December 22, 2008

Your competition isn't what you think

If you've ever watched a teenager doing homework, you probably know this already. The scary part is that we're more like them than we might like to think. Multitasking has taken on a whole new meaning in the world of iPods and text messaging.

If your business needs to capture their attention on the Web, keep this study in mind. According to a recent study reported by eMarketer, you have competition beyond your competition. Nearly six out of 10 respondents to a GfK Roper survey fielded in September and October 2008 said they listened to music or talked on the phone while using the Internet. Half of those Internet users were eating while they surfed as well.

How easy is it to find something on your pages? Clutter is bad. Usability testing is critical. You just have to pay attention to it, especially since your customers are not. Here's a quick check list to cover before you think you might be ready. Have you...
  1. Identified your users with detailed personas?
  2. Identified the top 5-8 tasks for each persona?
  3. Used at least one of the navigation exercises (card sorting, questionnaires, paper prototyping, etc.)?
  4. Brought in folks (from the outside) to test out those tasks?
  5. Actually gone back and fixed some of the things brought to light in #4?
  6. Scheduled your next usability test?
One of the things I learned at a Larry Constantine workshop was to test under realistic situations. Our group had to design a ticket kiosk. Paying attention to the environment that the software will be used is important. There could be long lines waiting to use the kiosk (putting pressure on the user to be quick), lots of background noise, motion, etc. A complex interface simply won't work in that situation like it might when using a home PC browser.

But, even at home, there is TV, music, food, pets and other distractions. We need to move our usability testing out of the lab and into the real world. Not hard to do, but very important.

Let me know how your next test works out!

December 2, 2008

Do You Belong?

The Web is a wonderful, terrible, thing. I started working with the world wide web back in the 1990s, we used a text-only browser (anyone remember Mosiac, Gopher and Usenet?). Of course, it only worked on Unix systems, and Windows was just a bad way to do word processing.

Even then, e-mail wasn't used very often. I remember my boss writing memos (or rather dictating them to his secretary to type up), and distributing copies on everyone's desk. As e-mail moved more into the mainstream, communication improved. Today, with the proliferation of Web 2.0, which finally put the user in charge of the web, we are now in a world of connectedness via online social networks (<-- click that link for a definition - it's pretty goodimage).

What does this have to do with leadership? Lots.

Your "network" is the single most important aspect of your career. But it's so hard to keep in touch with everyone. That guy who you used to go to school with (yeah, the one who was such a geek), is now the CEO of a high-flying Internet company. Maybe he was looking for someone with your skills. Maybe he still is. It's not too late to connect back with him.

Keith Ferrazzi is the author of the best seller Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. He describes his technique that for him at least, "quickly forges the kind of emotional connection through which trust, and lots of business, can soon follow." Keeping relationships going is difficult. Heck, it's hard even keeping track of where someone works that you don't see often.

LinkedIn is an online network of more than 30 million experienced professionals from around the world, representing 150 industries. LinkedIn’s simple philosophy is "Relationships Matter." And they do. For those relics like me, it's been a godsend because I have kept in contact with some folks I worked with thirty years ago. That would not have been possible even ten years ago, only because we have each moved on to several other companies, changed our addresses, phone numbers, hairstyles (and lack thereof), and e-mail addresses many times over. With a social networking tool like LinkedIn, that tracking is done for me. It will never replace real face time with folks in your network, but it can help track them down.

Of course there are hundreds of other social networking sites. Facebook, with 120 million active users, is still the most popular, followed by MySpace. Others such as Twitter,  Windows Live Spaces, Yahoo 360, Flickr, YouTube, Digg, etc. all have their places for socializing, sharing photos and ideas as well. And once you get your initial network established, the six degrees of separation theory kicks in pretty remarkably.

No, I don't work for LinkedIn or Facebook - but maybe you know someone who knows someone who does. And who knows, maybe they're hiring.

November 24, 2008

Functional Leadership

How do you describe the verb to lead? Some of my favorite definitions include these from Merriam-Webster:

  1. to direct the operations, activity, or performance of <lead an orchestra>.
  2. to guide on a way especially by going in advance.
  3. to bring to some conclusion or condition <led to believe otherwise>.
  4. to guide someone or something along a way.

I think we need all four definitions to adequately describe the functions of a leader. Oftentimes, we stop at #1 on the list and assume we're done. Directive-only leaders sometimes work well to accomplish small projects with inexperienced staff. When the project gets bigger, things change.  Being a one-dimensional directive leader is shortchanging yourself by ignoring the talents all around you.

The leader who goes in advance is one who can lay out the landscape ahead, as described in definition #2. That part of their job isn't so much to direct, but rather to scout the obstacles. They report back to the team, and then help plan the way to attack. In the Bible, the book of Numbers tells of the story of Moses, who sent out spies to scout out the promised land. Ten of the twelve came back with scary stories, and when Moses heard it, he delayed. God wasn't happy with that response. Perhaps Moses didn't trust his team (with God as leader). God had already told him that it was theirs for the taking. Sometimes, overanalyzing can be a bad thing, and it didn't work out well for Moses, who is one of the top leaders in the Bible.

The third definition, bring to conclusion, is also a critical one. Projects that languish for never being completed is one of the biggest all-time leadership failures. The very definition of project must include a start and an end. Without a specific, measurable, and attainable goal - the project may never complete and therefore remain in perpetuity. Without a conclusion, effort declines, visibility is lost, and energy diminishes.

The fourth definition is perhaps the most critical. The team is what is important. That team can be one or hundreds of individuals, but they all look for guidance. The leader as coach is that thing that captures our imagination. Think back to your favorite boss. Was he/she always telling you what to do? Or did they help you figure it out on your own? Chances are, they could have given you the answer on day one. But by letting you figure it out yourself, perhaps even struggle, you learned by experience. And that experience is what makes you, in turn, a more desirable employee.

I was blessed to have some very good mentors. I'm thinking about one in particular, who stood out as both cheerleader and coach for me. She was the one who kept pushing me when I was ready to rest on my laurels. I had just accomplished something that (I thought) was great! What did she do? A quick pat on the back, but then a big kick in the butt. She recommended me for a position that was way out of my comfort zone. I took the job, and learned more in three months that I had in my previous fifteen years of professional life. Fifteen years later, I am still indebted to her for that kick.

Tell me about your favorite leader. What was so special about him/her? What have you learned to emulate of them?

P.S. I've started a new website Leadership In Action ( with the mission of building a community of leaders dedicated to the advancement and development of ethical leadership. Come visit us there.

November 21, 2008

AACRAO SEM 18 - CRM Experiences

I just returned from AACRAO SEM in Orange County, CA this week. Besides the nearby wildfires, which took an incredible amount of property and effort to control, the trip was great. My presentation there was How To Engage Your Web Audience. I had great feedback from the attendees - thank you all very much.

I sat in on a few other sessions, always looking to pick up new ideas and research data. Many of the sessions were on using Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) for recruitment of college prospective students. What struck me as I browsed the sites and watched some of the demonstrations was Man, nobody has paid attention to the user experience at all!

Frustrated_user_188155223_stdSome of the tools' created web forms were downright embarrassing. I went online to visit some of the (unnamed) schools to see how they worked. Come on guys! The forms themselves were cumbersome, not well integrated (running on a separate server), designed poorly, and just not at all intuitive. http/https errors abound. After completing one form, it sent me back to the home page using https and none of the style sheets or images loaded. The entire site was text at that point. Yuk!

There is no doubt that CRM tools (Datatel's included) can be great time savers and even increase customer service. They help administrative personnel handle the load and are capable of tracking and reporting prospect status very well. But we have to examine the TOTAL experience from the persona of the prospective student. Millennials and even Gen-X's today have little tolerance for bad web design. Your web site might look awesome, and have all the tools the prospective student is looking for, but you HAVE to make sure that when the CRM forms take over that experience remains consistent.

Will you lose students if that integrated experience is poor? I really don't know. Maybe not. But I can guarantee that their view of your institution will drop a notch or two.

Make sure your vendor knows the Web, and how best practice forms need to look and behave. I highly recommend Luke Wroblewski's book, Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks (2008, Rosenfeld Media). If your site (vendor or your home grown) follows Luke's simple advice when it comes to forms design, you'll be on your way to brand consistency.

Don't give your prospective students a reason to abandon your site. In Luke's words, forms on your website "are all that stand in the way of your user completing a task." Make it work well.

October 15, 2008

Not Another Web 2.0 Post!

If you're not sick of the (mis)use of that term by now, then you're probably not working with the Web much!  So, I'll try to avoid the term, and go with what made the concept so wildly successful for so many companies like MySpace, Facebook, and the like.

Peppers and Rogers, a one-to-one marketing consulting organization, said it well:

"Today, marketing must focus on co-creating experiences that engage and entangle consumers – on their terms."

tangle_museum_chrome_111_50p That is a powerful word to use about customers: entangle. But it really is what we want. Our brand should be so compelling that they just can't let go. They are constantly pulled back in because they feel so compelled. When they are entangled, they also tell all their friends. And remember, "friends" in the on-line world is many times more powerful than the off-line world!

The phrase "co-create" should also be a little unnerving. In higher education, why would you let that high school student or college freshman put information on your web site? Because it has to be on "their terms." They are coming to your web site to have their needs taken care of.

According to the Noel-Levitz E-Expectations study, those needs include:

  • Personalization
  • Campus Visit Request Form
  • Engage (IM) with Admissions
  • Email Current Students and Faculty
  • Virtual Tours
  • Blogs
  • Profiles of Students and Faculty
  • Financial Need Estimator
  • Online Application

Those are just the basics - the entry price for playing. We all know about the Millennials and their need for entertainment, interaction, and social engagement. We also have to deal with their helicopter parents' needs as well. In the coming weeks we'll review each of these expectations as well as several other ideas to "engage and entangle."

October 1, 2008

Engagement vs. Hog Feeding

I had the pleasure of hearing Al Switzler, co-author of Crucial Conversations, give a speech a few weeks ago. He described an interesting model of human behavior that was enlightening and even a bit disturbing.

We all need to have those conversations that we have been avoiding, whether it be with a spouse, child, boss or staff member. But HOW we have that conversation is, well, crucial.

What happens when we continue to avoid those conversations? Al told the story of a saw mill that his team visited a while ago to work with their management team. Their productivity had been decreasing of late, and they needed to understand how they, as managers, could get things back on track. Well, I'll let his co-author tell the story:

Feed the Hog.flv_000268455 Feeding the Hog

How many of your teammates are "feeding the hog", instead of being productive? According to a recent study from BlessingWhite, fewer than 1 in 3 North American employees are fully engaged. What's much worse is that 19 percent are actually disengaged.

How do you engage your team? Do they feel a sense of purpose? Or do you squash their ideas because they aren't your own? Have you approached that team member who isn't pulling his/her weight? Engaged employees contribute to your success, and they stay longer in the company. Help them turn off the hog and get their unique abilities and strengths put to work. Everyone really does want to contribute, but they are individuals who don't all think the same way. They have unique ideas and ways to do their job. I always have to remember: they aren't the same as me.

And thank God for that!

August 25, 2008

Where's the Leadership?

I just watched (again) the movie Network. If you haven't seen it in a while, it's worth a rent. Peter Finch played the incredible Howard Beale, famous for his line "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!" No one could have predicted back in 1977 how prophetic it would really be for the television industry. Howard Beale fighting against the corporate empires of the world (as summed up in an outstanding speech by Net Beatty). Without going into too much movie story, Howard Beale hit a nerve with the American people and created a stir that no politician had ever achieved. He had people screaming out of their windows, sending telegrams to the White House, and generally riled up to the point of revolution.

Then everything went back to normal.

Leadership is sometimes the voice crying out in the wilderness. But sometimes it's a softer voice in the boardroom, office or cubicle. But either way, it's a sustained one, not a flash in the pan. Often, as Jim Collins has told us, it is the quiet leader that is most effective. The one who understands his hedgehog -- that one thing that makes the company successful. And, the person who can instill that vision into everything that he does.

What's your hedgehog? Not just what are you good at... what are you awesome at? Then think about how you can develop that strength and become that one that will get noticed, not just for a flash, but for good. Chances are, Michael Phelps is a great basketball player too. But when he's in the pool everyday working out, you can bet he's not thinking about developing that 3-point shot.

There's room for all of us at the top. We just need our focus sharpened.

June 16, 2008

Usage-Centered Take 2

I tried to draw a distinction in a previous blog about how user-centered design differs from usage-centered design. Although our focus should remain on the user persona, we have to make sure we have a good understanding of the tasks that user performs.

Unfortunately for the designer, most businesses are no longer in the assembly-line mode. It used to be much easier to design an interface that would fit uniformly across all the users of that system. The green screen character mode was that attempt. Some of us built on top of that a menu layer that allowed certain types of users (administrators, managers, and the like) to see different options that the "regular" user didn't have access to.

That carries on today. We have personas for management, admins, and the "regular" user. Sometimes, however, our focus becomes too narrow. Remember the good old days of systems analysis? For a long time we built systems from the bottom up. Then we were taught top-down design in the 70's – see the big picture and then build out the layers below them to get to the details. It was an approach that worked well for a while. Then, we came full circle again and started building bottom-up, focusing on a single user view of the system.

But we forgot a major tenant of design. Make the work more efficient. We're trained to look at a better way to do things. The user knows how he/she does certain things, and a good designer can put together a screen flow that can make that task sing. But we've forgotten to ask the "why" questions. Designers should always understand the "What" before diving into the "How" issues. Start with the goals. Work your way down through the objectives (they are not the same thing… maybe that's another column). Now, you can look at those objectives and see – is this really HOW you want to do it? Once you understand WHAT they are trying to do, use your training and help them discover the HOW with careful analysis.

The USAGE of a product is more important than the USER. It's really not blasphemy. It's common sense.

March 21, 2008

Educator, Test Thyself!

How many of the higher education institutions you know about actually give tests (quizzes, exams) to gauge the ability of your students? Does it also help gauge the effectiveness of your lessons?

My guess is that all of them do. Then why, when it comes to a website, shouldn't we test it to make sure they "learner" (web visitor) is getting the message we want? It's so easy to gauge the effectiveness of your website by just testing it out.
Users love to get some personalized attention, so recruiting a few of them (you don't need any more than 5 or 6 for any given set of tasks) to let you watch them on your site, is pretty easy.
First, define the set of common tasks you think the web visitor should accomplish. Then, sit them down and watch them do them. Don't give them hints, but you should know what scenario you expect them to take..
Money Back Guarantee: you will be amazed at how much you learn from 5 people in a very short period of time. Try it out and let me know.


March 7, 2008

You need fanatics!

Kevin Kelly has it right. "To raise your sales out of the flatline of the long tail you need to connect with your True Fans directly. Another way to state this is, you need to convert a thousand Lesser Fans into a thousand True Fans. "

It seems that, for many, the sale is the end. That just can't work anymore. It has to be the beginning of a great relationship. A "true" fan is one who keeps buying, but more importantly, talks you up among their friends.

March 3, 2008

Did You Hear What I Said?

The web is a quiet thing. Well, with the exception of those super-annoying myspace pages who put gawd-awful music on them so that they load at dial-up speeds. Anyway, it's not about yelling, it's about capturing their attention, not with a gimmick, but with something that satisfies a need.

Despite the terminology commonly used, your user likely doesn't have time to surf. They came to your site for a reason. Finding something that satisfies them quickly is your only chance to keeping them, and maybe even converting them to your customer.

Do  you really know what your user wants? You can. You just have to ask. But first, you need to know who they are. Personas have been used for many years to identify and well, personify, target audiences. Find out what their keywords (as Gerry says, "carewords") are. Find out what images are compelling to them. Do pictures of buildings really convey the image you want? If you are targeting architects, maybe. If you are targeting high school students, not so much.

Build the persona, then ask them directly in your usability tests and interviews. Get to know them. Hobbies, interests, web habits, technology knowledge etc. Then build out your content. with them in mind. Are they idle words on a page to fill space, or do they really address your target persona? Keep testing and watching them. And learn. And apply.

February 8, 2008

Soggy Projects

Click the "read more" link below. Seth, as usual, just makes sense. Focus on getting a "win" with a project, then move on. But be aware of all the forces working against you...

read Seth's story

digg story

January 20, 2008

User-Centered? Maybe Not!

User or usage? That's the question. User-centered design has been the rage for several years. And why not? Who knows about their work better than the user? The question that Larry Constanatine has me thinking about now is critical. His point is that the user knows their job, but do they really know how to best design software? Doubtful. This is NOT to say that usability testing and yes, engaging the user in the process is not important. It is!

But, what really is important is that the analyst (interaction designer, business analyst, and developers) understand "how" the user works. That's actual usage of their tools. If I ask you how you work, or put you in a focus group with others who do similar jobs, I will get a different perspective than if I just go to your workplace and watch what you do. Many of us actually have very little ability to describe our jobs very well, as strange as that seems. Try it out. Keep a journal for a week and record everything you do. You'll be amazed (not to mention annoyed) about how different those perspectives were.

Putting the analyst in the users' offices really is important. Observation will beat focus groups every time. We are way too easy to get reality and desires confused.

Again, this does not diminsh the need for the user's invovlement in the design. But spend the time on the "interesting" or complex tasks, and use the expert observation to design the mundane task completion. Usage-centered design is the way to go.

More to be said on this, buf for now, let's think about a better way to design.

January 16, 2008

UI 12 and Interaction Design

Just got back from UI12. Datatel was represented by a colleague and me. There were about 1,000 folks at the conference. It was started by Jared Spool of UIE fame. UIE is a think-tank firm that specializes in all aspects of usability. Some notable presenters were Scott Berkun,; Kevin Cheng, Yahoo!; Larry Constantine, Constantine & Lockwood; Kim Goodwin, Cooper; Gerry McGovern,; Christine Perfetti, User Interface Engineering; Luke Wroblewski, Yahoo!; Cameron Moll, LDS Church; Rolf Molich, DialogDesign; Joshua Porter, User Interface Engineering; and Jared M. Spool, User Interface Engineering.

The sessions I attended included Larry Constantine's "Interaction Design in an Agile World", which was a very good all-day talk on how to integrate user interface design into the Agile development processes. It's not easy, but it can be done. Luke Wroblewski of Yahoo talked about good form design, and brought a lot of research to back up his findings. We'll definitely use some of that in our product design.

Probably the thing that stands out the most to me is the fact that so many of the companies represented there had specific "Interaction Designers" who had the specific job of researching, specifying, prototyping and testing user interface design. This, of course, is a much different job than my own Interactive Graphic Design team, who focus on the look and usability of portions of our client sites. Currently, our business analysts are doing some of this work, but it really is a specialized area.

Our users have traditionally been the administration user, one we can train, and one that sticks around to know the software very well. The true end user (our clients' users), are a different type of user. We don't have the luxury of training them on the software, and they may only interact with us once or twice. We HAVE to be usable, and yes, even delightful.

Good stuff.

Simplicity Is Complex

Datatel's ActiveCampus eMarketing (of which I am the Program Manager) is a comprehensive product, well, actually three products in one. ActiveAdmissions and ActiveAlumni both are built on the ActiveCampus Content Management System (CMS) Platform. The system consists of a set of controls that can be assembled together to make up web pages. Each portion (dare I say webpart) of a web page is one control. For example, a banner ad might be one control, a new story another, the navigation another, etc.

ActiveAdmissions has some specialized controls such as the online application and guidance counselor functions. ActiveAlumni has its directory and authentication controls. Both products share a multitude of controls, however. Each control can be customized based on the user's needs. For example, an alumni spotlight content item may consist of an uploaded photograph, person's name, their degree, their current job and the year graduated. Another client may want to add in their favorite memory. The system can handle any number of fields for any of the controls.

Datatel consultants work with the client on best practices, but always want the client to put their own "touch" on their website so it is different from other institutions. Working together with solutions consultants, creative consultants and User Interface developers, the sites come together in a beautiful way. When tightly integrated with data from Colleague, things go well.
All of this orchestration takes a lot of work, and a lot of pieces need to fit tightly together. Software development works hard to make it all happen under the covers, and we continue to improve the product and services.

Thanks to a great team in Buffalo and Fairfax, this is a true "user experience" process that keeps getting better.

Lighten Up America!

I've lived on a border town all my life, having grown up in Niagara Falls, NY, USA, but only ten minutes away from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. Playing hockey as a kid, I would trek over the Rainbow bridge often. Of course, back in the days of low security, it was usually a quick and easy experience.

I spent Saturday at Niagara-on-the-Lake just across the border, at the mouth of the Niagara River as it hits Lake Ontario. It's a quaint, beautiful town, lots of tourists. The "vacation mode" started as we crossed the border. The Canadian customs officer was pleasant, asking their typical "Where were you born?" quesion. After that, you head to a toll booth where you have to pay the fee ($3.00 US, $3.50 CDN). As I was searching for the correct change, the toll collector was chatting away with me about what a nice day it was, have a great day, etc.

We spent the next few hours sitting at a hotel's outdoor patio, watching the crowds go by. I think it's actually pretty easy to spot a Canadian from an American, so we played that game for a while as we also watched the girl that gives the horse and carriage rides clean up that bag that they put on the back of the horse (yeah, that was our view for a while!).

The change of atmosphere was brought home as we headed back home across the border. The US Customs Agents are very military looking (not that there's anything wrong with that!), carrying sidearms and rarely smiling. Quite a contrast from their low-key Canadian counterparts.

Vacation mode was definitely off. The general pace and attitude of the American's is really a contrast to the Canadian's. Maybe it's the beer, but I think there's something to be said for a lifestyle that has humor and relaxation, with no drop off in productivity.

Lighten up America!

What Is This "Usability" Thing?

It's one of the few technical terms that really describes itself... (think about that, and what that says for our industry!).

Usability is really in the eye of the beholder. Ask 10 people their definition of "quality", and you'll get 10 different answers. Usability is a big part of quality, but it's rare to see it mentioned in any of the so-called "quality methodologies". What is easy to use by one individual is a nightmare for another. That's why the definition of "usable" software has to have several components:

  • The Persona. The "definition" of the user who will be using the software. There can be several personnas definined, but it's difficult to design software for personnas on opposite ends of the spectrum.
  • The Requirements. Requirements are a description of what the software should "DO".
  • The Specifications. Specs are "HOW" the software should accomplish the Requirements. And there's the rub. Some of the best software meets the requirements, but is still unusable. The best way to define specifications are with:
  • Storyboards and Prototypes. These are essentially paper prototypes of how the software will look and interact.
  • Usability Testing. This is the most overlooked, but most critical piece of software development.

Feature-rich, but usable?

Usability testing is accomplished by asking users (that meet the personas - not techncial people's PERCEPTION of users) to accomplish everyday tasks. They are observed, and asked some questions after they have attempted their tasks. Feedback goes into the next iterative development phase. Without that feedback early and often, the risk of poor usability will always be high.

More to come...