My Y4IT 2009 Talk: Web Usability & User Experience Design

As I said in my previous post, I was invited to speak at the 2009 Y4IT Conference held at the University of the Philippines – Diliman in Quezon City and my talk was held yesterday.

Although it was my third year in a row to speak, it was my first time at the big stage. My talk, “Web Usability & User Experience Design,” was held at the University of the Philippines Theater and that capacity of that venue, by my estimate, is 3,000. Last year, I was at the UP Film Institute’s Cine Adarna, a place with at least 1,000 seating capacity. But regardless of the venue, both places were crowded and extra seats had to be provided to accommodate all the attendees.

As far as my talk went, it was pretty OK. I didn’t get nervous since there as an intermission my Pinoy Dream Academy finalist Liezel Garcia before I went on stage. The energy of the crown was pretty positive as I started. And this was helpful as I wasn’t feeling 100% at that time.

One thing I learned in presenting to large audiences is that the start has to be great. And with a crowd that was at least 3,000, I knew my start had to be better than great.

So I started to loosen up on stage and addressed the audience very casually (the attendees were primarily college students in their junior and senior years). Interestingly, I started off by telling the crowd that my talk was about, gasp, love.  Anyways, I got their attention and proceeded to transition to the meat of my talk: web usability and user experience design.

The most frustrating part about my talk was that when I asked the audience who did web projects in school, a very small, and I mean small, amount raised their hands. I could only see the negative in this. Either a) the audience wasn’t listening to me, or b) Information Technology students in the Philippines today are NOT into doing any web design or development. If the reason was the first, it meant I failed to do the necessary research about the audience and if it was the second, it meant that the future of web design in the Philippines doesn’t look good.

I also got feedback from a blogger who was part of the audience that the slide deck in Powerpoint that I used was great. (Although he was not convinced the audience was ready for my talk). But in anycase, any type of feedback is welcome. :)

Over-all, the experience of speaking before 3,000 people about usability was a blast. I hope the audience learned a thing or two about web usability and user experience design and I get to do this again next year. 😀

Speaking at the 2009 Y4IT Conference

I’ll be speaking again at the Philippine Youth Congress in Information Technology (aka the Y4IT Conference). I’ve had talks in Y4IT 2007 and Y4IT 2008, and for the 2009 edition, I’m going back to basics.

The themes of my last two talks were about Web 2.0 (Social media, user generated content) and I figured either I take the notch up or blaze a new trail and I chose the latter. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about Web Usability and User Experience Design– two topics that I know pretty well and topics that are closer to my heart.

To be honest, I avoided talking about usability in the last two years because I felt I wanted to stretch my wings a bit, but now I feel that I need to remind the young IT college students again about the value of web usability.

So, for everyone who’ll be attending the Y4IT Conference tomorrow, expect the same nice talk from me on a very interesting topic. :)

This year’s Y4IT conference is full of very interesting topics and catchy titles and here are some that caught my eye:

  • Developing Web Toys - Mr. Luis Buenaventura II
  • Marketing Through Social Networks - Mr. J. Angelo Racoma
  • IT in the Early Grades- Ms. Sabrina Par
  • The 7 Habits of an Effective Developer - Mr. Chuk Munn Lee
  • The Next 5 in 5: Predicting Innovations  - Mr. Lope Doromal, Jr.
  • Love in Cyberspace - Prof. Cherrie Joy Billedo
  • Creating Dynamic Web Application Using ASP.NET 3.5 - Ms. Alezandra Nicolas
  • Democratizing Innovation Using the Web - Mr. Mark Ruiz
  • Empathic Computing: Innovations and Challenges – Dr. Merlin Teodosia Suarez
  • Innovation on the Web -Mr. Jay Trinidad
  • Internet Romance - Mr. Jayvee Fernandez
  • To Tumble, to Twitt; to Twitt: Perchance to Plurk: Ay, There’s the Rub - Mr. Juned Sonido

How NOT to Run an Online Store

I’ve been on the look-out for a nice wireless presenter for the last few weeks since I’m having several talks and classes in the coming month. I shopped online for my brand of choice (a Logitech Cordless Presenter), and I looked at several options online.

My search for the wireless presenter brought me to known sites like eBay, Amazon, and even I would have finished my quest for the wireless presenter earlier had a) the shipping costs were not more than the item cost, and b) the online retailers were shipping to the Philippines. (Argh!)

After weighing the relevant costs and my urgency to get the item, I decided to buy from a local retailer. So I looked at a few online stores and found that PC Express, one of the big PC retailers in the Philippines, carried the Logitech Cordless Presenter. I was quite happy when I saw that they had a stock of the presenter in their online store, so I proceeded to put it in my online shopping cart.

However, my fortunes took a bad turn after I clicked the “Add to Cart” button:


WTH?!? This is the reason my eCommerce hasn’t hit mainstream in the Philippines– the retailers themselves can’t get it right. 😡

Web Fonts & Typography: The Good & The Bad

A few weeks ago, there was some minor buzz about fonts and typography on the web. The story centered on the new updates on Firefox to support the @font-face rule in CSS. This rule can enable fonts from a remote location to be downloaded and rendered by the webpage calling it. (The status quo is that the fonts must reside in the user’s local machine in order to be used.)

To be honest, I’m over the fence over this development.

On one hand, I’m really looking forward to the use of new fonts as a native capability of web designers. The potential is just immense– designers will no longer be captive to the likes of Verdana, Georgia, Arial, and Tahoma, work-arounds such as image replacement techniques will be a thing of the past, and this may even open up new opportunities for font foundries. Accessibility-wise, tons of images as text will give way to properly styled text.

On the other, there are two main issues that keeps me from doing cartwheels all over the place: a) The potential misuse of the fonts, opening a Pandora’s box of new usability problems and even security issues; and b) the DRM of the web fonts. (How will people pay for the fonts & bandwidth?)

These two issues have the potential to be deal breakers but there are possible solutions to them.

For the usability issues, this puts the onus on browser makers to put better font override features to turn-off #font-face rendering. Designers must also anticipate the use of standard fonts as a replacement to the non-standard fonts.

The DRM issue is a little trickier. I seriously doubt that foundries will just give up their fonts– unless there’s a sponsor involved. Perhaps a company like Adobe or Google can sponsor fonts for designers. Another possible model is licensing where the company’s font servers can allow/disallow access to the typefaces based on a registry of licensed websites.

I’m pretty sure that the direction of web fonts & typography will go towards the @font-face direction, and I do hope that the stumbling blocks will be overcome.

Practical Usability Methods for The Busy Web Designer

I was once asked what my “dream team” for a web design team would be composed off and right off the bat I said I would really like a usability person on my team. There’s a reason why I said that’s a dream team because more often than not, web design teams don’t have a usability guy/girl to manage the interaction design, user experience, and ease of use of the web site.

Most of the time, it falls on the shoulders of the web designer to be that usability person because a) there’s no budget for a usability analyst/engineer b) there are no resources for a usability testing set-up. The common notion is that usability testing has to be done in a lab worthy of rocket science, so most busy web designers just forgo the whole thing all together.

I do believe that testing in a controlled and well-configured environment will yield the best results, but if there’s one thing I learned from my engineering education is that most of the time, you only need “good enough” analysis and data to make things happen. The revered usability guru Jakob Nielsen researched about these “good enough” usability methods and their effectiveness and his findings suggested that these methods, aptly termed “discount usability methods,” were not at par with the more elaborate usability testings, but they were good enough.

So, here are some practical and “good enough” usability methods designers may want to try out to improve his/her user interface designs:

  • Heuristic Evaluation – This is where the designer will find a handy, battle-tested set of guidelines and subject his/her design to it. (The Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines is an example of such guidelines). This is a very easy and cost-effective usability method and research has shown it has good utility. However, this method often loses sight of context and may be too broad.
  • User Research – More like market research, the designer can look for people who are the “primary target users” and ask them to try out the user interface. You may also ask your usability tester to “think out aloud” and observe his/her reactions to the key features of the design. This will be costlier in terms of time and effort, but puts into the fore the context of your design.
  • Prototyping – The most popular way of doing this is via Paper Mock-ups. With the user interface modeled into paper, the process is pretty flexible in terms of a design review (from your superiors) and as a feedback form from potential users.

While the abovementioned methods are not really “sexy” and looks rather primitive, all of them one key thing: feedback. Usability testing, both elaborate and simple, strive feedback from the users.

So, busy web designer, the moment you think usability is all about tricked-out labs and set-ups, remember that there are few practical usability methods out there that are “good enough”

Mozilla Labs Design Challenge Summer 09

“How do you improved tabbed browsing?”

This is the fundamental question the Mozilla Labs Design Challenge Summer 09 is trying to answer. More specifically, the design challenge is how to find new, innovative ways to create, navigate and manage multiple web sites within the same browser instance.

The context of this challenge is the inherent weakness of tabs: it can work for a few items (around 9-10 tabs), but it falters when the number of tabs goes beyond that. (Imagine tabbed browsing for 50 windows). I think the challenge is really to now go beyond tabbed browsing because I believe tabbed browsing has its place, its just that the environment & experience of web browsing is changing.

To join the design challenge, any person can submit an idea (that could even be scribbled on napkin) and a video uploaded in the major video sharing sites explaining the proposed solution to the tabbed browsing problem. The deadline for submissions is on June 12, 2009.

Smart Sandbox: When Cross-platform Integration has Issues

In the past week, Smart Communications launched  Sandbox, The Philippine telecoms giant’s entry into the local social network scene. Sandbox boasts an integrated social community on the web and mobile platforms. From the Sandbox site’s own words:

Sandbox is a portal that brings all content and services you love on the web all in one place.

In Sandbox, you can create your own profile and update your status for your friends to see. You can upload and view photos and videos, write a blog or join a forum discussion. You can also go shopping on line. You can send and receive email and download music, games and various other content.

I’ve been part of the beta testing group and I’ve had the chance to use it before the public launch. So, is Sandbox any good?

Here are some blog posts to give you an idea how the site is:

For a local social network, it’s pretty ambitious because it’s trying to wean mobile phone users into using an integrated web & mobile service. From a usability point of view, the service has to be very seamless and the whole process of transitioning should be efficient and satisfying. And this includes proper error handling.

But if you look at one of the crucial functionalities, Sandbox falls pretty flat.

The functionality I’m talking about is the password retrieval system and basic support.

If you forgot your password, Sandbox will only send your password to your mobile phone. Hypothetically, that shouldn’t be a problem, but for the last few days, I have yet to receive the password from the mobile number I registered.

In addition to that, there is a more grave flaw: the lack of an easy way to contact the Sandbox site support staff for help. If you look hard enough, you will discover in the site’s FAQs that you need to send an email to a certain address to be able to contact Smart. Apart from your call for help, you have to send a screenshot of your problem. Can you imagine succesful social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn putting the burden completely on the user to provide the information to get support?

The fact that there are issues with the web & mobile integration means that support & sufficient user feedback mechanisms should be in place to make it easier for new users. Seemingly little things like these make the user experience a much more painless and satisfying one.

I’ve already given some recommendations in improving the navigation, particularly in the mobile platform. I’ve gone as fas as recommending the delay of the launch unless these issues were solved. The site went live with most of the issues still there.

Way to go Smart.