Deep Context

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Information architecture has developed few techniques to deal methodically with the “soft” issues addressed by context.

Let me share a silly joke with you:

Q: Why did Lieutenant Worf change his hair color?
A: Because it was a good day to dye.[1]

Do you get it? If so, you understand who Worf is and what his character is like. For this joke to make any sense, you need to be part of a clique—Star Trek fans, in this case—with a shared base of understanding. In other words, the joke relies on context for its effectiveness.

IA Venn Diagram Context is the frame of reference that gives meaning and proper perspective to a communication. Pervasive and inescapable, its importance to information architecture is evident in it being one of the three circles in the oft-referenced “Scope of IA” Venn diagram from the Polar Bear Book. While users and content (the other two circles in the diagram) are intensely scrutinized by information architects (most tools and methodologies we employ seem to reside in these two fields), the profession has developed few techniques to deal methodically with the “soft” issues addressed by context (business models, politics, culture, social dynamics, etc.). Context is deeply ingrained in us, so we tend to relegate the issues it raises to a set of background assumptions that we believe to be shared by all parties involved in a project or organization.

This belief may not always be accurate; people have differing assumptions and expectations that affect how they relate to the people and the world around them. While ignoring these differences can obviously cause problems when we’re designing sites targeted at people from other cultures, it may also lead to miscommunication with folks in our own culture or organization. On the other hand, information architectures that take these differences into consideration can help express these unspoken assumptions in meaningful ways, allowing the sites we produce to communicate more effectively.

The role of context in communications: Hall’s model

Effective communication, in any medium, depends on both parties sharing a frame of reference. In his book Beyond Culture, American anthropologist Edward Hall argues that the effectiveness of a communication between two people depends on the amount of context they expect to be present in the communication.

In Hall’s model, High context (HC) communications convey much of the meaning of a message in information that is pre-programmed beforehand in the speakers and the setting of the communication. In other words, much of the message implied by who the speakers are, their relationship to one another, where they are communicating, etc. A typical HC situation would be your family’s holiday dinner party: the way you communicate with the other people there, the manner in which jokes are told and interpreted, and the special places reserved at the table for certain members of the family are all “rules” that are agreed to by all, yet not written down in any formal manner beforehand. The bounds of these relationships have emerged naturally through the interactions of these people—and you—over the years.

Low context (LC) communications, on the other hand, are the opposite: the bulk of the meaning is carried in the message itself, with little left open to interpretation. LC environments and situations rely on formal rule systems to define interactions between different parties. For example, a supermarket supply chain is the process by which a bunch of grapes in a field in Spain can end up being poured from a bottle of wine into a glass in your kitchen table. This exacting system requires all parties involved to interact as efficiently as possible; even minor mistakes can result in millions of dollars lost. In order to minimize failures, formal rules clearly define the relationships and interactions between the parties that make up the supply chain, and these rules are communicated in ways that leave very little open to interpretation.

In studying different cultures around the world, Hall discovered that some tend to be more context-dependent than others. For example, French institutions tend to be more HC than their American counterparts. The French legal system, for one, accepts contextual information about a case (e.g. hearsay, details about the accused person’s character) that would probably bewilder an American attorney.

Of course, it is impossible to generalize: nations are not completely homogeneous, and the institutions that comprise them vary in their degree of context. Besides, organizations and institutions can also have “cultures,” and these can also be subject to differences in contextual dependency.

Deep structural differences between the two communications systems have important effects on how societies and groups develop over time. For example, HC environments and systems tend to be relatively stable—they are long-lived and slow-changing. LC environments, on the other hand, adapt more quickly to changing situations, because they more easily redefine relationships that are established by explicit, mutually agreed-upon rules systems. (Think of the relative stasis of imperial dynasties versus the dynamic “messiness” of democracies.) As a result, members of HC and LC societies show marked differences in their communication styles and social dynamics.

Culture and the Internet medium

Hall defines culture as:

… what gives man his identity no matter where he is born—the total communication framework: words, actions, postures, gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, the way he handles time, space, and materials, the way he works, plays, makes love, and defends himself.

As a part of this communication framework and a medium for the transmission of cultural information, the Internet is a particularly LC environment. For example, given a single item of content on the web, it is often difficult to ascertain its authorship and the contextual information that usually accompanies the author. These are key details that profoundly influence the way the reader interprets the information; if they are not present (or not clearly presented), the meaning of the message can be radically misunderstood. (Thus the punch line of the classic New Yorker cartoon—“On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”)

Because of the decentralized nature of the Internet, it is also very difficult to establish contextual relationships between sites. By its very design, the web flattens the relationships between morsels of information, and, by extension, the organizations that publish them. For example, a search in Google for “US Immigration” reveals a mix of official government sites that provide information for prospective immigrants, and official-looking commercial sites with other (perhaps less noble) objectives in mind. A user lacking the contextual information provided by an understanding of the American immigration system (or Internet domain naming schemes) may well choose the wrong site, with potentially disastrous results.

On the other hand, many of our clients’ company cultures tend to be HC environments: they have a particular value system, a history, and a “special” way of going about their business. This “company culture” is often transmitted informally by peers in the organization, or by management in corporate pep talks, but is rarely stated formally in a rulebook. In some organizations, this zeitgeist is explicitly stated as a differentiator that sets the organization apart from its peers (e.g. “The HP Way”).

The role that the organization plays within its larger social group also changes the meaning of the message it intends to communicate. Simply stated, who they are makes a difference in how people understand what they say. In a recent post in his blog, Diego Rodríguez called out a strange recurring typo in the US Federal Aviation Administration website:

I actually like the word “frequestly”, and would find it to be brand enhancing if I heard it from Cranium or Virgin or Mini, but when the FAA speaks, we need it to sound like James Earl Jones. We want the FAA to show us at every opportunity that they have their act together.

In other words, this contextual information (the role of the FAA in American society) changes the user’s interpretation of the content. When context and content are in discord, the user perceives that the organization “doesn’t have its act together.” [2]

IA ChallengeBecause of this, information architects must understand and somehow express the contextual details that are key for the client organization’s messages to make sense in a LC medium. Indeed, it can be said that one of the purposes of information architecture is to reduce context dependency in order to facilitate finding—and understanding—information in LC media.

The tools that information architects employ—sitemaps, wireframes, taxonomies, etc. —can be thought of as means to capture contextual information and collapse it into LC space. These documents and methodologies define the “rules” that establish how communication will occur in an information environment. In some cases (e.g. pattern libraries), the rule sets are defined explicitly as such, while in others (e.g. sitemaps, wireframes) they are expressed through the chosen site organization schemes, metaphors, and labeling. When an information architect creates a taxonomy, she is literally defining the language that the organization will use to describe itself internally and to others. These rules must provide the means for the user to find the information he seeks, but they must also provide the necessary context so that this information conveys the organization’s messages correctly, independently of his level of contextual understanding.

This notion of information architecture as a context-reducing agent has important implications for our day-to-day work. Most obviously, designers need to be conscious of cultural differences when designing sites that have a global reach: members of a HC culture will expect a different mode of communication, navigation structures, and content from a site than members of a LC culture. (We can hypothesize that HC users will expect more information about the organization itself, its leadership, and its relationship to society and to themselves. LC users, on the other hand, may want to “get to the point” and may become irritated with contextual information they perceive as “filler.”)

Context dependency also affects the way we communicate with clients. Hall points out the difficulties inherent in cross-cultural communication, especially when one person comes from a LC culture and the other expects a HC style. Given that information architects are immersed in a LC practice, we may unconsciously approach problems primarily in LC terms of the information to be published and how it can be produced and organized, at the expense of “soft” HC issues such as the social dynamics between individuals in the group, the role of the organization within its society, and the political environment. Knowing how to “speak the client’s language” will make us better communicators—and, more importantly, listeners—crucial skills for anyone seeking to help others communicate effectively.

Just being aware that these differences in contextual dependency exist offers us new avenues for understanding our practice, and improves the effectiveness of the cultural artifacts we produce. To quote Hall:

If one is to prosper in this new world without being unexpectedly battered, one must transcend one’s own system. To do so, two things must be known: first, that there is a system, and second, the nature of that system. What is more, the only way to master either is to seek out systems that are different from one’s own and, using oneself as a sensitive recording device, make note of every reaction or tendency to escalate.

In other words, by exposing ourselves to different cultures, we develop a deeper understanding of our own, and this will make us better designers. When we create an information architecture for a website—irrespective of its intended target audience—we will inevitably be called on to express the contextual assumptions that allow the website’s messages to be properly understood. Knowing that these assumptions exist (and understanding how the various audiences may interpret them differently) is the first step in creating sites that communicate more effectively across cultural lines—even if they are within our own society.


[1] This joke illustrates the Wikipedia entry on High Context cultures.
[2] Note that Rodríguez’s comment also assumes a certain level of shared context: I expect he refers to James Earl Jones as the voice of CNN, not Darth Vader. Also note that my previous sentence makes cultural assumptions as well: that you know what “CNN” and “Darth Vader” are, and that James Earl Jones is the voice of both. This critical process can be taken to counter-productive extremes.

Doing Today’s Job with Yesterday’s Tools

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The Problem

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m hopelessly disorganized in my digital life. My inbox is overflowing with email. My documents are scattered across a half dozen hard drives, none of them backed up. When I recently needed an up-to-date resume, I had to write it from scratch, because I couldn’t find a copy anywhere.

Most people would say that it’s my own fault. It’s true; I should take greater care in organizing my data. But honestly, I’m just too lazy to spend the time to sort all my files into the proper folders. And I’d like to think that I have more important things to worry about than when I ran my last backup.

There’s an old adage in software development that says laziness is a virtue. By laziness, we mean only avoiding unpleasant work. For a programmer, the most tedious work to do is work that could be done by a program. Rather than spend an hour on a repetitive task, a programmer will spend 59 minutes writing a program to complete the task in 30 seconds. As Abraham Lincoln said, “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” In the same spirit, I justify my laziness because I think software should do most of the work of information management for me.

itunes metadata
iTunes uses formal metadata fields
flickr tagsFlickr prefers freeform “tagging”

There are plenty of great information management tools out there. Certainly, iPhoto has made it easier to organize my digital photos. Flickr and have popularized tagging—organizing items by simply marking them with keywords—and created a new way to navigate large amounts of data. And iTunes is a definite improvement over manually organizing MP3s into folders.

But as helpful as these applications are, they can be frustrating to use, because each one implements a slightly different set of features, even though they are basically solving the same information management problems. For example, iPhoto allows you to tag a photo with keywords, but iTunes doesn’t allow you to do the same thing for a song. Subtle incompatibilities like this can contribute to a frustrating user experience, because the interface doesn’t behave like you expect it to.

Even worse than slight incompatibilities between applications, is that they often support entirely different data models. In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman explains that when we use a tool—like a drill, a car, or a computer application—we have a mental model in mind of how the tool works, and how it will react to our actions. This mental model guides how we use the tool. With so many different applications to manage our data, we have to keep track of several different data models, and it’s easy to get confused. For instance, when I’m browsing my photos, I might see a photo that I want to send to a friend. In both Picasa and iPhoto, I can click a button that allows me to email the photo to them. But I can’t do the same thing with a song in iTunes, or a bookmark in Firefox. What’s so different about each of those things? In my mental model, they are all just objects that I want to send to my friend. Unfortunately, this data lives in a balkanized world, and what we are allowed to do with the data depends on what form it is in.

This balkanization of our data also makes it more difficult to find things. Before being able to search for something, you have to know what form the data is in, so that you can search in the right application. Did I store it as a bookmark? Did someone email it to me, or was it in an instant message? Applications like Google Desktop and Apple’s Spotlight help address this problem, but they support a limited number of data formats, and they aren’t able to search across multiple machines.

Another usability problem occurs when trying to share data between applications. A really simple example: my friend Ryan asks me to email him the photos from our last trip to Mt. Washington. I have no problem finding the photos in Picasa, because I’ve got an album called “Mt. Washington Trip 2006”. I can open the album and browse through thumbnails of the photos, looking for that great one that I took from the summit. But when I try to email it to Ryan from my Yahoo! Mail account, I have to browse through the file system to find the file. Even though I have the photo up in Picasa—Right there! That one!!—I can’t communicate that in an intuitive way to the web browser. Luckily, I know how to map from a photo in Picasa to the corresponding file on disk, but many people would not. Picasa provides a great abstraction: instead of thousands of files with unintelligable names like IMG_1792.jpg, it lets us work with the pictures, captions, and albums. But Picasa’s abstraction is like a dialect private to an isolated town: as soon as we leave, we are forced to use the computer equivalent of grunts and hand signals.

All of these problems are caused by the fact that by using many different specialized applications for personal information management, the data is segregated based its form. Using the term segregated isn’t an exaggeration—in some ways, the data is literally not allowed to mix together. For example, I’d like to gather a digital scrapbook of my trip to Europe. It would have emails that I sent and received during the trip, contact information for the people that I met, bookmarks for various places that I stayed, and of course, lots of digital photos. On most systems, this is difficult, if not impossible. It can be done in a crude way by copying some files into a folder and cutting and pasting into text files. But then I would lose all the features of the specialized applications, like captions on the photos.

In short, I believe that there are several usability problems caused by the fact that we use many different specialized applications for managing our data. We can become frustrated and confused by incompatible data models and inconsistent features. It’s harder to find the information we are looking for, because we have to remember what form the data is in. Communication between applications is awkward because they don’t speak the same language. The data is stuck in silos, segregated by its type. This prevents us from using perfectly natural ways of organizing our data.

Towards a Solution

Now that we’ve established what the problem is, the question is: what can we do to fix it? Obviously we can’t expect to have a single application which will support all of our needs. We still need specialized software like iPhoto for managing photos, and GMail for email. I think that the problem is not really with the applications themselves, but with the platform they’re built upon.

In software terms, a platform is a collection of common routines, and a set of interfaces allowing applications to use the routines. Normally, an application is built directly on the routines provided by the operating system. Developers and designers have long understood that an inconsistent user interface is difficult to use, so the UI is built into the platform, resulting in applications that mostly look and feel the same. In order to achieve the same kind of consistency with information management features, we need a platform designed for the manipulation of rich information.

While the amount of information that the average person deals with has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, file systems have hardly changed at all. All modern operating systems do in fact provide a common way to manage information: the file system. Unfortunately, while the amount of information that the average person deals with has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, file systems have hardly changed at all. We are still stuck with the old file and folder model. The problem with this model is that an increasing amount of data just doesn’t fit into it. For example, a single email usually does not correspond directly to a file on the local disk. Another example is bookmarks—many people collect and organize hundreds of bookmarks, but a bookmark is not a first-class object like a file.

In a broad sense, this new information management platform that I am proposing is really just a new kind of file system, based on the needs of today’s users. We need a system that will make it easier to manage and navigate the large amounts of rich and diverse information that people deal with every day.

In the first part of this article, I identified five distinct usability problems, all caused by the fact that we use many different specialized applications for managing our data:

1. Inconsistent features between applications
2. Incompatible data models
3. Difficult to find data, because we have to know where to look based on the type of the data
4. Awkward to share data between applications
5. Inability to mix different types of data together

In the same way the user interfaces are much more consistent because applications all use the same toolkits, then having a common information management framework that other applications can build upon will go a long way towards a more consistent set of interactions. I’d like to outline what I think are the key requirements for such a framework to be successful.

Requirement 0: Be a useful and usable framework

Only if it’s actually used can an information management framework help solve the problems I’ve identified here. The framework must be easy for application developers to build upon, and it must be useful enough to be worth their effort. By building on this framework, application developers would be able to focus on the core functionality of their applications, rather than wasting their time reinventing common information management features.

Requirement 1: Extensible for new kinds of data

By having applications build upon this framework, we eliminate the problem of having incompatible data models. But the platform must be extensible to be able to handle new types of data. The reason that we have to deal with the different data models of specialized applications is because the existing platform (the file system) was not suited for managing the rich data that today’s applications require. If the framework I’m proposing is not built from the ground up to be extensible, we will quickly find ourselves in the same situation we are now: trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools.

Requirement 2: Comprehensive search capability

The third problem I identified was that it’s difficult to find data, because you have to know where to look depending on what form the data is in. If it’s in an email, you have to search in one place, but if it’s in a file on your hard drive, you have to search in another place.

While search is not the answer to all our information management problems, it is a very useful feature. Now that Google is a verb, most people are comfortable using search as a primary way to find data. A new platform for information management should provide advanced search capability. Apple has done the right thing by building Spotlight’s sophisticated search functionality into the operating system, and allowing applications to build upon it.

But in order for search to be truly effective, we need to be able to search all of our data at once, instead of having to search in each of the individual silos. Having a single framework for managing rich information means that it will be able to search through all different kinds of data, no matter what form it takes.

Requirement 3: All data on equal footing

One of the problems I identified with current information management systems is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for different types of data to be mixed together. You can’t create a folder that contains an email, a photo album, and some bookmarks. This problem is also related to the problem of inconsistent features and data models. Things that can be done with one type of data, like a file on the file system, can’t necessarily be done to other kinds of data.

In other words, there is an artificial distinction between different types of data. What a bookmark, an email, and a text file all have in common is that they are distinct, discrete pieces of information. If the purpose of the file system is to allow the user to store and organize information, then it should be able to treat these kinds of items equally. All types of data must be on equal footing. Anything that can be done with a file—like copying, searching, or sorting—should be possible with other pieces of information. If all data is on equal footing, then it would be possible to have a folder containing several different types of data.

Requirement 4: Flexible organization features

The folder (or directory) is the most common organizational metaphor used on computers. Originally, this concept was designed to be analogous to a physical file folder, so a document could only ever be in one folder. But it often makes sense for a document to be in two different folders at the same time. For example, if you had tickets to take a client out to a hockey game, should you put them in the “hockey” folder, or the “work” folder?

In information architecture, it’s good practice to support several paths to a piece of information. This is generally because we need to support many different users, who might have a different mental models. But even with a single user, there are sometimes several different mental models involved. Just today I went looking for my wallet, and couldn’t find it anywhere—although I’m sure I put it somewhere that made sense at the time.

The idea that an object could exist in multiple folders is known as multiple classification, and it has recently become popular in the form of tags. Flickr,, and many other web services allow you to associate several keywords with your data. By doing so, you are indicating that the data falls into various categories, with the idea that this will help you or someone else more easily find the data later.

Providing support for multiple classification is just one example, but in general, for a new information management platform to be successful, it must be flexible enough to allow you to organize your data however you want.


In the first half of this article, I identified several usability problems with the current state of information management software. We use many different specialized applications for dealing with different kinds of information, and the applications have inconsistent features and incompatible data models. It is harder to find our data, because we need to know what form it is in, so that we can look in the right place. It’s awkward, and sometimes impossible, to share data between applications, and to mix the data together outside of the specialized applications.

To solve these problems, I proposed a platform that could be used to build the next generation of information management applications. Having a common platform for developers to build upon would give us greater consistency between applications—they would have the features we expect, and these features would work in the same way. Integration between applications would be much easier, as they would have a lingua franca for exchanging rich information. Different kinds of data could be mixed together, allowing users to easily organize their data in a way that makes sense to them.

I proposed five requirements for such an information management framework:

  1. Be a useful and usable framework. This should go without saying, but it’s important to keep in mind that this framework can only help solve our information management problems if it is useful, and it is attractive for developers to build upon
  2. Extensible for new kinds of data. If the system is not built to be extensible, we will soon find ourselves right where we are now: doing today’s job with yesterday’s tools.
  3. Comprehensive search capability. This one should speak for itself. With the overwhelming amounts of information that we have to deal with, advanced search capability is an indispensable feature.
  4. All data on equal footing. Several of the problems I identified stem from the fact that in current systems, certain types of data are not first-class.
  5. Flexible organizational features. You should be able to organize your data in whatever way works best for you.

I believe that these requirements provide a good starting point for an information framework that application developers could build upon, and ultimately give us an easier, more usable set of information management tools.

And then I would have no more excuses for being disorganized.

Testing Incentives: The Best Way to Pay

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What do users want? We all know the answer to that one. Users want products that are simple, yet powerful, yet inexpensive. They want to go to your website and find the information they need in the blink of an eye, whether they browse or search. They want to use your software to accomplish their tasks quickly and easily, without even being aware of your UI.

But how about those users in your lab? Are they, like you, simply doing their part to make the world a better, more usable place? Do they realize how valuable their feedback is, and nobly offer it freely to all for the betterment of mankind? Or are they just in it for the money?


Recently, I informally surveyed the members on a popular usability list serv to see how other usability professionals compensate their participants. I heard from 37 respondents. Here’s how you compensate your participants, by the numbers:

  • Cash – 18
  • Gift certificate – 17
  • Gift cards / gift checks – 10
  • Freebies – 9
  • Nothing – 7
  • Checks – 6
  • Other – 6

It Depends

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the responses above don’t add up to 37. Usability professionals typically use more than one method. In fact, the average usability professional used about two methods (1.97), with some using as many as five. Less than half (42%) cited only one method.

Why so many different methods? Well, it depends, of course – on the context, on the users, on the kind of test. “Our compensation depends upon the situation,” says Doug Beck, with Agilent. That’s further explained by Bob Virzi, of Verizon Labs, “We use a variety of options depending on the type of study we are doing.” Sue Heim added, “It depends upon who the users are.” Others were even more detailed, citing one method for in-person and another for remote tests, one method for customers and a different one for employees, and so on. In fact, the why’s and wherefore’s are much more interesting than the mere numbers.


“Cash is king,” says Ron Perkins, of DesignPerspectives. Bob Virzi points out that cash is the “preferred method, especially by participants.” This is an important point, detailed by Ted Sienknecht:

Nothing has the impact that cold cash does. While many corporations throw up more red tape about disbursing cash, believe me, the user appreciates it more (no issues with stores not accepting it, no befuddled clerks, no balance to check, no card to lose/misplace, no fees/non-use penalties).

Other usability professionals point to cash’s supreme flexibility. “Obviously, as long as cash is still accepted everywhere,” jokes Lyle Kantrovich, of Human Factors International, “it’s the most flexible.” Chauncey Wilson, with MathWorks, Inc, continues the joke: “Cash is generally the best alternative. Cash can be used almost anywhere.” Ted offers a concrete example of what this can mean for usability professionals: “Since cash is liquid, you can easily divert any leftover cash due to no-shows to appropriate uses ([which is] much more difficult with gift cards).”

Cash is not, however, without its issues. Cold, hard cash can be somewhat risky. As consultant Carolyn Snyder points out, “It can’t be replaced if lost or stolen.” Susan Farrell shared a particularly close call:

I flew over the weekend to the UK for a study and needed to have something like £2000 before 8 a.m. on Monday. (My fabulous recruiter … met me with cash at the testing venue and billed it back to me.)

Others pointed to the fact that cash is simply not allowed at their company. Several pointed to particular reasons for this, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or the fact that government employees are often prohibited from accepting gifts of any kind. Chauncey cedes the point, but encourages people to fight on: “Companies, educational, and government institutions are often reluctant to give out cash, but it is worth investing the time in getting a good process set up for getting cash for participants.”

Overall, cash may be the best alternative. Ash Donaldson, of Produxi, summarizes the issue well: “It’s instant gratification [for users] and very little hassle for me.”

Gift Certificates

Gift certificates ran a very close second in my survey. They seemed to be the method of choice when doing remote studies. Note that this includes not just tests, but surveys, phone interviews, and journal/diary efforts. Employees seem to be good candidates for gift certificates as well.

Survey respondents mentioned several different kinds of gifts certificates. Those from Amazon seemed the most popular, but iTunes, Starbucks, and movie tickets all had their proponents. Of Starbucks, Carl Myhill, with GE, waxes positively poetic:

That made me think how much I liked getting a Starbucks card as a gift…. Starbucks seems to worry a lot about customer experience. It’s the first place I ever went where I could use a credit card without signing my name or typing my pin. Wow, it was almost like Starbucks actually trusts me or something. OK, I’m generally pretty anti huge corporation and like to support the little guy, but when I get wowed by a corporation who trusts me, phew, just get me a chai latte!

Gift certificates also, however, have their drawbacks. As with cash, there is some risk involved. “If you use the paper version,” notes Chauncey Wilson, “you must inform the person that the paper certificate is just like money, and if they lose it, you cannot replace it.”

as long as cash is still accepted everywhere — it’s the most flexible.

Chauncey also points to lack of choice as an issue: “Movie cards work well in some places, but not everyone is a movie fan.” Using her own experience as a guide, Leanne Waldal, of Otivo, offers a possible solution, “I love the idea of a choice of gift cards because a snobby foodie-person like me would really hate to be given a Starbucks or Jamba Juice card, but would love an iTunes gift card. ”

Lyle Kantrovich goes one further, recommending a gift certificate that can be used at multiple locations:

One option I haven’t heard mentioned is a service like Hallmark’s Premiere Choice Awards® – where you basically can give a gift certificate (or split it into multiple certificates) that can be used at many different stores (physical, catalog, and online). Recipients can redeem their award for gift certificates at over 350 stores. Of course, there’s a little more cost involved, but I think it makes it more likely that the recipient will enjoy what you give them. My previous employer gave these certificates for employee recognition, so I used them a few times, and it was a great experience. Better than getting cash from my employer.

Though these more flexible gift certificates are ideal for employees, they may also be useful for customers.

Gift Cards / Gift Checks

Similar to Hallmark’s Premiere Choice Awards® are gift cards, which also includes gift checks. They operate very similarly to the Premiere Choice Awards®, but can be used almost anywhere. Examples include American Express® Gift Cheques and Gift Cards, and Visa Gift Cards.

Several survey respondents pointed to the cards’ portability. Carolyn Snyder explains how she “buys a bunch at the start of the project so we have them on hand.” Bob Virzi likes them when he needs to “take a pile of compensation to a study in another city.”

Others use them for remote users. Carolyn notes that “they can work very well for remote users, when you’re not able to hand them cash. At one of my clients, we’ve used them for several studies involving phone interviews, and they’ve worked fine.” Kirk Doggett, with VistaPoint, also points to the fact that they can be purchased online and that they “can be associated with a purchase requisition for accounting purposes.”

Unfortunately, gift cards and checks also have their problems. Ironically, these issues seem to revolve around the cards’ usability. Paul Sherman, of Sage Software, has a fair amount to say about that user experience, both for the participant and the usability professional:

Both have big drawbacks (for the participants, as well as for us). For the participant, they’re a big PITA (pain in the …). Some checkout clerks go into brainlock at the sight of an Amex gift check. Some won’t give change off it. The Visa gift cards are annoying because you have to call to determine your balance. And if your purchase is over your limit, you have to split the item cost across the Visa card and some other form of payment. As for us, we get one or two no-shows for a study, and end up accumulating Amex checks and Visa cards in varying denominations. And did I mention that the Visa cards start auto-debiting a $2.50 per month service charge after six months? If I had my druthers, I’d just cut a check.

Leanne Waldal shares her own less than optimal user experience with this method:

I received a Visa $100 “gift” card as a gift once, and I ended up throwing it away because I couldn’t figure out how to use it. Stores wouldn’t accept it unless I purchased the “right” amount. I had to call some number and register it and give up all sorts of personal information. It wasn’t worth it. It’s horrible that it’s called a “gift card” when it imposes so much on the recipient.

Unfortunately, getting compensated isn’t supposed to be part of the usability test. It sounds like gift cards and checks in same cases may be a poor solution to the problem of compensation.


Call it what you want – goodies, swag, booty, boodle – freebies remain a popular option. This is especially the case when there are limited funds to offer cash, checks, or other forms of real money.

Traditional items like T-shirts, coffee mugs, caps, and pens are popular, typically emblazoned with the company logo. Though some respondents thought that users appreciate this sort of thing, they really function more as a thoughtful gesture more than anything else.

In a different category are company products, which may be of real interest to the user. This can mean software, upgrades, and hardware. Barb Hernandez, of TechSmith, points to the difference: “We offer real cool swag.”

Still, Susan Farrell wraps up the appeal of the typical freebie well: “Everyone needs cash, but not everyone needs another bag with another company logo on it.”


A surprising number of professionals (almost one in five) say they offer no compensation. This is done – overwhelmingly – because tests involve employees. A couple of survey respondents cited company policy in this regard. Others just cited lack of funds and the availability of warm bodies.

Several respondents noted that, even though their users weren’t receiving any compensation, recruiting was not an issue. Tom Suther noted, though, that this isn’t always the case:

We have our real users and do not need to look much beyond our staff to perform usability or Human Factors work. Since we build things for the staff, they are captive and willingly volunteer as part of their job to produce the best that we can. Yes, we are in a luxury state in this regard.

Not compensating users is much rarer when trying to recruit customers or the general public. I only heard from one user who admitted to this. Kim Moroni, (who didn’t indicate a company association), sounds like she shares the same lucky situation as Tom:

Typically, our customers value the opportunity to participate in the evaluations early enough in our product/application design that they volunteer. We still have more participants sign up than we can include. I guess our primary “compensation” is providing customers with a real voice in improving our products.


A final major category is checks. Mostly, though, checks are condemned. “Never checks,” says Tara Bazler, of Indiana Univ. “A check is definitely second choice,” echoes Ron Perkins.

Why are checks so universally loathed? Mostly, it has to do with timeliness. Carolyn Snyder tells a story about “one client who tried to go through their A/P department and have checks mailed, but there was no way to make the process happen in less than 30 days. Given that we’d told the users to expect a check within two weeks, we had some apologizing to do.”

My company also uses checks. In addition to timeliness, we have also had problems with the check requisition forms users must fill out. Sometimes, users forget to fill out all the fields on the form, forcing us to follow up with them. Our form also requires users to give us their Social Security number, which often raises privacy and security alarms. We’ve also found there is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip, with the form or check or both getting mislaid or misdirected. Finally, whenever we work with users from a recruiting agency, the idea that they won’t receive cold hard cash immediately after the study leaves them dumbfounded, and can even hurt the recruiting effort.

Other Incentives

Several usability professionals got a little more creative. One particularly interesting suggestion was to do a lottery. Instead of getting a coffee mug, the user’s name goes into a drawing for a Bluetooth®. Instead of $40, the user gets a chance to win $200.

Another strategy was simply allowing a recruiting agency to take care of everything. As Bob Virzi puts it, “Sometimes we use an outside agency to recruit and pay participants, and I don’t give a hoot how they incent [sic] them, so long as they show up and meet the requirements.”

And a final strategy cited by more than one respondent was to offer copies of the report. For a consulting firm like Forrester or Giga, this can really be valuable.

Other Considerations

The survey respondents also shared some very valuable advice on issues other than the pros and cons of particular methods. For example, Chauncey Wilson points to setting expectations: “You need to carefully spell out your incentives when you recruit and how the person will get them and what the limitations are on the incentives.” Based on my own experience, users who are told they will receive cash, then get a check, won’t be happy.

Something similar needs to be done at the end of the test, especially if the compensation is something less straightforward than cash or a check. For these kinds of payment, instructions may be necessary. Here’s what Carolyn Snyder does for gift checks:

At the end of the interview we ask if they have any questions about how to use the gift check. We provide a link to the FAQ page that explains how to use them, in both the thank-you email and the letter accompanying the gift check itself.

In Summary

There are many ways to compensate a user. And which method you select depends a lot on the situation. Still, I would recommend cash for in-person studies and gift certificates for remote ones. Even if we can’t guarantee that we’ll solve all of the users’ problems, at least we can put a smile on the face of those with whom we actually interact.

So You Think You Want to be a Manager

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“Your decisions shape an organization, and they help design someone else’s career. The choices and combinations of people you put together for a project is as much design as the process of fleshing out type or color or an interaction widget choice.”

When I made the shift from designer to manager, I had no idea how to make the transition nor did I have anyone to guide me through the changes to my role. I didn’t know that to be a successful design manager I had to change more than my title; I had to change my mindset and look at design differently. I made a lot of mistakes, but, thankfully, I have had staff who have been very forgiving as I have grown into the role of being a manager and a leader.

With that in mind, I want to share some tips and thoughts about managing that I wish I had known as I made the move from one aspect of design to the other.

You can’t design anymore

Big surprise. Just as you get to a point of comfort and expertise as a designer, you are promoted to a manager—right out of the role you are really good at—into a role you know nothing about. Now other people do the design, but they look to you for guidance. As a manager, a big part of your job is to delegate and early on, it will be hard. It will take longer to explain a project or task to an employee than just doing it yourself, but you have to remember that your job is not to do, but to guide. It’s uncomfortable and awkward at first, but that goes away with time.

I had a great employee early on (an individual I considered a peer) who would question any project or task that I took on myself, and ask, “Isn’t that something you should or could delegate?” As a new manager, I kept forgetting that I didn’t have to-and shouldn’t do-all the work myself. Every time you sit down to do a task, ask yourself, “Can this be delegated?” “Is someone else on my staff better equipped to do this?” “Would this exercise be a great growth opportunity for someone on the team?”

Giving orders is costly

As a designer, you are responsible for all the little pieces and all the big decisions that go into producing a successful solution. You had a specific way of working, and that process made you successful as you moved up and gained experience. Now this is all out of your hands. You must cede control over all these little decisions and think about the big picture.

As a manager, you must remember that your way of working is not the ONLY way of working. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling someone HOW to do her job rather than offering guidance and feedback on the outcome of the work or to create the vision and space whereby your team can succeed. If you micro-manage your team, they will resent you. They won’t learn and grow, you won’t learn and grow, and you will see a turnover rate that isn’t healthy for the business. Remind yourself of the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

You are always sending a message

It’s hard to let go of the design work, but you have to remember that employees look up to you for guidance and a framework within which to do their work. You empower them to be successful and to do great work. They can learn from you. But it is also important to remember that they bring their own experience to the table and they may just teach you something new if you let them. Let them teach you.

A good manager lets go. It isn’t about CONTROL. Success is about giving your team the space to be brilliant. Your job is to create that space and to deflect and filter the distractions that could create roadblocks.

Shaping careers

As a designer, you are responsible for advancing your own career. No one is going to do that for you. As a manager, it is part of your responsibility to help your design staff craft and grow in their careers. Even though I just said the designer is responsible for her own career, many often float from one job to another without thinking about actively shaping it. Despite that, designers can be poked and prodded and guided into taking that responsibility.

Ambitious people will already be doing this, but other folks will just muddle along without thinking about where they are going, or how this job moves them to the next or the one after. They need to be thinking about what will they be doing in five years, and you can help them craft a plan to get there. Of course, decisions such as projects, conferences, and training should line up with both the company and employee goals.

In addition to quarterly and yearly goals aligned to the business goals, I ask my team to also develop personal goals that help them to continue to grow and contribute back to the team. Additionally, I challenge them to think about their five-year goals, then partner with them to make choices and provide opportunities and projects that can help them achieve those goals. This is important because you want your team to stay fresh and continue learning. I believe this curiosity and desire rolls back into the work.

You are still designing

When you practice as a designer, you are solving a client’s problem, fleshing out an interaction to address a user task, or creating a communication vehicle for a message. When you practice as a manager, you influence these things but you also are designing something different. Your decisions shape an organization, and they help design someone else’s career. The choices and combinations of people you put together for a project is as much design as the process of fleshing out type or color or an interaction widget choice.

Just as you need to understand the media you work in as an individual contributor, you must understand personalities, temperaments, skill sets, and other factors about the people you have to work with. That understanding is critical to put together a good functioning team that will be successful together as well as individually. I find this aspect of design to be quite challenging as well as rewarding. When one of my teams creates a great design that they are happy with, our users are happy with, and the other cross-functional teams are happy with, and the process was smooth, then I know I have done a good job in my design role.

Managing versus Leading

So you are asking yourself, do I want to go into management? Is this the only way to move ahead in my career?

The answer is no.

You can move into very senior individual contributor roles. Many organizations have principal designers or design strategy roles that allow individual contributors to have an impact and affect business and product design at a broad, sweeping, strategic level without actually having to manage people.

You can be a team lead or an art director and lead a team and design projects without actually having to manage the other people on the team. In these cases there is sometimes project management in terms of setting expectations and milestones and providing design feedback as necessary, but not direct people management.

Managing versus Leading

No this is not déjà vu. It’s important to remember that as you move into a management role you are actually accountable for a couple of different facets of the job.

You need to be a manager-managing projects, schedules, people, careers, and so on. You also need to remember that you are a leader. You are leading this group of people you manage, and you need to remember that leading is done through example and by having vision and strength. This is the hardest part of the job.

Sometimes it is a lot easier to just manage the day-to-day, push the papers, write reports, and go to meetings than it is to really lead the team and have a vision that inspires them to do their best work. It’s harder to inspire people to rise above the crap that often accompanies us in the real world of work.

Keeping sight of what success looks like, creating the space for brilliant work, and inspiring your team are all part of what it takes to be a leader. It also means making hard decisions based on what’s right for the business and the overall company vision. Sometimes your team might not like those decisions, but it’s important to help them understand the context behind the bigger picture. Sometimes it means standing up for the right thing, for the product, or user even when your boss or other executives don’t agree. It’s important to back your team up and stay true to your ethics.

You can be successful in the most challenging environments, and you can nurture a talented and successful team.

In the end…

It is important to realize that you can progress in your career without ever having to manage people. And that’s OK—lots of people do it and are very successful. But if you do decide to make the move, do it consciously and thoughtfully and with as much grace as you approached your role as an individual contributor. Remember the advice I have shared, seek out your own mentors, and embrace the ambiguity and discomfort of your changing role. It will reward you significantly in the long run.


Also check out “Three Pronged Fork” to learn more about career choices.

Career Choices for Designers

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Yogi Berra once said, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.” For designers (and engineers and others in the “service” organizations), the fork in the road often comes mid-career, when you finally feel like you are good at what you are doing. Suddenly you are offered—almost required to—do something that is 90 degrees away from what you have mastered. And that is pretty scary.

Fork one: Becoming a manager

You’ll get to understand in a very direct way the trade-offs one has to make between good design, good business, and good human relations.

Before you dismiss this out of hand, let me correct a few myths. Becoming a manager does not mean people will take you seriously, it does not mean you get to tell people what to do, and it doesn’t mean you don’t get to make things anymore. After about six months in my first managing jobs, I realized that I now was designing a place where design could happen. It’s a good idea to read up a bit about what a manager really does before looking into this path (or accepting it if your boss offers). Erin Malone has written an excellent article in this issue on considering becoming a manager; I recommend you take a look.

Beyond that, it’s wise to consider where becoming a manager will take you, and what the opportunity cost is. So often we think it’s a default decision: you get a chance to be a manager and you take it (demand it!). But management is only a good choice if it is something you enjoy, and if it takes you in the direction you want to go. Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Running a design studio? Starting a small product company?

Becoming a manager will teach you a number of useful skills to get you there. You learn how to lead people; you’ll learn how to manage budgets and make choices in resources. You’ll get to understand in a very direct way the trade-offs one has to make between good design, good business, and good human relations. And don’t tell me they are always or never opposed—life has many happy intersections, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do things your team will never understand.

So I mentioned opportunity cost. This is a phrase common in business circles, less common in design circles. But I bet you understand the concept: you only have so many hours in the day and if you spend them one place, you can’t spend them elsewhere. If you love what you do, and you know you don’t enjoy being a manager, then don’t agree to become one just to get ahead. Not only is it a way to make your life less happy, it’s also hours spent learning management skills that you could be using to explore your area of interest more deeply, and becoming a guru on the topic…

Fork two: Becoming an expert

First, select the space you wish to be known for. It’s not enough to say, “I am a designer,” any more than you can say, “I am a musician,” and become a household name.

Sometimes your greatest goal is simply to raise your rates or get a higher salary. You love what you do, but you want greater respect and the money that comes with it. In this case, you may want to consider guruhood. No, that doesn’t mean you have to start making outrageous statements on mailing lists, even though sometimes it seems like that is how people do it.

First, select the space you wish to be known for. It’s not enough to say, “I am a designer,” any more than you can say, “I am a musician,” and become a household name. Sure, some rock stars move into jazz or country, but mostly they explore the outer ranges of their chosen genre. This can be translated to design.

You can specialize in web design, like Jeffrey Zeldman or application design, like Terry Winograd. You can narrow within that, and specialize in application or content design, like Alan Cooper or David Seigal (boy, that dates me). You can look at specializing in web genres, such as search, ecommerce, or communities. Or you can cluster your interests; for example, communities and search makes social search. I think you can easily see the advantages of being a communities and ecommerce solution if you wanted to work with companies like Netflix or Amazon. You can become a technique expert—be brilliant at taxonomies or personas. Materials, genre, technique—the important thing in guruhood is to be one of the three or four top-of-mind names in your space. You are a brand, and you have to learn how to build it, and not overextend it.

Like all choices, this one has its downsides also. This works only if your temperament suits it; if you are a dilettante learner, like me, you may find expertise is only fun when you keep adding new things to it. If you are a professorial type, you get joy in deepening and sharing the body of knowledge you’ve obtained.

You also do have the classic publish or perish problem—to reach the heights of guruhood, you need to speak, write, or find another way to be found out about.

Fork three: Become you 2.0

Intelligent and creative people see life a bit differently. And you are always you. You can be a project manager after fighting them your whole life; then go back to design if you don’t like it.

Finally, the path you may choose to take is one of reinvention. This can be a tough one. You give up much of your sense of self—how often do you say I am a designer, or I am an engineer? It doesn’t even seem like a job title anymore. It doesn’t seem like “senior product manager.” It feels like “artist” or “writer”—something inherent in your makeup that chose you, and you didn’t choose it at all. But don’t be fooled! A curious person of talent and intellect can end up many places. A rocket scientist could be just as easily an engineer, a theoretical mathematician, or a concert pianist. The left and right brain play nicely with each other in certain people.

Think of the places where you hit a self-imposed wall in the past: the opportunity to become a product manager, the time you took a programming class and loved it yet didn’t follow through. Was it because you were afraid of losing your sense of self? There is a simple exercise you can use to see how a major change might feel: speak it out loud.

  • “I used to be a designer, now I’m CEO of a fortune 500 company”
  • “I was an IA for some years, but now I run the product team.”
  • “I did usability in the past, and that has made me an awesome marketing vice-president.”
  • “I came from engineering, and now I’m an entrepreneur, and we just closed our series A.”

Out in the world, you don’t have to reject your past if you feel it might cause upheaveal (externally or internally), but sometimes in private, saying out loud can help you see if it’s something you want or if it’s something you are afraid of. You may find yourself quickly thinking, “Hey! Engineering taught me a lot that’s useful in securing funding.” You may realize it’s not at all a dichotomy, but rather just you taking things in a direction most people can’t see.

Intelligent and creative people see life a bit differently. And you are always you. You can be a project manager after fighting them your whole life; then go back to design if you don’t like it. You find suddenly find you have no enemies after the experience, just people who want to make good products like you but have different ways to accomplish it. Each path will teach you something, and as you choose one, the others are not closed off. Rather if you change paths again, you’ll do so with a new body of knowledge and insight.

The three lives of Thomasina

When I was a kid, I saw this Disney movie about a cat named Thomasina who had three of her projected nine lives without dying, but through transformative change. Who knows why, but that film stuck in my head, and I feel like I live out that movie. I’ve been the guru, the manager, and now Wodtke 2.0. And I may get to experience lives four, five, and six, while still enjoying the knowledge of lives one, two, and three.

I am not about to forget what I know about information architecture, nor what I know about working with teams as I learn about financial projections. I keep being the guru and the manager as I become the transformed. This becomes very clear as I give expert reviews of broken information architectures, or as I take a manager job while I write privacy policies for PublicSquare. The forked paths are really more like spaghetti strands, twisting around and around like the plate of pasta in another old Disney movie. You never know where they lead until suddenly you discover true love.

My advice is to be fearless and curious, attentive and passionate. Two will show you where to go, the other two will tell you how to get there.