bevan and this great thread) This might solve the problem of measuring how usable your product is, and might even being capable of measuring some emotional states. And therefore you could start expressing statements, as our overall user experience is now 7.1 by the end of the year I want it up to 8.0. For those who love numbers this is a wonderful method, is does not really solve the problems of design visions though. As Donald Norman states in his book, ‘as easy it is to create usable products, it can be pretty hard to create useful products. For usable most times applying the rule ‘simple is better’ will the job, and eventually you will end up producing hammers and nails.

Future visions
An other popular but more expensive way is the future visions that Microsoft and IBM for example push out every year

Neuro Web Design – a book review

This review is of the book Neuro Web Design – what makes users click by Susan M. Weinschenk. As the title suggests this book is supposed to be about what web designers and web marketeers can learn from ‘recent’ insights from psychology to build websites that are better up for their tasks. I.e. how do you get a user to click, write, engage with your website in a way that you want.

The book is divided into eleven chapters that all support one main concept and end with a handy summarizing bottom line. Because the book is neatly structured it’s not that hard to summarize. Therefore I will first provide you with a summary, and secondly a conclusion. As you might notice, that there are hardly any mind-blowing new insights, but one could say its the execution of ideas that count, not merely having them.

First chapter is about the working of the brain in general. We have three brains, working closely together, Susan uses the easy to remember names, new brain – where the active thinking happens, mid-brain – where emotions are processed, where your feelings are, and the old brain – that focusses on general survival, also works with the automatic functions in our body, as walking and breathing. An interesting fact is that we receive around 11 million sensory inputs a second, but our concious brain – the new one- is only capable of handling 40 of them simultaneously. To create successful websites we should therefore not only focus on our new brain where reason and logic live, but just as much -or even more- focus on the other parts of the brain that are outside our concious regions.

Second chapter is about social validations, we want to be normal, we want to be like others, therefore we continuously scan the environment to get a feeling of what might be expected from us. We therefore are particularly influenced by the decisions that others made, recommendations on Amazon for example, or the interestingness factor on Flickr. An other great way is to use case studies and stories of people who we can imagine to be real and who’s stories we can connect with.

Third chapter is about reciprocate and concession, about how giving things away for free actually helps working on peoples guilt feeling to balance out their relation to you, give them free information, and they might be willing to give some information back. Give them a free trial period, and they will consider your offering to pay for a service more happily.

Forth chapter is about scarcity. If things come in endless amounts, than or they are too easy, and we might take them another time, or they are not good enough, and people wouldn’t even want them if it is free. If there is some price to pay though, we feel more interested, expensive things must be good right, hard to reach places must be more interesting. Make information harder to get, make product offers run for a limit time, and they all appear to be more interesting.

Fifth chapter is about not providing endless choice, give people distinctive choices. We can only handle one or two product features at the same time, so if you want people to choose a particular product, make it appear on top of the list, let the most expensive one have more features, connect it with a story about a identifiable person and the deal is closed. Or if you want to sell a model X of 20 pounds, present it next to model Y of 110 pounds and model Z of 12 pounds. Even if X is only a slightly bit better than Z people will still go for it, because it looks like such a deal compared with Y, and Z is so cheap that there must be something wrong with it. (supermarkets love this trick to sell you their home brand) Perhaps here filtering techniques start to help too. As long as we have the feeling that we are slightly in control. Not every advanced search delivers on its expectations. Horizontal browsing might therefore provide a good alternative to vertical search (Check this presentation on Amazon)

Sixth chapter is about you! have you noticed how many times Flickr uses the word you on the logged in homepage? -nine times the word you, two times your name, and a whole menu named ‘you’. Your old brain is completely you focusses and loves to know more about things that are there for you to provide you with a better life. This focusses on three general themes of survival. Avoid danger – even if the danger isn’t focussed upon us, our brain will still be extra alert when we see risky things, show advertisement right after a scary film scene and we are more likely to take notice, and by having things flicker and blink they will get our attention. Find food: if you are by any chance in the food business, lucky you, show food lusciously and the customers will run into your shop. Sex sells, pretty people, girls with Bambi eyes, it all still helps to close the deal.

Seventh chapter is about commitment and consistency. Get people on board and they are more likely to stay on-board, increase your fees slowly each year, and they still feel committed and stay with you. Speak towards an inner vision of who some-one things she is, and more likely she will go for your product to stay consistent with her inner story and with her history of being. Writing positive reviews for example will not only give other people the feeling that they make better informed decisions, but it will commit the writer of the review stronger to the product.

Eight chapter is about similarity and sameness. Attractive people still are a good way to sell products, celebrities go a long way, and if your site is created for a specific target audience, than do show them. People that appear to be just like us, are trusted more.

Ninth chapter is about the fear of losing. Losing an offer because time runs out, buying the most expensive version because fear of missing some of the good stuff. (Nine is also about chapter four) Threadless can be seen as a good example here

Tenth chapter is about pictures and stories. We are in general not that good in remembering dry information, but when folded in a delicious story and topped with emotional pictures of real (attractive) people it moves right into our unconscious brain.

Eleventh chapter is a conclusion; we are social animals, think in stories, in emotions and in humans and your next product that will help people to communicate more divers, more easily, faster and more engaging will become a hit.

Although the book is not really bad, it’s lack of web bases case studies (even the most famous ones are absent) and the chunks of information that leave you behind hungry for more (yes, I really was able to summarize chapter nine in one line, it was hard not to write more words than Weinschenk about this topic) make the purchase of this book doubtable. I got the feeling that Weinschenk certainly does know her psychology facts and research reports, nevertheless her lack of knowledge on the area of web and design do prevent this book from being exciting and engaging. At least 60% of the book is filled with examples that have nothing to do with the internet. Although I actually learned a few things about the latest neuro-research, calling this book neuro web design is misleading. My advise would be that she teams up with web designer and writes a follow up as soon as possible. Until than, just read my summary and save up for books that are filled with passion for the field. Susan’s conclusion is a great example of her doubtful motives:

I don’t know what the next big thing online will be. I wish I did know. Than I could create it, make a lot of money and retire.

Her desire for money unfortunately led to this joined attempt with New Riders to create a book that promises much, but fails in execution.

I will give this book three stars, one for the great topic, one for the nice construction of the book, one because I did learn something, a minus for the lack of related case studies and a minus for the lack of real engaging content.

Another definition of design

As I pointed out in my previous post, I think that there is still something missing on all the great diagrams that are already made about design. And that is “why bother about design in the first place”. I placed my writings in a nice little diagram that hopefully explains what I meant, but also opens new questions.

What is the function of design

As far as I can explain from this diagram is that the goal of design is to enable people to work with technology in such a way that they can do their task they think they need to do to achieve their goals.The most important thing I wanted to make clear is that not only should designers focus on which task a user want to preform with a certain technology, they should also consider which goals (and vision) a user has, for their might be other tasks more suitable to achive their goals.

What is Ux Design

I stumbled upon some slide decks the other day, some arguing quit strongly against calling the artist formally known as interaction designer Tafkid a user experience designer.

Although i do agree with the key ingredients of these presentations, I also think one should avoid wasting ones time on defining meaning of words or meanings of professions. By the time that you successfully defined them, something new will have coma along that is exactly the same but 5% extra, and you can start defining again. Although it is interesting, I feel I have better things to do. If you feel you have some time left, please start working on defining art and artist, the difference between a blogger and a journalist and what web2.0 really means. I’m happy with that it is impossible, but I do believe that it is certainly possible to call a number of concepts that it is related too. That will be sufficient for me. If the world calls my profession UXD designer (or UX designer, or UE designer) than that is what I will work with.

Frank Spiller of the very interesting blog Demystifying Usability made a great illustration to cover this problem (source)

So User Experience Design (formally also know as Usability) deals with all these subjects, and many more, sometimes it will be the right name, sometimes it wont.

To quote good ol’ Shakespeare

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.