Interview: An Event Apart

by August 31, 2007

As part of my recent talk at An Event Apart in Chicago, I did a short interview with CSS expert and Event Apart organizer, Eric Meyer.

Who or what has had your attention of late?

Lately, I've been focused on two things: Web forms & product ideation.

My upcoming book, Web Form Design Best Practices, has me reading, writing about, discussing, and researching form design all over again. The first reaction most people have is form design—how boring is that? But I'm captivated with forms because of the impact they can have on community growth, e-commerce sales, communication, and more. In all these scenarios, it's the form that sits between a service and a new customer and all too often the design of that form is not well thought out.

A few weeks ago I was talking to Jared Spool (of User Interface Engineering), who is contributing some words of wisdom to the book, and he described a case where a major retailer redesigned a form consisting of only two input fields. As a result, they increased monthly earnings by several hundred thousand dollars—and that's just two fields. I've seen examples where larger forms have been redesigned and the impact has been immense.

I also just wrapped up some new research for the book with Etre in London. We did some eye-tracking studies on form actions and selection dependent inputs. Seeing that data in the form of heat maps, animated gaze paths, error rates, completion times, and more has shed a lot of new light on what works well in form design. So I'm learning as I go—which I love.

Product Ideation, on the other hand, is my day job at Yahoo! and I'm gradually evolving the principles, processes, and deliverables that encompass that role.

Speaking of the day job, what's it like being a Senior Principal Designer at Yahoo!?

It's an engaging role because again I'm learning as I go—there's no formula out there to follow. I'm basically applying the principles and problem-solving methodologies of design to story—telling and rapid prototyping to make concepts tangible enough that people buy-in, build, and ship. Traditionally, those skills are applied much later in the development process when an idea has been turned into requirements and a design team is asked to address usability and aesthetics of a pre-determined solution. So I guess, you can think of product ideation as a more upstream version of product design. It happens when you've spotted a canyon not when you're already building a bridge.

In an environment like Yahoo!, engineering teams or individuals often identify and build on technical opportunities—as in we have a new technology that can do "x". Similarly, the business—focused side of the company frequently identifies market opportunities—as in there's a big upside if we can get into market "y" or leverage our strengths in "z". In both the business and technical case, however, there's a gap between identifying that opportunity and having a useful, usable, and enjoyable customer experience that addresses that opportunity. Product ideation fills that gap. It's a process that turns opportunities into experiences that resonate with people.

What's the biggest missed opportunity in web forms?

Well, I just mentioned the research I did with Etre for my upcoming book, which is quite relevant because I think the biggest opportunity is not leveraging existing insights to optimize Web forms. Most designers or developers will simply whiz through assembling a form and not give it much thought. But as I mentioned before, forms are the lynchpins of online experiences and even small improvements in their design can make a big difference.

The key to realizing these improvements lies in being aware of the design considerations each potential solution affords you. For example, what's the optimal way to layout form buttons: left-aligned, centered, or right-aligned? Our research showed there's a difference in performance for each. If you're not cognizant of the impact of these decisions, you may inadvertently be negatively impacting the number of new customers you sign up or the number of videos people upload to your site or success rates of people managing their check books online.

What do you hope attendees will take away from your talk?

I'm focused on giving attendees the insights they need to make good Web form design decisions. To that end, I'll be running through a set of design best practices I've come to know and utilize over eleven years of Web form design. In most cases, I'll also be outlining how these patterns can be applied. For example, if your goals are "x", then a good solution may be "y". Or similarly, if your constraints are "a", then a worthwhile approach is "b'".

This type of structure allows attendees, to understand which pattern is the "best" practice for their particular context. So they can quickly go from the quintessential design answer of "it depends" (on the business goals, user needs, and context of your forms, etc.) to actionable solutions.

Any tips on what to do in Chicago?

If you're an aquarium buff, check out the Shedd. If you like beer, I recommend the Belgium ales at Hopleaf. Otherwise, make sure to photograph the colorful mannequins lining the streets.

Thanks Eric!