Last month, we provided an inside look at one of the minds behind EchoUser, co-founder Mick McGee. What kind of host would we be if we didn’t provide a look at the other half of the equation?
We sat down with Aaron Rich, co-founder and vice president of operations here at EchoUser, to learn more about how he got involved in user experience (UX), the importance of startup UX and why we should be looking beyond the software industry.
1. How did you get involved in the user experience field?
Like most undergraduate students, I was trying to figure out a major. I was drawn to psychology, but knew I didn’t want to do clinical work or listen to people’s problems all the time. During this discovery phase, I took a class in human factors, human cognition and designing various systems with those principles in mind. Seeing this marriage between psychology and engineering really spoke to me.
Then, in grad school, I was working on aviation psychology — looking at the design of cockpits and figuring out how to design displays for pilots. Through this, I learned about usability, looking at how pilots use cockpits displays and learning how to design with human cognitive limits in mind. After discovering user research I was hooked and knew that’s what I wanted to do.
2. How do your roots play into what you do at EchoUser?
Humans continue to be at the center of our approach to user experience. In the UX industry, many of the veterans with 15 to 20 years experience came from a human factors type of background. But these days many people in our field don’t have this type of knowledge and often come over from other disciplines such as engineering, visual design, even architecture and often think about UX differently. At EchoUser, our roots and our future will always be in the human experience.
3. How does the EchoUser philosophy differ from other UX firms?
People are starting to understand that UX is important (thanks, Apple!) but there is a lot of confusion about what UX really is, or should be. That’s where we come in and where we differ. Most people, and other firms, think it’s just design. But in order to do good design, you have to approach a problem holistically.
We try to look at everything from a system level view. A lot of research is done before design even comes into play. Our special sauce is being able to focus on complex systems that other firms may not be able to tackle. Since we strive to understand the end user through tried and true methodologies, even if we have don’t have the background going into a project we can understand them flawlessly coming out of it.
4. You’re really passionate about helping startups with UX, can you explain that further?
Startups always have great ideas. They’re the ones bringing out-of-the-box thoughts to life in a way enterprise companies aren’t able to because they are often bogged down legacy products or strategies.
But startups have their own challenges; mainly limited time and resources. When we’re able to get involved with a startup early on, we can sometimes affect the whole course of a company. Since a startup is running a mile a minute, they sometimes forget who the user is going to be or think about how the user will want to engage with the product. They know they have an idea and just run with it without thinking. I can come in and teach them how to do things as simple as talking to their users. Some startups just need help understanding how to implement a design concept.
We’re in a fortunate position where we work with both enterprises and startups. We get to bring the best facets of each to the other. We can provide the lessons learned from more established companies to those who haven’t made it yet, and teach the agility of a startup to larger companies. At the end of the day, it’s about being the bridge that brings better UX to all.
5. How has UX changed in recent years?
One of the key things that has changed in the past five years is mobile-first design. We’re constantly being asked if something should start on a tablet or smartphone form. It always depends. Just because it’s a trend doesn’t mean every product should be mobile-first. People really need to do the research first and understand where the target user will be using the product and what will be the context of use. Too many people aren’t doing that these days.
Another big trend that everyone is talking about is the consumerization of enterprise. We’re in the early stages of a really interesting shift where expectations of enterprise grade platforms are changing. Going back to startups, this is an area where smaller companies have really taken the lead. Without the legacy issues, they’ve been able to try new things and have seen UX has a huge differentiator recently. They then delight people in an industry that is craving change and their product soars.
6. What are the best and worst parts about being a usability tester?
The toughest part about being a user researcher is getting started. We often go into projects where we know nothing about the domain, and clients will ask us, “what can you possibly teach me about my highly technical, individualized product?” But the answer is simple – we get to understand the user; we get involved in the training and really dive into how people are actually using iit. That tells us everything we need to know.
The best part is enlightening our customers with insights about how people actually interact with their product. It’s extremely rewarding being able to say to a client “hey, this is actually how your software is being used,” and seeing their minds blown, figuratively speaking.
I attended the Future of Wearable Tech event last week where Owen Thomas, editor-in-chief of the ReadWrite, interviewed Eric Migicovsky, Founder/CEO of Pebble. One third of the audience had a chance to show their support for Pebble when Thomas asked them to shake their wrists in the dark so their backlights would light up. I felt as if I was in the middle of a live concert. Among the audience were developers, wearable advocates, and representatives from bigger companies like Accenture. It was exciting to see the interest in wearables. The event also gave me a sense of what our future may look like with regards to wearables.
The Story of Pebble
In 2008, Migicovsky and his team started building their first smartwatch out of Waterloo, Ontario. They designed the InPulse smartwatch exclusively for BlackBerry. At the time, Migicovsky’s research showed that BlackBerry was the major player in the smartphone market (not to mention that Waterloo is the home of BlackBerry, formerly known as Research in Motion). However, in 2011, Migicovsky’s team saw people shifting to iPhones and decided to create the Pebble smartwatch that worked with the iPhone. It was interesting to hear an example of how quickly tech gadgets go out of fashion, but at the same time, it is exciting that new players can also enter the market as Pebble did through a Kickstarter campaign about two years ago.
Quick statistics about Pebble today:
- 13,000 -14,000 developers are writing apps for Pebble
- Over 400,000 pebbles in the field
- About 60% of customers on the website buy the Pebble steel
- 45% of backers came from outside the U.S.
- 60% – 70% of the website traffic comes from outside the U.S.
- Pebble ships to more than 150 countries
Some takeaways from the talk
Wearables should be fashion focused
Pebble values fashion and has opened up opportunities for designers to accessorize the Pebble smartwatch. To serve the demand, Migicovsky and his team are looking into customizations. For example, Migicovsky said, “We released 3D print files on GitHub so that designers can create bangles, sticky wraps, snap on Pebble covers…etc.” Having taken a lesson from the Apple, the Pebble team approves these design ideas before releasing them to the public.
Make wearables that stick
According to Migicovsky, “We love to make a product that meshes into a user’s life. Pebble really lets you live your life a little better.” Pebble attempts to improve the user’s life from the get-go. In addition, offering an open-platform means that the Pebble smartwatch will only become more useful over time as developers build additional apps for it. Pebble’s strategy is to introduce some basic value first, but it does not want to stop there. Pebble wants to offer many more use cases and apps that a user can benefit from to make it sticky.
Customization is key
Migicovsky mentioned that Pebble wants to create a product that provides value to people on their terms. He shared a real example about Pebble, “What’s interesting is that with every person there is a different thing that they do even when it comes to notifications. People have different use case. Some are getting their Hangout notifications on their wrists. Others turn off everything but phone calls.” This made me think that a successful wearable device should let users customize it to fit their lifestyle.
Adding context is important
Migicovsky thinks that there will be more and more sensors around us soon, even embedded on our clothes. A Pebble smartwatch can add values to those wearables. Migicovsky said, “One of the cool things about Pebble is that it has a Bluetooth radio, so it can talk to Bluetooth LE enabled devices.“ It is still a concept, but Migicovsky painted a picture where Pebble would be useful, “Pebble can talk directly to a heart-rate monitor, power sensors, and iBeacons.” One of the use cases Migicovsky said was that you might prefer looking at a display on your wrist than looking at a display on a heart rate monitor under your t-shirt.
The right technology has to be available for a product to be successful
Migicovsky mentioned two reasons why his team could not make Pebble as successful a few years ago as it is today. First, people did not normally have an Internet connected device in their pocket as they do today. And second, battery life was not as good as it is today. As battery life improves, Migicovsky sees Pebble introducing cellphone chips later when the technology is supportive for lower power consumptions.
User experience should be taken in consideration for a wearable form factor
As a part of creating a better user experience on wearables, Migicovsky envisions a future where a Pebble smartwatch is not tied to a phone. He gave an example, “There is an awesome app called PebbleBucks, a Starbucks app for Pebble that lets you pay using a barcode pushed to your Pebble by your phone. Why cannot the barcode be enabled at a Starbucks location served by some kind of iBeacon Bluetooth LE system and that is something worth investigating. Over time, we want to look into more elaborated scenarios.“
Pebble has been building the first OS that is purposely designed for a wearable platform unlike Android Wear which is based on an existing OS. Migicovsky believes the Pebble’s OS also differentiates it from competitors in terms of providing the best user experience.
Working with constraints like limited battery power, Pebble succeeded in differentiating itself and offering a unique experience. According to Migicovsky, one of the interesting visions of a computing platform is that it can work separate from the Internet, but when it connects back to the Internet, the data get transferred back to apps for a user to use. For example, Migicovsky said that when someone goes to swim and a Pebble smartwatch becomes separated from a user’s phone, but once the user comes back to a locker room, he will be connected to his phone via Bluetooth and his fitness app syncs the data from the Pebble smartwatch.
Migicovsky provided some interesting insights on what goes into making a successful wearable like Pebble and the exciting possibilities the future holds for wearables. Moreover, I was intrigued by the factors that Migicovsky mentioned have shaped the unique user experience that Pebble offers. For example, there is a strong online community for the Pebble smartwatch that helps both the users and the Pebble team. Another interesting approach that Pebble is taking is to tap into more retail spaces. According to Migicovsky,“All Target stores will be rolling out Pebbles in the next month or two.”
cowritten by: Kimra McPherson and Joanne Wong
Not that we follow him or anything, but have you seen Channing Tatum’s new Twitter profile?
We wouldn’t normally have been scoping it out. But Tatum — along with First Lady Michelle Obama, Weezer, and a handful of other famous folks — was privy to an early rollout of the new Twitter profile page, which was officially announced on Tuesday after months of speculation (thank you Mashable).
The new layout enlarges your most popular tweets based on engagement: number of retweets, replies, likes, etc. The more popular a tweet, the more real estate it gets on your profile page. Twitter also rolled out a couple of new features, such as the ability to pin a tweet to the top of your page or filter tweets with images and videos. Many people compared the redesign to Facebook because of the expanded timeline photo you can customize.
What Does this Mean for Users?
As Twitter #addicts, our first reaction was fear. Twitter has become an indispensable source of news and communication for us, even replacing Google Reader as the easiest way to scan hundreds and hundreds of headlines in search of something interesting. Collectively, we (@_jwong and @kimretta) have tweeted nearly 17,000 times since Twitter began in March 2006 — averaging 6x a day! — and follow nearly 1,200 people in our streams (meaning we read A LOT of content). We were worried the new profile would mean big changes for the way Twitter looks and feels when we check it every day (or, OK, every hour … minute … whatever).
But as we looked more carefully at the changes, our fear turned to relief and curiosity. So far, none of the changes will actually affect how we experience Twitter, since neither of us really looks at our own profile pages — or, really, at other people’s profiles. (We might now, just to see what it’s like.)
Everything about the changes would indicate Twitter has hit a home run with brands and celebrities — those who are inherently more self-promotional. But we, and the majority of “active” Twitter users we talked to informally after this announcement, rarely look at someone’s profile and instead follow their 140-character musings in our timeline stream (or via an app that keeps us from visiting twitter.com anyway).
Why change the profile page experience at all? With this, Twitter is suddenly prioritizing a different part of the user experience — and maybe even a different user — than what we previously perceived as primary. They are making the experience more about YOU vs. more about the people you follow. They’re also enhancing the experience for someone who might go to Twitter only occasionally to see what a particular person or company has to say, versus those of us who use Twitter to follow many people’s bite-sized thoughts simultaneously.
This is quite a big difference. However, the Facebook-like personalization capabilities might invite a more “mainstream” crowd. After all, it worked for Facebook, right?
Let’s explore deeper.
Change always ruffles some feathers, but Twitter’s announcement on Tuesday was met with more anger than usual. To understand why, it’s important to understand how Twitter grew and why none of these changes should really surprise us. For this we dug out an “old” Wired article from 2009: Mob Rule! How Users Took Over Twitter.
As the article describes, Twitter really just began as a Yammer-like service where people could post short status updates. Its most salient features, the retweets and hashtags and ‘@’ mentions, were actually “invented” not by product managers but by Twitter’s earliest users, who needed a way to communicate better while still staying within the 140-character box. It’s probably safe to say that its founders weren’t sure how their product would be used. Or as the article puts it:
“Essentially, Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and lurked on the sidelines as its users invented baseball.”
But even back then, it’s clear the founders wanted to get more users. By 2013, according to internal documents cited in the article, Twitter hoped to have one billion users. It’s 2014, and Twitter has just over 241 million users. In comparison, Facebook reached one billion users in 2012.
So, Now What?
All of this makes us wonder: Who is Twitter really designing for?
As Twitter tries to keep growing, is the company’s priority the users like the two of us, who use Twitter as a “front door” to links, jokes, conversations, and, yes, lunch pictures from our friends and favorite Internet personalities? Or will it be focusing more on the experience of folks who want to curate their own image or check in on celebrity profiles every now and then? And will the future of Twitter be designed from within, or can passionate users still dictate the company’s direction? We don’t know any of these answers yet.
Prioritizing the profile could be a relatively small design tweak — or, it could be a big signal of change at the heart of Twitter.
Let us know your thoughts on the new Twitter re-design in the comments below or on Twitter, @EchoUser.