Posts Tagged ‘Usability’

Arise the new CEO: Chief eXperience Officer

July 14, 2011

Since the early days of the web, marketeers have espoused the merits of “managing customer experience” and how online it is only the “experience” that will differentiate companies as the web brings pricing transparency. Certainly in the case of the latter issue, the rise of “comparison” sites has highlighted the fact that price alone can not be a long term strategy. Post the Internet bubble bursting the issue of customer experience has for many had to take a back seat while organizations strove cost cutting measures to remain profitable or even just to survive in the midst of recession.

However more recently it seems that customer experience is again getting more prominence and importance in organizations. I believe mobile has had a role to play in creating this renewed excitement with the apps showing “the art of the possible”: engaging user interfaces with greater usability. It’s no surprise to see experience champions rallying their brethren troops to create their own community of professionals in the field. Founded by Bruce Temkin (previously an analyst at Forrester) , the CXPA (Customer experience Professionals Association) is a organization focused on creating standards and best practice in Customer Experience Management. As a non profit organization it’s sponsors in Adobe, Microsoft and SAP. Whilst it is early days there are enough credible people involved to make this a success in an area which sorely requires standards.

But what really captured my attention this week was an announcement by US Insurance company Mass Mutual, appointing a Chief Customer Experience Officer, the remit of this role is to manage “central oversight of the end-to-end experience for MassMutual customers to ensure a consistent, favorable and efficient interaction across the organization”. What’s interesting about this is that whilst most C level directors recognize the importance of customer experience, very few actually have someone in their company whose prime responsibility is managing customer experience.

So well done to Mass Mutual and hopefully we see many more similar appointments, in the meantime however the CXPA or someone of the same ilk needs to bring some much needed standards and best practices to a field crowded with self proclaimed “experts”.

HTML5 Audio and Video comes as standard

June 26, 2011

Movie and Audio features in HTML5 are like many of the features I have discussed previously, they:
•    Have a history of controversy over Codec support
•    Specifications are too large to do real justice in these short posts
•    Are an exciting, powerful new addition that will transform the web

To date the most popular media player on the web has been Adobe’s flash player, and arguably it has been it’s most popular use. Apple’s lack of support in their devices for Flash has created a small crack in Adobe’s party, but this crack could open further into a chasm that their flash drops into! However there have been many other shenanigans in this story and rather than delve into to those murky stories I’m going to again give a brief overview of the capabilities of these new features. The good news is that HTML5 will remove the need for proprietary plug-in’s like Flash and Quicktime for playing sound and movies.

audio and video are both media elements in HTML5, and as such share common API’s for their control. In fact you can load video content into an audio element and vice versa, audio into a video element – the only difference is that the video element has a display area for content, whereas the audio element does not. Defining an audio element  and source file is pretty straightforward

<audio controls src=”my musicfile.mp3”
My audio clip

You can actually assign multiple source ( src ) files. This is to allow you to provide the audio in multiple formats, so that you can support the widest array of browsers. The browser will go through the list in sequential order and play the first file it can support, so it’s important you list them in order of the best quality first rather than by most popular format.

To load a movie you simply replace the audio element with video. Video’s can also define multiple sources. You may additionally specify the height and width of the video display area.

Next to control media you can use the following API’s:  load(), play(), pause(), I think what they do is self explanatory. canPlayType(type) can be used to check whether a specific format is supported.

Some read only attributes can be queried such as duration, paused, ended, currentSrc to check duration of the media, whether it has been paused or ended and which src is being played.

You can also set a number of attributes such as autoplay, loop, controls, volume  to automatically start media, repeat play the media, show or hide media controls and to set the volume.

These aren’t exclusive lists of API’s or attributes as there are many more but they are some of the most common features of the audio and video people will use. With video especially there are many more great things you can achieve like creating timelines and displaying dynamic content as specific points in the video (no doubt this will be used for advertising amongst other more interesting uses).

Clearly the web will get richer with full multimedia content without the perquisite of plug-ins. However developers should be aware of the various formats supported by specific browsers and aim to provide media in as many formats as possible.

Many sites today do use sound and movies, but I believe with native support and greater imagination a new world of dynamic rich media sites will change the user experience in the same way that Ajax transformed static content into the dynamic web. With it we will see new online behaviors, a topic I will cover soon, and whilst some have said the future of TV is online the web may just give it a new lease of life !

Further reading:

Continous Experience Improvement is the customer winner

August 3, 2010

Times might continue to be tough, but there is no excuse for ignoring the demands of your client.

 Your company lives or dies by its ability to service existing customers and attract new business. The distraction of new and fast-changing economic pressures is no excuse for ignoring the basic tenets of customer service.

 The organisations that strive to make sure clients are well-serviced will emerge strongest in the upturn. In fact, improving customer experience is the best way to attract new clients and retain old business.

 Take a recent survey from Watermark Consulting, which says that from 2007 to 2009 – through the best and worst of times – customer experience leaders in the insurance business generated total returns that were 145% better than customer experience laggards.

 As ever, attention to detail matters. Your boss is likely to be concerned by value. Approach him with a project that aims to deliver “a good customer experience” and he is likely to mutter disparagingly about return on investment.

 As Watermark suggest, some business leaders are reticent to invest in improving and differentiating their customer touch points because it can be difficult to quantify the resulting bottom line benefits.

 The economic crisis means capital for new projects is likely to be limited, even non-existent. A project that proposes an intangible increase in customer experience will fall on deaf ears. Instead, act to make sure customer experience is viewed as a business necessity.

 You simply must demonstrate how businesses that deliver a positive customer experiences are rewarded in the form of better financial performance.

 Turn to the web and think of the user interface. How do your customers interact with your business and how collaborative is your presentation layer?

 You do not have to spend big to improve customer service at the front-end. Making use of existing resources and legacy applications is the easiest way to produce a cost-effective improvement in user service.

 Aim for simplicity and find ways to display complex, but useful, information in a customer-friendly form. Act in an open manner and look for a platform that will help your business to deploy information from customised apps and white label products across multiple channels.

 Your loyal customers – both external and internal – will notice the front-end improvements. And your boss will notice the cost effective way you have created customer experiences that impact the bottom line positively.


Social computing: Get it right, or get offline

July 19, 2010

Pick up any newspaper, look for the technology stories and you’re likely to find one thing: stories about social networking.

 Forget case studies of companies spending big on business IT. From scare stories about the risks associated to Facebook to celebrities choosing to Tweet about their personal lives, the popular media chooses to concentrate on the collaborative side of information technology.

 It’s not just the media, either. Take time to browse Twitter and you’ll quickly discover that most posts on the social networking platform are about, well, Twitter.

 This inherently self-referential style consists of a series of so-called ‘gurus’ and ‘evangelists’ telling the world that a failure to get social and manage your social presence is a business risk.

 But here’s the rub: such a failure to deal with Twitter isn’t necessarily a business risk. In fact, the opposite might well be true – sometimes it makes sense not to communicate online.

 For a start, how many channels can your business realistically manage? They might be seen as legacy technologies, but I can guarantee your business – like most others – is swamped on a daily basis by customer service calls and emails.

 When you choose to complain about service, do you hunt for a company’s email address or look for the Twitter address? If you can’t find the latter, do you choose not to complain or do you use the email address?

 I can guarantee – like most other consumers – that you will choose to email. If the individual can’t find your brand, they might choose to Tweet about your failure to have a Twitter presence.

 But does that really matter? If they can’t moan to you directly through a Twitter presence, then they will be shouting in the dark. So, does every organisation really need a social networking presence?

 Being communicative is not just about setting up a Twitter account; instead, it’s about what you do with the chosen platform. Pushing out links to new services and offers via social software can help your customers make the right decisions at the right time.

 Yet a failure to provide interesting information – or simply a failure to monitor the social channel – and your clients will quickly become disinterested.

 In short, if you’re going online – do something useful. Don’t just create another platform to annoy users and allow disappointed customers to moan about your service.

User Experience Platforms: Get your processes right first

July 5, 2010

If you want to get the user experience right, you will need to concentrate on processes before you start worrying about selecting the right supporting web development tools.

 As mentioned in one of my recent blog posts, more providers and businesses are paying attention to the user experience platform (UXP), a framework covering skills, processes, standards and technologies for User Experience.

 Major analysts, such as Gartner, IDC and Forrester are already paying significant attention to the user experience. Expect that attention to become more focused, because UXP is likely to become one of the key business IT phrases during the next year-or-so.

 There is likely to a great deal of focus on how web applications are designed and which tools will help produce a customer-friendly experience. But building the application is only part of the problem.

 While a focus on development and technology in UXP is important, your business will actually need to place most of its focus on process and measurement first– and a series of supporting applications will be needed.

 First, creating wireframes and visualising the application long before it is fully developed as an application is absolutely crucial. Prototyping – and being able to modify the code simply to meet user needs – is the key here.

 Second, user experience metrics tools will also be significant in assessing usability. Without the correct analytical tools, how will you measure user satisfaction and make the right modifications to maximise the efficiency and effectivness of users?

Third, apart from usability your marketing team will want to validate that you have adopted their online branding guidelines. You don’t want to upset the marketeers, they hold most of the budget when it comes to UXP.

 Fourth, you will need to provide a series of supporting documents. Providing the right documentation through the whole design process is a fundamental tenet of providing a strong UXP.

 Finally, you will need to provide the right test ground to check how the application works in different browsers, is not open to security issues and performs well for during maximum usage.

 If that sounds overly complicated, think again: establishing the right UXP is far from simple for a reason. In short, the right presentation layer relies on the right underlying processes.

 All these elements must be considered long before you worry about the development tools – such as Microsoft Silverlight or Adobe Flex – that will help you build your perfect web page.

 Get the processes right and you will be able to meet customer-friendly web applications that meet a broad range of users expectations and tastes.


Birth of the UX Designer

May 13, 2010

Your biggest fear – given the ongoing evolution of technology – should be that your firm’s cutting-edge web developments are already being blunted by the fast pace of change on the internet.

Such change is all about meeting the customers’ needs through user-focused development. Analyst Gartner recently reported that Ajax technologies and rich internet application (RIA) platforms – tools and systems that help promote a responsive user experience – are moving from the early adopter phase of market evolution to enterprise-level adoption.

Sounds good but there’s a significant catch. Organisations looking to spend on the web are often keen to initiate a form of development that is less flat, and increasingly sexy and intuitive. But such organisations often lack the design skills to make such a leap.

There are multiple reasons for this new, interactive skills gap. First, businesses that think  customer experience is all about the “look and feel” are woefully unaware of the truth. Another key aspect is usability – and quite often, this is a skill that eludes some designers, as the ability for programmers to design a nice look and feel remains elusive.

Knowing the boundaries of what is technically possible in the creation of an interactive design is also crucial. Your designers need to be able to create the experience you require – and quite often designers are not “developers”, so they don’t often appreciate “the art of the possible”.

To create a more intuitive web experience for customers, you need great design, usability and programming skills…welcome to the birth of  user experience (UX) designers.

These specialist professionals are immersed in how your product is perceived, learned and used. Rather than simply tweaking an already-failing site, UX designers will bring together business experience and customer demands to create a more inituitive online product.

Welcome to the future, where your customer interface isn’t simply coded but created – and more importantly – is a pleasure to use.


RIM = Rich Internet Mobile ?

February 1, 2010

Designing and creating a site for mobile devices is now easy. Rather than relying on a separate and proprietary programming language, developers can create mobile sites using tried and tested technologies from the web.

 Be careful, though. Beyond the promised land of easy roll out lies the potential minefield of poor user experience. To this end, some element of self-restraint is required for companies creating mobile apps. What works on the web using a PC doesn’t automatically translate to the mobile.

 It can be easy to get carried away when designing mobile apps. There’s a temptation to add as many elements as possible, just to ensure all possible customer demands are covered. Reign in your expectations.

 Think of your own use of enterprise applications; how many functions do you actually use? When it comes to standard word processing and spreadsheet tools, do you actually use more than a dozen functions?

 Apply the same logic to your creation of mobile apps and avoid being too rich. Rather than trying to be all things to all users, hone the most important elements that will help ensure a strong customer experience.

 When you have a set of core functions, keep the display simple. Use a basic graphical user interface (GUI), steering clear of complex widgets and graphics.

 An over-complicated GUI – relying on the manipulation of multiple items – will be frustrating to use. It also is unlikely to suit the form and function of the mobile device.

 Keep in mind the limited screen real estate of modern mobile phones. Despite ongoing developments in rollable screen technology (which I blogged about last month), most mobile devices only provide a small display.

 If users only draw upon a limited amount of functionality in their enterprise apps, it’s extremely unlikely they’re going to want more items on a portable device. More to the point, they probably can’t.

 In addition to a limited screen estate, mobile phones are often restricted by their reliance on higher bandwidth. Move to a place with a limited connection and mobile apps can take a considerable amount of time to download or respond.

 With access speeds being so inconsistent, it simply does not make sense to load mobile applications with flashy graphics and interactive features.

 So, avoid being rich and keep you mobile software simple. Rather than overdressing your applications, find an approach that provides high usability. The reward will come in the form of a great customer experience.


WYSIWYG is dead go with the flow

October 12, 2009

Since the birth of window based user interface (MAC, Microsoft Windows) application designers have adopted the What You See Is What You Get approach to creating User Interfaces. Visual Basic was one of the early tools to provide a canvas onto which a screen can be drawn by simple drag and drop of screen elements on top of the canvas. “Property” sheets allowed these controls to be specialised/designed further for example change font, size, captions etc. This paradigm of development has since stuck with us, and this post questions whether this is right and whether this is the future?

Most corporates have started to standardise front end screens to be developed in browser technology for the right reasons such as; cross platform, ease of distribution, zero install. As expected tools vendors have provided good support for browser application development. However does the WYSIWYG paradigm apply? Should you still create browser screens in the same way as desktop applications?

Browser applications typically use a “flow layout” whereby the screen layout changes according to the size of the browser window. This is very useful because users could have different screen sizes, or browser settings (e.g. lots of toolbars) or even be viewing the application on a mobile device. Using a flow layout means that screen layout will change according to the users browser window size, thereby automatically handling each of the differences above.

Using this approach however means that creating a screen using a drag and drop approach onto a canvas does not necessarily give you a view of the final screen layout, hence you have to question whether now WYSIWYG is the right development paradigm for browser applications.

Another issue is that different browsers sometimes interpret the browser differently, causing screens to appear in differently across different browsers.

There is also the issue that “look and feel” is actually separated from the screen code into a style sheet, and a screen may be presented using different syle sheets, Hence displaying a form could be drastically different depending on the stylesheet used ( some great examples of this can be seen at ).

With the above in mind is it time for a new approach? Perhaps using a more “real time design” approach. With such a tool, users would create screens and then run them to see how they would be rendered in different browsers, devices and screen sizes. With the proliferation of devices a multi-channel approach is becoming core to many organisations, and in such a world screen sizes will vary greatly, a new approach is required for creating screens because now the paradigm has changed to What You See Is What You Might And Most Probably Wont Get.


Are desktop applications dead?

July 21, 2009

Last month, I wrote about the potential benefits of web browser based-computing. This month, I go further and explain why we should all turn to the web.
Sometimes providers might be slow to place enterprise software in the cloud, making it harder to convince your workers to use browser-based applications.
But just because it is harder, should we avoid browser-based software? Open, easily adaptable, easily accessible – what excuse is there for still using desktop apps?
When it comes to working online, workers have one big fear – losing connectivity. It is all well-and-good having network access but what is the point if you lose access and lose your information?
Google users discovered the annoyance that comes with losing access to online applications recently, when the provider’s popular Gmail software was unavailable for a few hours.
Such problems are not great, but what would you rather trust? Your own email application running on a small data centre, or Google’s Gmail service that is backed by the world’s biggest infrastructure?
Like problems with offline access, some users are often put off browser-based software because of security concerns. IT consultancy firm Avanade recently found that, by a 5-to-1 ratio, respondents trust existing internal systems over cloud-based systems.
But like concerns with online access, the hype surrounding security is often more significant than the real life problems. Providers specialising in cloud-based security make it their business to ensure information is protected.
Can you say the same for internal staff, many of who have other business priorities and could – either intentionally or unintentionally – leave the door open to your priceless information?
Finally, some IT leaders are put off by business economics. Why would you choose to use browser-based computing when there is a smaller range of applications to choose from?
Again, the theory is quickly becoming redundant. From’s first foray into online software through to Google’s Premier version of its apps suite, IT leaders now have a broad range of online choices.
And the choices are only likely to become greater, as more providers start to push their software into a highly resilient cloud. Start looking at web-based options now – because the earlier you start analysing your options, the larger your competitive edge on your opposition

Further reading

Gmail offline for some users

Security concerns for cloud computing


Small is most definitely beautiful

July 1, 2009

Compliance remains a crucial technology issue. IT leaders have been smothered by a raft of regulatory requirements in the last few years, and the combined hit of environmental concerns and the economic downturn is only likely to make matters worse.

Take the finance sector, where a recent survey by the International Securities Association for Institutional Trade Communication noted that 25% of firms have already been affected by increased compliance requirements due to the economic crisis.

Understanding and dealing with compliance is, therefore, crucial. But be warned, big vendors and system integrators are likely to push issues like governance, quality assurance and lifecycle management.

While important in the right business context, such issues are also likely to provide an opportunity to become tied to processes and standards. And an obsession with standards creates the need for big models and increased complexity.

Such an obsession is likely to be a hindrance to what is actually useful for the business. And at a time of increased regulatory compliance, further processes and standards are just what your business does not need.

The chief executive will need you to cut through the waffle and provide a simple means for staying up-to-date and compliant. Thankfully, the composite nature of service-oriented architecture (SOA) provides a way round complex compliance and allows you to create small, successful systems.

Rather than creating vast and unconnected applications, SOA allows the IT leader to re-use resources and create applications on-demand. Such agility will allow you to promote a flexible architecture that is ready for fast-changing compliance requirements.

Forget the fear that you will have to fit systems to laws retrospectively. SOA will allow the IT department to integrate with the business and create compliant systems as new regulations emerge.

And the front-tier of SOA will be particularly crucial, allowing you to create a useful presentation layer that allows line-of-business executives to monitor information and ensure new targets are being met.

Take note, then, of agility, integration, presentation – the three watchwords that will help you use SOA to ensure your business responds flexibly to changing compliance demands.