Category Archives: Usability


I thought I should get some value from my UPA (Usability Professionals Association) membership this year so I attended a talk by Andrew Harder (no, the irony wasn’t lost on me) of Nokia. The theme of his talk was the agency / client divide and it was very interesting getting his perspective as someone who has moved from an agency to a global organisation and how he now views the work of researchers. I would have liked to ask how he views Nokia as someone from an agency but the Q and A session was rather sadly monopolised by someone with a monologue or three rather than a question.

I won’t recount the entire session, worthy though it was of being reported, but the bit I really liked was concerned with cutting out the fat and getting to the juicy morsel of key information that the client is looking for. The analogy Andrew used was from Ernest Hemmingway’s book “The old man and the sea” and it worked superbly.

The story is told of the struggle between an old and experienced fisherman and the catch of his life. The fisherman goes further than ever before to end his unproductive spell and eventually catches the largest Marlin he has ever seen. After a 3 day and night struggle he eventually kills the Marlin but cannot bring it aboard his boat so instead lashes it to the side. He heads for home, weak after the long struggle and facing a long voyage, leaving a trail of blood as he goes from the Marlin. A new battle takes place as the old man fends off the attacks of various sharks attracted by the blood but eventually tired and having lost his harpoon he is unable to fight them off and they eat the valuable meat leaving only the head and carcass still strapped to the side of his boat.

Before the sharks had eaten the Marlin the old man was questioning the worthiness of those back at shore that would eat such a magnificent fish following the enormous struggle he and the Marlin had endured. However, after returning with just a carcass to show for his efforts, the old man reflects that he should have simply filleted the Marlin and brought the best meat back to sell.

Is less more when providing research findings? This is the underlying message which I agree with. Thoughts?

It’s getting emotional

Last week we entertained the world’s press in our labs – OK a slight exaggeration, but with the might of CA’s PR department we did have over 40 people from various European media organisations including Portugal’s main TV channel and the UK’s FT. The reason they visited Foviance was to attend CA’s press launch of phase two of their web stress campaign which included the measurement of web stress using EEG – electroencephalography.

In parallel to this going on in our offices, it transpired that UX company Fhios had been acquired by One to One Interactive and would be joining their neurological marketing department. At the Insight show last summer Fhios presented the research they conducted into neuro-marketing and the presentation covered their findings, which like our own, implied a link but really called for more research in the area. Like Foviance, it would seem that they have carried out more work in the area.

It was only two years ago that neuro-marketing firm Neuroco was acquired by Neurofocus and in parallel there has been a number of other neuro-marketing hardware and service solutions entering the market from (mainly) US companies. Some provide a hardware / service solution using headsets that they send out to 100’s of participants at a time. 8 node versus 32 node data capture is a question that is starting to gain followers as well as the need for statistically significant sample sizes vs. qualitative depth studies.

Martin Lindstrom has talked about the cross over between the emotional psychology of why we buy for some time and his most recent book called “Buyology” (the truth and lies about why we buy) has become a best seller. The book describes what was learned through a 3 year project costing millions and using EEG and fMRI data capture to study what happens in peoples brains as they watch commercials and interact with brands. There are some really interesting findings in it and once again it raises the debate about emotional engagement and subconscious reactions to a new level.

I think we are on the cusp of something big and firmly believe that over the next 3 years neuro-marketing will grow in importance and become a recognised and essential tool in the marketers kit bag. To be able to measure emotional engagement and then design experiences or interactions with a mind toward how emotional engagement will be impacted is surely the holy grail of brand engagement. It offers firms like Foviance a potentially very interesting intersection between behavioural psychology, micro-economics (becoming know as behavioural economics), neuroscience and marketing.

System generated username suggestion

I love this. We are working with a financial services business (we work with many) and during the registration process you have to select a username. If you choose one that someone else already has the system offers an alternative. Here is what this system suggested:

Not so easy to memorise
Not so easy to memorise

The different name was input buy my colleague.

I thought this type of thing became extinct in 2002!

To me the problem goes beyond the initial feeling fo despair that any customer going through the registration process would feel at this point. What if an absent minded customer actually selects this user name? The support costs for the constant reminders and the damage to brand will go on and on. There can be no winners in this scenario and it is just lazy development.

Ready, steady, don’t go

I visited Shanghai recently during a large International research project Foviance was conducting for a client in the mobile sector. It was the first time I had visited any part of China and I found the cultural experience fascinating. The differences between East and West are so apparent when you see them first hand and there was plenty to take in and admire.

One idea I really liked was the way the traffic signals work in Shanghai. The simplicity and practicality of the idea reminded me of the first time I visited Florida and experienced the ‘turn right on a red light’ phenomenon. For those unfamiliar this would translate in the UK to allowing motorists to turn left (and therefore not cross the traffic) on a red light providing that there aren’t any vehicles coming. It seems a safe way of reducing queues to me but seems never to have caught on over here. I did hear that London’s Mayor is considering allowing cyclists this privilege so maybe there is still hope for the rest of us.

The right information at the right time
The right information at the right time


Back in Shanghai, what they have done is add a countdown to the lights. Although the photo I took shows only how it benefits pedestrians it is actually in operation for motorists as well. What I observed was people either rushing to make sure they crossed in time or waiting because they realised they wouldn’t have time to cross. The result was traffic moved away from the lights more quickly because no dare-devil pedestrians decided to risk it.

I would be interested to learn about other features and functionality provided in cities that provides benefits to pedestrians and motorists by making technology easier to understand or communicate a more valuable message. Please let me know if you see any and if you send me a photo I’ll put it in a later blog post.

The usability of use-by-dates

Recently, Tesco changed the packaging of their Coleslaw. Not exactly front page news and I suspect their motivation was driven by a desire to reduce the amount of packaging they use – or was it cost saving, I can’t decide. The outcome either way is that I can now no longer tell when my coleslaw goes beyond the use-by or best-before date.

The reason? Tesco used to provide a plastic clip-on resealable lid over the thin cellophane film that sealed the coleslaw from the outside world and on the lid was printed the use-by date. They have removed this lid and printed the use-by date on the thin film. The problem is that the film disintegrates when you try and remove it and so you end up throwing it away (thank goodness for clingfilm), together with any clues toward the use-by date of the aforementioned coleslaw. The experience is a specific problem with ‘wet’ products like coleslaw but it has made me wonder about other products and the way the use-by dates are presented.

Here is another example. Can anyone tell me what the use-by date on this label actually means?

Is the consumer meant to understand this?
Is the consumer really meant to understand this?

For those unable to read the label it says “Best Before End L8210(D)1”.

Well, that’s crystal clear. I thought perhaps it means 8th of Feb 2010 but I have another wrapper with the code L8095DE1 and before you ask I haven’t owned this product since 1995!

So we have one example where the packaging is the problem and the other that simply defies explanation. To me the coleslaw example is a problem with context of use. The same ‘print on cellophane’ technique is used for labelling the best before date on Tesco bacon. It isn’t a problem here because the cellophane is slightly thicker and in any case, if it falls in to the bacon it doesn’t make a mess. Thin strands of cellophane dipping in coleslaw is a problem.

These are not problems that are going to take either Cadbury’s or Tesco’s to the wall in the immediate future but I wonder how much administrative overhead has gone in to dealing with complaints and providing free replacement product? There could even be direct losses from people who switch product (Twirl) or stop buying altogether (Coleslaw).

Clearly there has been no customer research in either case and probably because there was no business case or compelling reasion to do so. But as a colleague recently told me: “when the going gets tough, the tough get measuring” and identifying avoidable costs in a business and then applying solutions is what next year will be all about.

I look forward to the return of the hard plastic lid on my coleslaw and to eating my Twirl safe in the knowledge that it has not gone off. However, I am not sure when this will be.

New website for guitar studies

My seven year old son is learning to play the guitar at school and so when I read about the launch of “academy of guitar studies” I thought I’d take a look. I have been playing guitar on and off myself for about 25 years and this year decided to learn lead guitar, having been primarily a chord monkey so far. The press release suggested this website would be a resource for anyone learning or playing the guitar and so I thought it would be useful to both of us.

One of the most useful resources for learning to play guitar is YouTube. I know a number of people who log in to view video lessons that show how to play different riffs and chord sequences and providing you can either read music or use tabs then you can get pretty much everything you need with a bit of diligent searching. The problem is that you have to wade through a lot of irrelevant stuff to find the good. I have also used which provides a wide range of resources and through this website you can access a range of additional websites that provide video guitar lessons, product information, and much more.

So back to the grandly named “academy of guitar studies”. The site is a dissapointment as it is essentially an online shop dedicated to books about learning to play the guitar. The homepage doesn’t communicate what the website proposition is at all other than through the misleading tagline “your one stop shop for guitar education and accessories”. Clearly it isn’t.

It is handy to have all the books in one place and the menu structure has some interesting categories in it that assist you with finding music for special occassions or different types of music, but there is no search function. Also, you have to sign up to see a newsletter rather than get a look at why you might want to sign up (I didn’t). The price check I did against Amazon came out on par so if you are a regular Amazon customer I can’t see any reason why this website might make you order from it. Search yes; order no.

So not a one stop shop unless all you need is a new book and you are having trouble finding something specific.

Solar tie – mobile phone charger (you can’t make this stuff up)

A colleague sent me this while I was on holiday in August and I have been meaning to blog it ever since but the catch up from holiday is only just reaching a conclusion. You really can’t make this stuff up and I simply love the photo that goes with the story.

Image of solar powered tie mobile battery charger
Image of solar powered tie mobile battery charger

Basically a bunch of engineers have designed a tie that contains a solar panel that charges your mobile phone. As you can see from the photo this is a very stylish piece of clothing that would not look good on anyone.

The link I was sent that covered the story was What I like most is that if you didn’t know the url and just read the story you would know that this is a gadget website, written by IT guys. The first time you are alerted to this possibility is when you read that researchers have made wearable technology “slightly more discreet”. I am not sure Armani would agree but lets go with it. However, if you are still willing to believe this is a possible fashion item then the researchers solution to the problem of tieing the knot caused by the solar stitching process will finally convince you of the target audience for this particular garment. Apparently “a clip on tie would solve the problem”.

Finally they conclude that combining the clip on tie with “a special pouch for carrying your cellphone, and you’ve got a combo that can’t be beat”. I suspect it will be.

Multi-channel customer experience: new research

In my day job, working for Foviance, I have just completed and presented some research with Call Centre Consultancy RXP‘s Managing Director Paul Weald. Together we researched the Travel industry to establish how well the delivered a multi-channel customer or user-experience. The research followed a similar piece late last year / early this that focussed on the performance of 25 retailers. We presented the findings from both sets of research at the CCF/Customer Strategy Conference earlier this week. I found both sets of research really eye-opening.

Foviance has already conducted a range of multi-channel research, much of which we cannot discuss, but this was the first work we have carried out with a call centre consultancy. RXP is interesting because it focusses on the experience the call centre provides rather than just the performance metrics. This was the primary reason for us engaging with them but in itself I found that surprising given the loathing the vast majority of consumers have for call centres.

Most call centre consultancies appear to provide expertise in the areas of throughput, call centre staff motivation and operational infrastructure and management. These are all worthy causes but but are all supply side and perhaps explain why the service in call centres is so shoddy. This was somewhat supported anecdotally when I availed of the free massage being provided to speakers at the conference. The lovely young lady who took on the challenge of un-knotting my shoulders revealed that she finds the call centre work fascinating – mainly because she can now see what goes on from both sides of the call. That moment when you are put on hold for some inexplicable reason becomes clear when you see the call centre operative using the self same moment to gather their thoughts and use the stress relief of a quick curse!

What staggered me most about the research was how utterly incompetent 90% of the companies we looked at were. Before we even got in to whether the multi-channel experience worked – i.e. was the experience joined up, did the call centre operative have the same view that the online customer did and all that sort of good stuff, we had to get over the basics.

The usability issues were amazing. We found architectural and navigational issues that 7 years ago I would not have been surprised at but today, after so much education and such improvements in understanding, they beggar belief. Some of the functionality failings were also staggering. Instant messaging functionality that never got answered, call back technology where no call ever came and email facilities that in one case, nearly nine months later, I am, still waiting for a reply  (A major high-street supermarket before you ask).

Once we got our teeth in to the call centre it was even worse. In quite a few cases I wondered why the organisation was providing a call centre at all. It must have been on someone’s list: “website, check, call centre, check, OK we’re done here”. The service offered no value add to the customer at all – they had less access to information that the customer, were not trained to up-sell, cross-sell or handle difficult calls. What purpose do they server?

The nightmare that the research did reveal is that organisationally, the call centre and the website, and any other channels for that matter, are on the whole, managed by entirely separate functions. In many cases the channels actually compete with each other and the customer is in no way the centre of attention. If you want to find out more you can download the white papers from either the RXP or the Foviance websites.

There is money in them there multi-channel hills, but I suspect consultancies like Foviance will get their hands on it before companies with supposed mutli-channel strategies!

Mini Laptops will change the world

Last week I had the opportunity of getting up close and personal with four of the new mini-laptops that have recently been launched. I won’t go in to the brands as they are not relevant to the point of this post suffice to say all are well known and all use open source or non-Microsoft software. And it is this that captured my interest.

I have hankered after one of these devices for some time but being a fan of Dell I am waiting to see what they come up with before jumping in. What I have seen so far makes me believe that they will be worth the wait. For blogging, watching movies and keeping in touch while mobile I expect to get plenty of use out of it and avoid damage to both my back and  my eyes!

What I hadn’t realised was that these devices are going to change the world. I realise this is a big claim but until you get close to one their potential is not immediately obvious. It is not the hardware size that is going to be the game changing aspect of these devices either; it is the software.

Mini laptop

Mini laptops, or compact laptops as they are also referred to, are going to change the world in two ways. Firstly they will facilitate the growth of the open software movement within a consumer base and secondly they will allow laptop manufacturers to differentiate their product by competing with Microsoft in the software the devices use. The driver for both these changes is the cost of production which is necessarily being driven down. When prices for laptops get to just a few hundred dollars the main barrier for further cost reduction is the operating system (OS) and the desktop applications.

All the products I looked at used open office for the desktop applications. Most users, particularly home based consumers, would not consider open source (OS) open office and would instead select to have Microsoft products preloaded. However the target market for mini-laptops is consumers looking for a second, more mobile laptop computer or the education market. In both cases they are either spending their own hard earned cash or budget in short supply and may well choose the lower cost, Linus/Open Office models. By gaining familiarity with these free software products they are pretty quickly going to start wondering why they are paying so much for Microsoft products in other areas. Once this happens they will start influencing the companies/organisations they work for and the snow ball will start to gather momentum.

With the edcation market the influence is even greater, albeit over a longer time period. Students will get used to OS software and in doing so will not select to buy Microsoft as they get older and they will be happy with OS products when they start work. As adoption rises Microsoft will be forced to reduce the price of its products and specialise in more niche desktop software, or get into hardware. And this is not the only threat Microsoft will face.

As manufacturers develop their own applications, as they are already doing, they will slowly begin to mirror and compete with Apple and achieve the greater margins associated with the delivery of a product which they are almost 100% responsible for putting together. As mini laptop margins outstrip their bigger siblings, and consumer pressure for Microsoft products diminishes, we will see OS software and manufacturer software become more prevalent.

So there you have it. The world is about to change enormously and the good news is that the consumer is going to benefit at every step. I look forward to writing future posts on my new device and will comment on the usability when I can.

Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup

Service with a smile

British people, in general, don’t like to make complaints in restaurants. There are two reasons why. The first is that most Brits were brought up to believe that it is best to disappear in to the background rather than make a fuss. The second is that when taking out their revenge on another they would do it in a way that meant the other may not ever know about it. Therefore, complaining in a restaurant must mean that the chef is exacting some sort of gruesome revenge out of sight in the kitchen and this is a good reason not to complain. It is with this in mind that I came across the launch of a new website last week called ““. This new website gives patients the opportunity to provide feedback about the care they have received and in particular about the Doctor that cared for them.

Working in the area of customer experience myself I am a firm believer in the need for and value of feedback. Organisations crave it and when properly gathered and analysed is can provide a level of insight that is often otherwise impossible to get. My wife just received an order from Tesco Direct that had no packing material in the box at all so everything had been thrown around and one item was very badly damaged. Not ideal as it was a birthday present. A quick phone call and an email and the complaint was dealt with and although there was no anonymity the complaint was about an organisation and the person responsible will probably never know who it was that complained.

It seems to me that there are so many ways this new service can be abused that it is hard to know where to start. You have to leave your email address to register and although it is claimed you can leave feedback anonymously it was hard to work out how from my review. Also the site is most effective when it reaches critical mass and I am not sure it will ever reach its tipping point when most Doctors have absolutely no feedback. Who will ever be the first? Is the correlation between treatment and complaint going to be obvious and if so what is the outcome?

Surely Patients will never trust that their identity and their complaint will remain separate, unconnected entries. Won’t they be worried about the likelihood of their next Doctor or carer being forewarned that they are a trouble maker and won’t this impact the level of care? Isn’t that just human nature?

Score draw
Score draw

To score your victim Doctor, you are given three sliding bars that represent ‘trust’, ‘listening’ and whether you would ‘recommend them’. However, by far the biggest challenge is identifying the correct Doctor in the first place.

What I particularly like is the tick box at the bottom where you can opt in to receive “occasional news and updates”. Will this be like Twitter for Doctors? It really feels like the convergence of old and new with the application of these very ‘web’ practices in the old fashioned health service. I wonder if one day ‘Amazon-like’ capability will be added and behavioural data used so that you can expect a message that says “Patients who had surgery for a duodenal ulcer also had surgery for psoriasis of the liver”? That’s great to know!