Friday, November 29, 2013

Testing in the Wild

There is much to be said for testing user experience design in the wild – it has a number of advantages if used properly, but using it properly is something of a delicate matter – but for the moment, I’d like to focus on the various kinds of tests that are run in a production environment, as there seems to be a great deal of confusion among them.  

Aside of being persnickety about calling things by the proper name (many people use “A:B Test” when what they really mean is a multivariate or champion-challenger test), it’s also important to make the distinction so that you can plan the right test to get the information you need and relate the results in a meaningful and accurate way, using each method to its best advantage.

Champion-Challenger Test

A champion-challenger test is the most commonly used variety.   It compares an as-is design to a proposed to-be design to confirm that the desired effect on user behavior is effected.   Consider these two examples:

The “challenger” version of the element has many differences to the “champion” version: the headline is different text, font, and color; the call-to-action button is a different color, a different phrase, a different size, and in a different position; the image is different; and the copy is different.     As such, if you should notice a difference in their performance, you have no idea which of these changes caused the difference to occur.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – since the ultimate goal is to increase click-through, you likely do not care which of these elements is to credit, so a champion-challenger test effects a one-time improvement but does not “teach” you anything that could be used to improve any future design.

A:B Test

The A:B test is the one most often claimed, but often mistakenly so.   It is misunderstood because the parameters of an A:B test are very stringent: only one thing, and one very specific thing, can be tested. Consider these two examples:

The only difference between them is the color of the button.  If you change anything else about the layout, or even another aspect of the button (the words, the size, or the position), you are no longer running an A:B test but a champion-challenger test, with the combined impact of all changes commingled and inseparable.

The greatest benefit of an A:B test is that it supports not merely a one-time decision (this layout is better than that one) but a general observation (green buttons perform better than blue ones) that is very likely to be applicable across all such layouts on your site, and possibly across multiple sites.

Multivariate Test

A multivariate test combines the best of both worlds: it enables you to make multiple changes to a layout, but test them in such a way that you can identify the degree of influence each change has on the outcome.  Consider these examples:

These four variations test two elements: the wording and color of the button.   By doing so, you can be informed not only that one does better than the rest, but also the influence of each factor.  That is to say that A:B testing might suggest a green button is better than a blue one and “get info” is better than “learn more,” leading you to conclude that a green “get info” button is the best of all – but when you actually test every possible combination, you may discover that the blue “learn more” button outperforms is.

This arises due to covariance, a statistical concept that is best explained as being the combined effect of many different factors, and it is ultimately what is significant to the user, who does not mentally dissect your layout into its component elements but experiences it as a whole, whose impact may be greater or lesser than the sum of its parts.

Multivariate testing yields the same general result as a champion-challenger test, identifying the combination of elements that has the greatest impact for a very specific instance.   And because the influence of each factor is examined, it also has the benefit of providing the general insight that would be yielded by multiple A:B tests of each factor.

Informed Decisions, Informed Interpretations

It is important to make the distinction between types of tests in order to decide which kind of test is appropriate to the information you wish to learn, as well as in knowing whether you can rely on test results to guide future decisions.

For example, if you run a champion-challenger test in which the champion has a blue button and the challenger (which wins) has a green button, you cannot accurately or reliably state that green buttons outperform blue because you do not really know which of several changes effected the difference in outcome.  Sadly, claims of this sort are very frequently made, and the result is proceeding boldly on bad information.

Of importance: consider (and report upon) each test for what it’s actually worth:

  • A champion-challenger test enables you to make an accurate one-time decision but yields no reusable observations
  • An A:B test enables you to make a precise observation that may be too limited or granular to make a practical decision
  • A multivariate test supports both one-time decisions and general observations, plus it tests for covariance among the factors

Thus considered, the multivariate test would seem to be the best of the three in terms of outcomes – but depending on the decision with which you are faced, one of the other two may be more relevant, and so long as you are aware of what the results actually mean, may be entirely acceptable to a given decision-making scenario.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Social Media and Personal Integrity

Social media troubles me less than it used to - it seems to me a matter of personal integrity being stressed in the too-visible world, where everything you say is visible to everyone you know (or at least everyone you have included or who subscribes to your feed) and that certain things are acceptable to share with some audiences but not with others.   It still concerns me, but less than before - and my present thoughts are that it shouldn't concern me at all.

I've never been one of those people who puts on different faces when he interacts with different crowds, and have generally subscribed to the notion that people can take me as I am, or bugger off.   I don't need "friends" who demand that I mitigate my personality in their presence, and I'm really not particularly fond of the kind of person that tailors themselves in order to trick people into perceiving them as something they're not - most people can tell that they are fakes, and no-one likes or trusts them very much.

I still subscribe to the notion that some things are acceptable in some groups but not others.  There are jokes you'd tell a friend that you wouldn't tell an elderly relative, and some things that you can share with close friends but not with more distant acquaintances that don't know you well enough to understand the context.   That's not disingenuousness, but discretion.

But having said that, I realized that I haven't really filtered myself that much.  Years ago I set up groups and lists of people so that I could better direct my posts.   There was a group of "friends and family" with whom I could share more intimate details, and a group called "humorless" from whom I'd withhold any amusing story or any joke that didn't begin with "knock-knock" because I knew they wouldn't get it.   Once I created those lists, I very seldom used them and have not kept them up to date.

I still have that moment's pause before tapping the "post" key when I consider whether what I have provided is of sufficient interest to and appropriate for everyone I know - family, close friends, coworkers, and the like.    And I do have the sense that this prevents me (for my own good) from being too forthcoming.   But again, discretion and disingenuousness are two different things and I can live with the former.

Neither do I feel the need to share every event or thought with everyone: most people just don't care to know me that well.   My sense is that a lot of the more intimate details of my life and some of the more amusing (but questionable) stories are still reserved for face-to-face encounters - and it also suits my sense of justice, as anyone who doesn't care to invest face-time with me doesn't deserve that level of intimacy in a friendship anyway.

I wonder if that's just me ... looking though the posts I see from other people, it really is a mixed bag.  Some people share a lot of information, others share very little.   And to be specific, it's sharing information about themselves, not content that they found in other places that reveals nothing personal except that they happened to find it amusing.

And it's probably not fair to lump everyone who is reticent about themselves into the category of impostors and fakes, but there are a few whom I feel fairly certain that they are trying to present a public image that doesn't match the one that people meet in real life - or at least, some people meet in real life, as people who are false in one channel are likely false in others as well.

I've probably a lot more thinking to do on the topic, but it's shifted a bit over the past few years, and will likely shift a bit futher.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ethics and the Mobile Consumer

I heard it said that mobile technology levels the playing field in sales situations by removing the customer's greatest foible: his own ignorance.   That struck a chord with me, because exploiting the ignorance of another person is the basis of many unethical practices, in many situations other than sales - but for now I'll stick to those situations that are related to commercial interactions between deceitful merchants and their victims.

It's likely important to pause for a moment to concede that not every merchant is deceitful.  However, it does figure into the tactics of many, and otherwise honest merchants stoop to deceit when their minds are more focused on satisfying the revenue metrics placed upon them by their management and investors.   There are those who are, at most times, motivated by a genuine interest to serve the needs of customers with the benefits of a good or service - but even the most scrupulous of merchants may pass along their own misinformation.

But to return to the topic: merchants have long been able to count upon the ignorance of the customer, and could make grandiose and patently false claims that the customer, lacking any way to verify or validate the information, tends to accept as valid, or at least play along for various psychological and sociological reasons.

"This product is effective at solving your problem" is a common lie that customers would not discover until long after the sale was final.   "This product comes highly recommended" is another that could scarce be disputed.   Even claims such as "you won't find a better price anywhere else" stand when there is no ability to refute it with facts.

Prior to the Internet, the customer was completely bereft of information.   It was not impossible to conduct independent research, but doing so often meant a trip to the library, poring over periodicals, sending letters to get information.  For the vast majority of purchases, it simply wasn't worth the time and effort required to gather information in advance of visiting a merchant, or to stall a needed purchase until the research could be done.

Even with the Internet, gaining the information required some effort: the customer would have to conduct this research at their home or office, either in advance or in arrears.   But there was still the effort required to gather the information, analyze it, and memorize it - unless you wanted to carry a stack of notes and print-outs and knew exactly what you needed in advance.   Even then, it's a very simple matter for a liar to invent a different lie, and cause the customer to have to do additional hours of research to confirm.

But with mobile, the information resources are portable: the customer can bring their device with them to the sales floor and reference whatever information is needed in that location.  There's still some degree of effort necessary to retrieve the information, as it is dispersed in various sources, buried in passages of text that are too lengthy to consume on the small screen, and search engines still aren't very good in spite of decades of effort to improve them.

And so, when a merchant claims that a product is effective, the mobile-empowered customer can find evidence to support or refute the claim.   When the merchant claims the product is recommended, the customer can verify whether this is true.  When the merchant claims to offer the best price anywhere, the customer can pretty easily check up on that assertion.

The ability to reference and validate empowers the customer to overcome his ignorance and the deceit of merchants at any time, and in any medium - whether he is negotiating with a live salesman, considering an advertising message, or even reading the claims printed on a package as he is considering an in-store purchase.

Moreover, I expect that this will become even easier over time: what's needed is software that enables the customer to scan a bar-code or type in the name of a product or vendor to retrieve reliable information relevant to the product's functions, qualities, values, price, and other qualities that are germane to making a purchase decision in a format that is easy to use and easy to consume on the mobile platform.

To my knowledge, that does not yet exist, though several different firms have attempted to provide a solution, none of them are entirely satisfactory for various reasons - but again, I expect with time and effort, this will improve.    But even now, there are enough sources of information that only a few minutes (well, maybe ten or fifteen) are required to gather sufficient information to be adequately confident in whether a claim or belief about a product is true or false.

And in the end, this is likely a good thing: many merchants live in fear of  the informed customer - or more aptly, they lived in fear of the customer who could easily disprove the lies that they routinely tell to get revenue to which they are not entitled.   Those who were honest in their claims and fair in their dealings never had any reason to worry, and still do not - and ultimately, if the honest merchants prevail and the deceitful ones perish, that's likely a good thing for everyone.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Consumer Emotionalism

The approach to marketing that ignores human emotion in favor of more rational appeals, while largely satisfactory, seems incomplete in that it lacks an equally intensive consideration of the emotions of customers.   Chiefly, the problem is that the analytical types are not well in touch with the emotional elements of psychology, and prefer to ignore what cannot be easily quantified.  Equally to blame are the proponents of emotionalism themselves, who seem not to fully grasp the very thing they are proposing - treating emotion as mystical and unpredictable does their cause more harm than good and discredits that which they desperately want to grant credibility.

This is not to say that the choice is purely between one or the other: it cannot be denied that consumers act on reason, seeking products that can be logically correlated to the objectives they wish to achieve (to gain advantages or rid themselves of problems), and neither can it be denied that emotions have a role to play, particularly where the rational mind fails and actions are motivated by seemingly irrational beliefs and attitudes.

The first-time buyers of a brand do not act on fact: they have a vague understanding about a product and imagine the benefits of its use.  That is to say that they act upon a vague sense of attraction and a feeling of hope - which are entirely emotional matters.    The rational evaluation of the product, matching its features to the benefits they seek, may be an entirely logical process - but if they do not "feel" confident in the facts, they will not proceed.   Consider that there are any number of products that meet the minimum functional benefits that the consumer seeks - and the reason he does not purchase the cheapest are the simplest cannot be explained by fact alone.

The second-time buyer of a brand can be said to be motivated primarily by experience, in that he will return to a product that worked well for him the previous time he purchased it.   This has the appearance of fact, but once again relies on emotion - not only must the product have provided a solution to his needs, but he must "feel" that it did so to his satisfaction.   It is not a matter of cold calculation, as the benefits a person might seek to achieve in purchasing a product are not always quantifiable - while a consumer may be asked to rate satisfaction on a scale of one to ten, what leads them to state that a product is a five or a six?   There may be facts, but they are merely used to justify a fundamentally emotional reaction to their experience.

Ultimately, dismissing the emotional factor from the equations does not purify them, but instead eliminates the most essential factors for the sake of less important criteria on the basis of their quantitative nature, not their relevance or significance to the buyer's decision-making process.  In effect, reduction to the quantifiable factors makes such models inaccurate and unrealistic.

As such, emotions are real, and they have a significant impact on the choices consumers make in the marketplace, and in many cases likely outweigh the rational elements of the problem-solving process: hope, anticipation, excitement, confidence, certainty, disappointment, and the like are all emotional terms.   Trust is not the outcome of an equation, but a feeling.

Moreover, the positioning of emotion as a phenomenon outside of rationality is likely to mischaracterize it.   Emotions are not mystical forces, invisible demons that beset us from outside of the mind, but are elements of the mind itself - and I expect that the relationship between emotion and reason is far less combative and far more collaborative than many, including the proponents of emotionalism, seem to assume.

But that is another matter, best left for another day.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Optimization: Don't Steer with a Microscope

I recently read Goward's book on conversion optimization, which is very insightful when the author's speaking within his area of expertise, and completely awful when he strays outside of his domain.  As with many things, optimization is a process  that can produce remarkable results when used properly and dreadful catastrophes when it is misused.

In essence, conversion optimization means looking at the elements of online experience that push customers to the register - or in some instances, it's correcting problems in the online experience that cause customers to walk out without making a purchase.   Whether a button is orange or green, whether it reads "buy" or "purchase," and other such little touches can make a significant difference, and often in counterintuitive ways.

And I'm a huge fan of conversion optimization, having achieved some wonderful results - double-digit improvements and eight-figure revenue gains are no exaggeration.   It's also my sense that designers can get their heads in the clouds quite easily unless there's some method of objectively testing their choices so that they can see the consequences and learn to become focused and precise in their work.

But optimization isn't everything.   In particular, it is a myopic approach to the online experience that looks at the sales you are getting right away and can lead to making mistakes that seriously damage your long-term customer relationships.  It's a very tempting drug for the firm or the executive who wants immediate results with no thought of the consequences.   And as such it must be approached with caution.

For example, it doesn't take a great deal of sophisticated statistics to tell you that if lying to customers to convey false expectations about the benefits or performance of a product will get more people to purchase it,   It also shouldn't take volumes of complex syllogisms to realize that practice is highly unethical - but optimization unbridled by ethics does not care about the long-term consequences, just whatever gets people to the register in the highest ratio right now.

It should also be clear, contrary to the author's claims, that optimization is not a strategic activity.   Tweaking on a web site is not a substitute for considering what must be done on an organizational level in order for the firm to accomplish the objectives outlined in its mission statement - though obsessing over little details is a very common way for poor leaders to give the appearance of making progress while neglecting to make strategic decisions that will have a more significant impact on organizational performance.

Conversion optimization is about refinement and tuning - which means it involves itself with ironing out the small details and oversights that may cause a larger plan to perform less efficiently and effectively than it should.   It does not replace the need to have a plan, and does not substitute for strategic thinking.  It is not the end-all-be-all of customer experience.

That's not to say it's useless or counterproductive to optimize for conversation, as doing optimization work can have dramatic effects on a site that is performing more poorly than anticipated.   But it's a microscope and not a telescope, and should not be mistaken or represented as such.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Difference Between Acting and Doing

I recently listened to a presentation about listening skills, and found what I heard to be a disturbing.   In general, it’s my sense that listening to your prospects is the best way to learn about their interests, so that you can speak to them in a manner that is relevant – which is a much quicker route to a sale (or learning that you would be wasting your time trying to get there) than bludgeoning prospects with random claims and hoping they will discover the way in which your offering is relevant.   But what I heard seemed utterly misguided.

Specifically, the presentation was an assemblage of random tips that will enable you to deceive someone else into believing that you are actually listening to them.   I’d be upset if I thought that was the speaker’s intention, and it is true that each of the things she spoke of is in fact a cue that suggests to another person that you are actually listening to them – but you can do each of these things without paying any amount of attention to what they happen to be saying.   Consider this:

  • Allow the speaker to finish their point before offering your own
  • Maintain intermittent eye contact with the speaker, being careful not to glare at them or allow your gaze to wander
  • Do not check your phone or glance at your watch while they are speaking.
  • Make facial reactions that indicate you are reacting to what they say
All of these things do exactly as intended – they are nonverbal cues that signal other people that you are listening to them – but giving off the proper cues is not at all the same as actually listening.

It’s been my own experience in conversing with people, especially with salesmen, that they often give off these cues without actually listening: the next thing they say does not follow in the conversation, or they ask a question that did not need to be asked based upon what I had just finished saying, or riff off of a few words I have said in a way that shows no context to the thread of the conversation.

Perhaps I’m a boring person – or at least that’s what’s suggested by fake-listening behavior – and I find it all the more offensive for a person to pretend to be listening when they actually are not, as it adds deception to the insult, which is likely much worse.

It’s likely understandable in salesmen, because their motive is ultimately to turn the conversation around to communicating to their prospect about the product they wish to sell.  But the few good manuals on sales that I have found tend to agree this is the wrong approach: it is not how much you say to a prospect, but how relevant your message is to their own interests – and without listening, it’s impossible to know what those interests are and speak appropriately.

Neither do I think that fake-listening is a small step on a road to recovery, such that a person who is not at all interested in listening to others can “fake it” until they learn to be interested.   More likely, it’s something they can do so that they can carry on not listening while giving the appearance that they are, which likely works with unobservant and gullible prospects.

And again, I don’t expect that it was this speaker’s intent to teach people to be false and disingenuous – but neither did she have anything of particular value to say that could lead a person who is already false and disingenuous to learn it is at all possible to be otherwise.

In the end, I think this has been more of a reaction to an unfortunate presentation and the connection to customer experience hasn’t been particularly overt, but it should be clear that companies can be just as guilty of fake-listening as their salesman (and in many instances, they are one and the same).

There are likely other ways that companies can fake-listen, particularly in the online channel – where a firm can offer a suggestion box where customer complaints can be conveniently ignored, or barge into private conversations in social media to hawk their wares, or to otherwise seek to be one-sided, ignoring what is said except as a foil by which they can find an excuse to blather on about their own interests.

But that’s likely too long and diverse a topic to explore in a meditation that has already blathered on overmuch.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What Makes Customers Happy?

In my last post, I considered that the majority of user experience design stems from addressing known deficiencies in service experiences, reducing pain rather than increasing pleasure, and fumbled a bit when it came to the precipitating question of "what makes customers happy?"   It's been much on my mind since, and I've scratched that mental itch by doing some informal research.


I spent some time surfing customer reviews of various products (goods and services) on a number of different sites where reviews were posted, sorted by "top rating" to view only the remarks of the most delighted customers, and analyzed a total of 500 reviews.

For each positive review, I asked the question "Why is this person happy?" and attempted to distill it into a simple statement, such as "I am happy because the product delivered the expected results."   If the reviewer mentioned multiple reasons, I went with the factor on which they spent the most time or used the most emphatic language.

All of this is very unscientific, so I'm not reporting numbers (what percent or how many) - I wanted to get a general feel for customer happiness, and more comprehensive of focused research (or even a different random sample) might come up with different items in a different order ... so this would be more in the nature of a preliminary study (food for thought, and deeper investigation before taking action) than a comprehensive and scientific research effort.

Top Four Results

These four results happened far more frequently among my random sample than the others.

I am happy because of an inessential feature or quality.  

The most common source of customer happiness stemmed from some feature or quality of the service outside of the set required to deliver the core benefit of the product.   For example, one person posted a five-star review of an automobile and his review raved about the sound system (a nice feature, but one that has nothing to do with the core benefit of having a car).

I suspect this came out on top for two reasons: first, it was a random sample and the numbers were very close, so it could be the result of my methodology.   Second, me general sense is that people who write reviews seek to speak of something original.  "The car runs and is mechanically sound" is taken for granted and not commented upon, even though meeting those expectations is likely more influential.

I am happy because the product or service solved my need.  

Another common cause of happiness, neck-and-neck with the inessential features and qualities, is that the product satisfied the need for which it is purchased.   My sense is this is the litmus test for customer satisfaction but, again, is something that people take for granted.

It's also worth mentioning that "the product worked as expected" is also reflected in many of the comments that offered multiple reasons.  That is, a comment would mention in passing that the product works like a charm, but the reviewer spent most of their time talking about other things and gave core functionality only passing mention.  Again, it's very important for a product to do what it's supposed to do, but reviewers don't seem to think that requires much exposition because it's taken for granted.

I am happy because of the price.  

The price of the good or service also figured into a large number of reviews, though it evidenced itself in two different ways:   the product was considered to be a deal or a bargain because its price was less than expected, or the product was considered to be a value because it cost more than expected but the customer feels the benefits it delivered merited the extra expense.

While I wish to avoid numerical analysis because of the randomness of this pseudo-study, it is worth remarking that while the first two factors were neck-and-neck, there was a somewhat larger gap between the second factor an this one.

I am happy because the product was easier than expected to get or use.  

It might be improper to lump "easy to get" and "easy to use" into the same category, but this reflects the nature of the remarks I read.   Ease was definitely the focus of the reviewer's comments, but they then mentioned both the experience of acquisition and experience of use in support of their claim, making it difficult to untangle the two.

Other Significant Results

I also consider these results significant - there was an appreciable gap between the top-four factors and these, and another appreciable gap between these factors and the data points listed below.
  • Comparative Satisfaction. Reviewers did not speak of the product in itself, but merely ticked off comparison points in which the product in question was better than others they had experienced.
  • Unexpected Surprise. Reviewers were delighted by something unexpected that they received or experienced, and the comments conveyed a sense of pleasure at the service than the surprise itself - i.e., the thing is not important, but the fact the service provide thought to offer it was delightful.
  • It was quick and/or easy. A number of reviews commented primarily on an element of the service experience (shopping, purchasing, using, after-sales support, etc.) being simple to do or requiring little investment of time on their part.
  • Proactive Service.  Several reviewers fixated on the quality of service alone, and particularly the way that staff did things without being asked or anticipated the reviewer's needs.
  • Friendly and/or Accommodating Service.  Friendliness was the focus of a number of reviews, particularly of products that were more in the nature of a service than a good.  That is, the reviewer said little to nothing about the service, but a great deal about the pleasantness of their social interaction with staff.
  • Unobsequious Service.  A number of reviewers were delighted because they didn't notice the person providing the service, or that the service person did not intrude upon their enjoyment of the experience.

Notable Data Points

There was another significant gap between the "other significant results" and the following set.   This list includes everything that received three or more comments, so I won't go into detail.
  • Service providers responded to my unique/individual needs.
  • Other people (friends and colleagues) thought well of me for choosing a given product/service
  • The service provider was prompt in answering questions and responding to issues
  • The service provider did what I asked and nothing more (no unwanted extras or suggestive selling attempts)
  • Service providers treated me with respect or deference
  • Service providers demonstrated good manners (etiquette)
  • Service providers were knowledgeable
  • I feel like a better person (sophisticated and intelligent) just for owning/using the product
  • The service environment was clean, comfortable, and visually appealing
  • I felt physically attracted to the person who served me
  • The firm followed up after the sale to ensure satisfaction
  • The service provider maintained a cheerful attitude under adverse circumstances

Suggestions for Further Research

These results derive from a casual study that used a random sampling of reviews found on various Web sites and a superficial interpretation (a more or less "gut feel" assessment over which factor each reviewer place the greatest emphasis upon).    My sense is that this is sufficient to get a general idea of the things that make customers happy, but insufficient as a basis for action for any specific product or market segment.

As such, it would be worthwhile (even necessary) to conduct similar research that is limited to a specific product or market segment and, at the same time, broader in its scope and more meticulous in its analysis.

Even at that, the results are likely to be imperfect, in that the study necessary limits itself to the kind of customer who posts online reviews (who may not be representative of the full customer base, many of whom do not post reviews) and can analyze only what is said (there may be other factors that people consider to be important but do not mention when writing reviews).

Friday, November 1, 2013

Not Unhappy is Not Happy

I wouldn’t say that I didn’t find a lack of displeasure in reading the novels of Henry James.   James packed his sentences so full of disqualifiers that, like the previous sentence, you had to read it twice and count the “not”s to figure out what he was really trying to say, and even then not quite understanding him.

I also wouldn’t say I find much pleasure in the way the same convoluted logic is applied to user experience – particularly in the way we interpret the fact that a user is unable to find a specific reason to be displeased with an experience to mean that they were, in fact, pleased.   This approach to evaluating experience is useful in enabling designers to address the problems that cause a user to be unhappy, but is not sufficient for us to implement factors that would cause them to be happy.

Perhaps I am still talking in circles … so let me separate the two:

Making Users Not Unhappy

The theory of design teaches us to recognize choices that are virtually guaranteed to make users unhappy: a lack of context, incomplete or confusing instructions, animations that distract from a task, sound of any kind, and the like.   The result is a list of “don’t”s that a designer would do well to heed to avoid making users unhappy.

The practice of design, particularly in usability testing, helps us to identify even more things that make a user unhappy.   When they pause in a task, balk, ask the proctor what they should do, and break down in tears, it is because they have come across something that makes them unhappy, and the designer comes out of the lab with a list of corrections to make that will reduce the friction that the user encounters in the course of completing a task.

But even when the designer has eliminated everything in a design that makes the user unhappy, and the pages are put into production, users still bail out at the first page.   Further investigation doesn’t turn up anything specific that is causing an obstacle that we can correct.   Everything that makes the user unhappy has been removed or replaced, and they’re still not happy.

Making Users Happy

In the same way that a lack of pain does not result in the sensation of pleasure, the lack of unhappiness does not result in the sensation of happiness.   At best, removing unhappiness results in indifference and boredom, a lack of interest that results in the abandonment of a goal.

In most online transactions, it is assumed that the user’s happiness derives from achieving the final result … by slogging through a series of steps, they place an order for an item that will arrive at their home, and when it is used, the item itself gives them happiness that compensates them for the tedium of having gone through the necessary steps to obtain it.

In a culture that values instant gratification, the demand for which is constantly growing more intense, the happiness that will eventually be experienced upon achieving an outcome as a result of having undertaken a tedious process is losing its value to motivate.   People don’t simply want a product that delivers pleasure, but a pleasant shopping experience … and pleasant in a way that is more than merely “not unpleasant.”

Happiness in the Task

So how can designers take perfectly mundane tasks and instill in them elements that make users happy during the experience?   That is a quandary – and while I haven’t quite worked it out, I suspect that there is great insight to be found in an unlikely place: game design.

Consider the experience that users have while playing with a video game: the actions of a game, when considered from a distance, are actually quite boring: there are a relatively small number of basic commands, a limited number of obstacles or “enemies,” and levels that are merely rearrangements of the same basic elements.   It all seems perfectly boring and pointless - and nothing is really achieved by winning.   You don’t get a prize or anything to carry back into the physical world.

At the same time, video game enthusiasts are kept enthralled for hours on end going through the same basic motions in different order – more to the point, they enjoy the experience of playing a game while playing, not merely by winning.  In fact, completing a game is a melancholy event, characterized by a sense of regret that the “fun” has ended.

It’s long been suggested that if designers could make a product acquisition flow as much fun as playing a video game, it would delight users to no end.   The term "gamification" is currently being bandied about, but this is merely a new label on an old idea.   It is assumed that customers would buy more often if there were a game-like retail experience – which is likely untrue for most people, and likely unhealthy in the few it affects (shopaholics and hoarders who purchase goods they do not need because they get a thrill from the buying process).  

It is likewise assumed that customers who have had a game-like experience will advocate it to others - but the success of this largely hinges on the need for the product.   There have been numerous times I've been sent a link to a "cool web site" for a product I did not need at all - I visited out of curiosity, but can't recall a single instance in which I made a purchase.

It will likely take some thinking on a nuts-and-bolts level to discover specific ways in which this can be applied - my point, for the present was that it's worthwhile to consider the practice of design, and whether removing the elements that cause users displeasure is sufficient – and begin building a case to spend the time and the budget to augment designs to include features that are proactive in creating happiness.