App Development Not So “Puzzling” at Mail Newspapers
We recently had the chance to talk to Lucy Scott, Senior User Researcher at Mail Newspapers in the U.K. The Daily Mail has recently launched an iPhone version of Mail Plus, the Mail newspaper app which was previously only available for tablets.
Scott tells us that one of the most popular features in Mail Plus is Coffee Break, which consists of 26 interactive puzzles. Prior to launch, Scott and her team conducted a series of user testing sessions to assess the usability of the Coffee Break puzzles on mobile phones.
EME: What technologies did you use during the user testing?
Scott: We tested on the staging platform and adapted designs as issues arose – so we could then test out the modifications. Usually we test via prototypes. We use Axure as this mimics real websites more closely than other prototyping tools we’ve encountered and includes more complex variables.
When testing on desktop, we use Morae for its pic-in-pic recordings and sophisticated analysis features. However, Morae isn’t mobile compatible on our set-up – we still used it to create a time stamp of observations, but used Epiphan Pearl to record two feeds concurrently.
EME: What findings have you discovered from ‘Coffee Break’ which you think could be applied to enterprise applications?
Scott: Puzzles are not played for any specific purpose other than the experience itself, so it’s paramount that the experience is as gratifying as possible. The nature of this testing particularly highlighted the importance of making apps cognitively and ergonomically easy and pleasurable. Any issues became apparent perhaps more immediately than they might on other types of app. For instance, it particularly emphasized the importance of having required info in view when it is needed, of creating sufficient distance between different UI elements and of applying Fitts law principals – i.e. buttons used frequently and sequentially should be close together to ensure the app can be used more quickly.
People enjoy puzzles because of the intrinsic pleasure of applying logic, connecting clues and finding the solution. There are obvious parallels here between playing puzzles and UX itself!
Indeed, it was fascinating to witness the degree of enjoyment – and borderline obsession – that users had with these basic puzzles. Perhaps applying gamification principals to other apps might enhance user experience. Utilizing targets, rules, leaderboards and brainteasers could increase user motivation.
EME: How did you specifically conduct your user experience testing sessions?
Scott: We ran in-lab user testing sessions. To enable us to observe and record participants’ interactions we employed a nifty piece of kit in the form of “Mr Tappy”. Mr Tappy can be used with all mobile devices. “He” comprises an adjustable camera rig, including an HD USB webcam and built-in microphone. The mobile device sticks to the apparatus via either Velcro or sticky pads – it holds fast with no wobbles.
We connected Mr Tappy to a Mac which, in turn, was connected via html to the Observation screens, whereby spectators received a crystal-clear view of how participants interacted with the puzzles.
One of the advantages of Mr Tappy is that it captures users’ fingertips as well as on-screen activity, which is helpful for accessing dexterity issues. We were able to angle the camera unobtrusively, so it didn't obstruct the user’s view.
A potential disadvantage is that the equipment may inhibit participants from holding and interacting with the device as they would in a natural environment. For instance, participants often rested the phone on the desk rather than picking it up. How users hold the phone is crucial to understanding how buttons are interacted with and which fingers are used. This in term determines the stretch required and the ideal button size. To avoid compromised learnings, a potential solution would be to ask them to use the device for a few minutes prior to attaching Mr Tappy – any modified behavior would thus become apparent.
You can check out how Mr Tappy works here.
EME: What organizational challenges did you face? Perhaps in terms of budget, executive buy-in etc?
Scott: Budgets are always a challenge. Budget restrictions for research meant we needed to use our UX lab and limit participants to those living within the M25 – since we wanted to specifically speak to frequent users of Coffee Break, this meant our pool of potential respondents was very small.
In terms of buy-in, some emerging issues had been anticipated by the UX team prior to the testing, but addressing these had been previously resisted. However, witnessing participants’ struggles first hand convinced product owners of necessary changes.
EME: What do you think is the most important facet of an application?
Scott: That it’s easy to use – intuitive, accessible and pleasurable, with minimal frustrations.
Lucy Scott is a Senior User Researcher at Mail Newspapers, working across the Mail’s ecommerce portfolio. She has set up the UX lab and regularly conducts user testing, interviews and focus groups. Lucy has 16 years’ experience in media research spanning radio, magazines and national press.