Author Archive

10 Must-Read Articles on Web Usability

December 30, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s the last post of 2011 and we couldn’t be more excited about what 2012 has on the horizon. Now that Christmas is over, we’re back hard at work and have a big announcement to make…

We’re building a new website!

It’s cool if that doesn’t seem all that special to you. After all, we are web designers. It’s what we do.

But this time, it’s different.

We started the Better User Experience website with one goal in mind: to learn more about web usability and user testing. The technology was always a secondary consideration. What was most important to us were the hours of time that Newman and I spent talking, reading, debating, and rambling (oh my god, the rambling…) on about these issues. What came out of it were the articles and podcasts you’ve seen on this site.

Now, more than 4 months into our learning experiment, we feel an evolution happening. We’ve seen enough of the UX landscape to be able to more strongly report on it. And we want to tackle issues that are interesting to us, but also are interesting to the wider UX community. Or to say it more cutesy, “It’s not about me, it’s about we.”

That’s just a hard thing to do in this restricted format. And by ‘restricted format’ I mean a free WordPress blog that’s hosted on It worked out perfectly for us at the beginning but now we’re feeling some growing pains without FTP access, access to Google Analytics, plugins, and so forth. So, we’re moving.

Yep! Today’s the last new post you’ll see on As of tomorrow night (12/31) we’ll be moving to

Now, as you can see, it’s all hyper-linked up there and stuff and you can totally click that and you’ll totally see the new website. It exists right now!

But be warned: it’s not done. We’re getting there. But we’re working on it live. Maybe it’s because we like to live dangerous or maybe it’s because I saw a NatGeo documentary about the honey badger this morning but I ain’t skurred to work live! Honey badger don’t care!

What will happen in this space tomorrow night is that magically, a 301 redirect will be put here and from then on, BAM! right to the new website. (Those of you who are also web professionals can vouch for the fact that it takes Emeril Legasse to do one properly.)

Kicking 301 redirects up a notch.

And the new website is more than an upgrade. It’s not like going from a mid-90s Geo Metro to a 2012 Nissan Leaf. No! It’s like going from a mid-90s Hyundai Sonata to a 1981 DeLorean DMC-12. Sure, it doesn’t sound as cool (Better User Experience vs. A Better User Experience or BUX vs aBUX) but wait until we get this baby up to 88 mph!

Cue the Huey Lewis! (Kids, ask your parents.)

Trust me, it’ll make sense when you see it. (The website, not the video.)

So on this last day of posting as I wanted to take a moment to look at 10 Must Read Articles about Web Usability. These articles are a small sample of the brilliant things people in the UX community are writing about and are ones that have pushed us to think in new ways about how we build websites.

The List

1. Jakob Nielsen – 10 High-Profit Redesign Priorities

2. Jakob Nielsen – Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace

3. Jakob Nielsen –Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users

4. Smashing Magazine – 12 Tips for Designing an Excellent Checkout Process

5. Smashing Magazine – Optimizing Conversion Rates: It’s All About Usability

6. Smashing Magazine – 5 Universal Principles For Successful eCommerce-Sites

7. Usability Counts – How to Get Started in User Experience for People I Want to Hire

8. A List Apart – Usability Testing Demystified

9. A List Apart – The UX of Learning

10. 37 Signals – Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a web application (book, read online for free)

Categories: articles Tags: ,

Better User Experience Podcast #20: A Test-Case of Drive-By User Testing

December 26, 2011 2 comments

It’s the day after Christmas and boy am I fat and happy. Great time and good food with the family.

Last week, before all the holiday cheer broke out, Newman and I did our first drive-by user test.

You might have seen it.

On today’s podcast we have a little before and after action going on. This podcast was actually shot before and after the video above. We captured our thoughts on what we thought would happen and then take a look back at what happened and what we learned from the experience. It’s a good one!

Listen Now


We Did a Drive-By User Test and Lived to Tell About It

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

How do you follow up a week full of looking back? By pushing forwards!

This week we finally put down the books, stopped all the chitter-chatter and went out and did a user test.

I know. We were excited too.

If you’re anything like us, you read a lot about user testing online. Five reasons you should do this or 10 ways to improve that. It’s not that those are bad articles, it’s just that they’re not touching what happens in a real test.

Last Friday, Newman and I went down to the local coffee shop in Wrightsville Beach, NC. It’s called The Daily Grind. We walked in to an empty house, except for Kate, the lovely barista on staff. We chatted with her and her boss, Tony, for a few minutes to explain what we were up to and before you know it Kate had volunteered to take a user test.

Our goal was to do what we’re calling a “drive-by” user test. Basically, it means you can just roll up on somebody – ask them a question about a website – and see what you get back. It’s not meant to be scientific. Just more of a survey. It’s our belief that even this quick method will yield valuable insights.

We could tell you all about what we did but we shot a video of it instead.

Way better.

In the video you’ll see the entire user test (roughly 6 minutes) and Newman’s thoughts afterward.  All-in-all, I have to say, it was a pretty good first attempt.

Thanks again to Kate – your pictures rawk! – for being our user tester and for Tony and the gang allowing us to bother their shop. As you’ll hear in my voice on Monday’s podcast where we did a whole before and after thing, their coffee will put a motor in you. No doubt.

Join us on Friday when we talk about what we learned from the user test – both about user testing and about the website we tested – and then on Monday  – the day after Christmas – for your aural pleasure, we have a podcast lined up and ready to go about the whole event.

Categories: articles Tags: ,

Better User Experience Podcast #19 – The Top 10 Key UX Concepts We’ve Learned in the Past 4 Months

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

We’ve been doing this learning-about-UX thing for a little over 4 months now. On today’s podcast we take a look back at the Top 10 things we learned in that time. If you’ve been following the site over the past week you know that we’ve already covered this material in two posts. But like any good discussion, we dig a bit further into each topic on the podcast.

Top 10 Key UX Concepts We’ve Learned (So Far)

10. Proactive vs. Reactive
9. UX Testing Resistance
8. The Power of Process
7. The Difference Between User Experience and Usability
6. The Critical Path
4. Prove vs. Improve
3. Signal vs. Noise / Information Theory / Entropy
2. Quick Tests Can Be Valuable
1. There’s a Great UX Community

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Looking Back: 10 Key Usability Concepts: Part 2

December 16, 2011 4 comments

When Ben and I started learning about UX back in August, we committed to a period of learning that ended on December 15th. That doesn’t mean we’re going away, but it does mean that we’re at the end of the time we set aside to get our feet wet in the discipline. As a result, we’ve been doing some reflecting on what we’ve learned and what the most valuable take-aways are from the past 4 months.

On Wednesday, Ben covered the first 5 key UX concepts and today we polish off the list with numbers 5 through 1.


They say CRAP. I say CARP. Whatever... it's all good.

When you don’t know what you’re doing, watching experts is like watching magic happen. How in the world does somebody know how to do that? I mean, how did he know how to do that!?

For visual design and page layout, the saving grace for me was CARP.

  • Content
  • Alignment
  • Repetition
  • Proximity

We talk most about CARP during the Feng-GUI vs… posts.  In those posts we would evaluate a page using the principles of CARP and then run it through the Feng-GUI tool.  This gave us a way to reflect on the visual elements on the page and a way for active testing those reflections. CARP is important for UX’ers because it allows for a way to communicate design decisions to stakeholders who don’t have a visual eye.  You can tell them “This is not ‘Nam.  There are rules!” to quote the Big Lewbowski.  It gave form to the void – a method to the magic. When looking at a design, it gave me a way of looking at it to know not just if it was any good but why it was the way it was. It gave me a system for thinking about design.

4. Prove vs. Improve

Improve is easy. Prove? somewhat harder.

In the beginning of learning about user testing, we thought user testing was essentially a scientific endeavor. And by that I mean that we thought that you had to have strict controls and that it really mattered how the tests were conducted. We felt a strong need to make sure that no bad data tainted the testing process.

But thanks to the Wisdom of Steve Krug and the idea that user testing doesn’t have to be about proving an idea, it’s about improving the website. And because all websites can be improved, in a sense it’s fish in a barrel.

There’s more to that concept: we are all experts at filtering and grouping, it’s about getting points of view not about error bars, and that a majority of the improvements on the website are going to be able to be discovered by out-of-context users.

This means that quick, down-and-dirty testing can be effective because to a certain extent, it’s all about just measuring stimulus response. It’s a freeing concept.

3. Signal vs. Noise / Information Theory / Entropy

See? Easy. I see signal v noise everywhere now.

It’s important to remember that websites are at heart, a communication medium. The computer is a communication device. The Internet connects us. But your web presence is responsible for communicating the message.

The ability to effectively communicate online is essentially what it’s all about.

There are two parts to communication: the communication channel and the message itself.

Information theory is concerned with the communication channel. The message is for all intents is irrelevant. The reason the message doesn’t matter is because it’s generic. Web content is text, video, and audio. The specifics of those content types don’t have any bearing on how the Internet works.

The channel itself has a maximum capacity (or maximum bandwidth). In that channel, there are three possible states:

  1. the amount of the channel used by the signal
  2. the amount of the channel used by noise
  3. the remaining unused channel capacity

If you assume that channel capacity is 100%, all you’re left with is signal and noise. Or, more abstractly, order and disorder.

That’s why we dragged the concept of entropy into the discussion in the first place (Ben’s awesome entropy in UX podcast). At a real level, defining a website’s critical path is the same thing as creating order from disorder.

We know that entropy is the tendency of things to go from order to disorder. But it’s also a measure of the system’s inability to do work.

A web site’s job is to do work. “Work” in this case is defined as “the process of accomplishing the website’s goals”. If you lay out your critical path, you should be able to generate a number for each page in the process that is probability that somebody will leave that page and not continue any farther on the critical path.

Lower that number and you will have reduced the entropy on the website. You will also have strengthened the website’s signal and lowered its noise.  You will have strengthened your critical path and will have additional leads or revenue to show for it.

2. Quick Tests Can Be Valuable

the Flash

Usering testing in a Flash? User testing BY THE FLASH! Ben, I think we found our gimmick.

As we talked a bit #7 Prove vs. Improve, the real shocker for user testing is that it can be done really quickly and with all kinds of leading questions. Essentially, think of a professional yet scientifically invalid test and it’s probably good enough for a basic user test.

The take away is another Krug-ism: “Test early and test often”.

1. There’s a Great UX Community

When we started this site it was a selfish endeavor to learn about web usability. I only use the word ‘selfish’ to mean that we did all of this for our own gratification.  Yes, we hoped that what we put together would resonate with others. Yes, we hoped we’d find a cool existing community of people who are into UX which we could become part of and could learn from and contribute to. And yes, we hoped to reach out to a web ux company here and there.

What we found exceeded our best expectations. Universally, the UX community seems to be made up of good folks who love to learn, are striving to get better, and who generally have a groovy outlook on things.

We’ve been lucky enough to talk to Rafael from Feng-GUI, Paul from Usabilla, and Rachit from Inspectlet. They were very generous with their time and their wisdom and we appreciate them taking the time to talk with us.  Check out our Blogroll and Twitter … followees to find out our community.

In the coming weeks and months we hope to talk to loads more. We want to talk to people passionate about building a better user experience. Learning how to build sites that give users a better experience is what motivates us to do this website, to write these posts and to do the podcasts that we do. We’re fighting entropy and we’ve learned that we’re not alone.

There’s a whole wonderful community of developers, designers, interface experts and ux tool makers who are all fighting the good fight. We’re honored to be a part of it.

Snoopy and Woodstock


Looking Back: 10 Key Usability Concepts: Part 1

December 14, 2011 5 comments

We started this website in late August, 18 weeks ago. It’s a learning experiment. We were two buddies, both web designers, who wanted to know more about web usability and user testing. We gave ourselves the goal of learning what we could by December 15th.

By my calendar, that’s tomorrow.

It’s also nearing the end of the year. And the end of the year is always a time for reflection and for taking stock.

Since we’re at the end of our original learning period, Newman and I felt it was only right to look back on what we’ve learned to see what the key takeaways have been.

We created a list of our Top 10 Key Concepts we feel we learned about building better websites.

This is a decent chunk of material to get through so we’ll be covering this topic for the next three posts.  Today, numbers 10-6. On Friday, numbers 5-1. And on Monday, a podcast where we hash it all out. It’ll be fun!

10. Proactive vs. Reactive

Proactive > Reactive

The natural state of things is to be reactive. Reacting will save your skin if you are trying to run from a giant tiger leaping out from the jungle.  In our modern times, troubling as they may be, there are no tigers.  Death isn’t constantly at the door (and if it is, you’re doing it wrong).

Reacting has a down side though: the success of the reactor depends on the actor.

For a business owner, or really, any goal oriented individual, it’s a bad place to be.

Oh, it’s a comfortable place to be, but it’s not really how you want to be. Nobody has ever gotten their way because they were reactive. You don’t lose weight by not worrying about it. You don’t grow your business by only taking the business that comes through the door. It’s not a long-term strategy.

The advantage of being proactive is that you get to actually have a strategy. It’s chess, not checkers.

We talked about this as it relates to the small business owner back in September where we described an ideal initial meeting and how to create valuable monthly reports.  This is important for UX designers because testing is inherently a proactive thing. It doesn’t happen in a reactive system. This is why oftentimes a cold wind starts to blow when the topic of user testing comes up.  And it’s also the next key concept we ran into:

9. UX Testing Resistance

Resist user testing your website? A little activation energy is required, I suspect.

When told clients and business owners we know about UX testing, they generally respond negatively.  “Watch people use our site and ask them stuff? Nah, I think the site is fine.” they would say.  While we didn’t expect them to jump for joy, we did expect a little more… interest.

Why did they react this way?  It’s because oftentimes it’s being introduced into a reactive environment and it rubs the wrong way.

I grew up playing the drums and I once got a piece of advice about how to play. The idea is that a drummer typically plays a little behind the beat or a little ahead of the beat. And either one is okay to do. The one thing you can’t do as a drummer is to shift from playing behind the beat to ahead of the beat mid-song.

That’s what introducing a proactive element into a reactive system is like.  And its what accounts for a large amount of a business owner’s gut resistance to it. It doesn’t fit their work model.

And for the ones that it does, it’s still a matter of getting it incorporated into their system. So it’s a bit of an uphill battle, at least initially, unless you have forward-thinking clients.

Like most everything, the proof is in the pudding, and most businesses come around once they realize that user testing is a key component in raising their web site’s revenue.

8. The Power of Process

One ring to rule them all

What's your mental image of ultimate power? This is mine.

User testing fits best inside a larger structure of improvement and goal setting and seeking. It practically begs for it. The reason somebody would do a user test is because they plan on iterating their website. And once a website has been iterated, the change – good or bad – can be measured.

And that is essentially all the process you need.  Once it becomes evident that sales/leads/revenue increases when improvements are made to the website and that the improvements are discovered through user testing – goal setting and allocating a proper budget for growing the web business will follow.  The process will emerge. It has to. It’s how we make the website a better producer.

7. The Difference Between User Experience and Usability

User Experience Design

User Experience Design is the umbrella term for many difference fields, including usability

It seems every sub-culture or community has weird semantic issues.  When it comes to naming things, people aren’t very good.  We like to borrow words that aren’t clear and then use them indiscriminately.  As we jumped into the world of UX – which is short-hand for User Experience – we discovered a whole new vocabulary.  One of the keys was understanding that User Experience was the umbrella, the super-system which includes Usability.

Usability is the technical side of UX.  It is quantifiable and measured with tools like google analytics and A/B tests. User experience includes the qualitative and holistic experience.  It’s harder to measure and includes emotions and feelings of the users.  It is mysterious and an inexact science, but doing the ux techniques can reveal mistakes in a web design and improve sites.

6. The Critical Path

jeep ad

Two Critical Paths! I found it... wait a minute. PHOTOSHOP!

We first talked about the critical path back in late September in the post “Cut the Chute and Get on the Critical Path (to Profit)”. The concept is an easy one: design your website so that all of the energy is about moving a user from the beginning of the process to the end of the process. Define the pages in the critical process and boom, there’s your critical path.

But more important for me was the ability to finally know what’s supposed to go on a website.

That sounds like a shameful thing to admit: a web designer doesn’t know what’s supposed to go on a web site. But as a designer, we get wrapped up in the technical aspects of what we do. When we nerd out on our thing, we argue about technical arcana. For nerds, it’s not about solving business problems. That’s why there are business guys.

But business guys don’t know either. I’ve been building websites for a long time and it’s rare that a business owner takes ownership over the content and ordering of that content on the website.

They just leave it up to the nerds, and at least in the local market, nobody seems to specialize in knowing what goes where.

So the critical path is a big f-ing deal.  Now we have a way to lay everything out: Do it in the way that makes the most sense to achieve the objective of the website.

Join us on Friday for #5-#1 on the list!

Better User Experience Podcast #18 – An Interview with Paul Veugen from Usabilla

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

This week’s Podcast has a special guest, Paul Veugen, who comes to us via Skype  from the Usabilla Headquarters in Amsterdam Holland.  Conducting the interview I was a bit nervous – I stumbled, said ‘um’ too many times, but regardless of that, we had a pretty good time.  I think you’ll enjoy it.

We talked about the tool and how it can be used, naturally.  But we also discussed, what I feel makes Usabilla stand out – it’s organizational culture.  It’s a relatively new company,a start-up.  Paul humbly describes it in a matter of fact tone.  He needed a tool for his university studies and cobbled it together.  Then, a friend convinced him to build it as a scalable app and they started a company.  He got some clients and then got some external funding.  “See, it’s fuggin’ simple”, says the Tenacious D frontman Jack Black.  The Usabilla team’s creativity is evident in their use of social media – in blog posts, updates, and interesting uses of the tools – like a report created for the wider community on UX on eCommerce Sites. They get it and it shows.

It’s not so much what they do (usability testing) but how they do it.  Plainly stated, I think they are having fun.  And, fun is contagious.  So, thank you Paul and the Usabilla gang, for sharing with us.  Good luck and Enjoy!

Remember you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes – new episodes every Monday!