Why The Google Places API Search Failed Our Usability Tests

Whenever we perform usability tests, we inevitably discover something we didn’t expect — which is exactly why we test. In this case, we were designing a quoting system for insurance agents and the primary success criteria for the project was to “increase quote submissions by making the quoting process dramatically faster and easier for the agents”. When it comes to streamlining any complex process, it’s usually a lot of little tweaks that add up to significant time savings. For this quoting system, one of those things was the “Business Name” field. During our user shadowing sessions with the users, we observed how laborious and error-prone it was for users to enter the business name every time they created a quote. So, we suggested implementing the Google Places API Search, on the Google Maps Platform, which we’ve used on many other applications before with great success.

For this application, our stated hypothesis for using Places API was this:

“We believe that by replacing the text input field with the Google Places API search feature, we will optimize the overall efficiency of this required field for the following reasons:

  1. Redundant data entry will be reduced because the user can select a business from the results set after typing just a few characters
  2. User input errors will be reduced because the users will select a business from the search results
  3. Data quality and data mining capabilities will improve because businesses are motivated to keep their Google listings up-to-date because so many customers use Google
  4. Google’s Instant Autocomplete functionality is familiar to most users because of Google’s widespread usage and adoption”

Google’s ‘Familiar’ Instant Autocomplete Results

Since its official launch in 2008, most people have grown very familiar with how Google’s Instant Autocomplete search results work. You start typing something in and Google immediately starts to show you matching results that you can select. With Google’s Place’s API (shown to the right), a user begins to type a business name and Google immediately starts to display matching business names that are closest to the user’s location and they have the option of either selecting from the Instant Autocomplete results or selecting the option to create a new business listing.

The Surprise

In our initial usability tests, not a single agent selected a business from Google’s Instant Autocomplete results that displayed right in front of them as they typed. Instead, every one of them either typed the full business name or they copied and pasted the business name into the field from another data source. To be clear, we are not saying that Google’s Instant Autocomplete results are poorly designed, we are saying that when we implemented the feature in the redesign of an insurance quoting system, this ‘familiar’ feature was not used by agents as we expected it to be used. In fact, we were so baffled by the failed test results that we decided to test it again with non-agents just to see if we could narrow down the root cause of the failed test. As we suspected (and hoped), all non-agents selected from the search results rather than type the full business name or copy and paste it into the field. 

The Lessons Learned

So why did such as familiar feature fail our usability test? We believe the primary reason was “Learned Behavior”. The agents we tested all use many different insurance quoting systems and not one of them uses Instant Autocomplete results for the Business Name field. Instead, as flawed as it may seem, they all use a simple free-form text entry field that requires the users to type in the full business name. So, the users are simply used to typing the full business name instead of selecting it because within the context of an insurance quoting system, that’s what they’ve always done.

The Solution

So how do we change the way the agents see this Business Name field so that they use it more as a search box instead of a text entry field? We took a page from the CueActionRewards (CAR) Model in Behavioral Design, which is a proven design framework for inducing user habits.

How the Cue-Action-Reward (CAR) Model has been used to induce habits.

Source: The book “Human Behavior is Programmable”

In the case of this one Business Name field, we needed to make it visually obvious (Cues) that the results were ‘selectable’ so that it encouraged users to click (Action) a result because it would mean less typing, less errors, and it would provide an opportunity to pre-fill a lot of data within the quoting system based on the the unique ID of the selected business (Reward!).

Here’s what we did:

    • Added the word “Search” to the field label name and added a search icon as Cues to get agents to use this field as a search box rather than a text entry field.
    • Added the “Select a Matching Business” (Cue) to encourage a selection (Action) from the results set.
    • Added radio buttons (Cue) to the results to further encourage a selection (Action).
    • Colored the business names in the results set blue (Cue) to help indicate that they are clickable.
    • The Reward is then fulfilled by typing less and on the next screen a message informs the user that data was automatically pre-filled for the selected business, which we hope will encourage a repeat of the same use then next time the agents uses the Business Name field.

All This For a Single Form Field?

Yes. In order to “increase quote submissions by making the quoting process dramatically faster and easier for the agents” we needed to get this first form field right.

5 Reasons Why You Should Hire A ‘Dedicated UX Team’

Lately, more and more of our clients are taking advantage of our ‘Dedicated UX Team‘ engagement model whereby we carefully select and assign a group of UX resources to our client’s project(s) throughout the entire duration of our engagement. It seems too many businesses have experienced failed relationships with design firms because the firm constantly reassigns resources from one client project to another. So, unless you specifically request your consulting firm to provide you with a Dedicated Team, you’re likely going to engage in a time and material project where there’s no guarantee that the resources that start on your project are the ones that stay on your project.

Here are 5 reasons why you should make sure you hire a dedicated team:

1. Intellectual Capital

A lot of our clients have businesses that require a deep understanding of complex complicated business rules, regulations and compliance laws, technology requirements and limitations, and even unusual nomenclature and acronyms. So, there is simply no way a resource could be assigned to a halfway through a project’s completion and expect to create a great software product without that deep understanding. With a Dedicate Team, all the knowledge that is gained throughout a project is never lost. In fact, often times we end up presenting things about our client’s business that they didn’t even know about because our methodology requires us to perform specific research and user shadowing activities that were never done before.

2. Continuity & Consistency

Whether a given team people are designing a product, a website or a building, it is important that the design maintains a certain level of continuity and consistency throughout its complete end-user experience. Since a ‘Dedicated Team’ works on a project from its beginning, the design of your product will be far more consistent than if you had team members swapping out throughout your project. Any great design has baked-in design standards, rules and characteristics that are known by those who create them and those that document them. If you don’t maintain continuity and consistency in your product’s design, you’re users will surely let you know about it.

3. Trust & Stability

Throughout the course of any project, team members begin to develop a trust in each others abilities and recommendations. This trust adds stability to the team and makes the overall team perform much better and faster because everyone spends less time doubting each other and more time getting their jobs done.

4. The Best of Each Role

A great UX Team is typically comprised of Lead UX designer, UX designers, Front-end Developers, a Project Manager and sometimes other supporting resources such as researchers, testers and analysts. When you have a Dedicated Team, you can make sure that each resource on the team is focused on what they’re really good at instead of requiring team members to stretch their abilities to do things they’re not good at. The bottom line is that it is simply never a good idea to have Developers designing and Designers developing.

5. Enhanced Long-lasting Relationship

Some firms shield their clients from getting to know exactly who is doing the actual work for them. We believe in building a long-lasting relationship between our clients and their assigned team members. In fact, our clients get to know each team member on a first name basis, which sounds petty but this kind of enhanced relationship leads to better communication and a sense of comradery that helps the team gel and work more better together.

5 Things The New Gmail Design Got Wrong

Google recently launched its revamped Gmail design and, while there many things they got right, there are some things we feel they got wrong — in just the left sidebar. So, we took it upon ourselves to make a few suggested design tweaks that we feel correct some of the things the new Gmail does wrong and builds upon some of the good things Google introduces in their new design.


1. Poor Visual Hierarchy

As plain and simple the old “Classic” version of Gmail was, the one thing it had was a clear visual hierarchy. One of the most important considerations in any design is making sure the important elements appear important and the less important elements appear less important. In the Classic design, it was very clear that the ‘Compose’ button was the most important element. Then, maybe the Google logo appears to be the second most important, then the highlighted ‘Inbox’ label and ‘Drafts’ label, and then everything else. In the new Gmail design, the ‘Compose’ white button appears so unimportant that it almost gets lost and the red highlighted ‘Inbox’ appears most important. In addition, the weight of the icons seem to far outweigh their relative importance.

The Blur  Test
A great method we use to test a design’s visual hierarchy is the ‘Blur Test’, which is an old art school trick that helps reveal a design’s or painting’s primary focal point. In UX design, we take a screenshot of a design and apply a 3 to 4 pixel blur to it or we use a browser plugin such as Funkify to simulate someone visually impaired. When you do this, certain elements jump out and others drop back. As you can see in the blurred screenshots below, the new Gmail design has a fairly weak visual hierarchy. Beyond the highlighted ‘Inbox’, most elements carry a very similar visual weight. In our tweaked design, we made the ‘Compose’ button the most important, followed by the highlighted ‘Inbox’, followed by ‘Drafts’ and the other icon folders. In addition, we also indented the label names to help offset them from the other icon folders.

2. Using ‘Error Message’ colors for the highlight color

The new Gmail design uses a highlight color that is typically reserved for error messages and warnings. In general, UX designers need to be very careful about how and where they use the color red in their software designs because users are so used thinking something has gone wrong when they see red. In the screenshot below you will see a typical error message displayed below the new ‘Inbox’ to demonstrate how similar they look. In our tweaked design, we used used the familiar color of a yellow highlighter marker as the background instead of using a light red/pink background.

3. Detached “Unread” numbers

In the ‘Classic’ Gmail design, the total number of unread messages appears directly connected to the corresponding folder. In the new Gmail design, the unread numbers appear very far away from its corresponding folder. In our tweaked design, we moved the number back to where it was in the ‘Classic’ design.

4. Inconsistent primary action button color

The new ‘Compose’ button uses a white background which not only gets lost but it’s also inconsistent with Google’s own design standards. In other Google applications, the primary action color is blue. Even within Gmail’s message window, the ‘Send’ button is blue – so it would seem logical to use a blue ‘Compose’ action button. We are not saying the ‘Compose’ button must follow Google’s own standards but if it is meant to be the most important element on the screen it should look like it.

5. Poor icon spacing and size

The icons are a nice touch in the new Gmail design but they are far bigger than they need to be and the 27 pixels of space between the icons and the label names make the icons feel a bit too detached from each other. In our tweaked design, we made the icons 20% smaller and reduced the space between the icons and label to just 12 pixels.



Why and How UX Designers Should Perform User Shadowing

What is User Shadowing?

User Shadowing is an extremely useful behavioral observation practice that is used by UX designers and researchers to learn how people perform day-to-day tasks within their natural environment. It is especially useful when designing software products that will be used by people within a work environment, such as an office setting, lab, shop or out in the field. The key learnings from each user shadowing session are then compiled and used to help inform the design of a software product’s user experience. Some of the key learnings can include:

  • What the user’s (actual) job responsibilities are: On more than one occasion, we revealed job responsibilities that were quite different than what our direct client thought a user’s responsibilities were. In fact, on one project our shadowing sessions resulted in a company revamping and redefining all their job descriptions.
  • What steps do the users perform to complete their day-to-day jobs: Often times, our shadowing sessions will not only uncover many redundant steps but also inconsistent steps performed among users of the same role.
  • What systems, paperwork and people do the users interact with: This is often the biggest eye-opener because a client will usually bring us in thinking they need us to redesign a single software product but then we reveal that their users are actually interacting with a dozen or more applications to get a single task done.
  • What data and features should be surfaced and made more accessible to the users: After observing a few users, you may quickly see a pattern whereby the users are constantly navigating deep into an application to find specific data elements or features. Instead of leaving these buried in the new application, you may consider surfacing them directly onto the user’s initial home screen.
  • What pain-points do the users struggle with: Are they constantly entering redundant data in multiple places? Do they need to log into and bounce around between multiple disparate systems? Do they struggle to find certain screens and data elements? Is the currently system painfully slow? Are they performing workarounds just to get their job done?

The key principle of shadowing is that the UX researcher(s) act only as unbiased observer. They are not to interfere with the user as that interference might change the way the user behaves in any given circumstance. Once the user completes a given task, the researcher can then ask questions about the completed task and/or ask the user to walk through the task again – but it is critical that the researcher refrain from interrupting the natural flow of the user.

How Many Users Should You Shadow?

To determine the number of users you should shadow, first start by defining the number of user personas the product you are designing has. Then, try to shadowing 3-5 users that represent each persona. For example, if your product has Call Center Reps, Supervisors, and System Admins, you should try to shadow 3-5 of each. Typically, once you’ve observed more than 5, your observations will yield less and less unique findings.

How Long Should User Shadowing Take?

Shadowing can take place over any time period. It can be as short as a 30-minute session or it can be very involved and take place over a period of days or weeks. The exact length of shadowing is normally determined by what the user does and what the researcher wishes to learn.

Key User Shadowing Tips:

Record the sessions:
When possible, shadowing sessions should be recorded as they are conducted because the ability to playback a recorded session will prove to be invaluable. It is simply impossible for a researcher to capture every action the observe. In fact, you can have 5 researchers participate in the same shadowing session and each will observe different things and even have different interpretations of what they witnessed. The recording becomes the indisputable evidence.

The method you choose to record the sessions is also important because you should make sure the recording method does not distract the user from their normal activities and behaviors. For example, pointing a camera at the user can make them much more apprehensive and aware that they are being recorded, which will make them behave differently than the normally would. Using a simple web conference service like GoToMeeting or WebEx can be a great recording method for users that work at a desk all day because:

  1. The setup is quick and easy. Just email the user a link to click on, have them dial into a number, and then put their desk phone on speaker so you can record whatever the user says and whatever questions you ask.
  2. Once setup, the user will quickly forget they are being recorded and behave more naturally.
  3. Others can join the call and silently listen in and watch without being physically present.

Choose your researcher(s) carefully:
Shadowing is all about trying making sure the user feels at ease because, ideally, you want them to behave and perform their tasks as they would if you weren’t there. So, it is critical that the researcher:

  1. Is able to refrain from interrupting the user’s natural flow of work.
  2. Is not someone perceived to be superior or of a higher rank to the user because the user may feel intimidated and cautious about what they do and what they say.
  3. Is completely unbiased and is not tempted to introduce their own preferences or thoughts on how the user should do things. Shadowing is about learning and informing your design decisions. It’s not about training or gaining support for a possible solution.

2018 Google Trends Shows Dramatic Increase in “UX” Search Terms

While doing some keyword research in Google Trends for our website (which I highly recommend), I discovered a very interesting and dramatic upward trend in the amount of “ux design” searches and “User experience design” topics since 2004. What I think this confirms is that more and more people are realizing just how important the User Experience is for their business and products. We, at UX Team, have certainly noticed it in not only the volume of leads we get but in the quality as well. People are simply more educated and need less convincing that they need to invest in UX in order to produce successful software products and websites.

So, it it time to step down from our UX Soapbox?

Not quite. There are still plenty of companies that are just beginning to learn the value of UX and they need firms, like UX Team, to educate them. We still find ourselves in either early sales meetings or Team Work Sessions where we have to get on our soapbox and promote the importance of user shadowing, usability testing and prototyping. So, the specific activities and deliverables produced by UX Team still require some convincing – but the need to convince folks that they need to focus on the User Experience is certainly a lot less challenging than ever.

See for yourself: https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=ux%20design,%2Fg%2F120_g8jl

User Shadowing on The Trading Floor at Morgan Stanley

For about four months, I had the pleasure of working on an exciting new project for Morgan Stanley. The details of the project can not be disclosed for obvious confidentiality reasons but I can speak in general terms about the experience. As with most UX projects, we like to spend as much time as we can observing users in their natural work environments while they perform their daily activities. In the case of Morgan Stanley, this meant spending a good amount of time in the trenches, on the trading floor, sitting with the traders and sales reps. My job was to not only observe the users but also build a sense of empathy for how they perform all their job activities. In fact, one of the main purposes of user shadowing is to build empathy so that you can see your design through the eyes of the users. Read more

But First, Prototype – Correcting Mistakes Before They’re Made

Source: quotesondesign.com

Sometimes ideas sound great in theory, but don’t work well in practice. That’s why prototyping with actual users is essential. We usually think of prototyping in terms of software, but it has real world applications, too.

Read more

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Treat Your Ecommerce UX Like Your In-Store Sales Reps

If 10,000 pre-qualified, motivated customers came into your brick and mortar store each month and 75% of them walked out without buying anything, what would you do? Read more

Why You Need a UX Team (Part 1)

In Part 1 of this series on “Why You Need a UX Team”, we examine what specific roles, responsibilities and skill sets a UX Team typically brings to the table. Read more