Sunday Jan 30, 2011

Warnings When Undo Isn't Possible

Enjoyed this post Never Use a Warning When you Mean Undo  by Aza Raskin. It makes sense never to warn users if an undo option is possible. The examples given are from the web space. Here's the conclusion:

Warnings cause us to lose our work, to mistrust our computers, and to blame ourselves. A simple but foolproof design methodology solves the problem: "Never use a warning when you mean undo." And when a user is deleting their work, you always mean undo.

However, in enterprise apps you may find that an undo option isn't technically possible or desirable. Objects may be shared with other users or part of a flow elsewhere, for example. Undoing an action on an object committed to the database (a rollback I guess), as opposed to just being cached or saved, or on an object that has become locked by another process isn't feasible. Plus, what might happen to a modified object when it moves downstream in the process isn't always obvious. So, the implications of delete (and other) actions need to be clearly communicated to users in advance. So, warnings are important in the enterprise space. Data has a very high value, and users can perform a wide variety of actions that may risk that data, not always within the application itself (at browser level, for example). That said, throwing warnings all over the place when an undo option is possible is annoying. Instead, treat warnings with respect. When there is no undo option possible, use warning messages to communicate potentially dangerous or irrecoverable actions or the downstream consequences of user actions on the process or task flow. Force the user to respond to a warning message by using a modal dialog with clearly labeled action buttons. Here's a couple of examples:

warning_records.png
warning_navigate2.png

But what about mobile apps? I don't recall seeing undo options in apps, which can be frustrating as objects can be easily deleted by an accidental finger gesture (as anyone who has accidentally removed an account from an app--or indeed at entire app--on an iPhone will tell you). Warnings are very important there too for irrecoverable actions.

android_mobile_warning.png

A great article that got me thinking. Let's see more articles like that. And let's not forget there's more types of messages than just error messages. User assistance and user experience professionals need to understand when best to use confirmation, information, and warning types too.

Sunday Nov 14, 2010

A Conversational Style

I've been reading a superb paper called "Engaging Diverse Audiences With Screencasts, Wikis, and Blogs", written by Gail Chappell and Cindy Church of Oracle. While they were with Sun Microsystems, Gail and Cindy presented the paper at the 2008 STC Summit:.

The paper is rich in ideas for anyone interested in the community user assistance model--I'll return to that subject later--but their thoughts on adopting a conversational style really struck home:  

For the blog and the wiki, however, the writing was less formal and more folksy--we used our own writing style and own voices. We did not strictly follow the editorial style guidelines, nor did we pass the wiki or blog content to an editor. However, we did adhere to our company's branding requirements and blog guidelines.  

The blog was a good place for us to use a conversational style, as we frequently engaged in conversations with our readers. In fact, we were on a first-name basis with many who regularly read the blog. We also used the more conversational style when responding to customers who used the feedback mechanism in our tutorials and screencasts.

JavaFX Blog article on animations

Complete common sense. A conversational writing style that talks with users rather than at them or to them. We'd do well to follow this user-centred design approach to language in all of our blog and wiki efforts. And, what better way to change the antideluvian "say Web site, not website" mentality than harnessing the voice of the community too.

If you can get your hands on Cindy and Gail's paper and presentation through your local STC chapter (and internal Oracle employees should be able to get a later update too), I think you'll find it's well worth reading.

Friday Oct 15, 2010

The Community Support Explosion

Not convinced of the power of community support, eh? Then I urge you to check out this presentation from Greg Oxton of the Consortium for Service Innovation (CSI). Incredible. A very important statement about why enterprises need to be aware of--and harness--the power of their user communities.

csi_community_support.png
(Image copyright CSI 2010) Oracle is a member of the CSI.

Thursday Sep 30, 2010

No More Fart Apps. Would We Ever?

I loved Lucy Kellaway's (she of the Financial Times) article "Words to describe the glory of Apple" comparing the language style used by Apple and Microsoft and wondering if language style impacts the bottom line. If you don't want to register for the article, then the podcast version is here.

iFart Screen

Ms Kellaway tells us that Apple's language makes for content that is "fun to read", "elegant", and "makes you laugh". It has a tone that is "direct', 'comic", and "elegantly threatening". She contrasts this with the Microsoft language used for the new version of Internet Explorer, "architected to run HTML5, the beta enables developers to utililize standardized markup language across multiple browsers" and the rest. This is "standard stuff" from Microsoft, and Luce is "irritated", "bored", "alienated", and "restless" with it.

Actually, I think the article is unfair to Microsoft, who do care about language and the example used is not representative of language used in other Microsoft products - games, for example. Plus, the audience for their words is different to Apple's; basically it's a marketing pitch to Microsoft's partners, encouraging uptake of a beta release.

The Apple language that Ms Kellaway admires is taken from the App Store Review Guidelines (full PDF version); a set of guidelines more likely to be read by geek and hobbyist developers working from home than the corporate equivalents. Such language is not used in other Apple products themselves. In fact, language quality is not an acceptance criterion for App Store submissions at all. That of course, is telling in itself. Why not let the market, the users, decide on the language? In line with this, the Human Interface Guidelines from Apple for the iPhone has a common sense approach to language style. For example:

In all your text-based communication with users, be sure to use user-centric terminology; in particular, avoid technical jargon in the user interface. Use what you know about your users to determine whether the words and phrases you plan to use are appropriate.

For example, the Wi-Fi Networks preferences screen uses clear, nontechnical language to describe how the device connects to networks. Very reasonable from a user experience perspective. But, then Lucy says: "You might think there was a clear commercial advantage to be had in writing clearly and stylishly. But you would be wrong."

Not quite. There is a relationship, though it may not be all that visible to key decision-makers. That's because the commercial advantage does not come from writing clearly or stylishly per se, but its application. It comes from writing content that users actually want, in a way that they can understand, using terms and language that suits them; and that facilitates easy search and retrieval. The result is a quicker transfer and comprehension of information leading to better productivity for users and less training and support costs. And that's a competitive advantage.

In the enterprise applications space the opportunities for a product language tone that is "fun", "comic", or "elegantly threatening" doesn't exist in the same way it does for the iPhone app development community (and let's face it - for all the BS about the iPhone - most apps are little better than free low-tech toys designed by rank amateurs).

But that's not the point. The point is the language should suit the audience for the information. We need to spend less time worrying about our internal language style and all its nuances and rules and concentrate more on how users - our customers - themselves want it to be, and actually use it. Bringing terminology in line with user expectations and concentrating on a few basic writing principles grounded in research on information search, retrieval, consumption, and problem-solving would yield far better bottom line results than fretting about a rigorous adherence to every single aspect of a style guide for no other reason than it's there.

Sunday Sep 19, 2010

Observations from UA Europe 2010

As mentioned, the Applications User Experience (Apps-UX) User Assistance team made an impact at UA Europe 2010. This is one conference I will definitely be attending again. Stockholm was such a great setting too. Highlights of the conference follow:

Anne Gentle's keynote address on Social Web Strategies for Documentation was an instructive, engaging, no BS approach to the subject, along with examples we could all look up. Anne's comments about doing what was right for your business made complete sense.

User assistance must be designed and deployed according to business requirements. If social web engagement doesn't make sense for your business, then don't do it. Watch out for our forthcoming interview with Anne (update, March 2011: it's here) when we will talk about the enterprise user assistance implications of being part of the user conversation, and more.

anne_gentle.jpg

I was intrigued when Anne pointed out the need to identify your role in the conversation with the user through the social web: Reporter/Observer, Enabler/Sharer, or Collaborator/Instigator. User profiles and roles are a central part of how Apps-UX goes about its research and design work. Could we see such roles appearing officially with the list maintained by our business process engineering team? I think so, and we will design user assistance accordingly. Exciting times! Follow Anne on Twitter for updates.

Enjoyed the session by Roger Hart about content strategy at Red Gate Software. This was a forthright delivery that got straight to the point about managing your web content to reflect what users want, so adding value to the business. Basically, a strategy ensures that your content doesn't suck, or continue to suck, according to Roger. You can also follow Roger on Twitter and read his blog here.

Matthew Ellison's session on what kind of user assistance users really need made me think hard about our own design of user assistance in the enterprise space, how embedded help, warning messages, and online help can work together, and what is offered by the Application Developer Framework to easily make embedded help and messages happen for internal developers and our customers.

Most interesting of all, though, was the discussion on user assistance trends and technologies. This discussion was led by vendors, but was thrown open to all attendees at the end. For me, what was not said, rather than what was, that was most revealing. It seems to me that there are many who still couch user assistance in narrow documentation and help terms (although some clearly get it as far as the social web is concerned), and don't consider user assistance as a key part of the overall user experience. The notion expressed that Microsoft Word documents and single sourcing were a content management strategy left me cold (they aren't). Furthermore, the positioning of a content management system as an administrative back end function just removes users further from user assistance. Why not make the back end the front end? Stop talking about content management systems. Start talking about information strategies and how users search for, retrieve, and consume that information, please.

Clearly, there is some way to go in bringing user assistance into the user experience fold. I am so proud to work for a user experience group providing some thought leadership in the area.

To conclude: UA Europe is a super high-value conference. As well as an opportunity to share your views and experiences, in return you will learn much, be exposed to new ideas and processes, and also get to network with some very insightful and helpful people. I will definitely be back. Oh, (update 2011), I'm already there...

What Do Users Want Most From User Assistance? Affirmation and Confirmation

Matthew Ellison, at the UA Europe 2010 conference, presented some fascinating results from a user assistance research project undertaken with the University of Portsmouth (full details will be in the December 2010 issue of Communicator magazine).

What users wanted most (47%) was affirmation and confirmation types of user assistance. This is almost twice what they wanted of the "How do I...?" stuff. Naturally, there are always some caveats that come into play when interpreting these kinds of findings for your own business. However, based on my own observations and Applications User Experience team research, the need to inform users in advance as to consequences of their actions, how data is used, and so on, and then confirm their actions or application responses, is broadly in line with enterprise user assistance requirements too.

In Oracle Fusion Applications user assistance, we already have writing patterns that allow us to easily write DITA-based online help topics informing users in advance about consequences of decisions. However, we also provide this information contextually within the task flow using embedded help on editable fields, warning messages, and then confirming results and actions using confirmation messages. Using embedded help and messages together like this enhances productivity as the user can immediately be informed of the consequences of their actions and then see a confirmation when done, enhancing productivity.

The Application Developer Framework (ADF) Faces component demos (available for download here) show what field-level embedded help is possible (for example, see the shortDesc property on the inputText component as shown in figure 1), as well as how warning (figure 2) and confirmation (figure 3) types of messages work (see the Messages component).

shortdesc_note_inputText.png

Figure 1: Embedded Help in Note Window on Editable Field

warning.png

Figure 2: Warning Message

confirmation.png

Figure 3: Confirmation Message

Check out the demos and just see what a rich user experience is possible!

Oracle Apps-UX at UA Europe 2010

The Applications User Experience User Assistance team (well, myself, Laurie Pattison, and Erika Webb anyway!) attended the "UA Europe 2010":http://www.uaconference.eu/ conference in Stockholm.

In addition to sessions on DITA-based writing patterns  and enterprise mobile apps UA research and design, we held a lunchtime discussion on the iPad and user assistance, and took time to talk at length with author Anne Gentle and exchange views with other lots of other UA and information strategy professionals.

I am really happy with the thought leadership that Apps-UX displayed in the UA space. It's such a great group to work in! Watch out for a forthcoming interview with Anne Gentle on the usableapps website. Here's to the next conference!

About

Oracle Apps Cloud UX assistance. UX and development outreach of all sorts to the apps dev community, helping them to design and deliver usable apps using PaaS4SaaS.

Profile

Ultan Ó Broin. Director, Global Applications User Experience, Oracle Corporation. On Twitter: @ultan

See my other Oracle blog about product globalization too: Not Lost in Translation

Interests: User experience (UX), PaaS,SaaS, design patterns, tailoring, Cloud, dev productivity, language quality, mobile apps, Oracle FMW and ADF, and a lot more.

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