Experiencing CHI 2006: From a Practitioner’s Viewpoint: Part II

By Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: July 24, 2006

“Jared [Spool] is a very engaging speaker and his knowledge about product usability is both broad and deep, so his presentations are always both enjoyable and informative.”

Conference: Day 1: Monday, April 24th, continued

On Monday, after Scott Cook’s excellent Opening Plenary Session, I attended a series of three courses presented by Jared Spool, CEO and Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering (UIE), shown in Figure 1. Jared is a very engaging speaker and his knowledge about product usability is both broad and deep, so his presentations are always both enjoyable and informative. For me, this was a day well spent.

Figure 1—Jared Spool

Jared Spool

Course: An Introduction to Designing for the Scent of Information

Presenter: Jared Spool

“Designing for scent is more successful than designing for navigation.”—Jared Spool

In this course, Jared described how to design Web sites that successfully guide visitors to the information they need, as shown in Figure 2. Site visitors sense “when they are on the right track to finding their content—they follow the scent of information.” Designing for the scent of information ensures that visitors will be successful in finding what they need. Visitors find information by following a well-laid scent trail—or are thwarted in their quest for information by unintended obstacles that make them lose a scent trail. Jared told us that “Designing for scent is more successful than designing for navigation.”

Figure 2—The scent of information

The scent of information

I just love Jared’s sense of humor, but this is serious stuff. If visitors can’t find the information they need, a Web site will be a failure. There are many kinds of obstacles that can keep visitors from finding what they need, as Figure 3 shows.

Figure 3—What prevents scent?

What prevents scent?

Visitors resort to search “when they don’t see a link that has good scent” and type the words they wanted to see in a link. Jared calls these “trigger words.” These words are often more specific than the labels for links on navigation bars.

UIE research showed that when a link and its associated text comprised seven to twelve words, people could successfully follow the links 50 to 60% of the time, with the optimal length being 9 to 10 words. Jared quipped, “One of the things you do in a usability test is you try to use your psychic powers to get people to do things.”

“A one-word link is fine if you know it’s a trigger word.”
—Jared Spool

However, he said, “It’s not just the size of the link.” Links should include trigger words or “they’ll fail. … You have to be careful what words you choose. A one-word link is fine if you know it’s a trigger word.”

Since it usually takes from seven to twelve words to effectively communicate scent, but long strings of underlined text are hard to read, two of the most successful devices for creating scent are to

  • associate descriptive text with links
  • show other links that are subordinate to a link—“multi-level category links”
“We have yet to figure out the upper limit on the number of links on a home page. Users can deal with them. Users expect information to get more specific with every click.”
—Jared Spool

“Short pages reduce scent,” said Jared. “The most successful sites have really long pages. When you have short pages, you are limited in what you can do. Some designs prevent users from scrolling. They have visual scroll stoppers”—for example, horizontal lines that users might interpret as being the bottom of a page. He said, “We have yet to figure out the upper limit on the number of links on a home page. Users can deal with them. Users expect information to get more specific with every click.”

Jared made the very salient point that “you can’t separate IA, visual design, etcetera. You have to do all of those things together.” He also said, “Technology, feature check-list battles, experience designers, and non-designers all affect design.”

“It’s amazing how well site maps work—under a link with no scent that people click only when they can’t find any scent,” mused Jared. “Scent depends on context.”

Graphics are another kind of content that may or may not effectively communicate scent. There are three types of graphics:

“To design for scent, start with a content page. Figure out from where users will likely want to get to that page, then put links in all those places where people would most likely want to find your content.”
—Jared Spool
  • navigation graphics—which “communicate scent and help get people to information” and either “accompany or replace text links”
  • content graphics—which “convey information that is of interest to people”
  • decorative or ornamental graphics—which “communicate a mood or represent a brand,” but “don’t impact performance”

“Users aren’t happy if they’re not completing their goals. Whether something is navigation or content is not decided by designers or developers; it’s decided by users,” Jared declared.

According to Jared, “A traditional approach to design starts with the home page. You figure out what the major parts of the site are, then design a home page that gets people to each of those parts. To design for scent, start with a content page. Figure out from where users will likely want to get to that page, then put links in all those places where people would most likely want to find your content.” Designing for scent “pulls users to content. Scent starts with the content on a page.”

“Every design element that makes a site more usable contributes to the users’ confidence. … There is a strong correlation between confidence and scent. Content must give off scent.”—Jared Spool

Jared made this important observation in conclusion: “Every design element that makes a site more usable contributes to the users’ confidence. Before they click, that includes link quality, navigation graphics, and the organization of information; after they click, seeing the desired information or more, stronger scent. There is a strong correlation between confidence and scent. Content must give off scent.” To design for scent, “you need to know:

  • why users are coming to the site
  • what their trigger words are
  • where they are likely to look

“People don’t go to Web sites unless they have a mission. So you have to know what that mission is.”

Interactions Editorial Board Luncheon

During the lunch break, I attended the Interactions Editorial Board Luncheon, which took place in a private dining room at the Palais des Congrès and was well attended. Participants included many people who have been involved with Interactions since its inception. Jonathan Arnowitz and Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson, Co-Editors in Chief, shown in Figure 4, gave a report on the progress of Interactions over the past year, then presented the ideas we’d discussed at the dinner for Interactions editors and contributors, which had occurred the previous evening, and led a discussion on future directions for Interactions.

Figure 4—Jonathan Arnowitz and Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

Jonathan Arnowitz and Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

Course: Designing for the Scent of Information: Advanced Concepts

Presenter: Jared Spool

“The target content page is the most important page. All other pages deliver users to the target page.”—Jared Spool

One of Jared’s associates, Christine Perfetti, was to have given this class, but Jared presented the class in her place. This course delved further into specific methods of getting users to the content they want by designing Web pages for the scent of information. It also explored UIE research findings on the five different types of navigation and the three key user behaviors that are predictors of navigation failure.

First, Jared showed an example that illustrated how difficult a poorly designed Web site can make it for users to find the information they need. Jared explained, “Users need strong scent to find content.” As users seek information, “they encounter different types of Web pages. Different types of pages need different designs. All help users in different ways. … The target content page is the most important page. All other pages deliver users to the target page.” While “navigation pushes users” to content, “scent pulls users” to the content they want. “Scent starts with the content.” Figure 5 provides an overview of why designing for the scent of information works.

Figure 5—Scent of information

Scent of information

Jared told us, “Key user behaviors predict navigation failure. Designers can use these behaviors to learn how to improve a site.” He described three user behaviors that predict the failure of scent:

  • use of the browser’s Back button—When a site’s design forces users to use the Back button just once, 82% of users fail to find what they’re seeking. When users don’t have to resort to the Back button, 45% of them succeed in finding what they want. Jared calls the Back button “the Button of Doom,” because using it makes users lose scent.
  • pogosticking—“The Goldilocks approach to design causes users to bounce between levels of the information hierarchy,” said Jared. Pogosticking occurs when pages don’t contain users’ trigger words. When users pogostick, only 11% succeed in finding the information or products they want. Without pogosticking, 55% succeed. The more users pogostick—which includes use of the Back button and breadcrumbs to jump up and down through a site or returning to the home page—the less successful they are in finding what they want.
  • use of search—Using search to find content or products—rather than going to a content page directly from a list of featured content on the home page or getting from the home page to a content page via a category page—provides a success rate of only 30% versus 53% for users who do not use search. “Search prevents success unless a site contains uniquely identified data,” said Jared.

During the course, Jared described the following page types:

  • content pages—These are the most important pages on a site, because they contain the content users want. Jared told us, “Content depends on scent to attract users.”
  • gallery pages—“Galleries aggregate multiple content pages” as a list of links. “Scent is prevalent on gallery pages,” said Jared. Figure 6 describes the characteristics of successful gallery pages. Gallery pages include
    • product galleries—The term gallery originated from product galleries on eCommerce sites that provide links to product pages. A product gallery should provide sufficient information about each product to allow customers to distinguish between them.
    • content galleries—A content gallery comprises a list of links to specific content pages. A description of the content on a page accompanies each link.
  • department pages—In large galleries, department pages divide the content or products into logical groups. Figure 7 describes the characteristics of successful department pages.
  • store pages—If necessary, stores provide structure for departments. “Most sites don’t need them,” said Jared. “Their purpose is to eliminate the vast majority of a site’s content. Stores work only when users understand the distinctions among them. They must be familiar to users, so they are typically the same within a business genre. Using standard terms users know is most important.”
  • home page—A site’s home page, or landing page, often “aggregates stores or departments.” According to Jared, “The home page is the least important page on a Web site.” Unless it contains the content a user wants, “its only purpose is to get users to other pages—usually category pages.” Therefore, its division of real estate is important.

Figure 6—Characteristics of successful gallery pages

Characteristics of successful gallery pages
“Link order is important. Alphabetical order is the worst way to organize things.”
—Jared Spool

On gallery pages, “link order is important. Alphabetical order is the worst way to organize things,” said Jared. “Longer pages work better. Fifty percent of people give up their search after viewing one page of search results. Put as many products as possible on one page. Long gallery pages work extremely well, but eventually there are too many items to let users choose among them. When a gallery page is too long depends on the content. Use department pages when galleries get too long.”

Figure 7—Characteristics of successful department pages

Characteristics of successful department pages
“Links must be meaningful. Marketing terminology can block scent. You have to be very aware of what trigger words work for your users.”—Jared Spool

Jared pointed out that “links must be meaningful. Marketing terminology can block scent. You have to be very aware of what trigger words work for your users. … Lateral links are always important. Lateral links between gallery pages prevent pogosticking.”

On home pages, “paths are not equal,” said Jared. According to UIE data, users’ clicks on a home page typically break down like this:

  • category links—86.8%
  • search—6.8%
  • featured content—1.3%
  • other links—2.6%

“Watching users on your site will help you understand their missions and how to design for them,” Jared said in conclusion.

Course: The Goldilocks Content Framework: What Users Want

Presenter: Jared Spool

Jared’s last course of the day focused on how Web sites provide users with the information they need. Based on its research, UIE has defined a framework for the content users seek. This course demonstrated how a site’s information architecture, navigation, page layouts, and content impact users’ ability to successfully find what they want.

Paramount is the need to know our users, because, as Jared said, “not supplying what users want can affect our business goals. Supplying too much wastes resources. Identifying the right levels is critical”—thus, the name The Goldilocks Content Framework.

To achieve any level of success, a Web site must describe its offerings “in a language that users understand,” stated Jared. For example, on an eCommerce Web site, users may want to purchase additional products, and they need enough information about specific products to make purchasing decisions.

The Goldilocks Content Framework takes the art of identifying the Web site content users want to the next level, as shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8—Taking content to the next level

Taking content to the next level

Figure 9 illustrates “the knowledge gap” between users’ current knowledge that applies to a Web site design—“what users know when they approach the design”—and “what users need to know to accomplish their goal”—their “target knowledge.”

Figure 9—Tool knowledge gaps

Tool knowledge gaps

Jared went on to explain that there are “two kinds of knowledge:

  • tool knowledge—what users know about how to use your application
  • domain knowledge—what users know about the domain(s) related to that tool”

Both kinds of knowledge range from novice to expert. Figures 10 and 11 describe tool and domain knowledge gaps, respectively. Jared said, “Domain knowledge is where we get challenged.”

Figure 10—Tool knowledge gaps

Tool knowledge gaps

Figure 11—Domain knowledge gaps

Domain knowledge gaps

Jared told us, “If users look for information and can’t find it, they ask one another.” He then described UIE research that studied users’ behavior in seeking domain information from other users in online discussion groups. They studied online discussion forums in domains as diverse as medical ailments, technical support, professions such as law and information architecture, and financial investments. The example Jared cited in detail was a study of online discussions on chronic neurological illnesses. Across all of these domains, patterns in users’ topic perspectives emerged from their data analysis. Users asked the same fourteen types of questions on every one of these online discussion forums—though their frequencies varied in different domains.

Jared spoke about three of these topic perspectives:

  • Understanding needs
  • Refining solutions
  • Alleviating fear (“Inukshuk”)
“There are opportunities for providing content at every point in the problem / solution process.”—Jared Spool

Jared explained that the process of understanding needs and their solutions starts before users become aware of their needs and continues until they choose and apply a solution. Once users identify their needs, they want to solve their problems. They evaluate one or more alternative solutions, then choose and refine a solution. Jared said, “There are opportunities for providing content at every point in the problem/solution process.” Content for identifying needs “helps users determine that they want to solve a problem. … Premature discussion [of specific solutions] will turn users off.” This kind of content is “critical for innovative concepts or radical alternatives.” While content that helps users identify their needs would benefit most Web sites and intranets, “most sites don’t have any.” Jared said that Netflix® is one of the few sites that does a good job on this type of content.

Content that supports solution refinement is useful once “users have already committed to a solution” and helps them “integrate the solution with the rest of their life.” Jared told us that this kind of content “increases share-of-mind for brand, strengthens overall brand engagement, and builds relationships” between companies and their customers. “It assists users after they’ve decided to do business with you.” Therefore, it “needs to be ongoing” and “requires a large commitment.” Solution refinement content attracts repeat customers and would also benefit most intranets.

“When users feel they can make decisions in confidence, Inukshuk has succeeded.”
—Jared Spool

“Inukshuk content alleviates fear in scary situations”—for example, when people are “afraid of wasting money, committing to the wrong path, or looking foolish. Research shows it’s a big part of how people make decisions,” said Jared. “Inukshuk content lets users know that they aren’t the first to deal with these types of issues.” It can include “videos, reviews, ratings, diaries, testimonials, or discussions. When users feel they can make decisions in confidence, Inukshuk has succeeded.”

While Jared explored only a few topic perspectives during his talk, the course materials documented all fourteen of these categories of questions, which fall under the following three broader categories:

  • Questions related to understanding needs and solutions:
    • Identifying needs
    • Understanding identified needs
    • Isolating alternatives
    • Choosing solutions
    • Refining solutions
  • Questions related to external parties:
    • Helping others resolve their problems
    • Educating others about their own issues
    • Contacting support resources
    • Purchasing and supporting products
    • Dealing with institutions
  • Questions related to news and milestones:
    • Alleviating fear
    • Venting
    • Learning about topical news
    • Learning about general news
“Many sites need to get to the next level of content to support their objectives. Designing for tool knowledge is the basic minimum. Designing for domain knowledge is more complex.”—Jared Spool

In conclusion, Jared said, “Many sites need to get to the next level of content to support their objectives. Designing for tool knowledge is the basic minimum. Designing for domain knowledge is more complex and

  • requires understanding context
  • supports the needs and solutions process
  • helps users with their empathic needs

During the Q&A session that followed this course, Jared made the following points:

  • “Personas, by themselves, aren’t useful, because they haven’t dealt with contexts.”
  • “Contextual inquiry is an especially expensive research method.”

Monday Night: Conference Reception and Exhibits Grand Opening

The CHI 2005 Conference Reception at the fabulous Crystal Ballroom in downtown Portland was a very hard act to follow. At the Ballroom, the crowd rocked the night away, dancing to live music on what may be the sole remaining mechanical, floating dance floor in the United States. For bonding with one’s fellows, there’s nothing quite like dancing together.

This year’s reception, shown in Figure 12, was very sedate in comparison. On the positive side, there were wonderful performances by aerial acrobats that occurred at intervals throughout the evening, shown in Figures 13–16. However, they were brief and weren’t elevated high enough to see them well if you weren’t at the front of the crowd. If one wasn’t near the stage when a performance began, by the time one found a good vantage point, the performance was nearly over. The reception was awkwardly combined with the grand opening of the exhibits, shown in Figure 17, and posters, shown in Figure 18. The bright lights necessary to see the exhibits and posters weren’t conducive to a party atmosphere. Except during the performances, when they switched to stage lighting, the room felt more like a trade show venue.

Figure 12—Conference Reception

Conference Reception

Figure 13—Aerialist in motion

Aerialist in motion

Figure 14—A beautiful team of aerialists

A beautiful team of aerialists

Figure 15—Aerialists in flight

Aerialists in flight<

Figure 16—A final pose

A final pose

Figure 17—Conference Reception and Exhibits Grand Opening

Conference Reception and Exhibits Grand Opening

In Figure 17, you can see the nice canvas bag each conference attendee received.

Figure 18—Posters

Posters

Photos by Pabini Gabriel-Petit

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