Archive for the ‘UX design’ Category

UX vs. UI for a Medical App

Universal Health CareUI is not UX

UX professionals make a big deal about the difference between UI and UX. There are dozens of articles on the web about how UI is not UX, and apparently I have made the mistake of reading most of them—hoping to learn something insightful. Instead, these articles usually rattle off a pile of platitudes that I find meaningless in practice. I have been disappointed every time. Click here if you need help finding these articles.

The practical importance of this distinction escapes me. For example, is designing good performance UI or UX? The best answer: it doesn’t matter! Everybody should be designing for great performance, so why exclude it?

Of course, there is a difference. My definitions are that the UI is what users see and hear on the device and how they interact with it, whereas UX is that plus everything else the product touches—from the purchasing, out of box, configuration, daily usage patterns, and support experiences, to experiences that don’t even involve interaction (such defaults or automatic behaviors). Fortunately, my definitions match Don Norman’s, who is credited with coining the term UX.

But it doesn’t matter much in practice

Frankly, most “UX” discussions I witness are really UI discussions. They involve sketching what could be on the screen and how users might interact with it. The obvious clue: the process and discussions are centered around sketching features. Technically, that’s UI design, not UX. But since the practical distinction hardly matters, I never bother pointing it out.

I do many onsite workshops to help software development teams learn UX design or improve their design skills. I had one team lead request that I teach UI design to half his team and UX design to the other half. How does that make sense? How do you make the distinction? What is appropriate to exclude from UI design because it is really UX design? This left me baffled. Training wise, UI is UX. The distinction hardly matters.

UX for a Medical App

The reason I’m thinking about this now is that I just had a two-hour design session with a team designing a medical mobile app and it was 100% focused on UX—no features or UI elements discussed or any sketches made. This is unusual—at least for me—as UI design invariable shows up at some point.

So what did we talk about for two hours? Here is an outline of the topics (while keeping the details sufficiently vague):

  • The target users (elderly Canadians), the different user classes/personas, what they want, and what we could expect them to know and do.
  • The value the app needs to deliver to these users to motivate them to use it. (And more importantly, the understanding that if there wasn’t clear value, they wouldn’t bother to use it.)
  • The different medical problems the target users might have, the medications they are taking, their packaging, and the implications for the app. How do users recognize their meds—by shape, color?
  • The type of mobile devices, and how a tablet is used differently than a phone, and how a specialized tablet (just for this app) is used differently than a general device (like an iPad).
  • How the device and app would be initially configured. How it will be reconfigured later, whether it’s realistic to expect users to bring in their device, do the reconfiguration themselves, or do it over the internet. And if over the internet, what will that connectivity look like? Can we safely assume the users have Wi-Fi? (Answer: no.)
  • Where the device and medicine should be in the customer’s house and whether it’s realistic for them to be in different places. (Answer: it isn’t.)
  • How the device will be recharged or if it should be plugged in all the time. Realizing that the burden of recharging alone could be a deal breaker for many users. (I noted that for a specialized device, it’s better to leave the device plugged in because users will quickly get tired of having to recharge it and they won’t need to move it.)
  • What we could do to make the task as simple as possible, eliminating as many steps as possible. Can we completely eliminate any typing? (Answer: yes.)
  • What it would take to encourage people to use this device long term (over a period of years). How could we encourage them to restart after a long break (such as a vacation)?
  • The steps in the happy path, and what normal usage should look like. What happens when users get off the happy path and how to get them back on.
  • How to deal with traveling, going on vacation.
  • The visual, audio, touch requirements for an elderly audience that might have significant visual, hearing, and manual impairments…while still being suitable for someone without those impairments.
  • What needs to be configured by the user, and how to make such configurations simple and contextual. Should we assume English or Metric by default? (Answer: English—Canada converted to the metric system in 1971.)
  • How to make the results trustworthy so that users will actually follow the advice of the app, instead of ignoring any problems found.
  • How to phrase problems and carefully phrase the reasons behind them so that people will be motivated to follow the app’s advice. (Plus, realizing that stating the reason is more motivating.) We shouldn’t expect people to do something medically just because an app says so. Ways in which we could use A/B testing to validate the phrasing.
  • How to give reminders that are encouraging, not intrusive or annoying. How to deal with awkward social situations.
  • How to “authenticate” the user as easily as possible. How to make sure the data is coming from the user, not a spouse or grandchild.
  • Who is paying for the device and its usage, and how that affects behavior and motivations.

I tried to give these topics a logical flow above, so they aren’t in order of importance. The heart of the session was to make the product as convenient, trustworthy, encouraging and unobtrusive, and realistic as possible. Fail to achieve these critical goals and users will stop using the app or not believe the results.

If we fail these, nothing else matters.

This app addresses a serious medical condition and the consequences of using the app properly are significant. (Failing to follow the current manual process often leads to hospitalization.) One might assume that such target users would be extremely motivated to follow the process properly and stick with it long term. That assumption is wrong. A better assumption is that users won’t do something awkward, annoying, or seemingly pointless—especially over a long period of time. It needs to have a great user experience. Having beautiful, well laid out screens won’t save an otherwise poor user experience. And the screens themselves are only a very small part of that overall experience.

Being a lean advocate (or more precisely, my own interpretation, which I call “lean-er”), I recommended starting with MVPs to minimize risk. The first MVP would determine if an app can replace the current manual paper process, whereas the second MVP would determine if we can make it trustworthy, practical, and motivating over a long period of time.

Speaking of lean, lean advocates talk about GOOB, or “get out of the building.” The lean claim is that there is no knowledge in the building, so you have to get out and talk to users to understand anything. Frankly, I think that is bullshit. If you have a good team there is a great deal of knowledge in the building, but you have to know what to do with it. It’s far more productive to talk to your users once you have done this type of analysis than to go to them with a blank sheet of paper. You could talk to users for years and still miss many key UX issues that we found in two hours.

The bottom line

People often confuse UX design with sketching stuff. While sometimes is makes sense to start by sketching to explore different design directions, often that leads to putting too much emphasis on features, layout, and basic navigation—in other words, the technology. Instead, starting with users, their goals, the value we are providing, and addressing critical details like building trust gives us a much better direction to sketch. In true UX design, user goals, scenarios, and value drive the process.

I never design with a feature list or a set of user stories—they are just tools to figure out how to implement an experience, not to create one in the first place. This leads to what I call Everett’s Ultimate User Story:

As a user, I don’t give a damn about your feature list or product backlog.

Getting the app to perform the task mechanically would accomplish nothing because nobody would be motivated to use such a mechanical app. The key is to work through and design the human experience for the target users and being realistic about what people will actually do. For this project, sketching screens, working on the task flow, or making the screens pretty are secondary concerns at best.

My first virtual UX classes

By popular demand, I will present my first virtual UX design classes this month. They will be on September 10 and 11, and will cover four of my favorite UX design topics: Effective Scenarios, Effective Personas, Intuitive UI, and Effective Design Reviews. If you are new to these topics or want to revitalize your thinking, these classes are for you. I promise that you will think differently about these skills afterwards.

I say by “popular demand” because it’s true—virtual classes have been a top customer request in my Getting started in UX design training questionnaire. BTW: This is my first blog post in quite awhile—I have been very busy. Check what I have been up to at

Virtual class schedule

More coming soon! For general information about these and future virtual classes, please check

Not your typical webinars

I understand what makes a successful virtual class, and learned how not to do it by attending a variety of free webinars. In a typical webinar, the material is superficial, the insights are few, and the participant interaction is non-existent. Frequently, the speakers blast through the material way too quickly, making them hard to follow. In short, I found them boring, ineffective, and not engaging. Their slides are visually beautiful though—which is little compensation.

I have taken several paid UX design courses on Udemy, and remain equally unimpressed.

Doing virtual training right!

A virtual class on UX should have a great user experience itself, so here is my approach:

  • Know your subject I will be presenting tools and techniques that I have 10+ years of experience using, plus 5+ years experience teaching. I know my stuff!
  • Say something insightful When I take a class, I want to learn something insightful so that I have a better understanding of the subject. The basic mechanics aren’t good enough. For example, with Effective Personas, you will learn what personas are and how to use them, but most importantly, you will learn why most persona efforts fail and how to make them successful.
  • Get to the point Without a doubt, the most common webinar mistake is to go on and on about introductory material that nobody cares about. Instead, I will get right down to business.
  • Keep it practical Practical examples help keep things real. If I know you can’t use it or most likely won’t use it, I won’t mention it. The impractical bores me!
  • Involve the participants I believe your participation is crucial for a successful, engaging class. Each class will have group discussions and at least one exercise. You will have the opportunity to participate in fun, practical ways.
  • Keep it short and engaging In a virtual class, if you are bored, you are done. I value your time, so I will spend just enough time to cover the subject well without feeling rushed.
  • Make it fun! We will have some fun discussions and do some makeovers. I want you to enjoy the experience and leave with a smile.

What people are saying

While the virtual class format is new, I have delivered these classes many times in person. Here is what people have been saying:

  • I couldn’t help but talking about everything I learned the moment I walked into my office this morning with my fellow interaction designers.
  • Amazing class! Drastically changed what I thought I knew about UI.
  • Answered the ambitious question with not only what an intuitive UI is, but how you can create one.
  • Changed the perspective on looking at the UI… very good session.
  • I learned a lot, and your talk has already helped me with a program I am writing.
  • Enjoyed the better codification of determining “intuitive” than what I’ve come up with over the years and the tools to help get buy-in from others.
  • Really enjoyed this class. Gave me a better understanding of UI. Everett was great!
  • Great class from Everett McKay on design reviews. I learnt something new!
  • Gave me a different perspective on UI design and reinforced thoughts I’ve had about the process. Thank you!

These are the first of many

My plan is to do at least one virtual class per month. If you would like updates on future classes, please join our mailing list or contact me directly at Feel free to suggest new topics.

India Standard Time

I will do a special presentation of virtual class on Saturdays at 9 am India Standard Time (IST) especially for the Indian market. These will have a much lower price point, and a bit less gyaan. Of course, anyone can attend these, so feel free to register if this class time suits your needs.

For more information and to register, please check

UX Design Essentials in Poland

I will be presenting UX Design Essentials in Katowice Poland in November. Looking forward to it!

UX Design Essentials in China

I will be presenting UX Design Essentials in Dalian, Beijing, and Shenzhen China in July. Looking forward to it!

The Dog and Its Reflection: My initial impression of Windows 8

Previews of Windows 8 are starting to trickle out, with Jensen Harris’ Building Windows 8 Video #1 and Ina Fried’s Making Sense of Our First Look at Windows 8. From what I’ve seen, my initial impression is that Windows 8 looks fresh, innovative, snappy, and has strong potential. It may even be delightful!

A great, freshing start!

The Windows 8 team has demonstrated much needed courageous design and creativity here. But as I mentioned in Everybody loves creativity, creative ideas often have problems—lots of them. I see several interesting challenges with Windows 8 that I’d like to share.

Serious iPad envy

The Windows 8 team clearly has some serious iPad envy. As they should. It would be a mistake to ignore the iPad/tablet phenomenon—to do otherwise risks losing relevance to an ever increasing part of the market. In fact, just yesterday I offered to upgrade my wife’s ancient Windows XP PC. She told me not to bother—just give her an iPad instead. What could Windows 8 offer to get her to change her mind?

Shooting in the middle…and missing?

Well, it could possibly change her mind by offering a better tablet experience than the iPad. But then Microsoft risks losing me. For me, Windows is for running traditional desktop and web software using a keyboard and mouse. I use Windows on a laptop for my business, so to get me to upgrade from Windows 7 would require a better, more productive traditional PC experience. For messing around at home, I’ve got an Apple iPad 2 and I’m not going to change that any time soon regardless.

So is Windows 8 a traditional PC OS for business, or a mobile/tablet OS for home? From Julie Larson-Green’s press release, Microsoft very much wants it to be both:

And this isn’t just about touch PCs. The new Windows experience will ultimately be powered by application and device developers around the world — one experience across a tremendous variety of PCs. The user interface and new apps will work with or without a keyboard and mouse on a broad range of screen sizes and pixel densities, from small slates to laptops, desktops, all-in-ones, and even classroom-sized displays. Hundreds of millions of PCs will run the new Windows 8 user interface. This breadth of hardware choice is unique to Windows and central to how we see Windows evolving.

And in Ina Fried’s article, Steven Sinofsky stated “It’s ‘no compromise’ and that’s really important to us.” Hmm…compromises and tradeoffs exist for a reason: it’s just not possible to do all things equally well for everything. You literally can’t aim at two independent targets with a single bullet. If you aim in the middle, you will certainly end up missing both. I sense a product planning Archilles’ heel here. Daring Fireball has drawn the same conclusion. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “OK, but is that really something I want for my business computer?” and “Are these goals and scenarios that I really have at work?” Not really…at least not yet.

The finger that launched a thousand apps…but would I actually do this?

Scenario-based design in today’s connected world

A scenario describes a specific target user trying to achieve a specific goal or task in a specific environment. Many people underemphasize the user’s environment in their scenarios, but that’s a big mistake. It turns out that really understanding the environment is often what makes a great design.

So what is in today’s tech savvy computer user’s environment (that is, those who are likely to buy a new Windows 8 PC or tablet)? Probably an iPhone or Android smartphone, an iPad, or both, right? A scenario that makes sense if the user has only a Windows 8 computing device might not make nearly as much sense with a fully charged iPhone or an iPad nearby. So, for example, using Urban Spoon to decide where to go for lunch is a smartphone scenario for convenience, speed, and mobility, even if other solutions provide a richer, more powerful solution. This type of scenario is one that Windows 8 simply can’t win.

Assume that I’ve got four devices on my desk (Windows PC, Windows tablet, iPad, iPhone). Give me strong reasons to reach for the Windows 8 devices instead of the others. The difference between “can” and “want” is huge. Make me want it! “Want” is the ultimate manifestation of value—“can” just gets you in the door.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “OK, how many of these Windows 8 scenarios fall down if I’ve got easy access to other devices?” I wasn’t liking my answers. Smartphones win a lot of these scenarios. The simplicity of the iPad wins many others. There’s nothing here to make me want to switch.

Authentic or WinFrankenPad?

Windows Vista introduced the Aero UI, where Aero is a backronym for authentic, energetic, reflective, and open. (Which, BTW, nobody really understood. Reflective? Open? Huh?) I have come to appreciate the value in being authentic though, sometimes with design decisions but more often with teams attempting to adapt design cultures alien to their own.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “This new UI doesn’t feel authentic to Windows. It feels like a completely different environment that was stapled on.” To feel authentic, the new experience needs to sit alongside the old harmoniously. It should feel like it’s there because it belongs there, not because somebody had a stapler.

Here’s the staple.

BTW: Is it me, or does this page lack focus and flow? My eye has no idea where to go.

The wow starts…eventually

Demoware can be a dangerous thing because it gives everyone unrealistic expectations. I was on the Windows Vista team and the Vista demos were awesome. Snappy, action packed, …look at all the things you can do—so quickly! My real Windows Vista experience on real hardware was dog slow to the extent that the “spinning donut” would have made an appropriate product logo. It’s poor performance was a real buzz kill.

While watching Jensen’s video, I noticed that the Windows 8 performance was consistently fantastic. That’s not the Windows I know—I’ve never been impressed by Windows’ performance. I suspect demoware, especially this far ahead of shipping. But this is as it should be…there’s no point in demoing a sluggish UI.

But if Windows 8 doesn’t have fantastic performance on real hardware, nothing else matters. Doubly true for a tablet. Windows should wait for users, not the other way around. No matter how cool these new features might be, they aren’t going to be worth waiting for. I hope the Windows team recognizes this. It would be impossible to overinvest in improving performance, as performance is the currency with which modern user experiences are purchased.

Business productivity

I’m a big believer in using personas, and one of my favorite personas is the purchase decision maker. (BTW: The Windows team banned the use of personas starting with Windows 7.) Build a persona for the person who is going to decide to buy a product, and do what can you can to make that decision as easy and comfortable as possible. You need to explicitly design for that persona! For business decision makers, a realistic story for reducing costs and making employees more productive is effective strategy.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “Why would a business buy this for its employees?” I didn’t see any answers. Launching apps from a tile-based Start screen is, ironically, a non-starter (just as Flip 3D was for Vista). In fact, all those live tiles demanding users’ attention looks quite distracting (I don’t want apps sending tweets to my employees), as does shifting between desktops. Hopefully, Jensen will address the business case in Building Windows 8 Video #2.


Windows was originally successful because of its vibrant community of third-party developers creating Windows apps. The AppStore phenomenon is doing the same thing for the iPhone and iPad today.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “Where are all these apps coming from? Third parties?” While Windows’ huge market share makes it attractive for third-party developers, success is far from certain. The lukewarm development of Windows Sidebar Gadgets demonstrates that.

What’s in Windows 8 for traditional Windows developers like Adobe? Why would an ISV create a native Windows 8 app over an html5 app? Hopefully that topic will be addressed by Video #3. If Office is the only major player, somebody is in trouble.

The Dog and Its Reflection

Windows owns the traditional desktop market, but it very much wants to be the touch-based tablet contender. This quandary reminds me of Aesop’s Fable of The Dog and Its Reflection:

A dog that is carrying a piece of meat looks down as it is crossing a stream and sees its own reflection in the water. Taking it for another dog carrying something better, it opens its mouth to bark at the “other” and in doing so drops what it was carrying.

While I see challenges for Windows 8, I believe the Windows 8 team is doing the right thing—they must respond to the iPad. The only question is whether grafting in new environment onto a legacy desktop OS is the best vehicle to do it. To that, I’m not so sure. Success here will require execution that Microsoft hasn’t demonstrated for quite a while.

I wish them every success. Vigorous competition benefits everyone, so the world will be a better place if Windows 8 is extremely successful.

Update: I had a chance to try a Windows 8 tablet recently. It’s performance is snappy and the metro UI has potential for being delightful. Still, I’m at a complete loss as to why any desktop or laptop user would want the Windows 8 Start Menu. The purpose of the Start Menu is to launch less frequently used programs quickly—nothing more. If Windows 8 offered an option to use the classic Start Menu instead, I’m sure I would choose that option immediately.

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