100 Things You Should Know About People: #34 — Too Much Stress Results In Poor Performance

Yerkes Dodson LawA few days ago I found myself in a hotel room outside of Chicago with my 19 year old daughter moaning and sometimes howling in pain. She’d been sick for a week, each day with a new symptom, and this morning her eardrum felt like it was going to burst. We decided that I should cancel my client meeting and take her to an urgent care clinic instead. Of course, we don’t have universal health care here in the States, so first I had to call my insurance provider to find out if there were “in network” doctors we could go to and still be covered by our plan. The insurance company told me to go to a particlar web site,  and said that any doctor we picked through that site would be considered in network.

Using a web site under stress — By now 10 minutes have passed and my daughter is still sitting on the bed behind me moaning and wailing. Instead of helping her, I have to go to a web page and fill out forms and look at maps. The first thing that happens is that I encounter a drop down menu that is meaningless to me:

Beechstreet.com website

When I look at this web page now (days later, crisis has passed), it doesn’t seem too confusing, but when I was trying to fill it out, trying to get my daughter some help, the web page was daunting and impossible, and not at all intuitive.

Stress changes your perceptions — Research on stress shows that a little bit of stress (called arousal in psychology terms) can help you perform a task, because it heightens awareness. Too much stress, however, degrades performance. Two psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson first postulated this arousal/performance relationship, and hence it has been called the “Yerkes-Dodson law” for over a century.

Arousal helps up to a point — The law states that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. Research on the law shows that the amount of stress/arousal that is optimal depends on how difficult the task is. Difficult tasks require less arousal to reach optimal performance, and will start to break down if the arousal level is too high. Simpler tasks require more arousal and don’t fall off as fast.

Yerkes-Dodson Law
Yerkes-Dodson Law

Tunnel vision — When arousal first goes up then there is an energizing effect, as the person is paying attention. But as the stress increases there are negative effects. Attention gets unfocused, people have trouble remembering, problem solving degrades and “tunnel vision” sets in. Tunnel vision is where you keep doing the same task over and over even though it isn’t working.

Glucocorticoids — More recent research has shown a similar curve when studying the presence of glucocorticoids. These are the hormones that are released when we experience stress, so the Yerkes-Dodson law appears to have direct physical evidence.

Maximum frustration — As I tried to use the web page to find a doctor I kept getting errors, and typical of someone under stress, I kept doing the same task over and over even though it wasn’t working (tunnel vision). At one point I was crying tears of frustration, cursing over the lack of usability of the web site, and upset that I could not just find the name and address of a clinic we could go to.

Patient care, not computer care — I finally turned away from the computer, got my daughter some tylenol, gave her warm washclothes to hold against her ear, and got us both calmed down. Then I found a clinic at the website  (where we went later that day, only to have them say she was fine. By the way, our insurance didn’t work and we had to pay cash after all — i.e., I didn’t need the web site). My daughter is better, and I didn’t even have to cancel the client meeting.

Test under stress — If you might have people using your site when they are under stress, keep in mind that too much stress will change the way they see and use the web site. And here’s a plea to BeechStreet.com… test your website thoroughly assuming that people are tense, stressed, and with howling children in the background. It’s a totally different experience.

If you’d like to read the research —

Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation”. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Yerkes/Law/.

Lupien, SJ, Maheu F, Tu M, Fiocco A, Schramek TE (2007). “The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition”. Brain and Cognition 65: 209–237. PMID 17466428.

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #33: Bite-Sized Chunks Of Info Are Best

Map of Portugal at tourism siteI am about to head to Portugal for a week, and I was interested in exploring different possible destinations in Portugal. I may not have much time for touring (I’m going to speak at the UXLX conference there), but if I did have time, where should I go? I have to admit to pretty much total ignorance about Portugal, the different regions, landscapes, and parts of the country, so I went to the official tourism web site for the country.

Give me a little bit at a time — The Portugal tourism site did an OK job of  what is called progressive disclosure. This is fancy term that is used in the field of psychology to refer to providing information in increasing chunks of size and complexity.

We can only handle so much — Humans can only process small amounts of information at a time (consciously that is… the estimate is that we handle 40,000,000 pieces of information every second, but only 40 of those make it to our conscious brains). One mistake that web sites make is to give too much information all at once, like this web site from the Canadian government:

Canadian government website with no progressive disclosure

There is no chunking here, there is not progressive disclosure. It’s just all the information thrown on the page all at once. The result? You don’t read it, you just leave.

Feeding bits of information — The Portugal site was just OK when it came to progressive disclosure. New Zealand does a much better job. The New Zealand tourism site has multiple levels of disclosure, feeding you the information bit by bit. Here’s the first page on the regions of New Zealand:

where I see the overall map and names of the different regions. If I hover over one of the regions in the list then I see a thumbnail of information:

Portugal site with thumbnail picture and info on a regionContinuing on with this idea of progressive disclosure, if I click on that region then I link to a page with more pictures and little more detail:

Detailed map of the region from the Portugal site

there is a big map and there are tabs to go to for more information. If I scroll down I’ll have details on the region:

Detailed information on the region from the Portugal site

This is a great example of how to use progressive disclosure.

It’s not the clicks that count (pun intended) — One thing I’d like to point out is that progressive disclosure requires multiple clicks. Sometimes you will hear people say that websites should minimize the number of clicks that people have to make to get to the detailed information. The number of clicks is not the important criteria. People are very willing to make multiple clicks, in fact that won’t even notice they are making the clicks, if they are getting the right amount of information at each click to keep them going down the path.

Think progressive disclosure, don’t count clicks.

Should I let the web site design influence whether I book a ticket? Not this time at least. This time I’m headed for Portugal, where I plan to use the Portugal tourism site as a case study in my workshop!

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An Interview With Steve Krug: Everyone should do usability testing

Book CoverIn a previous post I reviewed Steve Krug’s latest book, but recently I had the opportunity to interview Steve about the book. It’s a fun interview, and I think you’ll enjoy hearing Steve talk about:

  • who he wrote the book for (not an obvious answer as I discovered)
  • which part of the book he thinks makes the biggest contribution to the field of usability
  • what his “parlor trick” is that he performs when he gives speeches
  • the process by which he came up with the “scripts” for usability testing that are in the book
  • how to locate the free video that anyone can watch whether or not they buy the book

and much much more.

The interview is 20 minutes — you can download it from the Neuro Web Design podcast link in iTunes, or click to listen to the interview with Steve.

I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed talking to Steve.

And here’s a link (affiliate) if you’d like to learn more about the book:

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How To Test A Web Site Design In An Hour And On a Shoestring Budget

I have a friend who volunteers to be on an advisory board for a land trust conservancy organization. They have been designing a web site for the land trust. But they are all volunteers, and the organization doesn’t have a budget for web site design. They have a programmer donating her time to put together the website.

Can you get user feedback when the site doesn’t even exist yet? — My friend’s background is in usability, and she was concerned that the web site that the programmer was putting together had usability problems. But the group has virtually no budget to do user centered design or get user feedback on the prototype. And all she had were some pictures of a draft of some of the pages. For example, here’s what she had for the home page:

Picture of home page for Conservancy site

The menus didn’t “work” because it was just a picture, so she put together this page showing what would be in the drop downs if you did click on the main navigation on the home page:

Picture of home page with drop down menus

Continue reading “How To Test A Web Site Design In An Hour And On a Shoestring Budget”

Book Review of Steve Krug's Rocket Surgery Made Easy

I’ve been a fan of Steve Krug’s since his original book, Don’t Make Me Think, came out about a decade ago. (And Steve was kind enough to write an endorsement for my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? when it came out last year).

Steve’s new book is all about user testing of web sites (or software or products or anything really). The premise of the book is that ANYONE can conduct a simple user test and that EVERYONE who has a website, software, or a product, should conduct user testing.

So the book is a DIY guide to simple, but effective, user testing.

Here’s my review via video, and below that I’ll summarize the take-aways:

What I like most about the book:

It’s very thorough — This really is everything you need to know to conduct an informal usability test.

Useful checklists — Chapter 7 is called “Some boring checklists” and it has great (not boring) checklists of what to do and when to do it.

All the wording and scripts you need — Chapter 8 gives you all the details you need, for example what to say as the facilitator, and what your consent form should contain. You get the actual forms and scripts.

How to interpret the data you get — Chapters 11 and 12 tell you what to do now that you’ve run the user tests and you have information.

How to think about the results — One of my favorite chapters is #10, where he walks you through how to have a meeting with your team and decide what actions to take based on the feedback you got during the test.

Link to an example video — In the book Steve gives you a URL to watch a video. The video is Steve conducting a user test with a real user. He annotates the video with some call outs so you can learn what he is doing as he goes along.

It’s a great book and I recommend it for anyone who has anything to do with designing or improving a website, or software, or technology product that people use. Whether you are new to user testing, or a pro with many years under your belt, you will find this book to be of immense value.

If you’d like to read more about it on Amazon, here’s a link (affiliate):

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How To Save Money And Time On User Testing: Run Multiple, Iterative Pilots

In my last blog post I reported on a study I recently conducted about differences between men and women in what they planned to purchase online for Valentine’s Day. (see Who is the Most Romantic). I used UserTesting.com (affiliate) to collect the data, and I had an interesting insight about running user tests while I was doing the study.

Brief description of the service I used — In case you don’t know Usertesting.com, it’s a service that lets you run what is called an un-moderated user test. Un-moderated means you are not there to moderate or facilitate the test session. You set up the test scenario and specify the web site and tasks you want the user to do by entering this information into a form at the Usertesting.com site. Then the Usertesting.com people recruit the users you have specified (meaning they post it to their database of already screened people), they provide the scenario and tasks to each user, and record the interactions each user has with the web site or sites. You get a notification that your test results are available, and then you can watch the video and the audio of each user session.

It’s very easy to set up and run user tests this way. If you are skilled at writing scenarios and tasks, it takes literally a minute to set up and run a test. It usually takes about 2-5 minutes for users to see the test post and start the test, and I have found that within 20-30 minutes videos are ready for you to watch.  Nice, right?

Running my first pilot for the study — When you fill out the form to set up the test you get to pick how many people you want to run the test. The first time I set up the test, I decided to just run one person. I wanted to make sure I had the wording right in my scenario and tasks. In other words, I was doing what is called a pilot test – I was running a test where I would throw away the data, just to see if my scenario and instructions were clear and would result in getting me the type of data I needed.

Why run a pilot anyway? — Running a pilot is always recommended when you are doing user testing, but I ‘ve seen lots of people skip this step. When you are doing “regular” moderated user testing (i.e.,  you are there in person, you’re renting a facility, you are paying money to recruit users, and you are paying money to the users as incentives), it’s expensive to run a pilot test. You should still do it, but I would say that less than 50% of the people I know even run a pilot test.

But with the Usertesting.com system it’s easy and fast and not very expensive to run a pilot. The entire cost is $39 per user – for everything, so why not run a pilot?

How I came to run multiple pilots — In my test last week I ran a pilot, and found that certain wording in my task instructions was causing people to go off in a direction that was not useful in terms of the data I was interested in. I changed the wording of the instructions and ran the pilot again. Still not quite right, so I modified a little more. I  ran 4 pilots before I was convinced that the wording was clear and would result in the test testing what I actually wanted to test. Then I used that wording to run the real test.

How about running un-moderated pilots before a moderated study? — Now I was sure that the data I had coming would be useful and valid, and not just a reflection of some wording or instructional error I had in my tasks. By spending an hour or two to run the pilots I could be sure that the actual test results would be effective. It dawned on me that this ability to run multiple, iterative pilots was really powerful. I usually run one pilot, but I’d never been able to run iterative, multiple pilots. In fact, I’ve decided this is so powerful, that in the future, even when I am conducting  “regular” moderated user testing, I plan to first run a series of pilots with Usertesting.com to test out my scenario and task instructions.

Contest to give away a free test session — I have a special idea to encourage comments for this blog: I have a special promotional code that the Usertesting.com folks have given to me. You can use the code to run one free test for one user at usertesting.com. I’m going to run a little contest here, and give the promotional code away to the person who writes the best comment to this blog (I get to decide which is the “best” comment). So, what do you think? Do you do user testing? Do you run pilot tests when you do? Have you used Usertesting.com in this way?

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