Are most usability tests worthless?

It is in very few occasions that I disagree with Javier Cañada, so when this happens, I should try to make the most of it.

Let me draw your attention to his recent rant on usability testing and the comments that follow, mine among them. You might like to join the rumpus :-)

Comments on this post are disabled. If you want to say something about the issue, Javier’s place is the place.

Scott McCloud + Google = pure awesomeness

Honestly, the news that Google is releasing a new browser hadn’t succeeded at catching my attention.

But that was before I learnt that Scott McCloud had been commissioned to write a comic on Chrome’s innards.

Boy, if you’ve ever wanted an example of how the language of comics can be used to convey complex concepts in a clear, efficient and attractive way, well, don’t miss this one. In a blink, I’ve found myself ten pages into Chrome’s process and memory management scheme (a subject in which I could hardly be less interested today) —and loving it.

Pure McCloud genius that would be able to make my children understand the difference between a process and a thread. And more than that: give a damn about it!

Sometimes Google just manages to re-win my heart.

The role of usability and persuasion in conversion-critical processes

When it comes to designing conversion-critical processes, usability and persuasion are two concepts that often come to mind. They may be complementary, but they can also be opposing sometimes.

This is my oh-so-biased view:

Usability Persuasion
Is the brainchild of… engineers advertisers
Treats the user as… an agent: will consider her options and do what she thinks is right a patient: her behaviour can and should be influenced
From a marketing perspective, is affine to… product marketing promotion marketing
If a conversion funnel were a slide, it would deal with… making the slide frictionless and safe nudging the user down it
If it was a period of Prehistory it would be… Neolithic: about breeding and exploiting long-term relationships with customers Paleolithic: about hunting/gathering customers
Relies on tactics such as… Putting the user in control Creating a sense of urgency or scarcity to drive the user to action

When it comes to interactive design, some designers put persuasion at the same level of usability. If you ask me, I think persuasion is a spice, not an ingredient. As a matter of fact, persuasion in Web design is like nutmeg: in small doses and some applications it may be beneficial, if overused becomes unpalatable, and in large doses it’s downright toxic.

As I see it, the most influential single factor in conversion is good matching between your value proposal and the users that come to you. It never ceases to amaze me how many people give up working on this factor, and get obsessed with other details instead.

If you are concerned with conversion, work on the definition of your value proposal and your target audience first of all. Once you’ve done your homework here, usability can do a lot to make sure there are not obstacles in the way. And given you have the right value proposal and a usable process, persuasion can certainly help you walk the extra mile to prevent users from procrastinating, or to help users understand and feel the uniqueness and attractiveness of your proposal. But to a point. Beyond that point, it may look as if your immediate conversion figures are improving, but chances are your lifetime customer value will be unaffected or even damaged.

Of course, this is just an opinion. What is yours?

Heat Pixels: an example of recombination

Recombination is one of the tactics nature uses to generate diversity. For instance, genetic recombination is responsible of the fact that all our children are genetically different (with the exception of identical twins, of course).

Recombination, as in mixing parts of different concepts or disciplines, is a very useful creativity technique. Take two very disparate things and mix them somehow. The result may be strange, but it might be the seed for a useful idea.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was hanging out with some friends. Nice, non-technical people. They were talking about how awesome the new iPhone is told to be. You know, this topic is getting more and more boring all the time, so I tried to change the subject to their experience with induction smooth-top stoves (Let me say that smooth-top stoves are very popular in Europe —I’ve heard in the UK they’re called “ceramic hobs”). Then, the idea came to me about an “iPhone stove”: a multi-touch, tactile stove where you can “paint” heat sources directly on the surface.

The idea of someone using a multi-touch interface to determine the size and position of heat sources in a stove is a little bit impractical (not to say dangerous), but the concept of a configurable stove where you can “paint” heat sources with “heat pixels” seems promising.

See, this is a typical fixed configuration of heat sources in a smooth-top stove:


Four heat sources are shown. You can choose the one you need, depending on the size of your pan and the power needed.

But now imagine you have a number of small heat-emitting elements arranged in a bee-hive pattern:


Depending on the size and number of the cooking utensils you are going to use, you’d change the arrangement of these “heat pixels”:


At the left, you can see a configuration for three utensils of different sizes. At the right, you can see what the configuration would be for a single, large cooking utensil such as the one needed for a nice Spanish paella.

What would be the right user interface to control configuration and heat control of these dynamic sources? As we’ve said before, a multi-touch interface, tough fashionable, would be not the most sensible option. I suggest placing a camera and a projector in the extractor hood and using an interface driven by the user’s gestures and by the actual presence of utensils on the stove. Think of something similar to Ianus Keller’s Cabinet or Pompeu Fabra’s Reactable. It would work like this:

  • Configuration of heat sources (its number, shape and size) would be automatically performed by the sole presence of cooking utensils. Just put any pan anywhere, and the appropriate “heat pixels” will activate accordingly.
  • Control of each heat source will be controlled by hand gestures. For instance, putting your hand above one utensil and showing one to five fingers would set up heat power 1 to 5, whereas waving your hand would cut up the heat.
  • The camera attached to the extractor hood might be able to use some artificial vision to recognize changes in the contents of the utensils. For instance, it shouldn’t be too difficult to to recognize boiling, or even the slight change of colour that would tell you the stuff you’re frying is starting to brown. This way, you could give the stove commands such as “wait for this one to boil, then power down to level 2, wait 10 minutes, then power off and beep“.
  • The projector might feed the user with information by projecting figures and graphics on the stove, the food itself, or an adjacent surface (for instance, a cutting surface that can also work like a precision scale).
  • This intelligent stove could assist the user with audio-visual hints and recipes.
  • Now that we are getting carried away, the extractor hood might have also a mass spectrometer (a kind of “artificial nose”) and detect some of the aromatic compounds that are emitted by food as it is transformed by heat.

Phew! We’ve started by mixing the iPhone and a stove, and now we’re defining the kitchen of the future. Needless to say, dozens of objections and drawbacks come to mind (from “an extractor hood is the worst place to keep the optics of a camera/projector clean” to “heat sources divided into heat pixels would be far less efficient”), but I have no doubt that in the future, we’ll see one of two of the developments we’re describing here.

See where a little recombination has taken me? I’d love to hear where it can take you.