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Intuitive to Whom? (In Web Design, it Matters)

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During a recent Management Information Systems course I taught for the University of Phoenix, I posed the discussion question to students, “What do you think are the most important qualities that determine a well-designed user interface?” While responses were very good, nearly all of my students used the term “intuitive” in their response without providing a more detailed description, as though the term has some universal, unambiguous meaning to user interface (user experience) designers and web users alike.

I responded by asking, “Intuitive to whom?…Would a college-educated individual and a new-born infant both look at the same user interface and agree it is intuitive? Or, would the infant prefer a nipple providing warm milk to embedded-flash videos of news stories?”

Far from obvious, an “intuitive” user interface is extremely hard to define because “intuitive” means many different things to many different people. In this article, I challenge the assumption that “intuitive” is obvious and suggest how we can determine what intuitive “is”.

Nature and Nurture

Our exploration of intuitive user interfaces and user experience starts with “nature” and “nurture”, much like the “Nature versus Nurture” debate that occurs when explaining the talents and intelligence of human beings. For those of us who haven’t opened a genetics book in a few decades, if ever, “Nature” assumes that we have certain talents at birth, while “Nurture” proposes that we gain talents and abilities over time.

Certainly, “Nature” plays a role in an intuitive user interface. According to research by Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling, there’s a great deal of evidence that we are born with color preferences and that color preferences naturally vary by gender. In addition, warning colors like red or yellow, such as red on stop signs and yellow on caution signs, are likely a matter of science and genetics rather than learned after we’re born. So, an “intuitive” interface is partly determined by our genes.

“Nurture” also plays a big role in determining our preferences in a user interface. For example, link-underlining on web pages and word density preferences are highly dependent upon your cultural background, according to Piero Fraternali and Massimo Tisi in their research paper, “Identifying Cultural Markers for Web Application Design Targeted to a Multi-Cultural Audience.” While research in personality and user interfaces is still in its infancy, there’s a strong indication that CEO’s have different color preferences from other individuals, as Del Jones describes in this USA Today article.

But, what about navigation techniques, like tabs and drop-down menus? In a recent conversation with Haiying Manning, a user experience designer with the College Board, I was told that “tabs are dead.” This crushed me, quite frankly, because I still like tabs to effectively group information and have a great deal of respect for Haiying’s skills and experience. As a Gen-Xer who spent much of his teen years sorting and organizing paper files on summer jobs, I’m also very comfortable with tabs in web interfaces, as are my baby-boomer friends. My Net-Gen (Millenial) friends seem to prefer a screen the size of a matchbox and a keyboard with keys the size of ladybugs, which I have trouble reading.

In the end, because of “Nature” and “Nurture”, the quest for an “intuitive” user interface is far more difficult than selection of a color scheme and navigation techniques everyone will like. What appeals to one gender, culture or generation is unlikely to appeal to others, so we need to dig further.

It’s all about the Audience

In looking back on successful projects past, the best user interface designers I’ve worked with have learned a great deal about their audience – not just through focus groups and JAD sessions, but through psychometric profiling and market research. This idea of segmenting audiences and appealing to each audience separately is far from new. Olga De Troyer called it “audience-driven web design” back in 2002, but the concept is still quite relevant today.

Once they better understood their target customers, these UI designers tailored the user interface to create a user experience that was most appealing to their user community. In some cases, they provide segment-targeted user interfaces – one for casual browsers and one for heavy users, for example. In other cases, they made personalization of the user interface easier, so that heavy users could tailor the interface based on their own preferences.

They also mapped out the common uses (use cases or user stories) for their web sites and gave highest priority to the most used (customer support) or most valuable (buying/shopping) uses, ensuring that they maximized value for their business and the customer. More importantly, the user interface designers didn’t rely upon the “the logo always goes at the top left” mind-set that drives most web site designs today.

Think about the Masai

In hopes of better defining what “intuitive” is, I spoke with Anna Martin, a Principal at August Interactive and an aficionado of web experience and web design. Evidently, “intuitive” is also a hot topic with Anna, because she lunged at the topic, responding:

“Would you reach for a doorknob placed near the floorboard; or expect the red tube on the table to contain applesauce? Didn’t think so. But what’s intuitive depends largely on what you’re used to.  Seriously, talk to a Masai nomad about a doorknob – or ketchup for that matter – and see what you get. And good luck explaining applesauce. (Cinnamon anyone?). Clearly intuition is dependent on what comes NATURALLY to a user – no matter what the user is using.

So why would the web be any different? It’s not. Virtual though it may be, it’s still an environment that a PERSON needs to feel comfortable in in order to enjoy. Bottom line is this…if you wouldn’t invite your 6 year old niece or your 80 year old grandmother to a rage (did I just date myself?) then don’t expect that every website will appeal to every user.

Know your audience, understand what makes them comfortable; and most importantly try to define what ‘intuitive’ means specifically in regards to sorting, finding, moving, viewing, reading and generally experiencing anything in their generation.”

So, audience-driven web design has firmly embedded itself into the minds of great designers, who must constantly challenge the conventions to create truly creative interactive experiences on the web. Consequently, as the field of user design transitions into a world of user experience, it’s going to require second-guessing of many of the design conventions that are present on the web today. This not only means pushing the envelope with innovative design, it also means we need to have a good handle on what “intuitive” really is.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

Cedar Point Consulting Opens New York City Office

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To serve its financial services and technology clients, Cedar Point Consulting LLC has announced that the company has opened a new office in New York City. The new office, on the 26th floor of the beautiful and iconic Chrysler Building, is located at 405 Lexington Avenue, in the middle of New York City’s vibrant business district.

Brendan Moore, one of the principals at Cedar Point Consulting, stated, “We have a focus on financial services firms in our practice, so it’s only natural that we would want to secure some new Class A space in New York City, the financial capital of the United States. We’re quite pleased with our new office, and the location thereof, and look forward to servicing Cedar Point’s clients from there in the future.”

Based in Washington, DC, Cedar Point Consulting provides consulting services in these areas:

•Business Planning, which includes business plan development, e-business planning and e-marketing planning
•Strategic Planning, which covers strategic plan development, strategic plan review and strategic planning support services
•Marketing and Sales, which includes traditional marketing and advertising, Internet and new media marketing and sales management
•Management, which consists of project management, program management, project methodology selection, and project governance, including tough project turnarounds
•Operations, which encompasses customer/member acquisition, technology support staff, call center units and their technology support staff, customer service, underwriters, processors, fulfillment, as well as specific issues like efficiency and quality management
•Process Improvement using Six Sigma, Lean Process Improvement Tools and Business Process Re-engineering, and
•General management consulting advice, including vendor selection, off-shore teaming and other unstructured or general business analysis, including business turnarounds.

Interested parties can learn more about Cedar Point Consulting at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com, or reach the firm at 1-866-CEDAR-34 or via our contact page.

What’s Your Hook?

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By Red Slice on October 7, 2010Reprinted here by express permission of Red Slice

Telling your brand story is sort of like a newspaper article: it’s all about the lead. Some folks may call this the “lead offer.” What does your business hang its hat on? When customers have that certain need or desire that certain experience, is it your company that comes to mind first?

Having a lead offer doesn’t mean you can’t have secondary messages. I often use the example of Nordstrom and Walmart. Nordstrom leads with a customer service and quality offer; Walmart with one about lowest prices. Does this mean Walmart is rude to their customers? Heck no. It just means that when you are looking for low prices, they want you to think of them. If you are thinking of a good customer service experience first, then maybe you should go elsewhere.Recently, Delta announced they were going to start leading their brand story with “service” not “size.” After acquiring Northwest Airlines, they became the largest player by traffic – until United recently merged with Continental. So now Delta is switching stories and focusing their budget on service: new flat-bed seats, video on demand and upgraded facilities in key markets.

United may decide to focus on size for a while in terms of the benefits it provides to customers: more routes, more convenience to get where you want to go, a larger network, etc. (Sidenote: big is only a relevant claim if it benefits a customer in some way and makes their life better, offers them more access, etc. Big for “big’s sake” just becomes chest-thumping.) We will have to see how the United-Continental brand story shakes out.

What do you lead with? Can you articulate the main offer you want to be known for? Service? Selection? Style? Convenient locations? Cutting-edge technology solutions? You can’t be everything so pick the main offer, the main place where do you want to “fit” inside your customers’ brains and build up from there.

Maria Ross is the founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, a branding and marketing consultancy based in Seattle. Her passion is storytelling and she has advised start-ups, solopreneurs, non-profits and large enterprises on how to craft their brand story to engage, inform and delight customers. Maria is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget (2010, Norlights Press).

Some Important Things to Know About SEO

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By Brendan Moore

Discussions with Cedar Point Consulting clients about SEO (search engine optimization) almost always involve some sense of urgency, that is, “We have to get organized around this search engine stuff so that customers can find our business online,” combined with befuddlement as to just how that happens.

To those companies that hire another company (or many times, someone’s “computer whiz” friend or nephew – no, I’m not kidding), their lack of knowledge about SEO and how it works is often replaced with misinformation about SEO. This is either because whomever they hired doesn’t know what they’re doing, or, more likely, gives the client company only the briefest of explanations about what they’re going to do and why. Because the client doesn’t know enough about SEO and the internet to begin with, they are unable to “fill in the blanks” and process the answer from an informed point of view.

With that in mind, here is a primer of things you may wish to remember about SEO that are wrong:

We’re No.1: Having the #1 ranking in a search engine is not the achievement that many make it out to be. There are a few reasons I say this; the first one being that having a No. 1 ranking is only effective as long as you’re not spending too much to get there. Like any other sort of marketing, if the money you have to spend on keywords or contextual advertising or, anything else, drives your account acquisition cost to a level higher than what makes sense, then you have achieved a phyrric victory. Second, it is a fact that searchers on the internet look at groupings of three to four search results, not just the top result. It is quite possible you could spend merely half the effort and money needed in order to get the top ranking, and get the No. 3 ranking instead, and have a much better cost-per-acquisition, and, still have more customers than you know what to do with. Third, a great header and description goes a long way towards generating a click-through if your company is fourth on the list as opposed to first. Lastly, even rankings and click-throughs together can be deceptive. If searchers are getting to your site and staying only 15 seconds before abandoning their visit, then something is very wrong. Your search-to-sale numbers are going to be extremely poor. Either you have paid for the wrong search words or your site needs a serious revamp in order to accurately reflect what you sell or what you do for a living (shameless plug – Cedar Point Consulting can definitely help you with either of these problems).

Page Rank is important: Well, sorta, but not really. Before Google had a lot of money and internal talent, this was the rudimentary way they ranked sites. The Google search engine is much more discerning now and uses highly advanced algorithms when operating, so it’s now all about relevance when search words are typed into the Google search bar. The current level of discernment will pull up a lower ranked page first if the relevance of the search word is deemed to be greater with that lower ranked page.

Trading links with other sites is valuable: No, it isn’t. It has no effect. And, furthermore, if you do it enough to trigger the internal checking mechanisms for link-trading that exist within all the major search engines, it could get your site blacklisted on those search engines. This means your business site will not ever show up in any search results. So, then you have a case in which trading links produced negative value to your business.

Repeating keywords as often as possible on the site is important: There are a lot of terms I’ve heard SEO “experts” use for this; phrases like “keyword shock and awe”, “keyword stuffing”, “keyword blitz”, “keyword density”, “keyword jamming”, etc. Some of these people reported to me, so I’ve heard these terms a great many times. The premise is pretty simple; if you’re in the plumbing business in Cleveland, then you make “plumbing” and “Cleveland” show up thirty times on your homepage. But, this doesn’t work. Again, as in the example I gave concerning rank of your page, the search engines are much more precise and selective than this, and all this loading up on a keyword (or two) is going to do for your site is make it seem disjointed and awkward and like it was written by an obsessive 10 year-old. Write good copy (or hire someone to write good copy) and you will be rewarded. The search engines use the same criteria most human beings use to pick a page, and you’re much better off being descriptive about your business and its capabilities.

Unless you’re Wal-Mart or The New York Times, SEO is all just a crapshoot, anyway: Nope, simply not true. There are things that even small companies can do from an SEO perspective to increase visits to their sites, and increase the time spent on the site. There are also things every company can do around the design of their site to increase contact rates or sales. Lastly, there are ways to increase the useful content that resides on your site, whether that is through frequent updates, writing a blog, buying or getting relevant content for free and reprinting on your site, etc. The beauty of SEO is that it is self-fulfilling: the money and time you spend on driving more traffic to your site pays off in that you get more site traffic, and it also pays off in the future as more site traffic pushes your site higher up in the search results, which means that more people will get your site in the search results, which means that more people will visit your site, which means that more people will get your site in the search results, which means… well, you get the idea here.

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in marketing, sales, front-end operations, and strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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