You say personalisation, I say customisation, let’s call the whole thing off

Does personalisation happen in the back end, or in the front end? Or is that customisation? The answer depends on who you speak to. In the user experience, information architecture and interaction design worlds, definitions of the two terms aren’t universal.

So what is personalisation?
Some define personalisation as the ability for the system to show content to an end-user based on who they are. Others call this customisation.

What about customisation?
Some define customisation as the ability for an end-user to manipulate and choose what or how things are displayed in an interface. Others call this very same thing personalisation.

There is no consensus!
That’s right. Even the big wigs of UX, IA and IxD can’t agree on personalisation. I also found a helpful CHI Web discussionfrom way back that illustrates the same issue.

So what now?
I suggest you choose which camp you agree with. Does personalisation happen in the back end and customisation the front end? Or vice versa? Either way you have a bunch of luminaries who already agree with you. Just make sure you always, ALWAYS include your definition when referring to either personalisation or customisation.

P.S. I’m in the “personalisation = back end and customisation = front end” camp.

This is what happens when you ignore user experience design

Wired have published the results of an extreme makeover design-off between NYTimes, SimpleScott, Studio8 Design and Pentagram. All were asked to redesign the craigslist homepage (it’s currently a awful dog’s breakfast, but they aren’t interested in redesigning it – gawd knows why not!).

The good, the OK and the shocking
So the results of the design-off are more than a little interesting. The redesign by NYTimes and Studio8 Design show real thought and consideration for users has gone into the creative web design. SimpleScott’s redesign is a good improvement, but lacks the sophistication of the others. Pentagram’s on the other hand made my jaw drop. This is their redesign.
Where’s the…
This is what happens when graphic design dominates the user experience. The redesign looks nice, but it’s far from usable! Where’s the hierarchy (of information and visual elements)? Where’s the information scent? Where’s the interaction design, for Pete’s sake! Pentagram said they “decided to do something about the cult of Craig”. Why?

Don’t ignore user experience
This design perfectly demonstrates the importance of user experience design. Pentagram’s design shows the end result when the information architecture, user research, interaction design, usability aspects of user experience design are ignored. This is like design101 to me. I thought everybody “got” this.

Sketches don’t have to be pretty, you know (here’s the proof)

I read Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences earlier this year. I loved the book and the value Bill puts on sketching as the foundation of user experience design.

Scared to sketch?
I’ve always been a sketcher. I doodle and draw a lot so I’m pretty comfortable doing it. But I know others aren’t. Some people I know feel really intimidated by sketching. They prefer to go straight to Axure or Visio to start their designs. When I ask them why, their response is always something along the lines of “I’m not a good drawer”. Which is so disappointing. Using sketches to design user interfaces (UIs) is never about how good a drawer you are! It’s about getting ideas down. Seeing how they work on paper. Scrubbing things out and trying again. Cutting things up and sticking them back together in different ways.
To prove just how unimportant *drawing* skills are when it comes to sketching early ideas for a UI, a sketch of mine. I did a sketch on the whiteboard in a meeting with 3 clients. They ended up taking the marker from me and adding their own bits to the sketch. It was such a great, energetic exchange.
See. It’s not a pretty sketch by any stretch. But it worked. The people I was working with were able to see what I was thinking. And then we all collaborated and made improvements together.

Relax! It’s just a sketch
Sketching is so powerful. If you aren’t a great drawer, it doesn’t matter. Just sketch. Don’t worry about how “good” it is. Sketching will always help you clarify your thoughts and ideas to others…and yourself!

Tabs for Navigation are OK (There, I said it!)

Using tabs for navigation is a bit controversial for some interaction designers. Quite a few people I have worked with over the years despise (yep, that’s right, despise) the use of tabs for navigation. Mr. Nielsen has said “placing a horizontal set of tabs across the top of the screen…is a bad design and an abuse of the tab metaphor…Tabs are supposed to be used for rapid switching between alternative views of the same information object.” Not mincing his words there.

History of tabs as navigation

It all started with Amazon back in 1998. Luke W has tracked the “colourful” (literally) history of Amazon’s tabs. Amazon went through loads of tab variations and stuck with its tabs until 2007 (Amazon has used a left-hand side navigation since then). Even though Amazon has abandoned tabs, tab navigation had already taken on a life of its own. Others sites had started using the tab metaphor for their main navigation. And here’s the thing – I think that so many sites started using tabs for navigation that the original metaphor morphed. No longer did a tab mean “alternative views of the same information object”. It now meant “main navigation”. And that’s OK. Just because this doesn’t fit with the traditional, physical world metaphor for a tab doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing.

When to use tabs for navigation
Yahoo’s pattern library contains a great page on navigation tabs. They suggest using tabs for navigation when:
There are 3 – 10 category titles.
The category titles are relatively short and predictable.
The number of categories is not likely to change often.
The entire width of the page is needed for content. An alternative approach is to use a left bar navigation
The categories belong to a single site.
You need to represent the highest level navigation options on a site.
You need to indicate the user’s current location in the set of available options.
You need to change the entire page and not a sub-section of content within the page.
You need a way to control the highest level of navigation.
Ironically, if Amazon had considered these points, they probably would never have used tabs as navigation in the first place!

Not everyone agrees with me
Here’s a final word from Mr. Nielsen:
“I maintain that tabs would be better used for switching between alternative (but related) views than for navigating to unrelated locations. But unfortunately, users will soon lose any understanding they may have had of tabs as a special design element if more and more sites keep abusing tabs. I still think that less than 50% of sites use tabs in the (erroneous) meaning of navigating to the main sections of the site. Thus, I still think that the correct use of tabs is preferred and I recommend using different techniques to visualize the main areas of the site. But this may be a losing battle and I may have to revise this recommendation in a year or so if more and more sites adopt a misguided use of tabs.”

An Obituary for The 3-Click Rule

A Short History
Essentially, the 3-click rule requires everything within a website to be accessible within three clicks of the homepage. Everyone, even your friend’s nanna, reckons the 3-click rule is the best rule of thumb for designing great websites. During any meeting with business and user stakeholders, you are likely to hear them endorse the 3-click rule at least twice.

A long overdue obituary
The 3-click rule lived a long and infamous life. The rule’s birth date is tellingly unclear. However, it is almost certain the rule was born during the first website era of grey backgrounds, serif fonts and tables with default borders.

A valued member of society
The 3-click rule enjoyed immense popularity during the mid 1990s. Designers and smug people proffered the rule in hopes of sounding all smart like and in-the-know during first dates with their future spouses. Wide endorsement of the rule hit its peak in the late 90s – with the esteemed Jeffery Zeldman joining the chorus in his book titled “Taking Your Talent to the Web”.

The formative years
The rule was most pertinent when creating little websites for the local dog wash business which only had enough dollars for 10 web-pages (note, these were the days when web pages was still hyphenated).

Things started to go a bit wrong
At this time no one seemed to mind that the 3-click rule had fundamental issues. The major problem was scalability. In really large websites the rule didn’t scale up much past 100 pages. If a website has several hundred or more pages, this meant a really top-heavy global nav structure, mind-bogglingly long lists of links on each page, and other crazy clutter-prone mechanisms to link all those pages together. Users had to scan stupid amounts of information at once, and got frustrated with it all damned quick!

Birth of a new era
But everything changed when Chi and Pirolli at Xerox birthed the theory of Information Scent. The theory of information scent superseded the three click rule. Information scent describes how people hunt through the available pathways when they’re looking for information on a website. Sites with really strong info scents are really good at leading users to the content they want to find. Sites with faint or weak information scents mean that users spend much longer evaluating the options they have and increases the chances that they will select the wrong option.

Summary
Creating a strong information scent involves giving users just enough context and information at each pathway decision point. This makes it easier for them to choose the best pathway to lead them to the information they want. As long as users are confident they’re heading in the right direction, then they’re not likely to abandon a site if it takes more than 3 clicks to get where they’re going.

R.I.P 3-click rule (and not a minute too soon).

Please share your memories of the 3-click rule or leave your notes of condolences as comments below…