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February 2009 Issue

By Whitney Quesenbery

Published: February 23, 2009

“Accessibility often gets pigeon-holed as simply making sure there are no barriers to access for screen readers or other assistive technology, without regard to usability.”

When people talk about both usability and accessibility, it is often to point out how they differ. Accessibility often gets pigeon-holed as simply making sure there are no barriers to access for screen readers or other assistive technology, without regard to usability, while usability usually targets everyone who uses a site or product, without considering people who have disabilities. In fact, the concept of usability often seems to exclude people with disabilities, as though just access is all they are entitled to. What about creating a good user experience for people with disabilities—going beyond making a Web site merely accessible to make it truly usable for them?

In the spirit of the column Ask UXmatters, I spoke to a number of leading advocates for accessibility to find out what they think about usable accessibility.

I started with Mike Paciello of The Paciello Group. He was a co-chair for the Access Board’s committee making recommendations for how to update the US “Section 508” accessibility regulations. I had thought he might focus on standards that ensure sites meet basic requirements. However, what he said was that, although good standards are important, “It’s really about the user experience. That means more than just removing barriers. We have to think about the personas for different types of disabilities and how to give them as good an experience as anyone else.” Read moreRead More>

By Rhonda Bracey

Published: February 23, 2009

“If you identify usability issues early, it’s much more likely the team can remedy them before launch, preventing bad reviews…, negative word-of-mouth, and the lost sales that result from them.”

Has your boss or a client ever asked you to review a user interface for a Web or desktop application? Perhaps the request went something like this: Can you just look over these new screens for us? Oh, and can you check the error messages, too? It won’t take long! And, by the way, we ship next month. Whether you are an interaction designer, usability professional, technical communicator, quality assurance engineer, or developer, reviewing a user interface typically means identifying

  • usability problems related to the layout, logical flow, and structure of the interface and inconsistencies in the design
  • non-compliance with standards
  • ambiguous wording in labels, dialog boxes, error messages, and onscreen user assistance
  • functional errors

Read moreRead More>

By Steve Baty

Published: February 23, 2009

“One of the key objectives of user research is to identify themes or threads that are common across participants. These patterns help us to turn our data into insights about the underlying forces at work, influencing user behavior.”

One of the key objectives of user research is to identify themes or threads that are common across participants. These patterns help us to turn our data into insights about the underlying forces at work, influencing user behavior.

Patterns demonstrate a recurring theme, with data or objects appearing in a predictable manner. Seeing a visual representation of the data is usually enough for us to recognize a pattern. However, it is much harder to see patterns in raw data, so identifying patterns can be a daunting task when we face large volumes of research data. Patterns stand out above the typical noise we’re used to seeing in nature or in raw data. Read moreRead More>

Review by Leo Frishberg

Published: February 23, 2009

Book Design

Within the context of pervasive computing, which weaves intelligence into the fabric of our environments, architectural design informs interaction design as much as interaction design transforms architectural design. So suggests Malcolm McCullough in this extraordinarily deep dive into design theory and the impact of digital, interactive technologies on architecture.

McCullough dispenses with superficial instantiations of digital technology in the built environment—think smart buildings, telepresence, and even GPS-enabled phones—grappling instead with the structural foundations of architectural design theory: the meaning of place, Heidegger’s dwelling, Mumford’s urban planning, and Giedion’s space in the context of “ambient, haptic, and environmentally embedded interface elements.” Read moreRead More>

By Greg Nudelman

Published: February 9, 2009

“The typical product team has no coherent strategy for cases when there are no search results. Most teams spend the bulk of their design phase working on the search results pages for a successful search.”

Search results pages are some of the most visited pages on typical ecommerce sites—to say nothing of a search engine like Google. Many articles appear each year about optimal search algorithms, database performance, and the like. In contrast, very few publications focus on improving the search experience from the customer’s perspective. My new column Search Matters aims to fill this gap by focusing on:

  • best practices of search user interface (UI) design
  • design patterns and strategies for improved search user interfaces
  • common search UI pitfalls
  • how to use search to provide maximum value to customers and your business
  • practical search UI matters that have strategic impact on your customers’ Web site experience

During my career, I have designed diverse search user interfaces—for loan matching, large ecommerce, and social networking sites. With the goal of discovering innovative search strategies, I have led participatory design sessions for search user interfaces involving the home page, gallery pages, catalogs, and many others. Most importantly, I have watched over 100 people use various search interfaces as part of my field and lab studies. My design work in the search domain has led me to become intimately familiar with winning strategies for search user interfaces that involve diverse inventories and complex products. As you can see, the topic of search UI design has been the focus of much of my work. Based on this work, I have previously published two articles on search UI design and search caching strategies in the magazine JavaWorld. Read moreRead More>

By Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: February 9, 2009

“While there are indeed some UX professionals who … resemble the specialists and generalists Jared describes, in my opinion, the ideal employee to hire for your UX team is neither a specialist nor a generalist.”

In his recent blog post on UIE Brain Sparks,Ideal UX Team Makeup: Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists,” Jared Spool has revived his discussion of the merits of specialists versus generalists. He defines specialists and generalists as follows:

“Specialists are professionals who have the time, experience, and projects to allow them to go deep into a discipline such as information architecture or visual design.

“Because they can concentrate on the one discipline, they become very knowledgeable and experienced at solving the problems that crop up. Having a specialist on board is often very valuable, since they’ll know how to tackle the many subtleties that can make or break a project.

“Generalists are professionals whose time and projects demand they learn a broad variety of disciplines. It’s not unusual to find a generalist who daily switches between information architecture, usability research, interaction design, visual design, and even coding.

“Because they are constantly switching, they don’t have the advantage specialists have at gaining knowledge in a specific discipline. However, they do have the advantage that they often better understand the intersection between these disciplines. They are extremely valuable because they can see issues and details from multiple perspectives, bringing a broad view to the project.”—Jared Spool

While there are indeed some UX professionals who—by either personal inclination or circumstance—resemble the specialists and generalists Jared describes, in my opinion, the ideal employee to hire for your UX team is neither a specialist nor a generalist. Read moreRead More>

By Jim Nieters

Published: February 9, 2009

“The brutal fact is—we’re in a difficult economy.”

The brutal fact is—we’re in a difficult economy. Every day, we hear about another company that’s laying off employees. Just yesterday, an article on Yahoo! News reported “Mass layoffs involving 50 or more workers increased sharply last year, and large cuts appear to be accelerating in 2009 at a furious pace.”

In fact, there were layoffs at Yahoo! itself in December. Letting people go is traumatic for everyone involved. It’s traumatic for the employees who are laid off, whose relationships to their livelihoods—not to mention their friends and colleagues—are abruptly severed. It’s painful to the remaining employees, whose friends and colleagues were so abruptly removed. Sometimes companies must make deep budget cuts to succeed, but it’s painful, and those of us who have been through layoffs before agree that it seems to get harder every time we do it.

When I look at who gets laid off though—regardless of the company—it’s always surprising. How do companies make the choices to lay some people off and keep others? In all of the layoffs I’ve observed, some of the most talented researchers, designers, and leaders have gotten laid off, while some much less skilled people remain. Why might that be? Read moreRead More>

By Janet M. Six

Published: February 9, 2009

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

In this installment of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to write effective usability requirements and metrics for the redesign of a legacy public sector system.

Ask UXmatters exists to answer your questions about user experience matters. If you want to read our experts’ responses to your questions in an upcoming installment of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

Q: My task at hand is to write nonfunctional requirements for the usability quality of a large, new Danish system for handling social services in the public sector. There is an existing product, but it is 25 years old and runs on a CICS mainframe. The classic answer to my question is to decide upon usability factors such as learnability, understandability, or efficiency, then establish metrics like the following:

  • Six out of ten novice users shall perform task X in Y minutes.
  • At most, one in five novices shall encounter critical problems during tasks Q and R.

But still, where do I start? And how do I choose the numbers in these metrics—for example, six out of ten and one in five? Some literature suggests requirements should be written more as general concepts or ideas for interactions, but I need these usability requirements to be strong, because we’re outsourcing the design. Therefore, we must use these requirements to assess and secure the ongoing quality of what the vendor delivers.

So far, it seems to be very difficult for my organization, with no direct prior experience, to decide what metrics or requirements to use. I will suggest something, but I must be prepared to discuss, fight for, and change what I’ve proposed. So, what experience can I draw upon? Can you offer any advice for this process? Where do I start?—Ole Gregersen, Information Architect Read moreRead More>