Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

Almost here

December 27th, 2013 8 comments

The new edition of Don’t Make Me Think (Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited) is finally about to escape the containment.

DMMTR cover 389x500In fact, the eBook version should be available today, and Amazon currently says they’ll be shipping the papyrus version next Friday (January 3rd). I tend to believe them, because in my experience they’re almost always smart enough to underpromise and overdeliver.  [UPDATE: It’s shipping from Amazon now—12/30. Kindle and eBook are available, too.]

I’m looking forward to seeing a copy myself.

If you’ve ever published a book, you know how much work goes into designing a cover. And if you haven’t, take my word for it: Coming up with a book cover can involve as many stakeholders, constraints, requirements, tradeoffs, and religious debates as designing an entire Web site, and sometimes takes almost as long.

In this case, for instance, it had to be similar enough to the original cover so people would understand that it’s the same book. But at the same time it had to be different enough that they’d also understand it wasn’t the same book—if you see what I mean.

Like most design projects, the whole thing was pretty interesting, and maybe one of these days I’ll write something about it.

Cover prototypingFor now, though, I just wanted to share a few photos of part of my personal [some might say compulsive] approach to the process.

Each time we came up with a new design, I’d print it out on photo paper, trim it to size, and attach it to the marked-up copy of the previous edition that I carried with me everywhere for six months while I was writing. I’d use removable glue-stick so I could peel it off later and replace it with the next iteration.

I found that carrying the new design around on a real book was the best way to get a feel for what worked about it and what still needed improvement.

The inspiration for this was clearly the story I’ve always loved about how Jeff Hawkins cut out a block of wood the size and shape of the Palm Pilot, then carried it around for months in his shirt pocket pretending to use it to take notes, look up phone numbers, etc. If you’ve never heard the story—or even if you have—check out this post by Alberto Savoia on the idea of pretotyping (as opposed to prototyping): My favorite pretotype story.

Just trying something out

May 26th, 2013 16 comments

I decided that one of the [many] reasons why I don’t post to my blog regularly is that the tool I’ve been using to do it (WordPress) is just not very welcoming.

Getting Things Done coverIt’s kind of like what David Allen says about items on your to-do list: If you experience a sense of dread just reading them, you’re not very likely to want to start doing them. (One of his primary rules automatically makes them friendlier: Every item on your Next Actions list should be just that—the very next, and usually very small, action that you need to take to further the goal, not the whole goal itself. So rather than “Get car fixed” you’d put “Look up mechanic’s phone number” which feels much less tiring, and hence much more doable.)

In the same sense, I realized that I’ve always approached opening up the native WordPress editor with a sense of dread. It just always feels like I’m wading through a swamp in a pair of hip boots that are way too large: everything about it feels kind of cumbersome. So I decided to look around for some way to write blog posts that felt friendlier.

Right now, I’m giving Windows Live Writer a spin. Please ignore any mild sense of vertigo you may experience. [Hopefully] it’ll only be temporary.

UPDATE  Well, that went pretty well, all things considered. The vote isn’t in yet on any unintended consequences, but it was certainly more fun than working in the WordPress editor. Curiously, it didn’t preview the post in the fonts used on my site (as advertised), but I have to imagine that may be because I tinkered with the WordPress theme that I use quite a bit. We’ll see.

imageUPDATE 2  While googling to find out if I could make edits outside of Live Writer (e.g. via the WordPress app on my iPhone) and still have Live Writer stay in sync, I discovered that the reason I wasn’t seeing WYSIWYG fonts from my theme was that I hadn’t noticed the Preview tab at the bottom of the screen. (The word “Preview” was also gray, BTW.) It’s not like I hadn’t looked for it, but the status bar at the bottom of a window isn’t one of the places where I usually look for important things.

UPDATE 3  Gosh, I really like this. It’s about a thousand times better than using WordPress itself. Essentially, it’s like writing in Word (which I’ve used forever), only it has a Publish button that knows how to speak to WordPress. Maybe I’ll actually start blogging after all.

Categories: Usability

These are a | few of my | fav- or- ite | things…

March 28th, 2013 6 comments

If you’ve ever done usability tests using mobile devices you know that it can get very complicated very quickly: sleds, goosenecks, document cameras, converters, physical restraints (well, maybe not physical restraints, but “Don’t move the device beyond this point” markers), and a lot more.

Since I wrote a book about testing (Rocket Surgery Made Easy), people often ask me about the best way to do mobile testing. I think I’ve finally figured out what’s what, and I’m going to write a few blog posts about it. To begin with, though, I thought I’d mention two tools that seem to be well-kept secrets (i.e., I’m always surprised how many people haven’t heard about them.)

They’re useful for solving two problems:

  • How you record mobile tests, and
  • How you display them to observers.

(They’re both for iOS devices, not Android or Windows Phone.)

First, recording.

As near as I can tell, Steve Jobs must have been scared by multitasking when he was a kid, with the result that it’s nearly impossible to do more than one thing at a time on your iPhone or iPad–or iWatch, presumably. (Exception: You can listen to music and do one other thing. Steve was apparently fond of music.)

The upshot is that there’s never been much prospect for running a screen recorder in the background under iOS. And screen recorders (e.g., Camtasia, et al), are like mothers’ milk to us usability folks. I had despaired of ever finding one, until recently.

First, I came across UX Recorder ( And then someone (OK, it was Dave Greenlees. Thanks, Dave.) alerted me to Magitest (

They have a lot of similarities. They both record what’s on the screen, the user’s face (via the front-facing camera), and think-aloud audio (via the microphone). They both save the recordings to the camera roll when you’re done. And they both superimpose some representation of the user’s gestures (taps, swipes, pinches, etc.) on the recording.

Both have free versions that let you do short test recordings. The full Magitest costs $24.99, and UX Recorder has a pay-per-recording plan, or $59.99 for unlimited use.

The truth is, given the limitations imposed by Apple, they’re both pretty remarkable. But they’re not perfect.

They both seem to slow things down. (Typing can be painful, for instance.) And the recordings can take a very long time to encode and save. (All of this is from limited use/experimentation, so anyone with *actual* knowledge, please chime in with corrections.)

They both can only record things that happen in a web browser, so you can’t use them to test apps. But Magitest has an SDK module that you can add to your native-app project code which will let you make app-specific recordings.

BTW, there *was* another app called Display Recorder in the App Store briefly that *didn’t* play by the no-multitasking rules, and I was lucky enough to grab a copy before Apple banned it. It allowed you to record *anything*, including other apps, seemed not to slow things down, and saved its files remarkably fast. The bad news is that it doesn’t exist anymore, at least not without jailbreaking. It seems to live on in the Cydia store, though, if you’re the kind of person who’s OK with ripping the “Do not remove under penalty of law” labels off pillows and mattresses.

Second, displaying.

The truth is, while recordings are nice to have, I’m much more concerned about getting a bunch of people in a room and having them observe the tests live, so displaying what’s happening on a big screen is crucial.

There are two basic approaches: screen sharing (mirroring what’s on the screen) and camera views (what the user sees, including his or her own hands).

I’ll go into the pros and cons of both in another post, but I can tell you one thing: If all you want to do is mirror the screen to people in another room, you should at least consider Airplay–a feature built into iOS, the Mac OS, and Apple TVs for streaming audio and video.

It’s this simple:

  1. Connect your iDevice (iPhone 4S or higher, iPad 2 or higher, iPad Mini) and a Mac or PC to the same WiFi network.
  2. Install Reflector ($12.99 from ) on the Mac or PC.
  3. Turn on Airplay on the iDevice.

Bingo: Reflector mirrors your iDevice screen on the Mac or PC. (I have to say the effect is oddly striking. It always feels a little bit like magic to me.)

From there, you can run a screen recorder (e.g., Camtasia) to make a recording, and run screen sharing software (e.g. GoToMeeting) to send the image to the observation room. (Reflector doesn’t transmit audio from the iDevice microphone, so you’ll have to hook up a mic to the Mac or PC.)

I’ve used this to project the demo tests that I do whenever I give talks, and it works remarkably well.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m going to write another post or two about what I’ve finally concluded about mobile testing. (I have to say even I was surprised by my conclusions.)

Categories: Usability


May 6th, 2012 1 comment


UPA slidesUPDATE – June 11th: The results of our survey about why serious usability problems often go unfixed–and our own theories–are now online in our slides from last week’s UPA (or is it UXPA?) at SlideShare. Thanks again to everyone who responded to the survey!


Caroline Jarrett and I are doing a session at the UPA conference in June (in beautiful, oppressively hot downtown Las Vegas) about why people pay for our advice about usability and then ignore it, and we could use your help.

Can you do us a favor and fill out a short survey?

(Caroline won’t let me say just how short it is, because everyone’s mileage will vary so I’d inevitably be misleading some of you. But I can tell you it’s only eight questions, and five of them are multiple choice. And it’s all on one Web page. And we won’t ask you to identify yourself at all.)


UPDATE: Some folks have been asking what our session is about. I hesitated to explain it to avoid influencing people’s responses, but Caroline (who’s writing a book for UX people on how to do surveys) pointed out that since the survey is exploratory, not statistical, it’s OK.

So here’s the description of our UPA talk, which will be on Thurday, June 7 at 9 am:


“…but the light bulb has to want to change”:
Why do the most serious usability problems we uncover often go unfixed?

As a profession, one of our most important motivations is that we want products to get better. But even when our recommendations are welcomed and apparently highly valued, they often aren’t acted upon–especially, it seems, when the problems involved are serious. This session offers some reasons why this happens, and suggests what we can do to improve our track record.


The title, of course, is a reference to the old joke:

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

One. But the light bulb has to want to change.”

Categories: Usability

Ask not what government Web sites can do for you…

September 20th, 2011 2 comments

If, like me, you sometimes wish there was something you could do to help our government (besides vote and pay your taxes), here’s a chance to put your accumulated User Experience skills to good use.

As part of a .gov reform initiative launched this summer by the White House, the GSA is running a two-week online conversation with web experts and the public to generate ideas for re-inventing how the federal government delivers information and services online.

From now until Friday, Sept. 30, head on over to the National Dialogue on Improving Government Websites and add your two cents to the discussion. Bright ideas particularly welcome. No whiners, please.

Also, a number of UX folks have been asked to help move the discussion along, and I’m very pleased to be one of them. In addition to putting in our two cents worth whenever we have a chance, each of us “experts” has an assigned hour to be commenting live. So if you can, swing by on Thursday at 3 pm ET, when Jakob Nielsen and I will be hanging out in the Usability and Design topic.

[Update: The “live” hour is over, but Jakob and I are still reading and commenting every day. (I even added two ideas of my own.) So please drop by and add an idea or comment and vote on everyone else’s.]

Categories: Usability

You say “potato,” I say “focus group”

August 12th, 2011 15 comments

There’s one phenomenon you really should be prepared for when you introduce the idea of usability tests in your organization…

Seriously. This really happens. All the time.

The problem is that a lot more people are familiar with focus groups than with usability tests. So sometimes no matter how often you correct them (politely and patiently, of course), they’ll still refer to your upcoming usability tests as…focus groups.

The good news is that as soon as you get them to actually come and observe a test, the difference becomes clear and the problem goes away. But until then, it can be disconcerting. And sometimes amusing.

Make sure you have your 30-second elevator pitch explanation of the difference down pat, something like

Usability tests are about watching people actually try to use what we’re building, so we can detect and fix the parts that confuse or frustrate them.

Focus groups are about having people talk about things, like their opinions about our products, their past experiences with them, or their reactions to new ideas that we show them.

So the main difference is that in usability tests, you watch people actually use things, instead of just talk about them.”

Categories: Usability

printf(“hello, world”)

August 11th, 2011 23 comments

For a long time now, I’ve written something new pretty regularly. Once every five years, like clockwork.

Three books in ten years

In between, I’ve never published much of anything. For example, 185 tweets in 2 years, and almost all of them just blatant (“Come to my workshop!”) self promotion.

140 characters just isn’t enough room for me to rub two thoughts together. And writing a whole article is as daunting to me as writing another whole book.

But I’m finally at a point where it seems silly to go for years without putting anything out there. So I’m going to try blogging.

I may not post often, but I will try to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high. (Or low. Whichever is the good one.) Hopefully, some of it will turn out to be useful to someone.

As my friend Joe Ferrara said in high school, “I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but I’d like to clarify a few things.”

Wish me luck.

Categories: Usability