NN/g Chicago Usability Week 2014

Recently, my colleague Sarah and I attended the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) Chicago Usability Week. With what seemed like semester-long courses packed into a couple of days, Sarah and I left Chicago not only feeling impressed by the architecture but also by the wealth of knowledge we managed to cram into our brains in just one week.

So, what did we learn? Here are five takeaways that just start to bring the tip of the usability week iceberg into focus:

1. Brand affiliation impacts the user experience. Have you ever wondered why you’re excited to wait for your iPhone’s new OS to download, but when Windows wants to run a few updates you let out a big sigh? Among other factors contributing to these responses, our feelings towards a certain brand can actually determine our user experience and cause us to be either more forgiving or fed-up.

What this tells us is that how our end users or clients feel about us as an organization actually impacts the way they interact with us – either via our website, an application, or even in person. User experience starts at the top – if you lack buy-in at that very basic level of brand affiliation, you’re likely going to continue bumping into annoyed users and clients every step of the way.

2. Beware of “curve creep”. We know from experience, and from our Change Management colleagues, that change is never easy for the end user. Another take on this notion, is that those of us on the project team who are making design decisions, reviewing iterations, and making changes, have become acclimatized to the change.

One small change and discussion after another, we feel more and more comfortable and even excited about the change; but it is important to remember that our end users have not had this privilege – they haven’t even started their ascent to base camp, and we’re dancing on the summit!

There are things we can do to help minimize the delta in this scenario and expose our users to the change in tolerable increments. Beyond implementing change management best practices throughout the project, we can also employ usability testing to increase end user exposure to the change. Beyond that, we can also be more understanding when we receive an onslaught of negative feedback post-launch, remembering that this experience for our users is akin to our project meeting on Day 1 (of 287).

3. Average / typical users do not exist. Even though we don’t always come out and say it overtly, we all think we know who our average users are – we’ve got them all figured out. But actually what we learned at Usability Week is that there isn’t a whole lot of value in spending time defining average users, or even talking about them – they simply don’t exist; however, what does exist is a user space. Spend time with your project team and envision your users’ environment and their tasks; tell some stories and bring them to life.  If we can gain a sense of the “space” that our users exist within, then we are more likely to design for the diversity we serve.

user space

4. Ensure your users are receiving a high quality “signal” (minimize noise). Information is anything that is of immediate use to our users; noise is everything else. Take a second to look at your website or application: is it emitting a low signal? Causes for low signals in web pages and apps include the following:

  • Confusing layouts
  • Missing or ambiguous instructions / information
  • Tools for prior or future tasks are provided
  • Design based on the wrong users or wrong OS

How do we make sure we’re sending out a really strong signal?

  • Offer full instructions for only immediate tasks
  • Have a graphic designer do a clean layout with only necessary graphic elements
  • Beware of branding overload
  • Offer everything needed and nothing not needed for users and tasks
  • Write for the web
  • Test, test, test

So, next time you’re assessing a website, tool, or application, think in signal strength.

5. Let your intuition do some of the work. There is a reason why Archimedes was only able to figure out how to measure the weight of an object submersed in water while taking a relaxing bath hours after a long day of problem solving and contemplation. That reason is that he took a break and allowed his intuition to make the connections and ultimately solve the problem he had been working all day on.

The lesson here is to trust your intuition, that part of your brain that is constantly working to make connections and tie ideas together. It’s the same reason why everything seems clearer when you wake up in the morning, and why you randomly remember the name of that old classmate days later on your way to work. So the next time you find yourself on a design team, take the time to pack your brain full of all of those facts and figures and variables, and then walk away. Give yourself, and your team, a chance to absorb the information and allow your intuitions to get to work.

And remember, when you finally do come up with the solution that you had been working so hard for, don’t smack yourself on the head and exclaim “how did I not see this earlier?!”. Instead, pat yourself on the back and say “Wow! Good job intuition!”. By encouraging our intuition instead of punishing it, we can expect it to work harder for us in the future.



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