October 28th, 2005
[Huiping Iler, from the WTB Translation Group, was kind enough to send us this UI10 trip report. Huiping warns us, “Being a native of China living in Canada, English is not my native language. So I can never quite get the writing 100% error free.” Huiping: your english is a whole lot better than our Chinese (or my Canadian, for that matter), so don’t worry. I’m in awe of anyone who can say more than “Where is the train station?” or “Another beer, please” in a second language. Thanks Huiping, for sending this along.]
UI 10 Trip Report October 2005
By Huiping Iler, WTB Language Group
I am always curious what the smartest people in the industry are reading. While I look up to those smart ones, sometimes I wonder who they look up to? Who do they read and who do they listen to?
Some time in 2004 after reading a book called Content Critical, I concluded to myself that the guy who wrote the book Gerry McGovern is one of the smartest people in the web business today. So when an opportunity came up to hear him live in a two-day seminar in San Francisco, I jumped at the chance. During the break, I approached Gerry and asked who he read and admired in the web business today. He thought for a while and spit out two words, “Jared Spool.”
Those two words cost me a few thousand dollars and brought me to the UI 10 in Boston.
Jared turned out to be a delight to listen to – witty and insightful. In his keynote speech, Jared talked about the intuitive side of usability research. According to him, there are very gifted people who possess great instincts on what makes a web site work.
Jared used an example of a research project he was doing, looking at financial information resources, such as the Wall Street Journal. He had spent a great deal of time interviewing investors, day traders and business people to find out what content they were interested in. This was to help organizations like the Wall Street Journal identify “hot content” that holds strong interest for its readers. Jared had narrowed down a handful of key areas through his research. At a Web Graphics gathering, he entered a casual conversation on the site with a designer named Gong Szeto. In a matter of minutes, Szeto left Jared speechless by outlining the areas that the site needed improvement, covering almost everything that Jared learned from his months of interviews.
So how did Gong Szeto know? Through research? No. Great Intuition? Yes. Jared Spool compared such instincts of Gong Szeto to the chicken sexing trade. Apparently it is extremely difficult to tell the sex of chickens before they are six weeks old. But it is very important in the poultry industry to separate the sexes. Those who can do it largely rely on intuition. They cannot really explain why they can do it. In the case of Gong Szeto, he instinctively knew what a financial information site like Wall Street Journal needed, even though he couldn’t quite explain in words how he knew.
One thing I noticed about great speakers is that they are superb at using analogies to explain complex ideas. If Jared’s analogy of chicken sexing left me a lasting impression, Gerry McGovern’s use of analogies went even farther by making their way to my dreams.
After I came back after the UI 10 event, for a couple of nights I kept dreaming of coming down an escalator. As I came down, I would see a huge sign that says “Trains Tickets Toilets.” In my dreams, I kept asking myself, “what are the trains, tickets and toilets of my web site?”
In Gerry’s session, he compared a visitor to a web site to the experience of coming down an escalator at an airport. People’s attention span is very short and they need information fast. It is the web editor’s job to identify the key tasks of the site visitor and present navigational choices that facilitate task completion. Getting on trains, buying tickets and going to toilets are key tasks. Someone asked, “what about tracks?” While finding tracks may be “A” task, it is not important for most people (maybe for those suicidal). Design for common tasks, not for exceptions, says Gerry.
My final observation is that a key theme dominates the UI 10. That is the theme of knowing your customers. Whether it is usability research or information architecture, the speakers are telling us how important it is to get to know your customers. It is very simple, and it is the underlying principle of almost every session. Come to think about it, usability is really about finding out what the customers want, isn’t it?
The founder of marketingprofs.com Alan Weiss once said to me, there has been nothing new in business for the last several decades. The principles of marketing and business remain the same. A shop keeper from one hundred years ago could have told us how important it is to know your customers. But in year 2005, we are still listening to the brightest of business minds teaching us the same principle.Tweet