I recently came across this example of documented return on investment (ROI) for User Experience gone wrong. To summarize, a popular email marketing service tried to correct its significant homepage login failures by adopting “social login” (with Twitter or Facebook). Their initial attribution of a huge correction (a whopping 66% reduction in login failures) the next month was really due to a combination of replacing text copy and a few design changes related to (what they considered to be) “minor” usability testing results.

As a UX Researcher, I’m not surprised by this. Companies (and designers) wrongly make assumptions about customer motivations and behavior all the time. What does surprise me is the UX community’s continued inability to “sell” the value of UX processes and methods to decision-makers. Dan Turner wrote an accurate depiction of this problem last year, especially as it affects startups:

“Build first” plays out with brutal regularity. The founders have an idea, which they see as the hard part; I’ve actually had people say, “You just need to implement my idea.” They have heard about something called “UX” but see user experience design as but a simple implementation of their idea.

As a result, the meaning of both the U and the X get glossed over.

I get it. My practical empathy enables me to understand how founders feel that they have solved a gigantic problem for themselves…and the reasoning goes, that if *they* had the problem, then surely others must have the exact same problem, too.

But that logic is flawed. Founders are already committed; they’ve already invested time and energy and resources into a product. They are risk-takers by necessity. But customers haven’t and aren’t (necessarily) invested. They need to be convinced, wooed, shown that you really understand what the product “does” for them, how it makes them feel, why they would choose it over any other alternative. That your company, brand, product marketing, etc…really “gets” them. That’s where my work comes in. And it can be Lean and cheap and fast.

A commenter’s quote below the same article also resonates with me:

I used to take pride in the fact that what I did was invisible, that if I had done my job properly, the end user would not notice my work but get on with enjoying the experience. But this is a huge problem. Ordinary founders, VCs and end users don’t think about a “great user experience.” They just see an awesome app.

If that doesn’t speak to decoding whitespace, I don’t know what does.

I can’t say I’ve discovered the best solution to selling UX, either. Several weeks ago I attended a career fair for startups and had access to a “VIP” executive lounge. Every company I spoke with immediately shut down my pitch with a “we don’t have time for research.” Then it was repeatedly mentioned that these companies had launched a website recently, and could I perhaps give them some feedback (free of charge, of course)?

If you don’t have time for Lean user research, do you have time and money to waste on developing products and services that fewer people will buy or use? Even if you invest a mere 10% of a design project’s budget into usability testing, the rewards on average will still significantly increase your ROI. It could double it.

Perhaps the answer is to try and work for people who think differently about the value of UX already. In my last startup job, my boss preferred that instead of summarizing all the results of my research incrementally, I only report regularly on patterns about what was “new and surprising.”  This enabled him and the team to easily assess if our tested assumptions were incorrect, had to be re-prioritized, and ultimately deepened our understanding of users as more than just faceless username ids and market segments.

Or maybe I’ll just keep ranting every so often 😉


Oh my little blog, I’m sorry I abandoned you for so long…

The last couple years, I admit, I haven’t taken time for reflection. I’ve been solely career-focused, obsessed with work and broadening my skills and output in UX research, and learning how to (re)brand myself in a more unique light. I spent a very, very productive year at an amazing ed tech startup creating and building their user research capabilities from scratch. I found a mentor, changed jobs; I’m now mentoring others. The whole experience has taught me so much about what I’m good at, what I need to improve. And one thing I need to improve in my work and life is that elusive concept of balance.

I’ve been focusing so much on improving the Function of me, that I’ve forgotten about the rest, the Form, or the “ideal” form, to reference Plato. Sleep? I don’t need sleep! Provide / Produce / Do has been my motto. No time to exercise!

In User Experience we value the combination of form and function. Products should be intuitive, useful, usable, AND delightful. But I’ve been doing myself a disservice. I need time to nurture my inner self and reflect; without reflection, there is no learning, no progress.

I’ve been denying myself whitespace. The space to just “be.”

Reflecting on what I value and need lately has also made me consider how little time there really is. I read how others have learned to live by minimalism. We seem to think that technology will save us time, but new devices and apps only compete for your attention and won’t increase your time or quality of life, or your focus.

So I’m writing again. And exercising, too. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Lately I have been coming across quite a few related articles and blog posts about making it easier to read content online, ensure screen accessibility, that type of thing. In my own user research and usability testing at work we discovered that users almost always prefer to download or print a PDF for reading rather than scan the HTML, especially when it comes to scientific content.

Preferences like this seem to exist for a few reasons: 1) PDFs lack flashy advertisements and related site content, and 2) once printed, you “own” the PDF content, or as others note, you have possession of it. You can write in the margins and take notes on it, or fold it, or make paper airplanes.

Larger websites seem to be continually offering flashier HTML features and interactions, but rarely focus on making the experience simpler.

The removal of ads for reading content online is already available in various subscription services and apps like Readability or the Chrome iReader, or Papers for research content, but I wonder about reader usage. Perhaps readers aren’t aware of these options? Or maybe people still prefer the “feel” of paper between their fingers — which is one reason I personally prefer reading actual printed books to an eReader.

Interestingly, sites like the New York Times seem to be embracing this user/reader preference; they launched a beta site this year that seems to be (for now) advert-free, with a redesign that incorporates lots more whitespace (!) to make reading online easier.

Recently I attended a “speed-dating for your resume” event specific to my industry. At the event, I presented my resume to 5 recruiters/hiring managers who gave their feedback within quick, 2-minute timed sessions before a gong/buzzer sounded moving us along to the next station. All of the reviewers at the event specialize in UX recruiting. Needless to say, I took lots of notes.

In the playful spirit of usability testing, I thought I’d summarize my qualitative feedback from the 5 reviewers in table form:


Four out of five (80%) reviewers actually disliked or disagreed with my current title of “Usability Engineer”. Two of the five (40%) thought the “Skills” section should appear at the end of the resume, one (20%) thought it was fine near the top under the summary, and two (40%) did not comment on skills at all. About the “Executive Summary” section at the top, four out of five (80%) thought mine was too wordy and had too much text. One (20%) of the reviewers additionally wanted me to add links to work samples within the resume.

Based on these results, I will definitely modify the job title and shorten the summary. The feedback about the skills section seemed a bit subjective (reviewer’s personal preference), so I may or may not change that. And I’m not sure about the links to work samples. Seems like a functional idea, but only one reviewer mentioned it…I suppose it can’t hurt.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of usability testing lately, and what I really enjoy about it is how different each person/participant is. It keeps it interesting, because people never react to questions or complete a task in the same way, so I learn something new about the product (and about people) from every test.

Then I came across this post on the ThoughtWorks Studios blog, and I thought, yes! We should be designing for activities, because no two people are ever the same, even if they share the same demographics or career tracks or opinions. The only commonality is in activities and behavior, even if the individual reasons behind the action are distinct.

I also attended a lecture at the NYPL with John Irving the other night, and he shared (sort of) a similar view about writing. He was discussing how he was shaped at a young age by reading Dickens’ David Copperfield and how it questioned why adulthood was boring and dull and nothing to look forward to, and that one of the reasons he was drawn to writing (and I’m paraphrasing here) was that “people never said or showed or revealed enough.”

In a way it’s similar to user research. The people I interview never reveal enough. There could always be more, one more tidbit to explain their perspective, their experience. I’m fascinated by how they think and act and then explain those thoughts and actions to me during a test session, because the answer — what varies (the variable y!) — is never what I expect.

Maybe that’s why I like writing, too. I just want to know “why” (y).

Someone asked me today how to plan user/usability testing for a luxury retailer’s homepage, and if the testing should be based purely on various segments of users.

Of course the answer is that it’s not so simple.  It really depends on what the testing goals are (which are driven by the business goals), or what hypothesis you’re questioning related to your product. I also came across this article earlier which showed 17 luxury brand sites with horrible user experiences. Many of the examples were obviously not well-planned, but a couple got me thinking that user experience is not so black and white (good or bad).

In fact, I’d wonder if some website experiences and usability guidelines are somewhat biased for male vs. female users. If your business has a distinct customer of one particular gender, that would be much easier to target with UX. But what about sites like Amazon.com or Gilt.com that target both?

It’s already been shown that men buy more frequently and spend more money online than women; but is that behavior because many sites already target them?

Re-posted from Extrabux.com via visual.ly.

Re-posted from Extrabux.com via visual.ly.

According to some designers, women want stories and details, but men want proof and immediacy. This makes sense to me, since I know from my own experience that men are single-focused (goal-oriented) and women have diffuse awareness (connection-oriented). Perhaps in many major online retailers, it’s very easy to QUICKLY make a purchase based on price, but the details/story behind the product are lacking.

As a woman I’ll readily admit to reading many of the customer reviews before I make a purchase, and sometimes I won’t purchase something if there are no reviews. In fact, one online retailer I know that specifically targets women *very effectively* incorporates STORIES and details in every product page, which makes women more likely to buy. They make the customer “feel good” and envision themselves in a situation where they could wear/use the item.

But how do you account for both women and men’s purchasing habits within the same site?

Common sense tells me that the key to solving these questions is through user/usability testing of both genders.

I came across an intriguing link today, about interactive plant technology. By sticking an electrode into the soil of a potted plant (or tree?), a user can touch the plant and see and hear the interactions on a computer. Perhaps it could improve plant/people relations?

I wonder what the purpose is, though, because it doesn’t make the plant any more personable or make the user more aware of the plant’s internal processes. Whatever interaction the user sees on screen is basically what they themselves have caused, and the software doesn’t seem to measure the plant’s changing over time. Couldn’t you hook up any inanimate object in the same way?

Perhaps then it stimulates the plant’s growth, because it encourages physical touching and attention and/or breathing over it, releasing carbon dioxide. Studies have shown that vegetation can think and feel pain, and some people swear that plants grow better when you devote your conscious attention to them, so why not electrical stimulation?

There might be a downside, though, if the user’s intention is malicious. Water may or may not have memory and according to some people, structures itself according to people’s thoughts, so why wouldn’t plants be affected by this too?

Whatever it’s meant to do, I see it as a tool for the user to see himself (or herself) within the plant. Sort of an ego projection, the “I am” in the plant.

I’m terribly sorry for not writing. Let’s chalk it up to Mercury Retrograde, shall we?

A while ago I watched a short documentary called “The Science of Sex Appeal” which understandably focused part of its discussion on visual attraction, and how most people can come to a consensus about faces that are more attractive. We find the attractive faces generally more proportionate, but proportionate to what? Well apparently, faces that conform to the Golden Ratio, or “Phi”, are universally considered more appealing.

Here’s how it works:

This proportion is found more easily in faces most people consider attractive; for example, the ratio can be demonstrated by the length of the face: “a+b”, proportionate to “a”: the distance between the tip of the chin and where the eyebrows meet.

Then I started wondering how this might be applied to website design. Apparently, I am not the first to have considered this. Take for example, the homepage for Life magazine, which won a Webby in 2011 for “BEST VISUAL DESIGN – AESTHETIC”:

Now let’s apply an overlay of the Golden Rectangle over the same image of the Life homepage.

The results are interesting:

FYI, the transparent golden rectangle I used was from Joshua Garity's blog: http://www.joshuagarity.com/web-design/the-golden-ratio/

A great template for web design that’s universally appealing! I wonder if such a thing is now being taught in schools…

What’s more intriguing, though, is the question WHY this particular ratio is so aesthetically appealing to our brains? Humans have applied it in various examples of art, architecture and design, the Fibonacci sequence (which is an approximation of the Golden Ratio), but the ratio itself is beyond ourselves and our creation.

Approximations of “Phi” occur almost everywhere in nature, the proportions of the human body, and the dimensions and orbits of the planets in our solar system. But it’s more of a template, not necessarily a reality. It reminds me of the story of Plato’s idea of perfect forms, as well as the Allegory of the Cave. “Phi” is perhaps something to strive for, but reality (and from a more practical point of view, the needs of the business) may dictate differently.


I know, it seems like I’ve abandoned you, mon petit blog. I haven’t! I’ve just been waiting to write the perfect post.

Recently, Tim Minor at UX Booth published a post about memory recall as studied by psychologists, and how this could apply to websites:

The research suggests that the simple act of walking through a doorway creates a new memory episode, thereby making it harder for us to recall aspects from a previous episode (such as why we came into the room)!

In terms of user experience, this is like saying that every time a user clicks to a new page on your website, they forget whatever they’ve just seen or learned on the previous page. It’s also a sign that we have extremely short attention spans! If memory serves me (and it may not), The Design of Everyday Things talks about how good design creates “contextual memory” so that people don’t HAVE to remember everything; they only have to remember how to figure it out. Like opening a door — if the handle is designed properly, most people quickly process whether they should push or pull the handle to swing open the door in a given direction. Their brains create a memory in that particular context, even if they’ve never seen that particular door (or style of handle) before.

How I see numerical digits in my mind's eye.

The question is, how do you create contextual memory for the users of your website? Our memories originate from strong sense impressions, so logically one could argue that to build contextual memory online, you have to invigorate the user’s senses. The most obvious method is through visual stimulation — form and color — but I’d argue that the most memorable websites probably employ a combination of strong visual + tactile sensation (through moving your mouse, perhaps?). When you use your mouse to hover over a drop-down menu, you *almost* feel the sensation of it. Almost. Tactile sensation may be more connected to the field of haptic technology, but I’m sure we’ll soon be seeing applications (and devices) for it soon in the context of online user experience. One great example is the Wii (and other) game controllers, how they vibrate or rumble when you move a certain way within the game — they create a more realistic, memorable impression.

But I wanted to say something a bit more personal about visual memory. About 10 years ago, I learned that I had a particular condition called synesthesia, where I see graphemes (numbers and letters) in very particular, permanent colors in my mind’s eye, and even when I’m reading text on a page or screen. It’s hard to describe, especially because I always assumed everyone saw things the same way I did. At a recent lecture however, I met several other synesthetes with similar or varying types of sensory mixing.  The author/lecturer Maureen Seaberg discussed how researchers estimate that about 4-5% of the population has this experience, although some people’s brains combine music with color, or shapes with taste. Many of us argued vehemently about our color schemes for the letter “A” (it’s always light blue for me), and found comfort in our shared experience.

My own synesthesia has helped me create certain memories, I believe. Because my characters are always colored the same, I can more easily remember numbers, or tell when something is misspelled, or wrongly coded. I think it enables me to fix code bugs faster when I’m scanning the page, and in the past it definitely helped me find errors in my college research papers when editing. There’s also a fascination for me with poetry, and the way certain words appear on the page. I know e.e. cummings explored this quite a bit, so perhaps he also had it.

The BEST, most sensible, UX-friendly website would perhaps be one where I could PERSONALIZE my own graphemes/characters according to how I see them. That would make reading or typing or coding so much EASIER! A girl can dream, at least (sigh).

The other night I was watching a documentary about origami, “Between the Folds“.

Each of the artists profiled said that in their earlier years of origami, they focused on the complexity of each creation, on how many new folds and shapes they could create or use. But as they matured (in both age and artistry), each was drawn more and more to the simplicity.

One man said he challenges himself over and over to create all kinds of shapes using only one single fold in the paper. It reminds me of the mysterious Möbius strip.

Personally I find origami soothing and relaxing — a way of losing yourself in something, as you concentrate on making the perfect creases and flaps. What’s between the folds is whitespace, after all.

Similarly, I think the best websites are like this too; when the experience of reading, interacting or purchasing something is easy and pleasurable. Everything you need is right at your fingertips, and you don’t have to look very far to find what helps or stimulates you.

I’ve been reading the UX Bible recently, Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, and I find that I get increasingly irritated when office phones don’t function as they should, or sites that I regularly read switch their design/layout and it makes it harder to enjoy.

For instance, I regularly check this site for news and updates, but the one thing I wish they’d do differently is function more like Gawker or Lifehacker (and their other sister sites), where the right nav articles are ALWAYS available, and you never stray from the main format screen. Now I have to continuously hit the Back button or the homepage icon to return to the full list of articles.

Something like a one-fold solution would do the trick, I think.

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