Interview with Dan Klyn, Part Two

Richard Saul Wurman and Information Architecture

Richard Saul Wurman coined the term “information architecture” in the mid 70s in reference to the design of information, and information science influenced the research on computer interfaces at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center through the mid 80s. After a quiet period for the field, information architecture experienced a resurgence in the mid 90s, with the growth of the World Wide Web. Rosenfeld and Morville’s book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, developed the ideas of information architecture and brought mainstream attention to it.

In this part, Dan Klyn discusses how he became interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s work on information architecture.

Tell me more about how you transitioned into information architecture and your interest in drawing on architecture and Richard Saul Wurman’s work.
When I met Peter Morville, I gravitated more to him as a mentor. The way I approach being a mentee is that I find somebody I want to be like, and do everything that they do. What does Morville do? He teaches, does consulting, and writes books and talks at conferences. I was going to do all those things.

I came back to Wayne State’s library program as an alumnus and said, “What if I offered a course on information architecture? You know it was invented by librarians in Ann Arbor and I know these guys.” I started teaching it for four hours on Sunday afternoons. I taught it from the Polar Bear book, exactly the way that Morville taught it at the University of Michigan, which is pretty much chapter by chapter, and by having the students do a strategy report.

What’s funny is that it was so boring, the way he taught it. He would admit it was the worst. I subbed for him a couple of times at University of Michigan School of Information and the students liked me, and with the combination of his independent consulting business getting really busy and seeing that I really loved teaching this stuff, he resigned from teaching it.

He wrote to the dean, Olivia Frost, “I’m too busy to teach anymore, but Dan subbed for me and did a really great job. You should hire him.” So they did.

I was the dog who had chased the car and caught it—I didn’t know what to do. I had taught this a couple of times and it was fairly boring. I was in the gap between the second and third editions of the Polar Bear book. Folksonomies and tagging were starting to become a thing. Increasingly I felt the Polar Bear stuff was getting kind of old. That was part of the impetus to learn more about architecture.

To my limited knowledge, nobody in the field was addressing the architecture part, but I was wrong.

My first IA Summit[1] was 2009. Chris Farnum, who worked at Argus, introduced me to Andrea Resmini[2] and Jorge Arango[3]. I didn’t talk to Chris for the rest of the Summit. I just glommed onto Resmini and Arango like a barnacle. I’m sure they found it highly annoying, but I was just delighted because my sense was that we had the information part covered but there was so much more to do in the direction of architecture. These people who were trained as architects were so much further ahead of us. They knew Andrew Hinton[4], who has been talking and thinking about architecture since the founding of the IA Institute[5]. That’s when it all started happening for me.

Then Jesse James Garrett[6] spoke at the IA Summit and blew it all up, and that was great. He said there’s no such thing as information architects—that there are only user experience designers. Having begged my boss for the budget to go, being stoked about information architecture as a thing, and to have the culmination of that be, “Hey, this thing that you think is really important is so not the thing”—that was a formative experience for me. I am certain that I wouldn’t have ended up starting a company nor would I have gone as deeply into the Wurman direction had information architecture as a concept not been threatened with non-existence by Jesse.

I’ve had the chance to talk with him specifically about it a number of times, and it’s precisely what he hoped to do. There is a tradition in architecture of provocation as a mode of discourse that I was unaware of. I defy you to find someone who loves and is more knowledgable about information architecture than Jesse James Garrett. His introductions to both editions of Christina Wodtke’s Blueprints for the Web is some of the best writing on “What is Information Architecture.”

At the time I didn’t know any of this. I was a sincerely mortified. He started out by saying, “I realize that it’s an honor to give the closing plenary at this event, and the last thing I would do is subject you to a product demo” which is then, I felt, exactly what he proceeded to do.

He rightly identified information architecture and interaction design as being in a sort of struggle of where when one rises, the other is down. Then, the president of the premiere user experience design consulting company, Adaptive Path, proposed a total reframing of the field to demote these constructs and presented this new superset, and there was nobody selling a higher bill rate nor with a higher likelihood of getting the work than Jesse James Garrett and Adaptive Path.

At the time, it seemed like an incredibly shrewd and crude way of recalibrating the community of practice to better align with what a consulting business was doing in the world. While that may be part of the truth of what he was doing, he’s always talked about it with me as a fear of stagnation in a field that he loved. He saw a way to reframe the discussion.

His reframing act in that speech was an act of information architecture. If I was not as threatened by disruption, I maybe could have enjoyed how brilliant the performance art was there, where he was using the thing that he’s saying is no longer a thing to create different kinds of meaning for other concepts that are relevant. I only saw it as a threat.

I behaved like you do when you’re under threat, which is fight or flight, and I geared up for a fight. “Information architect” was important to my identity at that point. I thought, “I’m going to go talk to your dad—I’m going to go dig into Wurman, who clearly is a bigger gun than Garrett, and we’ll talk about some things.”

Jesse and his then wife had a small child the next year, and after 2009 he really didn’t travel for conferences or anything for the next couple of years. This was unfortunate because I had a role in bringing Wurman to the IA Summit in 2010, and specifically hoped to see him to go beat up Jesse James Garrett. Of course Wurman didn’t care, but he showed up. There was no collision of the ideas or vindication, but life goes on.

The young volunteer who was responsible for organizing Mr Wurman’s birthday party at that summit in 2010 was Abby Covert. Were it not for Jesse blowing up my world, making me mad, making me call Wurman, and making it necessary for his birthday to be observed at the event where the throwdown was supposed to happen, I wouldn’t have met Abby, and without that, I’m not sure what I would do.

We decided together explicitly that this is really important to us and that we were going to work together to make sure that information architecture would continue to be a thing—that it wouldn’t be completely eclipsed, completely subsumed, into user experience.

It’s not that we don’t like user experience. The experience of users is everything that happens on the basis of the work that we do. We had the sense that we had to fight for, argue for, and make really clear examples of the value of information architecture as part of user experience design.

I think a lot of that struggle between IA and UX was because the first generation of information architects really didn’t have the architecture piece. It was just an analogy and a metaphor, and focusing on the architecture part has been the cornerstone of what Abby and I and a few others have specifically been trying to do in the field.

There’s a lot to do, still, but we’ve been fairly pleased with the results so far. I think the world is conspiring on our behalf also. For example, when Apple launches a new music service, Trent Reznor says there needs to be one place for music online—there’s the adoption of “place” as the way of saying “what are these services.”

I also think it’s just the fullness of time. In 1998, to say that this is architecture and these are places made of information that have to be good for people—that you can take the heuristics for what made physical environments good for people and just apply them directly to digital wasn’t something you could do in 1998. It would only be an analogy.

I remember what those digital places were like and you would have to be predisposed to seeing everything in terms of architecture, everything in terms of space. Today I think if you told civilians, “It’s a place that’s made of information where your life happens, and a lot of the reasons why this physical building is worth keeping up could be used to govern what we do in digital,” they’d say, “Yeah, of course.”


[1] An annual conference focused on information architecture that started in 2000.
[2] Information architect and active member of the IA community, and co-author of Pervasive Information Architecture.
[3] Also an information architect and active member of the IA community, and a co-author of the fourth edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.
[4] Another information architect and active member of the IA community, and author of Understanding Context.
[5] An organization founded in 2002 to advance the field of information architecture.
[6] Information architect, author of The Elements of User Experience, and co-founder of Adaptive Path.

Interview with Dan Klyn, Part One

Dan Klyn is a leader in the information architecture community, with a strong interest in drawing more directly on architecture and the work of Richard Saul Wurman to inform IA. He is the co-founder of The Understanding Group, a consulting firm focused on information architecture.

In this part, we focus on how he entered the information architecture field. In part two, Dan Klyn how he became interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s work in information architecture.

Entering the Information Architecture Field

This is a broad question, but how did you get into information architecture?
I was in the Library and Information Science program at Wayne State University in 1998. The difference between job and career opportunities for librarians and for people who knew how to work on the World Wide Web was vast, and even though I started with good intentions to work in a library—I wanted to be a descriptive bibliographer—I knew how to make web pages and I had a knack for organization. It was easy to get into what became UX, if you had a Library and Information Science degree, and knew stuff about websites.

How specifically did you learn that this was a job that one could do—that librarian skills were applicable to working on websites?
I didn’t know that for sure. I got a job as the webmaster of Wayne County while I was at graduate school because I’d taught myself HTML. I was using the web solely as a way to publish my academic work and to connect with other people.

When I graduated in 1998, I went to work at AllMusic.com. Michael Earlywine, who invented AllMusic.com, the All Music Guide, was seeking people with the combination of library degree and ability to understand the functional design of websites. He called it a Functional Designer. He saw my role as the “what” before the “how.” I was there for two years and I became really good at the job, which was information architecture, but I didn’t know the name for it.

AllMusic.com was trying to build an online music magazine where you could just click on the name of a song and have it deliver an instantaneous high fidelity playback of music. It was too early for its time, though. I was responsible for the functional parts of the design but had also been given more and more leeway into visual design.

In 2000, I got a job at Q, which is a design firm that’s still in Ann Arbor. Q hired me because I could do a Photoshop layout that could be rendered across web browsers, to the pixel. At the time this was highly valued because they wanted the design to be right and browsers couldn’t render fonts, or lots of other things, but I could trick the browsers into doing them.

They were pioneers of selling design consultant services for the World Wide Web. Q had a partnership with two other firms in town. Many of the earliest commercial websites were put up by a triumvirate of Q, for visual design, Argus for information architecture, and Interconnect for the technology platform.

I didn’t know anything about these areas. I just interjected myself into the technology people’s space, and the information architecture space, because I knew about the aesthetic, spatial design stuff. Not through any training—just because I have a knack for it. I could do it all and they used these other partners less and less, especially on the smaller stuff which would be a pain in the neck for the other partners.

I’d certainly never thought of architecture as was I was doing. I had no sense that what I was doing, or that the value that I was bringing, had to do with architecture.

I also didn’t think that it was design—I didn’t have any training or a degree, so I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a designer, and I had not yet heard of information architecture.

Then, in early Spring of 2000—one of the first days the tables were out on the sidewalks—I went to a meeting on Main Street in Ann Arbor to talk about a project for Consumers Energy. On the other side of the table from me were Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld*.

That was the first time I’d heard the words “information architecture.” Prior to that, we just referred to their company, Argus. The concept of information architecture wasn’t really necessary or relevant, somehow, to situating me in a company that has a partnership with them.

I looked at the designer I was with, then looked at Peter and Lou, and I thought “I’m on the wrong side of the table.” These guys made a whole business—they had 40 people working for them—doing the thing that I’m good at and love. I could see pretty clearly at that point that I was doing a baby version of what they had already created a consulting business around.

That was when I knew that information architecture was a thing.

Unlike me, Peter and Lou were working more as librarians and taxonomists—organizers of things. They weren’t talking about space as a three dimensional place where geometry is employed toward meaning, or anything like that. “Architecture” was only metaphorical at that point.

The more I investigated it and poked at it, the more it made sense to me why they called it architecture, because they, like me, didn’t want to be called “designers.” They didn’t think that the visual is part of what they did. information architects, in their work, didn’t have purview over the visual dimension or how space is configured. I think back then they would say information architecture is more about the semantic. Though their answer may be different now, they always held the architecture part uncomfortably.


* Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld were founders of Argus, and agency focused on Information Architecture, and authors of the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

PNC’s Ineffective Survey Questions

A while back, I got an email from PNC asking me to fill out a survey:

As a valued PNC customer, we would like to invite you to participate in an online survey about PNC credit card satisfaction and expectations. Your opinions are extremely important and will help PNC develop products that are most relevant and meaningful to its customers. The study will take around 15 minutes of your time.

PNC has asked Gfk Custom Research, LLC, an independent research company, to conduct this study on our behalf.

As it turned out, there were something like a hundred questions. There were questions that assumed you had opinions about things and forced you to pick an answer. It was rife with company-centric terminology that had me confused as to what I was answering questions about. There was widespread abuse of the checkbox and huge, complicated two-dimensional matrixes of multiple choice questions.

Basically, it was a lousy survey. I wish I had taken more screenshots. By the time I thought of it, I had gotten to these questions:

"I've begun to notice other credit cards"

“I’ve begun to notice other credit cards”

Needless to say, I found this question rather odd and took a picture of it. Then, there was the very next question:

"Other credit cards are looking more and more attractive"

“Other credit cards are looking more and more attractive”

Well. Huh. That’s not how I normally think about credit cards, but okay. I mean, I don’t really think about credit cards much at all, which is kind of an underlying problem with this survey. Finally, there was this disconcerting question:

"I'd like to rekindle a relationship with an old credit card"

“I’d like to rekindle a relationship with an old credit card”

Based on these questions, I strongly suspect that this is a case of GfK taking questions from PNC’s marketing department and throwing them right into the survey. Who talks about credit cards like this? Surely not anyone that doesn’t think about selling credit cards day in and day out.

Video: Putting Humans at the Center of Design

On March 22, 2016, I spoke at TEDxYDL in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This is the video of my talk. The script that I basically used is below.

Look at this door. How do you use it? You push it. What if you didn’t read the sign, or can’t read it? The design suggests that you should pull it.

And there’s this guy. It’s a microwave. Do you know how to get it to heat up a plate of leftovers? Well, it doesn’t work like any other microwave you’ve ever used. No microwave works like any other microwave you’ve used.

And websites can be pretty bad, too. This site does a pretty good job nowadays, but 16 years ago, they had a bit of a problem finding a place to stick all those tabs at the top.

There’s a lot of stuff in this world that’s hard to use. Websites. Computer software. Hospital bills. All those remote controls you’ve got lying around. These things that are hard to use make you feel like a fool. If you only take away one thing from the next few minutes, it’s this: It’s not you. It’s the design. These things should have been designed better

My job is to try to make things like doors, microwaves, and websites easier for people to use.

Nowadays, my job title is “user experience architect.” And the work I do is called “user experience design.”

Let’s unpack those terms.

The user experience is the sum of all of the actions people take and feelings they have when they’re using something. This could be a website, or a computer program, or a phone, a car, a can opener, a building. Anything. The user experience is made up of every part of using that product: the words, buttons, colors, the box something came in, the customer support hotline. Everything.

Now, user experience design is based on going out and seeing how people actually use websites or whatever your product is, or how they’re going about their lives without your product, and then using that information to design or redesign a user experience that meets their needs. It puts humans at the center of design.

Let’s look at an example. I was working on a page where people would read journal articles when they were doing some kind of research. We brought regular people into a lab to test this page and find out how easy it was for them to use, and we interviewed people about how they do research, and a pattern emerged: the most important action people want to take on this page is to download a PDF copy of the article. How do you do it on this page?

Of course, if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it eventually, but if you’re not used to this website, you have to look around for it. The link is small and mixed in with other stuff. That’s why, when we had the chance to rebuild the page, we streamlined it. We made the things people wanted to do bigger, and tucked away the stuff they didn’t use somewhere else so they wouldn’t get in the way. And, of course, after the redesign people found it easier to find that download PDF button.

Designing stuff based on human capabilities isn’t just a matter of making sure you don’t get annoyed by doors and websites, though. It can be a matter of life or death.

In Stockholm a few years ago, they tried something different from other cities to make their roads safer – they started with the assumption that people aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. And that it’s the designers that are responsible for designing a road system that prevents people from dying.

For example, intersections with traffic lights have a lot of dangerous, high speed accidents when people run red lights. In Stockholm, they took dangerous intersections and replaced them with roundabouts, forcing people to slow down and pay attention. Rather than just hoping that everyone would see the traffic light, they changed the way the road worked so you couldn’t have the high speed accident.

They committed themselves to designing a city based on human needs and abilities – and it worked! Stockholm has the safest roads of any major city in the world, and are a model for other cities.

Designing to meet human needs and abilities also means designing things to accommodate a range of disabilities. When we design products and the physical world around us, we can’t leave people out, so we have to make sure our designs are universally accessible.

Let’s take blindness, as an example. There are people that use the Internet just by listening to it. That means a page like this kind of sounds like this

When it’s read out loud to you. To design for people who can’t see, you have to make sure your website makes sense to people that can only hear it.

People that really specialize in the accessibility part of user experience design gain a deep understanding of the technology and design techniques that support people with a range of different disabilities—not just blindness.

Taking this approach to design isn’t just good for people. It’s good for business. A study by Forrester indicates that “the top 10 companies leading in customer experience outperformed the S&P index with close to triple the returns” and “every dollar invested in UX brings 100 dollars in return.”

That’s fantastic.

In the end, the most important thing for you to remember from this talk is that:

It’s not you, it’s the design.

Technology, services, organizations, and society should be designed to meet human needs and capabilities, whether those people are young, old, using something for the first time, distracted, or have disabilities.

When you’re having trouble using a website or a microwave or reading your hospital bill, it’s not your fault. The people that made those things should have done a better job. Design matters. And so as we shape the world with the technology and the society that we build, it is imperative to put humans at the center of the design.

Fraggle Rock and Product Vision

Fraggle Rock is a show about the the interconnectedness of all things in the the world. Created by Jim Henson, almost all of its characters are puppets of some kind. It aired from 1983 to 1987 on HBO (and various other channels), and ended with a trio of episodes that are among my favorite endings on television.

I would like, perhaps surprisingly, to talk about Fraggle Rock in relation to product design.

What am I talking about when I write “product design?” I use the term broadly, covering the design and production of, well, practically anything. In my life, that means working on a product team that is responsible for some aspects of a very large, complicated website. We have embraced lean startup methodology, meaning that we are on a cycle of quickly thinking of design ideas intended to advance some sort of business goal, validating them with actual evidence, and then deciding whether to advance them to production.

Fraggle Rock is, of course, a product that was designed and produced by a large group of very talented people. As a user experience professional, I collaborate with a large group of talented people to build websites. It’s a rather facile observation to say that there are similarities in how people come together to work on big projects.

While I think it would be fascinating to dig into the history of how it was made over the course of four seasons and pre-production, but what I would like to focus on here is how its creator, Jim Henson, gave the show direction before turning it over to the people that would make it.

Fraggle Rock was created by Jim Henson’s production company, which had previously created The Muppet Show and were ready to take on a new project.

This new show came together as a production of British, Canadian, and American television companies. They intentionally set out to create a show that could be easily localized to different countries, in different languages; to that end, they planned for the bulk of each episode to feature puppets that could be dubbed over, and for a few minutes of segments featuring a human that could be filmed in each country.

Although Jim Henson himself wouldn’t be involved in the day to day production of Fraggle Rock, he still set the direction for the show. Given the material circumstances of the show—that it would be made with the very direct intention of localization in different countries—he challenged the product team to make a show that would stop war.

This is a detail that I absolutely love. Because how can a show about puppets end war? Clearly, war is still with us. But a vision doesn’t have to be something that you can reach. Maybe it’s better if it’s something that’s always going to be beyond your grasp, because it is in trying to achieve that vision that you do something great.

The creative decisions about the show fell into line with that vision—it became a show about conflict resolution and the interconnectedness of things in our world between the different levels of scale (in this way, it is a great embodiment of “as above, so below”).

With any product, “what are we trying to do” is a great starting point. What’s your product for?

Interview with Keith Instone

Keith Instone is a User Experience professional living in Toledo, Ohio. Since the late 90s, he has been active in Michigan’s UX community and in the UX and Information Architecture communities at large. More recently, he became the Experience Architect in Residence for Michigan State University’s new Experience Architecture program.

Argus

Argus was a design agency from the mid 90s to the early 00s, and was an important part of the nascent UX community in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

How did you come to work at Argus?

While I was at Bowling Green State University, I read some of Peter and Lou’s articles[1]. I liked their articles, and read their book, and saw that they were in Ann Arbor. I met with them for the first time over lunch at their favorite Mediterranean restaurant. That eventually lead to working with them.

For a year or so I did my own consulting and stayed in touch. I didn’t see them at MOCHI[2] meetings—they didn’t really go as often as I did. Later, at some point as Argus was growing, they said, “We’re a bunch of librarians and it’s time to branch out and hire some not-librarians who didn’t graduate from the University of Michigan (UM),” and so then I was on their list.

When I was at Argus, I agreed to give a talk at MOCHI on web navigation. By the time I gave my talk, I was no longer working there and the company was shutting down. That may have been where some people learned about the end of Argus.

We did a talk at OCLC[3] in March 2001, which was our last official presentation as Argus. We went down to Columbus and on the drive home we got a message that we were closing in two weeks.

MOCHI and UXNet

Professional organizations have historically been a valuable resource for professional development and networking. The User Experience field has had the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI) since the early 80s, the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) since the early 90s, and the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) since the early 00s. Over the years, people from Michigan have been active in these organizations. In this section, we look at a few of these intersections.

You were involved with MOCHI when it was active in the late 90s and early 00s. How did you get involved?
Back then, I was doing research in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and the professor I was working with Laura Leventhal. She was my mentor, and she had connections to the University of Michigan, because that’s where she got her degree. We sort of knew the folks that were getting into HCI there, and at some point they said “We want to start a local chapter of ACM SIGCHI.” CHI had established itself as the primary organization at the time.

There was an organizational meeting at the Ehrlicher Room at the University of Michigan School of Information, and so we went up and asked, “If you’re going to do a local chapter, we’d like to be included. We don’t think that we’d ever be big enough to have our own local chapter.” They agreed, so as they were coming up with the name, the “O” in “MOCHI” was “Ohio”—at least in one version of the story. In another version, the “MO” was from “MO-town,” so I am sure some people did not think Ohio was part of the scope.

At one point, the chapter was supposed to be for Michigan and Ohio. Over the years we never really realized that. We never had anything in Ohio for people from Michigan to come down and do.

In those early years, it was the UM professors that invited, for example, their colleague from Colorado to teach a class during the day and give a talk at a MOCHI meeting in the evening. It was based on how they wanted to reach out to their students and what their research interests were. We would come up to Michigan for those because that’s the only thing happening. Otherwise, it would be once a year that you went to the international conference.

At some point, something changed. I think somebody else was in charge, and they started doing things that were not based on an NSF grant where they could fly people in. Events weren’t as often, and there were more local speakers. I can’t remember the particular year it changed, but over time, MOCHI changed from that research focus into more like a regular local chapter with a mishmash schedule because the people running it were busy.

I started to pay more attention to MOCHI because I started working at Argus in 1999. I would be in Ann Arbor during the day, so if there was a MOCHI event, then I would just come home late from work. After 2000, when I was working at IBM, that was still the closest community for me to stay connected to.

Tell me about UXNet, which I understand was an umbrella organization to bring together other UX groups.
We tried to do a couple of things at different layers. One was at the organization layer itself. We hosted an event at the CHI conference. We got people to spend time with each other. It was still contentious for CHI and UPA[4] people to hang out because it was after the breakup where the UPA formed.

We also had this local chapter program where we had local ambassadors who were trying to form connections. There were three flavors.

We had local ambassadors from a place like Michigan that had lots of groups already—they had a UPA chapter, STC[5] chapters, and a CHI chapter. Somebody would step up and connect them together. Then, if one of them brought in a big name speaker, the other groups could help promote it. Or, once a year they’d get together and have beer so you could meet a broader section of folks.

Other folks would step up to be ambassadors because they were in a really small region like the Toledo area, where if you picked one organization, there’d only be two people in your group. With this broader umbrella, you’d get two people from each group and then you’d have twelve people.

Then, there were other people in big cities like St Louis where they had enough people form a critical mass but they didn’t want to pick one organization. To be a legal organization, you’d have to pick one, but they didn’t want to alienate members of any particular group. They did more informal things. They wanted to form a UX community without forcing that decision of which group to join.

How did you get involved in UXNet?
That was probably just hanging out with Lou Rosenfeld. He was one of the other instigators behind it. We saw the trend of Information Architecture getting an identity, and the trend of having to pick UPA or SIGCHI. We thought UX was going to take over as the key term, but if we could speed it up by increasing collaboration, that was enough. Longer term, we had other grand visions of a forging shared services model, like getting the magazine from SIGCHI if you were a UPA member, for example.

At one of the Internet User Experience[6] conferences at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, we got a couple of hundred dollars from UXNet to buy the food for a UXNet meeting at the conference. We brought in some technical folks that were in the area who need to be part of the UX team, even though they want to hang out with other software developers most of the time. We also had the technical communicators, and some of the researchers at UM that weren’t hanging out with practitioners anymore. We took the big UXNet model and made it happen one evening in Ann Arbor.

We disbanded UXNet, mostly because the folks that had volunteered for it were all really busy. We just didn’t have time to devote to UXNet. We’d have a meeting and at the next meeting, no one would have made progress on anything. For a year we stayed together anyway, but eventually the folks who were in charge didn’t have any more time. We asked for people to take over and nobody did.

A lot of our grand plans were happening anyway. The groups that wanted to work together did. We provided some value at the time, we didn’t want to exist just because we did in the past. That’s a hard thing for a lot of professional organizations. Sometimes, the best thing to do is let the group die.


[1] Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld wrote Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, the book that brought Information Architecture to a wider audience. Prior to this, Rosenfeld wrote the “Web Architect” column for the magazine Web Review, among other publications.
[2] Michigan-Ohio CHI was the local chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI).
[3] The Online Computer Library Center is an organization that helps libraries catalog materials.
[4] The Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) renamed itself the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) in 2013.
[5] Society for Technical Communication.
[6] Internet User Experience may be the first regular annual conference to take place in the Midwest, starting in 2005 and taking place in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

More on “Usability Testing” vs “User Testing”

I don’t know how we got there, but use of “user testing” instead of “usability testing” is pretty widespread and I don’t understand it at all. We’re not testing users. We’re testing the usability of the design.

Language matters. We construct reality out of language. Language shapes how we see the world—it limits our perceptions, it tells us what kinds of things exist or don’t exist in the world. The power to name a thing lets us shape what that thing is for and who can use it.

So what we call usability testing matters. However, nothing convinces others like experts, so please do check out this blog post by Dana Chisnell from 2008:

Are you doing “user testing” or “usability testing”?

“User Testing is a Qualitative Activity”: A Common Mistake

Every now and then, I hear people say that “user testing” is a method that only generates qualitative data. There are two problems with this statement.

First, we are not testing users. We are testing the usability of the product in question. It is usability testing, not user testing. In an age where “user experience” has superseded “usability,” we may want an even better name for this method, but it is most definitely not “user testing.”

Second, usability testing is a perfectly good way to gather quantitative data. It just so happens to also be a very good way to get qualitative data.

When you conduct a usability test, you can quantify the number of errors that happen during tasks (and categorize them for even cooler measurements), completion time, whether or not participants completed the test, and you can collect task-level and test-level survey data.

Usability testing generally takes place with small sample sizes (on the order of 6 people or so), and this isn’t a barrier to descriptive statistics. You just have some big confidence intervals around your averages, but you can just acknowledge that in your reporting and decision making and get on with it.

I do understand thinking that quantitative data gathered from usability testing isn’t so helpful if you’re taking some kind of lean approach to product development. You’re moving quickly and treating usability testing as a more generative activity. Maybe it would be worthwhile to draw a distinction between these activities.

Ignite UX Michigan 2016: A Thrilling Success!

Ignite UX Michigan 2016 happened. It was an amazing experience.

This was our fourth year, and our second year at Live. We moved there from Conor O’Neill’s because we simply ran out of space and needed a bigger venue. Attendance at this year’s event was about level with last year, which, I have to admit, is a bit of a relief—we didn’t have any space for more people!

Every year, we try to accomplish a few new things:

  • In our second year, we took a one-off event and repeated it, began our partnership with A2Geeks (who provide some important financial infrastructure), and began to incorporate volunteers in a serious way.
  • In our third year, we moved to a new venue, expanded our sponsorship base, further expanded our volunteer team, and brought in a new chair.
  • And finally in our fourth year, we did the whole event again in a mere six months, as we moved permanently from Fall to Spring. All that, and we had a code of conduct for the first time, our first dedicated MC, and a green room for speakers to relax and store their belongings.

What does the future hold? It’s hard to say. There are still some follow-ups to do after this year’s event—mainly, getting the videos online, but also some administrative tasks. I’ll be relieved to spend a couple of months not thinking about this event before it’s time to get started on 2017.

Web Analytics for User Research: An Example

Web analytics is a good tool to add to your user research toolkit. I occasionally teach workshops on the topic of using web analytics data for UX, and I’ve found it enormously challenging to pull together a half day’s worth of material that is understandable and useful to people. For the last two workshops I’ve done, there were three exercises for workshops participants to do together. I asked them to get into groups, look at the example data, and discuss the data. I included a few starter questions. In this post, I take a look at one of the exercises and discuss how I would interpret the data.

The Data

This exercise focused on data from the All Pages report in Google Analytics, which you can see in the screenshot, and which I’ve put in a table to make it a bit easier to read if you don’t enjoy squinting at screenshots.

Screenshot from Google Analytics

Data from Google Analytics about usage of the most popular pages.
Page Pageviews (table is sorted according to this metric) Unique Pageviews Average Time on Page Entrances Bounce Rate % Exit
41,420 31,808 00:01:36 14,480 48.89% 34.96%
/ (Homepage) 13,320 10,492 00:01:44 10,122 44.63% 42.79%
/Programme.html 5,852 3,717 00:01:23 758 51.58% 26.37%
/Registration.html 5,403 4,133 00:02:27 1,158 65.46% 48.40%
/Speakers.html 3,260 2,505 00:01:18 363 64.56% 30.43%
/Workshops.html 2,688 1,349 00:01:07 138 64.21% 25.04%
/Practical.html 1,807 1,349 00:01:07 138 47.83% 20.25%
/Venue.html 1,285 1,104 00:01:16 87 62.07% 21.56%
/Videos.html 1,073 849 00:01:52 410 80.49% 55.64%
/Payment.html 516 359 00:02:43 28 10.71% 14.15%
/Invoice.html 323 226 00:02:17 0 0.00% 2.48%
/Speaker.html?n=nicolef 239 221 00:01:05 73 82.19% 31.80%
/Speaker.html?n=abbyc 231 205 00:01:02 7 28.57% 14.29%
/Speaker.html?n=adrianh 214 190 00:01:17 10 40.00% 19.63%
/Speaker.html?n=stephenh 203 182 00:00:53 8 12.50% 12.32%
Speaker.html?n=bradf 195 158 00:00:51 2 50.00% 10.28%
/Request.html 186 117 00:04:18 2 0.00% 37.63%
/Checkout.html 182 141 00:02:47 0 0.00% 3.30%
/Speaker.html?n=joshs 178 164 00:01:12 18 16.67% 14.61%
/Contact.html 177 137 00:01:50 5 20.00% 19.77%
/Speaker.html?n=stephenw 175 155 00:01:05 3 33.33% 10.86%
/Practical-tourcity.html 170 147 00:01:37 82 79.27% 52.35%

Questions and Definitions

I asked participants to look at the data and think about the following questions. They’re not necessarily the sort of thing you’d look at every time you analyze analytics data, but this is obviously a bit of an abstract situation.

  • Which pages do users tend to view multiple times? Which pages do users tend to view only once? Why might this be?
  • What are the pages where users spend the most time? What are the pages where they spend the least time? Why do you think?
  • What are common pages for users to enter the site? Why?
  • Compare the bounce rates of the most common pages for people to enter on. Why might some bounce rates be higher than others?

This isn’t at all an exhaustive list of what you’d analyze in real world situations, or even necessarily the sort of questions you would ask in every situation. Except in situations where you’re just browsing the data to look for something interesting, as in this case, the specific data you analyze and the questions you ask will be driven by what you’re trying to find out.

Before we move on to some interpretation of the data, we should probably look at some definitions.

  • Entrances:​ In the context of a single page, it means the number of people that entered the site on that specific page.
  • Exits:​ The number of people that left the website after viewing a page—that is, the number of people for whom this was the last page they viewed during their session.
  • % Exits: Exits divided by pageviews—that is, the portion of pageviews where that was the last page that a user viewed during their session.
  • Sessions: ​A session refers to an instance of a user coming to your website. If the same user comes to your website three times in one day, that counts as three separate sessions.
  • Pageviews: ​The number of times people have gone to a page. If a user views the same page multiple times during their session, each time counts as a separate pageview.
  • Unique Pageviews: Whereas a pageview counts every time a user goes to a page, regardless of how many times they do it, a unique pageview counts only the first time a user views a page. This metric gives you a sense of how many individual people have viewed a page, regardless of how many times they did it.
  • Bounce:​ When a user enters a site on a specific page, and then leaves the site without going to another page or interacting with anything on the page that you are tracking. In other words, it’s when a user makes an entrance on a page and exits from that same page, without Google Analytics recording any other data about them using the site.
  • Bounce​rate:​The portion of pageviews that are bounces. It’s important to remember that bounce rate is only calculated based on entrances, and not based on all the people that view a page.

Unfortunately, that’s a lot to take in all at once, and analytics deals with a lot of concepts that human brains were never meant to understand. That’s part of the difficulty of teaching a workshop on this topic.

Analysis

In this section, I write up a high level analysis of the numbers in this report. I don’t get too deep in this section, mostly because I don’t have a particular questions I’m trying to answer. The biggest takeaway from this section should be that analytics data is a great way of generating research questions for you to answer.

Pageviews and unique pageviews

When you compare pageviews to unique pageviews, something that stands out is that no pages have outrageous ratios, implying that none of the pages on this site are ones that people really view lots of times during their sessions. On other websites, you may find some pages that have a 2:1 ratio or more.

The home page has a ratio of about 13k:10k, which is on the higher end. This probably makes sense for a home page, since lots of people are going to treat it as a navigational hub. The “programme” and “speakers” pages, given that they’re a list of links to specific talks and specific speakers, respectively.

In comparison, pages like “venue” don’t seem to have lots of repeated viewings, implying that users get what they want out of the page and then move on to other pages.

Time on page

“Registration” and “invoice” seem to have the longest times on page, consistent with there being stuff that users have to do on those pages (filling out forms, most likely). The average time on page for “videos” feels a bit short and it’s worth exploring what’s going on with that page. Are there embedded videos? Can we look at stats on whatever service hosts the videos? Have we tagged the page to track outbound clicks?

“Request” and “checkout” also have very long times on page. What are those pages about?

The average time on page for the home page actually feels rather high. It may be worth exploring through in-person research or maybe through a heat map tool to see what things people are actually spending so much time doing on that page.

Entrances

Unsurprisingly, people enter on the home page. You may see different patterns on different kinds of websites, like ecommerce, where people predominantly enter on pages other than home.

The low number of entrances on “invoice,” “request,” and “checkout” indicates that they are probably pages from the middle of the transaction.

Pages about specific speakers also seem to have low entrances; my theory would be that this site just doesn’t rank very high in search results for people looking for information on those speakers.

Bounce rate

Three pages have bounce rates that feel quite high: “practical-tourcity,” one of the speaker pages, and the videos page. However, the first two have very few entrances, meaning that bounce rate is calculated off of a small number of people. I’d be skeptical about whether bounce rate means a lot for those pages. For videos, though, it would be worth exploring the page and how people interact with the page to see what’s up.

The most interesting pages to look at for bounce rate are the ones with the most entrances: “home,” “registration,” and “programme.” The bounce rate for these three pages doesn’t seem weird, really. It may be worth looking at how people interact with the registration page to see why it has the highest bounce rate. It could be that there is pricing information on the page and people are just trying to find that information.

Next Steps: After the Analysis

Again, this wasn’t a rigorous analysis in large part because there was no real question I was trying to answer. So, of course, one’s next steps in real life would depend heavily on what you’re trying to find out about users.

One idea would be to take a close look at the actual pages to get ideas about why people may be interacting with them the way they are. In some cases, you may want to do a path analysis to see where people are going from particular pages, particularly for pages where it looks like some people may be viewing them multiple times.

The biggest mystery pages are probably “registration” and “videos.” I’d check whether there is stuff on the page that takes people away from it—maybe the videos are hosted on another site, or the actual registration takes place on a third party site.

At a high level, the three kinds of next steps that spring to mind are:

  • More analytics data analysis
  • Looking at the actual design of the website to come up with good stories about the data
  • Research activities that don’t include analytics to fill in some qualitative answers

Whether or not you’d even do more research at this point would be a matter of what you’re trying to find out and how important it is to reduce uncertainty. There are situations where the fast answers from web analytics is good enough; in others, you want to be as sure as possible about why users are doing what they’re doing.

Hopefully this has been a modestly helpful look at the way you might approach analytics data. Technically, it’s not hard to start learning about web analytics tools, but learning about the data can be an enormous challenge.