Thursday, July 28, 2005

Adaptive Path

Adaptive Path’s Peter Merholz recently talked to the founder of User Interface Engineering Jared Spool about user research. Here is an interesting example of website design from their conversation.
We were working with a client, testing a website that sold furniture. And the client had already done some testing. They had created some simple tasks, and one of the tasks was basically asking users to come to the site and buy a bookcase they might want to buy.

Every user in that study went to the search box, and typed in the word “bookcase,” immediately. So they were off trying to improve the hits on the word “bookcase,” and get the results better. We did a subsequent test, and instead of asking people to look for a bookcase, we gave them a slightly different task.

We said imagine you have 300 different paperback and hardcover books in cardboard boxes, all strewn through your living room. You need a way to organize this stuff such that you can find the stuff you like, and people who come over can be impressed with your collection. What do you do? People would go to the site, and then click on links. They’d click on furniture links; they’d type into the search engine storage systems, and then type in shelves. Not a single user in our phase of the study typed in the word bookcase. So by changing the description of the task, we got a completely different result.
In this example, the supply side has composed several instances of SHELF into a composite solution called BOOKCASE. But the demand side doesn't recognize this solution as relevant to the context of use, unless forced/led. So there is a fundamental asymmetry between supply and demand.

(The problem I experience with ready-made bookcases is that they are almost always the wrong size - with room for several inches of dust in front of the books. Do furniture-makers themselves only read large-format books? I have generally found it better to get bookcases made to my own specification.)

Notice that the supplier designs and tests the website in a way that reinforces the supply-side view of the world (ontology). Notice that the method for deconstructing this supply-side ontology involves reference to a user experience (living room strewn with books). Notice also that decomposing BOOKCASE back into SHELF doesn't completely eliminate the asymmetry - the demand-side notion of shelf (a surface on which I can store and display books) is not identical to the supply-side notion of shelf (a flat piece of rigid material that can be affixed in a horizontal position, with/without brackets and screws).

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