Usability Week Training by Nielsen Norman Group

With our CEO Aric Zion, two members of the Zion & Zion UX (user experience) team, and a Zion & Zion art director in tow, we traveled from Tempe, AZ to Chicago, IL to attend Nielsen Norman Group’s (NN/g) Usability Week. Six full days of workshops dedicated solely to user experience. For most people that may sound pretty overwhelming, however for this group, it was like going to Disney Land—but with better food.

Day 1

UX Basics

While optional and somewhat introductory, we all thought that taking the UX Basics workshop would be a nice way to ground ourselves and prepare for the week to come—we were right. It was an excellent way to learn the routine, get acquainted with the city and our surroundings, meet other UX professionals, and refresh on some of the key UX fundamentals. Granted, it was all material that we already knew, but why not start at the beginning.

Day 2

Days two through six consisted of four different workshops to choose from each day. This resulted in the team splitting up every now and again in order to attend the workshops in which each of us was most interested.

Persuasive Web Design

Persuasive web design has less to do with “tricking” your users into converting (e.g. buying a product, signing up for emails, etc.) and more to do with establishing trust with your users. Today, most users have what is commonly referred to as “banner blindness.” This means that users often ignore the right panel of a website if it even remotely seems like it may be a “stack of boxes” because they assume it is a place for advertisements, even if it really is genuine content. This isn’t always the case, but eye tracking studies don’t lie.

There are several ways to increase the credibility of your site—which can help establish trust with your user—some of which include:

  • Reduce cognitive strain
  • Feature real people
  • Make reviews accessible
  • Don’t ask for too much too soon

There are also influencing principles that affect how a message is delivered and the way in which we can expect our users to react to said message. One of the most common influence principles is to leverage reciprocation. By providing our users with something useful (e.g. coupon, unique content, freebie), we can expect a portion of our users to “repay” us. The way in which they repay us can vary. Providing contact information, writing a testimonial, or sharing something on social media are types of “repayment” that we may aim for.

Some of the ways the design of an interface can be adjusted to establish credibility and trust with your consumers include having a clear call to action (CTA), using both words and images to communicate a message, giving people control navigating your site, and through an understanding that most of your users make decisions based on their gut.

This workshop hit on a number of points. From tips for boosting and measuring credibility, to diving into human behavior, to a review of Cialdini’s six Principles of Influence and how they apply to UX—a better understanding of persuasive web design can only benefit UX professionals.

Information Architecture 1

As you can guess by the name, this workshop was all about information architecture (IA). This way a great “day of depth” in IA, and awesome for our team, since Zion & Zion has two Information Architects on staff, so we ate this stuff up.

Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville define information architecture as:

  • The structural design of shared environments.
  • The combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation systems within web sites and intranets.
  • The art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability and findability.
  • An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

Source: Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (Volume 3), Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville.

Throughout the day, the instructor spoke of key principles surrounding IA, the five components of IA, and finally, how to document, evaluate, and define an IA. It’s important to find common characteristics when it comes to grouping and organizing content. Topic, task, audience, time, format, and alphabetical are just a few of the main organization schemes that can be used when defining an IA. Of course, in some instances, more than one organization scheme may make sense. If this is the case, rather than simply guessing or choosing what you “think” is best, test it. Testing techniques such as card sorting and tree testing allow you to take your IA and put it in the hands of your users to see what they respond best to.

Understanding the visual hierarchy in a way that will better serve your users is at the heart of a truly great information architect—and knowing that “more is not always more” should be, if it isn’t already.

Day 3

Top Web UX Design Guidelines

While this workshop was packed with useful design guidelines, it focused on how to adapt those guidelines for your users. Whether your user base is predominately older or younger, male or female, the way that they process information on a page can be very different.

The most well-known processing pattern is the “F pattern,” where users process content on a page horizontally across the top and then vertically down the page (with a horizontal line across the center). However, the “F pattern” is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Understanding how users process information goes beyond knowing their demographics, but their current situation and state of mind as well. Based on the user’s mindset, they may adapt a different processing pattern, like the layer-cake pattern.

The Layer-cake Processing Pattern

This is when a user relies on headings and subheadings (such as the subheading above this paragraph) to quickly jump them down through the content sections to get the general idea of the information on the page. If you have ever been in a rush and needed to find an answer to something quickly, you’ve probably used this process without even realizing it—you may have even used it now while reading this article!

The Spotted Processing Pattern

Another processing pattern often used is the spotted pattern. This is where your eyes quickly dash around the content looking at shapes—like dashes or question marks—text treatments, numbers, etc. to find specific information (see what I did there?).

While these are only a few of the processing patterns and guidelines that were covered, you can see that by knowing the mindset of your users, you can craft the content to help users succeed using the processing patterns they are most likely to adopt.

Information Architecture 2

Day two of information architecture was dedicated entirely to navigation. From global and local navs to navigation attributes, the instructor covered it all, providing a nice refresher for our team and some new, useful information.

Think of a website’s navigation as a roadmap. Without it, most of the site’s content would be unattainable, and if it’s well done, users should be able to easily find what they are looking for.

Every navigation should answer the following three questions:

  1. Where am I?
  2. How can I get to my destination?
  3. Can I tell when I’ve arrived?

Just as the physical world has elements that make the space navigable, so does the virtual world. In the physical world, there may be a landmark such as the Statue of Liberty that helps users know where they are in New York City, however on a website, a landmark may be the company’s logo. Paths in the physical world—whether walking paths or streets—can translate to breadcrumbs on a website. These are just a few examples of the important roles elements play in making a website navigable.

This workshop was the perfect blend of higher level thinking and detailed takeaways that can be implemented into nearly every project we work on. What it comes down to? Not all navigations are created equally, and they are by no means one-size-fits-all.

Scaling User Interfaces

A little disclaimer here. Our team at Zion & Zion has been implementing responsive design for the past several years. In fact, we haven’t designed a non-responsive site in almost three years. So, while we already appreciated most of the material covered in this particular workshop, we did still learn some new tricks.

As we move into the future and portals continue to evolve, so must interface design. There is so much more to consider than just the desktop computer screen. Everything from tablets and phones to watches and televisions have to be designed for, many of which result in their own interaction types (e.g. smart watches work differently than laptops).

There are two ways in which scalability (the ability for an interface to scale based on screen size) can be approached:

  1. Responsive Web Design: this means that all of the same content is delivered and generated from one fluid layout that responds to the size of the screen based on media queries, flexible progressive images, and breakpoints.
  2. Adaptive Web Design: this means that a unique experience and set of content is delivered based upon the device the user is using. This is especially helpful for companies who have robust desktop experiences that would take too long to redesign to make responsive, not to mention it is a great intermediate solution. In some cases, it doesn’t make sense to offer much of the same content on a smaller interface, like when tasks are especially complex.

With either approach, a content strategy is essential. Demographics, tasks, expectations, business goals, and technology constraints all must be taken into consideration when designing for a particular interface. We are all “information foragers” who scan a site quickly to see if it is delivering what we are looking for, so we must make our messaging clear, concise, and easy to locate.

Day 4

User Interface Principles Every Designer Must Know

A poor design can result in an increased heart rate and sweating. No, seriously. In fact, this is what R.D. Ward and P.H. Marsden noted in their 2003 article, “Physiological responses to different web page designs.”

The primary purpose of day four was to learn user interface (UI) principles to ensure our users never experience this kind of negative physical reaction when interacting with any of our designs. From Norman’s Theory of Interaction to Information Processing Theory, today’s instructor covered key components of design that can help us achieve just that.

When designing a user interface (UI), it is important to make it easy for users to pay attention to key tasks. Distractions can result in the user’s failure to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. Response times, aesthetics (or a lack of), and the ability to focus can all have an effect—either negatively or positively—on the likelihood of your users completing a task, and the data shows that user satisfaction is heavily correlated with task success.

Day 5

Emerging Patterns for Web Design

Blackhawks Win the Cup
Blackhawks Win the Cup

Increasingly long pages, sticky elements, gamification, infographics, circles. These are just a few of the current and emerging design patterns that were discussed on day five. Rather than simply making note of these patterns, the instructor discussed in great detail when these patterns should be used, and when they should fall by the wayside.

Not to our surprise, many of these patterns are being intensely overused in an effort to be “trendy.” In fact, it’s amazing how many “award winning” website dramatically violate key UX principles. However, our job as UX designers and strategists is to determine when and where these emerging patterns should and should not be used. Just because something is “new” and “popular” does not always mean it’s best for the user. Want to use something new, then have a good reason for it, and test it with real users as part of your development process. That’s what we do, and so should you.

Day 6

The Human Mind and Usability

Day six was dedicated to better understanding the human mind, then relating that back to web design and user experience. A disclaimer on this one as well. Some of our team in this session already had a background in consumer and social psychology, so they had a leg up on the rest of us.

If you work in UX, chances are you’ve performed usability tests before. And unless you are perfect (or so lucky that you should be banned from Vegas), chances are that during those usability tests, you have seen your users skip over important elements, often leaving you wondering how they could possibly miss something so critical.

Inattentional blindess can lead to your users missing crucial elements on a webpage because they are focusing so intently on the task at hand.

Time for an exercise—watch this video and as you do, count how many times the girls wearing white pass the basketball.

How many passes did you count? The correct answer is 16, but more importantly, did you notice the man dressed in a gorilla costume walk through? No? Did you notice the curtain change colors? No?

This is because of inattentional blindness—just one of the many psychological principles discussed during day six of usability week. Understanding inattentional blindness, among many other psychological theories and principles, allows for even better web design.

Usability Week Summary

Nielsen Norman Group’s Usability Week was filled with insightful workshops. While there was a significant amount of review covered throughout the six days, there were also new takeaways and insights that will allow us to continue to grow in each of our respective UX-related fields.

Two Thumbs Up

Being a part of these workshops which were filled with other like-minded UX professionals from other companies (both agency and corporate) allowed us to bounce ideas off of one another and hear first-hand the struggles and tribulations others are experiencing in their day-to-day UX activities. The NN/g speakers were all extremely knowledgeable, educated, and experienced in all that they discussed, and they knew how to keep things interesting by incorporating interactive exercises and activities throughout each day. All in all, the Zion & Zion team gives NN/g’s Usability Week two thumbs up, and can’t wait to send more team members to future workshops.

Oh, and did we mention we were in Chicago when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup? Our Art Director Kenna Watters, who just happens to be from Chicago, IL, was pretty excited about it.