Archive for March, 2010
Rabbit themed UX insights continue today.
The rabbit hutch is here, built and ready for baby rabbits. The building process was helped by a nifty idea from the German manufacturer.
All the screws and bolts came attached to a piece of card, labelled with pictures of all the fixings and their names. This meant you could see at a glance if anything was missing and you didn’t have to compare screws to work out which one was the long one.
My rabbit hutch purchasing has been an interesting vein of UX experiences. In the end I bought a hutch from JustRabbitHutches, whose website was mostly pleasant to use and whose service was great.
That said, once I’d added my hutch to the basket I noticed they’d been tripped up by recommendations. Under my basket were suggestions that I might enjoy. Unfortunately one of them was a “delivery surcharge”.
Now this isn’t as damaging as Walmart’s dodgy DVD recommendations but it’s another example of how careful you have to be.
You could also ask why JustRabbitHutches thought they needed a recommendation engine here. After all the clue is in the title. If I’m buying a rabbit hutch, how likely is it that they’ll be able to sell me another one?
The eagled-eye amongst you (or those with a fondness for the detail of LinkedIn updates) have noticed that my job title has changed.
I’m now officially “Business Analyst/Information Architect”. Yup, there is genuinely a slash in my job title.
Now part of me is genuinely impressed that RNIB is chilled enough about such things. We all get in a lot of tangles trying to come up with one job title that sums up what we do (both to our colleagues and the outside world). That slash is a nice acknowledgement of a messy reality (although you’d probably need to tack another couple of job titles on end before you had an accurate representation of reality).
So why Business Analyst?
1. IA isn’t well understood inside my organisation, outside of my immediate colleagues and unusually the chairman (and before you start, user experience designer would be even less illuminating). People have a reasonably good idea of the space that Business Analysts work in, if not an understanding of the exact details.
2. But more importantly I was already doing business analyst work. A lot of IA/UX training assumes that no BA work has been done, so you start with that before doing the design work. So I naturally did stuff that my BA colleagues recognised as business analysis.
When I did my BA qualification last year, I was struck by how similar the tools and problem spaces are to those in UX world. The cultural context is different so the language used is more business than design, the outputs are less pretty, and there’s often an emphasis on users being staff not customers. Creating such detailed requirements documents was new to me but everything was familiar.
3. There’s more business analysis work that needs doing than there are business analysts. Now you might say that there is surely a lot of IA work that needs doing, and only one IA. And there is. I’ll be putting IA problems on the backburner that need fixing. But I’m comfortable with this because the BA role puts a greater emphasis on ensuring the right problems are being solved, rather than just implementing the chosen problem well.
Again I know there’s plenty of folks who’d say that IA (and UXDers more so) should absolutely be part of the process of picking the problems. That’s fine, you can say that. I’d support you pushing for that to be the case. But the reality on the ground for many IA/UX types is they get told what the project is.
There’s a greater expectation that the business analyst shapes the projects. So for me that route is the fastest way to my destination. And that destination isn’t championing a professional cause. It’s about making sure the money given to the charity is spent well on the people who need it.
Now all search engines struggle, to varying degrees, with the knotty mess that is natural language. But they don’t generally don’t get called rubbish for not succeeding with the meaty search challenges.
Rubbish search engines are the ones that can’t seem to answer the most basic requests in a sensible manner. These are ones that get mocked as “random link generators”, the jibbering wrecks of their breed.
Go to Homebase and search for “rabbit hutch” (we need another one as two of our girls are about to produce heaps of bunnies at the same time).
The first result is “Small plastic pet carrier”. There’s a number of other carriers and cages. Then there’s a “Beech Finish Small Corner Desk with Hutch”. Finally there’s a Pentland Rabbit Hutch at result no #8. This is a rubbish set of results. I asked for “rabbit hutch” and they’ve got a rabbit hutch to sell me but they’re showing me pet carriers and beech finish corner desks.
This is a rubbish set of results. But it doesn’t mean the search engine is rubbish.
Somebody made a rubbish decision. They’ve set it up shonky.
So before you reach for the million pound enterprise search project, try having a quick look under the bonnet with a spanner.
Is it AND or OR?
This is reasonably easy to test, if you can’t ask someone who knows.
Pick a word that will be rare on your site and another word that doesn’t appear with the rare one e.g. ”Topaz form” for my intranet. A rare word is one that should only appear one or two times in the entire dataset so you can check that the other word doesn’t appear with it. You may need to be a bit imaginative but unique things like product codes can be helpful here. If the query returns no results you’ve probably got an AND search. More than a couple of results (and ones that don’t mention Topaz) and you’ve probably got OR.
(this can get messed up if there is query expansion going on but hopefully the rare word isn’t one whatever query expansion rules there are will work on).
AND is more likely to be problematic as a setting. You’ll get lots of “no results”. You’ll need your users to be super precise with their terminology and spell every word right. If they are looking for “holiday form” and the form is called “annual leave form” they’ll get no results.
OR will generate lots of results. This is ok if the sort order is sensible. Very few people care that Google returned 2,009,990 results for their query. They just care that the first result is spot-on.
So most of the time you probably want an OR set-up.
(preferably combined with support for phrase searching so the users can choose to put their searches in nice speech marks to run an AND search if they want to and know how to).
Is there crazy stemming/query expansion going on?
Query expansion is search systems trying to be clever, often getting it wrong and not telling you what they’ve done so you can unpick it. Basically the search system is taking the words you gave it and giving you results for those words, plus some others that it thinks are relevant or related.
Typical types of expansion are stemming (expand a search for fish to include fishes and fishing), misspellings and synonyms (expand a search for cockerel to include rooster).
This is probably what is happening if you are getting results that don’t seem to include the words you searched for anywhere on the page (although metadata is another option).
Now this stuff can be really, really helpful. If it is any good.
Have you got smart sophisticated query expansion like Google? Or does it do silly (from a day-to-day not a Latin perspective) stemming like equating animation with animals? If it is the silly version then definitely switch it off (or tweak it if you can).
Even if you’ve got smart expansion options available, it’s generally best practice to either give the user the option of running the expanding (or alternate) query, or at the very least of undoing it if you’ve got it wrong. They won’t always spot the options (Google puts lots of effort into coming up with the right way of doing this) but it’s bad search engine etiquette to force your query on a user.
Is the sort order sensible?
That Homebase example. The main problem here is sorting by price low-high. That’d be fine (actually very considerate of Homebase) if I’d navigated to a category full of rabbit hutches. But I didn’t. I searched for rabbit hutches and got a mixed bag of results that included plenty of things that a small child could tell you aren’t rabbit hutches.
The solution? Sort by relevancy.
I’ve seen quite a lot of bad search set-ups recently where the search order was set to alphabetical. Why? Unless as Martin said when I bemoaned this on Twitter your main use case is “to enable people to find stuff about aardvarks”.
News sites sometimes go with most recent as the sort order. Kinda makes sense but you need to be sure the top results are still relevant not just recent.
Interestingly sort order doesn’t matter so much if you’ve gone for AND searches and you haven’t got any query expansion going on. If you’re pretty sure that everything in the result set is relevant, then you’ve got more freedom over sort order. If not, stick with relevancy.
(I don’t need to tell you that you want relevancy is high-low, do I?)
So people stop giving me grief over navigation. Let’s talk about that rubbish search engine you’ve got. I could probably fix that for you.
This article is part of a (rather drawn-out) series about our e-commerce redesign.
Competitive reviews do what they say on the tin: they review what your competitors are doing. They are particularly useful in a busy, well-developed marketplace where you can find good matches for your site/product.
With our e-commerce project, my first step was to identify what I meant by competitors. The definition is much wider than other charities for blind and partially sighted people with online shops. You are looking for sites that your audience will be familiar with, with similar product sets, with similar challenges and sites that may be interesting/innovative in general. They don’t have to be all of these things.
Some are easy to identify. If you are looking for market leading commerce facing sites that you can probably reel them off yourself.
You can also:
- ask your colleagues
- ask your network (Twitter is pretty good for this)
- do some Google searches (try searching for all the sites you’ve already thought of, this often brings up other people’s lists)
- look for market reports from Nielsen, Forrester etc…
I then bookmark the websites, using delicious. This means I have quick access to the set as I can reopen all the websites in one go (or in smaller tagged sub-sets) by selecting “open all in tabs” (I think you need the Firefox plugin to do this, I can’t see a way from the main site).
My four main sub-sets for the e-commerce project were
- mainstream shops
- charity shops
- alternative format bookstores
- disability/mobility stores
1. Mainstream shops (link to delicious tag)
These are sites that UK webusers are likely to be familiar with e.g. Amazon, Argos and John Lewis. I chose some for the breadth of their catalogue (a problem we knew we were facing) and some for specific range matches e.g. Phones4U or WHSmiths
Where these sites consistently treat functionality or layout in a particular way, I considered that to be a standard pattern and therefore something the users might well be familiar and comfortable with.
(it is worth noting that we don’t have definitive data on the extent to which RNIB shop customers also use other online shops. On one hand their motivation to use online shopping may be stronger than average UK users as they may face more challenges in physical shops, but on the other hand the accessibility of mainstream shops may discourage them)
2. Charity shops
These sites are slightly less useful as competitors that it might appear at first. They were useful when considering elements like donations but in many cases the shops were targeted at supporters not beneficiaries and they carried much narrower ranges. There are however some very high quality sites where it is clear that a lot of thought, time and effort has been invested.
3. Alternative format bookstores
This included mass market audiobook stores and some that are targetted particularly at people with sight loss. Most of these sites were dated and a little awkward to use. I reviewed them briefly but mostly didn’t return to them.
4. Disability/mobility stores
There are quite a number of these sites. They often feel like print catalogue slung on a website and weren’t very sophisticated from an IA perspective. I did look in detail at the language they used to describe products as there was likely to be a heavy overlap with our product set.
I had a number of initial questions that I wanted to research.
1. The number of categories on the homepage
2. Other elements on the homepage
3. How they handled customer login
I created a spreadsheet and when through the sites one by one, recording what I found. It took me about 2 hours to review 60 sites against this limited set of criteria.
I did the original review ages ago but I went back to the sites reasonably regularly during our design phase, usually when we couldn’t reach agreement and we needed more evidence to help make a decision. Sometimes I would just add a column to an existing spreadsheet e.g. when checking which sites had a separate business login. At other times I created whole new spreadsheets e.g. when auditing how the search function worked.
These later reviews took less time, either because I was checking for less criteria or because I dropped less relevant or low quality sites. I’m still going back to the competitive review even during testing, as various testers start finding their own favourite website and asking “why doesn’t it work like this?”. It is always useful to know if they are right that “normal” websites do X. The competitive review saves a lot of argument time.
I’m not a screenreader expert and if you are wondering how your site works in screenreaders it is worth getting it tested properly by experts. But if you just want to get a flavour of what it is like to use a screenreader or how screenreaders cope with particular types of content…then these tools might be helpful.
Fangs Screen Reader Emulator :: Add-ons for Firefox. This Firefox add-on will produce a (text) version of your page to give you an idea of how a screenreader might read it. It’s just an idea as it depends on the screenreader and it doesn’t help you understand how the page might sound.
If you want to experience the actual audio experience:
NVDA is a
It is important to remember that a screenreader’s experience of your page will vary depending on how many of the screenreader’s functions that user knows and how they have their preferences set. The setting that controls how much punctuation is read makes a big difference but there are legitimate reasons for having it set to read all punctuation (which probably makes it sound worse and harder to process).