Body language, cults and choice - UPA Redux #1

 by Martin Belam, 29 June 2011

Last week I was in Atlanta for the UPA conference. Here is part one of my notes from the week:

“Body language” - Brooke Baldwin

“People often say to me: ‘That’s not body language. That’s hand gestures. I don’t know about you, but my hands are connected to my body” - Brooke Baldwin at #UPA2011

Brooke Baldwin (not the CNN one who I also saw in Atlanta) did an excellent session on reading body language during usability testing sessions. So much of what we can take out of that testing lab is down to our ability to read people, and non-verbal communication is an important part of that.

She was a brilliant presenter, who physically mimicked the traits she was talking about. Including a really horrible creepy eye thing where she took to an uncomfortable extreme the idea that making good eye contact with a test subject was important.

Brooke stressed that it was important to be in tune with your own feelings and responses during a session. If you suddenly found yourself feeling a bit tense, it was probably because you were picking up some tenseness from the subject. She also reminded us that our own behaviour sets the tone for what is acceptable behaviour in the session.

She suggested an interesting and rather cute tactic. Brooke argued that when you pay people money to come into a lab, they can’t help but feel inclined to please you, and that means they will probably shy away from making criticism of a product, however much you stress to them that you are neutral and can’t be offended. Putting a deliberate and glaringly obvious mistake into an online application or website early on in the session gives the user an easy opportunity to get used to saying that there are problems. And if they don’t raise it with you, you’ll know that they are unlikely to be forthcoming about more subtle problems.

Brooke recommended Dr. Paul Eckman’s work on reading faces, and, rather daringly, finished the session by getting us to look for facial tic that might indicate a certain very famous cyclist might be lying when talking about drug usage within the sport.

“Is UX a cult?” - Kathi Kaiser

Kathi Kaiser’s Ignite talk compared UX to a cult. We have mantras, she said, like “you are not your user”, and a shared belief system, behavioural norms, and sainted leaders. She argued that this may not necessarily be a bad thing, since we constantly need new converts to the cause if we are going to succeed in improving digital experiences. She also said something that resonated with me, and something that as professionals that we sometimes overlook when we complain about marketing or IT messing up our designs:

“It is not blasphemy to acknowledge that business goals can be just as important as user goals”

Kathi has posted her slides here.

“Choice, subtraction, and dumb marketing” - Susan Weinschenk

Susan Weinschenk gave an excellent run-through of some of the topics in her book “Neuro web design: What makes them click”.

Amongst the things I noted in her talk was that news isn’t the only area facing the tyranny of chronology. Weinschenk says that when she refers back to studies carried out in the sixties, sometimes people ask her “Why are you showing the old research?”, regardless of whether it is still valid. As Paul Adams said in his keynote: “Technology changes fast. Human behaviour changes slowly”.

Susan Weinschenk talked about choice, explaining the well-known phenomena that “When you give people too many choices, they get overwhelmed and don’t choose anything at all”. Paradoxically of course, if you ask them, people say they love choice. That is one reason why users often make the conflicting request that websites should show them as many options as possible, but also be simple to use, for example

“My advice is try and put as much on page as possible as simply laid out” - thetrashheap

I think the powerful idea of providing choice is the reason why most news sites have front pages where editors have insisted that huge number of stories are listed.

She also showed how Dell had increased revenue by tapping into the human fear of “losing” something. The have changed their online shopping wizard from “adding upgrades” to subtracting cost by using cheaper components. People end up choosing a higher specification because they don’t want to feel like they are missing out.

Susan had an amusing anecdote about the marketing for her book. Inside it, she describes how tests have shown that if you ask people for some details before they download a white paper or sample content, they tend to either supply junk information or don’t bother. If, on the other hand, you give away the item, and then ask for some personal data, you get a higher response rate and better quality data. Guess which option her publisher went for...


The next set of notes will feature A/B testing and the measuring of UX at PayPal, and a couple of talks which took a humourous approach to the business of UX.

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