All posts tagged subjective

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I.A is just a communications tool

There’s a lot of discussion around the office and the industry about I.A and it’s role… how it should be done… who should do it (clients and account staff have started handing me ‘wireframes’ and saying “I want that” which is just plain dumb & subjective!) and what level we should be producing it. I have a very straight-forward take on Information Architecture and that is “It’s JUST a communication tool” which could infuriate some people who think they’re more than that.

So let me quantify that train of thought. In 15 years of working in ‘The Big D’ I have had to continuously adapt and refine my style of I.A to the audience who are going to be working with it. I’ve also had the great privilege of working in so many different types of agency now that I’ve constantly had to swap and change the way I produce I.A work. I’ve worked in tactical advertising where we were churning out lots of rich, interactive micro-sites with short shelf-lives and even smaller budgets where I had to scrimp on the objectivity and use a bit of best luck & judgement + knock out rusty wireframes crudely in no time at all so the designer & the developer sitting next to me had a rough steer… All the way through to massive technology companies like Sapient Nitro where the rigor has had to be there because we’re building giant platforms that get developed off-shore. I’ve done a start-up where we had the luxury of being able to take a more Lean approach and most of the I.A was just drawn on the walls. Then there’s the agencies where we were doing more ‘Optimisation’ type work and we’d build detailed Axure Prototypes to do rigorous user-testing. But one thing unifies all those different approaches – whatever I was doing it was always about communicating back to the internal or client audience. It’s always been about showing people the way.

Advertising is a great analogy. You have a message that you need to tell the audience of consumers. You choose the media types best suited to that identified audience. I.A is the same. We have a message and we have to work out the best way to communicate that message and solution to the audience pre-public consumption.

If I meet another I.A who ‘only uses Axure’ or ‘only does Balsamiq’ because it’s their favorite tool then I’m going to explode. It doesn’t do you any favors being that one-dimensional. You have to choose the right tool for the particular job but more importantly you have to be an effective communicator. If you can show me how something needs to function on a wall with a pen then do that… if you can get across the detail using paper and pens then do that too. How it’s presented is secondary to the strategy, insight, research and thinking that’s gone into it.

I’ve tossed away CVs / Portfolios of IAs before because it’s jam-packed full of glossy wireframes… all in the same style, all Omnigraffled with such precision that they’re almost works of art on their own. Why? Because they might be brilliant, but they don’t show me that you’re adaptable and fluid. They show me you’re a great crafts-person with great thinking but they don’t show me that I can throw you into a multitude of scenarios and that you’ll be able to adapt your communication to the audience. Your I.A work is an interpretation of a brief, make people paying attention to it the reward.

A technique or look is no substitution for substance

So in summary – Just be mindful that I.A is a way of communicating the idea, solution, product, vision and function to an audience. That is all. Mastering the art of communication is more important than mastering the art of the wireframe. If it’s objective then it’s UX. If it’s subjective then it’s Design. But whatever it is you have to twist & mould.

Gonzo CX

Work that researches well is predicted on what has gone before. Anything different, or out of the ordinary, will test badly, for the very reason that it is different – Bill Bembach

The majority of my work is as it should be… Neat, proper, rule-abiding and by the New Rider book. Packed full of user-centred design and interaction principals. The user at the heart of the story just happens to be me. Occasionally I need to indulge myself and that’s when my work gets all a bit ‘Gonzo’.

Maybe I’m wrong, but is it time for us to embrace ‘Gonzo UX’ as a reality of our industry and recognise it for right or wrong as a reality, because as a tool for the current generation of UXers’ who go to work everyday & follow the ‘rules’ but don’t always necessarily believe those rules it’s part of our lives and so many of us with a slight right-brain skew do it. I’m Gonzo and proud.

We pay lip-service to the methods of UX for the sake of our clients and then just do our own thing alot of the time. Exaggerating things to make them cooler & more progressive. We do our UX with claims of objectivity, but really how objective is it once we’ve put our own spin on the results, ignored the average bits of the insight and just pushed things forward rather than to the side – which to be honest is what the passionate few amongst us really want. If you’re not being Gonzo for some briefs then you’re not innovating, you’re optimising.

I almost always end up including a little piece of myself in the story, concocting a solution with me as the protagonist thinking “I’ll call the persona Gerald, they’ll never notice that crafty 30 something advertising exec from London is really me”… Come on, admit it, how many have you have done it?! More than you’d think. So much of what we do is a subjective, artistic endeavour based on our own objectively collected insights as real life consumers. We’re just scared to admit it because we think it somehow cheapens the solutions and the work is less robust because there’s a large wedge of ourselves in it rather than a real-life bloke called Gerald who probably still owns a monotone Nokia from 2003 anyway… And I’m certainly not user-centring a solution around THAT bloke, he sucks! When that proposal goes live deep-down its somewhere comfortably between subjective and objective and as long as it’s still good, where’s the harm in being a bit Gonzo with the approach. It’s still packed full of insight driven work, the insight just happens to be your own. It’s good. It has a place and you shouldn’t be ashamed (as long as you’re racking up success and you can attribute it back to some fuzzy bit of research or insight someone pompous researcher gave you at work).

Lets look at bit more at the detail. Gonzo UX tends to favor style over fact to achieve accuracy — if accuracy is in fact meant to be achieved at all — because we often use our own personal experiences and emotions to provide context for the topic or solution being covered. It disregards the “polished”, edited solution favoured by the esoteric usability cronies and strives for a more gritty, personable approach. Sometimes you see the personality of a solution is just as important as the problem the solution is trying to fix.

If you have a tendency when you’re selling solutions in to use quotations, sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity then you may in fact be practising Gonzo UX and you don’t even know it.

So as of today I’m actually adding ‘Gonzo UX’ to our companies list of approaches. As a term, for our clients, and I’m going to make sure our team are proud to do it when the time is appropriate.

“What? The client won’t pay for research and insight?” It’s a Gonzo solution.

“Oh my god, that insight work sucks but I’ve only got 2 days to craft a response!” It’s a Gonzo solution.

“This project is just going to be DULL and UNINSPIRING if I follow this research and tailor it to this dudettes life” I’ll go a little bit Gonzo for the sake of making it good rather than average.

Competitor Benchmarking

We’re not supposed to give secrets away are we? Oh well… let’s break the rules & throw caution to the wind… I’m going to give you a leg-up on competitor benchmarking because it’s one of the most important tasks we perform in UX.

The term “benchmarking” is relatively new but the concept is as old as competition itself. Whether in industry, sport or in other aspects of our daily lives, we continually need to reference our own performance against others.

All of us benchmark most of the time without realizing it. At one time the concept was known as ‘interfirm comparisons’ because in an industrial sense, that is what it is.

As a task it’s important to make it very clear that this is ‘subjective analysis’ not ‘objective research’. You can of course go through stats if you have them and look at two or three websites against each other, but the chances of your having that kind of data are almost non-existent, so assume this is you as a UX person or intern looking at lots of different sites, following some rules & guidelines & grading them based on observation. Subjective observation. Doesn’t make it wrong, it does however make it someones opinion for a lot of things.

The criteria

So here’s a start for ten… if I was going to look at four sites and compare them against each other I’d take the the following areas & give each site a score out of 3. 1 being dreadful and 3 being top of the class. Scoring is of course entirely a decision you can make for yourself. I just like to keep it simple.

1 Findability

  1. Site was easy to find using Google
    • Search for brand found main site quickly
    • Search for “SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE INDUSTRY” directed me to this brand
  2. Search results were helpful

2 First Impressions

  1. Website was well branded
  2. Clarity of next steps was obvious (you found what you were looking for)
  3. The site is very product led
  4. The site is very campaign led
  5. The site has offers and incentives up front
  6. The site has clear data-capture opportunities up front

3 CTA effectiveness

  1. Visibility
  2. Clarity
  3. Simplicity
  4. Page position
  5. Competition from other messages

4 Ease of use

  1. Navigation
    • Simplicity
    • Contextual signposting
  2. Major headings on pages are clear & descriptive
  3. Styles & colors are consistent
  4. Emphasis (bold, etc.) is used sparingly
  5. Main copy is concise & explanatory
  6. URLs are meaningful & user‐friendly
  7. HTML page titles are explanatory

5 Content

  1. Emotional connection
  2. Commerce
  3. Tools

6 Accessibility

  1. Site load‐time is reasonable
  2. Adequate text‐to‐background contrast
  3. Font size/spacing is easy to read
  4. Flash & add‐ons are used sparingly

7 Personalisation

  1. Website can be personalised
  2. User can choose what content they are shown
  3. The experience can be customised to interest

As I mentioned… this isn’t an exhaustive list of criteria, it’s just the list I use and from time to time I change it on an ad-hoc basis dependent on the client I’m doing the benchmarking for. You’ve got to keep it flexible & play to the audience.

It’s actually what you do with the data that can be useful.

Analyzing and using the benchmark

Using something like Excel to do the benchmark I’d recommend giving each point on the list a score and then a final ‘average’ for each section (you’ll see what I mean on the sample spreadsheet I’ve attached). It’s the average score that you can then use to generate the chart(s) you’ll want to share with the client. I recommend using a ‘Radar’ chart for the visualisation. Simply because it overlays everything on top of each other in a way that lets you see exactly what the lay of the land is. They look fun too.

What I look for in a visualisation like this is not just where your client is performing well against it’s competitors, there’s a chance because of marketing etc that it always has and always will compete heavily in some areas more than others (like SEO / findability) what this shows us very quickly is where opportunities to disrupt the marketplace are. Take the example on the right, there’s clearly nobody in the area of personalisation. Move into that space before someone else & you can grab the point of don-displacement first.


A benchmark is a quick, simple way of hitting a client with some insight that will conceivably justify decisions you want to make as an agency. It also gives you an opportunity to go back to a client after you’ve done some work and say “You’re score in the area of XXXX was XX, it is now XX therefore we’ve improved usability”.

I’ve included a sample spreadsheet so you can have a fiddle. Punch in numbers where the 1’s are on the first sheet and you’ll see the rest generated automatically. Please note I don’t do technical support… so if you break it that’s not my problem… it’s literally to give you a foot-up and show you the idea.

Download sample benchmark

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