a companion discussion area for blog.codinghorror.com

Don't Ask -- Observe


James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, writes about the paradox of complexity and consumer choice in a recent New Yorker column:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/06/dont-ask----observe.html


I can’t believe that there isn’t a similar sensibility Asia regarding layout (well, Japan and Korea anyway.) Magazines, pamphlets, appliance and video game interfaces all are very well designed, it’s only the web pages that look like crap. And they really do look like crap. I wonder if there is a web tool gap or something that could explain this, or that web design is just not considered important or prestigious.


Malcolm Gladwell authur of Blink does a great talk about this very subject at TED


Well worth watching, in it he also highlights that there is no perfect product but a range of variations, ties in nicly with the Long Tail concept.


With regards to the korean google, which came first, the desire to have something complex, to look ‘cool’ or the complex products?


That’s useful up to a point.

But the main point from the article is that if you make a usable product with few features, and your competitor makes an unusable product with lots of features; most people will choose your competitor’s product.

The best answer might be to add a huge number of features, but bury them away under obscure menus and key-combinations. So, you can sell on that basis, without harming the usability of your product too much.


What’s interesting is that the Korean google page is exactly what they want i.e. looks complicated but is actually simple …and not what they said they want which is complex.

I suspect (it would be nice to see the user analysis) that most users type what they want to search for and press the Google button the same as for the rest of the world?

On the Word analysis if the main commands used are Paste,Save,Copy,Undo, Bold then the “Ribbon Bar” is just to make it look more complicated ?


I think a great example of the disconect between what people want, and what they say they want, is the Atari Lynx. When Atari launched a competitor to Nintendo’s GameBoy, they did extensive Focus Group sessions. They had created a portable console that was better in pretty much every way than the GameBoy, and it cost more. So the people they questioned told them that the Lynx was too small for the price. They wanted to see what they paid for, get more for their money. So Atari made the Lynx bigger (in fact, the first version contains huge amounts of empty space). And of course, nobody bought one, because you want to take a portable console with you, and if it is too big, you can’t.

That never occured to the focus group, because they did not actually use the Lynx in the environment it was supposed to be used.


I find that during usabilitiy tests, it’s often good to let people tell you what they’re doing (can be hard to figure out), but if they note that something specific should be changed in a specific way, it’s most often a useless request, because the usability issue they were having was due to a larger problem with how the system was built.


Collecting usage statistics for existing software - or prototypes has to be useful.
It seems like a tool that can also bite you. The obvious example being “word count” - presumably used rarely, but seems to be used by a very vocal group of users (reviewers).

It makes for an interesting balance between the amount a feature is used and the perceived importance to the user.



Researching psychologist Barry Schwartz gives an entertaining lecture about the paradox of choice.


Liked the blog very much!


What’s important is that 60% bought the most complex device… so that device made the most money, was the most ‘successful’, etc. This, to me, means we have little choice but to cram features in order to sell them. The key is presenting that complexity in a simple and easy to use way – in this I think Google, Apple and Panasonic (thinking of cameras with that last) excel.


this blog is good

but this post is one of the best ones


Sort of a tangent here, but looking at that Korean Google page brought up memories of other web sites: Why is it that Asian web sites (at least the few I’ve visited) seem to be just plain ugly? Along with the “complexity,” there doesn’t seem to be any proper flow to the structure to pull the eye somewhere. They just seem to be horrible, busy, mish-mashes of noise. I realize I have no idea even HOW to read the text. But still, I don’t even know how to look at the page graphically. Does Western layout sensibility not apply to other cultures? Does that difference extend to the display of quantitative information (i.e., Tufte)?


Overcoming what I like to call “fantasy/reality impedance” (IT’S TOTALLY TRADEMARKED SO DON’T PINCH IT!!!) is the hardest thing that we do, whether it comes to functionality, interface or implementation.
People have an inner vision of what they want, but what they’re able to verbalize is often different from what they’re thinking. All of the above may share no critical intersection with what they actually need (and your users may revolt/fire you for giving them what you think they need instead of what they say they want).


I am still surprised by the friction I run into when operating several different products. It’s almost as if the company did NO usability testing at all.

Example 1: I use a Sony Ericson (almost 2 years old) cell phone. When I receive a phone call and do not answer, my phone will display (next time I open it) a fullscreen message saying that I have missed X calls and ask if I want to view them. I would MUCH rather see a half-screen message saying I have missed X calls and have the other half of the screen SHOW ME which calls I have missed.

Example 2: Given the situation in Example 1, suppose that the caller also leaves a voicemail. Then, the next time I open my phone, I see a message saying that I have a voicemail and it asks if I want to listen to it. I would MUCH rather have it show me the message (even full-screen) about the calls that I missed FIRST. But, it shows Voicemail (yes/no), then Missed Calls (view/close). If I was able to see who called, then I could decide if I needed to check the voicemail now or if I could do it later.

Example 3: This model of my phone has a button on the side that sticks out of the frame a little bit. It is used for PTT (Push To Talk). But, since it sticks out of the frame, I accidentally hit it all the time! When you hit this button, it puts up a full-screen message asking if I want to activate PTT. It tells me that a charge will be added to my bill. This is very annoying. The button should not stick out at all. I should be able to disable it completely as well.

I think that there is some merit in asking users as well. Just by asking me, you will have been able to clean up 3 issues that I think are very important. But, who knows what the average user would say.


Only looking at what users use in your web page tells you very little… and I would argue in some instances, absolutely nothing.

Why do they keep using that feature? Is it because they like that feature or because it’s the best option they have and they really would rather have something completely different?

The more complex a particular feature is, the less likely you are to be able to deduce whether the users are using it because it is a good feature, or simply because there isn’t another way to accomplish their goal.


-this blog is good

-but this post is one of the best ones
I couldn’t agree more

I wonder if the Customer Experience Improvement Program suffers from selection bias…

Regardless, its employment of observe vs ask is clearly effective.

No kidding… as I started writing this post I got a call from my brother commenting on a song I blogged. I explained to him that that’s what the comments on the blog are for… he replied, “yeah I tried that and I was prompted for a log in.” Wow, usability, it’s everywhere.


I wonder where open and close are on the command list for Word


The westernized layout doesn’t apply to most Asian layout ideas. My wife is Korean and I deal with her Dad quite often and we are always opposite on how things should be on a page.


R Mutt writes:
But the main point from the article is that if you make a usable
product with few features, and your competitor makes an unusable
product with lots of features; most people will choose your
competitor’s product.

Exactly. More features leads to more sales, regardless of whether that is really what the customer wants.

The best answer might be to add a huge number of features, but bury
them away under obscure menus and key-combinations. So, you can
sell on that basis, without harming the usability of your product
too much.

But in the time you spent making your large feature set usable, your competitors were busy adding even more features, so you’re losing ground by doing this.