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Having immersed myself in the wonderful world of acronyms for a project that I’m working on at the moment, I must say I’ve never felt so passionate about the user experience of using acronyms.

I’ve been asking myself questions and answering them:

1)      What are acronyms?

  • Do they usually just take the first letter of each word it represents? I don’t think so, because some acronyms are invented to make something sound ‘better’ which means letters are thrown into the mix (or omitted) and some are purely the first letters of the words involved.  Also, I realised that acronyms derived from a foreign language wouldn’t follow this rule after you translate them into a different language. For example, CURIA for Court of Justice for the European Union

2)      Why use acronyms?

  • Well that is simple. You don’t have to remember the usually long name that the acronym stands for. I don’t blame anyone for resorting to acronyms (as I realised I have started doing so myself 2 months into the project), but like a double edged sword, acronyms can both help and hinder the communication and understanding of a subject matter.

The use of acronyms is very common in certain disciplines – medicine, law, finance, and engineering just to name a few. In fact, just scouring Google Scholar for a few minutes returned several academic papers criticising the use of acronyms and taught me some new words – ‘acronymania’ and ‘acronymophilia’ to describe the manic use of acronyms; ‘acronymesis’ to emphasise the shortcomings of misusing acronyms.

One of my favourite quotes was from a paper criticising a medical paper which contained 27 acronyms. It nicely sums up why acronyms can sometimes hinder rather than help the communication and understanding of a subject matter:

“Although each acronym is defined when introduced (in the paper), few readers of this article will manage to remember the meaning of each while following the logic of the authors’ discussion. To do so would require immediate comprehension of 27 new terms, each used repeatedly but defined only once before its first use in a detailed, complex argument.”

Apply this scenario to a real conversational context – say a board room meeting with a group of multidisciplinary professionals (gathered together to create a better world). Will the communication during the meeting be as effective as it could have been if everyone actually conveyed exactly what they meant instead of using acronyms? Something to ponder upon perhaps?

Solutions to acronyms?

Surely there are ways to get around the manic use of acronyms where one can still cater for those who are ‘in the know’ as well as people who are ‘new to the field’?

  • Know your audience – if you know you’re speaking to/writing for/communicating with people who wouldn’t necessarily understand the acronyms that you’re using, then use them wisely (e.g. by consciously providing explanations), or if possible, don’t use them at all
  • Utilise the wonders of technology – a potential design solution in helping one to understand/learn acronyms is by displaying the explanations of the acronyms in context
  • Minimise the use of acronyms in general – I believe that using acronyms is the same as using jargon – it implies a closed group of people would only understand those words. It is good to feel like one belongs to a group, but sometimes letting in new ideas can spark innovation.

Next time you’re tempted to use an acronym, try this little exercise and ask yourself how much you have learnt after finding out that:

  • ‘LASER’ stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation; or
  • ‘SONAR’ for SOund Navigation And Ranging

and my favourite so far

  • CAPTCHAfor Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart

Last but not least, an acronym can also mean different things to different people, for example:

  •  A friend of a friend eventually found out that most people understood ‘LOL’ as Laugh Out Loud (not Lots Of Love) after he noticed unusual behaviour whenever he used LOL in his correspondences

The mobile and smartphone markets in the UK are huge, as they are worldwide. In the UK we have more phones than people and of those phones over half are smartphones.

As such, it is no surprise that brands, big and small, have taken particular interest in mCommerce. However a conundrum which has proved a stumbling block for some is:  Should we develop a mobile app, a mobile website or both?

Why do consumers care?

In an article I read recently it was claimed that consumers simply do not care if you have a mobile app or website and that they don’t know the difference anyway, or so it was claimed. I disagree.

Even if the consumer does not know the difference, the choice of whether to download your app or browse the mobile web for your services is a conscious one. In a recent study we carried out to better understand mCommerce we discovered that Apps were great for repeat purposes, checking social media or train timetables. However, if a user was looking for pure information on the spur of the moment, in the majority of cases they would use the mobile web to browse for what they were looking for. Even if the consumer were to download your app for their one off purpose if it does not fit into a routine our study showed that it was soon forgotten and subsequently deleted.

Essentially, you need to decide what you want to offer; what can you supply by way of  service? If your offering is not invaluable to a users daily routine, then a mobile app is not ideal (an exception to this rule might be using apps for one off spurts of brand awareness). If you can’t or don’t want to supply such a service via native apps make sure you have a  website optimised for the mobile web, try responsive design. When it comes to mobile the customer is king – “We no longer get to be the tail that wags the dog”.

Looking to the future

Recently there has been growing debate surrounding the future of native apps and whether HTML5 and responsively designed websites might be their downfall. Indeed, HTML5 can offer app like functionality  in a web browser and best of all their is nothing to download. Skeptical?ft-app1

Some big brands have already taken this step, the Financial Times for example. After developing their web app it quickly overtook their native iOS app in popularity.  It became so popular they no longer offer a native equivalent. Whatever their grievances with Apple would they have made this step if it were not for HTML5? Probably not.

However FT’s approach is in no way indicative of the future of native apps. Will manufacturers like Apple, whose success was arguably founded upon native apps, let them disappear? Nevertheless, I believe there will be a shift towards web apps. According to research from IDC by 2013 there will be more than 1 billion HTML5-capable browsers in use throughout the world. Applications for those HTML5 browsers will be created by 2 million HTML Web developers. The future looks bright for HTML5.

To conclude

Research, a clear idea of what you want to offer, and an in-depth understanding of your target audience are integral to your decision concerning mobile websites and native apps. But, as a general rule, apps repeat purposes, mobile sites single purposes.

As far as the future of native apps is concerned, will they even be around in 5 years? If i were to give any advice it would be not to second guess the mobile market. By all means consider HTML5 and definitely look into responsive design but the mobile market moves too fast to predict, and there can certainly be an element of serendipity in developing your mobile offering.

If you are interested in this topic we are releasing the aforementioned mCommerce report in the coming months, so please keep an eye on Twitter and our website!

On a recent trip out of Victoria Station in the morning rush hour to visit a client, I nearly forgot that my Oyster card doesn’t take me further than the end of the zone map. No bother I thought, I’ll buy a ticket instead. I then proceeded with one of my most frustrating transactions and user experiences of recent memory.

Rail stations generally have replaced most ticket booths with automated touch-screen systems. Whilst being a familiar technology (I have an iPhone), I discovered that the basic implementation of it can have a profound impact on the user experience and should be thought of more carefully when being designed, and there are 3 distinct areas in both the design and maintenance that need to be managed:

1. Touchscreens should work when you touch them, every time.

I proceeded to the ticket machines where I had to queue since it was a busy period. Arriving at a machine I attempted to select the type of ticket I needed. The machine failed to respond at all. I stood there for a minute or more, jabbing and tapping at the screen but to no avail.

Feeling a mix of frustration and embarrassment because I couldn’t work out how to use it, I again queued for the next available machine. I fared little better with this one and began to wonder whether all machines were inoperable – except that some people seemed to be having tickets printed from theirs. A quick glance at the huge queue in the understaffed ticket office persuaded me to continue trying to obtain a ticket via machine. The clock was ticking and my train was due to leave imminently, only adding to the tension I felt.

2. Screens should be clean enough to read them properly

I tried again with another machine, which upon arrival had an additional issue. The screen was smeary, and I imagine it hadn’t been cleaned since it was installed meaning some of the information it displayed was rather difficult to read. I did wonder whether the level of dirt was attributed somehow to my inability to get any of them to work. I doubted it, but by this point I was grasping at straws. I wondered momentarily whether an explanation for my predicament would be a suitable defence for fare evasion.

3. One size doesn’t fit all

So, I crouched down to get a closer look at the screen so I could read the selection buttons for my journey. And then I made an astounding discovery: with my nose less than a few centimetres from the screen, I was able to operate it successfully. Why? Because all the ticket machines had been set at a fixed height and angle which, I presume, is determined as being accessible to everyone. But if you are over 6 foot tall, what might appear to be the correct area of the screen to press from high above actually isn’t, due to the positioning of the screen.

This was a truly ‘eureka’ moment, and one I would never have worked out if I’d possessed a pack of screen wipes. I later recalled that similar machines at Paddington Station, with which I am more familiar, are positioned much higher up (and presumably, therefore, impossible for shorter people or wheelchair users to operate).

Can you design for a standard user?

On reflection, it underlines the fact there is no such thing as a “standard user”. We are all unique, have differing and in some cases conflicting needs. Forcing customers to use automated technology which assumes everyone is the same is unlikely to provide anything other than a frustrating and ignorant customer experience.

What do you think? Have you had any great or bad customer experiences with the ‘standardisation’ of interfaces? Let us know in the comments below!

So Eurogamer Expo has come to a close. Another year, another great show. For those who don’t know, it’s the largest games exhibition in the UK, and was able to boast some very big titles this year (including a few I’m very excited about – not sure how I’m going to find time to play Elder Scrolls 5 – Skyrim, Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, Assassins Creed Revelations and more).

Headlines included:

  • The official UK launch of OnLive – a cloud based gaming service (more on this later)
  • A launch date for the Knights of the Old Republic MMO

But I should make a special mention to some people we ran into on the show floor – Special Effect (a charity dedicated to helping disabled kids enjoy video games). They were showing off some impressive kit, a vision controlled racing game. Accessibility is one of the services Webcredible offers – and it’s great to see this expanding into games. If anyone is looking for a new charity please bear these guys in mind.

If you’re interested in seeing some of the issues some players can have whilst playing games I can strongly recommend watching a blind player play Oddworld or Zelda – the small techniques used to orientate and understand what’s going on are so interesting. Also have a read of some of the issues colour blind game players encounter.

Were you there? What were your favourite new releases this year? Let us know in the comments below…

Also, we’ll be writing a more in-depth review of the latest Kinect games shown at EuroGamer Expo, discussing the merits of cloud computing, and a look into Facebook game Monstermind  – all coming soon, so keep an eye out on our twitter feed for them!

The results are in! Kicked off in my last post ‘What about the 55+ mobile phone market?‘ my survey on mobile phones with a particular focus on people over 55 years old is complete! Some of which are refreshingly quite contrary to stereotypical views of the ‘older generation’. Please keep in mind that this survey was distributed over the internet, so mainly reached people who are fairly technologically savvy but there was a reasonably good spread of respondents over different age groups, which allows for a comparison between ages.

  • What types of phone do people use?

One key question asked what type of phones people use, which was quite telling for this age group (see results on the right). Handsets were split into 4 groups: candybar style  (traditional feature phones), flip phone style (e.g. Motorola Razr), touchscreen smartphone style (e.g. iphone), or blackberry.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a higher percentage of people in the younger end of the scale use a smartphone or blackberry, but a considerable number of the older age ranges use smartphones as well. Interestingly a relatively high percentage of the group between 65-69 still own flip phones. Flip phones were all the rage in 2004 to 2006 but went out of fashion for the majority with the rise of the iPhone and Android phones. It can be safely assumed that those users with the flip phones have had their phone for a number of years.

  • Which features do people use on their phones?

Another key insight shows the features that people use on their phones. Unsurprisingly, smartphone users use the most features and almost all smartphone users use their phone to access the internet and email. However, the majority of people in the survey don’t have smartphones and there is a direct correlation here as they also don’t use as many features. This user segment, besides making calls and writing and receiving text messages, almost exclusively uses their phone as an address book, to take the occasional photo and uses their mobile to set alarms. Other functions like calendar/diary functions or listening to music are hardly used by any of these users.

  • What problems do people have using their phones?

A number of questions dealt with problems encountered when using a mobile phone. The research shows that those users with health issues affecting movement of hands or fingers (e.g. arthritis) have no clear preference for any particular type of phone despite the fact that the interaction with the buttons on a feature phone is very different from a touchscreen. These users also use their phone just as frequently as any other users.

Respondents were also asked to describe what they found most difficult when using their phone. The type of issue most frequently described was around complexity of using features, confusing menus, complicated flows, and too many unnecessary features. Interestingly this applies to all phone types equally. Another issue cited quite frequently was a problem operating small controls. Interestingly all of the users complaining of this were smartphone or blackberry users. No users complained about small buttons on their feature phone. Equally frequent as small control complaints were issues relating to small font sizes, small screen sizes and poor visibility in sunlight. These issues again happened across all phone types.

These results really challenge the common perception that touchscreen smartphones have made operating a mobile phone easier by providing a more direct interaction style, the removal of complicated menu structures and providing a bigger screen with more customisation options. It seems that touchscreen phones have not really addressed these issues at least for the age groups in question here.

  • Make no assumptions about ‘older’ users

Finally there were a number of comments made in the questionnaire similar to the responses to the previous blog post saying that it shouldn’t be assumed that just being over a certain age means that people don’t adopt new technology. Admittedly, starting at 55 is very young for any research of ‘older’ people and across all respondents no matter what age, it is clear from the data that people are very diverse and so I must conclude that segmenting people by age alone is not useful. People’s behaviour with regards to mobile phones depends on many factors, for example their experience with similar technology. Perhaps it’s time to dispel some rather patronising misconceptions about older people simply wanting mobile phones with a few big buttons to make the occasional call, or at least admit that the ‘older user’ group is not the right way to sort users and requirements.

In  order to get a better understanding of the specific customer experience with regards to smartphone interactions, I am now conducting a series of individual interview and usability testing sessions with people over 55 years of age. I am still looking for a few more participants for my sessions. If you are over 55, live in the London area, ideally own a smartphone, and would like to participate in my study, please call 020 7423 6320 and ask for Kerstin!

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