On Tuesday August 28th I headed down to The Guardian office at Kings Place for an introduction to user experience training session. The course was run in the evening by Martin Belam who, until recently, was Lead UX at The Guardian.
Like most people who work with websites, I find my job overlapping with several disciplines and quite often find what’s best for search is also best for the user. I’ve also found myself advising clients on information architecture with increasing regularity in my role within the search industry. I’ve been following Martin’s blog for a while now in order to gain some insight into UX and IA, so when the opportunity to attend a UX course run by the man himself came up, I jumped at the chance.
First though, a trip back in time – Around ten months ago I was working on a large consultancy piece for a major UK financial publication. The main scope of the work was to outline best practice for search and noting specific requirements for the design and development teams involved with the project. There was also a large section of the consultancy focused on the clients content and how best to present and organise it. In hindsight the project would have benefited hugely from an information architect, but my own research led me to The Guardian’s website and in particular their use of tag pages.
Generally, The Guardian ranks well for a large number of lucrative search terms. Head on over to Google and search for something like ‘Labour’ or ‘Lib Dem’ and you’ll see The Guardian website on the first page. Back in November 2011 The Guardian website ranked in the top 10 for terms like ‘gold’ and ‘oil’ consistently and the pages that were ranking were tag pages.
Tag pages are essentially dynamic pages that aggregate appropriately tagged content from across a website. Anyone familiar with a blogging platform such as WordPress will know how tag pages work. A bit of further delving into The Guardians use of tag pages led me to a series of posts on their developer blog called Tags Are Magic. This series of posts spurred my interest in the benefits and importance of Information Architecture and subsequently User Experience.
So with a little bit of research already completed on how The Guardian handles information architecture and an increasing interest in UX and IA in general, I was pretty excited to attend this course.
What is covered?
Martin had the unenviable job of covering as much about UX as possible in 3 hours. Of course there’s only so much you can do in 3 hours and Martin did well to keep the evening running at a good pace covering a number of UX basic principles while also incorporating a number of practical activities.
Here’s a shot list if what Martin covered (what I remember):
- What is user experience?
- What skills do user experience professionals need?
- Designing for people
- Designing for computers
- Designing for business
- An introduction to UX research methods
- Information architecture and domain models
- User flow and task flow
- Building for people
- Building for developers
A fairly ambitious list to cover in 3 hours I’m sure you’ll agree, but delivered without haste. The practical exercises we undertook included a basic UX testing method, a sketching exercise and a card sorting exercise.
UX testing method practical:
During this exercise Martin had us break out into groups of three and each person was assigned a position:
In this exercise the tester set the task to be completed on their mobile, the victim (or the user) had to complete the task, and the observer had to record the actions taken by the user.
During the evening Martin stated that UX recommendations based on opinion are worthless. Everything should be backed up by data and research. This exercise helped to reinforce this point and give a basic but practical taste of conducting UX testing and recording the outcome.
The sketching exercise brief was basic: “Create an interface that allows people to make a custom hat”. Having been a front-end developer I naturally drew a website page template, however, there were a range of different approaches from everyone in the room.
Of particular benefit during this exercise was being asked to pass our sketch to the person to the left and having that person make an improvement to your design. This helped to demonstrate how you, the UXer, needs to understand the expectations of the end user and to take criticism positively in order to improve the product.
Card sorting practical:
This exercise had the people on each table undertake a card sorting exercise. On the surface this seemed like quite a basic exercise, group similar cards together by topic, but as we got started we soon found it to be a little more complicated. It was obvious that the topics had been derived from a news website and that multiple sub-category cards could be placed under multiple top-category cards.
Halfway through we were stopped and another set of cards was added to the existing set. This time cards were labeled with BBC specific products such as Eastenders and Cbeebies so it was obvious where the categories had been derived from, but it didn’t make it any easier to arrange all of the cards into a logic order that we all agreed on.
This task helped to highlight that not every category or topic belongs where you expect it to go and that in many cases one topic can sit under more than one category. I think with some basic Analytics data associated with the cards, a more informed decision could have been made by the group as to which categories were the most visited as this would have dictated the hierarchy we developed.
Martin also noted that this type of exercise is good at highlighting how a dominant character within a test group can skew the results. As such, it’s best to rotate people within test groups in order to gain balanced results.
Other key takeaways:
Beyond the lessons learnt during the practical exercises, here are a number of point I thought important enough to jot down:
- In the news sector where content can be heavily syndicated from one source, the one thing that can define your site from the competition is the users experience. Provide a good user experience and people will keep coming back to your site
- Design for people – your recommendations as a UX professional should be backed up by data and research gained from rigorous testing of the product
- Usability testing is vital – The designer is always removed from the end user and as such can’t design the perfect solution without user feedback
- Field testing – This is important as it gives you a different insight into users habits
- Remote testing – AB testing can be used as a cheaper alternative
- “The end UX is only as good as the foundation of the system” – Get you IA right and the rest will follow
- Guerilla testing offers a cheaper alternative and allows you to research user behaviour in a more natural setting
- Usability testing works better in pairs, especially when approaching women when guerilla testing
- Uncovering “unhappy paths” and optimising them to be as smooth as possible is the job of the user experience designer
- User Experience design isn’t just about customer facing platforms but should also consider content management systems and other back-end systems to streamline internal work processes
- Use case studies and determination to sell in user experience design to clients
- The best usability metric to demonstrate a poor user experience is video evidence of people struggling to use a product or interface. Other metrics to consider include revenue, funnel abandonment and bounce rate.
Anything to add?
So having sat through 3 hours of UX basics is there anything I would add to the evening? In short, yes! However, if I’d had time to go to the pub after my questions would no doubt have been answered. I may even email Martin to ask a couple of specifics, but I’ll add them here:
- Are there any examples of what not to do? – A quick reference to Harry Brignull’s http://wiki.darkpatterns.org might make a worthy addition
- Designing for search – Working in the industry that I do, it would have been hugely beneficial to learn some basics or best-practice tips for user experience related to search engines.
So where do I go next having attended Martin’s course?
Martin provides some good ideas at the end of his course, so I’m not short of options. I already have the book “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” which is recommended by Martin, but have yet to start it. So that will be my first port of call. Martin provides quite an extensive reading list, including a number of blogs, so I will add the RSS feeds to my Google Reader account and try to stay abreast of recent developments. I’ll also start to follow more UX professionals on Twitter as I’m quite active there.
Life seems to have gotten in the way but rekindling this blog and making it more user experience an information architecture oriented will help. I need to restart my weekly roundup posts which have been dormant since May, so that’s a quick win straight away.
Beyond blogging, reading, and stalking people on Twitter, I need some hands on experience, which I’m hoping can be accommodated at my current company. If not, I may need to find a mentor to steer me in the right direction and sense check my work. I should also become more actively involved with the community in London and attend more meet ups.
Finally, if you’re interested in attending this course, it’s organised by Simone Baird and her team at Guardian Masterclasses. The next course is on September 17th and you can find further details here.
If you can recommend a UX or IA site to follow feel free to comment below or tweet me @harvey1dash8