The Devil is in the Detail – what does a default state say about you?

Last week I commented on Michael Wilson’s post about ‘sort by default‘ as an option when customising search results or product listings. I shared my personal experience with a recent client and thought it was worth sharing here too.

Intelligent defaults

In short, the point Michael made was that sites providing the ability to sort content without setting a relevant default are missing a trick.

An example of how ASOS don't set a default 'sort' state

Michael used the example of ASOS. Although they include a sort feature with the options ‘what’s new?’, ‘Price High to Low‘ and vice-verse they don’t explicitly set a default state. This raises the question of how the products are currently sorted, is it editor-defined, chronological, alphabetical or something else entirely?

Although this is a valid issue and something, as User Experience professionals, we need to be aware of it’s a relatively quick fix. The complexity is in understanding what the sort says about the website in the first place.

What does a default sort say about a brand?

Recently I had a conversation with a travel destination client about this exact issue. During a workshop intended to cover off the finer points of a prototype a heated debate started around what the default ‘sort’ state should be for holiday search results. Should it be an ‘editors choice’ or be sorted by more neutral means;  location, accommodation type (lodge, chalet, etc), availability, or price.

After much discussion everyone agreed that, based on our knowledge of the customer, price was the best option. But then came the question; should we sort high to low, or low to high?

By preselecting ‘high to low‘ you communicate that you are a higher-end brand and that quality, rather than cost, is a priority for your customers.

Conversely, by presenting items ‘low to high‘ you align your proposition with affordability, value, and competitive/budget pricing rather than the sense of exclusivity or luxury.


For the travel brand it came down to making a fundamental decision about themselves that, surprisingly, they hadn’t openly discussed or defined before; are we a value/budget brand (such as Butlins or Easyjet) or is money not an issue for our customers and therefore focused on quality, closer aligned to brands such as Mr & Mrs Smith or Kuoni? Once we posed this question to them it was an easy decision to make and helped drive other decisions across the site.

Its safe to say, with hindsight, that this was an issue we should have had clearly defined at the start of the project as part of a wider strategy. In actual fact it was, but with so many stakeholders in the room it became apparent that it was not a shared view and certainly not something that had been openly discussed.

The default state of a sort isn’t going to dramatically change people’s perceptions but it’s this kind of little detail in my opinion that really matters as it can help to provide a cohesive and consist experience.

With a clearly defined experience strategy these sorts of decisions should be straight forward and not open for debate (e.g. “we’re a value brand appealing to families therefore the only logical answer is to provide our customers with the cheapest options first.”), without this the experience can end up feeling disjointed and can lead to conflict.

In short, do sweat the small stuff, but be clear on your strategy and proposition so that you keep the sweat to a minimum.


New beginnings – Redweb is hiring a User Experience Consultant

It’s been a while (6 months to be precise) since I posted anything on here and although I’d rather my first post back was one of the many half started blog posts I have stored away, I felt this was an ideal time for me to share some news and go some way to explaining why I’ve been so quiet of late.

  • Launched a new portfolio – After about a year of procrastination, and with a little help from Matt Budd‘s coding skills, I finally relaunched my personal portfolio website. A lot of  work has gone into it and I’ll hopefully blog more about it soon.
  • Exciting projects in the pipeline – The first half of 2011 has been an exciting time for Redweb and the UX team has been kept busy with some very interesting, and challenging, projects. There’s a lot of things I’ve learnt while working on these projects that I’d like to share but I’ll wait until the website’s have gone live before I do.
  • A baby on the way – We’re expecting our first baby later this year, which I’m understandably stoked about. I can’t wait to become a Dad, and although I know it’ll have a profound effect on me I’ve made the decision not to write about my personal life from now on so I’ll be trying my hardest not to mention it again.
  • Made a big decision – after 6 years at Redweb I felt it was time I set myself some new challenges and move on. It’s been great to witness Redweb grow and evolve over the years and I feel privileged to have played a part in it. But, as of this week, I’m joining SapientNitro as an Information Architecture Manager.  I’m really looking forward to the challenges this will bring and hopefully I’ll share them on here (if I get the chance).

This means there’s now a UX-shaped hole at Redweb. Although, initially at least, they’re not directly replacing me they are looking to recruit a new User Experience Consultant to help bolster the team.

Before leaving I worked closely with the team to make sure the quality of the UX offering and the way it permeates through the agency is not lost or negatively impacted. I have the utmost confidence in the team I leave behind and I’ll be watching them with interest over the coming months. The vacancy is a great opportunity for anyone wanting to work on the south coast as part of a professional, well established and award winning team with some interesting and varied clients.

Sound interesting? Take a look at the job description for more details. Alternatively feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions you’d like to ask.

The ultimate User Experience book league table (revisited)

Last year I compiled a league table of the most popular UX books read by UX Book Clubs around the World. I’d actually forgotten about the list but recently witnessed a resurgence of interest in the post so I thought it might be a good idea to revisit the league table and update it based on the activities of book clubs in 2010.

I can’t take credit for the league table as it originated on and is updated on an ongoing basis. I thought it would be worth capturing it for posterity and to see how it changes overtime, which books have gained the most interest over the last year and which have been forgotten. Hopefully this is something I’ll remember to compile each year from now on.

It’s worth noting that this league table is not based on opinion, it is a record of the books read over the last 2 years by UX Book Clubs around the World. If you feel there are books missing that should be included please feel free to add a comment below, however as it is based on the number of appearances at UX Book Clubs the only way to get books added to the league table is to attend a book club and suggest it there.

User Experience book league table

Sketching User Experiences

by Bill Buxton, published by Morgan Kaufmann
Read by Sydney, Melbourne, London, Israel, Atlanta, Dallas, Denver (Colorado), New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Twin Cities, Washington DC, Helsinki, Edmonton, Zuid-Holland

Don’t Make Me Think

by Steve Krug, published by New Riders
Read by Canberra, Memphis, Los Angeles, Boston, Milwaukee, Edmonton, Bristol, Wroclaw, Belfast, Hamburg, Glasgow

Mental Models

by Indi Young, published by Rosenfeld Media
Read by Boston, Brisbane, Canberra, New York, Portland, Auckland, Denver (Colorado), Brighton, Zuid-Holland, Rome

Designing for the Social Web

by Joshua Porter, published by New Riders
Read by Sydney, Chicago, Denver (Colorado), Glasgow, Edmonton, Brattleboro, St Albans, Warsaw, Wroclaw

Subject to Change

by Peter Merholz et al, published by O’Reilly
Read by New York, Richmond VA, Boston, Sydney, Toronto, Portland, Copenhagen

Web Form Design

by Luke Wroblewski, published by Rosenfeld Media
Read by Ithaca, Warsaw, Toronto, Atlanta, Wroclaw, Sydney

The Design of Everyday Things

by Don Norman, published by Basic Books
Read by Edmonton, Bristol, Portland, Wellington, Vancouver, Glasgow

A Project to UX Design

by Russ Unger & Carolyn Chandler, published by New Riders
Read by Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, Edmonton

The Back of the Napkin

by Don Roam, published by Marshall Cavendish
Read by Silicon Valley, Portland, Melbourne, San Francisco

Emotional Design

by Don Norman, published by Basic Books
Read by Brisbane, Toronto, Auckland

Communicating Design

by Dan Brown, published by New Riders
Read by Bristol, Denver (Colorado), Rome

Design is the Problem

by Nathan Shedroff, published by Rosenfeld Media
Read by Washington DC, Auckland, Switzerland

Designing Interactions

by Bill Moggridge, published by MIT Press
Read by Atlanta, Calgary, Glasgow

The Creative Habit

by Twyla Tharp, published by Simon & Schuster
Read by Chicago, Dallas

Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

by Alex Wright, published by Cornell University
Read by Canberra, Sydney

Designing for Interaction

by Dan Saffer, published by New Riders
Read by Austin, Melbourne

Designing Gestural Interfaces

by Dan Saffer, published by O’Reilly
Read by London, Los Angeles

Designing for the Digital Age

by Kim Goodwin, published by Wiley
Read by Seattle, Melbourne


by Richard H. Thaler, published by Penguin
Read by Los Angeles, New York

Measuring the User Experience

by Thomas Tullis & William Albert, published by Morgan Kaufmann
Read by Washington DC, Warsaw

It’s possible this list may be a little flawed as it’s not clear how often the official league table is updated, but I thought it was worth sharing it again and noting the differences a year on from my original post regardless. If you’re interested in the original league table to can find it on the UX Book Club wiki. Alternatively, if you have any comments please feel free to share them below.

I’m standing for UK Liaison in the UKUPA December elections

UK UPA logo

This month the UK Usability Professionals’ Association (UK UPA) has introduced 4 new roles into the committee to help reduce workload and share responsibilities. In my opinion this is a great idea, especially as the roles are so clearly defined, allowing each person to have a very specific focus and function.

UK Liaison

Of particularly interest to me is the position of UK Liaison, a role designed to represent the UK UPA outside of London and support new and existing regional UX communities. The main requirements of the position are to:

  • Provide the main point of contact for and lead UK UPA activities around collaboration with other UX/Usability groups outside of London
  • Build relationships and liaise with existing and potential UK chapters
  • Be the first point of contact for all UK chapter queries
  • Make members aware of related events, and advertise London based UK UPA events to other UK  groups
  • Take a lead role in ensuring that speakers and resources are shared across other groups events where possible


Although I think the UK UPA does a great job I believe this is a role that has been lacking for some time. Back in August, during the main committee elections Jane Austin (now Vice Chair) asked for questions to be posed to candidates.

Although I work for a ‘regional’ agency our clients are spread far and wide and naturally a portion of my time is spent working in London. It’s because of the amount of time I spend in London that I’m able to engage with the UPA and attend events, but I know many people who aren’t so fortunate. I’ve felt for some time that the association is not fully representative of the UK, and focuses a disproportion amount on London.

Following Jane’s request I posed the question, how candidates would support UPA members and the wider industry outside of London. I was surprised by the level of discussion this raised and soon realised I wasn’t alone in my opinion.

Since, then it’s played on my mind and I’ve wanted to do something to help support regional communities, but haven’t really known in what form to express this. So it was great to find out that the UK UPA were creating the new role. Although, I’m sure my chances are slim I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t stand. So last week I submitted my nomination for the post of UK Liaison.

Voting opened on Monday 22nd November and I now have a nervous wait until 15th December when we find out the results.

The quality of competition I face is high, with nominations coming from both Bunnyfoot and Flow Interactive, two agencies I have the utmost respect for. Although I personally don’t know the other candidates, Nick and Greg, I’m confident that if I’m not successful the position will be in very good hands.


Having said that, please vote for me! Unfortunately only UPA members are eligible to vote, if you are a member please consider my nomination. You can find out more about my nomination as well as the other candidates on the election page of the UK UPA website and you can cast your vote on SurveyMonkey.

If you’re not a member I’d still really appreciate your support. Although voting is only open to members UK UPA, events are open to all so it’s important that everyone has a say in it’s future.

If you have any thoughts or ideas you’d like to share I’d be really interested to hear them so please leave a comment or question below. How do you think the UK UPA can better support regional UX communities? What would you like from the UK Liaison role?

Understanding the power of the Goldilocks Effect

I have a passion for design patterns. I like to understand the reasons why certain patterns work and dislike using conventions without knowing why they have become successful.

Recently I’ve found myself interested in the psychology of persuasion and the ways in which certain techniques have infiltrated the web. One such technique is the “Goldilocks Effect”. I’ve been aware of it for a while but had only ever thought of it as just another design pattern and hadn’t necessarily thought to understand the psychology behind it.

What is the Goldilocks Effect?

The term ‘goldilocks effect’ derives from the children’s story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. In the story Goldilocks decides, amongst other things, to eat one of three bowls of porridge; the first being too hot, the next too cold, but the final one she picks for being “just right”.

This, in a nutshell, is what the term goldilocks effect or ‘goldilocks pricing’ refers to. It is used to describe the practice of providing a premium as well as a budget option alongside the regularly priced product to make the standard option seem more appealing. A good example of this is the basic pricing structure adopted by most airlines. They encourage customers to see business class as good value by offering higher priced first class and economy options alongside it. A more everyday example can be seen in all mainstream coffee shops where the options range from small (tall) to large (venti), with regular (grande) in-between.  The goal of this type of pricing  is to push people who might usually buy the cheapest into buying a more expensive option.

Media Temple

“Third-class railway carriages in Victorian England are said to have been built without windows, not so much to punish third-class customers (for which there was no economic incentive), as to motivate those who could afford second-class seats to pay for them instead of taking the cheaper option.” Wikipedia

This technique for encouraging a more favourable transaction exploits our psychological aversion to extremes (a type of cognitive bias). Basically you can manipulate people into choosing the option that yields the greatest profit by providing them with three options (e.g. small, medium, large) as long as the item you wish to sell the most of is centered within the range.

Interestingly some economists have argued that the goldilocks effect constitutes a form of ‘pricing discrimination’ where premium pricing to encourage people to upgrade their purchases leads to providers intentionally worsening the quality of their ‘basic’ products to fit the model.

Odeon set 3 options across all audience types

I witnessed the goldilocks effect in action last year when user testing a travel insurance website. Following the quote process the participants where presented with 3 options, and even though most of them had mentioned price as a key factor in their decision making when purchasing insurance the vast majority commented that, even though there was very little difference between the products, they were more likely to purchase standard or premium over the cheapest option as they felt that by doing so they would be “even more insured”. Interestingly some users went as far as to show distrust, not of the brand, but of the lesser option.

Three is the magic number

Although in the children’s story Goldilocks is confronted by three options the pricing technique doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to that number. It does, however, make sense to limit the options as there’s less chance of overwhelming the customer with choice while also providing just enough for the technique to achieve its desired result.

It is possible to offer too much choice

Goldilocks and the four bears

While looking for examples I found a couple of instances were four products were shown. Rather than just show each option equally alongside the next, one of the central items would be highlighted as the ideal or ‘most popular’ choice. By visually separating out one of the central options they reduce the chance of choice paralysis. I accept that choosing from only four options is not exactly excessive but I do believe it has had enough of an effect for the companies to feel it necessary to highlight one.

Basecamp, a good example of exceeding the ‘magic number’

How to use the Goldilocks Effect successfully

So how can you utilise our natural aversion to extremes to encourage a transaction? I don’t consider myself an expert in this but I thought I’d share some of the ways I think you can use the goldilocks effect.

  1. Limit the number of options – ideally keep it limited to 3, although more can clearly work, too many could cause choice paralysis.
  2. Clearly show the comparison between each product – make the users choice clear by placing each option side by side
  3. Highlight the similarities and differences between the features and benefits – make sure the differences between each option is clearly displayed; what are the features or benefits? How is the higher price justified?
  4. Ensure product labels follow a consistent theme – SurveyMonkey for example use basic, pro and unlimited. Getsignoff uses audience types; freelancer, team or agency. With Getsignoff there is in-fact a forth option (free) but they choose not to place this alongside the paid for services.
  5. Use social proof to support the sell – as shown in the Basecamp example above highlight which option is the ‘most popular’ with your customers. By emphasising the choice made by the majority of people it reinforces that the middle option is the best, if everyone else is choosing it, it must be right.

I hope you’ve found this introduction useful. If you’d like to see more examples of the goldilocks effect in action I’ve put together a collection which I’ll be updating so If you know of any other examples please feel free to share them.

Update 27/10/2010

I’ve put together a collection of examples of the goldilocks pricing pattern on so please check it out.

User Experience books for beginners on UXBooth

Back in April the nice people at UXBooth asked me if I’d like to write a blog post for them.

At the time having noticed a lot of great looking books on the horizon from the likes of Donna Spencer and the boys from ClearLeft, Cennydd Bowles and James Box, I thought I’d put together a post about New UX Books to Look Out for in 2010.

It seemed to get quite a good reception so this week I wrote a follow up post aimed at people new to UX. You can read the post User Experience Books for Beginners on UX Booth.

11 Principles of Interaction Design explained

Back in July I posted a presentation on Slideshare highlighting 11 key interaction design principles. Some of the feedback I received asked if I could share my notes from the presentation which is exactly what I’m doing now.

This post isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of interaction design principles, its merely an introduction to the subject. And I’m definitely not going to attempt to enter the lions den of defining what ‘interaction design’ is, that’s for another day!

1. Match Experience & Expectations

When using a product or service for the first time there is likely to be an element of learning needed to get to grips with it. This learning curve can often be an uncomfortable experience especially if the proposition doesn’t feel familiar.

By matching the sequence of steps, layout of information and terminology used with the expectations and prior experiences of the user the friction and discomfort of learning a new system will be reduced.

Matching your audience’s prior experiences and expectations is achieved by using common conventions or UI patterns. Des Traynor and Eoghan McCabe from Contrast put together a great presentation for FOWA Dublin last year all about conventions which is well worth a look. It introduces the importance of conventions but more importantly highlights when they should be broken.

2. Consistency

As well as matching peoples expectations through terminology, layout and interactions the way in which they are used should be consistent throughout the process and between related applications.

By maintaining consistency users learn more quickly, this can be achieved by re-applying in one part of the application their prior experiences from another.

An added bonus of keeping elements consistent is that you can then use inconsistency to indicate to users where things do not work the way they might expect. Breaking consistency is similar to knowing when to be unconventional as mentioned above.

3. Functional Minimalism

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Albert Einstein

The range of possible actions should be no more than is absolutely necessary. Providing too many options can detract from the primary functions and reduce usability by overwhelming the user with choices. To achieve the zen of ‘functional minimalism’:

  • Avoid unnecessary features and functions
  • Break complex tasks into manageable sub-tasks
  • Limit functions rather than the user experience

4. Cognitive load

Cognition is the scientific term for the “process of thought”. When designing interactions we need to minimise the amount of “thinking work” required to complete a particular task. Another way of putting it is that a good assistant uses their skills to help the master focus on their skills.

We need to understand how much concentration the task requires to complete it and create a user interface that reduces cognitive load as much as possible. A good way to reduce the amount of ‘thinking work’ the user has to do is to focus on what the computer is good at and build a system that uses the computers skills to the best of its abilities. Remember that computer are good at:

  • Maths
  • Remembering things
  • Keeping track of things
  • Comparing things
  • Spell Checking and spotting/correcting errors

5. Engagement

In User Experience terms engagement measures the extent to which a consumer has a meaningful experience. An engaging experience is not only more enjoyable, but also easier and more productive. As with many things engagement is subjective so the system your designing must engage with the desired audience; what appeals to a teenager is not necessarily what their grandparent would also find engaging. Beyond aligning with the appropriate users, control achievement and creation are key.

The user should feel like they are in control of the experience at all times, they must constantly feel like they’re achieving something and also be able see the results through positive feedback or alternatively feel like they’ve created something.

In his book ‘Flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a state of optimal experience, where people are so engaged in the activity they’re doing that the rest of the world falls away. Flow is what we’re looking to achieve through engaging interactions. We should allow users to concentrate on their work, not on the user interface. In short keep out of the way!

6. Functional Layering

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule), in the context of interaction design, is the rule that 20% of the functionality is used 80% of the time. Therefore we should make the most common or important functions easiest to find. We can do this by hiding or reducing the prominence of infrequently used or advanced functions.

  • Look for functions that are not essential to the core tasks, or which are shortcuts for advanced users.
  • Consider introducing default settings and preset choices for new users or people who either don’t wish to or aren’t experienced enough to access advanced functionality.

Functional layering allows experienced users to access advanced functionality easily without hindering beginners. The idea is that as a user progresses they will naturally discover how to access such features without being overwhelmed early on.

7. Control, Trust & Explorability

These three elements are fundamentally important to any system. If users feel in control of the process they will be more comfortable using the system. If the user is comfortable and in control they will trust that the system will protect them from making unrecoverable or unrecognised errors or from feeling stupid. Trust inspires confidence and with confidence the user is free to explore further.

8. Error Prevention, Detection & Recovery

The best way to reduce the amount of errors a user makes is to anticipate possible mistakes and prevent them from happening in the first place. If the errors are unavoidable we need to make them easy to spot and help the user to recover from them quickly and without unnecessary friction.

Error Prevention
Prevent errors by:

  • Disabling functions that aren’t relevant to the user
  • Using appropriate controls to constrain inputs (e.g. radio buttons, dropdowns)
  • Providing descriptive, clear instructions and considering preemptive help
  • As a last resort provide clear warning messages

Error Detection
Anticipate possible errors and provide feedback that helps users verify that:

  • They’ve done what they intended to do
  • What they intended to do was correct

Its important to remember that providing feedback by changing the visual state of an object or item is more noticeable than a written message.

Error Recovery
If the error is unavoidable provide clearly marked ways for the user to recover from it. For example provide “back”, “undo” or “cancel” commands.

If a specific action is irreversible it should be classed as critical and you should make the user  confirm first in order to prevent slip ups. Alternatively you can create a system that naturally defaults to a less harmful state. For example if I close a document without saving it the system should be intelligent enough to know that it is unlikely that I intended the action and therefore either auto-save or clearly warn me before closing.

9. Mousing

In my daily interactions ‘mousing’ is becoming less of an issue as I begin to rely more on touch screen interfaces such as my iPhone and iPad. However, in the classic desktop environment ‘mousing’ relates to the ease in which you are able to move between controls, which is described best through Fitts’ law.

“The time required to click an object is proportional to the distance and inversely proportional to the object size.” Fitts’ law

Fitts’ law is a model of human movement in human-computer interaction (HCI) and ergonomics which predicts that the time required to click an object is proportional to the distance and inversely proportional to the object size.

With key functions or sequential mouse-operated controls we need to maximise the size of the controls and minimise the distance between them. This not only improves efficiency but in certain instances can reduce the risk of error.

  • Consider what the most common or typical mouse movements will be on each screen.
  • Where possible, place elements that will be used together in close proximity to each other.
  • Be particularly conscious of transactions that require a combination of mouse and keyboard controls. Consider ways to optimise for both styles.

10. Affordance

Affordance is the quality of an object that allows an individual to perform an action, for example a standard household light switch has good ‘affordance’, in that it appears innately clickable. In short the physical properties of an object should suggest how it can be used. In the context of user interfaces, affordance can be achieved by:

  • Simulating ‘physical world’ affordances e.g. buttons or switches
  • or keeping consistency with modern web standards or other interface elements e.g. underlined links or default button styles.

11. Hierarchy of Control

The hierarchy of influence between elements should be clearly apparent. Generally, controls which affect an object, should be grouped with the object, such as zoom controls on a map.

Controls which influence a group of objects should be associated with the entire group, forming a hierarchy.

Mocked up example showing hierarchies of control

That’s all folks!

Hopefully this post has helped to explain the slides within my presentation and provided an insight into some key interaction design principles. I’d be really interested to hear your feedback on this post so please leave a comment or ask any questions you may have.

If you haven’t seen the Slideshare presentation yet that led to this post you can find it here.