The high risk of low-risk behavior

"Necessity is the mother of taking chances."
-Mark Twain

Occasionally I encounter a motorist on the highway who is driving very slowly, some 20 miles per hour slower than the flow of traffic. This driver undoubtedly believes himself to be driving in a reasonable manner, equating his slow speed with safety. Unfortunately, he fails to recognize the greater risk of a much faster car plowing into him from behind. His slow speed has made his car into a barrier rather than part of the traffic flow, and yet he cruises on, oblivious to the squealing tires and honking horns directly behind him.

Is this really a safe practice? Not on the highways in Silicon Valley.

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Three traps

We talk to a lot of technology companies here at Cooper, and over the years we’ve seen some clear patterns emerge. On the positive side, more and more companies are realizing the importance of a good user experience and of the overall usability of their products. Unfortunately, we also continue to see companies falling into the same product development traps, to the detriment of their products, their customers, and their business.

These traps can be hard to spot, because they often appear to be standard business practices (especially when the company has never done it any other way), but when you take a step back you see that those practices really don’t make much sense. If you have the nagging feeling that there’s something not quite right with your product development initiative, it may be because you’re falling into one of these traps. To help you recognize bad practices and work to avoid them, here are three common development pitfalls.

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What we can learn from the fender stratocaster

I must admit I’m not terribly impressed by the quality of today’s software—my benchmark for good product design isn’t defined by the output of Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, or other respected software companies. Those companies produce some good work, of course, but the software industry, though no longer in its infancy, still seems to be working through its gawky adolescent stage. So, when I think about high quality products, I think of BMW automobiles, Eames furniture, and the Fender Stratocaster guitar.

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Beating the checkout blues

Your online store is a good example of the breed. You’ve got good products at good prices, the site navigation is straightforward, the product information is rich, appropriate, and easy to find, and everyone likes the clean, uncluttered visual design of the site. So why do more than half of your customers abandon their full shopping carts?

Depending on which research report you read, roughly 25% to 75% of online shoppers abandon their shopping carts before consummating the deal. Despite the disparity in numbers, all the research firms agree on one thing: that’s way too many.

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Time travel design

In this month’s newsletter, Tony refers to a Washington Post story titled The End-User View of Techo-Nirvana: Blink, Blink, Blink. The Washington Post writer had this to say about Video Cassette Recorders:

That flashing "12:00" has become a symbol of technology as tyranny, taunt, impotence, ignorance, intimidation, humiliation, stone in the shoe and pain in the butt. It stands for innovation created without humans in mind. Yet humans have grown to live with it. To expect it. To adjust themselves to the selfishness of these machines. Like sheep.

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Product complexity driving you crazy? learn where to cut.

All other things being equal, the more complex your product is, the harder it will be to use. And the harder your product is to use, the more your customers will rely on your technical support department, which tends to increase your costs and decrease your customers’ overall satisfaction with the product. The good news is that one of the most simple and effective ways to reduce complexity is to cut unnecessary features from your product. But how do you know which features to cut?

Well, it’s not easy. Marketing wants a feature that one of your competitors has so they can cook up one of those bulleted feature comparison charts. The engineers have an idea for a feature that they think is really interesting, and one of them spent the entire weekend coding it. And then there’s the "squeaky wheel" customer in Arizona that wants a particular esoteric feature that no one else seems to care about…

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Don’t get burned by bad mapping

Have you ever tried to use a kitchen stove and ended up turning the wrong burner on by mistake? Yeah, us too. Just about everyone who cooks has run into this minor annoyance at some point in their life, if not repeatedly. So what do naughty stoves have to do with software? You may be surprised to learn that your digital products may suffer from the same fundamental problem that makes these stoves annoying and counterintuitive.

The problem with these stoves is poor or unnatural mapping. The term mapping describes the relationship between a control, the thing it affects, and the intended result. Poor mapping is evident when a control does not relate visually or symbolically with the object it affects, requiring the user to stop and think, "what’s going to happen when I turn this knob?"

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