Tag Archives: Technology

Snapchat’s UX: A Confusing Mess?

Snapchat might be the image messaging app of choice for today’s teenagers, with 10 billion daily users, but in my opinion the UX and interface design is a confusing mess and others seems to agree (‘Why is Snapchat’s UI so bad?’, ‘The Generation Gap of Snapchat’, and ‘Snapchat Built to Be Bad‘ are just some of the top hits when you search “Snapchat UX” in Google).

It’s frustrating but even as a fairly technical 31-year-old who has mastered the likes of WordPress and Twitter, I don’t think I’ve ever found  an app that is so un-intuitive. It seems the only way to learn how it works are by reading the various on-board prompts or through trial and error.

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Take the home screen for example, my biggest issue for new users is that the majority of the icons are not universal. I’ve circled the icons I believe are fairly universal in green and highlighted uncommon/unknown icons in red:

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So of the seven icons/functions, only three (camera rotation, messages and take a photo) are obvious, the others are all ambiguous. Snapchat actually tells me that the ghost icon is where my contacts and settings ‘live’ through a bit of on-boarding but as for the small circle at the bottom and the dots in the bottom right, I’d have no idea unless I clicked them. Even the ‘flash’ icon in the top right isn’t the standard lightning bolt flash that you would expect to see on most cameras. Why make it ambiguous? It seems totally illogical but is it intentional?

The "stories" screen gave me a headache but that's another story...
The “stories” screen gave me a headache but that’s another story…

There are several theories to why it has been so successful despite having this seemingly un-user friendly design. One theory is the bad UX is intentional. By making it difficult for new or older users, its difficult for parents to look up posts by their children and their teenage friends without knowing their screen name. As a result posts remain personal. This theory was in part confirmed by CEO Evan Spiegel: “We’ve made it very hard for parents to embarrass their children. It’s much more for sharing personal moments than it is about this public display.” Similarly Amin Todai from Canadian creative design agency One Method wrote a blog post likening it to creating a new language that only under 30s could hear: “By virtue of it having an incomprehensible user interface, Snapchat has essentially created a new language that only people under the age of thirty can hear. Like a dog whistle for teens, except with more pictures of dicks and boobs.”

“Snapchat has essentially created a new language that only people under the age of thirty can hear. Like a dog whistle for teens, except with more pictures of dicks and boobs” – Admin Todai

That last comment brings me to the other reason that teenagers and others have flocked to Snapchat despite the poor UX/UI: dicks and boobs – the pornography aspect. It became an instant guarantee of seeing up to 10 seconds of nudity, whether it be horny teenagers wanting to see their love interests naked or glamour models sharing their goods, ultimately sex sells and Snapchat was offering it up , whether intentionally or not, to millions for free. In the same way that pornography is addictive, so is celebrity and there are a huge number of celebrities on the site, all offering instant snippets of their lives for all to see. The Kardashians, the Jenners, Justin Bieber, the Jonas brothers, are just some of the celebrity users who appeal to the teenage  and young adult Snapchat audience.

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Talking of dicks: Here is popular Snapchat user Justin Bieber posing in a topless selfie.

The other theory is that Snapchat is basically more about fun than function and that is what gets people using it. Irrespective of how awful the UX is, youngsters will keep coming back because they find it fun to use, to share moments and stories, and to mess about with the different effects, filters and lenses to make funny photos and videos. Ultimately, I think all three of these theories have had some part to play in Snapchat’s success and there is clearly a generation gap in play here but maybe that’s the point, its popularity is down to it not being popular with my generation because we were never its target audience, it was always intended to be more fun for the younger generation it resonates with.

The Origin of the Hamburger and Other Icons

The emergence of the three-lined “Hamburger” menu icon in modern interface design was so fast I had just assumed it was a relatively new creation. However, after a bit of research I discovered its origins were far more rooted in the history of technology than I first thought. It was software designer Geoff Alday who made the discovery, which he wrote about in this blog post, learning that icon was first used back in the early 1980s on the interface of the Xerox Star work-machine, one of the grandfathers of the modern personal computer. You can see it shown in the middle of the screenshot from 1981 below:

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A bit-mapped screenshot from the Xerox Star workstation released in 1981.

Norman Cox, the designer behind the icon, said its design was meant to be “road sign” simple, functionally memorable, and mimic the look of the resulting displayed menu list. Cox later told the BBC it was jokingly referred to as the “air vent” icon. He said: “At Xerox we used to joke with our initial users that it was an ‘air vent to keep the window cool’. This usually got a chuckle, and made the symbol more memorable and friendly.”

“At Xerox we used to joke with our initial users that it was an ‘air vent to keep the window cool’. This usually got a chuckle, and made the symbol more memorable and friendly” – Norm Cox, former Xerox designer

The icon didn’t really appear for nearly 30 years until it was adopted as a menu icon by social networking site Path, which launched in 2010, and then later Facebook and Apple iOS applications, meeting a growing need for more content to fit onto smaller smartphone screens via the use of menus. It has since become widely-accepted as a menu icon by UI designers and can found everywhere from web browsers Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, to news websites such as the BBC and others.

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2016-07-08 13_51_08-Home - BBC News

2016-07-15 14_53_20-News, sport and opinion from the Guardian's UK edition _ The Guardian

After some more research I soon discovered that there were a number of other prominent icons and symbols still used today that first emerged in the 1980s. Apart from the ‘Hamburger’ icon, Norman Cox is also attributed with creating the document icon, which was another part of the Xerox Star interface. This image here shows the design development. After Cox, one of the most prolific designers of the 1980s was Susan Kare who worked for Apple Macintosh. Descendants of her early designs that still exist today include icons such as the lasso, the grabber, and the paint bucket. You can see some other the examples of her work in the screenshot below:

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A selection of designs by Apple Macintosh designer Susan Kare.

She also came up with the command key design (⌘) that still appears today on most Apple keyboards. Kare apparently discovered it while browsing through a symbol dictionary and found it was commonly used on signposts in Scandinavian countries to mark places of interest. When asked by MacFormat magazine about the longevity of her icons she said: “I am very grateful and appreciative that some images I designed almost 30 years ago are still in use. I believe that symbols that are simple – not too many extraneous details – and meaningful can have a long life span.”

Other icons that have survived since the 1980s are shown in the table below:

  Icon  Name  Designer/Creator
menu-alt-512 Hamburger icon Norm Cox for Xerox Star.
ios7-document-icon Document icon Norm Cox for Xerox Star.
command-symbol_318-74882 Command icon Susan Kare for Apple Macintosh.
Susan-Kare-fill-icon-660x660 Fill icon Susan Kare for Apple Macintosh.
mouse-cursor-icon Mouse icon* Douglas Englebart for Xerox PARC
common-search-lookup-glyph-128 Search icon  Keith Ohlfs for NeXT Inc.

*The mouse cursor arrow originally pointed upwards but because resolution was so low it was easier to draw an arrow at a 45 degree angle.

10 Tips for making Content more Engaging

I’ve always liked to learn new bits of software by trial and error, trying things out for myself first and learning from my mistakes but there’s only so far you can get before you get stuck. This is why documentation and help are so invaluable because a piece of software is worthless unless you know how it works.

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In today’s fast-paced world, people don’t have time to read chunky 900 to 1000 page manuals, they want information to be quick and accessible. As a result, technology companies and their technical writers are having to adapt their techniques and content strategies to make documentation more exciting and engaging for readers.

Here are some of the best ways to keep people interested in your content:

1. Pictures

As you have probably seen from my blogs, I am a real advocate for using good images to break up text and make documentation more approachable and more visually interesting.

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This is just the Firefox help homepage but as I mention in my blog last week, I thought the design and use of imagery was really visually appealing.

2. Videos

Taking this approach one step further, videos are another brilliant and effective way to engage help users as long as they are well put together, short and succinct.

The example above is one of Skype’s excellent video tutorials which are really well produced.

Videos can be made with software such as Camtasia or free tools such as Open Broadcaster Software.

3. Gifs

Like videos, it is possible to add gifs to make your content more dynamic and visually interesting. They are a quick simple way to show an example of how something is done:

Animation

This gif was produced using free open-source software called ScreenToGif.

4. Infographics

I think graphics are a great way to get a lot of information across to your readers in one image if they are designed well.

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The Spotify infographic above has 10 separate facts spread across one image.

5. Examples

Using examples is the best way to show your readers what you are trying to explain.

2016-06-02 14_05_27-Embedding a Tweet on your website or blog _ Twitter Help Center

On the page above, taken from the Twitter, the help describes how to embed a Tweet and then gives examples.

6. Be Human

Use an informal or conversational writing style. Write as if you were describing how the software works to a friend. Readers won’t engage with a robotic tone of voice.

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Linkedin’s Help addresses users by their first name to make the experience more personal.

7. Keep it Short

Don’t overwrite. If you can explain it in one sentence then write one sentence. It’s better to use 25 words rather than 250. The shorter the better.

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Facebook’s Help Centre covers the login basics in just 73 words (and three links).

8. Keep it Simple

Don’t use lengthy words the average person won’t understand or that will get lost in translation. Go with “move in a circle” rather than “circumbilivagination” or “use” instead of “utilise”.

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Sorry Royal Mail but I really dislike the use of “utilise”, it’s just a waste of four letters!

9. Easy Navigation

If your help system is easy to work your way around then people will want to use it.

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Skype’s Help is really easy to navigate from my experience. You can check it out here.

10. Make it fun!

Use humour and unusual text to catch people’s attention. This is discussed by Mozilla’s Michael Verdi in his presentation How To Write Awesome Documentation.

Atlassian Confluence’s help system, shown below, encourages new users to join a fictional space program and complete a mission:

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2016-06-01 14_40_57-Tutorial_ Navigate Confluence - Atlassian Documentation

Sure, it’s a bit wacky and off-the-wall but its fun, it catches attention and keeps readers interested and engaged.

Help Review – Twitter

My stepmum recently asked for help publicising something online and my first suggestion was Twitter but explaining how to use it was a challenge in itself. Although it’s been around for a decade, I still don’t think it is that intuitive for someone who is unfamiliar with the basic concepts and terminology. As a result, the help is vital in explaining how to use it, what Tweets and Retweets are and the importance of followers.

Twitter’s Help link can be found by left-clicking your profile picture and scrolling down to the word Help or by clicking Help in the bottom dashboard.

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First Impressions

The help homepage is pretty stylish, with a prominent white search panel where users can search for what they’re looking for. Underneath there are six key headings for commonly asked questions and even further down there are further sub-headings, a video tutorial and trending topics. Right at the bottom of the page there is an footer with some Quentin Blake-style cartoon people, presumably a hapless user and some friendly Twitter support staff in their Twitter-Blue uniforms. All very quaint but slightly disjointed if you compare the style of the trendy header with the children’s book illustrations in the footer.

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Just testing it out as a “new” user to get to grips with the basics, there is the ‘Using Twitter’ section which introduces to the general concepts and there is a useful ‘Getting started with Twitter’ page, along with a glossary which even experienced users might find useful.

Features

The Twitter Support account is a great little feature. By creating a support account in their own social networking service, it not only encourages user engagement but the process turning to help becomes a seamless part of the Twitter user experience. It’s very neat.

2016-05-10 21_38_51-Twitter Support (@Support) _ Twitter

Commonly asked questions were mostly account-related, either being locked out or wanting to deactivate an account. For more complex issues that require assistance or intervention, the Twitter staff ask users to log a support case, referring them to this page here.

2016-05-11 11_20_04-Request help signing in to your account. _ Twitter Help Center

There is a nice and simple video tutorial about how to mute or block users featuring the same Quentin Blake cartoons. It is nicely put together but I think it’s a shame there aren’t more of these, like a bank of different tutorial videos. The only example I could find on the help site was how to mute a person on Twitter (I’m guessing this was the most commonly asked question the support team were asked):

I checked Twitter’s YouTube channel and there is a slightly longer version of this video, detailing how to block and report users but that was all. I think they’ve missed a trick here but I guess any answered questions can be Tweeted to their support account.

Hidden Features

It’s not so much a hidden feature but something I didn’t know about are the Twitter keyboard shortcuts. This list can be accessed by clicking on your profile picture and clicking Keyboard Shortcuts on the menu.

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Another neat trick is the ability to embed Tweets. This can be done by either clicking the   ••• More (ellipsis) icon and selecting Copy Link to Tweet or Embed Tweet.

It’s quite a nice way to enhance content on a webpage. News sites in particular use this feature as a way to embed quotes from people, normally famous people or politicians, who have written something newsworthy on Twitter.

Conclusion

While it has some cool features, I would have thought Twitter could have added some more innovative aspects to their help, videos or maybe Vines in particular. I think the Twitter Support account is a good idea and it’s clearly being used quite actively. However, this could also be an indication that not enough people are using the help. Additional videos on recovering passwords, unblocking an account and deactivating accounts and sharing them on their Support account would probably halve the number of Tweets they receive. Despite this, I did like the style of the documentation itself, the familiar cartoon illustrations make it approachable and the content itself is a happy medium between informal and informative.

 

Gamification: Let the Games Begin!

Following the boom of video arcades and the emergence of home computers, many Millennials like myself were playing computer games not long after we could crawl. I remember playing games like Chuckie Egg on my dad’s ZX Spectrum from the age of  five or six and later a whole host of DOS games on floppy disk. This early exposure to technology and confidence that we can figure things out for ourselves has led to a certain amount of resistance to using help if we think we don’t need it.

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ZX Spectrum classic game Chuckie Egg which was released in 1983.

Similarly, while my generation consider themselves tech-savvy, we aren’t a patch on our younger and counter-parts from Generation Z; the kids born with a smartphone in one hand and an iPads in the other. The bad news is this so-called iGeneration only has an 8-second attention span (at least according to market research) which makes them a slightly problematic audience. However, there is a perfect solution for appealing to the younger generations, the game-loving tech know-it-alls with short attention spans, and the answer is gamification (apologies to any haters of jargon if that word made you shudder!).

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, gamification essentially means adding the typical elements of game playing such a point scoring or a reward scheme to a non-gaming application (typically social media and e-learning sites but occasionally help service desk sites) to encourage user engagement. To be more scientific than that, researchers discovered that playing games and scoring points causes the human brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine which in turn leads to brain stimulation reward (BSR). This is the phenomenon in which the regions of the brain are stimulated following a reward-based outcome such as eating food when the body is hungry or drinking when the body is thirsty. The same reward pathway has a key role in behaviour such as drug addiction where the person compulsively seeks the reward of using a particular drug. So in layman’s terms, gamification is a way of getting your users addicted to your application, whether that be an e-learning site or even a help system.

Gamification Examples

One of the best known examples of gamification is Tripadvisor where users are rewarded for engagement the marketing team. Travellers become hooked by the reward scheme, which sees posting reviews and photos rewarded in the form of points and badges. It’s clever really, Tripadvisor gain free content which boosts their revenue (which was $1.246 Billion in 2014!) by giving out points and badges that are about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

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Evidence of an addict: Some of the author’s Tripadvisor badges.

As you can see from the screenshot above, I developed something of an unhealthy addiction to Tripadvisor myself. I receive emails prompting and encouraging me to post,

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A great example of an e-learning app with gamification applied is Duolingo. The site was launched in 2011 by university computer science professor Luis von Ahn, who is also the creator of crowd-sourcing bot-tester CAPTCHA, and has grown exponentially to the extent that it now has 120 million users worldwide, with gamification being a large driving force behind its success. User engagement is predominantly led through rewards such “lingots”, given for completing a language lesson, that can be used as a form of virtual currency to buy power-ups, practice and bonus skills within the app:

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Lingots

Users are also encouraged to take a lesson each day to continue their “day streak”, consecutive days in which they’ve used the app and gain experience or “xp”, which again is a common aspect of gaming; a character gains experience for time played and missions completed. When lessons are completed for a particular subject, it turns gold, which again is a form or reward, and when the user completes a level or language they also receive an award (as shown below):

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Further user engagement is encouraged through a user forum called a discussion stream where users can post comments and earn up-votes in a similar format to Reddit. Interestingly, when a user posts, the languages they are studying in Duolingo, their level for each language and their day streak is also displayed alongside their name. This gives each user a certain status within Duolingo and encourages user participation by targeting the competitive nature of each user. E.g. By taking more lessons, they increase their status/stature in the user forum.

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Noob vs Pro: My profile above (beginner French & German, no streak) alongside a guy who is learning 19 languages including Welsh, Russian and Turkish as well as a 643-day streak. Woah!

Another example of gamification where users are rewarded for input and participation is the web’s largest programming community, Stack Overflow. Users receive different badges for posting questions and answers which fall into three categories: gold, silver and bronze depending on how well-received it is by other users.

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As a user acquires more badges, their reputation on the Stack Overflow also improves. The user profile below is the top-ranking programmer on the site, having provided an impressive 3,555 answers and reaching more than 600,000 people. This user’s ranking make him  more credible and trustworthy in the eyes of other users.

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Skype, which I looked at it in my first help review blog, have used a similar but more basic gamification model in their Skype Community where users are encouraged to gain ‘Kudos’ and top the ‘Most helpful’ board:

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The most helpful and active Skype Community users are also recognised or rewarded by being made ‘community ambassadors’, denoted by the star shown next to “techfreak” in the screenshot above. As well as having status in the community, these ambassadors also get to attend monthly meetings withe a representative from Skype, again taking user interaction and engagement to another level.

Applying Gamification to Help

Although gamification clearly works for e-learning and other social media applications, in terms of driving user engagement it’s not so easy with help and documentation. Aside from the obvious cost implications involved with designing and developing your own points or rewards scheme or paying for an external gamification platform, it’s not particularly easy to apply it to standalone documentation. Yes, I suppose you could divide it up into sections or lessons with points or levels awarded for each completed but sometimes people only refer to documentation for one particular answer so I’m not convinced gamification is the answer here.

The best working model I have seen is in the examples above, in which user forums and communities are created and essentially crowd-source the answers to questions that might otherwise be covered by your documentation, help desk or support staff. That’s probably the best way forward in terms of encouraging users to interact with your documentation: run a user forum, encourage engagement through up-voting, offer good question and answer rewards, and promote user status or level upgrades to produce content that is time saving, good quality and most importantly, fun!

Help Review – Skype

The first help system I decided to look at was Skype, which I thought would be interesting from a technical writing and personal perspective because it’s an application I use every day to contact developers and other colleagues based in different offices across Sweden and Europe. Launched by Scandinavian entrepreneurs Niklas Zennström and Danish Janus Friis in 2003 and bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion (£6 billion) in 2011, the communication tool is now used by more than 300 million users worldwide. Although it is fairly intuitive and easy to use, I was curious to take an in-depth look at the documentation behind such a globally popular application, especially considering the diversity of its users.

First Impressions

To access the help system while using Skype you need to click Help and then Go To Support. This will launch the Skype Help homepage, an external site, shown below:

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My first impressions were it is very clean and user friendly (there’s even a blurry friendly-looking customer service bloke in the background) with a prominent white search box and six main help topics clearly marked out with the same blue icon buttons used in Skype. While hosting the help on an external site does result in a break in user experience, the help pages retain Skype’s bold and colourful branding, with bright blues and loud yellows, so they don’t feel too far removed from the software itself.

Features

By clicking the Windows Desktop ∨ drop-down menu, the user is able to select what kind of application (Android, iPad, Mac, Skype for TV etc) they are using to access Skype and the help adjusts itself accordingly. I thought that was pretty neat.

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Another cool feature is if Skype users are having connection issues etc., by clicking Skype service status, they are taken to page with live status updates, which Skype have named Heartbeat. This is where Skype web engineers post updates, highlighting the time and dates, so users know if there is an issue which they are working on.

The stand-out feature for me though is Skype’s tutorial videos because they’re so good. Simple and to the point, between 30 and 45 seconds, they’re very watch-able, well narrated and easy to follow for people who learn by watching something being done rather than by reading. The videos can be found about halfway down the page by clicking See all guides:

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The clip below is the introductory 36-second video, hosted on Youtube, which informs users how to get started by adding contacts:

This is something I’ve earmarked to add to my own documentation when I can get the software and find the time. The technology users of my generation don’t want to read through pages and pages of boring text, they want to either Google the answer or watch the video to quickly learn how something is done. Bish-bash-bosh. If done well, as shown here, I think videos are one of the best tools for explaining basic or even complex concepts quickly and efficiently.

Hidden Features

There are several features in Skype that are slightly hidden and not particularly prominent in the help. One of these is commands that can be typed to allow the user to change settings or learn more about the participants of a chat conversation. The most helpful of these is:

/help – typing this in the chat will produce a list of available commands that can be used.

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These can be used for things like finding a specific text in the chat, leaving a conversation, finding out the number of people in the chat group and the maximum number of people who can join, or even finding out user profile information about a person in your chat group. They’re slightly buried but these can be found here in the Skype help.

The other popular hidden feature are emoticons, which are a fun way to brighten up a conversation and let people know how your feeling. Interestingly, the help does document the main emoticons and their shortcuts as well as the “Hidden emoticons”, shown below, which include (drunk) and (smoking) emoticons among others:

Emoticons

However, the real hidden emoticons, which appeal to the immature inner child in myself and fellow colleagues, aren’t documented at all. To quote Skype, “Shhh, don’t tell anyone!”, but these include such delights as a mooning emoticon (mooning), an emoticon face mouthing “What the f**k?” (wtf) and the finger (finger), a good one for when someone in Skype chat deserves a good slap.

Hidden

I guess by not documenting them they just become more fun for immature techy geeks like myself and my colleagues to find and use to entertain ourselves.

Quality Control

A feedback option at the bottom of most of Skype’s help pages is a great form of quality control and measuring the quality of the documentation. It also gives the user a way to interact with the technical authors who wrote the content.

If you click Yes it thanks you for your feedback, if you click No then you are able to leave feedback but selecting a predefined answer or by clicking Other, entering your own opinions on why the help failed you. It’s a pretty simple but effective way to get feedback from your readers:

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As well as the feedback option, there is also another fallback for readers in the form of the “Still need help?” and “Haven’t found what you were looking for?” links at the bottom of each page which takes the user to the Skype customer service contact details. It also provides a link to the Skype Community, a forum where Skype users can both post questions and answer them to receive “kudos” and rankings, in a similar reward scheme to Tripadvisor. Skype moderators also answer questions but it’s a good way to crowd source user experience and knowledge to find the answer to certain questions.

Conclusion

While there are certain drawbacks in hosting help externally, rather than embedding it, I think Skype have done an excellent job. It’s stylish, innovative and fits with their product relatively seamlessly, the only negative is the break in user experience. The help itself isn’t 100% comprehensive but when I tested out the search feature, it returned answers to my questions most of the time, with only one or two failures to find an answer. However, those are both minor negatives in what is largely a positive experience. As user-facing documentation goes, this help system is hard to fault and deserves a lot of credit for its fun and innovative features.