John Underkoffler, inventor of the data interface used in the Minority Report, talks about the g-speak Spatial Operating Environment and the future of user interfaces in a recent TED talk. Watching this makes it hard to ignore the fact that the best has yet to come. And it’s a great example of why TED matters.
Normally I love the iTunes App Store, but not so much today. I was trying to add Kayak’s travel app to my new iPhone and found the experience to be full of unnecessary and redundant tapping.
This was my screen flow:
Launched the App Store
Typed “kayak” and clicked the Search button
Tapped Kayak’s app on the list screen
Clicked the Free button
Clicked the Install button
Received a prompt for my password
Entered my password and click the OK button
Received a message asking me to confirm I wanted to download the app since Apple had detected this was a new device
Clicked the Continue button
Received a prompt for my password
Entered my password and click the OK button
Got directed to billing page with a request to confirm all information (since this was the first time using this device)
Entered credit card security code without making any other changes and clicked the Done button
Returned to the Kayak screen
Clicked the Free button
Clicked the Install button
Did I really need to enter my password twice? The App Store should be smart enough to know I just entered a password when sending me to the billing information page. Normally I don’t mind having to authenticate when accessing billing information, but not when I just did it a moment ago and am finger tapping an iPhone.
Another redundant step was requiring me to tap the Free and Install buttons a second time after going through the setup screens. At that point I had gone through 36 taps, so I think I clearly expressed my desire to download the app (“Really, I do want it!”, I thought). The App Store should have just started the download.
A last unneeded step was asking me to update my payment information to download a free app. My guess is that was done to get my iPhone ready for seamless purchasing in the future, but that’s a business goal of Apple’s, not a user goal of mine. I just wanted to download a free app. Ask me to confirm my billing information when it’s really needed.
My entire Kayak download took 38 taps. Eliminating the second password prompt and the last two buttons would have cut it to 26, a 31% reduction in taps. That’s a lot in a mobile experience. Dropping the credit card setup for a free app would have removed four more taps. Luke Wroblewski stated it best in Web Form Design, don’t ask for data you don’t need to complete the user’s task at hand.
As I said before, I love the App Store. But its download flow needs some streamlining, especially in the mobile context. I’m surprised Apple missed this aspect of the store’s design given its usual laser-focus on all the small details. As Charles Eames said: “The details are not the details. They make the design.”
Although it’s well known Google is always testing as many as 200 changes to its user interface, it wasn’t until today that I had the chance to step into one of those tests.
When going to the Google News page I saw a new layout and a link at the top that read “Why is News different?”. Clicking the link took me to a page that explained I was taking part in a test and asked me to complete a short survey. The survey page also contained a link to a 2006 post on the Official Google Blog that explained how Google uses its live sites for testing.
The changes being tested included offering people the choice of displaying stories in topical sections or as one long list. When shown in the list view, stories seemed to by ranked by how new they were, with newer stories at the top.
Each story summary had three icons at the top right. A star icon was used to mark the story as “Starred” (a favorite). This is on Google News already. A downward pointing arrow opened a layer that allowed a story to be shared via email, Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, and Google Reader. And an X icon was used to “Hide this story for 6 hours”. I’m not sure the significance of the six hours or whether the story would ever appear again, but I would think people would just want to remove the story altogether. This could be one of the things Google is testing.
I noticed a few other odd things on the News page:
To expand a story summary to see a bit more detail you have to click the white space around it, but there’s no visible call to action and no change to the mouse pointer. You just have to discover this feature. This also may be something being tested.
When my news preferences were first presented there were three columns of radio buttons in which I could mark each section as being used Rarely, Sometimes, or Always. But the setup progress indicator only showed setup as complete when no category was left set to Sometimes. So even though I sometimes read Entertainment stories, I had to set that category to Rarely or Always.
A news section’s name changed from black to gray when I choose Rarely, which made me wonder if stories in those categories will ever show (gray being indicative of a disabled state in web apps).
So like a good community member I gave Google my feedback. Of course I’m curious what other variations of the news UI were being tested and with how many people. I assume at some point some of these changes will make it into the site (or maybe not).
There’s nothing like a clean, concise quote from a noted designer or thinker when you need a short and sweet line to explain why we do what we do. Of course we all hope to work for an organization that already “gets it”, but whether you do or don’t it never hurts to have a little ammo in the back pocket for when someone challenges the need for dedicated UX resources. Another good quote source is the Pithy Design Quotes on the Society for Technical Communication’s website.
Google is once again using its technology to allow us to explore our world in new and exciting ways, this time helping New York City tourism promoters create 3D tours of selected parts of the city. In a marriage of high-resolution 3D streetview photography and digital maps of New York, Google’s partnership with NYC & Company gives us a glimpse into the future of immersive, exploratory experiences.
Using the Google Earth API and the new hi-res images, NYC & Company has added the 3D tours to the interactive wall and table displays at its information center. The 3D fly-throughs also are available on your desktop in Google Earth.
It’s a cardinal usability heuristic that status messages on your website need to be clear in communicating the current state of whatever task the user is engaged with and tell them where they can go from there. But that doesn’t mean they need to be dry and dull as if Mr. Spock was doing your copy writing.
Amazon’s iPhone app offers a playful take on the standard “you have 0 items in your cart” message seen on many ecommerce websites. Since it’s obvious the cart is empty (because there’s nothing in it), Amazon uses the occasion to suggest you give your cart a “purpose” by filling it with books or CDs. It adds an element of personality at a point in the experience in which it’s OK to be playful.
You wouldn’t use this tone if a customer’s order was canceled 10 days before Christmas because the product they purchased is out of stock and cannot be back-ordered. Nor would you use it if a consumer is in a dire situation they need to recover from, like not being able to find their previously made hotel reservation when trying to confirm it online. But in no-stress situations like the obviously empty cart more websites and mobile apps could use a little bit of personality.
With the launch of the iPad a few days ago we’ve been bombarded with countless commentaries and critiques of the user experience and potential new business models made possible by Steve Jobs’ “magical” new product. But sometimes you just have to sit back, relax, and watch someone totally engage with a product to remember why it is we UX designers live to create great experiences — we do it because it’s just plain fun.
A video surfaced on YouTube this week of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl playing with an iPad while her dad asked her to do different things. The dad, Todd Lappin, on whose telstarlogistics YouTube channel the video first gained attention, wrote that his daughter likes to play with his iPhone, but that this was her first iPad experience. While she clearly enjoyed herself, she also stumbled in a few places based on her previous experience with different devices (and who hasn’t seen that before).
The joy in this is seeing her complete immersion in the moment. She’s happy and excited not because of great UX or technical accomplishments, but because she’s having fun. It’s a great reminder of why we get up every day and do what we do.
Thinking about a website’s user experience cannot be limited to just the design of the user interface and people’s interactions with it. From the consumer’s point of view, their experience extends to everything that happens from the moment they first visit the site to when the product or information they seek is delivered.
One important aspect of the user experience, perceived site performance, can be particularly vexing to site users and designers alike. That’s because when a site is slow to download or respond to user actions it causes the visitor to focus on something that is getting in the way of what they are trying to do. The guidance around response times Jakob Nielsen provided in his 1994 book Usability Engineering is still true today, perhaps even more so given people’s increased exposure to broadband internet access at home and work.
Fortunately there are many tools out there for measuring how your site is performing in terms of download speed and response time. Here’s a few free ones I use:
Firebug: The Net tab in the popular Firefox Add-On displays the size and download speed of each of the individual elements that make up a particular web page. It displays the information in a waterfall graph showing when each object’s download begins and ends, allowing you to easily see when a Flash object or other large file may slowing down the site’s perceived performance. This is especially useful if your site has third-party advertising served from a network you don’t control.
Tamper Data:This Firefox Add-On gives you an extremely granular look at a site’s HTTP and HTTPS requests and responses. You can see file sizes, duration of requests and responses, and HTTP response code your server sends back to browser. This is useful if your site is experiencing slow response times because of requests to third-party content or if there is a problem in your content distribution network.
Bandwidth Place: This website can measure your computer’s upload and download speeds and show if your network connection is creating a bottleneck. If your download speed is comparable to what your site users have, which is often the case for intranet applications, this can help you understand what your audience is experiencing.
For industrial strength monitoring, Keynote Systems and Gomez offer paid services that can monitor download performance and response time from a geographically distributed network of computers that allows you to see how the site is performing from a worldwide perspective.
Keynote and Gomez also offer continuous monitoring services in which intelligent agents repeatedly visit a site from numerous geographically distributed locations and run through a scripted set of actions like performing a search, adding an item to a shopping cart, and checking out. Their services also provide email and SMS text alerting when performance thresholds have been exceeded. Keynote also has a free service, Keynote RedAlert, that can be used for 30 days to test scripted monitoring.
The Interaction Design Association updated their website yesterday with a new design and a few great new features.
Members using discussion threads on the previous incarnation of the site will have their profiles connected to all their posts once they create a password, which is new feature and replaces the kludgy authentication-by-email scheme the site had been using.
The site still features the highly popular discussions plus a new Job Board and Resources page. Both are great additions. Another great addition is the Related Threads on the right side of the discussions page that lists related threads based on the thread title.
Local IxDA chapters also have been creating their own websites recently to manage local events and share resources. You’ll have to join your local chapter on the main website even if you are already a local member as the membership rolls of the various sites do not appear to be connected. Not a big deal, and membership in the main organization and the local chapters is free.
The world got its first look at the long awaited iPad from Apple this week. And after digging into it bit I think I can wait a little longer to actually get one, though, as Apple has missed some key functionality.
A few of the key features Apple missed are:
No camera: Video chat is impossible without a built in iSight camera. With the hardware as large as it is there is no reason not to have a camera, and one better than the 2.5 megapixel on the iPhone.
No multitasking: There’s no reason a more powerful processor couldn’t have been included so that Mac OS X could be supported. And that’s another miss in itself.
No Mac OS X: Limiting the iPad to the iPhone OS removes a lot of key functionality for mobile users. Unless someone is planning to use Google Docs and other cloud-based apps there is a lot you can’t do with Apple’s “magical” new machine. Business travelers and many other users will find themselves having to carry an iPad and laptop.
Battery not removable: The 10-hour life of the battery is a big improvement over iPhone, but for the cost of the iPad it should come with a removable battery so a heavy user could charge it and swap in a backup.
Lack of clarity on GPS: It’s not clear if the iPad has a dedicated GPS chip or if that will be available on all models. The tech specs indicate Assisted GPS will be used, but not a dedicated GPS chip like one would find on a Garmin. It’s hard to believe Apple wouldn’t match the quality of location-based services available to the 3GS so I suspect this is more of a marketing or semantic problem than a technical limitation of the iPad.
While the iPad is a big advance in multitouch technology and will provide a great mobile web surfing experience, it does not offer enough functionality to replace the laptop, which is what many people were expecting. This is likely a business decision by Apple to not cannibalize the market for their Macbooks. The iPad may have strong appeal to BlackBerry users who want some of the iPhone experience without having to give up their Berry. Only time will tell if Apple made the right calls in limiting what iPad can do.