Gaming – a blessing or a curse?

29 March 2011 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

In recent times, there has been a plethora of extreme and alarmist articles in the media about the impact of video games (both online and offline) on the lives on individuals who play them. For example, there has been an article about how parents from South Korea failed to attend to their baby’s basic needs because of their obsession with gaming. As well, there has been a lot of discussion about the supposedly increasing number of games addicts among children, with some sources stating examples of youngsters who have dropped out of school in order to to play games for up to 21 hours a day.

Countries such as China and South Korea have already declared battle against online gaming and introduced laws in the forms of an anti-online game addition system and gaming curfew respectively in order to curb their citizen’s usage of games.

However, I recently came across an article titled “Online computer gaming: advice for parents and teachers” that a UK games expert, Professor Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University, wrote in 2009 in response to a huge number of emails that worried parents and teachers of young gamers sent to him over the years. Griffiths argues that, while games may be problematic to some individuals, in his career he has only come across a handful of real games addicts. Griffiths, furthermore, says that “any activity when taken to excess can cause problems in a person’s life. We would not legislate against people excessively reading or exercising. Why should online gaming be treated any differently?”. With that said, parents and teachers should be educating adolescence on how to play games responsibly.

There is an increasing body of evidence for the positive influence of games. For example, a games expert from the Silicon Valley, Jane McGonigal, believes that “gaming can make a better world” though teaching people about strategising and probelm-solving. McGonigal’s research shows that games can enhance personal happiness and help society.

Decision-making models in Web development

20 August 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

Unlike in the medical and the aerospace sectors, erroneous decisions in the Web development domain do not cost lives. However, poorly made decisions in all these sectors can lead to serious financial consequences. Good decisions can save both time, money and lives but the difference between bad and good decisions is not always clear until the project team gets into the last stages of the development process. In order to avoid making bad decisions in the Web domain, the Smashing Magazine provides an overview of the most efficient decision-making models that can help Web developers structure and ultimately make more informed and better decision during the design of their online systems.

The most useful decision-making models for the Web and other domains include:

  1. SHEL, which stands for Software, Hardware, Environment, Liveware, is used as a brainstorming and planning tool to assess the interactions in various situations. This model is normally drawn out as a cross and it places Liveware (i.e. the end user) in the middle, which reinforces the point that the end user should be the main focus of the planning process. Going clock-wise, the top of the model allows decision-makers to consider Software (e.g. browsers, operating systems, Flash, JavaScript), the right arm of the model focuses on second type of Liveware (e.g. social media, support), the bottom of the model aims to capture Environment (e.g the whereabouts of the users and the context in which they are using the end product), and finally the left arm of the model considers Hardware (e.g. monitor, PC/MAC, mobile device).
  2. DODAR, which is an acronym for Diagnose, Options, Decide, Assign, Review, captures the five key areas of any decision-making process in the form of a circular flow. The Diagnose stage is concerned with using all available resources to find out what the problem is and what causes it. The Options stage helps to assess whether the problem is urgent or can be left for a while. The next stage, Decide, focuses on deciding what course of action is sensible and whether it should be pursued. The Assign stage concentrates on allocating appropriate tasks to people who are capable of performing them. The last stage, Review, is of the highest importance as it helps to assess whether everything is going as planned and if the expected results are achieved. If things are not going according to plan, then it is necessary to find out why and run through the DODAR cycle again until all the problems are rectified.
  3. NITS Brief is a quick communication framework, which can be of assistance when a task needs to be communicated to colleagues or clients. It stands for Nature, Intentions, Time and Specials. Nature is concerned with the nature of the problem or task (e.g. what is it and why did it happen?). Intentions relate to the actions that are hoped to be taken to solve the task. Time refers to the length of time that is needed or expected to carry out the actions. Specials are concerned with anything unusual or unexpected, for example, if a particular colleague would normally be expected to do something else?
  4. Swiss Cheese Model was developed by arguably the biggest expert on human errors, James Reason. This model is widely used in different industries (e.g. medical and aerospace) and it is based on the assumption that if errors in separate system layers are not caught out on time, collectively they can align and lead to more serious problems. Therefore, it is necessary to address errors in individual layers when they do not pose serious problems.

I hope that, on the consideration of the aforementioned models, you will be persuaded to check them out and in general focus more time and resources on ensuring that you make well-informed and correct choices in your designs.

Swiss Cheese Model

Tips on how to create user-friendly content

20 August 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

It looks like a lot of websites out there have problem with sticking to the main topic of content that they initially started to publish on their sites. For example, websites that initially aim to publish reviews primarily about technological gadgets for some time stick to their core interests, however, a common occurrence is that later they widen the scope of their content to Internet technologies such as Web development, emailing, etc. While there is nothing wrong about including other related topics on the website, it is necessary to do it in such a way so that users interested primarily in main topic of the site (in this case gadgets) do not get overwhelmed by a sheer amount of content about something different (i.e. Internet technologies). So, to help you create user-friendly content that is geared towards your audience throughout your site, we offer the following tips:

  1. Create content that meets your audience’s standards
    Firstly, create a main category of content that mirrors your goals and is fully geared towards the main topic of interest of your audience and create subcategories for other related topics. Secondly, you need to ensure that your site’s content meets the comprehension level and topics of interest of your key audience. So, for example, if your site is aimed at teenagers and young adults, then the site’s content should be written in a causal and relatively simple way. If however your site is aimed at highly educated older adults with high levels of professional responsibility then your website content should be written in a more sophisticated and business-like manner.
  2. Create content that complements your website
    Your content needs to compliment your website, namely, it should be relevant to the topics that you cover.  The homepage should have an introduction that gives users a general idea of what topics are included on the website and how they are structurally organised. This practice will make your site more user-friendly and ultimately will make your users want to come back to the site again.
  3. Create skimmable content
    It is very rare for users to read content word by word. It is a more common practice to skim through content in order to quickly find the interesting and applicable areas that users are looking for. Therefore, it is important that you break down your content into short and understandable sections and/or bullets as it will help users quickly and easily find what they are looking for. Another good practice is to make your content more skimmable by highlighting the most relevant keywords or by creating separate titles for several topics.
  4. Create direct and to the point content
    Your content should be direct, to the point and it should give viewers an impression that it is addressing them personally.
  5. Strengthen your argument
    When you make arguments on your site you need to back them up with authentic and respectable sources or facts. Therefore, it is good practice to occassionally link your content to other reputable sources (websites, books, journals, magazines, etc.). Not only does this strengthen the correctness of arguments in your content but it also assure users that they have chosen the right place to read about certain topics. For example, the content of this article is based on Kent House’s in-house expertise, as well as advice provided in external sources such as W3C and WebCredible.
  6. Make your voice consistent through the website
    You need to ensure that your content is consistent throughout your website and does not include any contradictory statements as conflicting content may make your users think that you are covering topics which you do not fully understand and this may decrease your site’s credibility. To avoid this, always check your current content thoroughly so that it relates to what you want to publish. Also, give users a chance to voice their feedback on your site’s content and structure as this will assure them that their opinion is important to you and that you want to make their browsing experience as user-friendly as possible.

I hope that the advice in this article will make you rethink the design of your Web content and help you create more user-friendly sites.

User experience Balanced Scorecard

22 June 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

In recent years, a lot of organisations started to open their eyes to the notion of user experience and many companies started to treat it as an integral part of their overall business strategy. Previous research in business and other disciplines has shown that providing good user experience in products and services delights customers, increases adoption, retention, loyalty and most importantly revenue. While poor user experience discourages people from using a given product or service and drives them to the competition.

Therefore, to go with the spirit of the current times and to be successful in today’s fierce business world, organisations need to better plan how to manage and measure user experience. The usual way of doing this is to have some sort of system for managing strategy and measuring progress toward achieving goals. One such popular system is the Balanced Scorecard, which first came into attention of the business world in the early 1990s with the publication of the Harvard Business Review article “The Balanced Scorecard – Measures that Drive Performance” by Dr. Robert Kaplan of Harvard Business School and Dr. David Norton, the co-founder of the consulting company Renaissance Solutions.

Kaplan and Norton suggest that the strategic objectives of every company need to be balanced across four perspectives:

  1. The customer perspective—companies need to find out how customers perceive them.
  2. The internal business perspective—companies should ask what it is that they must excel at.
  3. The innovation, learning and growth perspective—companies must ask whether they can continue to improve and create value.
  4. The financial perspective—companies have to decide on their strategic objectives in terms of increasing revenue and reducing cost.

Each perspective of the Balanced Scorecard includes:

  1. Objectives—the major objectives companies must achieve.
  2. Measures—the observable parameters companies use to measure their progress toward reaching their objectives.
  3. Targets—the specific target values for the measures.
  4. Initiatives—action programs companies initiate to meet their objectives.

For each perspective there might be many objectives. Objectives for user experience may include user research, design reviews and usability evaluation, etc. With the Balanced Scorecard system, organisationa can align and manage their key corporate objectives in terms of user experience and become driven by their mission rather than by short-term financial performance.

According to David Norton, the Balanced Scorecard “puts strategy at the centre of the management system instead of finance”. However, this desirable switch doesn’t provide instant results. Norton says that organisations have to allow up to two years for the process and cites the example of Mobil Oil, which in 1993 ranked seventh among the major oil companies in comparative profitability and within three years of using the balanced scorecard system, it led the industry and its share price had doubled.

The Balances Scorecard system is definitely worth trying.

The debate about optimising for the user experience

22 June 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under Search Engine Optimisation

Currently there is a debate as to whether Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) should be guided by User Experience Optimisation (UXO). One of the leading supporters of the personalisation of search engine experience, Goggle’s Matt Cutts, believes that “instead of chasing after the search engines, chase after the user experience because the search engines are chasing after the user experience. By chasing after a good user experience, you help ensure that you and the search engines are both working in the same direction. That’s much better than you chasing the search engines, which are in turn chasing what we think is best for users“. Although Cutts’ quote sounds more like philosophy than implementation, there is some value to it. The ultimate goal of most search engines is to provide better results for users but often the reality is that competitive and time and money pressured web marketing consultants sacrifice user experience for short term gains in visibility. Cutts believes that by treating user experience as the main priority, most web marketing consultants will be able to align their  incentives with those of the search engines and get better long term ROI results.

However, the opposing camp, which has only one goal in mind and that is to earn higher rankings, argues that SEO is not and should not be UXO because the job of an SEO professional is to build and target ranking authority off-site and use that authority on-site and there is just no space in that job for prioritising user experience. The foremost priority of the ‘against camp’ is to know the search ranking factors and to effectively use that knowledge to boost rankings. For example, these people believe that ranking authority comes from other websites in the form of external links and it doesn’t matter how good, relevant or usable a website’s content is as long as it is link-worthy and a link to this website is included on other websites. Furthermore, the ‘against camp’ argues that SEO and UXO are not the same and sometimes it is necessary to chose between the two.

I support the ideas proposed by the “for camp” and believe that optimising for the user experience is definitely a way forward. As a search engine user I am always more satisfied with sites which manage to achieve the best of both worlds – be number one in Google and be number one in terms of usability, accessibility and desirability. A site optimised for the user experience also gives credence to the professionalism and forward thinking of the web marketing consultant.

Making ideas happen

24 May 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

The Smashing Magazine has recently published an article that includes 5 tips on how to make any ideas happen. The author of this article, Scott Belsky, has spent over 5 years studying exceptionally productive people and teams in the creative world and has published a book titled “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision & Reality” that makes suggestions for taking your ideas and making them reality.

Apart from proposing that anyone can strengthen their ideas through being organised, nurturing connections with one’s community and developing leadership capabilities; Belsky also gives the following suggestions:

  1. Avoid a Reactionary Workflow
    Instead of spending most of your working hours each day on email, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, phone calls, instant messages etc., try for a few hours per day to avoid any incoming communication and focus on your list of long-term projects that require research and deep thought.
  2. Strip Projects to Three Primary Elements
    The three primary elements include: action steps, backburner items and reference items. Actions steps are tasks that begin with verbs and can be implemented in life almost immediately.  Backburner items are essentially ideas that are the result of brainstorming or some other creative activity and although they are not actionable in the time of their invention, they have a potential of being acted upon in the future if recorded appropriately. Reference items include articles, notes and other stuff around you. In order to make the best use of them try to organise them chronologically in one big file.
  3. Measure Meetings with Action Steps
    To get more out of your meetings with clients and colleagues, conduct at the end of each meeting a quick review of the items discussed and capture the action steps.
  4. Reduce Your Insecurity Work
    We are often insecure about the different things in our lives such as website’s traffic or bank account and we often loose a lot of time using the existing technologies to check the current status of these things. Therefore, to be more productive in your working day try to reduce your insecurity work by becoming self-aware and introduce some discipline in your daily life.
  5. The Creative Process is about Surviving the ‘Project Plateau’
    In general, we are all good at creating new ideas, but most of us are not so good at sticking with our ideas and making them reality. Most ideas get abandoned at what is called the “project plateau”, that is the point when creative excitement evaporates and the pain of deadlines and project management becomes kicks in. To prevent your ideas from disappearing from the daylight show them some respect and spend some energy executing them.

Hopefully, Belsky’s tips will help many creatives convert their exciting and innovative ideas into reality.

10 ways to enhance your site’s usability

23 April 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

Many websites have structure, layout and features which are largely unusable for less capable users, such as older people and people with disabilities. What surprises me the most is that, although older people are the fastest-growing segment of Internet users and supposedly have a lot of disposable income, the vast majority of companies struggle to gear up their websites for accommodating the needs and wants of heterogeneous users. There is a a twofold moral and financial incentive for creating simple and intuitive designs as industry studies show that well-designed products and services have the potential to improve customer satisfaction and this in turn allows companies which value good design to exhibit high growth.

So, to walk many website companies out of the dark with regard to web usability, I looked at the research of Jakob Nielsen, the leading web usability consultant, Usability.gov, as well as different usability writers, such as Bill Scott and Theresa Neil (”Designing Web Interfaces“), Jared Spool and colleagues (”Web Site Usability: A Designers’s Guide“) and Steve Krug (”Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability“), and collated a list of 10 most important ways of improving your website’s ease of use. These include:

  1. Place a link to the home page on every page in case a user gets lost.
  2. Provide a clear and complete ‘about us’ page and ‘contact’ page.
  3. Make your most important links visible and easy to read.
  4. Eliminate captcha systems or mandatory logins.
  5. Create multiple access points to important content like subscription options.
  6. Place your advertisements in places where they don’t interfere with the main content.
  7. Avoid cluttering your sidebar with unnecessary links or widgets.
  8. Provide targeted content and links in the post footers.
  9. Use a large, comfortable font and provide space between each paragraph.
  10. And last but not least… Once your site is designed, it is also advisable to ask one or more users (preferably with decreased capability) who have never seen your site before to browse it for 3 minutes as you stand over their shoulder and watch without interrupting their utterances. At the end of the 3 minutes ask your user(s) for feedback and diligently note all the comments. This little usability test will not only make you feel good about being more considerate about the needs of the more disadvantaged sections of the population, but it will also give you valuable feedback on the site’s selling potential from a prospective user and focus your attention on achieving your financial goals.

You need to remember that once a user gets to your site you are only a few clicks away from actually selling something or being left forever, so strategically it really makes sense to be more perceptive to users’ usability issues.

Cambridge’s own Dragon’s Den

22 April 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

Recently, I was one of the ‘dragons’ in a conceptual design competition organised by the Engineering Department at the University of Cambridge.  Among other judges were members of companies such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Siemens, James Dyson Foundation, PA Consulting Group, Mott MacDonald, and TTP. We were asked to judge the best and most innovative designs for a new product that can be used in the kitchen, bathroom or living room that accommodates the needs of older adults and enables independent use.

I have to admit that I was very impressed with the high level of maturity in thinking and the quality of analysis of user capability ranges, as well as marketing and engineering issues that some of the students exhibited and it seems even more impressive when I look at the fact that they were first year students. I have worked with many designers and consulted big companies on improving user experience in their designs and now in retrospect I can see that a lot of the experienced designers that I came across in my work had more trouble with considering the human component in their early conceptual designs than the students had with a simple assignment task. Maybe it has got something to do with youth… It was Jack Schmitt, a former NASA astronaut and the last of the Apollo astronauts to arrive and set foot on the Moon, who admitted that the Apollo programme achieved so much in so little time because of a combination of things, one of which was “extraordinarily motivated twenty-two-year-olds… [who] were just out of engineering school and highly imaginative – basically, they didn’t know how to fail, they hadn’t been around long enough to know what failure was like, so they didn’t worry about it” (Smith, 2005, p. 280). Or maybe with the fact that many organisational, technical, legislative, financial and time related compromises have to be made during the product’s progression from conceptual design through logical design to a physical form, all of which result in designers creating less for humans and more for product for product’s sake. But then again to objectively compare the performance of students with the performance of experienced designers with regard to the inclusion of the human component in their designs, we would have to observe how both groups went about product design from the preliminary conceptual stages through the stages of creating a logical model of a given product to the physical embodiment stages. However, in recent years academia has been paying a lot more emphasis to improved product-user interaction and different scientific methods that facilitate that interaction than in previous years when the experienced designers were educated and so the students have the advantage of having more information on user experience. Also, industry research carried out by Frost (1999) shows that for some time designers have been ignoring structured methods that would help them to improve their design processes, for the reasons such as:

  • the lack of availability of large quantities of data, which is often difficult and expensive to collect and when data is unavailable or incorrect the whole process of applying design methods seems redundant
  • not enough time nor inclination to research and use scientific design methods
  • designers and scientific writers do not share a common pattern of thinking and language and, as a result, design practitioners rarely refer for help to design science resources
  • the experiential knowledge of designers is often faster and more certain than the deployment of insightful but esoteric and abstract design science methods in situations where only an incremental change to a product form is required.

Although many designers are reluctant to employ design support methods in their work, the problem may not necessarily lie in their unwillingness to recognise the benefit of such methods but rather in the lack of visual, easy and quick to understand, implement and use methods that lead toward improvement in design practice to increase the chances of producing an accessible and usable product. So, there is still hope that one day designers will be given support methods that will fit their ways of thinking and working and more importantly that they will be happy to use such methods in their daily work.

  1. Smith, A. (2005) “Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth”. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  2. Frost, R. B. (1999) “Why Does Industry Ignore Design Science?”. Journal of Engineering Design, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp. 301-304.

Exclusively from Cambridge: The importance of being last

29 March 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

Is winning in competitions or job interviews down to sheer ability of the contestants or does the order in which contestants perform also play a significant role? Lionel Page and Katie Page, the researchers from the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge and the Heythrop College at the University of London respectively, seem to have an answer to this somehow intriguing question.

The analysis of data from over 150 shows worldwide in the X-Factor and Idol series led the researchers to suggest that irrespective of ability contestants performing in the later positions are less likely to be eliminated in the following rounds. While, contestants that performed in the early and intermediary positions are more likely to be subject to elimination. It also appears that the first performer is less likely to be eliminated than either the second or third placed contestants.

According to Dr Lionel Page, one of this study’s authors, “in a job interview process a very good applicant who is the second or third interviewee seen, may be less likely to get the job because he/she is less likely to be remembered than the later candidates. This is both unfair for the candidate and inefficient for the organisation which may not select the best candidate for the post. It really does appear that the last shall be first”.

The results of this study show that two mechanisms, memory and direct comparison, both play a significant role in the evaluation of people’s performance. Memory-wise both primacy and recency effects are implicated when sequentially evaluating performance. With respect to the primacy effect, people who perform first are more likely to be positively evaluated than those who come in second and third positions. Whereas, a strong recency effect is implied in that people who perform in last positions have the largest advantage with respect to positive evaluations. Also, the authors of this study provide compelling evidence on the importance of a direct comparison effect with the previous contestant. More specifically, the evaluation of one participant’s performance is influenced by the evaluation of the previous participant’s performance. For example, a person performing after a weak contestant is more likely to be evaluated less favourably than a person performing after a strong contestant. There is also strong evidence that people put more effort and motivation into their performance after having witnessed the previous performance and this in turn results in the evolution in contestants’ actual performance rather than the change in the judges’ criteria.

While more research in this subject remains to be done, it raises important questions about the fairness of any competition’s evaluation process and the efficiency of the judges.

More detailed information about this interesting research can be found in the Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organisation.

Cambridge researchers give privacy scores to social networking sites

26 March 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

Researchers from the Computer Laboratory’s Security Group at the University of Cambridge have just published the results of their privacy survey of 45 popular social networking (SN) sites from all over the world. The expertise and research findings of this group, led by Ross Anderson, has previously made headlines in the ZDnet, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Mirror and the Register, and has been shown on Newsnight.

More than 200 criteria related to privacy policies and privacy controls were used by Cambridge researchers to evaluate 45 SN sites. Examples of criteria include:

  • the amount of data collected during sign up
  • the default privacy settings
  • whether information is routinely shared with third parties

SN sites have previously been criticised in the press for their privacy practices and so not surprisingly the academics found strong evidence that the SN market is not providing users with adequate privacy controls. However, the survey results also indicate a lot of variation in quality of SN sites. Bebo, LinkedIn and GaiaOnline were found to have the best privacy practices of all, while Badoo, CouchSurfing and MyLife were found to have the weakest. Arguably the most popular in the SN community, Facebook and MySpace, were found to have privacy controls of mediocre quality, but these two sites have also more features than other SN site and so it is harder to maintain their privacy. Furthermore, most sites were found to have very confusing and difficult to access privacy settings and among that cohort Facebook with its 61 privacy settings was the worst. Ironically, the survey found that sites that made privacy a selling point tended to have lower-quality privacy controls.

A major privacy problem with SN sites is they consistently hide accessible privacy information for users in order to reduce privacy salience for marketing purposes and instead advertise the benefits of disclosing personal data through connecting with friends, meeting new people and sharing pictures. However, the data also suggests that sites may have evolved specifically to communicate differently to users with different levels of privacy concern.

Overall, more popular SN sites have more resources to devote to the problem of privacy and they are more often scrutinised in the media over protection of user data than their less known counterparts and so their privacy controls are better maintained. Cambridge researchers believe that by revealing the privacy practices of all sites more pressure will be put on major sites to add further protections for users and less popular sites will also realise that good protection of their users’ data may lead to higher growth.

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