Evolutionary UX design

Evolution of man

Wow, what a difference some well thought out UX design can make. I recently bought a new Humax video recorder (the imaginatively titled PVR-9300T) because I got fed up with the shortcomings of my old Humax model (the also imaginatively titled PVR8000T). The old girl sort of did the job but aside from the fact that it kept crashing the usability of the thing was terrible. For example, you couldn’t switch it off when it was recording something, so it often had to be left on overnight. If you wanted to record a current programme you had go through the ridiculous charade of pressing the record button and selecting whether you wanted to record the next 30 minutes, the next 60 minutes, the next 90 minutes or the next 2 hours of TV – Grrrr, I just want to record the rest of this programme. If you wanted to set-up a series link (to record a whole series) you had to select the show in the EPG (electronic programme guide), find the programme in your recording schedule and then change it to a repeating recording. You’d then have to remember to remove this repeat recording once the series has finished, otherwise you’ll end up recording what ever has replaced it in the schedule.

I’m glad to say that the new model has fixed these and many of the other usability issues with the old model. You can now switch it off (i.e. on stand by) when it’s recording – hooray! When you press the record button it now just records the rest of the current show – hooray! When you select a programme to record in the EPG it now asks you whether you want to record the whole series or just that show – hooray! There’s even a button on the remote control to go straight to your recording list rather then having to wade through the menus, as was previously the case – hooray! This rather tenuous example of good UX design got me thinking about the importance of continually improving the usability and UX of your product, and how you might go about doing this. I’ve rather pretentiously titled this ‘Evolutionary UX design’, that is the continual and often gradual improvement of the user experience for a product over time, be it a website, application or physical product as with the Humax example. So how can you apply ‘evolutionary UX design’ to your product?

1. Determine what should be changed

Congratulations. You’ve shipped your new product and can now put your feet up and wait for the adulation to come in. Well hold on there because even before your new product is out there you should be assessing its performance and determining how it might be improved.

Look at what didn’t make it in first time around

Fred Brooks in his seminal book – The mythical man month (an interesting read if now a little dated) outlined how you should ideally throw away your first attempt at a piece of software because you’ll then know what you need to know to build it properly. This is arguably a little bit drastic but very often when building a product there are all sorts of features, enhancements and unresolved usability issues that never see the light of day, usually because there wasn’t time or budget. Now is the time to retrieve all this information because it can form the starting point for your list of UX improvements. Set-up a spreadsheet, cover a wall in post-it notes or simply make a very long list of all the things that were less than optimal first time around. Ask developers, testers, product owners for what they perceive to require enhancing but beware of the second system effect, “the tendency, when following on from a relatively small, elegant, and successful system, to design the successor as an elephantine, feature-laden monstrosity” (Wikipedia.org). Also be wary of feature disease. People will often ask for more and more features for a product when often it’s better to improve and indeed simplify what is already there. Also remember that your product is made up of a thousand tiny details so no change is too small to be included.

Carry out more user testing

Hopefully you carried out lots of user testing when building your product in the first place. Don’t stop now that it’s been launched! Carry out more user testing to find out if any additional usability issues come up. Explore which areas of the user experience could be improved and generally test your product to see how it performs. For example, it’s likely that a good deal of the usability issues with the older Humax video recorder, such as the difficulties recording a programme currently on and setting up a series link would have come up during usability testing. You’ll want to make the tests as realistic as possible, testing real users with real tasks. Of course this should be easier with a working product. You might even be able to carry out some field studies – that’s right, venture in to the big bad world and see how your product is being used in it’s natural environment! For a good guide to user testing check out Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy, or the Handbook of Usability Testing.

Get an outside opinion

When you work very closely with a product it’s often hard to see what might be improved. It’s called the disease of familiarity. What to you as someone who knows the product intimately (not too intimately I hope!) is clear, might be quite confusing to someone who is new to the product. This is why it’s often helpful to get an outside opinion of how the user experience might be improved. For example, you might get a usability expert to evaluate the product, or ask someone to carry out a heuristic evalution. This is of course no replacement for user testing but will often unearth possible improvements that you haven’t considered.

Speak to your customers

Once a product has made it into the outside world it’s never too early to speak to your customers to get feedback. Carry out an online or telephone survey, run some focus groups or simply go out and speak with as many customers as you can find. Ask them what they like about the product? What they dislike? What issues they are experiencing? How they are using the product? How it could be improved? Not only will you find out about issues with the product but you’ll also learn more about how the product is actually being used. This will help to inform possible improvements and design decisions. What’s more you’ll learn much more than if you were to just carry out user testing because you’re finding about real world usage. For example, it’s unlikely that not being able to switch off the older Humax video recorder when it’s recording would have come up during user testing because it the need to do this only comes up very rarely. However, this is exactly the sort of thing that will come up during conversations with your customers.

Set-up customer forums

If your product is used by reasonably technically savy customers you might want to think about setting up customer forums to find out what issues are being discussed and even what features are being requested. For example, Axure – a rather nifty prototyping tool has a community discussion forum where users can post feature requests and ask other users for help and advice. These can often be a good source of information, although remember to take what is being said with a rather large pinch of salt because as is often the case with forums it’s often he who shouts loudest who gets heard most!

Speak to customer services

Remember those poor suckers in customer services who have to deal with angry customers all day. Well they can be a gold mine of information when it comes to the user experience of a product because they’ll be able to tell you what issues people are raising and what stuff keeps cropping up. You might even think about doing a bit of customer support yourself – there’s nothing like getting these things straight from the horse’s mouth.

Pore over those statistics

You can never have too much information when it comes to how a product is being used. For a website this might mean poring over analytics information outlining web statistics, such as popular pages, common user journeys and entry and exit pages. For other products it might mean survey results or registration information. This can help inform UX improvements and design decisions. For example, you might be able to find out which features are most frequently used, or indeed which are not being used at all. Quite often usage information will tell you how a product is being used, or allude to what some of the issues might be. These can then be explored further during user testing or conversations with your customers.

Keep an eye on the competition

It’s likely that you had a look at the competition when initially designing your product – well take another look to see how your product shapes up. Don’t just look at the features, look at how the overall user experience compares. When speaking to customers find out how they perceive your product compared to the competition. Are there key areas where your product is lagging behind? You might even carry out a comparative user testing study, asking people to complete the same (or very similar) tasks with different products to compare how they perform.

Don’t limit yourself to UI changes

When looking at possible UX improvements don’t just limit yourself to changes to the user interface. When it comes to the user experience of a product all sorts of factors have an impact. For example, you might find that the reliability or performance of the product is having a detrimental impact on the overall user experience, as was the case with the older Humax video record (which kept crashing).

2. Determine what to change first

OK, so you’ve probably now got a huge list of potential improvements for your product to (hopefully) improve the overall user experience. So where do you start? What should you be addressing first? There are a number of ways that you can tackle this.

Prioritise your changes

The first thing that you probably want to do is try to prioritise your changes. Which are most pressing? Which are likely to lead to the greatest improvement and which are most important from a business perspective? A simple way to prioritise your list is using high, medium or low priority, or must (i.e. must change), should (i.e. should change) or could (i.e. could change).

Determining the priority should ideally be a collective activity involving the entire product team. To facilitate this I’ve found simple priority cards to be useful. You basically get the whole team together and give everyone a set of priority cards (e.g. high, medium, low or 1-5 or must, should, could). Going through the list of changes you ask people to place their chosen card face down (i.e. as if they are playing poker) and then get everyone to reveal their card at the same time (this is to stop the boss choosing a priority and everyone else following suit). A discussion then ensues because people invariably choose slightly different priorities. Everyone then has the opportunity to outline why they have chosen a particular priority. Following this discussion you should hopefully be able to agree on a priority to assign to that change.

Consider the impact of a change to the overall UX

When considering the potential impact of a change try to think about the impact on the overall user experience. How frequently is a feature used? How important is that feature to the success of the product? At what stage of the product life cycle will the change be felt? For example, if you’ve found that lots of users have difficulty initially setting up your application you might want to consider improving this before looking at other improvements. After all, if a user can’t properly set-up the application in the first place they might not actually end up using it.

Determine how easy or difficult a change is likely to be

Along with a priority it’s important to also consider the viability and feasibility of a change. Is this likely to be a quick win or a radical change? Speak to the product team to get a feel for how easy or difficult a change is likely to be. For example, it might turn out that what you’d assumed would be a relatively easy change might in fact be a monster, monster change!

Identify the changes to concentrate on

Once you’ve prioritised your list of changes and worked out how easy or difficult each one is likely to be you can start identifying those to concentrate on. Ideally you’ll have some high priority changes that are relatively easy to do that you can make a start on. It might help to plot out the changes on a 2 dimensional grid with importance / impact on the vertical axis and viability / feasibility on the horizontal axis. For example, I have outlined the Humax video record changes as follows:

Prioritising changes by importance and by feasibility

Prioritising changes by importance and by feasibility

Remember – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Always a good design rule of thumb to follow – if something works well at the moment, don’t change it unless there’s a good reason to. There’s simply no point making changes for the sake of it. In fact, the change might actually have a detrimental effect so think about whether a change is necessary or not before going ahead.

3. Make your changes and then test them out

OK, so you’ve made a bunch of changes that you think (and hope) have really improved the user experience of your product. Well how do you know? This is why you need to test the new version against the current incarnation to see if the changes have been for the better, or (god forbid) for the worse. You could carry out some user testing – covering the same tasks on the current and new product to see how the two compare. You could carry out some longer field trials or if it’s a website you might even consider A/B testing. This is where some of your customers experience the current site, some experience the new site and you see which performs best. You could even go more granular and test the individual change using A/B testing, although I wouldn’t recommend going as far as Google who carried out A/B testing on 41 different shades of blue to find out which performed best!