Human nature makes us want to help someone find what they’re looking for. Have you ever asked a tourist with a map if they need directions, or a small child tearing through multiple drawers what they are searching for?
In a similar way, user observation testing provides us with a valuable way to help define user experience on a computer or mobile device. Simply defined, it is the process of asking members of your target audience to complete specific tasks while you look on. But here’s the tricky part: you can’t help them find their way.
While you may have been staring at the wireframe or prototype for weeks — and know the navigation like the back of your hand — you can’t suggest they keep scrolling, or that they should look in the footer, or, “Can’t you see it? It’s right there!”
The results you see when you stand back and observe will often surprise you, and ultimately ensure that the most important people guide the final functionality of what you’re creating: the users.
When you’re in the process of defining a project schedule, time should be set aside specifically for user observation testing. Whether you’re an information architect, user experience designer, or interactive producer, it’s unlikely you’ll think of everything. Even if personas are used to define the target audience, it’s impossible to actually think like 4 or 5 unique people.
Further, when working on a website redesign, we must also factor in the preconceived notions of functionality that users may be bringing with them from the previous version of the site. There are many guidelines to follow when conducting testing, but overall, one rule matters most: test early, and test often. No matter how it happens, whether formally or informally, testing one person is always better than testing none.
The key to effective user testing is setting the stage to help your participants feel at ease. Users who feel comfortable are more likely to spend an amount of time similar to what that they would normally allot to completing a task. If participants are nervous, they may rush through the site, clicking around too quickly to properly read the navigation. Or, conversely, participants may be hesitant to say that they are unable to complete a task for fear of disappointing.
Suggestions for setting the stage of a productive user observation session:
If you do make the choice to factor in testing to the overall schedule, be sure to keep three things in mind: test early, test often, and watch quietly.
There is always a lot to learn in any new position, and having recently joined the Sametz Blackstone digital team, I was excited by the prospect of learning how to use a new wireframing and prototyping tool called Protoshare. I’ve used a number of tools to do similar things before–all of which are useful for various reasons—including Omnigraffle, Illustrator, Fireworks, Axure, and even PowerPoint.
Interactive wireframes are an important tool for conveying the proposed functionality of a website. It is, however, always important to set the stage when first showing a wireframe to a client: they are not meant to represent design, but rather to highlight the information architecture of, and the journey that a user might take through the site.
Does it answer the important questions from a user perspective? Where am I? Where can I go? How can I get there? How do I get back? When partnered with a functional specification and representative page type designs, everyone involved can develop a clear understanding of look and feel, user experience, and development considerations.
Protoshare is a web-based tool that has a GUI approach, with objects organized according to a very intuitive component palette. The inspector allows for a good amount of object customization, including animation, visibility logic, appearance, position, size and specification details. Global elements can be created using masters and templates, and design elements can be imported and managed through the assets library. When planning state functionality, there is a quick review mode that allows you to easily test the wireframe before it goes live. To share, files can easily be exported and published to the web. Reviewers can post feedback directly onto the UI, and emails can be set to alert the creator of new comments or questions.
Another feature I like in Protoshare is the ability to have multiple page designs within a single project. This means that alternate approaches can be easily produced or different designs altogether, perhaps a tablet or mobile approach to facilitate a responsive build. Overall I highly recommend Protoshare. The learning curve is minimal, and functionality is just enough to help cut down on time needed to wireframe.
Most importantly, it encourages an early and ongoing dialogue between strategists, designers, developers and stakeholders, allowing everyone to take part in guiding the direction of the project.
People who start, or work actively for nonprofits tend to have one major thing in common: they want to do some “good”.
That “good” could be anything from rescuing neglected dogs, to helping older people find a safe place for their final years, to digging wells in Malawi, to bringing children to museums, to funding cancer research… but the sentiment is similar at the core. You wouldn’t work to make a difference unless you thought a difference could be made… and not just a difference, but an improvement. That conviction is key to making your investment make sense.
The hardest thing to learn about our convictions, however, is that not everyone shares them — not for the same cause, not for the same reason, not for the same result, and often not enough to do anything about it. And when your heart is deeply invested, it can feel almost offensive when someone else doesn’t see the value.
But it’s not necessarily that they’re being cold or callous.
They’re just not invested in your “good”.
This is where things start to fall apart for many nonprofits:
The assumption that your “good” is, or should be the same good that matters to others.
The assumption that telling the story should do all the work of engaging.
The assumption that the ask should be irresistible because the cause is irresistible.
The assumption that everyone else should care.
Our backgrounds, cultures, priorities, and passions create a unique map in our minds and hearts. What resonates with us has a long journey to get all the way to our emotional core, through biases, beliefs, and sometimes, fear: the fear that we’re investing in the wrong thing, or that what seems compelling right now won’t always matter. Which is why the notion of “good” often fails to go the distance.
The most unsuccessful nonprofits are just as convinced as the successful ones that they’re pursuing an important vision. They dream of solving problems, of helping, of changing things, of moving forward.. all beneficial results. But unlike organizations that make an impact, they assume their passion should guarantee support.
Certainly, there will be donors and supporters who see a light in your eye… and they will invest in that glimmer.
The vast majority, however, need something more.
And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if it seems like the existence of a problem should be enough reason to care about the solution, it’s impossible to solve all the problems we see. We have to prioritize where we put our energy, or we’ll never move the needle on anything worthwhile. And those choices often come down to a sense of connection to what an organization does.
Which is why you need to learn about your constituents before you can reach them.
Is there something you do that overlaps with something they already care about?
Can you tell a story they recognize themselves in, or perhaps someone they love?
Is there a simple, practical way they can help — help they might not know you need?
Is there a difficulty they experienced that you’re working to prevent?
Is there an aspect of who you are that isn’t immediately obvious, but would radically change the way they saw you?
How might your brand halo add more shine to theirs?
And how are all of your different audiences actually perceiving your brand, period?
From our perspective, the brand you’re communicating is actually a Mosaic Brand: there are parts of it you can control, and other parts you can only influence. Ultimately, you want to control as many tiles in your Mosaic Brand as possible, in order to influence the tiles you don’t control… thus creating a Mosaic Brand that makes an impression, and one that provides multiple opportunities for connection… which brings us back to “ways in.”
There’s a lot of resistance to this “ways in” approach among some of the most dedicated people who work for causes, because they see it as an inferior point of connection to altruism. You should want to help. You should see the value intrinsically. You should know it matters. You should take my word for it.
You have to invest deeply to do the job well. And being “all in”? It changes your filters.
But hanging on to the value of your “good” — over the possibilities inherent in developing a whole range of “goods” — won’t advance your mission. And if you’re not advancing your mission, are you really doing the most… good?
Your value isn’t one-note. Your constituents aren’t one-note. Your possibilities aren’t one-note. So why is your call to action?
Maybe it’s time to learn a new tune.
Lessons learned from the client perspective—our friends at Chorus America share lessons learned during a major website project.
In the fall of 2010, we were lucky enough to be selected by Chorus America—the national service organization for choruses, choral leaders, and singers—to collaborate with them on a complete overhaul of their website. For non-profit membership organizations, websites are crucial. Not only must they communicate value, drive earned and contributed revenue, and market programs and services—they’re also often a primary means of delivering programs and services to the field. We’ve had plenty of experience over the years collaborating with non-profit cultural groups and membership organizations (including Chorus America’s peer in the orchestra world, the League of American Orchestras), and felt confident we were an excellent fit for the project.
We learned many things over the ensuing year, but what really sticks out is how excellent a fit the client was for this project. The team at Chorus America was prepared, hands-on, and ready to roll from the get-go. They understood that a project of this stature requires engagement at the highest levels of their organization, and that they would be partners in crafting the strategy and vision for the new site. Perhaps most importantly, they dug in and took ownership of their content.
Fast forward to earlier this year and the launch of the new Chorus America website. We’re certainly proud of the strategy, information architecture, design, and development work that ultimately led to their new website—one that places Chorus America’s value front and center, and dynamically connects individuals in the field with the information they need to do their jobs, further their careers, and advance their organizations.
But so much of the credit must go to the team at Chorus America, and we encourage anyone considering a major website project to read their story: Once Upon a Website (How Building a Website Can Transform an Organization) shares lessons learned from Chorus America’s point of view. It’s an excellent, honest piece.
Fit matters. And success always takes two.
Who would have imagined a graffiti artist, accustomed to using a spray can as his medium of choice, would be converted to a digital media developer, staring down code all day to create custom Drupal themes?
Not me, that’s for sure! Which is why I occasionally need to bring myself back to my urban roots, just to keep my creative juices flowing.
Before I learned how to <?php echo ‘write a bunch of code’; ?>, I was heavily involved in the Boston graffiti art movement in the late 90’s. Typically, you’d find me daily sketching letters in my Cannon hard cover black book, devising color schemes, and putting my fingers through a strenuous workout with a Krylon spray can, comparable to a Shaolin monk’s two finger push-up drill.
Recently, I was invited to participate in creating a graffiti mural for Tightly Laced Kicks, an event that features some of the rarest sneakers from local Boston residents.
Our theme was simple: we wanted to convey the feeling of the days when we painted a mural and there were no fancy panoramic camera features or costly photo editing software to record our productions. All we had were one-time use Kodak disposable cameras, tape, and an Exacto knife for manual cropping of our polished pictures, straight from the CVS image-processing area.
To achieve the look we were going for, we had to paint our pieces as if they were slightly unaligned and taped together (re-creating our portfolio presentations). Outlining a piece cleanly without this effect is hard enough, but creating the displacement effect on our pieces became the largest challenge… aside from the windy conditions, smashed rocky surfaces, and improvising our color schemes on the fly.
Upon completion, the mural turned out to be another rewarding accomplishment. Enjoy the pictures below to see the process of the production.
For quite some time I’ve been creating graphic designs and paintings on parallel tracks. My love for painting is actually what got me into studying graphic design (or visual communication) in the first place. When I started out at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach, Germany, my intent was to focus on painting. However, I soon realized that I had nothing in common with my fellow students, or with my professor in the fine arts department. During the first year of my studies, a course in Typography was mandatory and I fell in love with the subject matter. So, I ultimately majored in Typography and Illustration.
More than a decade ago, I decided to pursue painting again. Though graphic design and painting are somewhat related, there is a major difference, as a friend of mine once pointed out. She said: “In your design work, you are answering questions, while in your art work, you are posing the question.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. The designs I am developing are rooted in business goals—they need to function as a solution and speak to a wide range of audiences. A painting, on the other hand, does not need to “function” and the immediate audience is more limited—initially myself, for that matter. Unlike the process of design, which is very collaborative, the process of painting is more isolated—in that regard, the two aren’t related at all.
So what happens when a painter, who is also a graphic designer, needs to design “promotional materials” for his own work? Well, it can be a challenge. The graphic designer in me wanted to come up with a ‘cool’ design and the painter in me said: “Hey, wait a minute, the design can’t overshadow the paintings. They need room to breathe… they need to be the focal point.” So after a few debates between me, myself, and I, clean, simple, and functional designs emerged. From the first postcard, to the website, to a business card and exhibit booklets, the same questions arose: how could I best showcase the work, and still convey the information necessary to communicate what it’s for and what it’s all about?
The most recent product in a series of communications for my own artwork is the booklet for an upcoming solo exhibition at Regis College. Hot off the Puritan Press, I’m holding the first samples in my hand, and I dare to say… the painter is happy with the work the designer delivered.
I came across an interesting concept while reading an interview of British designer, Pearce Marchbank: the notion that all preexisting design serves as a background for design that is to come.
When asked if Marchbank had free rein as art director of magazine, Time Out, he responded:
“Almost totally. The covers were left very much to me. I deliberately avoided obvious subjects, which you get now so much. Nicole Kidman has a new film out, so she is on the cover of every consumer magazine—and on the news-stand there are 99 Nicole Kidmans. My approach was to make all the other magazines on the shelves act as our background… The totally bare, green ‘Jealousy’ cover was probably the most minimalist, slated by everyone on the business side, but not after it became an instant sell-out.”
Marchbank’s approach to magazine cover design with Time Out was a clever one. The dense visual clutter on magazine stands served as a departure point for unique design.
By looking ahead to the final context for the piece, Marchbank could intentionally create highly designed, conceptual covers that took advantage of the dominant visual paradigm to stand apart from the myriad of other publications. The four magazine covers above would certainly stick out on a modern magazine stand—the imagery and supporting typography would be jarring next to an issue of Cosmopolitan.
An XKCD comic, sent around by one of our developers Jeff, illustrates another side of the idea in terms of branding. In this case, the cluttered landscape of the market aisle served as a departure point for ‘undesign.’ As consumers, we are familiar with over-designed products–so much so, that when a product goes against the normal visual context, it really stands out.
In our world, where the visual culture is rapidly progressing, it can be difficult to digest all the imagery we are bombarded with. I’m not always able to pinpoint what appeals to my senses or what grabs my interest… but I know it when I see it. Is it something unique? Cutting edge? Conceptually driven? Or does it just look cool?
While I continue to ask these questions of my own work, I’ve started to consider a new one. What design decisions can I make to intuitively react to my work’s context? Though the concept should always be the driving force behind design, careful consideration of its context can lead to the creation of something really compelling.
The branding world has been buzzing lately with commentary on the rollout of JCPenney’s new logo.
At Sametz Blackstone, we’ve been excited to see a brand employing the concept of synecdoche* in this new mark: using a part to represent the whole. It’s a design that is fresh, punchy, and a little edgy; a bold move that works effectively to turn around the retailer’s previously stodgy reputation.
My high school did something similar a few years ago. Miss Porter’s School is an all-girls boarding and day school in Farmington, CT. Aware of a misperception that it was still a 1950’s-style “finishing school,” MPS leveraged the concept of synecdoche and entirely dropped the “Miss” and the “School” from their mark. (Insider’s note: “Porter’s” is what alumnae of my era call Miss Porter’s, while “Farmington” is how older generations refer to the school.)
While the name is still formally “Miss Porter’s School”—and that phrase appears somewhere on all materials, both print and digital—the new mark is an effective, high impact vehicle for communicating the character of the school today, while still recognizing a strong sense of place and history.
One final example (though very recently rendered obsolete): the Toronto Blue Jays former logo. A new version was unveiled in 2011, which incorporates the team’s full name, but the last incarnation (the second below) was a fun and evocative mark for the “Jays.” While the new logo has been hailed as a design success, the old edition was perfectly—and pithily—on point… thanks to synecdoche.
*Synecdoche: a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage). -Merriam-Webster Dictionary