Plateaus are Harder Than Mountains

Written by: Steve Turbek

Bold claims have been made about applying “big data” to solve the world’s problems, from health (Fitbit) to saving energy (Nest). Data is all around us, appearing in slick devices and colorful dashboards, yet focusing on the technology can cause us to miss the people who have to use it.

Our job as designers is to communicate information. A clean design with big numbers and charts looks good, but how can we make sure people actually understand the data?

iPhone Health app screen showing a chart of steps across a week’s time.
The design promise: An iPhone Health app screen showing a chart of steps across a week’s time.

Tweet from Dave Epstein @epstein "Thanks to the new health app on the iPhone 6 I learned I walked 7 miles today though I'm not sure why I care about that information"
The user reality.

Designing with data for real people

The most visible way people are now bringing data into their lives is with fitness trackers such as Fitbit, Vivofit, Jawbone Up, and many more. Over the last year, I’ve been talking to people about how they use data in their lives. This article is not about the merits of any one device but a compilation of interviews about how real people use data, merged into personas, with some ideas for design.

“Ironically, devices that initially helped foster engagement in fitness sometimes became too naïve to support increasingly sophisticated fitness priorities.”

Simplicity can be limiting

Ken is a middle-aged guy who needed to get in shape. He heard about the Fitbit, and being a gadget guy thought it “was a good excuse to play around,” but he is starting to feel the limits. For good health, you need to get your heart rate up occasionally; not all steps count the same. “This might be a tool more for getting started. I’m training for a 10k and ‘steps’ isn’t a useful way of looking at it. I’m checking out GPS running watches now, but don’t tell my Fitbit.”

Ken’s is a common story; a study noted that “ironically, devices that initially helped foster engagement in fitness sometimes became too naïve to support increasingly sophisticated fitness priorities.”

It is important to realize that the tools themselves are not going to get people to exercise, but they can inspire people to try. For new users, extreme simplicity is a requirement, but this very simplicity becomes limiting as the user expectations increase. At each stage, the tool needs to give back more value than it asks, to address more complex questions as users’ experience and competency increases. For example, colorful charts can show progress and sustain interest for a while, but inevitably we all plateau. The experience needs to develop to address day 100 as well as day 1.

Screenshot of user dashboard
The Fitbit dashboard does a great job of making information feel approachable, yet some users report that it becomes less interesting as their activity plateaus.

Curiosity, not hard-core analytics

Susan came at quantifying herself from a different angle–sleeping. One of the promised benefits of the devices is to track and understand your sleeping patterns and ideally wake you up at the most auspicious time.

In the end, her Jawbone Up didn’t have a big impact on her life. “I didn’t really use the data–I still drink coffee too late in the evening and read the web in bed, but there is a nice feeling from seeing the chart. It has certainly made me think about getting more sleep.”

That’s probably the best benefit she could get. A blog post in Nature cites research that shows “the stage of sleep we’ve been woken from … does not actually have an impact on cognitive performance,” but “sleep is arguably one of the most (if not the most) important health factor that can be altered.”

Screenshot of Sleep Cycle app
Beyond the question about whether this information is accurate, this is an example of reporting the raw data without providing the value of interpretation, such as “how can I get a better night of sleep?”

One insight from Susan’s story is that many users are not looking for deep statistical analysis. Susan was just curious.

If there is no goal, it can be very hard to offer more than tracking and generic advice. Like the Cheshire Cat said “[If you don’t care where you end up], it doesn’t matter which direction you go.” Sleep cycle info isn’t something Susan can use to control her sleep.

In contrast, designing to a specific issue is much easier. If you read enough health stories, the climax is usually an insight like “My heart attack was a wake up call.” One person who suffered from Crohn’s disease wrote: “I know/knew that alcohol can be bad for anything in the bowels, but it was when I compared pain/flare-days to lite alcohol consumption … I saw a pattern… having the data made it plain as day.”

Achieving that insight is still a human process. Each one of us has to recognize there is a problem before trying to fix it.

A good design should communicate the resolution of information, that measurements are imperfect and the person should focus on the high level changes.

Telling the whole truth

Dan is a former fitness tracker user, but has fallen off. “The biggest issue for me was that the numbers didn’t add up.” “When I saw I was getting credit for steps when lifting my fork, I had to laugh.” He is not alone. The study Phases of Accuracy Diagnosis (PDF) noted most users “learned to regard the data provided by the Fitbit as highly suspect.”

Bad or inconsistent data is a de-motivator. This is important because, as the Phases article concludes, “users are inclined to abandon their use of the Fitbit because: they don’t trust its accuracy; they have trouble understanding what state it is in; and they are unable to make the Fitbit more accurate as they become expert users.”

Screen shot of Nike+ running app map screen showing a run path with periods of faster and slower speeds.
The Nike+ app shows fast and slow sections. Without showing elevation, it’s hard to know if you were slacking off or just going uphill.

Data uncertainty raises an ethical question for designers. We have a responsibility to tell the whole truth. Bold claims about improving health made in marketing need to be honestly built into an app.

Good design with a simple number may hide the messy fact that the number may not mean much at all.

In all the user research I’ve observed, people are always asking for simplicity. Our challenge as designers is that a simple answer is almost always incomplete. The calories burned each mile varies tremendously from person to person, from flat ground to hills, from running to walking. It feels good to design a screen around a single, simple number, but it just isn’t, you know, true. A good design should communicate the resolution of information, that measurements are imperfect and the person should focus on the high level changes.

As Wired Magazine noted, because many of the algorithms are hidden and proprietary, it is hard to know how accurate they are. Comparing them against each other suggests that measuring calories burned via an app is not an exact science.

The Withings scale Health Mate app is designed to coach people to achieve their weight loss goals. Withings has the data. Does the product work, or not? Only they know.

Grice’s Maxim of Quality recommends you don’t say what you believe to be false (don’t lie) but also don’t say things you lack adequate evidence for (be completely truthful). Hiding complexity under bold graphics makes for a beautifully designed chart, but it would be more honest to share the uncertainty behind these numbers.

Once you start to ask questions about health data, you learn that it is often tentative and is revised with new research. This is hard for people to make use of, especially when communicated through fear–and we have to design for this.

At your next family gathering, listen to people talk about their health. Cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diabetes, HDL, LDL? Which one is good now? Can we eat eggs again? Oh, those doctors, why don’t they make up their minds?! Understanding health is a design problem, just as a GUI is easier to use than a command line interface.

More data ≠ better answers

At the heart of many of these devices is a promise that design can make the complex understandable. An article on wearable medical devices noted the biggest challenge: They need to actually work before they can be used for medicine.

An illustration for medical students showing a quick way to interpret the “ST Elevation” form in an EKG graph using “smiley” and “frowny” faces
If apparently even doctors need mnemonics to understand the signs, we should be wary of amateur cardiology. From Medinfo-UFL.

Life recently reminded me that more data does not always give better answers. I do quite a bit of running and wanted to quantify it by using a heart rate monitor. During my runs, I noticed my heart rate was above normal. Way, way above normal. My doctor had me wear a high end EKG system for a few days. After a few weeks of fear, the answer came back: “Yeah, some people’s hearts just beat faster.”

After all this digital measurement, it was a shock to be reminded that all those numbers are just rough guidelines. I learned that doctors care more at how quickly it descends after exercise.

In fact, my heart showed “J point notching of the ST elevation symptomatic of athletic people.” No average person is going to understand this, nor should they be making their own medical diagnosis. Even EKGs routinely get mis-read by professionals; here’s a cheat sheet to distinguish people at risk of a heart attack from the athletic.

Designers have a responsibility to consider whether regular people can plausibly use a tool, and when the subject matter is best for professionals. Just putting an EKG on a watch does not answer the question “Am I healthy?”

Screen mockup of digital watch showing EKG readings
Are you sure you want DIY cardiology? From The Atlantic.

One method is to look at the context of use. Specialists know how to use or to ignore a particular number, but the average person rarely has the training to know if a particular reading is good or bad for them personally. If the information is meant to be understood relatively, over time, perhaps avoid specific numbers; use unlabeled charts or icons. For example, the Fitbit Flex uses 5 LEDs to show progress. A color LCD implies greater precision, whether or not the data is any more precise.

Photo of the Fitbit Flex wrist activity tracker
The limited resolution communicates the right resolution for the user to understand the data (and its accuracy) on the FitBit Flex.

In contrast, using interesting design and high resolution of information risks both overwhelming the user and losing the marathon by focusing on the steps.

Complex data visualization of words in heavy metal songs
Artistic charts are visually interesting but can be hard to read.

Alternatively, capturing and reporting info may not be enough for good design. Knowing that tracking alone does not motivate most people, consider whether the experience could be built around a plan to get from A to B. This lets people select the challenge they are looking for and sorts them into groups that can get better advice.

As an example, the new Apple iPhone Health app has a staggering number of inputs to choose from. What it lacks is a meaningful way for the person to get value from it. The inputs are dutifully displayed on the “dashboard”, sans context, guidance, or help. The dashboard chart even clips the Y axis to make it look prettier, at the cost of making a one pound drop look like a big deal (“… not that there’s anything wrong with that!”)

Just tracking information is not really helping people.
Just tracking information is not really helping people.

A design that only works for a new user is not a very good design.

Plateaus are harder to climb than mountains

Mark is an older guy who wanted to be more active. He was a passionate step counter for the first few months but has fallen off. He echoed a comment in a recent study:

“I liked it a lot in the beginning and I think now I’ve sort of fallen out of love with it. You know it’s like you’ve been married for a long time and… it’s all right but the excitement has gone.”

There are a lot of people like Mark out there–the drop off rate of these products is said to be as high as 1/3 in the first 6 months. The biggest problem is simply novelty fatigue. People love new experiences but become bored or distracted. Gyms know this–they would never have enough space if all the members actually used their memberships.

Mark noted that he was excited to hit his steps but began to feel judged when he didn’t hit them, especially on rainy days. Taking long walks on vacations set high bars that he could never reach on a work day. Tracking also has a perverse emotional effect. “If I forget my Fitbit, I wonder ‘why bother walking if I don’t get the credit,'” Mark said.

Images of Apple iPhone health app
Just tracking information is not really helping people. From LifeHacker.

Roger S. Gil says “monitoring progress can elicit more anxiety since it makes the inevitable ‘plateau’ periods … much more noticeable.”

After the initial honeymoon period where someone plays with a device, it needs to quickly become a tool to achieve a personal goal, or it gets put in the closet. No device is going to make someone exercise, but a design that only works for a new user is not a very good design.

A good example of going beyond tracking is RunKeeper’s Goal Coach feature. It lets you set a challenge to yourself, offers a plan, and shows how you measure up. This is not for the faint of heart. A challenge for the Marks of the world is that most people lack a specific quantifiable fitness goal in their lives. ‘Being healthy’ is a lifestyle, not a 10 week goal.

Images of RunKeeper app Goal Coach screens
A good example of going beyond tracking, from Apple Insider.

Designing for this situation requires the tool to avoid judgments, celebrating progress at each turn.

No one tool is going to solve everyone’s problem. Different stages, from novice to professional, require radically different interfaces with the appropriate amount of challenge and responses. Taking a comprehensive lifestyle approach can help–for example asking people to plan when they want to exercise–to make it a part of their weekly schedule. For some, sharing with friends helps stay focused, but many feel more anxious about being judged.

Simple measurements have a lurking danger known as Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” That is, focusing around a single number causes people to work to improve it, even if the larger picture doesn’t change. For example, measuring “steps” may have the side effect of justifying eating more.

In all of these cases, design is clearly an essential tool for addressing the problem of our age: personalized data. It’s up to us to make it work FOR the people whose lives are being quantified.

When Information Design is a Matter of Life or Death

Written by: Thomas Bohm

In 2008, Lloyds Pharmacy conducted 20 minute interviews1 with 1,961 UK adults. Almost one in five people admitted to having taken prescription medicines incorrectly; more than eight million adults have either misread medicine labels or misunderstood the instructions, resulting in them taking the wrong dose or taking medication at the wrong time of day. In addition, the overall problem seemed to be more acute among older patients.

Almost one in five people admitted to having taken prescription medicines incorrectly; more than eight million adults have either misread medicine labels or misunderstood the instructions.

Medicine or patient information leaflets refer to the document included inside medicine packaging and are typically printed on thin paper (see figures 1.1–1.4). They are essential for the safe use of medicines and help answer people’s questions when taking the medicine.

If the leaflet works well, it can lead to people taking the medicine correctly, hopefully improving their health and wellness. If it works poorly, it can lead to adverse side effects, harm, or even death. Subsequently, leaflets are heavily regulated in the way they need to be designed, written, and produced. European2 and individual national legislation sets out the information to be provided, in a specific order, within a medicine information leaflet.

Paracetamol packaging, front.
Figure 1.1: Paracetamol packaging (front).

Paracetamol packaging (back)
Figure 1.2: Paracetamol packaging (back).

Paracetamol medicine information leaflet (front).
Figure 1.3: Paracetamol medicine information leaflet (front).

Paracetamol medicine information leaflet (back).
Figure 1.4: Paracetamol medicine information leaflet (back).

Adding to the design challenge is the fact that the guidelines for how medicine information leaflets are designed changes from country to country, and the guidelines are often vague.

One of the changes in the 2004 European Commission directive2 was to ensure that all medicine information leaflets ‘reflect the results of consultations with target patient groups.’ In other words, when producing a leaflet, user testing (or ‘readability testing’ as it is also known4) must be done. A satisfactory test outcome is when the information requested within the package leaflet can be found by 90% of test participants, of whom 90% can show that they understand it.3

The diagnostic testing method for medicine information leaflets also raises a unique challenge when designing leaflets and is more rigorous than the level of user testing most designers are used to.

Additionally, medicine information leaflets are required to be reviewed and approved by a competent authority, which varies from country to country, before being included in the packaging with the medicine.5

Possible Design Improvements

How can these materials be designed so that people end up taking the medicine as directed?

One issue with medicine information leaflets seems to be that most people do not read the document from start to finish, although it contains important information. Reasons for not reading or only skimming the leaflet from start to finish could be due to the amount of information or the leaflet design.

Competing sources of information introduce additional confusion. Sometimes the pharmacist will attach to the packaging a sticker with dosage instructions. That sticker can cover the dosage instructions printed on the packaging itself.

There are now potentially three sources of dosage information: the sticker, the packaging, and the leaflet, all with different densities of information. This creates an assumption on the part of the patient that everything they will need to know will be on the sticker–a dangerous assumption because patients do not read through the whole of the medicine information leaflet.

Medicine information leaflets are usually long and contain a wealth of information and complex terminology. An option would be to provide the document written to different educational levels.4

Sometimes leaflets do not make the most of headings and sectioning, which keeps people from finding quickly the information they need. Medicine information leaflets are usually minimally treated, featuring only plain text with headings in bold.

Could a more designed and illustrated appearance lead to people taking the medicine in the prescribed manner? A study6 suggests this is the case: Layouts that reduce text density, use purposeful sectioning, highlight key messages, and use a logical type hierarchy helped people to find the right information more quickly.

The example shown in figure 1.5 is a step in the right direction; the different types of information have been given a diversity of treatments to provide emphasis.

Redesigned medicine information leaflet from (Dickinson et al., 2010),
Figure 1.5: Redesigned medicine information leaflet from (Dickinson et al., 2010),

Layouts that reduce text density, use purposeful sectioning, highlight key messages, and use a logical type hierarchy helped people to find the right information more quickly.

In a similar vein, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed a redesign of nutrition labels on food packaging. Among the changes were putting calorie counts in large type, adjusting portion sizes to reflect how much Americans actually eat, and additional information about sugars in food.7

The Lloyd’s Pharmacy research stated that older people make the most mistakes when using medicine information due to either misreading medicine labels or misunderstanding the instructions. Clearer written instructions would solve the comprehension issue; a more ‘large print’ design would enable both older and a wider variety of people to better use the leaflet.

Medicine information leaflets are often printed on thin paper and folded many times to fit into the medicine package. There is a lot of show-through from the information printed on the back of the leaflet, which decreases readability. When the leaflet is unfolded, the paper crease marks affect the readability of the text (see figures 1.3 and 1.4). A possible improvement would be to print the leaflet on a thicker paper.

Article 63(2) of the European Commission, 2004,2 states that: ‘The package leaflet must be written and designed to be clear and understandable, enabling the users to act appropriately, when necessary with the help of health professionals.’

Diagnostic testing is examining an existing design to find out how it performs against the agreed performance requirements set at the scoping stage; for example, a satisfactory test outcome is when the information requested within the package leaflet can be found by 90% of test participants, of whom 90% can show that they understand it. Diagnostic testing takes the actions of people using the document as symptoms of the document’s health and is concerned with finding out what is wrong with a design. Diagnostic testing should be used iteratively—that is, repeated until its performance reaches the agreed benchmark. Diagnostic test questions are designed to see whether a consumer can find information quickly and easily and perform actions appropriately.8


Earlier research from Lloyds Pharmacy1 and Dickinson et al.6 demonstrates that design and writing has the potential to make a real difference in regard to medical errors and that design, writing, and production of a medicine information leaflet can have a real positive effect on people’s health.

The design of medicine information leaflets provides some interesting challenges because they might not be seen as a typical creative graphic design job. Just because they do not contain overly designed text or graphics, however, does not mean creativity is not needed, in fact creativity is usually lacking in leaflets typically produced.

Furthermore, creativity when designing medicine information leaflets usually comes in the form of clear writing, clear layout, and user testing—more of an information design challenge rather than graphic design.

The designer’s job is to clearly communicate the desired message. The designer also has to follow guidelines—in this case, not corporate identity guidelines but guidelines laid out in legislation and vetted by a regulatory body.

Effective design can make the difference between a person deciding to read a leaflet or not, or getting the information they need about the medicine they are taking or not. And that difference can be a matter of life or death. The not so typical design challenge of medicine information leaflets shows the importance effective design can have.


1 Lloyds Pharmacy. (2008). More than eight million patients admit medicine mistakes. Retrieved April 2008, from

2 European Commission. (2004). Directive 2004/27/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 March 2004 amending Directive 2001/83/EC on the Community code relating to medicinal products for human use. Brussels: European Commission. Accessed January 2014,

3 European Commission. (2009). Guideline on the readability of the labelling and package leaflet of medicinal products for human use. Revision 1. Brussels: European Commission. Retrieved January 2014,

4 van der Waarde, K. (2008a). Designing information about medicine for people. Retrieved April 2014, from

5 Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. (2005). Always Read the Leaflet: Getting the best information with every medicine. Report of the Committee on Safety of Medicines Working Group on Patient Information. London: The Stationery Office. Retrieved January 2014,

6 Dickinson, D., Teather, J., Gallina, S., Newsom-Davis, E. (2010). Medicine package leaflets – does good design matter? Information Design Journal 18(3). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

7 Tavernise, S. (2014). New F.D.A. Nutrition Labels Would Make ‘Serving Sizes’ Reflect Actual Servings. New York Times. 27 February 2014. Retrieved September 2014, from

8 Sless, D., and Shrensky, R. (2007). Writing about medicines for people. Australia: Communication Research Institute and The Australian Self-Medication Industry.

Three Ways to Improve Your Design Research with Wordle

Written by: Jeff Tang

“Above all else show the data.”
–Edward Tufte

Survey responses. Product reviews. Keyword searches. Forums. As UX practitioners, we commonly scour troves of qualitative data for customer insight. But can we go faster than line-by-line analysis? Moreover, how can we provide semantic analysis to project stakeholders?

Enter Wordle. If you haven’t played with it yet, Wordle is a free Java application that generates visual word clouds. It can provide a compelling snapshot of user feedback for analysis or presentation.

Using Wordle for content strategy

Wordle excels at comparing company and customer language. Here’s an example featuring one of Apple’s crown jewels, the iPad. This text comes from the official iPad Air web page. After common words are removed and stemmed:

iPad Air Wordle

Apple paints a portrait of exceptional “design” with great “performance” for running “apps.” Emotive adjectives like “incredible,” “new,” and “Smart [Cover]” are thrown in for good measure. Now compare this to customer reviews on


To paraphrase Jakob Nielsen, systems should speak the user’s language. And in this case, customers speak more about the iPad’s “screen” and “fast[er]” processor than anything else. Apps don’t even enter the conversation.

A split test on the Apple website might be warranted. Apple could consider talking less about apps, because users may consider them a commodity by now. Also, customer lingo should replace engineering terms. People don’t view a “display,” they look at a “screen.” They also can’t appreciate “performance” in a vacuum. What they do appreciate is that the iPad Air is “faster” than other tablets.

What does your company or clients say in its “About Us,” “Products,” or “Services” web pages? How does it compare to any user discussions?

Using Wordle in comparative analysis

Wordle can also characterize competing products. For example, take Axure and Balsamiq, two popular wireframing applications. Here are visualizations of recent forum posts from each website. (Again, popular words removed or stemmed.)

Axure Wordle

Balsamiq Wordle

Each customer base employs a distinct dialect. In the first word cloud, Axure users speak programmatically about panels (Axure’s building blocks), widgets, and adaptive design. In the Balsamiq cloud, conversation revolves more simply around assets, text, and projects.

These word clouds also illustrate product features. Axure supports adaptive wireframes; Balsamiq does not. Balsamiq supports Google Drive; Axure does not. Consider using Wordle when you want a stronger and more immediate visual presentation than, say, a standard content inventory.

Beyond comparative analysis, Wordle also surfaces feature requests. The Balsamiq cloud contains the term “iPad” from users clamoring for a tablet version. When reviewing your own Wordle creations, scan for keywords outside your product’s existing features. You may find opportunities for new use cases this way.

Using Wordle in iterative design

Finally, Wordle can compare word clouds over time. This is helpful when you’re interested in trends between time intervals or product releases.

Here’s a word cloud generated from recent Google Play reviews. The application of interest is Temple Run, a game with over 100 million downloads:

Temple Run Wordle

As you can see, players gush about the game. It’s hard to imagine better feedback.

Now let’s look at Temple Run 2, the sequel:

Temple Run sequel Wordle

Still good, but the phrase “please fix” clearly suggests technical problems. A user researcher might examine the reviews to identify specific bugs. When comparing word clouds over time, it’s important to note new keywords (or phrases) like this. These changes represent new vectors of user sentiment.

Wordle can also be tested at fixed time intervals, not just software versions. Sometimes user tastes and preferences evolve without any prompting.


Wordle is a heuristic tool that visualizes plaintext and RSS feeds. This can be quite convenient for UX practitioners to evaluate customer feedback. When seen by clients and stakeholders, the immediacy of a word cloud is more compelling than a typical PowerPoint list. However, keep the following in mind when you use Wordle:

  • Case sensitivity. You must normalize your words to lower (or upper) case.
  • Stemming. You must stem any significant words in your text blocks.
  • Accuracy. You can’t get statistical confidence from Wordle. However, it essentially offers unlimited text input. Try copying as much text into Wordle as possible for best results.
  • Negative phrases. Wordle won’t distinguish positive and negative phrasing. “Good” and “not good” will count as two instances of the word “good.”

That’s it. I hope this has been helpful for imagining text visualizations in your work. Good luck and happy Wordling.

Managing Website Accounts in Cross-Platform Contexts

Written by: Will Hacker

So you want to extend your website’s account management features to mobile devices. Well you’re not alone; most major websites today have cross-platform accounts and profiles that make for a more engaging and cohesive user experience. And many sites enable account management features on mobile devices.

After all, you want people to be able to interact with your product or service whenever and wherever. The trick is knowing which features to add to the mobile account management experience. Devices and use contexts are not created equally, so you need to consider how people want to use your product in the mobile context before enabling account management features.

Accounts provide a lot of value for website visitors. They allow people to save address and payment information on ecommerce sites, airport and airline preferences on travel sites, and topical preferences on news sites. They help reduce friction when completing tasks.

In this article, and in general, an “account” refers to a set of features that allow transactions of all types and requires a person to sign in to manage it. “Profiles,” on the other hand, refer to publically exposed information about a person that can be seen by other people.

The challenge for experience designers is figuring out which of the many settings that can be part of an account should be made available on all platforms. There is no easy one-size-fits-all answer because user needs and use contexts vary from site to site.

For the purpose of this article I’m using the term “mobile” to refer to websites and native apps used on smartphones, which, in addition to the unpredictable cellular networks and often clumsy touchscreens that impact designing for tablets, have the added challenge of reduced screen size.

It’s easy for website accounts to get bloated. And while it’s common to add features for the traditional desktop user, an account can quickly become a confusing experience for someone trying to complete a simple task on a handheld device.

Context is king

When making account management mobile ready, you have to understand the main tasks someone is going to want to complete on their smartphone. This is usually accomplished by research, which can take the form of interviews, contextual inquiry, participatory design, or exploring web analytics. As you flesh out your mobile identity management strategy, start with these tasks first and only consider additional ones later.

Accounts should not be required

One of the cardinal rules of mobile design is that people should not be required to have an account to use your site or app. Greg Nudelman covers this design tenet very well in his article on the sign-in/sign-up antipattern.

Obviously, signing in is required for financial services and other applications that grant access to personal information. But an airline site or app should not require an account to check flight status or get basic gate information, and hotels should allow people to access property information and room availability without signing in.

American Airlines provides a lot of functionality in its iPhone app for people who are not signed in.
Figure 1. American Airlines provides a lot of functionality in its iPhone app for people who are not signed in.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Facebook, for example, loses a lot of its value if you haven’t signed in, although it still makes some of its vast amount of profile data available to searchers to the extent that users have allowed that information to be made “public.” Even for sites that require people to sign in for certain information and functionality–which does–access to general information like blog posts and commentary should be provided in a mobile friendly format to users of their native apps–which does not do. Since all the major mobile platforms have web viewing features built into their native app libraries, Mint should make its existing mobile friendly web content available to both website users and people using their native apps.

American Airlines, on the other hand, provides a lot of content and functionality for anonymous users of its iPhone app, as shown in Figure 1.

Streamline account creation

If you are going to allow your mobile users to create accounts, try to ask for as little information as possible. Your goal should be to reduce interaction cost and get the person’s account created with as little effort as possible.

You can see this approach by comparing the mobile and desktop versions of TripAdvisor’s website, as shown in Figure 2.

TripAdvisor’s mobile profile-creation screen (left) asks for four pieces of information, compared to six on its desktop version (right).
Figure 2. TripAdvisor’s mobile profile-creation screen (left) asks for four pieces of information, compared to six on its desktop version (right).

On the desktop version of its profile-creation form, TripAdvisor asks for additional information–first and last name–not requested in the mobile version.

TripAdvisor could have streamlined its mobile profile-creation screen even further by not asking the user to create a screen name until after they create the profile, or even deferring it until the user wants to create or share content for the first time. They also should have considered if a user really needs a screen name if all they want to do is save hotels and other destinations.

Using device features to enrich the experience

TripAdvisor also could have used geolocation to try and set a default value for the current city or, better still, left that until after profile creation. Native mobile apps, unlike websites, can take advantage of a lot of device features that can benefit people by streamlining activities. When you sign into Foursquare, you are asked if you want to connect to friends via your mobile address book or social media networks (if you connected the accounts). For someone working on the small screen, this is a big time saver and helps apps like Foursquare and Twitter build their networks.

Simplify account and profile management

TripAdvisor provides a limited set of functionality for managing a user profile on a mobile device (left) compared to many more options people can manage on the desktop version of the site (right).
Figure 3. TripAdvisor provides a limited set of functionality for managing a user profile on a mobile device (left) compared to many more options people can manage on the desktop version of the site (right).

TripAdvisor also provides a good example of exposing enough account settings on a mobile device to make its site useful without filling it up with settings unconnected to task completion in a mobile context.

As shown in Figure 3, TripAdvisor allows mobile users to modify basic settings like choosing their country and preferred currency. These profile settings would be useful in a mobile context if the user is an American reading hotel reviews in London and wants to see the nearby properties and their nightly rates in British pounds.

TripAdvisor offers many more profile settings for desktop users to manage, including the ability to list the types of activities they like and other information about an individual’s personal travel style.

Allow password reset

Instagram users can reset their password using only the app and email or by using a Facebook login (left). The Instagram password reset email takes users to a simple screen where they can create a new password (right).
Figure 4. Instagram users can reset their password using only the app and email or by using a Facebook login (left). The Instagram password reset email takes users to a simple screen where they can create a new password (right).

Resetting a password is a must for mobile products. Someone who has forgotten their password may not be able to wait until they are at a desktop computer to get into a given website. This functionality should be supported in all mobile user accounts and profiles, whether the product is a mobile-only app like Foursquare or the mobile version of a cross-platform website like Amazon.

Instagram provides a good example of this, as shown in Figure 4.

Social media and user accounts

Foursquare allows users to connect to Facebook and Twitter through its account.
Figure 5. Foursquare allows users to connect to Facebook and Twitter through its account.

Allowing someone to connect to a social media account is a great example of functionality you should include in your mobile account.

Foursquare, for example, allows users to connect their app to Twitter and Facebook accounts so check-ins can be shared to those platforms, as shown in Figure 5. It makes sense to include this in the mobile context, not only because Foursquare is a mobile-only experience but also because it allows the in-the-moment sharing of information to social media that is one of the great appeals of smartphones.

Fatal operations on a mobile device

Facebook allows users to deactivate accounts from its iPhone app, but requires the user to re-enter their password to prevent accidental deactivation.
Figure 6. Facebook allows users to deactivate accounts from its iPhone app, but requires the user to re-enter their password to prevent accidental deactivation.

Experience designers also need to be conscious of adding what I call “fatal operations” to a mobile account. Fatal operations are things that cannot be undone and can have serious consequences, such as deleting a shopping cart or an entire account.

Facebook provides a good example of how to handle this type of situation. On its desktop site, a user can deactivate or permanently delete their account. But in its mobile apps, users can only deactivate their account.

Google’s Gmail app for iPhone allows users to recover an email that was just deleted from their inbox.
Figure 7. Google’s Gmail app for iPhone allows users to recover an email that was just deleted from their inbox.

And Facebook requires the user to re-enter their password before performing the deactivation, as shown in Figure 6, making it less likely a user will deactivate an account by mistake.

Another approach could be to have an “undo” button available for a brief period after a user performs a fatal operation, like Google does when users delete email messages in its Gmail app, as shown in Figure 7.

Amazon takes a similar approach when a user deletes an item from the cart in its mobile apps, as shown in Figure 8.


Accounts are an essential part of digital products that tie individual uses and activities together into a more cohesive overall experiences. They are even more valuable when those experiences are shared across platforms and devices.

Amazon provides an “Undo” link after a user deletes an item from their shopping cart.
Figure 8. Amazon provides an “Undo” link after a user deletes an item from their shopping cart.

The challenge for us as experience designers is to know what parts of account and profile management should be enabled on mobile devices and what ones are best left for the desktop experience.

There’s no easy answer to this, and like many aspects of experience design, this is where research and knowledge of our users is essential. If you are adding a feature to a mobile experience, consider whether the feature will make the experience more enriching or more confusing–and think about how to mitigate the negative consequences of someone making a mistake.

An Open Letter to Project Managers

Written by: Michael Lai

Dear Project Managers,

It has been a very enjoyable experience working with everyone over the last couple of months and sharing our ideas on UX design. The various discussions about user interface, product usability, and user engagement have been an enlightening experience for me as well, and it is very positive to see that everyone involved in the product thinks so highly about improving the user experience.

In an ideal world with unlimited time and resources, I think the best way to address UX issues is to perform the same tasks as the user under the same environment/pressure–even if we’ve built something never done before–because then we would understand the exact problems that they have to solve and hopefully come up with the best solution.

User-centric design principles, however, do not replace the fact-finding mission we all need to take as UX designers; they merely serve as a starting point for making design decisions. We are not here to critique or provide expert opinions, but we are here to help ask the right questions and get the right answers from the users.

So, let’s talk for a minute about this thing we just launched.

What went wrong?

When you asked me what the users think without giving me time or money for research, you are in fact asking me what I think the users think.

When you asked me to apply standard guidelines and industry best practices, you are asking me to ignore what users have to say and to treat them like everyone else.

If our users are feeling a little bit neglected, it is because we’ve allowed ourselves to think we know better than they do.

Standards and guidelines abound, but not all of them apply. You have to know the rules first to know when to break them. These then need to be combined with as much knowledge or information as possible about our users so we can make some design decisions on the assumption that it is in their best interest.

Finally, we need to test and validate these assumptions so we can correct any misconceptions and continue to improve the product.

Somehow, SCRUM masters have convinced senior managers that standing in a circle in front of a board full of sticky notes constitutes a meeting and playing poker figures out the work schedule and priorities, but any suggestion of UX designers talking with end-users seems to be a waste of time and effort and not worth considering. If we aren’t given the right tools and resources to do our work, how can we be expected to deliver the best outcomes?

UX practitioners are not mind readers, and even if we do manage to guess right once, you can be assured that users won’t stay the same forever.

What could have gone right?

The more time you can spend thinking about UX and talking about it, the less time you will spend on fixing your products later.

If improving the user experience is something that the organization as a whole thinks is important, then everyone should be involved in UX design, just as the UX designer interacts with various people within the organization to come up with solutions.

Critical to improving an organization’s UX competency is removing the ‘black box’ view of UX design. There are definitely technical skills and knowledge involved, but I believe the most important skill for a UX practitioner is empathy, not Photoshop or CSS or how to read heatmap reports–as handy as those skills are to have and despite what many of the recruitment agencies would have you believe.

Certain aspects of UX design are familiar to all of us, in the visible and tangible part of the user experience. The user interface has a very visual and often subjective element to its design, but as a graphic designer can tell you, there are definite components (color, typography, layout, and the like) that are used in its creation. User interaction has a more technical and logical focus to its design because the nature of programming is modular and systematic.

Where I think people struggle to make a link with is the less accessible aspects of UX design, like dealing with user engagement of the product or the connection between the user experience of the product and the corporate brand/image. An organization may have many channels of communication with the end-users, but the messages spoken by the business unit can be very different than those of the product development team or customer support team.

Within the general scope of UX design there are different ways to involve the users: generating new ideas for product features, getting feedback on new releases/betas, running conferences or webinars, conducting research workshops, and so on, and it’s not as if organizations aren’t doing some of this already.

However worthwhile these activities are in themselves, if we make our decisions based on just one or two of them–or worse, carry any of them out but don’t act on the results–we’ve missed the opportunity to improve the user experience.

People who make complaints may just want attention–or perhaps they have been suffering for so long they can no longer deal with this unusable product. How do we know if all the complaints are filtering through customer support, and do fewer support tickets necessarily mean greater customer satisfaction?

Where to from here?

If we don’t like a particular color, we know how to change it. If a particular technology is incompatible, we can modify it or find an alternative.

But if we want to influence the behavior of our users, where do we start? Like any complex problem, the best way is to break the problem down into smaller and more manageable pieces.

If we want to make an impact on our product design, how do we go about it in the right manner? I think reversing some of the current attitudes toward UX design is a good starting point, because clearly the status quo is not creating the appropriate environment and culture for a UX-focused organization.

Don’t make the only UX designer in your company the UX team, don’t restrict the scope of UX design to the user interface alone, and don’t hide the users from the UX designers.

Do spend the time and resources to implement company-wide UX strategies, do try and understand UX design a little bit better, and do it as soon as possible.

But if we haven’t done anything yet, is it too late? Like everything else worth doing, it is never too late. However, not doing UX at all is probably not much worse than doing UX poorly. To act on good assumptions with caution beats acting on bad assumptions with confidence. A good UX designer knows that nothing about the user should be assumed or taken for granted, and we always need to be on our toes because just like the product, the user may see the need for change–even more readily than we do.

Having said that, if you don’t start taking small steps now, the challenge will become even greater. Make everything you do in UX design a learning experience that helps to reduce the problem.

If I haven’t lost you yet, then I think we are ready to talk some details.

Remember, there are a lot of standards and guidelines already, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel–we just need to work out what works for us and what we can disregard.

As with any problem-solving process, we have to go through an iterative cycle of observing, hypothesizing, and testing until we derive at the optimal solution. I emphasize the word optimal, because there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer but there may be the most optimal solution given the circumstances (time, resources, assumptions…).

For those of you that have gone through the pain (and joy) of implementing Agile methodologies, I think you will agree that there is no out of the box solution that is guaranteed to work for any organization. You can certainly embrace the philosophy and principles, but how you adopt them to work for your team will be quite different depending on how you define the goals and objectives you want to achieve, not to mention the type of teams that you work with.

Remember, I am not here to critique or provide expert opinions, but to help you ask the right questions and get the right answers from the users. What UX means for the organization is up to you to decide, but if I have managed to spur you into some action, then I will have considered my job complete.

Thank you for your time.