Thursday, March 30, 2017

UI Trend with Modal Windows

You may say that Modal windows are what pop up were 10 years ago. Like them or hate them they have become an essential UI design element for almost any website or application. Recently I have started to see a transition of how these screens are being used. We first started seeing modals about 8 years ago when a developer named Lokesh Dhakar created a Javascript Library called “Light Box”. It was a very simple way of putting focus on one image at a time and graying out everything else.

This became so popular that many people starting to throw anything and everything in these smaller focused screens. Some people call them Dialog boxes, others call them Modals but they really all mean the same thing. The main purpose is to present the user with additional information while putting the main parent page on hold until they are done.

Of course with any UI design element they have been misused and abused in many different ways. I have seen some applications that have more than 3 levels of modals one on top of each other. Or times where the modal includes an extremely complex workflow or wizard that does not allow the user to exit until a set of criteria is fulfilled. Most of the times when modals are used in the wrong way it is because the content owners are trying to inject way to much information in such a small space. Rule of thumb, if you have to consider either a “Next” button or a “Scrollbar” in your design just STOP. It may be better to have a new full page dedicated to that content and not a modal.

With the introduction of bootstrap and other frameworks modals have become pretty standard on how users will interact with them. Usually the grayed out area is a clickable area that allows users to navigate back to the parent screen. Other times we become overly cautious and have “X” icons and “Cancel” buttons to make sure users feel comfortable that they are not stuck on an overlay page and no way to get back. One interesting trend I am seeing lately is moving the “X” button outside of the modal box and into the gray area. Pinterest uses both on their website which to me is a little bit confusing...

If you look at Facebook the close icon is all the way to the top right. This is slightly annoying for the users since they have to move their cursor a pretty far distance on larger screens to close it down. However since the whole gray area is clickable it is not a deal breaker. I would be interested to see some metrics on how often in Facebook users actually click the “X” icon vs clicking on the gray background?

Twitter has the close icon closer to the box which makes it slightly easier for the users to close it down.

Overall the biggest thing to remember is that modals are meant as short term screens to present and capture small bits of additional information that supports the parent screen. They should not be used for presenting heavy content, complex workflows and modals on top of modals. One last thing to consider is that you will need to consider alternative ways of presenting these screens on mobile devices. In most cases they will become full screen take overs due to the limited space available.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

UCD Process

Over the last couple of years UCD (User Centered Design) has become a buzz word just like RWD (Responsive Web Design). 5 years ago when I wrote my SharePoint Branding book I use to call it the 4D’s of User experience. It included Discovery, Definition, Design, and Development. I had a nice little picture and everything to depict the different phases.

Now the picture is much nicer and clean however, I really don’t think it matters what you call each phase it matters more what you do within them. I have seen so many different variations sliced and diced in different ways. To me it is about adjusting your approach based on the needs of your users and your client. In a more traditional waterfall project you have a tendency to over burden yourself with documentation because there is no chance of going back. Also those types of project are usually the ones where you scope out in the begging a full solution without ever fully knowing what the real need actually is. I would much rather only scope the first couple of phases to really truly understand what you are dealing with before you can even imagine what the technical effort would be.

The biggest shift that I have seen though a more refined UCD approach is really focusing on the first phase which is understanding who the users are, and what are their needs. This is a shift in getting away from just focusing on Functional Requirements but diving deeper and truly understanding individual user needs. In the past I used to focus on how to customize and configure a tool like SharePoint to give the users a somewhat tailored experience. This did not always provide the users what they needed but it was better than nothing. I do have to say it is really refreshing being able to go into a project technology agnostic. To me it sometimes feels like you are trying to put a square peg in a round hole if a technology has already been defined by IT and there is no clear use case or need from the users on how they will use it. This is a clear case where user adoption will become an issue and it will be a big waste of time and money.

One other shift I have noticed over the last few years is that personas have really changed their meaning and purpose. We use to define different personas based on their organizational structure (HR, IT, Sales) or by their permission roles (Admin, Contributor, Reader). We also use to focus more on their demographical information such as (Age, Location, Device Types) which really did not provide much value.

I think due to the fact that I spend more time diving deep through user interviews to gather as much as I can about their day to day activities. Learning more about what their pain points are and identifying commonalities with all that we have met with. This helps drive better insights into who those core personas will be and not just based on a title or a role. These types of personas will help us during the definition phase when we start to translate their user needs on to paper.

Not every project needs to have a full set of polished personas, but at least some level of understanding who you are designing the application for. For the most part the 4D’s still hold up pretty well but like I said before it really does not matter what you call each phase so long as you are providing value in each one of them.