Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Secrets of St Pancras and UX revealed

Last week, while exploring the theme of proximity at MEX, my group went on a little field trip to St Pancras. While related to the theme of location, the concept of proximity is a subtly different beast and deals with the user's relationship to an object, space, location or event with regards to 'nearness'.

As we observed people in the station, one of the notions that came to mind was that the station was merely a stage in the approach to, or retreat from, some other destination. And yet, within the context of proximity, the passenger arrives at, passes through and departs from it, in its own right. So, while there is ample space to pass quickly through it, some careful thought has been given to the architecture and furnishing of the station, which correspond with the activities of its visitors, however transitory.

A broad passage leads through the station to allow quick entry and departure. Along the sides are a number of retail outlets, including several caf├ęs that are always packed, and some clothing, luggage and souvenir shops that are slightly less busy. These wide, glass shop fronts sit about a metre behind a colonnade, that separates the idle window shopper from the rapid pedestrian thoroughfare. Escalators and electronic information panels are placed centrally and offer the opportunity to alter the flow around the concourse.

By now, Londoners will be familiar with the pianos in the station, and elsewhere around London. That the pianos at St Pancras, after so much time, remain largely in tune, suggests a careful maintenance and, therefore, value to their continued residence. For many passengers moving through the station on their way to or from continental Europe, the pianos offer surprise and delight: they also create the opportunity for social interaction.

Our conclusions from our research, exploring interactions with a range of objects and places in differing contexts, led to the development of six design principles to draw people emotionally closer to their physical environment through the use of technology. In the refinement process, a lot of material and thought is forcibly discarded. However, it is fascinating to review this material after the event and notice how much insight is evolved in such a short space of time.

Amongst the ideas that found their way to my phone's camera roll via scribblings on a flipchart, one derives from the pianos in St Pancras and I suggest here an additional principle: mitigate linger time in transition by offering unobtrusive elements for distraction and delight.


Friday, 13 February 2015

Tapping, swiping and consistency in the language of user experience

I bang on about the language of UX. Most people refer to it as 'conventions' but for me, it's a language. The motions and interactions that a user has with a device to execute commands is a language, in the same way that we talk of programming languages.

Languages, of course, evolve. The same is true of UX languages. New commands come into play as the operating systems gain new functionality. For example, on a phone, tapping a picture magnifies it to fill the screen. This is true whether you're looking at socks on eBay, fish on Facebook or houses on Rightmove. Likewise, Twitter. It's the equivalent of a green light on your traffic lights. It's a universally applied command. If your spouse says, "Take out the rubbish!", you don't load the washing machine.

But closing a picture hasn't had a universally applied language. Historically, coming from the world of non-touch PC screens, a little cross in the corner of a picture was a prompt to close it. Actually, some people didn't know that and Facebook, for example, changed the little cross to a 'Done' button. But this is the world of touch screens, where physical interactions - taps, swipes, shakes etc - are prevalent and intuitive. Intuitive, that is, until one service breaches the rules of the language. And Twitter was the culprit.

A little like saying "I went for a run tomorrow", meaning "I will go...", Twitter was - as far as I know - the only service that used tap both to open and to close a picture. Facebook and the rest followed a different rule: tap to open, swipe down (or up) to close. Once open, tapping enabled the user to show or hide text overlay or written commands.

Yesterday, it seems, Twitter came into line. Tap open, swipe closed.

Why does this matter? Because if we go back to the question of "eliminating distraction and restoring focus to digital media consumption", which was explored at the last MEX, minor inconsistencies in UX language disturb the user from enjoying an immersive experience.

There's a term I learned from reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, a psychological principle known as "stimulus response compatibility". Essentially, it means that a cue suggests a certain behaviour. Like the green traffic light. Kahneman talks about the expectation that a door handle triggers the response "pull" but this is violated by architects time and again. How often do you find yourself pulling then pushing a door because there's a handle. I did it two days ago at a conference in the Shard. To confuse things further, one set of doors required a pull; the second, a push.

Whether opening a door or looking at pictures, we should not be required to switch to slow thinking. Maintaining consistency across stimuli should be a goal of the developer, so that the user can more fully engage with the content: the device and the app should become, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

So, thank you, Twitter, for making the change. I can no longer use your iPhone app as an example of stimulus response compatibility violation.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

A brief history of the UK mobile telecoms market for the uninitiated

BT created Cellnet, which became BT Cellnet and, as part of BT Wireless, was spun off and listed as mmO2, operating as O2. Later O2 was bought by Telefonica (of Spain).

Then there were Vodafone, Orange and Mercury.

Vodafone was born from Racal, a UK maker of military radio technology.

Orange was launched by Hutchison Whampoa (of Hong Kong). Later it was sold to Mannesmann (of Germany). Vodafone acquired Mannesmann and then sold Orange to France Telecom (of France, of course).

Mercury was a subsidiary of Cable & Wireless. It became One2One and was then sold off to T-Mobile (of Germany) and rebranded T-Mobile.

In the meantime, 3 was set up by Hutchison Whampoa.

Then Orange UK merged with the UK division of T-Mobile to create EE.

Telefonica has put O2 up for sale. BT was in the running but has just acquired EE instead. Hutchison Whampoa is in the running for O2. The O2 network in Ireland has already been acquired by Hutchison Whampoa and merged with 3.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Five user modes in digital consumption

The fourteenth MEX took place this week, investigating ingredients of user experience across the themes of Create, Consume, Control, Communicate, Locate and Trust. I was fortunate to be invited by Marek Pawlowski to facilitate the creative sessions on the theme of Consume, where, over the course of four one-hour sessions, we sought to answer the following challenge:
"Illustrate 5 design techniques to eliminate distraction and restore focus to digital media."
In the investigation phase, during which the team explored elements of distraction and ways of inducing immersion, we considered some need states and user modes in the consumption of digital media. Since our final presentation largely dealt with the outputs of our work, I felt it would be worthwhile to indulge briefly here in relaying just five user modes in digital consumption, as identified by the team. These modes should in no way be considered to be complete and are not even necessarily the most common modes of consumption but they serve to illustrate a range of times, places, devices, channels and objectives in consuming digital media.

For a long time, I was dissatisfied by the near ubiquitous definition of TV consumption modes of lean forward and lean back. When these modes were first described, they sought to differentiate between the viewing of long-form, professionally-created, linear broadcast and that of short-form, user-generated, on-demand streaming. Last year, a study carried out for Thinkbox, produced a more textured landscape, in which TV-viewing need states can be classified across the six categories of Unwind, Comfort, Connect, Experience, Escape and Indulge. Whether you agree or not that these adequately encapsulate all need states, the study prompts us to consider the variety of user modes in digital media consumption, which clearly is extremely broad and probably impossible to index entirely.

Without further ado, here are five user modes of consuming digital media.

1. Commute

Occuring during the twice daily journeys to and from the workplace, this London-centric finding considered the need for distraction from the confines of the Underground and the other passengers pressing upon the commuter. Using a smartphone - or tablet - to skim over, for example, the Evening Standard's iPhone Newsstand app, the reader dives into the content as a distraction from the unpleasant reality but will have forgotten almost the entirety of the content by the time he reaches his destination.

Time: morning and evening commutes
Place: Underground
Devices: smartphone, tablet
Channels: news apps
Objective: distraction

2. Business

With emphasis on the need for timely information in the financial markets but applicable to a range of roles and industries, this consumption mode is about receiving information, data and analysis at the start of the day and at times throughout to ensure that the individual has the knowledge and understanding required to perform their business tasks. While print media still plays a role here, tablets and PCs are pre-eminent with specific articles accessed via dedicated apps, such as the FT, or from email news alerts.

Time: start of work day; throughout the day
Place: workplace
Devices: tablet, PC (alongside print media)
Channels: news apps; email alerts
Objective: to be expert in chosen field of business

3. Inspiration

Of importance to those involved in creative industries, the Inspiration consumption mode is a lengthy, highly-engaged period of time viewing the work of other creators. It entails full immersion into videos on, for example, Vimeo, without distractions in order to ready oneself for one's own creative indulgence.

Time: daytime
Place: workplace, usually
Devices: PC/laptop ie larger screen
Channels: video, especially Vimeo
Objective: full immersion and preparation for creativity

4. Evening Escapism

Much like the Unwind TV need state, Evening Escapism is a release mode, shaking off the shackles of the day's labour. In this mode, the individual might indulge in multi-screen consumption of different forms of media, from broadcast TV to social media, without their being any relation between the media consumed.

Time: evening, after work
Place: home - living room/bedroom
Devices: multi-screen - TV, laptop, tablet, phone
Channels: any
Objective: de-stress/unwind

5. Learning

Younger members of the team talked about a growing trend in casual learning. It's an individual activity but is likely to be discussed with other members' of one's social circle. In a slightly disengaged state of mind, the individual might watch - or merely listen to - typically short YouTube videos on how to do or make something. One example given was how to make an origami swan, for which several videos exist, including the one embedded below that has been seen close to 3 million times.

Time: evening
Place: home - bedroom/living room
Devices: laptop, tablet
Channels: video, especially YouTube
Objective: casual learning as a form of entertainment

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Has ITV got its premium player pricing wrong?

ITV has released a new version of its ITV player for iOS, within which it offers an in-app upgrade for £3.99.

Some commentators are challenging the very notion that consumers would pay for ITV content.
 ITV Player Premium gives you:
  • Live streams of ITV3 and ITV4 (and Live Events stream)
  • No advertising around catchup programmes.
Pricing is complicated but the nub of it is that it communicates value to the customer. The consumer will view the £3.99 price tag as consisting of its two elements: ITV3 and ITV4; and 'no ads'. The consumer will attach some value to each element.

ITV3 and ITV4 have very low viewing figures: about 2.4% and 1.8% respectively, including +1 channels. The comparable figures for ITV and ITV2, are 17.0% and 2.9%. Put simply, ITV3 and ITV4 are of little value, for some zero value.

Therefore, consumers will have to consider whether they will accept paying for ITV3 and ITV4 in addition to paying to remove ads. ITV says the value of removing ads is less than £3.99. What matters is if the consumer decides that removing ads is worth more than £3.99.