When Information Design is a Matter of Life or Death

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

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

Conclusion

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.

Endnotes

1 Lloyds Pharmacy. (2008). More than eight million patients admit medicine mistakes. Retrieved April 2008, from www.lloydspharmacy.com/wps/portal/aboutus/pr.

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, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/ LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2004:136:0034:0057:EN:PDF.

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, http://ec.europa.eu/health/files/eudralex/vol-2/c/2009_01_12_readability_guideline_final_en.pdf.

4 van der Waarde, K. (2008a). Designing information about medicine for people. Retrieved April 2014, from www.valedesign.org.br/pdf/karen.pdf.

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, www.mhra.gov.uk/home/groups/p-la/documents/publication/con2018041.pdf.

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 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/27/health/new-fda-nutrition-labels-would-make-serving-sizes-reflect-actual-servings.html.

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

“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 Amazon.com:

image02

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.

Summary

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

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 Mint.com 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 Mint.com 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.

Conclusion

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

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.

Clicking Fast and Slow

Through social psychology and cognitive science, we now know a great deal about our own frailties in the way that we seek, use, and understand information and data. On the web, user interface design may work to either exacerbate or counteract these biases. This article will give a brief overview of the science then look at possible ways that design and implementation can be employed to support better judgements.

Fast and slow cognitive systems: How we think

If you are even remotely interested in psychology, you should read (if you haven’t already) Daniel Kahneman’s master work “Thinking Fast and Slow.”1 In it, he brings together a mass of findings from his own and others’ research into human psychology.

The central thesis is that there are two distinct cognitive systems: a fast, heuristic-based and parallel system, good at pattern recognition and “gut reaction” judgements, and a slower, serial, and deliberative system which engages more of the processing power of the brain.

We can sometimes be too reliant on the “fast” system, leading us to make errors in distinguishing signal from noise. We may incorrectly accept hypotheses on a topic, and we can be quite bad at  judging probabilities. In some cases we overestimate the extent of our own ability to exert control over events.

The way of the web: What we’re confronted with

We are increasingly accustomed to using socially-oriented web applications, and many social features are high on the requirements lists of new web projects. Because of this, we need to be more aware of the way people use social interface cues and how or when these can support good decision-making. What we do know is that overreliance on some cues may lead to suboptimal outcomes.

Social and informational biases

Work with ecommerce ratings and reviews have noted the “bandwagon” effect, where any item with a large number of reviews tends to be preferred, often when there is little knowledge of where the positive reviews come from.2 A similar phenomenon is the “Matthew” effect (“whoever has, shall be given more”), where items or users with a large number of up-votes will tend to attract more up-votes, regardless of the quality of the item itself.3

Coupled with this is an “authority” effect, when any apparent cue as to authenticity or expertise on the part of the publisher is quickly accepted as a cue to credibility. But users may be poor at distinguishing genuine from phony authority cues, and both types may be overridden by the stronger bandwagon effect.

A further informational bias known as the “filter bubble” phenomenon has been much publicized and can be examined through user behavior or simple link patterns. Studies of linking between partisan political blogs, for instance, may show few links between the blogs of different political parties. The same patterns are true in a host of topic areas. Our very portals into information, such as the first page of a Google search, may only present the most prevalent media view on a topic and lack the balance of alternative but widely-held views.4

Extending credibility and capability through the UI (Correcting for “fast” cognitive bias)

Some interesting projects have started to look at interface “nudges” which may encourage good information practice on the part of the user. One example is the use of real-time usage data (“x other users have been  viewing this for xx seconds”), which may–through harnessing social identity–extend the period with which users interact with an item of content, as there is clear evidence of others’ behavior.

Another finding from interface research is that the way the user’s progress is presented can influence his willingness to entertain different hypotheses or reject currently held hypotheses.5

Screen grab from ConsiderIt showing empty arguments
Screen grab from ConsiderIt showing empty arguments

The mechanism at work here may be similar to that found in a study of the deliberative online application ConsiderIt. Here, there was a suggestion that users will seek balance when their progress is clearly indicated to have neglected a particular side of a debate–human nature abhors an empty box!6

In online reviews, much work is going on to detect and remove spammers and gamers and provide better quality heuristic cues. Amazon now shows verified reviews; any way that the qualification of a reviewer can be validated helps prevent the review count from misleading.

Screen grab showing an Amazon review.
Screen grab showing an Amazon review.

To improve quality in in collaborative filtering systems, it is important to understand that early postings have a temporal advantage. Later postings may be more considered, argued, and evidence-based but fail to make the big time due never gaining collective attention and the early upvotes.

In any sort of collaborative resource, ways to highlight good quality new entries and rapid risers are important, whether this is done algorithmically or through interface cues.  It may also be important to encourage users to contribute to seemingly “old” items, thereby keeping them fresh or taking account of new developments/alternatives. On Stack Overflow, for instance, badges exist to encourage users to contribute to old threads:

Screen grab from Stack Overflow showing a call to action.
Screen grab from Stack Overflow showing a call to action.

 

Designing smarter rather than simpler

We know that well-presented content and organized design makes information appear more credible. Unfortunately, this can also be true when the content itself is of low quality.

Actual interaction time and engagement may increase when information is actually slightly harder to decipher or digest easily. This suggests that simplification of content is not always desirable if we are designing for understanding over and above mere speedy consumption.

Sometimes, perhaps out of the fear of high bounce rates, we might be ignoring the fact that maybe we can afford to lose a percentage of users if those that stick are motivated to really engage with our content. In this case, the level of detail to support this deeper interaction needs to be there.

Familiarity breeds understanding

Transparency about the social and technical mechanics of an interface is very important. “Black boxing” user reputation or content scoring, for instance, makes it hard for us to judge how useful it should be to decision making. Hinting and help can be used to educate users into the mechanics behind the interface. In the Amazon example above, for instance, a verified purchase is defined separately, but not linked to the label in the review itself.

Where there is abuse of a system, users should be able to understand why and how it is happening and undo anything that they may have inadvertently done to invite it. In the case of the “like farming” dark pattern on Facebook, it needed a third party to explain how to undo rogue likes, information that should have been available to all users.

There is already evidence that expert users become more savvy in their judgement through experience. Studies of Twitter profiles have, for instance, noted a “Goldilocks” effect, where excessively high or low follower/following numbers are treated with suspicion, but numbers more in the middle are seen as more convincing.7 Users have come to associate such profiles with more meaningful and valued content.

In conclusion: Do make me think, sometimes

In dealing with information overload, we have evolved a set of useful social and algorithmic interface design patterns. We now need to understand how these can be tweaked or applied more selectively to improve the quality of the user experience and the quality of the interaction outcomes themselves. Where possible, the power of heuristics may be harnessed to guide the user rapidly from a to b. But in some cases, this is undesirable and we should look instead at how to involve some more of the greater deliberative power of the mind.

Do you have examples of interface innovations that are designed either to encourage “slow” engagement and deeper consideration of content, or to improve on the quality of any “fast” heuristic cues? Let me know through the comments.

References

1 Kahneman D. Thinking, fast and slow. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2011.

2 Sundar SS, Xu Q, Oeldorf-Hirsch A. Authority vs. peer: how interface cues influence users. CHI New York, NY, USA: ACM; 2009.

3 Paul SA, Hong L, Chi EH. Who is Authoritative? Understanding Reputation Mechanisms in Quora. 2012 http://arxiv.org/abs/1204.3724.

4 Simpson TW. Evaluating Google as an Epistemic Tool. Metaphilosophy 2012;43(4):426-445.

5 Jianu R, Laidlaw D. An evaluation of how small user interface changes can improve scientists’ analytic strategies. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems New York, NY, USA: ACM; 2012.

6 Kriplean T, Morgan J, Freelon,D., Borning,A., Bennett L. Supporting Reflective Public Thought with ConsiderIt. CSCW 2012; 2012; .

7 Westerman D, Spence PR, Van Der Heide B. A social network as information: The effect of system generated reports of connectedness on credibility on Twitter. Computers in Human Behavior 2012; 1;28(1):199-206.