Category Archives: UX methods

Skype takes the hassle out of remote usability

Remote research brings cultural relevance to usability findings, providing the kinds of insights which can only be gained by being there…virtually at least.

I recently ran some remote website usability sessions for a Kiwi startup whose main customer is in the U.S.A. … sure, ‘isolation breeds innovation’ and all that, but when your customers are on the other side of the world, it’s vital that your product connects with them.

A fun project, but choosing which software to run during the sessions was a headache… There’s a boggling number of services to choose from (25 on this link) and there’s no clear winner.

After some experimenting, I went with Skype and it did the job nicely.
Here are some benefits over paid and more sophisticated software I’ve used previously:

  • It’s easy to recruit participants who already use Skype
  • Familiarity means no learning curve for you or participants
  • No install means no wasting valuable session time setting-up
  • Sending links and files is instant with built-in messaging
  • It’s possible to make contact with participants prior to the session
  • It’s free, so that’s hard to argue with

During the sessions, I was able to video chat with the participant for a while, then fire up Skype’s screen-sharing tool, so I could observe their movements on the website while  hearing their thoughts and reactions etc.

Skype’s screen-sharing only works between two computers so if you have clients observing, this will have to be through an external monitor (Make sure they are sitting out of view of your webcam and preferably out of earshot).

The project generated rich insights and shaped the design process moving forward.
I’d definitely use Skype for this again, but would love to hear from anyone who’s used anything else with success.

I also had Adobe Connect recommended …anyone tried that?

Keeping it ‘old school’ with Diary Studies (Or not)

Yep, the original article from 2010 has mutated and is now about halfway down this page because:

UPDATE 2017. Seven years on and the landscape of remote diary and journalling services has exploded.

I’m always looking for better ways to understand customer behaviour and the experiences customers have in their own context, out in the wild.

The latest of these is Streetbees, ‘your eyes and ears on the street’ which has coverage in 87 countries and looks like a ‘selfie’ version of remote usability testing service, where consumer ‘bees’ get paid a small sum to film their impressions while they complete a task. I’m seeing insights dripping in honey.

… and Over the Shoulder, less of a DIY tech platform and more of a managed service for qualitative mobile ethnography.

Also… I believe Sarah Cambridge has the definitive article on Diaries here on a slideshare:


Also… I’ve now had a crack at running a video diary study (with a camera couriered out to each person), with great success, and in the ‘how-to’ article show you what’s involved with some tips from my experiences. Article here: Capture the moment with video diary studies

There are some interesting ‘mobile ethnography’ tools on the market, using web and mobile channels to capture, collate and filter all this stuff as it occurs in the field:

7daysinmylife …Which might be more ‘manual’ than it looks.
Consumerthink …Which appears to do everything. Hmm. I guess you have an account manager to build out the tool to fit your project.
CX Workout A mobile diary and ‘co-design’ platform which apparently builds journey maps. 
D Scout Which has fast become the UX researcher’s favourite way to capture participants’ ‘mobile moments’ during diaries, lifestyle and retail studies.
Experiencefellow …Why not slip into your customers’ shoes?
ethosapp …’An ethnographer in your pocket’, apparently.
Overtheshoulder … Seems similar to Streetbees, but less of a DIY platform and more of managed service.
Revelation … A versatile platform at a premium price …with what look like some useful data analysis tools.
Streetbees, more (and probably more reach) in the moment video vox-pop.
thethinkingshed …Which seems to be like a blog platform for your participants.
Watchmethink …for some in the moment video vox-pop.
webnographer …Which smells like a remote usability tool.
Voxpopme … Which is a little like Watchmethink, but with an impressive transcription and compiling function. I’ve tried a beta of this and while a bit clumsy for long form, it’s great for highlights and the technology is going to be truly amazing one day.

From speaking to John, the founder of ‘Watchmethink’, it seems quality and motivation of the sample is the big ‘gotcha’ here for serious researchers – as opposed to vox-pop collectors – so quite possibly the way to get the most from these services is to do your own recruit and just use the tool as a platform. 

Oh, and here are some filming gadgets which ‘log’ activity from the subjects’ point of view:

Narrative Clip

Now… here’s that original article:

Keeping it old school…

Impressive technology, but ‘whizz-bang’ isn’t always the answer. I sometimes stick to the traditional pen and paper approach for a diary study, as this also has it’s benefits over the digital tools which seem so tempting…

For the uninitiated, diary studies in UX are a qualitative research method where participants record events, interactions, attitudes etc. in diary format over days or weeks. They are a great way to study customer behaviours in the context using a product or service over time, as opposed to during a traditional in-context interview.

In the study which prompted this article back in 2010 I was interested in how and where people used a prototype mouse in their day to day activities and how well it performed in each situation.

For a mouse project I had users try different prototypes and rank them against each other during a week... using paper forms.

For a mouse project I had users try different prototypes and rank them against each other during a week… using paper forms.

Here are some ways I feel the old-school method holds its’ own:

It’s human
No learning curve, no teething problems. Paper and pen doesn’t require login details, needs almost no instructions, is ultra portable, and doesn’t rely on web or mobile coverage. Participants don’t have to think about or remember anything other than jotting down their thoughts.

It’s flexible
Photos are great, and really help to add context, but I’m always amazed at how pictorial some people make their diary notes. Sketching and doodling on a blank sheet of paper is always going to win over an online text-entry box.

‘till the fat lady sings
The real gems from these studies emerge in the exit interview with each participant. When they’re looking back over their own handwriting, these paper diaries transport people back to those moments in time, where you can access the rich detail needed to paint the full picture. It’s literally a trigger for them to share stories, which is where the ‘gold’ always reveals itself in interviews.

It’s immersive
I love the process of pinning-up diary data around a room.
Having met each participant, built rapport and empathy, this is somehow retained when you’re surrounded in their scrawl. All those attitudes and responses pop back in your mind, help you get into their character, see things through their eyes and in relation to their context.

When the right type of project comes along, I’ll give the ‘digital ethnography’ tools a shot, but until then, I know I’ve got paper.

UPDATE 2015: I’ve now had a crack at running a video diary study, with great success.

Even so …I’d love to hear from someone who’s run an ethno project using any of these tools.

User Centred Design, for the long haul.

air-new-zealand-user centred design of seating.

During a 9 month project with IDEO, Air New Zealand took a user centred approach to improve seating design for their long haul services. They built full scale prototypes of cabin interiors to carry out design research, evaluating seating and service concepts with real passengers.

The project began in 2007 with a goal of understanding passenger needs during long haul flights. Following extensive interviewing of passengers and flight attendants, a design team built seat concepts from polystyrene and cardboard.

Paid actors, as well as customers sat (or lay) through three hour research sessions simulating the in-flight experience. The actors were included to enhance the sense of realism, in addition to engine noise and full cabin service.

air-new-zealand-ideo-design research

Finding a point of difference is a challenge for airlines. While Qantas’ recent design efforts focussed on the aesthetic, commissioning Marc Newson to add a layer of style to the A380 interior, Air New Zealand choose to tackle the challenge from the customer’s viewpoint, leaving style out of the question until the functionality was humming.

As well as researching the way passengers used the seating concepts, a ‘fresh eyes’ approach was taken when selecting a design team. Air New Zealand opted to work with industrial designers who had ergonomics experience, but were new to airline seating, avoid preconceptions, maximising  freedom to take risks and innovate.

A groundbreaking three year project with User Centred Design at the heart, resulting in true innovation based on fresh thinking and real customer insight.

What a dream project.

Watch an unexpectedly cheesy 2min video which will give you some glimpses into the process.

View the website created to showcase the new seating types

Picture, or thousand words?

design-research-processOutcomes of UX research projects can be difficult to put in a nutshell, and a bullet pointed list sometimes just does not cut it.

As well as the usual deliverables emerging from a brief, I sometimes add a rich picture as a visual summary. These often originate from doodles generated while I’m trying to figure out relationships or flow between elements of a process etc.

What starts out as a way for me to make sense of a complex landscape often grows into an important tool to communicate this to client teams.

The ability of these info-graphics to engage people often amazes me, with the drawing sometimes becoming the focal point of discussion, receiving more attention and air time than the agreed deliverable.

This week my consultancy website turned 10 years old so I gave it a refresh.
Out of my doodles came a drawing attempting to summarise the design research process as I see it.
It’s on the home page if you fancy a gander.

Happy Twenty-Ten to you all.

Prototype, Test, Rinse & repeat


The value of iteration.

Switched-on digital agencies understand the value of user testing with early stage website mockups; ironing out sticking points and identifying opportunities to improve interaction design early, before committing to code.

During a day of back-to-back user interviews, ‘quick wins’, like changing a navigation item can be made in seconds and validated (or not) by response from subsequent research participants.

…But how possible is this rapid-fire iterative improvement in the design of physical products?

Lately, I’ve been helping a Christchurch company take a User Centred approach to refining the design for a new type of mouse.

The industrial designers at 4ormfunction produce fresh batches of prototypes using shaping compounds then scan & print in 3D. This makes for quick builds of fully functional prototypes. They look a little sketchy, but are perfectly suitable for user research where ergonomics are being explored.

Continuous customer feedback = continuous improvement.

This ‘turn on a dime’ flexibility allows an iterative approach; Designers respond to insights and observations from natural use with potential customers, build a new round of design variants, then put these prototypes through the next round of user research to further refine the design.

It’s not as quick as shuffling pixels, but It’s a great realisation to me that such complex objects can realistically be put through a quick cycle of: prototype / user research / analysis / …repeat.

UX in the physical world

Individual user experience in the physical world. Custom built surfboards.
This project from 2009 allowed me to work on interactions with a different kind of digital – gripping fingers and thumbs, … taking me back to my surfboard building days.

A kiwi company was developing a new type of mouse. I’used UX methods to help refine the design, starting off with some user research to understand how people will use it.

Working with a physical object so closely tied to the task at hand is a challenge. Asking people how they’d use it can be misleading as they often struggle to articulate what they want from a product they aren’t always conscious of using.

This really takes me back to my first encounter with User Centred Design – making custom surfboards in the early 90’s.

My first customers would fill out an order form with their height, weight and suggested measurements for the board. These were often based on their vision of riding in a certain way, on waves which often only happened twice a year, or in their dreams.

When viewed through the right lens, observing people use a product can convert directly into design requirements to improve the user experience.

Wherever possible, I’d go surfing with my customers, to get a feel for their riding style and the conditions they most often rode in.  Watching them ride provided a more reliable brief of what they needed from a board than they’d written on the order form.

When you’re riding the right board, you forget it’s there; it’s like an extension of your body. Making the board ‘disappear’ was my measure of whether I’d made it right for the rider. (As well as the smile on their face at the end of a session)

Using a mouse with your computer is similarly sub-conscious but it’s not a sport, and doesn’t need to make you smile.

… but there’s a first time for everything.

Running. A user centred business.

Where can I go for a run around here?

Concierge at my hotel in Singapore only needed to be asked this a few times before they found themselves offering directions.

…But all too often they’d spot their guests returning by taxi after getting lost in the suburbs.

This jogger’s map started out when a staff member sketched a suggested route over a city map for a guest. This evolved over time through photocopied and laminated versions into this runner-friendly neck-tag.

Not everyone’s idea of going for a run is the same, so hotel staff asked sweaty runners how far they ran and looked at the ways they folded their improvised city map. This way they could adjust the route and the boundary of the map to suit all levels of runner.

I love the way this jogger’s map came about, it’s like a condensed example of a User Centred Design process:

  • None of the staff were runners themselves
  • …but they strove to understand their customers
  • …they generated a solution in response to an observed need
  • …evolved the design through user feedback
  • …and iterative improvements
  • …adjusting the design to suit the context of use
  • The result benefits both the business and the customer

It’s also a good example of how the little things can make the a big difference.

Chocolate on the pillow is always a nice touch and a no-brainer for hoteliers. …but businesses who listen to and observe their customers are in the best place to discover new and sometimes simple ways to provide both a point of difference and an improved customer experience.

Making the most of Optimal Treejack

If you want to find out how well your website navigation structure works for your customers, Treejack is a great tool for the job.
If you want to know why certain parts performed poorly, and what to do about it, you’ll need to get inside the head of your customer. The tools for this are your eyes and ears.

Treejack, was developed in New Zealand by Optimal Workshop so has been built with a user-centered approach in mind.

It’s a tool to test the navigation structure of your website. Treejack will pinpoint the most difficult areas or items to find, based on click-trails as survey participants navigate through a prototype of your website’s structure. (the prototype is a simple ‘tree’ of text links generated from a spreadsheet you paste  in… couldn’t be easier)

Treejack is a great tool, saving time and headspace, but it is no silver bullet.

You’ll get summarised and detailed outputs showing where each participant went, how directly and quickly they found set items during the survey. … but it won’t tell you how much sense it made to them, or why the tricky areas were confusing.

To design a website that’s intuitive to navigate it’s essential to understand how your customers will interact with it. There is simply no substitute for observation when it comes to gathering these insights.

Teaming Treejack up with qualitative one-on-one research makes a killer double-act bringing you the best of both worlds.

Some tips for integrating Treejack into user research sessions:

  • Run a warm up exercise on a generic ‘tree’ … Clicking through a bare-bones navigation is quite abstract so this helps participants get used to the interaction style.
  • Encourage participants to ‘think aloud’ while using the prototype. When you notice them pause, they’ll be thinking. Having them vocalise their experience is the closest you’ll get to knowing what’s behind their thoughts and any indecision.
  • Save your questions till after each task. Interrupting the participant mid-flow can make them change their behaviour, skewing the Treejack report. Let them click through naturally then discuss it afterwards. You’ll need to rely on your note taking here.
  • Have a duplicate Treejack survey open in another tab. This way you can ask participants to re-trace their steps without affecting the Treejack results.
  • Ask the participants to ‘rate’ each task for how much sense it made to them etc. Treejack tells where and how they found the item, but doesn’t tell you whether this made sense to them.
  • More participants, fewer tasks. As people develop a familiarity with the ‘tree’ they will start memorising where things are, making your findings less useful.
  • Use your eyes. The old adage, “it’s what they do, not say” is as relevant as ever here.

I’d be interested to hear anyone elses experiences …
Go check it out at

Equal opportunities in User Centred Design?

IDEO, The worlds greatest proponent of User Centered Design have released a ‘toolkit’ to promote a human centred approach to social development projects.

It’s full of top tips… one of which seems worryingly chauvinistic

If you can’t read the image, it kindly reminds us; “To ensure there is a balanced gender perspective involve female staff in all aspects of this process” … (eek!)

I’m sure IDEO had the best intentions, but with half of the world’s humans being female, do we really need to be told to include women in a Human Centred Design process ?

Back in Black

Since being back in New Zealand I’ve heard people reckoning we are a few years behind Europe and the States in terms of the acceptance of UX.

I’m back in London for a few weeks, consulting for Flow Interactive, … so if it’s true we kiwis are behind, I’m in an industry crystal ball here.

It’s great to be back in the saddle at Flow, the place where I first heard some of the many acronyms that have proliferated as the industry evolves. (UCD, UX, UE, IA, IXD, CHI, HCI… where do you want to get off?)

All these labels and sometimes glorified job titles aside, in the last few years in London, the biggest change I’ve noticed in the industry is the shift from usability to user experience.

Usability studies are often the first encounter clients have with a User Centred Design process, but these are notoriously carried out too late in the process to be of use. (telltale sign: more ‘oh shit’ than ‘a-ha’ moments)

Switched-on clients have adopted UX as an early strategic tool to gain insight, minimise risk and build competitive advantage.

As clients are exposed to user centred approaches and the results they bring, they aim to integrate UX across their entire product lifecycle. You know they see the true value of UX when they involve UCD in the earliest stages of a project

…Meanwhile ‘user testing’ (another horrific and misleading term) has become somewhat commoditised, seen by some as a ‘tick-box’ exercise routinely built into the development cycle particularly of websites. Usability is no less important, but less mysterious and more self contained.

If this is what NZ has to look forward to, then it looks like we have to push our clients over the usability hump, to see the full value of a User Centred approach
…And stop baffling them with acronyms.