Monthly Archives: March 2013

A disturbing trend in UX books?

This morning, Karl (a professor who teaches both HCI and Information Architecture) handed me a semi-recently published textbook (2012) that he said he thought might be able to finally serve as a comprehensive text book that could be assigned to students in the program where he teaches.

I looked at the book with a lot of enthusiasm as I also teach and mentor in the UX field and have also longed for The Book that could become the seminal textbook as opposed to the (relatively large) assortment of books that currently need to be recommended to really cover the bases.

At first glance this book (The UX Book by Rex Hartson and Pardha Pyla) looks wonderful–it is obviously written by authors with deep expertise, I love that it is geared to active learning with the inclusion of exercises, it is thoughtfully organized. As I scanned through the table of contents an alarm bell went off in my mind, however–how could a book purporting to be a comprehensive guide to designing effective user experiences (which primarily still means designing effective user interfaces) fail to include information architecture? Thinking that perhaps the topic would be embedded in the text I checked the index for “information architecture” and for “navigation”–no mentions in the index for either. This strikes me as an egregious oversight.

Some books on the topic don’t use the term “information architecture” but they still delve deeply into organization, navigation, content strategy, and other critical elements that information architecture encompasses. I’m always disappointed when the term “information architecture” isn’t used, as I consider it the best and most widely understood term for capturing this unique set of components–but a rose by any other name still smells as sweet, so I can cope without the term as long as the concepts are there. I don’t think that is really the case with this text, however. There is a (thin) chapter on mental models that imperfectly and partially covers this territory–and that is about it.

In reality, this book is an extensive usability evaluation techniques book (and from that aspect it appears to be a very good one) that also includes information on user research techniques and a chapter on prototyping. This is not a comprehensive user experience design text and I would not recommend it as a comprehensive text given that such critical content is absent.

Karl acknowledged that it is troubling that IA is missing in both name and form but encouraged me to appreciate that the book is pretty good at everything else it covers and great at many. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but that seems a bit like saying that we should appreciate an anatomy text for its brilliant coverage of the skeleton, muscles, and organs, and overlook the fact that the cardiovascular system is missing.

At this point Karl pulled out two other books he’s been considering for texts, Inventing the Medium by Janet Murray and User Experience Re-mastered by Chauncy Wilson (someone he knows I respect). As with The UX Book, neither of these use the word information architecture. (The Murray text covers pretty much the full suite of concepts I would consider important from an information architecture perspective but she includes them all under the label interaction design; I think the most important thing is for the topics to be covered, so my beef with this book would be more one of semantics than content.) I found myself looking at the stack of books with a certain amount of consternation.

I don’t think this is just a case of sour grapes from someone who specializes in information architecture complaining that my pet area isn’t getting enough attention. In the majority of interface evaluations I conduct, broken or sub-par information architecture is a significant problem–and this happens in websites, intranets, software and applications. Some organizations are aware that they have information architecture issues and they reach out to user experience designers with expertise in IA, but many organizations are not able to articulate that information architecture is an issue, although sometimes they are able to target navigation or labeling or organization among their pain points.

If the professionals who are being educated (either formally or self-directed) in User Experience are not encountering information architecture in the books that are attempting to broadly define and describe User Experience design we can hardly blame them if this is a blind-spot or weakness in their work, (and perhaps this is yet another reason we still encounter so many interfaces where the IA emerged organically as a cobbled together after-thought or emerged from the haphazard directory structure in the CMS).

The Information Architecture Summit is coming up and I will definitely be eager to poll other IA-oriented professionals as to whether they perceive this to be as significant a concern as I do or whether I’m  making a mountain out of a mole-hill.

Chrome user experience fail

A couple weeks ago I started using Last Pass in an attempt to improve the security of my passwords. (It’s software where you have one password to login to it and then it automatically logs in to your various sites/apps for you. So far it works better in theory than in practice, but I do think my online banking is more secure now.)

I thought I had the kinks worked out and was getting used to it when all of the sudden LastPass stopped working. After a few false starts I went into the Extensions settings in chrome, where LastPass was disabled along with a perky note telling me that Chrome had disabled 3rd-party apps “to help chrome run faster.” I was mildly irritated, but re-started LastPass and chalked it up to one of those minor irritations that happen with software sometimes.

Until the next time I rebooted my computer–in which it happened *again*. That struck me as really odd; I had installed the extension myself and I had explicitly over-ridden the automatic disabling of the extension and yet they had disabled the extension again. Doing some searching, I’m not the only person who is irritated by this as seen by product forums like this one.

So, this is a drag and I suppose it could send me back into the arms of Firefox, which I left primarily because the ceaseless updating got to be too much work–but that’s not all that interesting. What is interesting is that a possible interpretation of the motivation for this functionality is that it was intended to improve the user experience by “cleaning up” third party extensions that had been “silently” installed, but in doing this they created the first chrome experience that was negative enough for me to continue switching browsers.

(Given that they stopped allowing extensions to be silently installed over a year ago, “to improve the user experience” may be an overly generous interpretation–so it’s also possible this decision had nothing to do with improving the user experience and was more around increasing ad revenue by hampering ad-blocking extensions.)

It does seem to me that this action is violating their #1 philosophy, regardless of the interpretation. There has to be a better way to achieve whatever it is they are trying to achieve.


Navigation Pattern Libraries

Ever since the advent of the “mega menu” navigation I’ve felt that Information Architecture as a discipline has dropped the ball on defining navigation approaches in a systematic way. I think this may in part have happened around the time that pattern libraries began popping up like mushrooms; perhaps we all thought that any necessary documentation or thinking about navigation was happening by default in pattern libraries; and yet to my knowledge no one ever put together a pattern library of navigation treatments with explicit insights about where and how these options are best applied in relation to a site’s IA as opposed to the context of the screen/page layout. (I would be happy to be wrong about this.)

But a couple weeks ago, I ran across this site (which is actually over a year old; suggesting that I’m not as up to speed on this topic as I ought to be).

While this doesn’t take the approach that I would specifically like to see, in terms of talking about the relationship between the breadth and depth of the information structure as part of the pros & cons, it does specifically focus on navigation patterns; albeit limited to responsive design (but since that seems to be obviously where we’re all headed, it’s a good place to start).

And it reminds me that doing something proactive about describing/tracking navigation treatments and trends would be more productive than complaining about the lack thereof…another item for the To Do list.


Coding Viral Video

I would imagine that anyone likely to stumble on this post has already seen’s fantastic evangelical video, but I’m capturing it here for posterity.  I had several reactions, one of which was the old nagging sensation that I really *should* take a basic programming course…and yet, I don’t know that it’s a good idea for User Experience designers to spend too much time learning to code.

This line of thought reminded me of Jared Spool’s closing plenary at the 2011 IA Summit “The Most Valuable UX Person in the World,” the gist of which was that UX professionals who can code will be the most desirable hires/employees and eventually the norm. As with all his talks, it was interesting, engaging, humorous–well worth hearing, but I’m ambivalent about how much cross-over is realistic or even desirable between disciplines. The primary reason I feel this way is that it’s already extremely difficult to achieve a solid mastery of the full suite of skills across the broad realm of user experience design–I’ve never encountered a fellow professional who is equally skilled in information architecture, interaction design and usability–yet many, if not most, jobs for user experience designers require at least rudimentary skills in each of these areas. Adding an additional expectation or requirement for coding skills makes me worried that user experience designers will be expected to be jack of all trades, but master of none–in the long run, I’m not sure that’s the best thing for our profession.


Friday Post: What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Comfort food gets all the press, but I also indulge in comfort reading (or listening, in the case of audio books). Which is how I came to be searching for Cold Comfort Farm, a delightful book by Stella Gibson that fills the role of mac-n-cheese for the brain nicely.  Sadly, I was thwarted in my attempts–but I did wind up with a chuckle and a nice screen cap.

Bad Search is notorious enough that it was listed as #5 in Jakob Niesen’s “top ten mistakes” in 2005 (a decade into the Web) and then bumped up to #1 when when he revisited the list in 2011! I know that search configuration is a real headache for a lot of organizations–they buy a product having been assured that it will work for them “out of the box” and then discover that really getting effective results requires customization they haven’t budgeted for. Nevertheless, its disheartening that search results are still so bad.

That said, this was a case where lousy search results made me laugh out loud before I put on my GUI Bloopers hat and started deconstructing the page. The picture would be self explanatory had they followed the best practice of showing the search query on the results page, but we can’t have  everything…