Jul 12

The Hidden Powers of SurveyMonkey

The four simple question types you usually needTwice I’ve joined companies to find professional researchers laughing at my use of SurveyMonkey for user research. They assumed it was inadequate compared to their costly enterprise software.

But most surveys don’t need advanced features. When they saw how easy it was to do surveys with SurveyMonkey, the researchers never looked back.

In their honour, here’s my guide to the lesser-known features of SurveyMonkey.

Super Simple Data Sharing

The whole point of a survey is getting responses. But enterprise tools put so many barriers between writing the survey and getting the responses that it’s easy to forget why you were asking the questions in the first place.

This just isn’t good enough.

So my top reason to use SurveyMonkey is it only takes 30 seconds to create a password-protected URL for your survey results. Now anyone can access the data without being able to modify the responses or mess up the survey itself. 

And what does quick and timely access to user data equal? UX converts.

One Survey, Multiple Collectors

SurveyMonkey lets you create a single survey with many different URLs (‘collectors’). You might put one on your website, another in a mass email to registered users and a third on your Twitter account. 

All collectors gather responses to one place, but the trick is you can view data in aggregate or segment it by collector. This lets you easily see differences between your audiences at the same time as gathering overall data.

And that’s just the start. Segmentation lets you test your hunches (do people respond differently when incentivised?) and compare feedback over time (one set of feedback questions with a different collector for each time you speak).

Conditional Logic That My Mum Understands

Setting up a branching survey is easy and needs no programming knowledgeYou don’t have to create many user surveys before you find that you want to ask different follow-up questions depending on previous answers. 

The classic example is the satisfaction survey – ask one thing to users that failed to complete their task (‘what prevented you doing this?’) and something else to users that were successful (‘what do you most value about our site?’).

Although this sounds simple, in practice it’s dangerously close to programming. And, ouch, debugging. But SurveyMonkey has an interface for branching surveys so straightforward that my mum can (and does) use it.

The Creepy Part

Finally, you can pass information into the survey via a personalised URL. 

Using something like Campaign Monitor you send personalised emails to all of your registered users, each with a survey link that contains their email address as part of the survey URL. When users complete the survey their response is logged alongside their email address. Without them doing anything.

Now you can contact users about issues raised without ever asking for an email address. Fewer fields to complete, and no input errors either. Win-win.

Just don’t claim this is an ‘anonymous’ survey…

It Doesn’t Do Everything (But In A Good Way)

Of course, many great features are missing from SurveyMonkey. (Although the refusal to bloat it with features just makes me love it more).

You can’t drag and drop when designing your survey. Or allow respondents to upload their own files. Or completely retheme your survey with CSS. If you want to do those things then check out Wufoo.

You can’t get an RSS feed of responses. Or do computation and scripting. Or use strings from previous answers in subsequent questions. If this sounds fun, you should look at SurveyGizmo

But SurveyMonkey has been ever-present in my arsenal for the last five years, and no other tool can make that claim. It’s solid, easy, powerful, friendly, usable and cheap. If you do user surveys, you should definitely try it.

I’m not affiliated with SurveyMonkey – I just love using it. Let me know what you think on @myddelton – particularly if you know something useful I’ve missed.

Update: SurveyMonkey introduced the ability to use strings from previous answers in subsequent questions in February 2011.

Jun 14

My Name Is A Geolocation

Myddelton SquareMy name is Will Myddelton, but you won’t find any other Myddeltons in my family except my brother. Why? Because my mum and dad made a stand against centuries of tradition when they named us.

They felt that, women and men being equal, it wasn’t right to name me after a distant ancestor on my dad’s side. So they decided not to call me Haynes after my dad. They could have named me Welch after my mum, but this rights one wrong with another. (And my mum’s name came from her dad originally too).

Double-barrelled surnames bring their own problems. Welch-Haynes or Haynes-Welch? What happens when two people with double-barrelled surnames have their own childen? Four surnames is ridiculous, which takes you back to the problem of choosing which name is more important.

So they sidestepped the whole issue and named me after the location where I was born and grew up. I became Will Myddelton from Myddelton Square.

Frequently Answered Questions

We all know you can choose whatever first name you like for your child. But the surname convention is so deeply ingrained that you’re probably wondering if you’re allowed to change it.

You can call your child whatever you like, surname included.

You might ask whether having a different name from my parents makes me feel less close to them. Plenty of others have. But I feel close to my mum and dad because, well, they’re my mum and dad.

The most difficult question you can ask me is what I’ll call my own children. When I was younger I liked the idea of starting a Myddelton dynasty. Now I’m less sure. Some friends of mine changed their names when they had kids so that their whole little family started afresh with a new surname. I like that.

A New River Runs Through It

The New RiverBut the thing I love most about my name is it connects me to where I’m from.

Myddelton Square is named after Hugh Myddelton, who built the New River to bring clean water to London in the early 1600s. The New River flows from Amwell Springs near Hertford into Clerkenwell. And I’ve never lived far away.

I grew up where it terminates at the New River Head, shared a house close to its course through Clissold Park, lived near to it in Finsbury Park and now my flat in Haringey is less than 200 metres away from its sluggish flow.

Instead of making me feel alienated, my name connects me to my city.

I Love A Well-Designed Taxonomy

There are people who think that what my parents did was pointless, even stupid. The political-correctness-gone-mad brigade mostly.

I think it was an extraordinary and beautiful thing to do.

My mum and dad made a political statement about our society while hurting no one, least of all me. And my information architect side is proud that not only did they recognise how important names are, they sat down together and worked out a system that solved the design problem they faced. Perfectly.

I’ve been answering questions about this my whole life, so if there’s anything else you want to know feel free to ask me on @myddelton.

May 18

Becoming A UX Designer

My work on the CABE websiteThis time last year I was a web editor. Today I’m a user experience designer. If you’re thinking about making a similar transition then this post is for you.

A word of warning. This isn’t about shortcuts or changing your job title to make more money. This is for people who already love improving things for users, who lap up design theory wherever they can find it and who use user-centred design techniques despite these not being in their job descriptions.

If that still sounds like you, here are the lessons I learned. I hope they help.

Calling Yourself A Designer Is The Hardest Part

For me, the biggest obstacle was learning to call myself a designer. I can’t create beautiful layouts. My sketches look like a spider fell in an inkwell. I’m red-green colour blind and I last studied art back in 1991.

In my mind I was no more a designer than an astronaut.

But it turns out that design is about solving problems within constraints and communicating the solutions, not creating pretty art. UX designers come from many disciplines - for example, I’m a history graduate (like the Guardian’s Martin Belam), come from a content background (like Jesse James Garrett from Adaptive Path) and spent my 20s as a musician (pick one from many!).

My advice? Get comfortable calling yourself a designer because it’s hard enough to switch to a new career without second-guessing your own job title.

Networking Is Essential

My work on the Engaging Places websiteI’ve had a dread of networking ever since I first heard the term. So imagine my surprise when after forcing myself to attend a UX meetup I found a crowd of kindred spirits – warm, welcoming and passionate about the things that I loved.

Meeting UX designers makes you realise they’re mostly just like you. Talking with people who employ UX designers helps you find strengths and weaknesses quicker than you would on your own. People, even strangers, naturally tell you about unadvertised job openings and their favourite recruitment agents.

And don’t forget existing contacts! One work colleague observed a personal quality that I’d missed completely – and which I’ve used in every interview since. Another convinced me that I had what it took to make the switch.

Treat Your CV Like A UX Project

I’ve always approached my CV in the way that most businesses approach the web, throwing everything possible at it in the desperate hope that something would stick. It was a mess until a close friend put me straight:

Your CV is a record of what you want to do, not of what you’ve done.

This simple advice helped me rethink my CV as a UX project. Stripping out irrelevant experience felt less like erasing my past than leaving space for core competencies to shine. Focusing the entire first page on my last job didn’t feel disproportionate, it felt like establishing a proper visual hierachy. Fitting it all into two pages was the right thing to do for my users, busy employers.

I solicited feedback, iterated mercilessly and got a job on version 17.

Portfolios Make Interviews Easier

My work on the publishing evaluationCreating a portfolio terrified me. I’d never done one and I didn’t know what it should look like. So I kept it simple: four pages, four projects, each with a description alongside thumbnails of sketches, photos and screenshots. I was trying to show my whole process rather than specific details.

I also took a paper copies to interviews rather than a digital version. This caused a few raised eyebrows but had some advantages:

  • the interviewer can skip around on their copy, scribble on it or read it in detail
  • the higher resolution lets you present a whole project on a single page
  • you get to leave a physical artifact in the hands of your interviewer
  • there is no risk of being flummoxed by technology.

The best parts of my interviews were the portfolio discussions. Rather than responding nervously to questions about hypothetical situations you end up having a proper, substantive conversation about your real work. (This is why you should avoid sending a digital copy in advance – if it works as a prompt to conversation, chances are it won’t work as a standalone document).

Look at my portfolio if you like – but trust me, you’d be much better off reading Jason Mesut’s guide to selling yourself.

No Research, No Excuses

The worst moment of my experience came when an interviewer asked me what I thought of their recent work. I hadn’t looked. It’s not a mistake I made twice.

Researching a potential employer is easy on the web. I wandered through corporate websites, press releases, trade media stories, products and client work to build up a rounded picture before interviews.

It doesn’t stop there. Companies might check employees out on Facebook, but what about employees checking out interviewers on LinkedIn? Knowing the background and interests of your interviewers is, well, kind of a big deal.

But the most useful research task was evaluating a company’s web products before interview. If the portfolio allows a conversation on your terms, turning up with questions about their design decisions is the opposite – your interviewer can assess your design views in the context of work that they know. Just be careful not to force your opinions on them.

You Don’t Get What You’re Worth,
You Get What You Negotiate

My work on the CABE archiveSo you’ve convinced yourself you’re a designer, networked furiously to find openings, used your CV to get an interview and solicited a job offer with the help of your portfolio.

It’s time to talk about the money.

Yes, like most Brits I hate this part. But after years of moaning about not being paid what I thought I was worth it was time to try out a strategy. Mine was:

  1. Set a minimum salary in advance – speak to colleagues about what is reasonable, set a figure and don’t go below this whatever happens.
  2. Decide on your opening bid – be prepared with an opening figure higher than your minimum and practice saying it out loud (seriously).
  3. Be ready to walk away – the first time I walked away was awful and made me feel like a loser, the second was easier and the third felt completely normal.

Which hubris brings me neatly to my final point.

Switching career to be a UX designer, or anything else for that matter, requires you to put your humility aside and sell yourself hard. It’s OK, that’s part of the game. Just don’t forget to go back to being humble afterwards.

Feel free to ask questions or tell me what you think on @myddelton. Thanks again to Andrew Travers for incredible advice, Jason Mesut for portfolio wisdom, Matthew Solle for the recruiter tip, Ben Clarfelt for finding my job and Leisa Reichelt for the Peter Drucker quotes.

Apr 26

UX By Numbers

Web analytics looks scary but isn't that complicatedUser experience designers are fond of saying that although web analytics can show you what users are doing, it can’t show you why they are doing it

True enough.

Yet some designers use this idea to avoid engaging with analytics data completely. It’s understandable – many bright people are uncomfortable with numbers – but it’s a shame, as analytics offers many insights to UX design.

Analytics Improves The Research Phase

Data provides valuable context for your research documentation. Adding pageviews to a content audit shows which areas are most popular. Plotting visit share on an information architecture shows whether it’s working. Recording drop-offs in a registration flow shows where users are having problems. 

It’s not all numbers either – qualitative data is a great starting point for user research. Find words and phrases signalling intent in search logs. See which tasks people are doing, and how your site frustrates them, with the 4Q survey. 

Analytics data also lets you quickly test your research conclusions. At CABE, user interviews suggested that people thought in subjects (‘housing’) rather than formats (‘policy papers’). We confirmed this with analytics. Being able to validate a single user’s opinion against a large dataset is very powerful.

Data Helps With Prioritisation

Heatmaps make analytics easy to understandWhether you are putting together a wireframe or a prototype you need to make tough decisions to create a great visual hierarchy. Analytics can help. Historical data shows which interface elements people use most and current data shows how people interact with the live design.

At a larger scale, analytics can help you choose which design projects to actually do by quantifying their potential impact. Without this you risk wasting precious resources on projects that only benefit a tiny percentage of users.

Of course numbers never tell the whole story – there are still business goals, strategic aims and brand requirements – but they should always be in the mix.

Testing Reduces Risk

A/B and multivariate testing help you make design decisions because they take the risk out of getting it wrong. Instead of prevaricating for days over the copy or placement of elements you can make a best guess and test the alternatives.

Testing is great for building consensus too. Gather suggestions from colleagues in workshops or even placate the local HiPPO by including their preferred version. People invest more in the design process once they feel part of it, but prepare yourself for when their version converts better than yours!

Analytics Speaks The Language Of Business

Business people feel more comfortable with numbers than opinions, so using analytics is a great way to sell ideas to the people who fund your projects. 

A proposal based on increasing unique visitors is more convincing than one based on intuition alone. Better still would be to quantify the change in revenue gained or expenditure saved by calculating how much the extra visitors are worth (assign a goal value, see how many visitors reach the goal and multiply).

Yes, it’s tricky to make accurate predictions but you get better with practice. And when you deliver the promised increases, people start to trust your design work regardless of whether you quantify the impact upfront.

Getting Started With Web Analytics

The book that changed my approach to data foreverLike any new field, getting your head around web analytics can be daunting. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s my 5 step guide to getting started:

  1. Read Avinash Kaushik
    Avinash is the god of web analytics because he focuses on the difference between analysis (actionable insights) and reporting (‘puking’ data). Read his excellent blog and devour both of his books.
  2. Try out some tools
    Play with free tools like Google Analytics (traffic data), 4Q survey (qualitative feedback), Crazy Egg (heatmaps) and Google Website Optimizer (A/B testing) to get a sense of how they work.
  3. Focus on what matters
    In particular, conversions/goals/funnels (how many people do things you want), audience segmentation (splitting data based on characteristics) and event tracking (logging clicks on parts of the interface).
  4. Avoid the red herrings
    ‘Time on site’ is a not measure of engagement. ‘Visits’ or ‘pageviews’ on their own are bad metrics (traffic costs money – you want conversions). Path analysis rarely leads to useful insights. Never use the term ‘hits’. Ever.
  5. Communicate the data properly
    Insight is useless if no one ‘gets’ it. Read Show Me The Numbers by Steven Few (practical advice), Visual Display of Quantitative Information (theoretical classic) and Information Is Beautiful by David McCandless (inspiration).

Web analytics isn’t an answer to every question and it’s never a replacement for talking to your users directly. In particular, data-driven design may never be able to improve your site beyond a theoretical local maximum.

But if you’re avoiding web analytics because it looks too complicated, chances are that you’re losing out on some great design insights.

Let me know what you think about this – particularly if I’ve missed any obvious uses or if you disagree with anything – on @myddelton. And big thanks to Katarzyna Stawarz for asking the question that inspired this post…

Apr 18

Tactics For Government Websites

An image from 'Don't Make Me Think'You hear bad things about government websites. The £585 icon at the Information Commissioner’s Office. BusinessLink’s £2.15 cost per visit. The website for Birmingham City Council that cost three million pounds.

Easy targets. And never the whole story…

I ran the websites for a government agency called CABE and the truth is that it’s a difficult job to do well. The main problem is that the big decisions are often made by people who don’t use the web, so projects end up driven by whims, internal politics or even something someone saw on TV.

It took me many false starts to work out how to get things done. Now that I’m moving on, here are my top 5 tactics for running better government websites.

1. Be An Editor That People Want To Hug

Most government sites rely on content from people who aren’t trained writers. Their work needs to be edited, which is a brutal experience for them if they’re new to the process.

You cannot alienate these people – they are the foundation of your site. So you need to explain how the editing process works, show them why your edits are necessary and be prepared for some give and take. It takes more time but it builds trust, helps them improve their own writing and creates a lasting bond.

If you don’t believe me, read the acknowledgements at the front of any book. As Frank Chimero says, ‘writers, hug your editors’.

2. Stop Writing Big Reports

Our version of the billion-dollar-gram to show web trafficIt was clear that our web strategy needed an update. We meticulously researched the issues and wrote up recommendations in beautifully formatted Word documents. After all, civil servants love Word. How could this fail?

It failed because nobody read the reports.

The breakthrough came when we presented the same data using information graphics shamelessly ripped from Information Is Beautiful. Senior managers could now see the research data visually. They understood what was going on and quickly adopted our recommendations.

3. Each One, Teach One

There are people in your organisation who love technology. Harness their enthusiasm by helping them understand the issues that matter on the web.

My favourite weapons are books, particularly Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug and Letting Go Of The Words by Ginny Redish. Get copies, lend them out and watch how the quality of the conversations you have is transformed.

And don’t be afraid to teach! People want to learn techniques, even complicated ones, if they make their life easier. I worked with a string of events and marketing officers who now wield Excel techniques like concatenation, IF statements and VLOOKUPs with unabashed glee…

4. Don’t Build It!

Campaign Monitor gives amazing stats for each email you sendAvoid the temptation to build functionality from scratch at all costs. After all, if software companies struggle to make good software (they do) it’s not surprising that government wastes huge amounts on trying to do the same.

Most of what you need already exists. It’s cheap, well-supported and has incredible usability because it’s already being used by millions of people. Yes, this is about using best-of-breed web applications and services.

At CABE we needed a website (Drupal), email marketing (Campaign Monitor), event booking (Eventbrite), surveys (SurveyMonkey), custom forms (Wufoo), file transfer (Yousendit), video (Vimeo) and analytics (Google, 4Q, CrazyEgg). The savings from using existing products rather than building your own are huge – and you deliver better services for users.

5. Design Your Design Process

Design can get very expensive because everyone loves to get involved.

My first web project went through six costly iterations because designs were sent to stakeholders without proper context. They made poor decisions because they had no information about why decisions had been taken. As soon as they were given the reasoning behind designs, their decisions improved.

Another problem is that it’s standard to ask for three different design concepts. Agencies get to bill more and stakeholders feel that they’re making big decisions, but what inevitably happens is that the starting points get merged into one horrible mess. Instead, insist on a single design route and then iterate.

Finally, it can help to leave deliberate mistakes in the text and images used in design concepts. This is because some managers always feel the need to change something in the design to justify their pay grade – and this way they get to make a change without destroying the fundamental design.

And Finally…Play Politics

No, not that kind of politics...This isn’t so much a tactic as a statement. In large hierarchical organisations it matters who you know and what you know about how they operate.

If you want to change anything, you have to play politics – whether it’s doing people favours, making people feel good about their work or knowing how to phrase a request in just the right way. It’s not evil, it’s not manipulative and you don’t have to be nasty. But to get things done you need to get involved.

Despite the challenges, running the CABE sites was an incredible experience. Although being made redundant by an inept coalition was less enjoyable.

Now I’m off to the private sector – how many of these issues will I find there?

I’d love to know what you think about this – you can reach me on @myddelton. I want to thank the government web people who inspired me, particuarly Steph GrayDave BriggsSimon Dickson and Neil Williams. And last but never least, Andrew Travers, who showed me the way when I knew nothing…

Mar 18

Open UX University

London skyline at nightYou don’t have to pay tuition fees to get a UX education in London in 2011. Everything that you need to educate yourself is already out there.

I’m not downplaying the value of an academic education. The Human Computer Interaction courses at UCL and City University are amazing experiences and their students will graduate with skills that are impossible to get elsewhere.

But there are alternatives thanks to the generosity of London UX professionals. Their work provides educational resources of such good quality that many ‘real’ students are using them to supplement their existing courses.

You don’t believe me? Let me talk you through the Open UX University…

Enthusiasm creates unforgettable lectures

The best lecturers are people so excited about their subject that they simply cannot contain their enthusiasm.

London is full of these people. And they love to talk.

Jason Mesut ripping apart the interaction design of music tech at London IA. Martin Belam showing how digital communications smashed boundaries between the media and audiences at World Usability Day. Cennydd Bowles, Harry Brignull and Jonathan Kahn at Lightning UX. Bruce Lawson talking us through HTML5 at London Web and Mark O’Neill explaining the government skunkworks at UK Govcamp. Plus genuine academics – the best talk this year was Dan Lockton’s whirlwind tour of choice architecture (London IA again).

To this you can add world experts via podcast such as Karen McGrane, Stephen P Anderson, Luke Wroblewski, David Rivers and Peter Morville who contribute their thoughts on dealing with the challenges they face every day.

Passionate experts giving great talks free of charge means plenty of material to create a lecture series tailored to your specific interests.

It’s good to talk

The second staple of a university education is the group discussion. This is all about participation, an area where the UX community excels.

First, people want to be there. No one goes to UX Bookclub London to get credits or pass a semester. You go to talk about books like Gamestorming and Sketching User Experiences. So discussion flows much more than it ebbs.

Secondly, there’s a heady mix of experts, beginners and everything in between. If you’re new to Agile you can go to Agile UX and hear from people who use it all the time. Whereas in a university, the only real expert is the tutor (and possibly a self-appointed ‘expert’ who hasn’t actually done the reading).

So in many ways these discussions are even better than university seminars.

Practical work develops your skills

Will Myddelton presenting at Design JamOf course university is more than just lectures and discussions. You have to put serious effort into team projects, presentations, essays and practical assignments. Who on earth would give up time to set this kind of work for free?

Design Jam London for one. Designers come together and work to solve a design challenge, honing their team working, practical techniques and presentation skills in the process. And it’s not only Design Jam – Global Service Jam London took place over three days and there are hackdays everywhere.

And essays? You’re reading one. It doesn’t take as long (or provoke the same dread) as 5,000 words on the causes of the 100 Years War. But blog posts help crystallise your ideas and the feedback you get – both qualitative from friends and quantitative from analytics – is amazingly useful.

You can make websites too. Whether it’s for your blog, a favourite band or your friend’s dad’s charity, building a site helps you put your learning into practice. You can even arrange a placement by taking time off to work as an intern.

The opportunities are there – it’s what you make of them.

The best careers advice

But the area in which the Open UX University really outperforms traditional universities is in careers advice. It’s just incredible.

What better way to find a job that suits you than to listen to people who are already in those jobs? Or better still, recruiting for those jobs? Learn what your portfolio should look like. Discover which skills are worth talking about and which are not. Find out what kinds of jobs are out there.

It’s never a replacement but…

None of this is to say that choosing to go to university is a bad choice. It’s never a bad choice and I loved my university education. And there are some things – like learning to appreciate design criticism as part of your process – that a specialist university course seems better placed to deliver.

But there are more opportunities now to learn your craft outside university than ever before, particularly for disciplines related to the web. It feels like we should start to recognise how powerful these really are.

Just remember – it may be free, but you still end up in debt. The difference is that you owe this debt to your community and not the government.

This post is a massive thank you to everyone who has helped educate me over the last year. Let me know what you think on @myddelton and follow @ukuxevents to keep up to date with what’s going on out there. And finally – I studied History which might (or might not) explain a lot and I’m talking about London because I know London, but I get the feeling this applies worldwide…

If you liked this post, you might also like Solve Any Problem.

Feb 27

My First Design Jam

Ideas for connecting tourists with local people before their tripDesign Jam London 2 challenged 10 teams to create a mobile service that helped visitors to London feel more like locals. This is the story of Madeleine, our team’s idea for a mobile service to meet the brief.

In case you’re wondering, a Design Jam is where designers gather together, form teams and work on a design challenge. Like a hackday with no code.

This was a challenge where it paid to step back and consider the problem in the widest possible sense. Even though the strict time limits made it tempting to dive straight into features and interactions…

Research Always Pays

We started by brainstorming things that made us feel like locals in our own cities, from obvious ones like transport and orientation to more interesting ideas like knowing where the house parties were, experiencing the London rush hour and having moments of serendipity. Linda Sandvik, who flew over from Scandinavia especially, chipped in with some amazing real-life observations and got us on the right track.

User research (SurveyMonkey!) supported our initial ideas and added plenty more. It turned out that people strongly associated feeling local with knowing where to eat, getting around easily and being aware of ‘hidden gems’.

Ideas for populating a guidebook map with customised place dataBut most interesting was that 40% of users mentioned “people I know” as being the most important factor in feeling local. And most surprising, all respondents were in favour of meeting up with tourists that shared their interests, provided that they knew them in some way beforehand.

Value Propositions Rule

The research showed that it’s impossible to ‘feel local’ if you never hang out with residents of the city you’re visiting. So our value proposition was easy:

Madeleine is the only city guide created entirely by your local London contacts.

Why write a value proposition? Because when you have limited time you desperately need a way to decide whether ideas stay in or get jettisoned.

And we jettisoned a lot.

By lunch, we narrowed Madeleine down to a service that lets tourists use their existing contacts and personal interests to make connections with London locals to call upon during their trip. It felt like a great start.

It’s Fatal To Fixate On Details

Our scenario complete with context and mobile screensAfter lunch we got bogged down in details. How would tourists connect with locals? Would locals be overwhelmed by meeting too many tourists? Could we use Facebook and Twitter? Gowalla and Foursquare? What about serendipitous moments? Should it be HTML5 or native?

The mentors saved us. Aral Balkan pointed out that it sounded like a great web service, but that we should focus on the mobile part (RTFM basically). And Tim Brooke stopped us disappearing down a known-contact-only rabbit hole.

This changed everything.

We captured assumptions about the data that the web service would supply – a group of local contacts and a list of their favourite locations – and got on with the mobile application design. With about 45 minutes left.

Crossing Disciplines Gets Results

We had been warned to carefully consider the context in which the mobile app would be used.  I was out of my depth here, but luckily our team ran deep.

Richard Dron had a strong background in ergonomics and started us thinking about scenarios and storyboards. He led us to this sequence:

  1. After a day’s sightseeing, the tourist opens Madeleine to find a place recommended by his local contacts in which to spend the evening.
  2. Finding that the recommendee shares his interest in music, the tourist invites that local contact along using Madeleine.
  3. Although that local contact turns out to be unavailable, he uses Madeleine to invite his friends along that share similar interests as the tourist.

This neatly covered the core functionality of our mobile service. At which point Diane Faidy, an interaction designer from OrangeLabs, sketched the whole thing in about 15 minutes! Including some beautiful work showing the tourist and locals in context alongside the mobile screens they were using.

This is exactly what I hoped to get from Design Jam. Serious learning from people that know much more than me.

Final Thoughts on Design Jam

We did our final presentation using a Visualiser, which lets you show paper sketches on the digital projector. Like an OHP on steroids, it removes all barriers between sketching and presentation. Incredible.

Other teams had great ideas and presented them brilliantly. My favourite warned you in a Ray Winstone-ish voice that you were entering a dangerous area. With a video. And serious props go to the teams that actually mocked up their applications on paper and in Flowella.

Design Jam London 2 was a fascinating learning experience. I would have loved more criticism from the mentors, especially on final presentations, but that takes nothing away from what was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday.

I’d love to hear what you think about this on @myddelton. Big hat tips to Leisa Reichelt and Gamestorming for the stuff about value propositions – I’m using them in everything I do these days. And, of course, massive thanks to the organisers of Design Jam London and the amazing Team Madeleine.

Feb 17

The Alternative Vote System Explained

Map of UK constituencies that represents each one as a hexagon of the same size

Few people outside politics, myself included, understand the Alternative Vote system. Yet on 5 May we, the people of the UK, will decide whether to adopt it in our first national referendum since 1975.

I researched how it works. It took me ages. To save you the same pain, here is the simplest explanation that I could come up with.

The Simplest Example Possible

The Most Familiar Real World Example

So What Changes?

The basic electoral system will not change - there will still be constituencies and each constituency will still elect a single MP.

What will change is the process. Instead of voting for your favourite candidate with an X, you will rank the candidates by preference (you can choose to leave some candidates out if you want to). And instead of the candidate with the most votes winning, the winning candidate must get more than 50% of votes. Which can lead to several rounds.

That’s the Alternative Vote system. Now you just have to decide if you like it…

I’d love to hear what you think about this on @myddelton. You can read more about the Alternative Vote system at the Electoral Reform Society.

Feb 10

Improve Your Web Writing

A writer struggling to structure his textThe quickest way to improve your web writing is to focus on structure – not style, language or grammar. Clear structure is a sign of clear thinking.

People think that if you can’t “write”, you can’t write. But writing’s real value is in channelling your ideas into a single, coherent message. Good writing is mostly about structuring your thoughts, and it’s easier than you think.

This is a guide to a simple structure for writing content pages. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re ever asked to write a web page it might just be useful.

The Headline Says It All

The headline should tell the reader what they’re about to read. That’s it.

It has the biggest text on the page, so it’s your biggest chance to hook a reader. Say clearly what you’re writing about – if this doesn’t sound compelling, maybe it’s not worth writing about. Remember that it will get used as link text from other sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, so make sure that users get what they are expecting from these links. Otherwise they’ll leave.

Don’t be too clever. Avoid jargon. And recognise that if your headline is saying two different things, you should probably write two different pages.

Open With The Conclusion

Your opening paragraph should summarise the whole text. In 25-ish words. Don’t set the scene. Don’t write a whimsical introduction. Above all, don’t start with the start. Instead, tell your reader what the page is about and let them judge whether they’re interested (readers do this anyway, so help them out).

Think of the headline and opening paragraph as an inseparable couple walking arm in arm across the web – alone on your page, with their friends in your listing pages and with their enemies in the Google search results. Give them the love they need to survive in all contexts.

Subheadings Are The New Body Text

People read subheadings first. Sometimes that’s all they read, so use them to tell your story too. Ginny Redish put me up on the four ways to write them:

  1. Statements – ‘Subheadings Are The New Body Text’
    The clearest, most useful type of subheading. They are difficult to write, but it gets easier. If you struggle then maybe your ideas are not yet clear enough.
  2. Instructions – ‘Create Subheadings That Tell A Story’
    Great for writing instructions or talking someone through a process. Begin with the verb, either imperative (‘create’) or gerund (‘creating’) and don’t mix.
  3. Questions – ‘How Many Ways Can I Write Subheadings?’
    This puts you in the user’s shoes and is a fantastic way to get started (list and answer all possible questions). But you risk answering things that no one asks.
  4. Nouns – ‘Subheadings’
    Simple nouns work well as short, descriptive labels for navigation – but they’re not great for subheadings as they carry no extra information. Avoid.

Micro Structures Matter Too

Edward Tufte - Envisioning InformationEdward Tufte talks about using macro and micro to your advantage in information design. This applies to writing too. Your individual paragraphs (micro) should be structured just as carefully as your overall page (macro).

Start every paragraph with its main idea. People skim the starts of paragraphs like they scan subheadings. Anticipating this behaviour will help your readers and get your message across.

Use single sentence paragraphs to add emphasis.

Break lists of items into lists. But be careful. Lists stop working when there are too many on a page and they break if you put too many items inside them. The  way to get the balance right is to write out your text and read it back (critically).

Formatting Is Not Acceptable

Lazy writers use bold and italic to emphasise their key points. Great writers use placement (as in starting a paragraph with its main idea), sequence (like putting the best ideas high on the page) and grouping (using lists and subheadings).

Avoid bold and italic. Try using your text flow and structure to provide the emphasis you need. Of all the techniques here, this is the one that can improve your writing most in the shortest space of time.

Links Go At The End

Just because you can link to any page on the web doesn’t mean you should.

Web writing is a hand-crafted experience. You are taking your reader on a journey through your text – whether they’re reading every word, skimming paragraphs or scanning subheadings. Interrupting that experience with links to other sites is a great way to undo all your hard work.

Place your links at the end of your page. Make it clear why they are worth following. Take the time to really think about what you include.

Break All The Rules

These techniques are not hard and fast rules. There are great writers who use clever headlines, whimsical openings, nonexistent subheadings and heavily linked text. And there is terrible writing that follows all of the above guidelines.

But sometimes it helps to learn a simple structure first. It certainly helped me.

I’d love to hear what you think. Have you got anything to add? Let me know on @myddelton. And if you want to improve your writing for the web, the best thing you can do is to read Letting Go Of The Words by Ginny Redish.

Feb 01

Solve Any Problem

The most useful thing I learned last month was “a technique to solve any problem”. Seriously.

It’s called the KJ Method and it came to me via Leisa Reichelt, but it dates to the late 1960s and a man named Jiro Kawakita. It’s also called an “affinity diagram”, but I used this term at work and was told off for using technical terminology when plain English would do. Fair enough.

The KJ Method

My sketchy depiction of the KJ MethodI’ve done two workshops with Leisa recently, Hands-on UX and Strategic UX. Featuring strongly in both was a method that she convinced me could be used to solve (almost) any problem. The KJ Method.

Chances are you’ve already used the KJ Method or one of its many subtle variations. It’s a group activity that works like this:

  • Brainstorm lots of ideas for your problem (individually)
  • Sort these ideas into groups and label them (collectively)
  • Rank them in any way that makes sense
  • Make a decision based on what you’ve done
  • Clearly articulate what you’re going to do next.

If that doesn’t sound familiar, imagine writing ideas on post-its, grouping them,  naming them and then prioritising. That’s the KJ Method as most of us know it.

Creating A Business Case

But does it really work for any problem? I’m ashamed to say that I tested it on a friend. When she had a work crisis. Yep, UX designers need empathy…

She runs a project and her budget is being cut by 50%, so when she had 24 hours to write a business case, I made her brainstorm ideas for cuts. She hated the ambiguity. “I don’t have time. Where is this going? Why are we doing it?”.

But as the walls filled up with post-its, we discussed her ideas and started grouping them. Relationships between ideas formed – if one thing is cut by 50%, you need less of this other thing. We talked about how individual cuts would affect her project, which helped to prioritise the cuts into 3 scenarios. This led to a final decision, and suddenly all that was left was to write up the chosen scenario into a business case.

She turned to me. “But how did you know to do that? How did you know that it would work?” The truth is that I had no idea it would work. But after being told twice in a week that this technique could solve any problem, I reached for it in a time of crisis. And it did work…

Simple and Complex

Ice crystals are an excellent example of a complex pattern formed by simple interactionsOf course, this isn’t really going to solve any problem. But it works for more than you might expect. After all, I thought it was only for category-and-label issues, but I was wrong.

The power of the KJ Method is in its similarity to the concept of emergence, where “complex patterns arise from many relatively simple interactions”. In the work that we do you need simple interactions to make it easy for people to engage with problems. But you also need complex patterns to emerge, because most problems are anything but simple. The KJ Method combines these two needs into a single, repeatable system.

Next time you’re stuck, try it out.

I’d love to hear what you think. What other problems have you solved with this? Has it ever failed you? Let me know on @myddelton. And check out Jared Spool’s introduction to the KJ method for a fuller description.