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Government launches LivingGreener

The Environment Minister The Hon. Peter Garrett has just announced the launch of a new government website: LivingGreener.gov.au. It centralises a lot of government information available on living more sustainably, especially information about rebates, grants and loans available.

LivingGreener.gov.au home page

LivingGreener.gov.au home page

There’s been a tonne of work involved in getting this website live, and the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts has done a brilliant job at researching and listening to the target audiences to deliver something that anyone and everyone can use.

I was involved as Senior Consultant at PTG Global with the user experience design for LivingGreener, including:

  • Personas and want maps design based on user research, website traffic analysis and statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics
  • Information architecture, including an overall conceptual model based on leading people at whatever point they were at, on a journey towards being more active to live more sustainably
  • User interface design, with wireframes and prototypes and working with content writers to structure content to integrate action points throughout the website

This has been a really rewarding project to work on. One reason is that this website isn’t trying to be everything ‘environmental’ to everyone; it’s focused squarely on guiding people towards the government assistance available to help everyone do more for the environment. And that’s got to be a good thing.

This is only the launched version of the website too; there’s more content and functionality in the wings that will be rolled out – to borrow a phrase from the Prime Minister – in due season. ;)

So take a look: livinggreener.gov.au, and here’s the official press release, too. What do you think? What are some ways you think a website can motivate you to do more for the environment?

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Collaboration: forget the hallelujahs, let’s talk about the information design

A lot of the projects I work on involve generating ideas and user interfaces for systems to get collaboration happening for organisations. Many business decision makers are all too aware of collaboration’s benefits, but struggle to make their systems realise these benefits. One of the reasons could be a lack of a rational model underlying the system changes needed.

I find collaboration is a lot like religion: most people already think they know what collaboration is, could talk about it a bit, but probably haven’t really fully experienced it. It’s something other people do. A big reason for this is the language we use: we tend to talk about it in terms of its outworkings, motherhood statements, and end products. Do these sound familiar:

  • Collaboration will deliver more innovation
  • Collaboration will make us more efficient and more profitable
  • Collaboration will strengthen brand loyalty
  • Collaboration will enable more effective management
  • Collaboration will reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Collaboration will end war and bring about world peace

…OK, you get the point. We can’t help but think about collaboration in grandiose hyperbole. What business decision makers are often left with is a big chasm between collaboration’s great promises, and the right systems and interfaces to actually get it happening. I think we need to speak more in terms of information models, and start with the patterns and habits that people are already used to. I think we can speak more in terms of good old stock-in-trade for Information Arhictects: finding, organising and sharing information.

Finding information: moving beyond keywords

Search is big. I mean, really big. Google has spawned not only its own verb, but new approaches to searching and sifting through information that others are adding innovative thinking and features to all the time (like Clusty and Vivisimo).

Search is crucial for collaboration because we’re always going to approach information in terms of what we want more than what we can give. It’s time that the various comprehensive search features out there were made more available inside organisations’ systems. Searching for information has to be integrated (searching several systems at once), contextual (offering more relevant results related to your tasks) and predictive (offering avenues that you might not have anticipated).

When predictive search works together with integrated and contextual search, organisations can better anticipate what issues lie over the horizon, giving them an edge over their competition.

Organising information: moving beyond folders

Information is traditionally organised into files, folders and business areas. Think of your average office intranet, and the way your files are arranged on your server; everything is probably arranged by the organisation chart. The server probably has a big folder called ‘Clients’, with hundreds of folders for specific projects inside. This type of thinking arises from the more traditional metaphors we’re used to, like filing cabinets, rolodexes and business cards. It works up to a point, but it relies more and more on keeping that mental model of the structure in your head.

This creates issues when new uninitiated staff arrive, when the organisation restructures, and so on. This approach can also limit scalability, place too much reliance on technology and hold back organisations’ potential.

A more useful model puts the person at the centre of the information, and organises everything by connections. Connection-based categorisation adds a new dimension of relevance to information management, and allows a more flexible, agile and future-proof way of finding and working with information.

For example, every document on your server probably belongs to some sort of project, case or other discrete unit. It has one or more authors, one or more versions, and so on. Every author has a relationship to that project (a role to play, duration they’re on the project), relationships to the other authors, and other similar projects that they have worked on. And each of those projects has its own relationships.

Get the idea? Mapping this sort of metadata reveals connections that users may not be aware of, and aid in searching, browsing and adding richer meaning to that document. One example of this in action is the way LinkedIn displays connections to other people that you’re linked to. It does this to give greater context to connections, and reveal other people you may not have known about, or may not know that your connection is connected to.

Here’s a table comparing the ways organising information by connections can help:

file management
Organising by files and folders
Knowledge management
Organising by common topics
Connection management
Organising by people
Information is organised by whatever makes sense at the time

Is an induction manual filed under HR? Or Policies and procedures? Or Training?

Information is organised by more real-world terms and business rules

Such as by subject or topic, or by roles and tasks

Information is organised by people and their experience

So it has more associations than just by topic or business rule

Rigid and static structure

Information can only be stored and referred to in one place

Flexible but static structure

Information can be referenced from many locations, but can lose relevance over time

Relational agile structure

Information is referenced from many locations, and new connections are made all the time

Not as intuitive

Finding information usually requires induction and memorising locations

More intuitive

Finding information is associated with terms people already understand

Very intuitive

Finding information is associated with people and their experience, as well as familiar terms

Searchable

But you have to know what words to search with, or work by trial and error

Very searchable

Grouping information by familiar topics improves searchability
Highly searchable

Searches are expanded to include people’s experience and expertise

Not much collaboration

The system doesn’t help people to learn from each other

Some collaboration

The system passively allows people to learn from each other

More collaboration

The system actively encourages people to learn from each other

This approach doesn’t necessarily mean replacing existing organisation practices and technology. It means adding the connection management layer to make your existing organisation more effective.

Sharing information: moving beyond email

Sharing information is actually an oxymoron to a lot of people; there are many people who have got to where they are precisely because they don’t share information, and perhaps are specifically required not to. But for the rest of us who aren’t spies or lawyers, there can still be a culture of only sharing information when we have the time and when we’ll profit from it.

But let’s assume we are sharing information. It typically means relying on technology that is simply not purposed for collaboration. It typically means using email messages to do the sharing, and the inbox to do the collecting, which presents all sorts of limitations in terms of file versions, decentralisation and difficulty in finding information. Collaboration can instead be fostered with the following factors:

  • Openness – the more people are present and able to contribute in a collaborative space, the more useful it is. A knowledge management system open to only a few authors won’t be used as much as a more multi-author (or wiki) based system.
  • Trust – information has to have credibility and authority to be relied upon.
  • Convenience – the easier it is to seek and contribute information, the more the system will be used.
  • Context – people have more incentive to use collaborative tools when they are seamlessly available as a part of the work they are already doing.
  • Personalisation – offering features that let people customise the system to the way they work increases use and usefulness.

Start with the information design

Effective collaboration systems should start with a clear articulation of the information model, and the way that an organisation’s people are to use that model. Getting used to talking about the information design rather than the high-falutin’ benefits will help these sorts of projects actually succeed.

It will also help in resolving sticky issues like governance in systems that express the points of openness (above). It will help to strike the right balance between ‘top-down’ governance, corporate-regulated roles, permissions and information management, and ‘bottom-up’ open contribution and sharing.

It will help change a system people have to use to a system people will rely on. Amen to that!

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Interpreting usability heuristics for websites, intranets and web applications

Heuristic evaluation is a common technique for assessing the usability and business performance of websites, intranets and web applications. It involves checking a website against a set of best-practice guidelines to identify any issues to fix or improve.

A commonly-used set of guidelines is a set of ten heuristics published by Jakob Nielsen (Molich and Nielsen, 1990). These are listed below, with their original explanations in italics.

These guidelines are over ten years old, and aimed more at desktop software. They’re still an effective consistent application of ‘common sense’ principles, but aren’t optimal for online interaction design and usability. I went searching for some contemporary commentary on these heuristics but couldn’t find much, so I thought I’d write some descriptions on how to interpret each guideline for websites, intranets and web applications, rather than just software. Hope they’re helpful for you.

Visibility of system status

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

This first guideline relates most closely to systems that lock user access while carrying out a process, such as making a person wait while searching the system, or validating credit card information. If a person has to wait, they should be given some sort of estimation of status, and how long they will have to wait. Simple indicators like a progress bar are useful for setting up an accurate expectation of time required for the person to wait.

The option to cancel is also useful; an explicit Cancel button is a better method of stopping a process, rather than allowing someone to resort to using the Back button on the browser, which may trigger a system error.

Match between system and the real world

The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

Websites should be designed to harness the existing domain model – i.e. the real-world concepts, patterns and language of the domain – in which the website will be used. Audiences that are familiar with the domain will find the website to be more intuitive.

This means using navigation labels, language and terminology that is free from jargon and other technical language and references. Sometimes, though, technical language is necessary if the audience at which the website is targeted is familiar with this technical language.

User control and freedom

Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

This guideline relates more to applications (like word processing software) than websites, where user actions are much more tied to functions on something (like a document), where it is important to allow a reversal of action (undo).

But it is still linked to the visibility of system status and placing system control firmly in the hands of the user. For the purposes of websites, it’s important to always indicate orientation within the website: where in the website hierarchy the person is, and the path back to a familiar location (e.g. the home page).

Consistency and standards

Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.

Whether the ‘platform’ in the guideline above is an operating system, a software family, or websites in general, there are conventions that people are familiar with that are useful for all systems to follow. People arrive at a website carrying expectations of website behaviour learned from all other websites they have visited. For example, the logo of a company on a website tends to be linked to the home page.

Consistency is also crucial within websites, in terms of the tone and language used, the layout and formatting of the page design, and the navigation appearance and behaviour.

Error prevention

Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Online forms and multi-step sequences on websites should be crafted to maximise people’s understanding of the task at hand, as well as minimising the chances of incorrect information entry.

Modern AJAX-based form field validation methods can give instantaneous feedback, so that people are aware of incorrect information in form fields well before they click the Submit button.

Recognition rather than recall

Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

In a similar way to the consistency and standards guideline above, websites will be easier to use if the elements involved in a task or process are all displayed to the person, so that the person need not rely on memory about those elements as well as thinking about how to perform the task at hand on an unfamiliar website. A simple example to display an online cart’s contents and total price at all points during the shopping, checkout, delivery and payment sequences for an online sale.

This guideline is also crucial for the display of navigation. If a person is viewing a page that is four layers deep within a website, the labels for all four layers should be clearly visible in the navigation.

There may also be the expectation that the website should recognise return visitors, or partially-completed transactions. If someone has already entered information into a website, it should capture it and re-display it when appropriate, so that they shouldn’t have to enter it again.

Flexibility and efficiency of use

Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

This guideline is aimed squarely at desktop software, which could include several ways to achieve the same task. For example, formatting text as bold in word processing software could be triggered by selecting the function from a top menu, a toolbar button, a keyboard shortcut, or a selection from a menu activated by a click of the right mouse button.

Allowing users to tailor frequent actions also hints at the ability to create macros – or pre-set sequences of actions – and assigning custom keyboard shortcuts to those actions.

Websites can still implement this guideline by assigning more frequently-used actions or more frequently-accessed pages several methods of access, such as sets of ‘quick links’, and more prominent navigation cues and links. Bookmarks, whether managed on a website (such as delicious.com and dig.com), or part of the browser software, are another example of how people can tailor their online experience to cater for more frequently-accessed websites.

Websites that are more optimised for accessibility feature shortcut keys to trigger primary navigation links, so that the keyboard can be used to navigate the website in addition to (or rather than) the mouse.

Aesthetic and minimalist design

Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

Although this guideline has been written with software in mind (‘dialogues’), the principle of integrating visual design with functionality remains the same: the visual design of a website should facilitate and not distract from the goals of the website.

Whether those goals are to simply expand a company’s brand experience into the online space, or to convert casual interest in a product to an online sale, or to convert an interested observer into a committed ambassador for a not-for-profit cause, design elements should be assessed for whether they are helping the goals or hindering. Following the guideline above, if they are hindering then it should be considered to modify or remove such elements.

Studies also indicate that a website’s visual design is an integral part of its performance. A Stanford University research study (How do People Evaluate a Web Site’s Credibility? Fogg et al, 2002) found that the ‘design look’ of a website was mentioned most frequently in terms of how online audiences assessed a website’s credibility.

Help users recognize, diagnose and recover from errors

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

This guideline’s heritage is also from desktop software, but the intention to articulate clear messages and solutions is just as applicable to websites, especially applied to broken links, form validation messages and instructional text.

Examples of implementing this guideline include tailored 404 (‘File not found’) error pages that offer alternative courses of action (such as links to key content pages and a search function), and using AJAX-powered real-time form field validation with descriptive help text.

Help and documentation

Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

The complexity and comprehensive function offerings of most software require help documentation of some sort, but websites should not require accompanying help text. Sound information architecture, consistent navigation, well-designed layouts and clear well-written content should be enough for websites to be intuitive and easy to use.

Notable exceptions include online forms and web applications that serve specific domains or specific skill-sets. In these cases, help text that is clear, concise and contextually-relevant, located next to form fields, greatly increases form usability. There are also plenty of conventions that online forms should use, to take advantage of online audience’s previous experience of forms on other websites, such as the ‘shopping cart/checkout/payment’ pattern.