Rapid Prototyping: Slideshows

First of all, let me express to you how important rapid prototyping is.

You absolutely ought to do requirements gathering first, then come up with a theory of what your users want, then build a quick-and-dirty prototype and take it back to users – both the ones you gathered requirements with, and others. This can take you a few days and cost a few hundred dollars, and it can save you hundreds of thousands in development, materials, or man hours.

So now that we’ve established that you all agree and will employ rapid prototyping before you build anything big, let’s get into the meat. There are a lot of ways to do make a prototype. Depending on your medium, you can build a cork-board model, draw pictures on a piece of paper, or whip out wireframes and screenshots. Regardless, you shouldn’t spend too much time on them – depending on the size of the project, we’re talking an hour to 2 days, no more. They don’t have to be perfect, fancy, interactive, or anything along those lines. They are nothing more than a tangible representation of an idea or concept. Nothing more.

One way, particularly useful for an experience (like a tour), or an application (web-based or desktop) is to use a slideshow.

Irfanview is a free, easy to use downloadable application. It has lots of features, but the only one I ever use is the slideshow builder. You can drag screenshots in, and then set controls on each for mouse click, arrow, etc. This enables you to get on the phone with a remote user, and bring up the screenshots in any order you want, without opening gifs from a folder. It can completely fake user interaction, as far as clicking goes – click with the mouse and it can take you to a next screenshot that shows a list expanded or a field filled in.

It saves out to an .exe file, so you can then send the “prototype” to anyone you want. You can make it go from slide to slide automatically, or control each slide individually. File sizes are reasonable. I also use it for training, and believe it or not – I have a version of my portfolio in an executable slideshow. Many possibilities for a little free gem!

Irfanview’s interface isn’t the prettiest or simplest, but the basic functionality only took me a few minutes to figure out. It’s incredibly powerful, when you’ve got a test you need to keep running smoothly.

Enjoy this tool, and if you find others like it, please comment and let everyone know!

Today’s Glossary Term:
AEIOU – A research method focused on Actions, Environments, Interactions, Objects, and Users. It’s primarily used for ethnography (studying people and making a mental model of how they see the world) but can also be a good mnemonic to spread throughout your team. It helps to get everyone thinking of the world from the user’s point of view.

Today’s Interesting Link:
http://www.csszengarden.com/ – Is one of the places I go when I’m feeling boxed in by a design. It’s a great resource for inspiration, or if you’re looking to improve your CSS skills. If you don’t already have Zen Garden bookmarked, you really ought to.

Today’s Usability Quote:
“The greater danger for most of us is not that
our aim is too high and we miss it, but
that it is too low and we reach it.”
– Michelangelo

Today’s Music To Design To:
Getting away from the edgy electronica, it’s time for a Jazz recommendation. However, Jenna Mammina is not “just” jazz. She uses her voice like an instrument, switching between belted lyrics and then lilting back into a soft, sultry croon.
Download the MP3s or Buy the CD

24/7 Usability Methods

Mark Hurst has a great post on “Listening Labs” in his excellent blog. In it he talks about a method I can’t recommend highly enough – a freeform session in which you watch your user actually use your product, their way. No test script, no tasks, no standardized objectives. Just “show me what you do”. I’ve been using this method for about 10 years now, to identify problem areas, build personas, and flesh out requirements.

What surprised me about Mark’s article is that he called “Listening Labs” an unorthodox method. I’d never thought of this as particularly clever or unusual, so it got me thinking.

There is a mindset amongst us product people that user feedback is best solicited through guided methods. Interviews, surveys, lab time, observations… all of these things structure your time with the user and are great for targeting specific stuff. But I feel that it’s absolutely crucial to do an additional sort of data gathering – we’ll call it 24/7 Usability.

24/7 Usability means that at any given moment of any given day, you are soliciting feedback on your existing product. There are a number of ways to do this, and you’ll be amazed at how simple they are.

The Feedback Link
First and foremost, the very minimum you should do. You should have a way for a user to give feedback from any page or screen in your application. The feedback should have a form, so you can get enough info to respond to them – and it should be called “Feedback”. Seriously “Tell us what you think” or “suggestions” or “comments” or any number of other cute, non-standard things may give your site/app personality, but it’s not necessarily going to be instantly recognizable to a confused or frustrated user.
The result of this form should go to customer support, of course, but the user experience team or professional should be CC’ed. Just work out who is the responder, and make sure you’re not double-teaming your poor users with responses.

Message Boards/Forums
I can’t tell you how valuable the Usability Forum for my product is. I post survey questions there, I answer interface questions (each one identifies a problem with the design!) and I get requests. I can even share screenshots of proposed designs, since only registered users can get to the forum. I keep a spreadsheet that logs every feature request and confusion point, along with how many users have requested it, and what type of user they are. When I’m building my strategy, I refer to this spreadsheet like a bible.
When a new feature gets released, or an old one gets improved, I head back to the forum and comment on every post that asked for it, letting users know we listened to them. As a result, our users have confidence that their feedback is being heard and acted on.
A bonus is that because the forum is public, if a user requests a feature that doesn’t make sense to other users, those other users will dispute their request, and they often work out a compromise between themselves – without my interference!

Your Customer Support Team
If you’re not already good friends with every one of your customer support folks, you’d better bake them cookies and get on it. These people are the front line of usability. They hear all the complaints – and the compliments!
I’ve got an arrangement with my support managers – whenever anyone in support gets a call where the problem is interface, or they can’t find a button, or don’t understand a word – support sends me an email. These all get tracked in that Holy Spreadsheet too, with special annotation that it came from a support critter. Those get higher weight because they were bad enough that someone picked up the phone and made a call.

Your Sales Team
Believe it or not, your sales people are just as important as the customer support people. Here’s where you have to be careful, because there are often qualifying factors. However, a salesperson knows that when she is demo’ing a product, and three potential customers ask the same question, there’s a real problem there. I’ve even taught my salesmonsters how to ask followup questions in a non-leading way, empowering them as mini-moderators. These guys are a fantastic source of feature requests, and they can give you the pulse of a customer segment you REALLY want to make happy – the ones you don’t have yet.

All too often, apps – whether web-based or dowloadable – are built in a hurry, with an eye to timelines and no thought of the future. However, it’s important to build into your architecture the ability to track everything a user does.
There are privacy issues, of course. However, it’s incredibly simple to assign a different token to each of three links to the same page, so you can tell which one is getting used the most. Qualitative data is precious, but nothing beats sheer quantitative data to show you what you’re doing right and wrong.
Take the extra day, or week, or month, to make sure that you’re tracking user behavior without violating privacy or user trust. It’s well worth it.

The point is, usability shouldn’t be an on- and off- thing. If you only test in spurts, you’re likely to miss some very important issues and opportunities. Consider every contact with a user, whether that contact is via website, person, or product as an opportunity to do 24/7 usability.

Today’s Glossary Term:
Wireframe – A rough diagram of a page/screen, either sketched by hand or made with black & white lines, that generally indicates basic layout and what info/functionality is shown. These are good for first walkthroughs, high-level validation of a concept, and finalizing requirements. They’re also great when you’re playing with multiple layouts or methods, because they take very little effort/time and can be very illustrative.

Today’s Interesting Link:
http://supercook.com/ – It’s got your usual web 2.0 look and feel, but the layout is useful, primary functionality is well highlighted, and the concept is great. I frequently have the problem of having too much of X and not wanting to let it go bad – with this site you enter an ingredient and it pulls up recipes.
I particularly like the suggestions on the search box, the mouseovers on everything, and the reactive nature of the site. Well done!

Today’s Usability Quote:
“If it was magic, how would it work?” – Alan Cooper

Today’s Music To Design To:
Ape of Naples is a fantastic album by Coil. If you’re familiar with Coil, you’ll enjoy the dark, funereal remixes, and if you aren’t familiar with them, it’s a good introduction. Excellent for designing dark, edgy stuff.
Buy the CD or Download an MP3