Context and the Changing Mobile Landscape

Marketers increasingly think about consumers in complex ways. It is understood that in a changing digital landscape, the context in which they learn and shop influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  But we rarely define “context”. It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating in a swirl of information.

Physical Context

Physical context refers to the notion of infusing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” and react to them. But this is difficult. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond the boundaries of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with “place”.

Think of a mall.  There are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices. The device now has to decode what information is relevant and how it will deliver information. What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers? The digital landscape is continuous at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. This presents a series of problems that are different than those of physical context.

Technology is on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. Devices will exist in a constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In the mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of one friend’s device communicating with the other friend’s device while blocking out the other 2000 devices, you still have several thousand potential “identities” that may have useful information.  How is it decided what to manage without devoting significant time to setting up the hundreds of variables?

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture. Data no longer resides “in” our computers.  Devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  This reflects a shift in how we use information because all information is transitory.

Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. Content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. Devices will find themselves in the fourth kind of context of social interaction, with all its contingencies. Just as behavior is shaped by the moment, so too will the apps and information needed to adapt.

Socio-Cultural Context

Each person is unique to contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a county, a continent, a hemisphere. Cultural context provides a framework for what “works” for each consumer in the world.

It is at this point where a better perspective is gained on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe. Take a beer pouring app that mimics the pouring of a beer when the device is tilted.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks, male-to-male bonding, etc. But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts. Success lies in understanding the reasons behind the consumers beliefs and actions in the symbolic exchanges, and the ability to code and decode those exchanges.  Marketing mishaps come from a lack of comprehension.

So What?

Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, leading to a greater need to make sense of insights. Without a means to categorize context, marketers will miss identifying trends that matter most. What to do?

  • Rethink the problem. Frequently, “the problem” is a facet of something else. For example, when researching an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it is understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books as a means of gaining status. The point is the problem seen may not be the problem at all.
  • Define the contexts. Defining the contexts helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if the consumer behavior is drinking beer, all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed need to be articulated.
  • Think through the sample. Who is the marketing targeting? What are the social circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural systems.
  • Make a plan that involves experiential information gathering, not just statistics. Develop a guide to navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (everything is data). Don’t  just think about the questions to ask, but also include opportunities for observation and participation.
  • Head into the field. This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.
  • Do the analysis. Analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. The goal is to bring a deep understanding of cultural behavior to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and gets to the underlying structures of why people do what they do.

The process is more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for the company.

Bricks, Clicks and the “New” Retail Paradigm

Since the emergence of internet shopping, companies have tended to structure their way of thinking about shopping channels in silos that reflect their operations. Shopping behavior is segmented according to the channel and the shopper is relegated to a specific trajectory. Shopping is usually thought of in terms of work – procuring goods, meeting needs, etc.  Shopping is seen first as a function and secondarily as something that serves emotional and social needs. Even as we talk about retail therapy, we revert in marketing to discussions about seemingly rational behavior.  But it isn’t so simple anymore. Unfortunately, with the ubiquity of internet access, be it from a fixed location or via a mobile device, the truth is those lines between the off-line and online experience have become so blurred as to be meaningless.  Rather than individual silos, shopping processes function as part of a complex, adaptive system that is increasingly driven by social interaction and socio-cultural needs, not transactional needs.

If a company is to grow its brand (and thereby its bottom line), it is wise to think about how this system emerges and understand how the act of shopping has fundamentally changed at a deep cultural level. What this means for shopper marketing is that the best retail experiences, those with the highest degrees of loyalty and sales, are those that project a story and invite the shopper into the narrative.

Bricks

Fifty years ago, the retail space was the only real way to interact with customers.  Yes, there was the option of the catalog, but it was, and is, a one-way conversation.  The retail space was more of a transactional space and advertising was simply a list, though cleverly done, of the goods available.  As shopping has become more convenient and the transactional element has been driven into new realms, and the retail spaces and brands that everyone admires have begun to touch shoppers on a more visceral level.

Shopping is about more than getting more stuff.  Brick and mortar shopping as it is practiced today in particular jumps the line between a functional/transactional and social/symbolic experience. Shopping is as much about entertainment, establishing cultural roles and teaching cultural norms (or rebelling against them) as it is about anything else. Often, the decision to enter into one retail space over another is about experiential elements more than it is price or convenience. Because experience is rooted increasingly in dialog between members of social groups (e.g. moms, bicyclists, rockabilly fans, etc.), the retail experience actually begins well before we set foot in the store, in conversations where people congregate.

Clicks

Digital shopping (online or with a mobile device) is highly personal, portable and an increasingly participatory experience. When it first began, the online shopping experience was largely fixed in one location and the interactions, primarily transactional in nature, were almost exclusively between an individual and what a company chose to present to them.  But this process was quickly modified as people began posting product reviews, blogging about their experiences, etc. Even so, the process of investigating a company was largely between an individual and either an institution or an abstract person in an unknown location.  And then social media was born changing the nature of the web and the shopping landscape forever. The highly individual, highly transactional nature of the online shopping experience became subject to the same social and cultural drivers as the brick and mortar experience.

Shopping ahs become as much about structuring peer groups as the transaction. The shopping and the purchase itself represent the groups we interact with and our places/roles in them. Because social media tools help us craft public identity, so do our purchase choices. With the increased use of mobile devices online shopping, and hence social media interaction at the point of shopping, has moved from the individual sitting at his or her kitchen table to a very public dialog. Peer group members (no, Ginger, we didn’t say “demographic” or “segment”) interact with each other and the retail environment simultaneously, creating a shopping experience that can draw literally thousands of people into the conversation from the point of consideration to the point of purchase.

Blenders

Retailers can blend the physical and social experience of brick and mortar shopping with the participatory (read: social network) experience of digital shopping to achieve a greater percent of brand loyalists (which currently and historically sits at 5%) and higher multi-channel revenue streams.

The first step is to examine in a bit more detail why people participate in digital shopping and what it means for the retail experience in its totality.

  • Social network: When shopping is done with others, as a family or with a friend, it is as much about establishing social bonds and being an outing as it is about fulfilling specific needs. It doesn’t matter if the shopping is in a physical location, in virtual space or a blending of the two.  Shopping has replaced the park, the lake, etc. Retail spaces and social media spaces that encourage people to interact both with each other and the brand lead to a greater sense of belonging and reinforce the roles people have adopted for that shopping excursion. For example, placing small sweets throughout a lingerie store (returning to our bra example) increases the sense of romanticism and allows people to “play” to the underlying storyline the shopper and her counterpart are seeking. Add to this the ability to share that experience with others and it becomes more real, more meaningful.  That in turn builds both interest and loyalty amongst your shoppers.
  • Entertainment and gaming: The store is indicative of a stage, a field on which we play games.  The same is true in social media.  People assume roles which they use to create a game-like environment, one-upping others and competing for cultural, psychic and monetary capital. Even without the direct associations with a specific story line a retail space and the social media environment should still conform to some very basic principles.  Namely, escape, fantasy, and inclusion. The total experience speaks to cultural and psychological triggers of enjoyment and participation. People create memories within places if storylines develop and form personal connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to buy. A good brand needs to be create a shared identity, connecting the company and the shopper by developing clear imagery and displays that create the sense that there is a narrative behind the façade.
  • Rewards as social influence: Rewards and bonuses are about more than getting goods for cheap.  The underlying motivations are largely drawn from the need to attain a sense of mastery that isn’t too far removed from the pleasure our ancestors derived from the hunt.  Not only do you get the good deal, but your sense of self worth and accomplishment is inflated.  Going beyond the need for mastery is the pride derived from demonstrating to the world that you are skilled.  You gain influence and cultural capital.  Add to the mix the element of social media, mobile social media more precisely, and the validation you receive is immediate and more expansive. The entire world shares in your success and you gain a degree of prestige that is tied to the exact moment of shopping, not as an afterthought. The result is that the brand, the store and the online presence become an integrated experience that is far more powerful for the shopper.

The trick for retailers is determining the proper mix of each of these elements to create the ideal shopping experiences for their brand. In the end, retail shopping is becoming more complex. With the increased use of online shopping and the ease of access to a more and more locations, people are making choices based on underlying desires, not just functional needs. Anything a retailer can do to improve the experience is a key differentiator. Differentiate your store and you increase loyalty and sales.

Smoke Signals: Information in an Age of Selective Bias

In the quest to connect every citizen of earth and expand the ideal of the Renaissance Man that we’ve held so dear since time immemorial, (which was allegedly sometime in the 1500’s) we’ve instead reverted to a tribal method of information consumption that shrinks our individual perspective and is creating a fragmented and myopic population.

Think of information consumption as a parallel to food consumption. On an individual level, we crave sugars, salt and fats. For most of human history, these were difficult to obtain, so when these are available our instinct is to gorge. Now, while all three are difficult to avoid, we still have an urge to consume as much as we can, leading to obesity.

On a macro scale, we learn to love certain foods. We typically are conditioned to prefer local or regional cuisine and ingredients. It’s why everyone thinks their mom has the best pot roast or the best spaghetti. It’s also why if you’re a Texan in China and see BBQ on the menu, you’ll linger over the menu even if you know it won’t be the same.  The behavior that informs media consumption is remarkably similar to these same concepts, now more than ever.

Why? Choice and availability. Instead of allowing media and information to broaden our perspective we are instead picking our  sources for information a la’ cart that already conform to our worldview. Think Fox News pundits for conservatives or Air America for those left of center. One can also compare media sites in America to sites based in the U.K. (BBC) or Saudi Arabia (Al Jazeera) to see how the culture reflects in the presentation of news. An individual’s worldview can be described as the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual that includes normative postulates, philosophy, values, emotions and ethics. It is the framework through which an individual interprets and interacts with the world.

How does one develop their worldview? As with your palate, familial, social and cultural factors play a large role in shaping a worldview during development. As one gets older, the sphere of influence expands from family to family friends to peer groups and trusted informants.The twist is, with greater interconnectivity and communication than ever before, it appears that worldviews are shrinking. The amount of information an average American ingests daily has increased exponentially, while the range of information has decreased; evolving us into us into an arguably more myopic nation than we were 10 years ago.

Considering the fragmentation of media sources, it shouldn’t be surprising that news and information consumption is looking more like a landscape of competing tribes than a multi-channeled entity. Social media, the internet and smart phones allow us to talk to anyone at any time. They’ve also given every consenting subscriber a platform to publish or share ideas. If we’re not turning into our favorite news channel or reading our segment or demographically oriented magazine, we’re reading opinions and “journalism” from blog websites or social media figures we trust.

Why do we trust them? Is it because they’re operating as transparent entities? Do they have a track-record for accuracy? More often than not it’s because they tell us what we want to hear, or at least in language we understand. It’s the concept of subculture as applied to media. We trust and give attention to outlets or channels that conform to us.

So what? How do businesses and media outlets evolve to succeed in this rapid paradigm shift? Do we as capitalists find ways to exploit this for monetary gain, even if that means our culture is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator? Do we redact our fragmented news landscape to put action behind the words of praise we offer to the Renaissance Man ideal? In reality, the only way to do that would be censorship. Perhaps the real question is, “How do we monetize the new paradigm without compromising our culture?”

Symbolism of Color and Web Design

When thinking about how the study of symbols and signs can factor into interface design (whether for the traditional web or a mobile environment) two questions come to mind.  First, up to which level of a semiotic sign – iconic, index, and symbolic sign – should symbolic meaning be dealt with in eBranding?  Second, how are aspects of color and texture as a semiotic signs related to the purposes of 1) increased brand awareness, 2) enhanced brand loyalty, and 3) cause to purchase/commit?

I’m characterizing the different modes of reference of color application through Pierce’s model distinguishing iconic, index and symbolic signs.  Especially iconic and indexical signs seem to structure representation in a new way from the design. The sign may refer as an icon, an index, or a symbol to its object (X). Color may represent icon index, and symbol by the viewer’s interpretation. So, color of the webpage may function as an iconic sign when it refers to another thing with a similar color or texture.  Tan may, for example, refer to limestone even though there is no real limestone imagery used.

An indexical unit draws attention by being existent and not similar as does the iconic item. The cultural and social background of the person interpreting the site’s images and colors the third level of “symbol”.  This means symbols are more subject to variation in response and reaction than icons, icons more so than indexes. Returning to the use of tan, it may reflect a sense of the exotic by tying it to underlying associations with the desert and the Western construction of mythical representations of the Middle East. The point is that color is more than we think and can be remarkably powerful in helping establish connections with the user. It is a symbol and symbols have tremendous value.

Signs do not function separately, but form multilayered references.  The complexity of a sign is increased because the references are not stable or fixed qualities of the product.  Since references of the sign can be interpreted differently at different times and contexts, it means they display greater variability when not grounded in iconic and indexical messages.

So how do we use this when developing a site? Execution means integration, resemblance, and metaphor:

  • Colors can integrate, that is they create a visual unity of the elements shown.
  • Color can make objects and scenes resemble very closely what they look like in reality.
  • Through symbolic metaphors, colors, images, and textures address themselves to the imaginary and imply comparisons.  Identity is transferred from one object to another (i.e. website to prospective consumer).

Mobile Design and What the Numbers DON’T Tell Us

I, like so much of the Western Hemisphere, spent part of my weekend shopping for dolls, pajamas and the latest electronic gadget.  And like so many others, I turned to my mobile phone for support on more than one occasion.  I am far from unique in this regard.  What caught my eye was the number of children I saw with a cell phone in hand – not their own (although there were no doubt some pre-tween kids among the throngs who did indeed have the pleasure of owning a very expensive smart phone, though I hesitate to think they were the norm), but a parent’s phone, which they used to play games, watch YouTube and generally make the tedium of shopping less pronounced.  What struck me as relevant is that when asked in surveys, the data frequently comes back saying that parent’s rarely give over their phones to the kiddies while shopping.  Observations in the field would imply quite the opposite is true.  Mobile phone use in a shopping environment is not just about the owner of the phone, it is about the parent/child dynamic and the underlying practices that go beyond procurement of goods.

Why does it matter?  It matters because while we have plenty of data about what people say they do, we have precious few insights about what’s really going on.  We are still in the wild west mentality of mobile design and need to get a better understanding of the range of contexts as we design mobile experiences for shoppers.  One size does not fit all and the numbers, while compelling, mean little if we don’t address the bigger questions under the surface.  It matters because a good mobile design and a creative mobile strategy can mean the difference between a useful application and a waste of millions of dollars in development, reduced brand equity, etc.

As another example, look at the numbers around the Hispanic market.  The numbers show that Hispanics are generally younger and more technologically savvy. AOL’s Hispanic Cyberstudy reports 46% of Hispanics who are actively online are under the age of 35.  32% of Hispanics access the Internet through their smartphones, compared to 20% of the general market. With roughly $1.3 trillion in buying it’s no wonder that Hispanics are a significant target for marketers.  But the numbers don’t address the bigger questions.

First, which “Hispanics” are we talking about?  Do the numbers refer to 3rd generation Cuban Americans with money or 1st generation Guatemalan farm workers? While or bias would probably lead us to assume the latter isn’t using a smart phone to shop, there is neither qualitative nor quantitative evidence to support this; is simply a matter of our own prejudices and preconceived notions about immigrants.  Second, Hispanics skew younger as a whole when compared against the total US population, so of course they are accessing the web through their phones more frequently than the general market – the data show that this is the case for all younger shoppers, so the difference between Hispanics and everyone else is misleading.  Finally, simply being online via a mobile device doesn’t necessarily mean ecommerce is taking place or that it is even desired.  Is the phone being used to supplement computer-based online interaction or is it a surrogate?  Do the numbers even reflect  use or do they reflect self perceptions, desires, the search for status, etc.? The point is that while we can infer quite a bit from the numbers, we are filtering them through our own biases.  Until we rethink the questions a bit we are designing based on potentially false assumptions.

Regardless of the populations to which we want to cater, designing a good mobile experience should entail getting on the ground and spending time learning what’s really going on.  And sometimes that means getting inventive about how we gather insights.  For example, if you want to understand how a good mobile banking site should operate, it isn’t enough to know the numbers of people using financial apps.  You need to understand how they conceive of money, when they do their banking (e.g. work, at home once everyone is in bed, on the train, etc.), and how they view their bank (many people hate their bank, but the cost of switching doesn’t outweigh the pain).  If you want to understand what the ramification of something going wrong are, spend time looking at mobile transactions in a place like Afghanistan, where banking can be a deadly affair – whatever people are doing in a place where bad mobile design can get you killed will probably shed some light on what is and isn’t necessary the world over.

The point is simple.  Good mobile design means getting your hands dirty and learning how context shapes how people use a given app or mobile site.  If all you have are statistics, you’re bound to create a solution that addresses the wrong problem.

Defining Types of Context in Mobile Design

We spend a great deal of time talking about context, but rarely use models to define elements of it.  This particularly true when talking about mobile devices and accounts for the hit-and-miss quality of  most apps available on the market.  It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment, or an environment itself, when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating an swirl of information.  Consequently, it makes sense for us to think about how we structure context so that we can determine what exactly we can affect.

1. Physical Context

From the computational side of things, physical context refers to the notion of imbuing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” at any given moment and react to them. But this is much more difficult than it at first appears. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond demarcation of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with place (as opposed to space).  That in turns having to be “aware” on some level.

Think of a mall.  Within that mall are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices and/or nodes of information. The device now has to decode what information is most relevant to itself, what information is most relevant to the user and how it will deliver that information.  Returning to the mall example, we have to think about a host of things in order to make any app relevant.  What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer from one store, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers?  When someone else is hold your device for you (say, while trying on clothing but needing to set the iPad aside), how will the device know what incoming content is private and what is public?  How will the device communicate with a location or with other devices as it moves throughout the mall?

 

2. Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. There is a fundamental difference between the ability to transmit data between devices and the ability (and desire) of devices to discover each other. And this presents a series of problems that are different in nature than those of physical context. Because this deals with choices of communication.

We are on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. That means that devices are in a potentially constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall for a moment, imagine that your are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In there mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of my mobile phone communicating with my friend’s phone while blocking out the other 2000 devices, we still have several thousand potentially “identities” that may have useful information for us.  How do we select how to manage that without devoting a ridiculous amount of time to setting up the hundreds of variables that shape what we do and don’t want at any given time? And all this is couched in a neat little world defined within a single, bounded  geographical unit.  So understanding device context is as important as understanding physical context.

3. Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture, plain and simple.  But with the advent of pervasive mobile, this topic is becoming even more complex.  Specifically, data no longer resides, literally or figuratively, “in” our computers.  Our devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  And this is important because it reflects a shift in how we think about and use information because all information (and the aps that carry that information) are transitory and by and large public.

This changes the nature of what the device has to actually be. Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. All content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. This leads to the point that devices, and the people who use them, will find themselves in the 4th kind of context of social interaction, with all its peculiarities and contingencies. Just as our behavior and worldview shapes and is shaped by the moment in which we find ourselves, so too will our apps and information need to adapt to the moment.  In other words, devices will need to be more human.

4. Socio-Cultural Context

The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word.

And it is at the point of socio-cultural understanding where gain a better perspective on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe.  We need to understand the essence behind the veil of design and usage to uncover meaning.  Take the beer pouring app as an example.  Here we have a simple app that mimics the pouring of a beer when you tilt your device.  On the surface it has little relevance to our daily lives.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been tremendously successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks from the mundane, the ability to show off the newest thing, male-to-male pair bonding, etc.  It’s absurdity is precisely what makes it relevant.  But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts and meaning change to fit that particular milieu.

The nature of our successes lies in understanding the reasons behind our beliefs and actions, in the symbolic exchanges we are part of and our abilities to code and decode those symbolic exchanges.  The nature of our mistakes essentially lie in a lack of comprehension. It leads to UI and app development that speak to a minority of the population even as they try to sell to the masses. Without understand the underlying epistemological constructs of a group (or more accurately, a mix of often associated groups at different points of interaction and interpretation) then we miss opportunities.

So What?

So why does any of this matter?  It matters because good design and messaging are increasingly difficult to master.  Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, which in turn leads to a greater need to make sense of what is “going on” in the broadest sense of the term when it comes to gathering insights and translating them into design and business applications. Without a means by which to categorize context, we can’t isolate those things that matter most.  And we miss enormous opportunities.

Get Beyond 20th Century Usability.

In an economy where the lines between the brick-and-mortar and digital experience are increasingly blurred, usability has become a differentiating factor that shoppers consider, consciously and subconsciously, when making purchase decisions.

A web search about a potential new purchase, be it a digital camera, a box of cereal, or fishing rod will uncover myriad reviews that include commentary on more than technological specs, nutritional values, etc. Searches will also include commentary on the ease of menu navigation, design elements, taxonomy, and usability. In other words, the overall user experience is as important as the products and service provided.

Unfortunately, organizations often use the wrong methods to understand their users, relying on a series of tests that have little relevance in the real world.  A site may test well in the lab, but fail when put into the hands of people trying to use the website under real-life conditions. But many systems are designed with a minimal understanding of the end user or the motivations and challenges they face when shopping. This is why those of us who do this sort of work for a living aren’t surprised when usability is criticized by reviewers.

Part of the reason that good products and brands can’t break through the virtual wall  is that unlike a brick-and-mortar experience, where a consumer buys after handling the product, on the web, the consumer experiences usability first – and then makes the decision to buy or search other venues.

It is accessed everywhere and on any number of devices.  As such, it has become a natural part of the fabric of getting things done in modern life. Consequently, the methods used to understand web users under real-life conditions deserve special attention. We advocate specifically testing and iterative designing in the field precisely because it allows the design team to develop an interface that speaks both to functional needs and those deep, human issues that defy quantitative processes.  The point is simply this; context is often overlooked in the need to get the product out the door.  Cheap, fast, good may be the mantra in the current economic climate, but it frequently means the user is and the context in which he/she operates are compromised. We suggest several key elements when designing:

  1. Don’t just think about who the end user may be, go out and meet them.  We often design based on assumptions that are rooted in our own biases.  Getting into the lives of the user means uncovering nuances that we might normally overlook.
  2. Get past the clipboard. Asking questions is pivotal, but knowing the right question to ask is harder than it sounds. The process begins with identifying the various contexts in which a product or UI will be put to use.  This may involve taking the product into a participant’s home and having both the participant and other members of the social network use it with all the external stresses going on around them.  It may mean performing tasks as bullets fly overhead and sleep deprivation sets in.  The point is to define the settings where use will take place, catalog stresses and distractions, and then learn how these stresses impact factors like performance, cognition, and memory.
  3. Design, build, break, and design again. Before investing the time and effort needed to build and code an interface, use paper prototyping and scenario testing to uncover both functional and conceptual bugs. Even if the product is the most amazing thing since the invention of the wheel, it won’t matter if it doesn’t fit into the cognitive scheme of the shopper.

Of course, usability is not the only factor that contributes to the buying decision, but it can be a deciding factor when a shopper is deciding between one company or brand and another.  Not only does it impact their decisions functionally, it shapes their perceptions of the brand and the quality of service they can expect to receive from it.

 

By Gavin