Thursday, 28 April 2011

User-centred design: how good is your usability?

If you are working across industry sectors, this question of usability can get complex. There are, of course, some basics that prove valuable for general usability of iMedia sites and we won't repeat those here. Jakob Nielsen's Useit website has an established reputation because of his long involvement in the area and it's a good place to start if you want a comprehensive updated overview.

If you haven't visited his site for a while you'll notice that the usability research area has become divided by business sectors and age groups. Those are telling in that usability guidelines have found variances according to the function and profile of use for the interactive user, be it for web, mobile, or smart phone device.

An increase in usability means more satisfied customers ... means better return from the exchange whether that is monetary or affinity to the brand/information. The increase in awareness of the importance of usability has led to a proliferation of Usability jobs. If you're after a usability job or need pointers for advertising for a usability professional, you can browse various sites and we nominate Total Jobs as another indicator here.

If you're involved in producing UK government related web sites, they have issued new usability guidelines in the past week so you may need to check your offerings to this sector to make sure you'll conform for the future and/or revise your current offerings accordingly. Take a look at the COI for the latest where they cover page layout, navigation, writing content, content elements, forms, search, QA and standards and common pages.

If you're involved with e-commerce sites then there's a timely article on econsultancy's site by Paul Rouke with an eye-catching title, WTF does usability best practice mean?, 27th April 2011. Do take a quick look at the Lakeland research that he notes written up by Graham Charlton 7th April 2011, Ten Best Practices from the New Lakeland website. There you'll see examples from their revised site in action with apposite analysis.

It's been a while coming but the sites influenced by Location-based services have a strong following that is growing because they make good sense to any user. Just think of trying to live without the train arrival and departure board information on your smart phone if you regularly use trains, or sat-nav in your car. What about Google Earth/Street maps/view and their spin-off apps? Social media shared information can lead to business opportunities for local businesses when they may least expect it. Lots of people didn't know where Carlilse/Cumbria is even though they'd bought tickets for an event there online. The anonymous blogger realised that many would be looking for accommodation nearby as well as other services and that if the local businesses hadn't placed a Google map app on their sites they would lose business. See: Location-based- marketing will find its feet this Summer. 20th April 2011

If you are working on smart phone apps then you'll also need to keep up with usability issues specifically related to their use: see Where News Apps Come Out On Top in Ground-breaking App Usability Study, 15th April 2011.

This is why usability experts are in more demand than ever. Do you have some? Do you have an alliance with a specialist company or two? Are you costing usability into your project budget breakdowns and if so how? Usability research methods vary a lot and their costs vary in tandem. Not an easy subject but usability methods will have to wait for another time.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Team management - some recent insights

I really relate to this topic and think it has been underestimated in its importance for managing successful projects. The team composition has changed significantly over a decade or more, as well as the communication channels with team members, and it follows that management practices should change too. What, if anything, does the present research find for us?

I have taken a different tack this time by only looking at some of the latest scholarly findings. Yes, there is still a gulf between the academic and business world, but they do have one thing we don't have: time to research. They have a different approach to communicating findings too - there is an academic vernacular - I wonder if that's been the topic of research! However, their insights do make you think and that in itself is worth a lot. Get your 'little grey cells ready' for an onslaught!

There's a summary of an article, Effective Leader-Employee Relationships in the 21st Century, by Edwin L. Mourino-Ruiz, as part of the 2010 Pfeiffer Annual: Consulting book edited by Elaine Biech, in Google Books.

Edwin cites good LMX (Leader-Member Exchange) as a concept linked to the positive and fruitful exchange of communication between a manager and employee. This builds up trust and commitment from the employee. Poor exchange, because of difference in personality etc., has a less fruitful outcome: it's like a self-fulfilling prophesy syndrome. We can relate to that. Not everyone gets on with everyone else. The theory grew from research 25 years ago from Graen and Uhl-Bien (1995) and has been built on since. It's a concept that you may come across in some training courses. But with the increase in virtual teams - yes, we've seen that - positive communication patterns, the building of trust and commitment become harder. Current researchers find that although technology increases the forms of communication it also allows for more miscommunication; citing the lack of non-verbal clues, the predominance of written communication and cross-cultural differences as factors. So, organisations with virtual teams are given the advice to recognise five challenges: building trust, cohesion, team identity, balancing interpersonal and technical skills, and recognising the performance of the virtual team members. (Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk and McPherson 2002). Notice that trust is number 1 on the list, hence the linking back to the earlier research about LMX!

Trust surfaces again in another article from a collection of symposium presentations 2010 - SIGMIS-CPR '10. Here, Mary Summer and Judith Molka-Danielsen take a look at Global teams and project success. Their tips are:
... that team commitment, trust, and team processes played a more important role than cultural differences in the effectiveness of the global IT teams.
Find the summary and access to the full article at:

However, others are probing what cultural differences mean. They are beginning to think that cognitive differences in the way individuals have of solving problems may influence team conflict, as well as the differences of culture having an impact. See Managing Cognitive and Cultural Diversity in Global IT Teams, by Katherine Jablokow and Mark Myers, in the IEEE Proceedings of 2010 summarised at:

So, the question of trust with team members seems to be a popular issue, and cognitive and cultural differences might need to be managed in virtual team environments. Do you have any experiences that point to these being important issues. Who do you 'trust' in your organisation and does it make a difference to you? Will the popular concept that men and women think differently have to be expanded? What culture are you from and how does it affect your interaction?

Hope your little grey cells are not aching too much now!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Does an app mean better business?

Two related stories on the BBC web site last week:
As user behaviour gravitates towards hand-held devices it's easy to see that applications to make use of these can be beneficial both inside your business (a kind of intra-app) and outside (an extra-app), especially if you have a requirement that is aided by knowing where the device is located. Such things can be as simple as a properly formatted web page read in a browser on the device but increasingly it's a dedicated piece of stand-alone code that communicates with your backend using some kind of web services protocol.

In many cases, especially internal ones, a browser-based solution will be more cost-effective, especially if you have ready access to web-type expertise. Since you probably need to call upon lower-level programming to write an app for, say, the iPhone this is more costly and tens of thousands of pounds are often bandied about, which will frighten off some smaller companies. It would be nice if easier toolkits were available, with a lower cost of entry but Apple, at least, seem to me to be discouraging such things. On the other hand the number of teenagers writing apps almost in their spare time suggests that it can't be that hard.

What are you doing? Are you having C++ apps written for you; are you coding for web browsers; or are you possibly missing out on a useful tool. Think of this; one of my clients has an inventory of hardware that they need to check against a database to verify compliance with various standards. The ability to wander around the racks of kit with an iPad or even iPhone in hand to check data and do things like correct model numbers is something that will be very useful to them. In this case I think we can use the browser method to do the job and it'll be an interesting task to work on.

Do you have any intra- or extra-apps that you produced for your business? Tell us about it.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Evaluation of web sites

Most readers will relate to usability and accessibility issues when the term evaluation is used in our context of iMedia design. Here, we'll concentrate on sub-sets of usability/accessibility issues for a change. The term evaluation has grown in its scope over the years, and its importance has increased as well. The users themselves are more savvy than they used to be. Many have received evaluation of web site training especially if they have been part of modern educational institutions. So our sites may be evaluated using a whole set of criteria that we haven't taken into account before including credibility of authorship and ethical practices.

You can get the gist of this training - designed to counter the quick cut and paste of digital information, little thought and little time, academic answers by students in educational establishments - by looking at some of the training itself. Mind you, we are conscious that you can apply it all to this blog as well...

First, Mr G PD's training module for Website evaluation for students, and secondly a company approach, Easybib, which claims it has evaluated and rated over 50% of web sites (Wikipedia gets the thumbs down, by the way).

Why am I bringing this up? Well, we can all get in a rut. We can all decide that evaluation is someone else's job. Whatever! It's refreshing to take a look with new eyes at sites we have created. When was the last time your company revised its evaluation criteria? Do you have one?
Here are a couple of freebees that can prompt some thought if you need a nudge in the evaluation direction. There are many more available if you need to do a better appraisal – just do a search for free guidelines.

Web Site Audit Experts.Com has a basic checklist and you can then access a 170 item listing from there. And NGNG Enterprises (No guts, no glory!) Amber Ludwig offers an 11 page guide.

Different types of sites need different appraisal/evaluation criteria. So a single list may not suit all that you offer: bear that in mind. Some advocate having a user survey on the site so that you can keep abreast of changing attitudes in the user-base. Do you use those, for example? You can find examples of those through an internet search too.

Then, an article on Intranets started me thinking. I'd forgotten about those types of sites. The captive users who work for the company form a sub-set of users that have their own agenda, attitudes and opinions. See Michael Marchionda's The Key to a Successful Intranet Site Evaluation.

We work in a fast changing field but it's not just the technology that changes. We are meant to serve the users of the technology. How best to do that involves constant evaluation of ourselves.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Should we worry about metadata?

What is metadata? One way to think about it is as data about data. Metadata is to your data file as the contents, index and 'back of the title page' are to a book.

On the web there is metadata provision in every web page, in the form of the meta tags in the header of the html file. Here we can put key words, a description of the page, and a variety of other pieces of information that, to be honest, we often don't include. It is also possible to include metadata in image files, including JPEGs. When you take a photo with a digital camera, the camera will automatically include metadata about the settings when the shot was taken, and in some cameras you can set that to include the photographer's name and copyright information.

The use of metadata in online images is becoming increasingly contentious. One of the problems being that in some cases any metadata, including the data that might identify the copyright in the image, is being removed, by accident or by design. Many in the photographic community are worried that widespread posting of images on websites, especially social media sites, risks creating so-called orphan works; where the author is either not known or cannot be traced. This is because sometimes the internet seems to be viewed as a copyright-free zone. I particularly like the copyright notice on the middle photograph.

So, what should we be doing if we publish images on our web sites?
  1. Make sure published metadata includes attribution data (ie who took the photo) and the URL of your web site
  2. If you allow user uploading of images be sure to include any metadata in the original file
  3. If you resize images make sure any metadata is carried over
  4. Don't use images without permission unless you know they are out of copyright
There's a great online tool which can show you metadata for a bewildering range of file types, including the common image formats. It was written by Jeffrey Friedl in 2006 and you can find out about it on his blog and try it out for yourself.

[PS: Jeffrey Friedl wrote the O'Reilly book Mastering Regular Expressions. An essential programmer's read.]