Thursday, August 19, 2010

Identify or Die: Do You Know What This Symbol Means?

Take a close look at the icon above. If you saw it on your car's dashboard, would you know what it means?

You better: Your life may depend on it.

According to, one out of three drivers surveyed did not understand this difficult-to-decipher warning light. Which means that more than a third of drivers on the road today are in danger of creating a major accident if this symbol suddenly lights up.

The article says the icon is supposed to be "idiot proof," but as we've learned in thousands of usability tests, there is no such thing when it comes to symbols. The real "idiots" here (Hey, if they are going to call us idiots, then I'll throw it right back at them) are the designers and developers who don't label their icons. Everyone who sees a symbol for the first time has their own image of what it represents.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a word will prevent a thousand pictures - and in this case, save your life.

No, I won't tell you what the symbol means (Take a guess below first), but you can read the original article and explanation here.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Company forums, personal information and the World of Warcraft

Those of you who have forums on your Web site understand that spammers and trolls can be a real nuisance. Perhaps you can relate to the trouble Activision Blizzard has with dealing with the multitude of undesirable posts on their official World of Warcraft forums.

On July 6th, Activision Blizzard, Inc. unveiled a controversial plan to help regulate the forums: Anyone posting on forums would have their real name displayed. The philosophy is that with real names associated with each posting, personal accountability will come into play and subscribers will be more civil. There was immediate backlash from WOW subscribers and users concerned about this proposed policy change. Personal privacy advocates were particularly concerned about publicly displaying real names in connection with Warcraft. Posters also worried about the possibility of cyberstalking and out-of-game harassment.

In an attempt to show how "harmless" the proposed change would be, a forum moderator posted his real name in the Blizzard Forum discussion on this topic.
Within minutes, community members posted all matter of personal information on him. Using only Google searches and his real name, they found and posted such info as his:

  • Cell phone number
  • Twitter and Facebook accounts
  • Personal photos
  • Mailing address
  • Maps to his house.
The community used this opportunity to illustrate how much information can be easily gathered, and how it could be dangerous when your real name is displayed in the forums.

There are simpler ways to combat undesirable posters than by publicly displaying personally identifying information. In her post, forum moderator Nethaera provides the basic methods used in forums to ensure that useful information will be seen and found by users:
  • Having the community rate posts (the Slashdot commenting model)
  • Highlighting posts based on rating (YouTube's "highest rated comment" model)
  • Improving forum search

    YouTube has successfully adopted most of these methods to improve the comments on their videos (highest rated comments, voting up/voting down and automatically hiding spam/comments with a low rating).
The lesson is that spammers and trolls will make it on to your company forums, as they find their way onto EVERY board. The undesirable posters can manage to defeat almost any automated security precautions you can set up. The presence of an active group of forum moderators (employees of your company or a trusted enthusiast of your brand) goes a long way to creating an active, safe community. Even though forum trolls and spammers are a nuisance on forums, you do not need to take the drastic measures of posting your customer's personal information to combat them.

-by Kyle Kulakowski

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stock photography vs. reverse image searches

For companies with respected online brands using stock photography can be a terrible disservice to all Web site visitors and your online reputation. In user tests at Interface Guru, we have found the more tech-savvy users (like engineers and programmers) are particularly intolerant of stock photography and will think less of a brand if they see it used on a Web site.

Stock photography recognition is no longer a skill limited only to the more fluent Web users. There are now tools called reverse image search engines available to all users. With these specific search engines, users can instantly discover the source of an image on a Web site as well as find other Web sites using a particular image.

Here is a quick breakdown of the more popular reverse image search engines:
1) TinEye ( - Exact match of an image uploaded or image URL linked by the user. Arguably the most popular of the reverse image searches, it even provides plugins for Firefox and Chrome browsers. With a simple right-click on an image, users can check to see if your graphics are used elsewhere on the Web.
2) Byo ( - Searches for images based on similar colors.
3) Gazopa ( - This engine will search based on color and shape similarity.
4) RevIMG ( - This reverse image search is focused more on art and architecture. It looks for the exact image (just like TinEye), but users must specify the artistic category that applies to the image before they can conduct the search.
5) Google's Similar Image Search ( - While less robust than specific reverse image search images, this functionality is now built right into Google Image search returns.

Chris Barton, photography blogger, has an entry where he uses a reverse image search to find all instances of sites using a particular employee stock photograph:

In a follow-up entry Chris provides a risk assessment breakdown of all your available options for providing images on your Web site:
He rates stock photography as the highest risk to your organization and creating your own images as the lowest risk.

At Interface Guru, we agree that using stock photography is a risk - you do not know what other Web sites have purchased the image and are using it on their site. Your images on your Web site should be as unique as your company; create your own graphics and images on your Web site and tailor them to match your content.

- by Kyle Kulakowski

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Good food, great Web experience

Recently I ordered Domino's Pizza for the first time in years and discovered that the new sauce isn't their only innovation. Their new Web site includes the Domino's Tracker, an application that gives you the real-time status of your order (the Tracker activates after an order is placed, so I'm including a screencap from a recent order). A glowing status bar tells you exactly where your pizza is from the moment you place the order, to when Terrence puts it in the oven, to when Dmitri the delivery driver is en route to your house. It's a great example of online customer service.
One of the drawbacks to delivery service is the open-ended nature of the delivery time. A quoted delivery time of 45 minutes could mean anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes before that pie hits my counter. As the timer ticks down I often end up perched on the edge of my couch, eagerly jumping up each time the outside gate creaks only to be disappointed by my neighbor's face. As a customer, I love the transparency offered by this app. No more guessing about if I have time to take a shower or run to the bank.

That simple addition to their Web site made for such a great brand experience that, a week later, I ordered another pie just so I could get screen caps of the Tracker in action. Now my only question is how long will it take other brands to do something similar?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Babysitting the interface: The myth of self-service

As we prepared for another road trip and the attendant joy of air travel in America in 2010, I was musing about the common sight of a human being helping passengers use the so-called "self-service" kiosk. It was in that frame of mind that I went to Facebook; I had to laugh when I saw this screen with the instruction: DO NOT CLICK THE "Go to Application" BUTTON ON LEFT!

Human intervention with software, Web pages, and kiosks is a regular occurrence across corporate America. You see it first-hand at airport counters, supermarkets, a co-worker's desk. We see it inside call centers and controlled environments. How much does this cost business, education, and nonprofits every day?

Well into the year 2010, we are still seeing an utter failure to budget - or even account for - the design of information structure, meaning: Where will this digital media experience begin and end? How does the user know where he is in the morass of content? How do you know whether you've seen and experienced all the content? How does he get to related content? Did anyone design or plan this experience? What are the opportunity costs related to this basic failure of planning?

In 2000, seven years into the commercial Web, a failure to plan and structure digital media interaction was understandable. Skeptics were still expecting (or hoping) that the Web would die. In 2010, the failure to plan and structure digital media is unforgivable.

If your digital media project lacks a budget item for information design (information architecture, task sequence design, user interface design), it is destined to under-perform and disappoint. Web sites and applications, software applications, kiosks, intranets, instrumentation interfaces - any digital implementation must include planning and architecture beyond simple functionality and appearance.

The Self-Service and Kiosk Association begins to address the usability issue in a blog post by Stephen Kendig, but the industry is just beginning to scratch the surface. If we use the Web as an object lesson, bad information design proliferates more quickly than good design. We will be living in a dystopian reality if the same problem propagates across self-service in a world that seems determined to eliminate human-powered customer service. The current economic woes will only exacerbate the problem.

If we're going to eliminate the human from the equation at all the transaction points of daily life, the digital interface must be bulletproof. Else we are destined for the worst of both worlds - unhappy customers, unhappy workers. Babysitting an interface is no one's career goal.

Monday, March 15, 2010

User Experience: What's Your Fail?

I've been excited to see that user experience (UX) has been a big topic and in demand at SXSW Interactive this year. We've built Interface Guru around user experience design principles over the last 10 years, and frankly it sometimes feels like we're alone in the jungle.

The first session track ever devoted entirely to user experience design at the conference was held on Saturday, and its opening workshop ("The Ten Commandments of User Experience") packed a large ballroom and left a line of people standing outside. It had tough competition, too: the keynote address was going on at the same time.

Judging from the Twitter feed for the session (at #uxsxsw - thank you to presenters Nick Finck and Raina Van Cleave for hacking the 18-character official hashtag and shortening it), many participants were disappointed in the introductory nature of some of the sessions.

"(Has) the UX community stopped thinking about new ways of doing things or am I at the wrong conference? Mostly old news so far."

"The last UX session of the day is the first where I've seen people actually walk out to move to another session."

"I agree with your twitter stream. #uxsxsw has been underwhelming - what about what's next?"
I have to admit I shared the sentiment - until I took a closer look at the program. Specifically, the ubiquitous pocket schedule everyone relies on to keep track of what's going on at SXSW.

If you look closely at the events on the schedule, each session has a small circle, square, or diamond next to it - indicating the session is either beginning, intermediate, or advanced. The two sessions people complained the most about had circles next to them, indicating they were basic introductions to the subject matter.

I only discovered this because I happened to open my pocket guide to the front for the first time during the conference, and stumbled across the key to the symbols, which only appears on the first page.

It's a classic fail: Assuming your users are going to look at your information in a linear fashion and understand that icons have meaning, without labels to guide them.

I've conducted an informal survey since, asking my fellow conference attendees (especially those who complain about a lack of relevance or depth in sessions) if they knew that the symbols in the schedule meant something. I've yet to find someone who noticed this helpful bit of information.

Once they realized the importance of the iconography, people I've spoken to have said they would have been able to use this information to narrow their selection of sessions to something more relevant, creating a more positive user experience.

Think about all the thousands and millions of dollars it takes to put the hard stuff together for one of the biggest conferences in the country: assembling panels, printing conference materials, advertising - the list goes on and on. Only to have many of your customers' satisfaction with your product come down to a few inexpensive labels and icons on a piece of paper.

What's YOUR fail?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Error message of the day from Tweaker Speakers Grandmax

I loved my Tweaker Speakers until one inexplicably died. So I go to Grandmax for tech support. After clicking the support link, here's the error message:

"We're sorry, we're temporarily undergoing maintenance!
[Saeven|CRM cannot operate with register_globals set to 'On'. Set this to 'Off' using php.ini or a .htaccess directive, and restart your webserver thereafter.]

If you would like to contact us in the interim, please do so at admin_at_toqen_dot_com"