Online usability: don’t be a Technorati

I wanted to get Technorati to list my blog in its directory.  You know, in my endless lust for readership.

After 30 minutes of wandering through various registration screens and online help, I then get the following email:

This is an automatically-generated email.

Thank you for submitting your blog claim on Technorati. Technorati will need to verify that you are an author of the site by looking for a unique code. We have just assigned the claim token EKB27ZJVMJJB to this claim. Please visit for more details, including how to use the claim token.

Thank you.

So you’re saying I have to write a blog entry about the code?  OK, here you go.  Are you happy now?

I understand their explanation about being spammed by systems, or whatever the problem is that required all of this verification.  Still, talk about a usability nightmare.  Why can’t I just given them my blog’s URL and let them figure out if it’s legit?

And they’re not alone in having poor usability.

One end of the spectrum is feature bloat.  Lots of capabilities, arranged in a confusing maze of navigation and task completion.  Think of complex installed software, or complex business applications thinking that they got simpler or became more “modern” because someone slapped on a browser for the UI.

Lately, the trend is towards extreme simplicity.  A few big buttons on the screen.  Huge fonts.  Maybe this trend is a reaction to the sins of the past.

The problem with extreme simplicity is that you can’t get much done.  Where are the features and functions?  Won’t I get bored of an application or a site if it doesn’t do much?

Why can’t we get usability right?

I think it all goes back to personas.  My friend Adele Revella has written nicely about buyer personas and practical ways to make and use them.  But as I read the user persona advocates, they seem to get all religious about their mission.  Do it “right” (as in, to great expense and time).  This ends up alienating those vendors’ executives who could make it an investment priority.

How to get practical?  At a minimum, there must be personas for the novice user and the experienced user.  In some cases, a novice mode and expert mode for each of multiple personas.

In my opinion, TurboTax has one of the best UI’s going.  Why?  If you have an uncomplicated tax life, you can navigate the system in a guided fashion in case you’re worried about overlooking something.  Once you’re more comfortable, you can navigate in a self-directed way and save a few steps.  This same metaphor applies to those who have more complicated tax situations such as rental properties, various investment incomes, divorces, etc.

TurboTax seems to me to serve four personas nicely:

1. simple tax life, wanting system-guided experience

2. simple tax life, wanting self-guided experience

3. more complex tax life, wanting system-guided experience

4. more complex tax life, wanting self-guided experience

Us software vendors talk more about using personas than we act.  Why?  Getting really good at usability is damned hard, expensive, and takes years to master.  Who wants to embark on an investment that will take years to pay off?  Other than Apple…oh yeah, look what it’s done for their business.

The case for better UI’s is rooted in vendor fear.  If you’re with a vendor, ask yourself or others in your company: what if our product or website is judged in the first 30 or 60 seconds?  Well, it is.  Users can understand almost instantaneously if a system was designed to delight them as individuals.  If you’re lucky, you won’t have alienated them  and will still have the chance to make other benefits of being a user become apparent in the next few minutes.  Like your price.  Or differentiation.

Vendors amongst us: go start scaring someone in your company.

Building executive trust

Reading this blog entry prompted me to think more about the topic of building executive trust:

Product managers require trust as currency to do their job of driving the investment of scarce product development resources for optimal financial result.

How to build that trust?  Following are some approaches I’ve seen in others and used myself.

1. He who has the best data wins (usually)

Yes, that means having good evidence of market demand.  But it goes beyond that, to having the analytic skill set to find meaning in multiple data sets and in seemingly contradictory information.  And, it’s about choosing the relevant data to influence priority, and which data to ignore.  Don’t cherry-pick to support your opinions; you will be found out.

2. Start small

Whatever relationship you ultimately want with an executive should be based on incremental progress.  Find a low risk, low-stakes proposal to make.  Deliver on the recommendations.  Make sure they know the results.  “Lather, rinse & repeat” at ever-increasing scale.

3. Saving (executives’) face

My experiences in Japan bring home the true meaning of “keeping face” given its importance to Japan’s cultural norms.  It’s tempting to dismiss face-saving as being irrelevant elsewhere.  Do so at your peril.  Ask yourself, “what public stance has this executive taken that my recommendations could contradict?”  You’re apt to uncover the landmines and you must then decide whether to forge ahead or avoid the conflict.  Be careful to not position your data as being too authoritative, as this is a sure means to embarass an exec who has an entrenched, contrary position.

4. Courage

There are times when you need to stand up for what you believe in.  Show some conviction.  Pound the table a little bit.   When no clear face-saving landmines exist, this can be an effective play.

5. Change as a process

If your recommedation is a departure from the norm, pre-sell like crazy.  Lead people on a gradual process of undertsanding and accepting change.  Socialize your ideas as concepts with subordinates who would either influence an exec or know their likely reaction.  Before you go into any meeting with decision makers, know the outcome in advance.  Most proposal review meetings should be a ratification of what has been decided previously through concensus building.

What else has worked for you?

When is it o.k. to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre?

I mean yelling “Fire” metaphorically, of course.

I was reviewing a lot of market research this week about consumers’ attitudes toward computer security.  What’s amazing is that the all over the world, the blissful ignorance of threats prevails.  Mac users think only PC’s are targeted.  People in some countries believe that as long as they navigate to “brand name” web sites, they are safe.

What us computer security vendors know is that most everyone is exposed to threat of some kind.  But we (should) have a distaste for using Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (yelling “Fire”) to motivate users to do or buy something.  Even just to install a free product.

So we’re in a Catch-22.

And the Internet isn’t going to change such that the threats go away.  Its arguably flawed design as it pertains to security was baked a long time ago, and inertia will prevail in my lifetime.

What to do?  Education without alarmism feels right to me.  Some of which comes from direct vendor engagement with a communityof users.  Think Facebook, for example.  And some of which comes from equipping “influencers” to help spread the word.

When I told people I was joining AVG, the most common response amongst those who knew the company was, “Yeah, I installed it on my parents’/uncle’s/home computer.”  Clearly, these  persons were key influencers over someone else’s computer if not their behavior.

I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s intense interest in the role of influencers.  I am too, as you’ve probably surmised from this and past posts.

My take is that influencers are apt to find you as vendor, not the other way around.  Somehow, they are self-selecting.  And they are born not made.  So, the role of the vendor is to make it easy for influencers to find and engage you.

So, should vendors yell, “Fire”?  No.  Let someone else do it for you.  They know best how to send the message in a way that is palatable to the target: otherwise innocent users.  Who said children can’t teach their parents something?

What makes people install a product?

OK, so if you’ve been reading this blog then you’ve read me pose some basic (one could say stupid) questions about the domain I’m entering in my new job.  For example, what causes someone to install my product?

I refrain from saying “buy” because we also offer a free edition; more on that business model in a later post.

I was reflecting on what triggers an act of installation.  I came up with a few:

1. you just got a new PC and decide you need such a product.  Also, maybe you didn’t want to pay $50/year for the product pre-installed on your machine

2. you got a virus or malware on your machine and install something to prevent it from happening again

3. your subscription to a product is coming due, so you decide to renew or upgrade or switch products

Why does this matter?  Well, the user’s experience during these events is critical to understand so that a vendor can satisfy the user’s desired experience.  Was it easy to find my product?  Install it?  Keep using it?  Why would you be deterred from switching? Etc.

So, gentle readers, you are my guinea pigs.  Can you think of any other “triggering events”?  Keep it simple.  I’m guessing there are 3-6 major ones in all.

What do buyers want?

Such a simple question.  But, for someone like me about to serve the needs of a different buyer than I’m used to, a daunting question to answer.  Call it my “consciously incompetent” phase.

Why so daunting?  If you’ve been dabbling in behavioral economics as I have, you quickly learn that what people say they want to buy, and why they *really* buy, are two very different things.  Consumer goods companies are leading the charge here, and they are quickly abandoning methods like focus groups to peer into the minds of their customers.  Rather, odd-sounding tools like Functional MRI are the new means to correlate what the subconscious is thinking and the product qualities that matter to it.  And it’s the subconscious that is proving to be our real decision maker as buyers.

Now consider my challenge of building security products for consumers and small businesses.  What’s in their minds that cause them to want my product?  Sure, they don’t want any viruses to infect their computer.  Is that the end of it?  I doubt it.  I bet that the winning vendor will understand the rest of the buyers’ mindset and offer a superior experience.  Such is the journey ahead…

Who is this AVG?

Ok, I’m not the expert but I hope I learned enough about AVG to make the right decision about joining.  AVG serves consumers and small businesses with “endpoint protection” software (including anti-virus, anti-malware and the like).

Today’s user faces bad stuff on their computer more than ever.  The criminals are damned smart based on what I’ve seen in the dark recesses of research labs.  You security geeks amongst us can debate the efficacy of such products.  I’m not going there other than to say that the need for endpoint (and mobile) protection isn’t going away.  Even as complementary security products exist and evolve.

What’s cool in my mind is that AVG is using the “freemium” business model.  Their product is free.  Yup, free.  Of course, you can pay money and get an enhanced version and complementary products.  And they’re making scads of money at it.

I love this type of business model innovation.  It excites my imagination and is a creative outlet I’m looking forward to immensely.  Ask my wife about other creative talents.  Not so much…

By the way, if you haven’t read Chris Anderson’s book “Free”, I recommend it.