Milestones and Missteps UX/UI Design Review for 2013: Winners and Losers… Not the Usual Suspects
December 19th, 2013
Specifically, 2013 showed us that companies can generate huge sums on Wall Street and still have UX design that would have been judged dysfunctional in 2002 (Twitter). We also saw the most respected UX tech journalist leave the most respected newspaper for a web property that is not exactly the New York Times (David Pogue to Yahoo). In 2013, we saw Netflix define a new UX for creative content creation, distribution and viewing by bringing “binge watching” to the UX lexicon. Philips introduced one of the cleverest small pieces of new technology, the smart light bulb, only to miss the boat by failing to create an app that was as innovative as the device it controls. Nest created a notable UX solution that is one of the first IoT devices, albeit in a very small way. Speaking of IoT, in 2013, builders of the Internet of Things came to the realization that, without widely accepted standard protocols for making all of these “Things” play nice with each other, there is no IoT. Hence formation of the first serious IoT protocol development consortium.
If there is any truly important UX innovation in 2013 it was the upsurge in Snapchat as a social engagement platform. Why this happened is an objective lesson in how the best UX solutions are aligned with the ways the human mind deals with an increasingly complex world. While Snapchat was producing fleeting moments of engagement, Google introduced a truly innovative, if still somewhat primitive, UX cross-platform media distribution solution in Chromecast, which pushes content from your various devices (almost any content on almost any device) onto your HDMI-enabled TV.
In 2013, we saw the world’s largest social networking engine, Facebook, pitch a bevy of high paid lawyers at the FCC in direct opposition to changes in the COPPA rules for protecting children’s online privacy… a notable low ebb for Facebook. Another misstep in 2013 was Yahoo Mail, a disaster on too many levels to document. Finally, we have Healthcare.gov, part albatross, part velociraptor and part slug. As one who has worked on a few of these monsters over a 35-year career in UX/UI design and research, I come out differently on that one. In sum, UX in 2013 did not make our lives simpler in any measureable way but it did point us in new directions in terms of the creation and consumption of devices, content and new ways of thinking about UX. In the end, that may be more important than a blockbuster UX innovation. Now for the details.
Milestones: Important UX Solutions in 2013
IoT UX Design: Nest Thermostat
Ok, we have heard enough about the Internet of things (IoT). The surprising fact is that, aside from all the hype, there is very thin working evidence that the IoT is actually happening. Like all new and potentially massively important technologies, IoT has lacked all manner of effective working business solutions. Then along came the Nest thermostat, which, aside from some seriously sketchy industrial design decisions that brought out a small army of design patent litigators, is a robust UX solution based on IoT technology. The UX of Nest was created by Tony Fadell, who contributed to the UX design of the original iPod (think original rotary wheel design).
While the Nest UX has a number of fumbled task segments, overall it shows that a well-designed UX configuration can and does drive adoption of a new technology as compelling as IoT. Of course, the power of IoT only surfaces when devices like Nest connect to all manner of other things not produced by Nest designers and engineers. This means a vast universe of other things ranging from Department of Energy databases to your local heating oil provider to the locks on your doors. This can and will happen, but not until those who create the “Things” of IoT agree that the first rule of IoT is simply: “All devices must play nice with other things on the network.” This is no small matter, as the entire thrust of modern management science has been to NEVER collaborate with your competitors. So, now what?
[Note: We are aware that Nest was announced in 2011, but because it did not have significant market penetration until 2013, we have chosen to include it in this year’s UX Review.]
IoT Standard Protocol Working Group: AllSeen Alliance
The second and more important UX milestone in 2013 was the formation of the AllSeen Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated in part to establishing a universal development protocol for products, systems and services that comprise the IoT. Finally, major technology players and a vast array of startups are now focused on creation of a standard protocol for IoT which will allow the unimaginable, like having Apple devices that play nice with Samsung devices even though both companies continue to finance the next major building boom in Aspen (Big litigators love Aspen). To be clear there are IoT protocols around such as MQTT, XMPP, DDS, and AMQP, but none of these process models and related code bases have been supported by the big boys and girls. The implications are profound. A quasi-universal IoT protocol in 2014 would be a very big deal.
IoT UX Nice Try Award: Philips Hue Light Bulbs
In the process of preparing for a talk I gave on IoT in 2013 at the USPTO Design Day, I came across a product that embodies both the potential and the problems involved in UX design for IoT. The product was the wildly overpriced IoT-based LED light bulb set produced by Philips known as the Hue bulbs. Originally available only through Apple stores, the product’s starter kit is comprised of 3 LED bulbs, a wireless router and an iOS or Android app. Here is the essence of what these “Things” do: You screw the bulbs into any normal sockets, plug in the wireless router, call up the Hue app, and sure enough the bulbs show up on the app ready and willing like little Angry Birds characters to do your bidding through the app provided. The only problem is that the app sucks…even the pigs in Angry Birds would not be caught dead with this app. Anyone with a serious bent toward the creation of compelling user experiences can see immediately that this was a GIANT missed opportunity for Philips… generally a very smart company.
There is more. It turns out that the physics and control systems that drive these bulbs allow them to do things heretofore unimaginable by normal bulbs. One can, for example, dynamically change the hue, saturation, and value of the light emitting from their little smiling faces. This is like having very spiffy light bulbs, with major attitude, under the control of your Photoshop filters. Take this to another level and think about the fact that, because the LED bulbs are wirelessly connected to your iPhone and embody this new LED / control technology, one can make these little bulbs do anything software can do, which means the sky is the limit. The sad part of this story is that, for all of Philips’ brilliant work on the engineering of the Hue bulbs, they totally failed to understand the User Experience Design problem. There are now a number of 3rd party apps which interface with these bulbs, but nothing truly compelling. Philips, meet Nest… to name just one option that could keep a large team of early stage coders pounding C# for a long time.
Social Media UX Design: Snapchat, the Year of the Instant…Whatever?
Human communications are complex. So much so that one can reasonably state that the bulk of human art is dedicated to exploring, probing, disassembling and reassembling the acceptable and aberrant behaviors of human communications. This runs the gamut from Shakespeare to Star Trek. On the surface, one can make the assumption that more is better when it comes to describing the human condition via verse, image or gesture. However, as any great actor will tell you, it often takes far less to communicate with another human being than one might assume. Actor and director Robert DeNiro is famous for his emphasis on simplicity as the secret to good acting: “The simplest thing to get attention is to do nothing.” However, it is clear that those who create our new social media platforms somehow missed that lecture. The point is that most of our new social media technology is based on the concept that MORE human communication is better. This means more images, texts, posts, and video presented with greater speed and higher density.
Facebook wrote the book on how to stuff as much content in your face as quickly as possible, all in hopes of improving the communications between you and your many hundreds of friends. This way of thinking turns out to leave blank, the entire side of human communication that happens not on the wall, but off the wall. Those quick glances at a party, your boss’ darting eyes when she pulls your yearly review form from her desk drawer, the glance from your spouse when a party guest has had way too many Malbecs. These small moments may have far more salience than a week’s worth of Facebook posts. Why? Because they are fleeting but potent, an impact that is brought about by their duration, timing and connection to something that is happening right now.
We know from decades of neuroscience that the human operating system functions on two levels: short-term and longer-term. These short-term events are what make it possible for us to navigate an increasingly complex world in real time. The short-term human experience creates the real-time texture of the life we experience on an instant-by-instant basis. Our minds work this way and thrive on such experiences, which means that designing for this attribute is probably a good if not a brilliant UX strategy, one that Snapchat has undertaken with rather startling success.
Not only does Snapchat capture the short-term duration of these real human communications, but also their fleeting nature. In an age of documentation, when everything we write, record and send is permanently tucked into some corner of the cloud, we’re forced to think twice and self-censor constantly, or face the consequences. Disappearing without a trace immediately after it’s viewed, a Snapchat message has an impermanence that is part of what makes users feel uninhibited and thus makes this mode of messaging so appealing. This sort of communication is quite similar to the experience of sharing a face-to-face spontaneous comment or joke, which we tend to deliver with much less deliberation and therefore more sincerity than what we are likely to put on our Twitter or Facebook or send in an email.
This form of short-term human communication is so important that it constitutes an entire scientific field of inquiry popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and other pop science writers in books like Blink. What does this have to do with Snapchat? A lot, actually, and understanding this is probably one reason Facebook did not prevail in its recent 1 billion dollar plus acquisition bid for Snapchat. The fact is that this seemingly very simple app actually fills a gaping hole in how technology supports human communications, a hole that Facebook or Twitter cannot fill because they are stuffing the box while Snapchat is simply delivering, in a technological format, the glances, frowns and smiles of life… nothing more, nothing less. This may be the most powerful social media engine to date… 2014 will tell.
UX Friction Reduction Design: Google Chromecast
Google works in mysterious ways. Some innovations seep out in a quiet and unassuming manner; others, less so. On July 24, 2013, Google introduced a new product called Chromecast, packaged in a tiny dongle selling for $35. This was a quiet introduction as the media picked up the announcement, tossed it around for a day or so and then let it die. However, behind Chromecast was one of the year’s seminal innovations in UX design related to complexity reduction. Here is the essence of Chromecast: One purchases Chromecast online or from a retailer like Walmart. When the tiny device, about the length of a USB key, arrives, the instructions direct you to simply plug the dongle into an empty HDMI port on your TV and switch your TV to the corresponding input. Then, you can go to the provided setup URL on any WiFi-connected device that you’d like to connect to your TV (iOS users also need to download the free Chromecast app).
What? Devices connected to my TV? That’s correct, any WiFi-connected device that you might want connected to your TV. This includes your laptop, PC, smartphone, iPod, you name it. Within 5 minutes you’re able to view and control video from YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus, as well as countless other sources. It only gets better from here: when your device tells Chromecast to play a video, the device itself is not actually streaming the video, rather, it’s sending the correct URL to Chromecast to stream directly from the web. This is a huge advantage; not only does it preserve your device’s battery life, it also means that, if your spouse starts playing a movie from his or her iPhone, then loses interest and leaves for the store, taking the iPhone along, the movie continues playing without a hitch, even without the device that started it…mysterious ways indeed.
Any device connected to Chromecast on the same network can take control of playback and add to the queue of content to view. This also means that you can use any of your devices as you normally might for web browsing or playing a game, or you can put the device to sleep or turn it off entirely while content is streaming. Once you’ve set up Chromecast, you can send content to your TV from your iPhone or Android phone, the PC on your desk, the MacBook by your bed (we know you keep it there, right?), any device set up with Chromecast. The rest is obvious. Since this is a new approach, there are certain limitations and confusions, but overall a very solid first step toward cross-platform device integration as a basic structural concept. For anyone who has tried using other hardware to accomplish this feat, Chromecast is nothing short of magic. One can now stop viewing Netflix in bed on the MacBook and simply view Netflix from the MacBook on your TV as well as ANYTHING else you might want to view on a large HD screen. You get the picture.
Part of the magic of Chromecast is its accessibility to people of all ages, economic status, and experience with technology. The device packages highly complex and innovative software in a low-tech hardware configuration (basically a thumb drive) at an extremely low price point of $35. A few days before Black Friday 2013, Google announced that Walmart would be selling Chromecast both in-store and online, and stores like Staples, Verizon, and Motorola carry the Chromecast now as well. The amazing aspect of Chromecast is that it actually works essentially as promised. Its entire goal is to reduce the complexity of moving content across media platforms to your preferred viewing platform: HDTV. This is friction reduction at its best. Good job, Google.
UX TV Media Consumption: Netflix & Binge Watching
While Google was busy tossing your previously marooned digital content onto your TV, Netflix was busy creating the content worth tossing there in the first place. Aside from recovering from a major customer experience flameout in 2012 related to pricing of Netflix, the company proved in no uncertain terms that it is a force to be reckoned with in terms of content delivery AND content creation. Its 13-episode series, House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, received numerous creative award nominations including nine Emmy nominations, making the show the first Primetime Emmy Award nominated series for original online only web television.
Now, do not get me wrong; the major Hollywood TV executives are not shaking in fear of Netflix’s creative prowess. However, they had better be thinking long and hard about the fact that a massively important segment of their audiences are attracted to and in fact prefer watching TV in the format popularized by Netflix, known as “binge watching.” Here is the essence of B-Watch and cognitively why it is important: Netflix contracts and produces a high-quality series of episodes with a strong, unified and highly detailed narrative arc that moves rapidly from start to finish without significant “backfill,” industry-speak for restating what happened in prior episodes. Because Netflix has no traditional TV channel to distribute this new series, they put it up on Netflix not as a weekly show, but as the entire series of episodes all at once. If you went to Netflix on the day of the House of Cards premiere, you would have seen ALL 13 segments available. What you had was the equivalent of a very compelling 13-hour movie sliced into 1-hour segments, all without advertising and completely at your control.
The interesting and somewhat unexpected resulting consumer behavior was that a truly staggering number of viewers of House of Cards watched the entire 13-hour series in basically 1 to 3 sittings, hence binge watching. Why is this important to those who design user experiences for new media platforms? Two factors: 1) The human mind is fundamentally driven by the framework of storytelling and 2) The technology we have created that distributes story-based content fundamentally disrupts the narrative arc of the media we consume. In fact, the role of modern advertising is to disrupt the narrative flow of a given TV show with stimuli that we hope impacts purchase decisions. This is known in the field of human factors science as “gap-stuffing.” It is not what our minds enjoy, but it has been the economic imperative of our advertising-driven media world for the past 60 years. In psychological terms, the current gap-stuffing model is a very clumsy if not frustrating methodology for funding and delivering story-based media. So, the Netflix binge watching research is important because, for the first time, TV production and delivery is matched to how our minds actually prefer to consume story-based media: in a clean and uninterrupted flow with the arc of the story preserved both structurally and temporally. Basically a brilliant, if somewhat misunderstood, UX design solution. Netflix is on to something bigger than it probably understands.
UX Examples Where Things Did Not Go So Well in 2013
Greatest Missed Opportunity for UX Optimization in 2013: Twitter
To be clear, I love Twitter. I love it for its potential but am puzzled by its truly wonky and frankly mystifying UX design that rivals the early days of MS Word (okay… perhaps an overstatement). This makes Twitter complex to learn and use. In this critical regard, Twitter’s simplicity as an information propagation engine is in direct opposition to its UX model. This relates to the simple question of how users actually acquire an understanding of any given technology-based service. It is well understood that failing to help users develop both conceptual fluency and procedural fluency means you have, well…a Twitter UX design. Having a clearly formed mental model of a man-machine system (Twitter) whose fundamental function is information propagation is, as they say in DOD speak, “mission-critical.” What I mean by this is there is far greater anxiety and fear in using a system in which your inputs are going to be propagated instantly to others than in a system where your inputs have a circumscribed and easily controlled sphere of exposure. Twitter has a rather unique UX design problem, a problem it does not seem to understand. This is the fundamental structural issue with Twitter currently. The solution to this problem is actually a complex UX cognitive science question that will not yield to simple graphic design and navigation tweaking. This problem is going to hold Twitter back until it puts as much effort into its UX design as it did into the PR narrative running up to its IPO. Good UX is good business. Get on the program, Twitter, and your future is brighter than even Wall Street understands.
Most Baffling Move by a Leading Tech Journalist in 2013: David Pogue Moves to Yahoo… What?
No one denies that David Pogue is a very smart and clever fellow. It was no small task to parlay a background that is academically and technically devoid of almost anything resembling technology into the most powerful and widely read technology column on the planet. Companies large and small rise and fall at the word of Mr. Pogue. It was therefore a startling announcement that David had left the New York Times and joined Yahoo to undertake, as the press release states, “a major expansion of consumer tech coverage on Yahoo.” We predict this to be a teachable moment for Mr. Pogue as it will be clear that, when it comes to UX reviews, the platform where one proffers such opinions matters and matters a lot. Brand strategists love this sort of conundrum. Did David damage his brand, and to what extent has Yahoo burnished its position in the tech space by pulling in Mr. Pogue? The reciprocity exchange must have been high indeed.
Even though Mr. Pogue reviews and writes on usability and user experience, it is a mystery why he overlooked the most fundamental variable in determining whether or not someone, anyone for that matter, will access and read his reviews on Yahoo. Surprisingly, that variable is simply cognitive complexity and how shifting to Yahoo was a much bigger deal than Mr. Pogue may have assumed. In effect, David Pogue left behind the simplest possible content distribution platform for the most complex. In terms of low cognitive complexity, NOTHING beats a newspaper.
A bit of personal experience: A few years ago I attended a series of meetings with a leading newspaper publisher’s top management team as they attempted to forge a new business strategy for their content, which had been traditionally printed on newspaper. They thought, as all major newspapers have, that it was possible to create and implement a strategy to move from print to digital. In the end, no such strategy exists simply because a newspaper, by its very design, is vastly superior to any current digital media as a methodology for delivering a limited amount of time sensitive, highly curated professional content to a limited number of paying customers in a format that encourages discovery with the lowest possible cognitive complexity. This statement may seem wrong-headed if not patently incorrect, but an objective analysis of the benefits of newspapers reveals a much different outcome. Newspapers are in fact truly amazing technology. Surprisingly, newspapers have all the attributes we look for in highly effective technology-based products.
Specifically, newspapers have the following attributes:
- No user training required (totally self-evident UX design)
- Encourages high levels of content discovery with lowest possible cognitive overhead (we go to NYT for the business section but discover by simple visual inspection David Pogue’s piece about a new iPhone. This kind of discovery is called “flowing” discovery whereby the process only involves visual scanning and virtually no secondary cognitive processing, as is required in the navigation of ALL webpages.)
- Random or structured search instantly possible (go directly to what you want without complexity or scan for higher level content without additional cognitive complexity. This type of information-seeking and process-switching is every site designer’s dream although impossible to acheive.)
- Completely recyclable (yes, we can recycle newspaper, but try this with a dead iPad)
- Highly reliable (no dead batteries, much less numerous additional chargers at your various locations)
- Very low power requirements (even accounting for the energy used in creation and distribution of newspapers)
- Instantly reconfigures to meet users’ needs (ever watch subway riders read the NYT? Folded in a dozen different ways to minimize size and maximize exposure)
- Easily updated with no impact on prior learning (next day’s news shows up in the same container, thus eliminating any negative transfer of learning)
- Serves many alternate functions (these range from flyswatters to kindling for your fireplace, not to mention conversion to a random storage system in the form of clipped articles)
This list makes Jeff Bezos look like a genius for acquiring the Washington Post, although one big step backward was his Charlie Rose interview on drones delivering Amazon goods. Perhaps I am wrong about that, in which case the 2014 review will feature UX of Amazon drones… or not.
Back to David Pogue and Yahoo, in terms of high cognitive complexity, nothing beats a poorly designed and out-of-date website with dozens of businesses mashed into a dated home page with a truly mystifying navigation structure. Yes, there are the social media channels of Facebook and Twitter but really, they are not like the New York Times when it comes to credibility. Would you buy your new iPhone or 75-inch, curved-display TV based on a Yahoo review– even a review written by the likes of David Pogue? Millions of high-value consumers read the New York Times every day, ranging from Tribeca to Toronto, and many such readers buy prodigious amounts of new technology. The interesting question is: who will replace David P. at the NYT? That is a seat worth fighting for.
Clearly the Worst UX Solutions of 2013
Topping the List: Yahoo Mail
No sense in waiting for David Pogue’s review of the worst example of UX abuse in 2013. Yahoo Mail underwent UX changes that made the system far more complex, removed features and generally created havoc where one does not appreciate havoc. This was followed by the service being totally DOWN for almost a week. Looks like the line outside Ms. Mayer’s office might have been too long or too short, depending on who made the decision to update a mail service used by 170 million customers without concern for negative transfer, loss of functionality and of course reliability.
I am on the other side of this one. Having worked on numerous websites that required real-time linkage to legacy databases, I have to give the HC.Gov development team a break. Such projects never make a career and often ruin them. This was a no-win technology problem from the get go. The best one can hope for in such projects are friendly lawyers and brilliant damage control; we all face them from time to time. The trick is knowing when you are on such a train.
Bad UX Behavior Award: Facebook’s Opposition to COPPA Rule Changes
Billions of users interact with Facebook and some of those who make use of its amazing social media delivery mechanism are well understood to be children below the age of 13. How this happens is an interesting and complex issue, but not the focus of this misstep in 2013. All that aside, young kids end up on Facebook and, in the US, such children are protected by an FCC rule known as COPPA (Child Online Privacy Protection Act), first put in force in 1998. Not surprisingly, a lot has changed in the online world since the adoption of the current COPPA rules. In an attempt to update COPPA, the FCC has produced a set of working recommendations knows as COPPA Rule Review, 16 CFR Part 312, Project No. P104503.
These proposed changes have, as you might imagine, caught the attention of a diverse set of interested parties including child online privacy advocates, lawyers, legal scholars, parents groups and no small number of social media platforms including Facebook. As it turns out, the new COPPA rules would have likely made Facebook’s way of doing business a bit more difficult. The new rules might have impacted, among other things, the FB “Like” feature being distributed to and made functional on a vast number of other web sites. That feature is well understood to be a serious generator of traffic for FB and is a key attribute of its massively potent social currency engine. The new rules would have also likely improved the privacy of young children, not only on FB but on other platforms as well.
The discussion of how FB, and by association the entire web, would have been basically rendered dysfunctional by adoption of the new COPPA rules is presented in a rambling missive filed by Facebook’s bevy of legal experts and lawyers. In that filing, Facebook dragged into its corner websites as diverse as Kahn Academy, implying more privacy meant no more online courses from Kahn Academy…really? The Facebook FCC response leaves one with the impression that the entire web was at risk if the new COPPA rules were adopted. So in the end, Zuck and crew went to bat big time against changes that would have imperiled (actually forced a redesign) of FB plugin use but would have also likely protected children with better privacy controls. If you are so inclined, here is the link to Zuck’s FB response to the FCC COPPA review: http://ftc.gov/os/comments/copparulereview2012/561789-00100-84302.pdf.
Final Facebook Note: Aside from the misstep of FB related to COPPA rule changes, one must not overlook the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” which is arguably the best instance of truly important thinking coming out of FB in the past few years. A great book not only for women but for men as well. Having read her book, one can only wonder where Sheryl Sandberg comes out on the COPPA debate now that she apparently has COPPA-age children of her own. All that aside, “Lean In” is a terrific book worth a read.
Thank You,Charles L Mauro CHFP President MauroNewMedia
Acknowledgements: This 2013 review was completed with help from Emily Fisher, Andrea Mauro, and Brittany Reid.
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Disclaimer: MauroNewMedia receives no compensation of any type from companies, products or individuals included in the annual 2013 UX Design Review. The opinions expressed in this review are those of the primary author, Charles L Mauro CHFP.
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