THE USABILITY CHALLENGES FACING VOICE-FIRST DEVICES


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Our homes and our lives are being infiltrated by voice assistants.  Apple has Siri, Amazon has Alexa, Microsoft has Cortana, Samsung has Bixby and Google has….Google. This technology has been advertised heavily in 2017, with most major tech companies pushing hard for their assistant to seize the majority share of this new and emerging market.

According to a recent report, it is estimated that 33 million voice-first devices (such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home) will have been purchased in the USA by the end of the year [1].

But what are people using these voice assistants for? A survey of 2000 users indicated that the most popular voice commands include playing music, setting or changing alarms, and checking the weather [2].

Interestingly, the uptake and usage of third-party applications and commands is shockingly low. Statistics suggest that when a third-party app for a personal assistant such as Alexa acquires a new user, there is only a 3% chance that they will continue to use the application after just one week [1].

Whilst these devices are advertised and sold as products that will support and improve many aspects of our day to day lives, their usage is actually far more limited to a sample of specific use-cases, such as playing music.

Whilst it is inevitable that these devices will improve with time, it is interesting to consider what is behind their underwhelming use so far.

A mismatch between expectations and actual capabilities

Research into the interactions between users and personal voice assistants suggests that their underwhelming use is due to a fundamental mismatch between what users expect the capabilities of voice assistants to be and what the features and functionality of a voice assistant actually are [3].

This gap between user expectations and reality is increased further by the fact that popular voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri have human sounding voices. This goes against the research, which suggests that it’s better for a personal voice assistant to have a robotic sounding voice, as this reduces how capable a user expects the systems to be [4]. An impressive sounding human-like voice might be great for tempting customers into purchasing these devices, but may be causing disappointment once users realise the technology isn’t as sophisticated as they had first hoped.

Flexibility vs Usability

An unusual problem emerges for voice assistants as they become more sophisticated. As their flexibility in the commands they understand and their grasp of language improves, their usability actually drops rapidly [3].

Voice assistant have become more sophisticated, but they are still a long way behind natural levels of human conversation.

This make it difficult for a user to accurately interpret what the system will be capable of understanding. Voice assistants may have advanced from a very strict and rigid set of voice commands to a more flexible and intelligent system, but this can actually make the interactions between the user and the system more strained. As flexibility improves, it becomes increasingly difficult for a user to know what they can and cannot say.

How do we improve the user experience?

Improving the usability of voice assistants is a fascinating future challenge and conducting user research with these devices is unusual as there is no graphical user interface.

As the underlying technology is a long way off being able to replicate the same level of communication as you would get from two humans having a conversation, work is required to help users understand the limitations of the technology.

An interesting argument posits that it is actually a flawed approach to attempt to create personal voice assistants that on the surface appear to be capable of engaging in natural, human-like conversation [3].

Instead, we need to look at existing circumstances and situations where humans adjust their communication strategies and simplify their way of speaking. For example, when speaking to someone with a limited understanding of your native language you naturally change your speed and your pronunciation to aid them in understanding you. Similarly, when talking to a young child you adopt a similar strategy and make sure you talk in a simplified way that they will be able to easily understand [3].

Perhaps we can therefore improve the interactions between users and personal voice assistants by adjusting the ways in which these technologies are framed. By making the limitations of the technology more apparent to the user, they will be more likely to understand what they can and cannot ask and may be less likely to experience frustration when the system can’t replicate full human-like levels of conversation.

User Testing with Personal Voice Assistants

At Userfy we have an Amazon Echo installed in our user testing lab and we’re expanding our skillset to include user testing with this type of technology. As companies naturally become more curious about how they can leverage voice activated skills and applications, it’s important that user research remains an integral part of this process. Understanding how users interact with personal voice assistants is a very new area and we’re excited to see what the next couple of years bring for voice-first devices.

Dr Sam Howard
Meet the author:
Co-Founder and Director of Research at Userfy
07976260408

 

Sources

[1] http://voicelabs.co/2017/01/15/the-2017-voice-report/

[2] https://www.highervisibility.com/resource/research/how-popular-is-voice-search/

[3] Moore, R. K. (2017). Is spoken language all-or-nothing? Implications for future speech-based human-machine interaction. In Dialogues with Social Robots (pp. 281-291). Springer Singapore.

[4] Balentine, B. (2007). It’s Better to Be a Good Machine Than a Bad Person: Speech Recognition and Other Exotic User Interfaces at the Twilight of the Jetsonian Age. Annapolis: ICMI Press.


USER RESEARCH VERSUS MARKET RESEARCH


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If you ask 5 User Researchers and 5 Market Researchers what the difference is between the two areas, you will probably get 10 different answers. We know, we’ve tried! Coming up with a definitive answer is tricky because both use similar research techniques and both are focused on generating insights from data to inform better decision making.

Whilst its easy to know there’s a difference, it’s surprisingly difficult to put it into words.

We’ve been deliberating and discussing this topic at Userfy. We quickly realised it is a fruitless exercise to attempt to view these two areas of research as mutually exclusive. They both overlap and they both borrow tools and techniques from each other. Below, we have outlined our own thoughts on how you can distinguish between the two…

Market v User

The first clue is in the name. Although not always the case, Market Research is often deployed to better understand markets and is used to inform strategy, as well as product or service development.  Market Research can help to:

  • Understand market drivers and dynamics.
  • Define and quantify customer segments.
  • Establish opinions and attitudes.
  • Identify market opportunities.
  • Test concepts and ideas.

User Research on the other hand, is focused on the user (or potential user) of a product or service. User Research helps us understand the behaviours, needs, thoughts, feelings and motivations of someone in relation to a particular product or service. User Research can be used to:

  • Understand the needs of users and the problems they need solving
  • Discover how users interact with and respond to a product or service.
  • Learn how well a product or service is meeting the needs of its users.
  • Establish how a product or service can be improved to better meet the needs of users.

Qualitative v Quantitative  

Both User Researchers and Market Researchers utilise qualitative and quantitative research techniques. However, User Research leans more heavily towards qualitative research, and Market Research leans more heavily towards quantitative.

For a User Researcher, most of their toolkit is qualitative and focused on gathering detailed feedback from a small sample of users. At Userfy for example, our User Testing or Usability Testing is a purely qualitative approach, using a sample of only 5 or 6 target participants per round of testing. We investigate how people are using and interact with a product, identify user experience issues they encounter and learn where improvements need to be made.

The confusion starts once you consider the fact that Market Researchers also utilise qualitative research techniques.  For example, focus groups are routinely used to identify the feelings, perceptions and thoughts of target customers towards a new product. However, whilst qualitative data is gathered in these types of sessions, the depth and focus of the data is different to that which is gathered in User Research. User Research seeks to understand and explain the behaviour of users, rather than assess their reactions.

Market Research is therefore typically more focused on quantitative research. This usually involves sampling enough people (sometimes hundreds or even thousands) to be confident that any findings represent those of the entire market. Whilst a User Researcher may occasionally deploy a quantitative survey, this approach is used widely in Market Research.  A Market Researcher may survey hundreds of respondents to establish the percentage that use a certain product or hold a certain opinion.

The role of Digital

Whilst Market Research has existed in some form since the early 1900s, User Research is a relatively new and poorly understood area of research that only truly emerged in the last decade.

Many credit the introduction of the original iPhone in 2007 as the moment when the technology sector started thinking about the user experience of digital products. Smartphones, tablets, applications and software are all complex systems that rely on a user to immediately understand how to interact with them and use them successfully.

The new and complicated nature of digital products created a need for a form of research focused on understanding how people use these systems. Understanding the complexity associated with the ways in which a user can interact with a digital solution is not something that naturally fits within the remit of Market Research. This is how User Research was formed, making it something that sits almost exclusively within the technology sector.

Neither is a replacement for the other

There are some important differences between User Research and Market Research and both are required for creating a reliable strategy and designing successful products and services. Whilst similar research techniques are used in both, the subtle differences in the way in which they are deployed shift the focus for what a User Researcher and a Market Researcher are looking to uncover.

Dr Sam Howard
Meet the author:
Dr. Sam Howard
Co-Founder and Director of Research at Userfy
07976260408

 


WATCHING USER TESTING VIDEOS – WOW!


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For the last couple of days I have been viewing the videos from a current User Testing project.  Having previously spent 14 years growing a digital agency, during which time I was deeply involved in the design and development of business critical websites and applications, I find watching User Testing videos a particularly amazing experience.

The Reality Gap

User Testing highlights the gap between what is intended and hoped for by the designers and how users really interact with, interpret, perceive and understand a solution.

Sometimes the findings from User Testing are numerous and fundamental to usability, sometimes they are few and subtle. Even when our clients make the recommended subtle refinements to their designs they improve the user experience, deepen user engagement and drive up business metrics.

From viewing User Testing videos, one thing is for sure… no matter how experienced, or skilled a designer is:

  • What they expect users to notice and read on their designs is very often not what users notice and read.
  • What they expect users to understand from their designs, is very often not what users understand.
  • How they expect users to interact with and respond to their solution, is very often not how users interact and respond.

And here’s the problem

When users are made to stop and think, when they start to question what something means, when they are not clear what to do next, when they are a little bit unsure, the chances of them abandoning and never coming back increase dramatically.  Additionally, the way they start to feel about the business or brand takes a knock.

Get Ahead

When it comes to a website or application with any degree of complexity, I don’t believe it’s possible for a designer to sit in their studio and design an optimised user experience without involving users or testing with users.  Smart designers and companies use User Testing to understand the gap between what is designed in the studio and how users really interact with something.  Smart designers and companies get ahead of the competition by testing their designs, wireframes, prototypes or live website with real users, to refine and optimise their solution.

The implications of a poor UX can cause a project to underperform or fail.  This can all be prevented.  Be smart.

Our User Testing

Here at Userfy, we specialise in face-to-face User Testing, because it generates the deepest, most valuable insights.  We invite users from the target demographic to our User Testing Suite and ask them, under controlled conditions, to undertake key journeys on a client solution. The video from each session combines screen capture that shows the on-screen actions undertaken by the participant, with an embedded video of the participants face, to show their body language and expressions, and clear audio, to capture their comments.  A user research expert designs and runs the testing sessions and where necessary skillfully probes to deeply understand exactly what the participant is feeling and thinking.  We then watch the videos back, constantly pausing and replaying to capture the important and insightful moments.  Next, the data gathered is analysed and the findings presented back to the client with clear recommendations for where and how to improve and optimise their user experience.  We test all stages of development from early designs or wireframes through to a prototype or a live website.  The insights we generate from each round of testing never cease to surprise and amaze us.

Phil Randall

Meet the author:

Phil Randall
Co-Founder and CEO at Userfy
07712669935

BITCOIN, COINBASE AND THE POWER OF A SIMPLE UX


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What started as a piece of open-source software in 2009 – built by mysterious unknown entity ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ – 8 years on, Bitcoin has grabbed plenty of headlines.  If you’d taken just a £10 punt on Bitcoin back in 2010 you’d now be sitting on over £700,000 profit.

But what exactly is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin – a Cryptocurrency

Put simply, Bitcoin is digital money, a ‘cryptocurrency’ that works using a technology called ‘blockchain’. One of the defining characteristics of cryptocurrency is that it is ‘de-centralised’ – meaning it isn’t tied to a specific location or a central authority like traditional money, instead it exists on the network and is everywhere at once.

One of the reasons this could be revolutionary is that it puts cryptocurrency outside of the control and corruption of governments and banks (In theory). In countries where hyperinflation has made local currency meaningless, there is vast potential for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to become a replacement for traditional methods of payment.

Bitcoin is just one of many ‘coins’

Bitcoin is certainly the market leader, but there are thousands of other cryptocurrency coins out there. The vast majority of these will amount to nothing, but Ethereum, Litecoin, Dash, Ripple and NEO are just some of the other coins that people are investing huge sums of money in. It’s already an enormous market which is still growing rapidly. Recent estimates indicate that the market capitalisation for cryptocurrencies stands at $170 billion. A growth of over 850% in the last year alone.

On the 1st January 2017, 1 Bitcoin would have cost you £800. Today, less than a year later, it would cost you over £5000. That’s staggering growth, but what’s behind it? Naturally, there are multiple factors at play, but one reason may be the improved methods available for purchasing it…

Coinbase – Making Bitcoin more accessible to everyone

For many people, a significant barrier of entry to the world of Bitcoin is working out how to actually buy it.

Coinbase – a company founded in 2012, is the world’s most popular website for purchasing and exchanging Bitcoin, Ethereum or Litecoin for traditional currencies.

It’s tremendous success may be down to the fact they have transformed the complicated and intimidating world of cryptocurrency into a simple 3-step process which feels very familiar to users: Sign up, add your debit/credit card, and purchase digital currency. In doing so, they’ve made Bitcoin accessible to the masses.

It’s no surprise then, that to date Coinbase has served over 11 million customers. In July of 2017 it added 1 million new users in just 30 days.

A perfect example of the power and value of a simple user experience

For cryptocurrencies to work, they ultimately require mass adoption. Mass adoption does not happen if it isn’t made accessible and appealing to everyday people.

Bitcoin and blockchain are incredibly complex systems and concepts which will never be understood or appreciated by the general public – unless they are translated and represented in an easily understandable and relatable way.

Coinbase is far from the perfect solution – transferring funds from one wallet to another is still a clumsy process where you could easily make a mistake and lose all of your money.

But it is a step in the right direction.

So much of the focus for cryptocurrencies lies in understanding how they can be regulated (if at all). But for the popularity of digital currencies to grow further, work is also needed to understand how it can be transformed from something that is only understood and used by the very tech-literate, into a simple and viable currency that can be used by all.

Dr Sam Howard
Meet the author:
Dr. Sam Howard
Co-Founder and Director of Research at Userfy
07976260408

THE BENEFITS OF USER TESTING – THE SIZZLE NOT THE SAUSAGE


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I have always been mindful of talking about the benefits of a product or service rather than the features.  This was drilled into me during my corporate career and I found it super-valuable when starting and building my last business.

Having now co-founded Userfy, I thought I’d blog about the benefits of our core service – User Testing (Sometimes called Usability Testing or UX Testing).  It’s important to understand that clients don’t pay agencies like ours to run user testing sessions (the sausage), they pay for the outputs, the deep insights from real users that inform the design of better, more successful products (the sizzle).

The Problem

To present compelling benefits to clients, there needs to be a problem to solve. For our clients, a poor UX can cause problems because:

  • Users increasingly expect to be able to do things quickly and easily
  • Confused or frustrated users are only a click away from abandoning and never coming back
  • Poor user experience reflects badly on brands
  • Poor user experience allows competitors to get ahead
  • Poor user experience loses businesses money

The Solution

Conducting User Testing on early design ideas, wireframes, prototypes or a live solution can help solve these problems by telling you:

  • How well user needs are being met
  • What’s working well, what isn’t and why
  • How quickly users understand a design and why
  • Whether key messages are being communicated and why
  • If users are being confused or frustrated by anything and why
  • How engaged users feel, how much they enjoy the experience and why
  • Whether the solution builds or undermines trust and why
  • How effectively users can complete key journeys

The Benefits

By enabling project teams to design out confusion & frustration, User Testing informs the development of products that offer a more efficient, enjoyable & user-friendly experience. This can create a competitive advantage, improve key metrics (like sales & loyalty), and lead to a higher return on investment for an organisation.

Furthermore, a benefit that we might often overlook is that User Testing can result in a happier workplace. After all, a project team will always feel better after a successful solution has been developed and success breeds success.

Independence

Finally, there is great value in having an agency that is independent from the design, such as Userfy, conduct User Testing. Testing conducted by the project team on their own product or solution is open to subtle biases, as they may subconsciously look to confirm their own ideas and preconceptions, missing out on the most important insights that challenge current assumptions and spur on positive and progressive changes to markedly improve the user experience.

Phil Randall

Meet the author:

Phil Randall
Co-Founder and CEO at Userfy
07712669935

FAIL FAST, FAIL OFTEN? OR JUST DON’T FAIL.


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Is the agile concept of “fail fast, fail often” being used to make launching bad products acceptable in the tech sector?  It’s a shame if the term becomes an excuse for poor thinking, limited analysis and shoddy product design.  Some digital and tech solutions are launching that are not fit for purpose, do not solve problems for target users, and deliver a bad user experience. When these products fail, it’s sometimes justified as being down to a “fail fast” approach.

Badge Of Honour?

It’s almost as if failing fast has become a badge of honour in the tech sector. But is it good for business or the individuals involved? Early stage User Research, particularly User Testing can help to massively improve the user fit of websites, apps and software before they are let loose on real customers.

Personally, I’d prefer to launch something that is as successful as possible, even when we are talking about a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).  I’d prefer to learn as much as possible about improving and refining my product pre-release, when only a very small number of users are involved in testing. This reduces the risks of learning hard lessons post-launch – when any issues or short-falls are experienced by thousands of users and reflect badly on my brand.

User Testing

By undertaking expertly designed User Testing with as few as 5 well selected, representative users you can discover what’s working well, what isn’t and why with your designs or prototype.  You’ll also learn where to make improvements that will optimise the user experience, increase user satisfaction and generate higher returns.

Under the right circumstances, an ‘MVP’ can make complete sense. We followed the principals when we launched Userfy; quickly taking our services and value proposition to market with real clients and learning fast how to improve and refine what we do.  But for a digital solution that could be used by potentially thousands of users, it’s better to give what you release every chance to succeed and to stack the cards in your favour as much as possible. User Research, and particularly User Testing can massively help with this.

Undertaking User Testing to optimise and align your solution pre-launch can be a lot less traumatic than trying to work out what is going wrong after your product has been released. It’s also far less expensive to refine a design early than to make changes to a fully developed product post-build.

Shipping products early to learn from users can be a valuable approach, but investing in User Testing beforehand can mean you ship a better product and have less to learn the hard way.

Phil Randall

Meet the author:

Phil Randall
Co-Founder and CEO at Userfy
07712669935

THE “BUT THAT’S JUST ME” PHENOMENA IN USER TESTING


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As Director of Research at Userfy, I spend a lot of time observing users as they test digital solutions like websites, apps, prototypes and wireframes.

A key part of my job is spotting patterns in user behaviour. Whilst I typically have an hour with each participant as they test a product, the real value in Userfy’s work often comes from considering the shared experiences that a group of users are having. Issues with a product that are consistently experienced across multiple users are often the most important to fix – depending on how severely they impact a user’s ability to use the product effectively.

Something which has repeatedly struck me across our user testing projects is how many users use the phrase “But that’s just me” when explaining their experiences – whether that’s because they find something confusing, there’s something they don’t particularly like or they’re providing a suggestion for how things could be improved.

To give an example, in a recent project where we were testing an online application process, the final page left all six users feeling confused about whether they had completed the process, or still had a step remaining. An icon in the navigation bar was the cause of this uncertainty.

Despite this being an issue for all of the users, many of them used the phrase “But that’s just me” when explaining the problem.

Why does this matter?

As a researcher, this phrase acts like a warning beacon for me. It indicates that the user may be feeling self-conscious about whether they are ‘unusual’ in their opinions and are misattributing the problems they’re having as being down to them, rather than due to a potential issue with the website.

If a user is using language like this, it’s really important to reassure them so that they remain honest and open for the rest of the session.

Here are some suggestions as to how to do this:

  1. Reassure participants from the start
    The opening words with a user at the start of a testing session are incredibly important for getting them into the right frame of mind. I always explain to a user that if they experience issues during the session and there are bits that they find confusing, this is down to a problem with the product. I explain that this can be a good thing, and helps direct our attention to areas that we need to improve.
  2. Offer support and agreement where appropriate
    A massive challenge for a researcher is to remain neutral and not influence the way a user is thinking, particularly by avoiding things like leading questions. Despite this, it’s important to offer your appreciation and understanding for the problems a user is experiencing. If a user explains an issue they’re having, its ok to offer your agreement and state that you can understand why they’re having that problem. A user will naturally look to you for reassurance that they’re saying the right sort of things and if you don’t subtly offer this type of encouragement, they’re likely to become more closed off and may become worried that they’re being unhelpful.
  3. Let participants know they’re not alone
    If a user is saying “But that’s just me” when explaining the problem, let them know they’re not alone. By saying something as simple as “Yes, other people have picked up on that too” it can help to reassure a user that they’re not unusual and actually their experiences and opinions are shared with others and may make them feel more confident in speaking their mind for the rest of the session.

Ultimately, this is just a small part of a much larger challenge that researchers have to provide an environment for a user where they can feel comfortable and confident enough to behave naturally and talk openly. At Userfy we are always looking at ways to improve our User Testing. Whilst great feedback from our clients is hugely important, we’re also always delighted to receive excellent feedback from the users we have tested. In the past we have had users call up our recruiter after completing a test to specifically say how much they enjoyed it – a clear sign that they felt happy, confident and comfortable taking part in our research.

Dr Sam Howard
Meet the author:
Dr. Sam Howard
Co-Founder and Director of Research at Userfy
07976260408

A BRIEF HISTORY OF USER RESEARCH


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To design and build products that are intuitive, usable and engaging, you need to understand the behaviour, motivations and needs of your users.

The job of a user researcher is to understand what users do and why they do it and then present these insights in a way that informs and guides the design of better solutions. A wealth of research techniques lie at their disposal.

In this post, we’ll look at where user research evolved from, key research techniques, and the reasons why user research should be part of the build of any digital product or service.

Where did User Research come from? 

The origins of user research lie in the field of Human Factors and Ergonomics – an area of research that first emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. Classic ’time and motion’ studies were carried out in factories to observe the work of employees and understand how efficiency could be improved.

In the early 1990s, the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) was published. This model proposed that the use of a system or product is directly affected by how useful and usable people perceive it to be.  In other words – if people think something is hard to use and can’t think of a good use for it, the product or system will ultimately fail.

In 1998, an international standard was published (ISO 9241-11), defining ‘Usability’ as the extent to which a user can achieve a specified goal with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction, in a specified context or environment.

Many point to 2007 and the first iPhone as the moment when User Experience or ‘UX’ truly was taken seriously. The original iPhone was a ground-breaking product because it provided the user with a far superior experience than any smartphone before it. Apple’s enormous success led other companies to see the value and importance of delivering a good user experience – bringing the importance of understanding users and designing for their needs into clear focus.

How do you carry out User Research?

At its most basic level, you carry out user research by talking to and observing users. It sounds incredibly simple – but surprisingly few do it.

To maximise the value and output from user research, a wide-variety of techniques can be used. Decisions over which method to select can be influenced by budgets, time pressures, research expertise, availability of users, the product or service being developed, and the environment it is being developed in.

Some of the most widely used methods include user testing, interviews, surveys, focus groups and ethnography.

Why you should be doing User Research

The benefits of involving users in the design and build of your products include:

  1. Reducing risk
    Testing ideas, concepts and designs with users from an early stage can help test your assumptions and ensure you don’t waste precious time and resources building a product that could ultimately fail and be received poorly by your customers. Testing early and testing often helps you avoid nasty surprises before its too late.
  2. Increasing user engagement, loyalty and satisfaction
    By gaining a detailed understanding of user needs and behaviour, you can build products that people love to use and that solve a real problem for them.
  3. Increasing key metrics
    There may be subtle issues lying totally undetected within your website or app that only become obvious once you’ve observed the experiences of real users. Fixing these problems can pay dividends in increased sales, conversions, registrations, and enquiries for your business.

Here at Userfy we specialise in designing and delivering User Testing, but we often use other techniques to support or inform our work.

Dr Sam Howard
Meet the author:
Dr. Sam Howard
Co-Founder and Director of Research at Userfy
07976260408