Sunday, 14 December 2014

Considerate systems: the next big thing in artificial intelligence (AI)?

Robot butler
Have you ever dwelt on how inconsiderate your computer is? How it lacks social skills? After all, it flashes up emails for your attention, while you're busy with a spreadsheet or a report. Your computer has no awareness of what you're doing and it disturbs your flow.

And as for our mobile phones, it's not just at work they distract us. If we're driving, a stream of texts or calls is potentially hazardous. And you may have dined out with someone who monitors Facebook instead of enjoying the here and now.

Understand social situations, be more helpful


The answer to all this daily disruption could be 'considerate systems', according to Carnegie Mellon professor Ted Selker. Selker's research in artificial intelligence looks at whether computers can become context-aware. Whether they can react appropriately to who's around and what those people are doing.

In the world of work, Selker's been experimenting with teleconferencing. Have you ever experienced the ups and downs of a teleconference? It's frustrating when one person dominates the airwaves. You're itching to chip in but you don't get a chance and the moment is lost.

"Turn taking?"


Selker's been using intelligent agents to measure when one person has been talking for too long and others have been too quiet. When they judge that someone's dominating, they pipe up: 'Turn taking?' or 'Any thoughts, Suzanne?'

This automated system has apparently been successful at nudging people's behaviour. With the intelligent agents on the line, Selker found dominant people talked 20% less and quiet people talked 20% more.

Turn it down, love!


Selker's future projects may include a context-aware TV that senses how many people are in the room and whether they're talking. If 2 people start a conversation, the TV turns its volume down to a level that doesn't interfere. And if the TV senses your baby crying in the next room, it can turn the volume up or down as you wish.

And imagine an intelligent email program. You've written a rant and intelligent agents pick up on the language you've used. You get a nudge to reflect on what you're writing.

Ted Selker's seminar on considerate systems was at Queen Mary University of London, 12 November 2014. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Frequently asked questions (FAQs): not frequent and never asked

If your client asks you to create a frequently asked questions (FAQs) section on their website, don't!

1. Not frequent  

In practice, some FAQs are not frequently asked. Take this example from a London museum:
"I have soft fruit in my bag. Can I check my bag into the museum's cloakroom?'

This FAQ was suggested by cloakroom staff who found a squashed banana in a carrier bag. OK, bananas make a sticky mess but it only ever happened once.

The right thing to do was put up a warning notice in the cloakroom about the kinds of item you can't check in. 

2. Never asked


Some FAQs are never asked. Using a question and answer format sometimes produces questions people would never ask. For example, when you're filling in your tax return on the HM Revenue and Customs website, do you ever wonder: "What else can I do online?"

Answering questions you wish people will ask was cited as in Nielsen Norman Group's top 10 design mistakes in 2002.

3. The patch-up job

"Customers say they can't understand our instructions on applying for a licence. Quick! Let's add FAQs."

But adding FAQs:
  • treats the symptom not the cause
  • duplicates existing information
  • confuses search results - you'll have 2 similar pages and people won't know which to choose
If people find your instructions confusing, it's far better to rewrite the instructions.

4. The imposter


FAQs sections often contain essential information that should live elsewhere. One of Clarks shoes FAQs is 'How much does delivery cost?'

Delivery cost is essential information you'd expect to come across while shopping and ordering.

If you find yourself adding delivery cost to an FAQs page surely there's something wrong with the design of your shopping pages?

5. My favourite FAQ


My fondest FAQ was from Cardiff University: 'What can I do if my question has not been answered by the FAQs'?

The university has removed it now.

In a nutshell


If an organisation has worked out a proper structure for its content, everything should have a logical home. And if the content is of good quality and findable, there should be no need for FAQs. 


Client still wants FAQs?


If your client insists on having FAQs, I guess you have to produce them but you can make them a whole lot better. Divide the information into groups of related items to make them scannable.

This is what EasyJet does, with headings like 'Baggage', 'Check-in', 'Special assistance'.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Press releases: how to write one

This week a small, not-for-profit outfit asked me how to write a press release. Here's what I came up with.

Killer headline

You need a headline that grabs people immediately.

Imagine your press release pinging into a busy news reporter's inbox. It's the 100th press release that day. Will your subject line get them to open the email or hit delete?

Original angle

Of course, you can only write an attention-grabbing headline if you've got a good story. So what makes a good story? Try some of these:

  • be surprising or unusual, for example debunk a myth
  • be original
  • catch the zeitgeist 
  • be funny but not corny
  • be relevant to the audience of the website/magazine/newspaper

Is it newsworthy?

The launch of a new company or product is newsworthy. A minor upgrade to an existing product is probably not.

Your story must pass the 'So what?' test: why would someone want to read it? Be honest: would you want to read it? If not, don't press release it.

Crown jewels in intro

A press release is not a university essay so don't start slowly and build up to a grand finale.

A press release is like a news story. Put the best bits in the headline and introductory paragraph, as there's no guarantee the journalist will read past the headline or first paragraph.

This is the inverted pyramid of news writing.

Tell a good story

Make sure the press release makes sense and flows logically. Are there any obvious gaps? Test on friends and colleagues that are unfamiliar with the subject matter.

Be concise

Your press release must be no more than a page of A4.

Headlines must not be too long. News websites will have character limits for headlines - for example 55 characters including spaces.

Keep sentences reasonably short too. An organisation's style guide may place limits on the number of words per sentence or per paragraph. See the BBC news style guide.

Be accurate

Check your facts. Add correct job titles for anyone you mention.

And proofread your press release before you send it out.

Great quotes

You need interesting, bite-sized quotes from real people. Avoid jargon, corporate speak and marketing fluff. They're boring and will get ignored.

Great image

Every news story needs a great image or 2. If you don't have one, you're making extra work for the journalist as they'll have to source one.

Worst case: you might not get coverage if you don't have an image.

Make sure you provide an image caption too - it must tell people who or what's in the picture, where it is, what's happening.

What's a great photo?

The photo must be well-lit – no gloomy shots. Any people in your photo need to look natural, not posed. And they must face the front – no backs of heads.

If it's a product shot, use a white background so that there's no clutter around the product.

Mobile images

If you only have images taken with a mobile phone, they may not be suitable for print - check with the newspaper or magazine. Generally images for magazines and newspapers need to be higher resolution (300 dpi) than images for websites (72 dpi).

Tailor it

You may want several versions of your press release. Tailor it to the sector: a women's magazine will want a different angle to a local newspaper.

What press releases look like

See what a press release should look like and get tips on press releases for local campaigns from Friends of the Earth's Phillip Byrne.

Or look at other people's press releases - in organisations' About us section, look for tabs like News, Press or Media centre.

Line up spokespeople

When you're sending out a press release, make sure you have spokespeople available for interview.

Be aware that journalists are on stressy deadlines and make sure you get back to them quickly. It could mean the difference between getting coverage or not.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Ditching italic? I predict a riot (Public Health England's move to GOV.UK)

Ever tried telling a scientist they can't use italics for Latin* names? I mean the scientific names of bacteria like Escherichia coli, Clostridium difficile or Staphylococcus aureus.

You cannot be serious


"No italics? You cannot be serious. That's 100 years of scientific history down the drain," said a disbelieving scientist at Public Health England (PHE), a government agency that aims to keep the nation safe from contagious diseases.

Luckily for me, the scientist later mellowed. Overall, she realised her content looked much better on GOV.UK. It was cleaner, more easily maintainable and more findable. And there's a consistency to content that's lacking on the old website, hpa.org.uk.

But other scientists remain unhappy, threatening to march on Holborn, where the keepers of the GOV.UK style guide hang out. Or at least raise a zendesk ticket saying 'Without italics, it's wrong. Scientists and medics won't recognise the words.'

Please, please tell me now


Personally, I don't much care for italics but I couldn't find anything in the GOV.UK style guide to explain why italics were bad.

The Economist style guide and Guardian style guide both use italics for Latin names, but their style guides are for print not web.

Di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-dizzy!


But gut feeling tells me italics are distracting and difficult to read. Slanty, swirly, dizzy-making, migraine-inducing. 

This summer at PHE I didn't have time to google 'italics bad why?' as we were frantically frontloading titles and (trying to) write a plain(ish) English summary for some of the most niche scientific material you'll ever come across. Niche but essential for the medical professionals in that niche.

So now my contract has finished, I've had time to fire up google. And yes, avoiding italics is to do with accessibility. People who are dyslexic will struggle with italicised text.

Whatever next?


This week PHE finishes cleaning and restructuring its most popular content ('the cliff', in GOV.UK speak) and moving it to GOV.UK. Here's Clostridium difficile.

It's 'cleaning, restructuring and moving' rather than 'rewriting content based around user needs'. In the real world there just wasn't time to rewrite and get sign-off by italics and upper case-loving content owners.

Rewriting content around user needs will happen over the next year or so. But already content is so much cleaner and more findable.

Don't mess with E. coli


Fingers crossed that the keeper of the GOV.UK style guide will at least let scientists keep the initial capital letter for Escherichia coli (E. coli). If not, I predict a riot!


* Strictly speaking, rather than 'Latin names' we should call them 'genus and species names' or 'binomial nomenclature' (catchy, huh?). Why? Because the Latin names are not all Latin. Some are a mixture of Latin and Greek (Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium difficile) and some are Latinised forms of people's names - Escherichia coli's named after a 19th century German doctor, Theodor Escherich.





Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Don't make me think: how editorial consistency helps the mobile user experience

Is your organisation using consistent language across desktop, mobile and email? If not, you may be confusing your customers. Worst case: could you even be losing customers?

Yesterday I used O2's live chat to change my mobile contract. Then O2 invited me to give feedback.

"Click the Close chat button to do the survey," said the customer representative. (See screenshot below.)

Screenshot: Close Chat
So I dutifully scrolled up and down my mobile screen, squinting for a button called 'Close chat'.

There wasn't one. But there was an 'End session' button (see screenshot below).

Screenshot: End session
Is it the 'End session' button I'm supposed to click? By then I'd lost interest.

To O2 it might seem like an insignificant difference in language. But if, like me, customers only use live chat once every 2 years when they want to renew their mobile contract, they don't wanna have to guess where to click. They want 'no brainer' language in links.

The mobile experience

It's even more important to provide 'no brainer' links for customers using mobiles to interact with you. Any level of frustration is greatly multiplied when you add in:


  • 'fat finger' syndrome
  • tiny screens 
  • the risk of losing your signal if you're on the move
  • other people distracting your concentration


easyJet's online check-in

I first blogged about editorial inconsistency - and the hesitation it causes - when I got confused by easyJet using 2 different phrases for the same call to action (in emails: 'Check in online', on the web: 'Print boarding pass'). Read blog post on easyJet.

Steve Krug

Oh, and apologies to usability expert Steve Krug for cannibalising the title of his book: 'Don't make me think!'

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Optimise your message: how to fool the nightclub bouncers in our brains

nightclub bouncer
Want to grab people's attention with your headline? You'll need to bypass the nightclub bouncers in our brain, according to Brian Massey, a speaker at Chinwag Psych2014 last week. 

Massey’s company optimises copy for websites. It tests several versions of a headline to see what gets people clicking through and signing up.

Brain science helps the company get the text right:
“You need to get your message past the parts of the brain that act as bouncers or gatekeepers. To comprehend words, we’re using Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area of the brain. Broca’s area takes verbs and casts them into images, while Wernicke's handles nouns.

"So you need to surprise Broca and Wernicke. Use the unexpected, the unbelievable or the plain wrong," explains Massey.

Here's one I made earlier


Take this example. Which of these headlines from a rehab outfit in the US got the most sign-ups?

A.  We can help. Call now and speak with a compassionate rehab specialist.
B.   Are you ready to start healing? Call now and speak …
C.   Ready to stop lying? Call now on …

Yes, it was C, as it surprised people. 

Triggers


Also, C hit the spot because it matched people's memories of lying to their partners. ("No, I haven't had a drink today!")

And B was not as effective, as people didn't have memories of 'healing' so there was nothing to latch the message onto. 

"When you're creating messages, you have to think about the kind of memories people have that we can attach our messages to," said Massey.

Credible or not?


Even if you're sceptical about the theory, playing around with words and testing several versions of your text seems like a smart idea to me.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The 'content first' approach: use real content in your designs

Post-it note saying content
"What does 'content first' mean?" asked a user experience (UX) consultant recently, "I've heard it bandied around and I'm curious."

I explained: "It means creating some real content before you commission the design. It's so that web or app designers can work with real content instead of pasting in dummy text such as lorem ipsum."

Bye, bye, lorem ipsum  

The reason it's essential to use real content - text, video, audio,  images - is that it helps the designer create a usable, meaningful design.

If you ask a designer to use dummy text and images, they'll be working in the dark. You're effectively asking them to make editorial decisions, such as:

  • does this body text need a heading?
  • where should the heading be?
  • how much space should I leave for headings?
  • how much space should I leave for body text?
  • how many levels of heading does the body text need?

Whenever design meets editorial - whenever you need to answer questions like those above - you need input from a content editor.

'Content last' approach = big trouble

If you leave editorial decisions to designers (by making them use dummy content), you could end up with a design that doesn't fit your real content. If the designer doesn't leave enough space, an editor will find it hard to write meaningful headings, links or body text.

And if a designer leaves too much space, the body text will look too sparse.

And you won't know all this until you try and slot your real content into the design.

Design tweaks cost £££

So then the designer has to tweak the design or, in the worse case, redesign. And that takes time and costs money.

Involve content experts early

The solution is to involve content experts early to help you work out what editorial features you need - and which ones you don't.

Invite content experts to your initial project meeting, show them early prototypes of the design and they'll help you smooth out any wrinkles.

Designers and editors unite!

By the way, it's not just editors and writers who complain about dummy text. Scotland-based designer Bobby Anderson dislikes it too. In his blog Bobby advises designers to change focus and design 'content first'.