Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

Six Circles – An experience design framework

Monday, January 30th, 2012


This ebook has taken far too long to write but at last it is finally finished. The beauty of self-publishing is also the major problem with it – nobody pushes you, you aren’t paid and for all you know nobody will read it once it’s published. I wanted to see how the many different aspects of the book may develop conversations within the user experience community.

Elements of the book have already aged, but the principles continue, even though the examples may not! However, I hope you enjoy the read and I am really interested to know your thoughts, either here or on twitter. Currently it is only an ePub available for mobile devices but if the demand is there, other versions will be made available.

Download Six Circles for Epub readers
(See the comments section below for browser-based ePub readers)

Download Six Circles as a PDF

Some accompanying thoughts

In the last year I have seen how the different elements of the Six Circles transcend user experience, into the fields of brand strategy, service design and customer experience. It is my view that in ten years time we will be talking about what we do today in very different terms due to the contexts that we have to design for, using technology that is only beginning to become pervasive in our physical environment. I predict that UX and Service Design will cease to be differentiated, as they will be so entwined it would be too difficult, and potentially inefficient to separate into different disciplines.

I have seen enough of touch and tablet usage, mobile devices, ‘Everyware’ (and even Microsoft’s shift of it’s Windows 8 platform towards the touch paradigm) to feel that we are in for an exciting decade ahead.

Call it the legacy of Steve Jobs, but what he has left us with is a global population who are more instantly engaged with technology than we could have imagined ten years ago. To allow the very young and very old to interact with content through the same device is a stunning achievement, and for the interface and interaction designers to be able to support a richer experience is truly exciting.

Unfortunately companies are still catching up, fearful of failure and what they perceive as risk. Watching their competitors to see who makes the first move but the time for businesses to be brave and bold is now. There is not much time remaining for some businesses to make use of the power of meaningful, rich experiences delivered by brands that satisfy the culture and contextual uses of the users. Those companies that achieve this will simply dominate at a rate that is faster due to the networked society.

But all the talk of technology misses the point. It is the human needs, desires and emotions and their interactions with each other that create our insights that in turn drive innovation and success for companies. These experiences make the difference. It is the quality of experience that is the differentiator for any company in a crowded market.

Solving people problems will inevitably solve business problems. The challenge is to get businesses to believe in it, and trust those to deliver on the promise of user centred design. But with a process that is understood and a philosophy that appeals to many, there is alot we can do to ensure the business world adopts a path to greater product development, that builds on the needs and wants of people at its core.


Thursday, October 14th, 2010

The final component of defining the (user) experience design framework is Usability. To some it is a de facto standard of good design, but so much of what is produced fails in this area, and not just in digital design. It feels consistently that products, buildings, vehicles and urban planning lack a sufficient consideration of the human being.

Usability has become the easy bat to wield in the boardroom – primarily to help gain sponsorship. It is the element of UX that is easy to understand and very transparent to see. So much so, that usability and research consultancies have become widespread and are thriving – serving up endless recommendations and expert reviews to companies that feel they need to improve their user’s experience.

The challenge to those who actually design is to accept that this part of the job is a necessity, something that is unavoidable, that must be learnt and always considered. To not have a sound appreciation of usability leaves a proposed solution open to attack from any source. Many times design aspirations are shot down because of the ‘it’s not best practice’ statement. This is why usability has a bad name in design circles, and to some extent rubs off onto other areas of UX.

But usability is the starting point, and when placed alongside context, it becomes a design constraint that is a good thing. Played right, and quality design can be achieved that serves many people easily and can still be beautiful, show elegance and simplicity. The designer embracing usability will reward the person every time they use the product. That is the goal of any designer, to produce a meaningful experience by allowing a person to use a tool, service or product with the minimum of friction.

People’s interaction with computers must rely on increased usability because it is an abstract experience. The designer must assume that the user can only go from personal experience to navigate, interact with and control a device without any other human’s help. As UX designers this makes usability core to our design practice.

The following principles explore areas of usability that have direct impact on the quality of a person’s experience.

Way finding

London Tube image with no Thames 

The proposed map of the London tube network

London Tube map with Thames 

The reinstated Thames features on the map
  Finding your way through a website to their sign up page or making your way through a city to get to your hotel – the principles of way finding are the same. Four phases are present; orientation, route decision, route monitoring and destination recognition.

Transport for London felt the Mayor of London’s very public frustration when he demanded that a redesigned tube map – without the Thames displayed, should be scrapped and the old one reinstated.

To remove a physical attribute on this wholly abstract, geographically inaccurate map, was enough to cause public outrage.

It illustrates how we need a reference point – even in an abstract representation to give clarity and meaning. But the story also represents that the object, be it map or sign, takes on an emotional significance to the person who uses it.

There is an attachment to it because the object helps in attaining our goals, and these goals carry a personal value. A map or sign that is established can not be changed dramatically without disturbance to the user. The same applies to established navigation elements in websites or applications.


Flexibility Usability Trade-off

The more flexible a system becomes the less usable it tends to be. This trade-off can be seen in mobile phones and cameras that are feature rich. The difficulty of use tends to increase with the added ‘flexibility’ of the product. Over time the flexible nature becomes more specialised as the user needs become more defined in customer segments. Their experience of the product is optimised and so niche products or services become more prevalent. When research defines those needs, a product is produced that may seem a mistake to those customers outside the target market.

Sony's Google remote control image   Sony’s recent publicised work with Google has resulted in this creation. It is a fine example of how when flexibility is pushed to the limit (in this case a QWERTY keyboard attached to a tv remote control) usability is so diminished that it potentially renders the object useless. Ergonomically it appears to be uncomfortable, and by looking at the thumbs in the photo not unlike typing into a pocket calculator.

Garbage in garbage out

image of a web form   This principle concerns problems of type and of quality in the collation of information. In the online world this is typically seen in form design.

Clarifying the type of data can be defined by the constraints afforded by design elements (input fields, dropdown lists etc).

Quality of information can be determined by verification checks and distinct instructions relating to the areas under current focus in the form.

This form is a great example of poor layout which, regardless of the type of input fields, will have an effect on the efficiency of the form to collect useful data.

It is extremely important to balance the usability of a form with the requirements of data that the form must supply. Where larger amounts are required, break down the data entry into steps. Reveal the necessary data in stages to the user and use visual cues to communicate progress.

 Performance load

Complexity is an unavoidable element when involved in the process of designing a solution. As computers become increasingly pervasive in society the amount of data that will be managed and transmitted will give an increasing pressure on the user to filter, rationalise and act upon information communicated to them. This principle can be divided into cognitive and kinetic load.

Cognitive load refers to the amount of thought required to achieve a goal. With screen based systems this largely depends on reading and understanding written text. The form above has a high degree of cognitive load and is often why it is prudent to keep emails short, as people tend not to read due to the cognitive stress of digesting large amounts of information.

Kinetic load is the physical effort required to complete a task. With touch technology, even pushing keys has been replaced by a tap on glass. Dimmer switches are not even dials to turn anymore – kinetic load is something product designers are extremely aware of. Software systems should also replicate this attention to detail, ensure minimal scrolling, and the least number of clicks to get a job done.


Indicating a system’s status to a user, the possible interactions and the results of their inputs is described as visibility. Revealing information at the relevant moment, is key to a user responding and acting on information in the quickest time. Too much information or too many options will create confusion and delay. Context sensitivity of a system allows this to happen, influencing the interface to respond depending on the situation.

Old SAAB dashboard photo 
Photo courtesy of cgull
Ford Fusion dashboard photo  Photo courtesy of ogilvyprworldwide

  Dashboards were originally examples of efficient design. The basic mechanics of a car meant only a certain amount of information would ever be displayed. Cars made in the last century had a clarity that modern manufacturers find hard to emulate.

With the added complexity of hybrid motoring there appears to be a trend to emulate a smart phone interface on the dashboard. The consciousness of the design team towards the technological advancement of the car pervades into the dashboard’s design. Note the warning lights are separate entities above the electronic display here. Is it because the visibility of these essential items could be diluted by the electronic dash?
The electronic area is to help the motorist figure out their most ecologically efficient way of motoring. The far right of the screen grows an image of a vine for eco-friendly motoring and kills off the plant if excess fuel is being used. The Ford Fusion physically separates warnings from information here.

When conveying relationships between groups of information the layering approach allows a build of complex information groups around an object. Think of the weather map as a simple illustration of this. The object being the physical satellite view of the geographical location. The images describe the layers of air pressure, temperature and cloud cover placed over it. Not only does layering help manage complexity by breaking down complex data into stages, but by grouping information together it can also reinforce the relationship between the information types.

Two-dimensional layering can be sequential (linear), and can be used to manage complexity by introducing the content in stages with context changing easily. It can also be non-liner, for example hierarchical (site structure diagram),  parallel (swim lanes) or web-like. Three-dimensional layering uses transparent layers to introduce conceptual ideas around a particular context that does not change.


layers of a weather diagram 

Of all the principles in the experience design framework, arguably the most important one, has been left until last. Without this principle being acknowledged and adhered to, the world would be a much more frustrating, and potentially dangerous place to live in. Four elements define if a solution is accessible or not, and if barriers are present to users that inhibits their usage of a product. Addressing accessibility goes some way in producing naturally usable products.

Can the design be perceived irrespective of sensory capabilities? Common ways to address this is to make sensory alerts (visual and auditory) when an action is performed. From the doors of a train to the alert box of a computer system, sound and visual alerts are used. Physical objects can be made more perceptive to touch by using size and texture. Online elements can use the ALT tag and code structure of the page can ensure screen readers focus on content and not superfluous graphic items.



Operability and Simplicity
This Paris Metro ticket machine has a large spinning roller that controls the screen above and two very large buttons either side to cancel or accept cues on screen. The machine also talks to the user, is positioned so a sitting person can still operate it and is highly sensitive – so the roller can move with the minimum of physical effort. The design is marred by the credit card area being positioned up and away from the focus area, but generally it is operable to multiple user types. It also manages to achieve simplicity as the control inputs are simple, and the choices can be understood with the use of pictorial elements, text and audio. Even without knowledge of French, the machine can still be used to produce a ticket, revealing relevant steps to ensure the user continues through the sales flow and achieves their goal.

When designs minimise the occurrence and consequence of errors the design exhibits forgiveness. Reversible actions (undo), controls that can only be used in the correct way and the use of confirmations and consistent messaging all ensure that safety nets are available for the user (and the ability to not be punished for making errors). E-payment systems consistently ensure that their payment system is forgiving and gives ample opportunity to allow a user to decline or leave the process.

Six circles

Ending this six-part series on forgiveness seems apt. Perhaps as designers who cater for experiences in the UX or service design fields, the levels of understanding that we need to acquire will only increase as technology will allow us to do more, with more speed and with more societal ramifications. Forgiveness would be a good place to start in this increasingly turbulent time of technological flux.

There is a pressing need on us to do things better, make things smarter and more efficiently. The six themes within the framework started in a sequence that seemed to have no order but on reflection I have decided that persuasion sits on the periphery of experience. It affects our behaviour, often tacitly from experiences we have had in our past only held within our memory but still affecting how we interact with the world.

The third theme is visual design. The first tangible layer that we see, and come into contact with. As human beings it is how we are hard-wired to make decisions. It is a part of our genetic and biological make up and beneath that lies usability. This is the enabler for meaningful interaction, without usability the interactions that we have with the object will be without merit and will produce a negative effect – a bad experience.

Interaction is the doorway to the content. The ability to feel, touch and gain feedback to the ‘thing’ you wanted to get to in the first place. Content in this series has been described as the textual material we find within websites. But of course content can be anything to anybody. Music, art, film, an object or a product could sit at the core of the other five themes within the framework.

I am compiling the six themes with a foreword into an e-book available as a download on and an accompanying visualisation of the Experience Design Framework. If you are interested let me know on twitter: @userpathways

Usability is dead….the write up

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

A title as loaded as Usability is Dead needs some sort of explanation that a presentation can’t really convey.

SmallK KForum – a Danish site serving all those involved in communication, gave me an opportunity and asked for a write up. You can read it here (in English).

Hopefully the article goes some way in describing how as a UX community we need to start collaborating more and moving away from formulaic thinking.

Creativity is back in a big way, fuelled by context and relevance…

Usability is dead…

Friday, June 19th, 2009



On Wednesday (17 June), I attended the SIGCHI Interaction Design Day at Copenhagen’s ITU. It’s an impressive building and apt to host an event about technology and our interaction with it.


I also did a talk about Usability and user centred design and how user experience is always key in what we make.


You can see the presentation on SlideShare here and I will be writing an article about it published next week. I have placed the notes here


Engagement and optimisation: Defining behaviours

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009



Photo by Nicholas Nova


The second of a seven part post about optimising a site to create a more engaged audience. Here we look at user behaviour and how methods used help ensure you address user needs.

Previously: Success metrics


Engagement and optimisation: Success Metrics

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009
sale You hear alot about engagement, and not just in the UX community.

How do you engage your website users? What exactly constitutes the different parts of a website’s content that will attract people and make the website an enjoyable experience for them and a profitable one for your business?

In the first of seven parts, I’ll take a look at what goes into creating an engaged website audience and an optimised site.



Thursday, October 23rd, 2008


epic   A big surprise when attending the EPIC 2008 conference was the lack of talk around the next stages beyond ethnographic research. The academic stance was accompanied by representatives of large corporations, though it felt mainly a concentration on the methods and findings of ethnographic praxis. (more…)

Being that UX team of one

Thursday, May 8th, 2008


leah_buley   Leah Buley – How to be a UX team of one
If there was an award for the most enthusiastic and passionate speaker I think Leah Buley would take it.Her presentation, How to be a UX team of one was a real hit, at the recent IA Summit in Miami. Anything with cartoons immediately gets my vote.

It was engaging and inspirational with the hand drawn elements serving to convey the speaker’s personality and it was a refreshing change to the usual slides. (more…)

Raising hackles at the IA Summit 2008

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

jared   Jared Spool: Journey to the centre of Design
Jared Spool’s opening keynote was perhaps deliberately inflammatory. If you go into a room of IAs and say UCD is dead you probably run the risk of losing half the audience within the first two minutes.

However, provocations aside, Spool raised some important issues that we need to figure out if we are working in a commercial environment where IA and usability are often questioned as being expensive luxuries.