Archives for posts with tag: user experience

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.

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:

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.

Sorry I’ve been away — moving and traveling — aren’t those life’s constants, anyway?

InteractiveWall from Festo HQ via A List Apart on Vimeo. The wall reacts to the presence of users, just like responsive websites should.

Last night B and I re-watched Inception, and I was thinking this morning that it probably wasn’t as popular or deemed Oscar-worthy as it could have been, potentially because the film didn’t use universal archetypes to create its dream space. The few characters that were fleshed out had flaws and attributes, but they weren’t necessarily the kind that most people identify with. It’s the universal that draws people and allows them to engage with a film or product, but in order to access the universal, you have to truly know your users (audience).

Along this same note, earlier I was reading about responsive web design, and how web designers need to be aware that they don’t know much info about the user; and many times, they don’t have a clue what kind of device or screen resolution the user uses.

The idea is that you now have to design for every single variable and difference — for devices that don’t yet exist, that will react to users who may not exist yet either!

So perhaps the lesson is that the future of web design and user experience is HOW to create and architect a (white) space that allows the User to dream his own dream — to fill a universal space with his or her own particular subconscious. Easy, right?

This week there’s a New Yorker article about BitCoin. I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago in a separate New York mag piece, but it does make me think about where currency, or any kind of consumer exchange is headed. Are we all going to manifest destiny and become pioneers in a virtual wild West?

Even if BitCoin is a convoluted form of a Ponzi scheme, it does make an interesting use case of peer-to-peer networks, similar to file and music sharing (not easily regulated). This is how the flow of information has changed; instead of downloading (learning) info from a centralized repository (like school or a library), now anyone can exchange goods or services with anyone else online. When I was a child, if you wanted to learn about Japan or some other exotic subject, you were mostly limited to whatever books or articles were available in the library. Now, elementary school kids writing a book or travel report about Japan can actually email children in Tokyo to get a first-hand view.

This changes the user experience of any exchange. Even if the actual encryption software is safe, we are now placing trust in each other, and not a singular entity (like a federally insured bank). BitCoin exchanges money for virtual money, which can then be used for goods and services, but it’s because of growing distrust of the banking system that it’s gaining popularity. $5 debit card fees, anyone?

I just wonder, how soon before there are gun-slinging outlaws and high-noon showdowns in the virtual space? If I find a way to hold your BitCoins hostage, what rogue samurai warrior would be able to stop me?

I recently heard about a company that uses neural networks and software to predict movie ticket sales based on words in the movie title and plot synopsis.

This has got to be where most things are headed. My initial thought is, this is exactly what’s missing from website development! Granted, people use SEO methods and meta keywords to improve their Google search rankings, but what if there was a method of analyzing the design elements and user experience of a website as a predictor of website a) sales b) returning users and c) customer-initiated viral marketing?

That would be a great way to sell design AND improve user experience, and it could be industry-specific. Perhaps one design element works better with online clothing retailers than it does with luxury car sites, for instance.

Glad I signed up for that artificial intelligence class at Stanford!

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