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Beyond Classic Usability

Around 2006, the usability field changed its name to the user experience field. The transition happened gradually, with groans from many of us. Our cards already read “Engineering Psychologist,” “Human Performance Engineer,” “Human Factors Specialist,” “Software Ergonomist,” “Human–Computer Interface Designer,” and “Usability Specialist,” to recount just a few titles. Printing another new set of cards sounded tedious. But the name change did, in fact, herald a new set of requirements and some new skills. We do not yet have much research on the value of these enhancements, but we are confident that they are of even greater value than the contribution made by the classic usability work.

Ecosystem Viewpoint

The foundation of classic usability work was a model of a person, interacting with a device, in a specific environment. That model was often simply a person in an office using a computer to do various tasks. We built a whole industry around optimizing that human–computer interaction. As early as the 1990s, however, that model started to fall apart. With graphical interfaces, interactions became so complex that we could not analyze all the tasks. Instead, we had to analyze a sample of tasks (which the industry has termed a scenario or, if involving only online activities, a use case). Since then, this model has also unraveled.

Today we have ubiquitous computing. Numerous devices (mobile devices, tablets, laptops, and desktops) are being used by many different people acting out various roles. These devices operate in diverse environments and employ a blizzard of artifacts. The field has been forced to adopt a set of methods modeled on the work of various ethnographers to handle this complexity. The ecosystem could be “everything that happens with a mobile device,” “everything that happens in an x-ray room,” or “everything involved in making a buying decision.” We will see later in this chapter how this complex array of users, channels, and contexts plays out and pays off.

When we talk about user experience design, we are assuming an ecosystem viewpoint that allows us to consider movement through physical stores, mobile confirmations, and group decision making. With this perspective, the contribution of user experience design is far wider than it has ever been.


If we don’t have a good UX strategy, we are likely to build a usable wrong thing. Each siloed team builds a great offering. When all the features and points of entry are taken together, however, they are ineffective and confusing. Figure 1-1 is an example from a bank: imagine, as a customer, trying to work out whether you need to use telephone banking, speech-activated banking, mobile banking, or .mobi!

Figure 1-1

Figure 1-1: The result of multichannel silos.

A good UX strategy will dictate the plan for how users will be motivated in the online environment. For example, if you are “the Asian Bank,” what does that really mean in terms of your online designs? It is nice to say, “We are the Asian Bank”—but what do you do differently? In this situation, you will find that different parts of Asia need different designs. For example, Japanese people have a very low tolerance for ambiguity and risk, so the design needs to have lots of explanations, FAQs, help, and confirmations. Or suppose your organization wants to migrate mobile customers to digital self-service. It is a great idea, but just building a usable online facility probably won’t make that shift happen. You need a scheme to pull people into a digital relationship. You might start with a small step, such as sending an alert for a low balance via SMS. Then you can gradually increase the online interaction (a method called compliance laddering). You might also appeal to a specific motivational theme as you move people into a digital relationship. Perhaps that theme could be the status of an account geared to the digital lifestyle. Perhaps it might be saving paper and being eco-friendly. Perhaps it might be the physical safety of paying bills online from the customer’s home. In any case, we can never just hope that people will convert to the new system exactly the way we want them to; we have to plan a motivational strategy that compels them to migrate the new system.

Once you have a motivational plan, then you need to look at the way that the various channels fit together to meet your objectives in a coordinated way. This is the beginning of a journey toward cross-channel integration. The idea that “the user can do everything, everywhere, at any time” is very attractive, mostly because it is simple and has a certain rhythm. In reality, it is rarely the right answer. The ATM is not a great place to pay bills. Sure, you can do it. But people feel anxious at an ATM. Also, there is rarely enough room to lay out your bills, and the keyboard is not likely to be designed for bill payment tasks. Each channel has its own characteristics.

We need a simple story. If you can’t tell the user where to go for which activities in a single breath, then you have a problem.

Once the overall design of the set of channels is in place (possibly with multiple Web properties and various mobile facilities), then it becomes possible to design the right facilities with proper alignment. There is still a lot to do, of course. We need to use the same information architecture in all the channels (“pervasive information architecture”). That means we keep task sequences and content organization the same. We need standards to maintain interface design conventions. We might even try to avoid forcing customers to remember a half-dozen different passwords.


New product and business ideas are often developed by technology groups or business experts. There is no question that each of these groups adds a valuable perspective, but their ideas often fail because of a missing “human element.” Part of being a user experience designer is participating in a systematic, industrial-scale innovation process. There is an enormous difference between implementing a professional innovation process and asking people to be innovative. Certainly, you can ask people to be aware of opportunities that they see. You can mobilize staff and customers to contribute ideas. Nevertheless, even “crowdsourcing,” while popular, is unlikely to provide truly innovative origination.

When user experience design staff get involved with innovation work, they don’t just sit around trying to be creative or evaluating other people’s ideas. Instead, they do research to build an ecosystem model that then serves as the foundation of the creative work. For example, when we worked for Intel developing the Classmate PC, we first studied the educational ecosystems of several emerging markets. We understood the roles of students, parents, teachers, and tutors. We modeled their environments and their activities. I think the product was so successful because the innovation and design work continuously referenced research on those ecosystems.

Innovation projects are generally large-scale operations. They take months and require a strong and specialized team. There is a flow of foundational research, ideation, concept selection, concept elaboration, assessment, and economic/feasibility analysis. While the user experience design team is critical to success, it is always best to have participants who specialize in both business and technology.

Persuasion Engineering

In 2003, Dr. Don Norman published the brilliant book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. This book marked a real transition in the usability field. Certainly, many of us had been interested in the motivational aspect of software for years (c.f., E. Schaffer, “Predictors of Successful Arcade Machines,” Proceedings of the Human Factors Society, 1981). The focus of the usability field was on making it possible for people to use their computers, however (Figure 1-2). When you run usability tests and find that perhaps 6% of customers are able to check out, you are not concerned about making the checkout procedure fun—you just want it to work. But Don got the timing right. By the turn of the millennium, we were, fairly routinely, able to create software that people were able to use. It then became possible to turn to issues beyond basic usability. That is why I say that basic usability (“I can do”) is a hygiene factor. You pretty much have to get that right to even be in business.

Figure 1-2

Figure 1-2: Chart of findings from a car manufacturer’s website. Only one-third of the users could get a quote.1

In Emotional Design, Don talked about designing things that people love to use. This is a fascinating area that is certainly among the capabilities of a user experience designer. But it is generally not his or her main focus. The real question is, “Will people convert?” For most organizations, it is a plus if people love their designs, but it is making the sale that makes the company executives happy.

Conversion is partly about making things that people like, but it goes far beyond that. There is a whole world of persuasion engineering that determines whether people will buy the product, use the software, ask their doctor, vote for a candidate, tell their friends, migrate to a digital self-service channel, or otherwise do what the organization wants them to do. To reach this point, we have to go beyond “Can do” to “Will do.” “Can do” is a hygiene factor—you really have to make it usable. But persuasion engineering is the key differentiator. Only advanced user experience design practitioners are good at it. Persuasion engineering is not magic: PET (“persuasion, emotion, and trust”), as we call this field at HFI, is based just as much on a scientific approach as human–computer interface design work. Research-based models on how to motivate customers have been developed, and there are so many ways to influence customers that I’ve felt the need for HFI to restrict the kinds of companies we work for. The methods of influence are just that powerful.

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