The lost art of efficiency in web design

A few years ago I was interviewing a woman about a travel website that she loved. She explained how it had made her life better.

‘When I’m planning to fly, I block out my evenings for the week and I use this site to find the best deals. I normally spend a couple of hours a night looking for flights. At the end of it I get the best deal,’ she told me happily. I asked her how much  she saved by going to all that trouble. ‘Well,… easily £10 [$15],’ she said, looking a little less happy.

The fact is, people are poor judges of time – especially when they’re kept busy. That means that web design is often unconcerned with actual efficiency. Perceived efficiency is what matters most.

If our attention is engaged, we don’t tend to notice that our time is being wasted. That’s why ‘loading’ animations are so useful – they stop people from getting bored when the computer is taking a long time to respond. They keep up ‘perceived efficiency’ even when actual efficiency is low.

A decade and a half of desktop web design has relied on this kind of misdirection. We’ve been able to focus on effectiveness and satisfaction (both are important and hard to get right) but we’ve not had to think much about efficiency.

That approach isn’t good enough anymore.

The rise of the smartphone means people are trying to do the same things online (buy furniture, edit photos, manage their accounts) but on smaller screens, over slower connections in distracting environments. We need the simplicity that comes from highly efficient interactions. We can’t ignore ‘efficiency’ any longer.

The bad news is, designing for efficiency is demanding, difficult and counter-intuitive.

A few weeks back, we were looking at improving an address input for a responsive website. We needed the address to be validated, so we had the choice of two systems. One was the fairly standard ‘input your post code [zip code] and pick from a list of choices’. The other was a new autocomplete system where you start typing your address and it autocompletes.

It wasn’t clear which was the most efficient. We couldn’t simply run a user test: the interaction took just a few seconds and we’d need to have tested hundreds of people to get a statistically valid answer. Nor could we AB test: it would have required days worth of development effort that no-one was prepared to commit to possibly shaving a few seconds off the interaction.

The normal reaction would be to get everyone in a room and argue about it for an hour. In which case we’d have spent a day or more of consultancy time and the decision would have gone to the loudest person in the room.

Instead we picked up an old tool that fell out of favour in a world were perceived efficiency was king: GOMS KLM. This is a painstaking way of modelling user behaviour one click at a time. Modelling those two simple interactions took about an hour. But it yielded a clear winner based on evidence not opinion. The autocomplete approach was about four seconds faster and less prone to user error. Not the answer that many people were expecting.

It’s that kind of painstaking analysis that’s required if you want to edge an interface to genuine efficiency. But added up, those seconds become minutes and those minutes become an advantage.

A couple of years ago, one of our clients spent £250,000 [$375,000] to shave a few seconds off their shopping basket process. They saw payback in less than a year.

To achieve simplicity, you can’t just focus on efficiency. You need to score high on effectiveness and satisfaction, too. There’s no point in being efficient, yet annoying.

That’s what makes simplicity so hard to achieve – you’re shooting for high scores in all three areas. But there’s a satisfaction to the craft of perfecting an interface in this way. And, of course, it makes a real difference to your users and your bottom line.

How to remove the faux leather in iCal for OS X Lion

Among the many changes to iCal in Apple’s OS X 10.7 Lion is a rather horrible leather effect.

Sometimes dressing up software in this way is useful – it makes it approachable, fun or easier to understand. But in this instance it clashes badly with the rest of OS-X which takes a minimalist approach. The leather-effect is distracting and out of place.

iCal with horrible leather effect

Fortunately, fixing this is fairly simple – just a matter of changing a few graphics files hidden inside your Mac.

What might go wrong

First, a word of warning. Alongside the graphics files you will have access to files that can have a profound effect on iCal. If you follow the instructions you should be fine. But if you accidentally move, rename or delete those files, iCal might stop working properly or you might lose data from your calendar. If you’re the kind of person who accidentally deletes files, don’t try this.

I’m not providing any technical support around this hack. If you choose to try it, it’s entirely your responsibility if you lose any data, waste time, need to re-install iCal or purchase any software or services to fix things.

How to get rid of the leather theme in iCal

You’ll need an administrator password. For most people this is the password they use to log on to their Mac, but if someone else administers your Mac (meaning you’re not allowed to install software and so on) then you’ll have to ask them for help.

  1. Make sure iCal is closed and that you have a backup of iCal.
    You can do that by creating an empty folder on your desktop, selecting iCal and dragging it into the folder whilst holding the ALT key. If you do this, you’ll see a little plus sign in a green bubble when you drag it. Make sure you do it this way, otherwise you won’t copy the iCal properly, you’ll just get an alias. 
  2. In your Applications folder, click on your original copy of iCal while holding the CTRL key so you get a pop-up menu and choose ‘Show package contents’.
    This lets you see ‘inside’ iCal and look at some of the files it’s built from.
    iCal pop-up menu 
  3. Open the folder ‘Contents’ and then within that, open the folder ‘Resources’.
    Inside, you’ll find the icons and background images which are used to draw iCal on your computer’s screen. 
  4. Download, open it up in your Finder and Select All.
    These are plain grey versions of the background and buttons you will use to replace those that Apple shipped with Lion. 
  5. Drag the files into the iCal: Contents: Resources folder.
    You will likely have to authenticate this action (i.e. enter your password). You’ll be asked whether you want to ‘Keep both files, Stop or Replace’. Click ‘Apply to all’ and ‘Replace’ then enter your password.
    Click on 'Apply to all' and 'Replace'
  6. Close the ‘Resources’ and ‘Contents’ folders if they’re still open, start up iCal and hey-presto! you have a plain silver theme.
    iCal silver theme

And that’s it. Good luck!

(PS I’m not the first, or the only person to do this – MacNix has done the same thing for Address Book and  Stu has a choice of red or silver themes at his website.)

Design Critique

This week I had a call from Timothy Keirnan, presenter of the long-running Design Critique UX podcast. He’d been reading Simple and Usable and wanted to discuss the book on the upcoming edition. Here’s a pro tip: if you’re being recorded, try not to drink two cups of black coffee beforehand as it gives the voice a growly quality. You can hear for yourself by listening to the Design Critique Podcast on Tim’s website.

Weird remotes

Here are a few of the strangest remote control ideas I’ve come across over the past few months.

Cushion remote?

I don’t quite understand Brookstone’s thinking on the cushion remote. I guess it goes something like:

‘People are always losing remote controls behind cushions, so if we make a remote control that is also a cushion, we’ve solved that problem. High five!’

I have to admit that even though I know Brookstone is full of gadgety junk, I can’t walk past their stores without wanting to go in. They speak directly to the seven year old kid inside me who wants to watch a big TV and get served dinner by a remote control butler.

BIG remote

Another way to make something hard to lose is to make it so enormous that you can see it from space. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t a big remote. Maybe the guy holding it is just really tiny.







Big, but it’s Art

Russian designer Art Lebedev is always coming up with designs that bridge the gap between clunky and cool. If you’ve got too many channels on your cable TV, I guess this is for you. There are only 103 buttons, though. If you need more options than that, this remote looks long enough to poke the TV.












Dance, dance, revolution

Creativity often comes from combining two seemingly unrelated ideas to make something completely new. So what happens if you combine a dance mat with the device that’s supposed to stop you from having to get up out of your seat?









In the dark?

I’d like all my remote controls to be backlit – it’s such an obvious improvement. But I can’t help feeling that a stick-on pop-up torch is the worst of both worlds.







The magic wand might actually be quite good fun. Wave it in various gestures to change channel, adjust the volume. Just make sure the curtains are drawn!







The orb

The thing about a circular remote control with a touchscreen surface is you’d have trouble in a dark room knowing whether you were holding it the right way round. Fortunately there’s room at the back for one of those pop-up microlights. Problem solved.

Come to UX London

UX London is one of the highlights of my calendar as it always draws such an amazing line up of stars and thinkers from the world of user experience and design.
So I was flattered, delighted and slightly overawed to be asked to speak at UX London 2011 alongside heroes like Alan Cooper and Lou Rosenfeld and friends like Bryan Reiger and Kevin Hoffman.
My contribution will be a three-hour workshop on ‘Advanced Simplicity’ which I promise will be fast-paced and hands-on workshop. We’ll explore the difference between what’s ‘basic’ and what ‘simple’ by simplifying everyday devices. We’ll see the surprising impact that simplifying user experiences can have on individuals and organisations. Through discussion, demonstration and your own ingenuity, you’ll learn practical techniques for creating experiences that are simple, effective and compelling.
A limited number of tickets are available at discounted prices – get them while you can.