The tunnel vision syndrome

Posted by: | Posted on: November 5, 2017

It all started with an internal discussion we had at work. Our Design Director asked all the consultants if they had any inputs into a presentation on User Centred Design being delivered to a group of developers.

A flurry of emails followed – ranging from developers not caring about cost and usability and only loving their code, through to the need to get developers in the design process early because they are so valuable to this process.

While all these emails went back and forth, it occured to me that this inherent instinct to protect one’s code or ‘creation’ is not just limited to developers, but it is in fact a human trait. We all do it! Let me explain.

I recently bought some Venetian blinds and being a handyman, decided to install them myself. Now, most architraves and window framings are quite simple and support Venetian blinds reasonably well. My house isn’t quite so simple and hence I had to use my creativity to install them. Five hours later and after numerous efforts to find studs and adjust the levelling due to our sinking house, I managed to install the blinds. Now let me make it clear that I am a Virgo, and hence a perfectionist. Stepping back to examine my hard work and effort, I couldn’t help but smile with arrogance at having won my battle with the window frame and successfully installed the blinds.

My wife, on the opther hand, took no more than three minutes to comment on the faults and imperfections of my installation. Funnily enough, I went into defensive mode straightaway, arguing what a great job I had done finding a solution to this difficult problem. I was almost heartbroken that she had focused on the ‘bigger picture’ rather than appreciating my hard work and intricate solution. At that moment, the work discussion mentioned earlier popped into my head. Oh my god, I’m one of those (referring to developers and their love for their clever code to a complex problem).

I had failed to step back and look at the bigger picture, which is what I do every day at work as a UCD practitioner. I had been sucked into a narrow tunnel of specific problem-solving and had totally overlooked the importance of installing the blind from an aesthetic point of view.

We all tend to get bogged down in the detail, especially when immersed in a specific problem solving activity.

So what am I actually trying to say? Two things: firstly, apologies to all those developers who constantly get referred to as “code-loving techies who can’t step back and look at the bigger picture”. It’s not just you, it’s all of us. Secondly, I want to emphasise the importance of UCD practitioners (and indeed anyone) constantly stepping back and questioning their own design solutions against the high-level goal.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0

Posted by: | Posted on: November 5, 2017

What is WCAG?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a set of recommendations for making Web content more accessible. They are published by the W3C’s Website Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and were first touted as a recommendation in May 1999. The current standard, released on the 11 December 2008, is WCAG 2.0 and the W3C recommends that Web accessibility policies reference that document.

Whereas WCAG 1.0 was primarily concerned with “…advocating the use of W3C Technologies such as HTML and CSS to prepare accessible websites” [], WCAG 2.0 is technology neutral. “WCAG 2.0 does not explicitly relate to the use of HTML but is concerned with improving the accessibility of sites regardless of the technologies used.” [ibid]

What is accessibility?

Accessibility is defined as “… the degree to which a product, system or device is accessible by as many people as possible.” [Ruth Ellison] Often, accessibility is used in relation to people with disabilities. While people with disabilities are one of the key beneficiaries of accessible design, accessibility helps to bring benefits to a wide range of users in many working contexts.There are six main types of disability including visual, hearing, mobility, cognitive and learning disabilities, seizure and situational accessibility. People are either born with disabilities or acquire it over time (such as visual impairments, which are often acquired due to the aging process). Disabilities can be temporary or permanent.

Benefits of accessibility

The benefits of accessible web sites include:

  • Can be used by people with physical and cognitive impairments
  • Can be used by people in situations where they are unable to use their hands
  • Can be used by people who are technically and educationally disadvantaged
  • Are more effective for people who live in remote and regional areas
  • Are easy for the elderly and novice users to use
  • Work with the widest range of browsers and other current internet technologies
  • Will migrate to future technologies

Accessibility requirements in Australia:

  • Section 24 of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992)
  • Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) – From 1 December 2000, all websites were to follow the W3C guidelines to a sufficient extent that they pass recognised tests of accessibility
  • The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s view is that compliance with the W3C WCAG 1.0 guidelines to the Single-A level (Priority 1) is a minimum rather than a desirable outcome.


WCAG 2.0

“Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 covers a wide range of recommendations for making Web content more accessible.” [] By following these guidelines, content will become accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities and make content more accessible to people in general. For example, a website completely done in Adobe Flash means that the content will be inaccessible to anybody that does not have Flash installed on their device, whether they are disabled or not.

In order to understand how WCAG 2.0 works, there are four layers of guidance: Principles, Guidelines, Success Criteria and Sufficient and Advisory Techniques. At the top are four Principles “… that provide the foundation for Web accessibility: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.” [] Under the Principles are 12 guidelines that “… provide the basic goals that authors should work toward in order to make content more accessible to users with different disabilities.” [ibid] For each Guideline, there is a testable Success Criteria with three levels of conformance including: A (lowest), AA and AAA (highest). Lastly, there is Sufficient and Advisory Techniques for each of the guidelines and success criteria.

“All of these layers of guidance (principles, guidelines, success criteria, and sufficient and advisory techniques) work together to provide guidance on how to make content more accessible. Authors are encouraged to view and apply all layers that they are able to, including the advisory techniques, in order to best address the needs of the widest possible range of users.” [ibid]

WCAG 2.0 Map

In order to better understand WCAG 2.0, a map has been developed to visualise the concepts. It is available in PDF and is hyperlinked back to the original WCAG 2.0 content provided by W3C. Please feel free to download a copy and keep as an electronic reference or print it out and put it on your desk!

Pushing the Boundaries

Posted by: | Posted on: November 4, 2017

While reading the book on personas (by the way, this blog isn’t about personas!) entitled “The User Is Always Right” by Steve Mulder and Ziv Year, I came across a website that tabulates 200 years of baby names and ranks them in popularity.

Now, before visiting the website, you might envisage a big table of names, or some dynamic table where you select the year from a drop-down list and it ranks by baby name, or you select a name from a drop-down list, and it shows you the ranking for each year. Instead, I found that the website presented this data in a visual way that is not only clear and concise, but dynamic and interactive, providing an enjoyable user experience. Now, while I can think of some improvements to the interactivity of the graph, holistically it is quite clever.

The baby name page also provided a link to yet another amazing website with examples of other data visualisations. On this site my favourites are the “Thinking Machine”, “Market Map” and “Many Eyes”.

In my 10 years of usability consulting experience, it remains rare to get an opportunity to really push boundaries through applying unorthodox technologies and techniques to achieve a project’s objectives. It is actually common for clients to be fairly conservative in their approach. They invest extensively in us to supply their online technology solutions, expecting a result that looks good, provides a rich user experience, but has some level of conservatism in order to satisfy internal politics, branding needs and other pre-requisites.

As user experience professionals, I believe it is our duty to push those boundaries on behalf of our clients.  We should constantly evolve our creativity and continually question ways in which users expect to interact with and experience the online world, now and into the future. Happily, we seem increasingly to be getting our way.  Client conservatism appears to be giving way to a broader acceptance of innovation, and we are now often asked by clients to help them think creatively about novel techniques for using the web and other technologies.

Visiting the two sites above has reminded me that there are clever people out there doing clever things. We should always keep a look out for new and different user interaction solutions so that we can make use of them… and hopefully take them further.

Can I speak to your supervisor please

Posted by: | Posted on: November 4, 2017

If I had a cent for every time I had to use the above phrase when I called a customer call centre/helpdesk regarding a telephone, energy, technology or insurance matter, I’d be pulling Australia out of a recession. It seems for many companies the concept of customer experience is non-existent. For example, I called a technology company regarding a faulty item of computer hardware, and have been chasing them up regarding my case for over five days, calling every day. During my last phone call, I was given the sentence “Yes, your case has been forwarded to our engineer, but he’s unfortunately not in yet. Can you call back?” Not so great customer experience I say.

As a UCD practitioner, I would love to initiate a customer evaluation project, where I would write some scenarios (my own real-life experience) and recruit some users to test the journey they would go through when dealing with call centres/helpdesk. As for my user demographic, I would make sure they are all… CEO’s and presidents of energy, insurance, technology and telecommunication companies. And I would ensure they get the full experience, as I always do, so they can see firsthand the flaws and errors in their business processes and services.


Too often, it seems companies spend large amounts of their money ‘improving’ (take note of the quotation marks) their so called customer service. However, I’ve learnt that this improvement is really about changing the voice of the telephone menus to sound like a caring female who wants to be your friend, or improving the templates of their monthly statements so it’s easier for us to read. However, what it seems these companies often fail to do is to step back and really assess the journeys of their customers when they have difficulties. Too often, it seems the problems we customers have are actually to do with different business areas of these large companies, using different systems which, along with the people, don’t talk to each other, so you’re forced to chase your tail and bounce from department to department relaying information which could have been passed on internally.

Recently, my colleague Ricardo has been performing some research on using diary studies (or cultural probes). This technique helps us to understand users’ experiences when the process or system needing to be analysed is difficult to access or the user’s journey is spread over a number of days or weeks (e.g. chasing up a helpdesk over a month period regarding a faulty hardware!).

Perhaps, one way to help these companies really improve their customer experience is for us, customers, to take notes or a diary of our experience from the start to finish and forward it on to these companies. We could also mention to them that if they are not interested in this feedback, we’d be happy to publish them on blogs and forums, and even forward them onto the appropriate ombudsmen. I’m sure this would help get some real customer service.

Don’t burn your hand

Posted by: | Posted on: November 3, 2017

How often have you burnt your hand trying to pick up a saucepan by the handle, or touching a hot plate at a restaurant?  When it comes to the web, as technologies improve and more and more people (including my mum) start to use the web, people’s expectations of  website usability increase and comapnies need to respond to stay in the game. Yet, when it comes to consumer products, although technologies have also improved in the fields of metals, plastics etc, we still see so many products on the shelf which could easily have been tweaked to make them more user-friendly . In the example above, it would be simple to incorporate smart materials so that a handle of a saucepan changes colour to inform you that it’s hot. Some saucepan manufacturers have incorporated technologies to display a red circle in the middle of the pan telling us it’s at the optimum temperature for cooking, so why don’t they do the same with their handles to tell us that’s it’s at the optimum level for… burning your hand!

Here are a few thoughts as to why the consumer product industry has been outstripped by the web industry in instilling usability:

  1. With millions of websites out there, the competition for people’s attention is intense, placing greater pressure on companies to improve their web usability in order to attract and retain users against the competition;
  2. Specialised organisations and companies such as  the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Stamford Interactive exist, defining clear standards for the internet and embodying them in user-friendly websites respectively;
  3. Users can easily provide feedback to companies and webmasters regarding issues they have with websites, either via a simple email to the webmaster or the completion of a feedback form.

The above three points are not reflected in the consumer goods and manufacturing industries. Although there are many saucepans out there and we have a choice, brand loyalty, country of manufacture, and pricing force us into  that choice. Secondly , there are no organisations like W3C in manufacturing of consumer good, and although safety standards exist, they are not really linked in with the usability of the product. Finally, the mechanisms for providing feedback for physical products require far greater effort, and the fact that few of our own consumer products are manufactured in Austaralia users further discourages users to provide their constructive feedback to overseas companies.

Now, I’m not saying that the web has attained a universally high level of usability and we all know there are still countless poor websites out there. It just seems that although the web is still in its infancy,  it is already leading the field in terms of both expectation and delivery of usability and user experience.

So what is the solution?

I think we, as consumers, could raise our expectations of manufacturers to provide us with sensible products and be actively engaged in providing feedback for the products we use day to day. We should also learn to be more discriminating about good design, ensuring companies that have put some brain power behind their good products are rewarded for their efforts. This way we can hopefully raise the bar for other manufacturers and over time, reap the benefits of a world full of good, usable products.

Is a sign just a sign?

Posted by: | Posted on: November 3, 2017

An incident in a car park this week got me thinking about the nature of signs and the importance of placing them at the right point in the journey.  I’m not talking about labeling here, the signs made perfect sense; the problem here was timing.

Signposts are there to ultimately get us to our destinations quickly, safely and with the least amount of wrong turns or dead ends.  Sometimes however signposts send us to the wrong destination and, in this case, literally up against a brick wall.  After parking in the underground car park, I got out of the car and took several confident steps towards the large, prominent sign saying “lifts”.  Then I stopped.  As I had got closer another sign became visible that directed people to two different lifts, the public lifts and the club lifts.  I wanted the public lifts so I followed the arrows, and that’s when I hit the brick wall.  Back I went to the first sign to check the direction.  No, I was definitely following the signs…to a dead end.  Looking up the car ramp I could see the lifts within tantalizing reach but there were large signs prohibiting pedestrians on the ramp.  In the other direction, I could see stairs, but they were going down and I needed to go up.  So there I was, seemingly literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.

This experience got me thinking about the importance not just of proper sign labeling, but of placement and destination.  At what point in the site journey do we place the sign to the next step we want users to take?  When do we give them signs to other destinations?   Through testing and working with users, I have learned to place signs (such as registration calls-to-action or related information details) at the point in the journey where users are most receptive to them.  Sometimes this might be at the start, but sometimes it’s after they’ve done a little bit of exploring on their own and are ready to look for, or be prompted with, that next step.  Take the example of someone arriving at a product site and being forced to register before they can browse items or add them to their basket (yes, this still happens).  Forcing people to register before they’ve decided its worth their while will only drive users to other sites where shopping is easier.  Sites should also allow users to choose whether to register (because there’s an advantage in doing so, like saving time on repeat purchases) or to simply make the transaction (including bill payment) without registering.

Likewise, hitting people with information about hotels when they’ve arrived at the flight search page is a little premature but showing them that information after they’ve booked a flight is helpful because they’re now ready to take the next step in their travel arrangement process.

So, did I get out of the car park?  Yes, I took my chances with the vehicles and walked up the cars-only ramp to the lifts.  The door into the lift foyer had no affordance, but that’s a whole other issue, nor did it tell me what floor I was on (a hazard for the return journey!) but I did manage to eventually get myself onto the street above.

Moral of the story?  Don’t send your users into brick walls.  If the directional sign to the lifts had been placed after I had proceeded down a flight of stairs, I would have found them easily instead of being deterred too soon and sent literally up against a brick wall.  So think about when and where to give directions.  When will your users be receptive to further information or calls-to-action?  When is the right time to show them secondary directions?  What would be useful to know now and to where would they like to go?    Remember, it’s a lot easier to leave your site than to exit a car park, so make sure you use signs well.

iPhone vs BlackBerry: Usability Smack Down

Posted by: | Posted on: November 3, 2017

Some say that the iPhone is not yet a BlackBerry killer. But this year at Web Directions South 08 we may have proved otherwise.

Stamford organised for some of the team to attend Web Directions in Sydney to man a stand and to preach the gospel of usability while promoting our new Sydney office. Instead of just having a static stand we thought we would also invite delegates to participate in a simple comparison of the iPhone and BlackBerry interface.

Our findings were slightly skewed by gravity and the sample of the population. Gravity played a role as we used post it notes to rate the ease of use of the phone. However, gravity pulled them down and yours truly put them back up. Our sample included attendees of the Web Directions conference. This bunch was mostly iPhone users.

It’s funny because this may actually say something about the conference delegates. If you want to make a statement about your creative coolness then you pull out an iPhone. But, if you are serious about business then the BlackBerry is your phone of choice.

The findings…

On mobile devices tactile response is not as important
One of the biggest criticisms that the iPhone has had is that it lacks a physical keyboard. Its virtual keyboard offers no tactile response and therefore it just doesn’t feel right. However, surprisingly this is not what we found.

First we have to consider that we are talking mobile devices here, an area where people’s expectations of the user experience are quite low. There isn’t an expectation to be able to type at the same speed as you can with a full size keyboard.

Next let’s look at the two keyboards:

The iPhone presents users with just the information they need. 90% of the time they are typing letters. 10% of the time they typing numbers, therefore 90% of the time users that look at the screen are confronted with a simple interface. For a beginner the experience is intuitive and easy to use. Experienced users can also type without looking at the keyboard. The spell checker picks up common typos to help you do this.

The BlackBerry’s approach is to super impose numbers, functions and letters all on the one keyboard. Making it hard to learn. So for the beginner this keyboard is hard to use and the tactile repsonse is not important. For an experienced user, the nipple on the number 5 may serve as a tactile anchor and help them type without looking at the keys.
iPhone is more computer than a phone
The BlackBerry received a significantly higher satisfaction rating for making a call. The reason was that you can simply enter the phone number and press the call button, just like you do on any phone. On the iPhone, you have to change its mode to phone, then navigate to the number keys, dial the number and press call. The whole experience took people 2 seconds more, but they still ranked the BlackBerry higher in the satisfaction scales. Contrary to its name, the iPhone is more computer than phone.
Time to task completion is key to high customer satisfaction
For the other two tasks that we tested (email and sms) the time it took to complete the task was strongly linked with how people perceived its ease of use. With the BlackBerry taking almost twice as long to send an email, users ranked it poorly. The main complaint here was that users could not find how to send an email to someone not in their contact list.

Again, this study was by no means definitive, we only tested users at the beginning of their learning curve, the sample was heavily skewed towards the iPhone and gravity played a role in the satisfaction scales, but even with all of those factors we still gained some great insights from the experience. It shows how great insights can be gained through even basic usability testing and how better understanding how your users interact with your product can greatly enhance your understanding of that product.

A big thank you to everyone who took the time to be involved with the iPhone Vs Blackberry “smackdown”.

Benefits of ‘Guerrilla’ testing

Posted by: | Posted on: October 25, 2017

I like gorillas: they’re big, hairy and quite human-like. I surely wouldn’t want to test on them – I imagine it wouldn’t be pleasant and would no doubt cause uproar from gorilla subjects as well as the animal rights community. This is why I feel I should differentiate between gorilla testing (as I have seen the term spelled) and guerrilla testing.

Guerrilla testing is a valuable practice of conducting a high level, economical version of usability testing, when timelines are tight. Recently, I’ve conducted numerous guerrilla testing sessions – typically after we’ve completed a large design and validation job and the client has asked us to take “one last look” before they launch their site or mobile app.

Although not as robust as traditional, in-depth usability testing, there is absolute merit in pursuing this type of activity when faced with time constraints. For example, on a recent project, Stamford consultants had conducted a round of usability testing on a web application for a client. Just one week before launch, our client asked us what might be involved in taking “one last look” at the website. Based on the timeline, we suggested guerrilla testing. I prepared for testing, conducted the test sessions with eight participants and wrote up findings and recommendations for a responsive design site, all in two days! It should be noted that I tested the designs on a desktop AND mobile. That’s right, multiple platforms, eight users, documentation, just two days. And thanks to these two days of work, 30 issues were discovered (two of which were critical show stoppers). Our client was able to use the feedback to make last minute design changes before launch.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that guerrilla testing should be used as a replacement for a rigorous user-centred design process. I am, however, suggesting that usability issues often creep in very quickly during the development process and can greatly impact the user experience of a site or app if not addressed. We need to remember that design is an iterative process: although an agency may have conducted a round of usability testing on a development or beta site, it doesn’t automatically qualify that site as being ready to launch.

At Stamford, we encourage each other to “show early, show often” in order to gain constructive feedback and maintain our high standards. I would encourage external project teams responsible for providing products and services for their users to consider this way of thinking as a part of their design process. We’ve proven time and time again that the end user experience will be more dependable the more it’s run through its paces.

Tips for publishing accessible video

Posted by: | Posted on: October 25, 2017

Over the last few months some of our Stamford crew have been talking about accessible video at Viocorp’s Multimedia Accessibility seminars (You can watch a webcast of one on Viocorp’s website). Video is a hot topic right now, with over 4 billion viewed on YouTube every day! That’s phenomenal! With numbers like that in mind, ensuring your video is produced and published in a way that everyone can access, is paramount.

So what does it mean to publish accessible video? Well, at first glance it sure can feel like a complex and tricky area. Especially in regards to WCAG 2.0 and understanding exactly what is required, at what level.

In our recent presentations, we went through the elements of accessible video, including some practical tips for how to do it. We finished off by showing how a video might look once you’ve made it accessible. We got some great feedback on this final slide, as it helped people see exactly what they had to do.

Here’s the “all together slide” that shows most common accessibility features of a published video.

The slide details what an accessible video looks like and what WCAG 2.0 level each feature applies to. Accessible video features include:

  • Transcript – an accurate text equivalent of the video (Level A)
  • Captions – text equivalent of the audio, superimposed and synchronized to the video (Level A and AA)
  • Sign language – Sign language equivalent in the appropriate sign language. For Australia that’s Auslang (Level AAA)
  • Audio description – a synchronized narrative that describes the visual details of the video (Level A, AA and AAA)
  • Contrast 7:1 – (Level A and AA)
  • Low background noise – (Level AAA)
  • No flashing – no flashing more than 3 times a second (Level A and AA)
  • No keyboard trap – on focus, the video player does not trap the keyboard focus (Level A)

This list is a great start for those who have video and need to retrofit some of these elements. But we’ve come to recognize there are a few things you can do before the video is produced, to make the whole process a little smoother and faster. We’re putting together a best practice video checklist, so you can consider these points from the start. If you’re interested in this and want to know when it’s ready for consumption, be sure to follow us on Twitter and I’ll tweet about it when it’s available.

For now I hope this post with the final results checklist, helps those of you who are publishing video and needed a helping hand.