Monday, August 4, 2014

What Happens Next?

Today I’d like to talk about why that feature you’re building has taken twice as long to build as you thought it would and why it will be hard to use once you’ve shipped it. The problem is that you didn’t really think it through before you started coding.

Before I jump in, I want to point out that this is not, in fact, an argument in favor of big, up front design, or an argument against Agile or Lean. Please believe that the technique I’m sharing here can very easily be used in any sort of environment.

When you create an interaction for a product, you have to design more than what it looks like. You even have to design more than what happens during the interaction. You have to design what happens after the initial user interaction. And then you have to keep going.
Design what happens after the initial interaction. Then keep going. — Tweet This
Let’s take a look at an example. Let’s imagine that you have an e-commerce product that sells children’s books. You encourage readers to post comments and ratings. It’s a new product, so everything is very bare bones. You didn’t spend a lot of time building a huge commenting system before you knew if anybody would leave comments. Instead, you just made something very simple where people can leave a comment or read a comment. Well done! That’s very Lean of you.

Then one day, you have to have this conversation with your designer:

You: Oh my God. People are awful!

Designer: Right?

You: Someone posted an ad for penis enhancement on the Where the Wild Things Are page, and I didn’t see it until someone sent a customer support email. It could have been there for days.

Designer: We should probably have an easier way for users to flag inappropriate content than sending us an email.

You: I guess we should. Can you add flagging to the comments?

Designer: Sure!

A little while later, the designer claims he’s added flagging to the design and is ready for engineering to implement it. The design looks like this.


“Well, that’s easy,” you think. “I’m just a few minutes away from users being able to tell me when a comment is inappropriate.”

Then, of course, the design goes to the engineer. And the conversation goes like this.

Engineer: What happens when a user clicks the flag link?

You: Well, the comment gets flagged.

Engineer: Ok, I’ll set a flag in the database whenever a user flags a comment.

Hopefully you can see where this is going. The upshot is that, when a user clicks the flag link, the database will record that fact and…well…nothing else. The user who clicked the flag link won’t get any feedback. Nobody will be notified that something was flagged. You can’t do anything with the user report about the comment.

In other words, nothing has been planned beyond the visual implementation and the initial user interaction. And this is all happening because you only designed the initial user interaction.

So, what really needs to happen for this feature to be considered usable and useful? What is the minimum set of subsequent interactions that need to be designed after the user clicks on the flag link?

Probably something like this:
  • The user who flags a comment should get a confirmation that the comment was successfully flagged and be given some sort of information about what will happen next. 
  • Someone at the company should be notified in some way that a comment has been flagged. 
  • Someone at the company should be able to view the flagged comment and probably the identity of the person who flagged the comment. 
  • Someone at the company should be able to remove the flagged comment. 
  • The person who left the flagged comment should be notified that their comment was removed.
“My God!” you say. “My little, tiny feature has ballooned into an enormous undertaking! This is feature creep!”
What really needs to happen for a feature to be both usable and useful? — Tweet This
Well, no. It isn’t. You see, these are all things that would have to happen just to make the feature work at all. If you allow people to flag comments but don’t have any way for someone at your company to deal with the flagged comments, you’ve designed half a feature. Or, more to the point, you’ve designed a broken, unusable feature with a dead end.

Of course, that’s just the minimum set of things that need to be designed. There are all sorts of optional pieces like letting the flagger know when the issue is resolved or letting the flagger indicate why she’s flagging the comment or letting a customer service rep know how often people have been flagged so they can decide whether to ban the person. That last one would mean that you’d need some affordance for banning users and preventing them from returning.

Now, if you’re being very Lean Startup, you can always build the customer facing side first and decide not to build the admin side until people start flagging comments. In that case, when someone flagged a comment, you could simply have an engineer go into the database and remove the comment if you deemed it offensive.

That absolutely counts as designing a solution to the problem, by the way. It’s just a very manual design, and it’s probably one that won’t scale very well.

Why Should You Bother? 

Now you’re probably thinking that this all sounds exhausting and wondering why you would bother thinking through all of this stuff. That’s understandable. It can be exhausting. Do it anyway.

You see, thinking through the entire flow of interactions after the first one has a huge benefit to both your product and your product development process.

It helps your product by making sure you don’t have a lot of dead ends and awkward experiences. You don’t, for example, have a flagging feature that doesn’t result in flagged comments being pulled from your pages. This goes a long way toward making your overall user experience about a thousand percent better than the majority of products I use on a daily basis.

This process also improves your product development by helping you to understand the true complexity of a feature before you build it. You will never know exactly how long something will take to build, but you can certainly tell that building a flagging feature that works will take a lot longer than just putting a flag icon on each comment.

By fully exploring the complexity of features, you are better prepared to prioritize your backlog.

So, How Do You Do It? 

It’s pretty simple. Instead of thinking of your feature, think of the end user’s intent. Then, every time there’s some sort of interaction, you need to ask yourself, “has the user’s intent been satisfied?” If not, you’re not done, so you need to ask yourself, “What next?”

For example, your user isn’t going to flag something because she just loves flags. She’s going to flag something because she wants an offensive comment removed from a product page. Let’s go through the interaction sequence until that intent has been satisfied.

  1. A user can click the flag icon. Does this result in the comment being removed? No? Ok, what next?
  2. An email gets sent to someone at the company. Does this result in the comment being removed? No? Ok, what next?
  3. The person at the company asks an engineer to remove the comment from the database (which the engineer has agreed to do). Does this result in the comment being removed? Yes? Great! You’re done (for now).
Just keep asking yourself what’s next until the user’s intent has been met. It’s the best way to guarantee that your features do what you think they do and what your users expect them to do.

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Also, check out the book for more product and UX tips — UX for Lean Startups.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Want Better UX? Change the Conversation.

If you’ve ever been a user experience designer, you’ve probably heard people say something like this when starting a new project:
  • We want to make it delightful and easy to use.
  • We need to do some user research.
  • We want to improve our onboarding process.
  • We think it needs a walkthrough for new users.
  • We want a persona/photoshop mockup/wireframe/landing page/insert deliverable here.
All of these statements are absolutely useless. Why? Because none of them help you decide what to work on or how to improve a product.

So, the next time somebody introduces a UX project by asking for a specific deliverable or by giving vague instructions to “make it better,” you need to change the conversation.

You can do that by asking the following questions:
  • Who is the target user for this product or feature?
  • What problem are you trying to solve for those users?
  • What business need are you trying to fulfill with this project?
  • What metric are you trying to move?
  • Why do you think that solving this particular user problem will move that metric?
I know you want it to be delightful. But what metric does it move? — Tweet This

How Do These Questions Help Users?

The most important thing about these questions is that they help you define three things that are critical to a successful design project:
  1. The problem you are trying to solve
  2. The reason you are trying to solve it
  3. The way you will know if you’ve succeeded
Of course you want a better design. How will you know if you’ve succeeded? — Tweet This
Design without these elements isn’t really user experience design. It’s just drawing pictures. Design is about solving real problems, both for users and for the business. In fact, at its best, design is about solving problems for the business (for example, generating revenue or improving retention) by solving problems for the user (for example, offering something somebody wants to buy or helping make their lives better).
Design should solve problems for your business by solving problems for your user. — Tweet This 
By knowing the answer to these questions, you are far more likely to build a product that users want to use and that improves key metrics for your company.

How Do These Questions Help Designers?

Answering these questions can be incredibly helpful for individual designers. When we ask these questions, we reframe the project to give the designer far more freedom to solve problems, which is, after all, the fun part of the job.

Instead of being told “change the onboarding flow” or “create a tutorial walkthrough,” we get asked to “improve the 10 day activation metric for new users.”

As designers, we get to create our own hypotheses about how we will improve that metric rather than simply implementing someone else’s vision.

More importantly, we can understand when our designs were successful, because we have a specific metric against which we can measure our results. This kind of direct feedback can make us better designers.

How Do These Questions Help Engineers?

These questions can be incredibly useful for defining the scope of a project, which has a very real impact on engineering. For example, poorly defined projects are particularly susceptible to scope creep.

After all, if you don’t have a very solid idea of the problem you’re trying to solve or the metric you’re trying to move, it’s very easy to justify adding “just one more thing.” But when you have a clearly defined problem, it’s easy to push back on new feature requests that don’t contribute directly to solving that problem.

What to Do If They Can’t Answer Those Questions

The first few times you try to change the conversation, you may get push back. You’ll get clients or product managers or engineers who simply can’t answer these questions. Keep asking them.

If people can’t answer the questions, you need to help them get the answers before you start work on the project. Otherwise, you’re shortchanging your users, your company, your team, and yourself.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Most Important User You're Not Talking To

Do you have a product? With users? 

If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, you have an amazing untapped source for product research. And I’m not talking about your users. 

I mean, sure, you should be listening to users and observing them. A lot. But there’s another group of people who can provide you with incredible insights into your product. 

You should be talking to people who used your product once and then abandoned it. Tweet This!

Specifically, you need to ask these people the following questions:
  • What were you expecting when you tried this product?
  • How did it not meet your expectations? 
This research will help you understand three things very clearly:
  • What your messaging and acquisition strategy is telling people to expect.
  • What problem the people you are acquiring are trying to solve.
  • Why your product doesn’t solve this problem for the people you are acquiring. 
You’ll notice that I mentioned “acquisition” in each of the above points. This is intentional. You see, one of the things you are very likely to find out from this sort of research is that you are getting entirely the wrong group of people to try out your product. 

If you’ve been spending a lot of time optimizing your ads and your messaging for sign up conversion rather than for actual product usage and retention, it may turn out that you are acquiring a whole lot of the wrong sort of user for your product, which can be a costly mistake. This kind of research is fabulous for understanding if that’s true. 

The other thing that this research helps with is understanding whether or not you’re adequately solving the problem you think you’re solving in a way that users can understand. If new users can’t figure it out what your product does and how to do it in a few seconds, they’ll leave without ever knowing that your product was the solution to their problem. 

Of course, this isn’t the easiest group of people to interview. These folks can be tricky to track down and tough to schedule. But finding a way to interview people who thought they wanted to use your product and then changed their minds is something that will pay off hugely in the long run.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Making More UX Designers

Over the last few years, I’ve had an increasing number of people ask the same two questions. Specifically I get asked:
Where can I find a good UX designer?
How can I get into UX?

The best possible solution is, of course, to teach the people in the second group how to do the job and then introduce them to the people in the first group. The second best solution is to teach the people in the first group to do it for themselves. I’ve been experimenting lately with both of these approaches. 

This need for creating more UX designers is one of the biggest reasons I joined Tradecraft as an instructor at the beginning of the year. My co-teacher, the amazing Kate Rutter, and I each spend 3 days a week working with smart, motivated, tech-savvy students, teaching them UX design fundamentals like user research, task flows, personas, wireframing, and prototyping. Most importantly, we teach them to think like UX designers. 

Because it’s an intensive 12 week program, students have time to learn UX skills and apply them on real projects for real companies. They also learn from frequent guest mentors and speakers. 

It’s a competitive program. We don’t take many students. We’re not interested in churning out a lot of mediocre designers. We want to take a few people each quarter and turn them into great designers whom we’d be happy to recommend for jobs. We prefer people who have experience in some area of design, product management, user research, or engineering. 

So, if you’re someone who desperately wants to become a UX designer, and you want hands-on coaching from a couple of people who’ve been doing this for quite a few years, you should apply to Tradecraft for the next quarter. Or, if you’re a manager at a larger company, and you have a promising UX designer or Product Manager who needs some serious coaching to get to the next level, you should consider sponsoring that employee in the program. Lastly, if you’re looking for a newly minted UX designer, we’ve got a few of those graduating at the end of March. 

And if you want more information about any of it, you should email me at laura@usersknow.com and ask.

By the way, Tradecraft also has programs for people who want to be Growth Hackers and Sales People.



Friday, February 7, 2014

Building the Right Thing vs Building the Thing Right

This originally appeared as a guest post on the O'Reilly Programming Blog.

I love it when companies test prototypes. Love love love it. But it makes me incredibly sad when they use prototype testing for the wrong thing.

First, let me give you my definition of “prototype testing” here. I often build interactive, or semi-interactive, prototypes when designing a product. These prototypes are not actual products. They’re simulations of products. People who see the prototype can often click around them and perform some simple tasks, but they’re generally not hooked up to a real back end system.

“Well, what good is that?” you might reasonably ask. Excellent question. Interactive prototypes are incredibly useful for finding problems in usability testing settings. In a checkout flow, you might create a simple interactive prototype and watch four or five people go through the process (with test accounts) in order to find out if there were any parts of the flow they found confusing or hard to use.

It’s a great technique for any reasonably complicated interaction that you want to test before you spend a lot of time writing code. Interactive prototype testing can save you a ton of time because it helps you make sure that you’re building the product right before you spend a lot of time and money actually writing code.

Read the rest of this post on the O'Reilly blog >

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lean UX Videos

Recently, I've been experimenting with new ways of delivering information about UX for Lean Startups. Yes, this is a very poor excuse for not blogging as much. But it's also a genuine effort to get information about user experience design to new people.

As part of this effort, I'm making a series of short (10 minutes or so) videos for UXD for Developers. This is a show on YouTube produced by the folks at the Android Developer Network at Google.

Two of my videos are already posted, and at least one more is on the way. A list of all the videos (including some that I'm not in) is here: UXD for Developers.

In my episodes, I cover an Intro to Lean UX and Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research for UX.

New episodes are released every Tuesday, so make sure to subscribe to the channel to get all the updates!


Friday, October 25, 2013

How Bad Can I Make My Product?

Imagine that I have a product that cures cancer. Sadly, the side effect is that you may lose a few toes. I’ll bet that I would still have a huge line of customers who want to use my product.

Now, instead of curing cancer, imagine that the product tells you where you should eat lunch. Unfortunately, the toe-loss thing still applies. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’ll probably have far fewer customers.

This seems obvious. Sacrificing a toe or three doesn’t seem like a big deal when weighed against your life, but it’s a different story when it’s just lunch. Even a really good lunch.

If you are asking your users to put up with a lot of pain, you need to do so in the context of giving them something extraordinary. I get asked all the time how to tell when something is good enough. Does it have enough features? Is the visual design pretty? What if it has a couple of bugs?  The answer to all of these questions is that it depends on whether the users are getting enough in return.

Every startup has a slightly different calculus for deciding what product to put out into the world, but I’m going to give you a piece of advice that will make this all a little easier: if you’re solving a really big problem that nobody else is solving, your early adopters will be quite tolerant.

This is one of the reasons why B2B applications often get away with being so awful and hard to use. If a product helps me do my job better and makes me more money, it’s solving a big problem for me. I’ll put up with a few missing features or a less than stellar experience. (There are lots of other reasons B2B applications are terrible, of course, but that’s not what this blog post is about.)

Of course, there is a minimum standard for anything you put out in the world. People have to understand what it does, for example, and be able to use it to solve their really serious problem. In other words, it needs to be both usable and useful. But the more useful it is, the more of a pass you get on a lot of the nice-to-haves.

To be clear, this is not a pass to make your product awful. Think of this as an encouragement to build something important that solves serious problems for people and to get it into their hands as quickly as possible.

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