Hearing Aids

To those with money to burn on captioning lawsuits

I am almost entirely dependent on captioning to understand recorded media. I can only watch TV and movies with captions. I don’t go to movies in theaters. I can’t listen to the radio. I can’t listen to podcasts.

As you might imagine, I am positively thrilled to learn that there’s an organization out there threatening legal action against organizations that don’t provide captions or transcriptions.

I just have a brief note about strategy that I hope this group will take under advisement.

You seem to be focused on threatening small volunteer organizations providing free content to a niche audience, like ASIS&T and Boxes and Arrows. If your goal is to prevent hardworking volunteers like Jeff Parks from creating audio recordings at conferences, mission accomplished! Why, if we can’t have it, no one can!

Since you’ve got money to spend on lawsuits, please let me suggest some alternatives that would have a more meaningful impact on the world:

  • File suit against Netflix for not providing captions on the vast majority of their streaming movies—and for not providing any way to find streaming movies that are captioned. Netflix is particularly hostile to hearing-impaired customers, refusing to provide customer service via any channel other than the phone.
  • File suit against Apple for not providing captioning for television shows downloaded from the iTunes store. While you’re at it, sue the pants off of them for the abysmal selection of captioned movies they offer. It’s criminal.
  • Hire a team of lawyers to go after all the television networks that provide captioning in their broadcasts, but not on shows streamed via their websites or Hulu. (You’re going to need a big team of lawyers, because it’s most of the networks.)
  • Hire the most vicious lawyer you can find to go after any movie studio that “accidentally” or on purpose removes the captions from the rental release of a DVD.

The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, signed by President Obama on October 8, 2010, is a landmark piece of legislation, updating the 20-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act for the internet age. This bill requires captioning of television programs on the internet, as well as many other requirements that will enable the 36 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans to fully enjoy media delivered via the internet.

I’m glad to hear you’ve got money to spend helping to enforce this legislation. How about you leave the IA Institute alone, and focus on getting us some captions on streaming video from Netflix?

Hearing Aids

How to buy a hearing aid

Do you know someone who needs to buy a hearing aid, but hasn’t yet? I do.

I talk to people all the time about the decision to acknowledge their hearing loss and invest in hearing aids. I know how hard it is for people to come to terms with that decision. While I can’t make the emotional decision any easier, I can offer some advice on how to shop for a hearing aid.

1. Shop for an audiologist

The most important decision you make isn’t which hearing aid brand or model to buy. It’s who will be your audiologist—the person who will dispense and fit your hearing aid.

Your audiologist is like a combination of your family doctor and a salesman at Best Buy. They’re going to evaluate your hearing, but they’re also trying to sell you a piece of technology.

The good ones have all the best qualities of both: able to explain complex concepts, don’t talk down to you, patient with your questions and struggles, give you the information you need but still let you make up your own mind. The bad ones have all the worst qualities of both: patronizing, brusque, use too much technical jargon, become impatient when you don’t do what they want you to. I mean no insult to the many good audiologists out there when I say: I’ve seen some bad ones.

Meet with more than one audiologist before you decide to work with one. Find someone who you’re comfortable talking to, and who seems like he or she will take the time to make sure you get the right fit.

2. There’s no best brand, only the brand that’s best for you

People ask me all the time: What brand should I get? The answer is: I don’t know.

There are many different hearing aid manufacturers: Widex, Siemens, Oticon, Phonak, and Starkey, just to name a few. In the same way that some drivers love Ford and hate Chevy, are passionate about their BMW, or only buy Hondas, audiologists and hearing aid wearers get attached to a particular brand.

Different manufacturers are known for different things. Widex has good noise suppression technology, and they offer a program that may help tinnitus sufferers. Phonak and Oticon offer Bluetooth. Starkey emphasizes its CIC (completely in the canal) model. Each manufacturer has different R&D priorities, so what they’re good at may change over time.

When talking to audiologists, ask them which hearing aid brands they dispense, which ones they prefer, and why. Hearing aid fittings are done using software provided by the manufacturer, and often your audiologist will be better at using one application than another, so it’s good to buy from an audiologist who is experienced with your particular model.

3. Buy for how you’re going to use it, not how bad your hearing is

You might be thinking “I don’t need an expensive hearing aid right now, because my hearing isn’t that bad.” Or you might think “Only the best for my mother! I want her to hear as well as she can.”

Like computers, hearing aids come in different price points. Make your decision about how much to spend based on where and how you’ll use the hearing aid. Buy a high-end hearing aid if you plan to use it in noisy environments, but don’t buy more power than you need.

Someone who mainly stays home and watches TV or has conversations in quiet environments doesn’t need a top of the line hearing aid — any more than someone who uses a computer mainly to surf the web and answer email needs a quad core Mac Pro.

On the other hand, if you’re relatively active, you will place more demands on your hearing aids. Crowded restaurants, conference centers, baseball games and airplanes all require your aids to work harder to filter out background noise and focus on what people are saying to you.

4. Don’t get seduced by features

I have fallen into this trap too. Bluetooth! Tiny! Colors! What you want is the absolute best hearing aid for you in terms of sound quality, noise suppression, and fit. Everything else is just decoration.

Personally, I do not believe it is worth it to get hearing aids with Bluetooth right now. I’m about as tech savvy as they come, and I wasn’t happy with my experience. This area is worth keeping an eye on, but don’t choose a hearing aid just because it has Bluetooth.

As a long-time hearing aid wearer, I also don’t think it’s wise to focus on size over other hearing aid features. I know first-time hearing aid wearers are sensitive about people knowing they have hearing loss, and I am completely sympathetic. But tiny hearing aids can have big problems with wax and moisture. You may also find that changing tiny batteries several times a week is a chore.

5. Try different earmolds for fit

It’s likely that you will consider a behind-the-ear hearing aid. While opinions vary on this, I personally prefer BTEs—I think they’re more comfortable and spend less time in the repair shop than in-the-ear models.

With a BTE, the hearing aid sits behind or at the top of your ear, and a plastic piece sits inside your ear. There are many different configurations for this earmold. You can get a little rubber dome (shaped like a gumdrop). You can get a custom made mold, fitted to the shape of your ear canal. Custom earmolds come in different shapes and can be made from different kinds of hard or soft plastic.

Which earmold is right for you depends on your degree of hearing loss—but it also depends on which feels most comfortable. Ask your audiologist to tell you about the options, and you may need to try different molds in addition to different hearing aids to find the right fit.

Buying hearing aids is not a great experience. The industry could do a much better job of focusing on what consumers need. Take advantage of the trial period offered (here in New York it’s 90 days) and plan to spend 6 months (or more) trying different models.

You will be better off in the end.

Computing History

Why technology history matters

I am a huge nerd for computing history, particularly the history of interaction design. I think the story of how designers figured out ways to make computers easier for people to use is just plain fascinating. I’ve given talks on this subject for about five years now.

When I tell people a little bit about this they say things like “That sounds really interesting, I would love to take that class” and “I wish I you would come over to my house and tell me more about that” or “I would give up my addiction to playing Civilization if only you’d come over to my house and tell me more about that.”

Attendees at my talks say nice things afterward like “You were right, that really was fascinating” and “I didn’t know any of that, and I am better off now that I do” and “That was almost as fun as playing Civilization.”

When I give talks about this at conferences, and I meet people in the hallway before my session, here’s what they say: “I’d love to come, but I should really go to this session about SEO/social media/mobile app development/HTML5.”

I understand.

You’re spending the boss’s (or your own) money, and you want to get something of tangible value out of your conference time. Something you can put to good use when you go back to work. A talk about history just doesn’t seem very practical.

I believe the (short) history of our field is still relevant to our work today, if only we knew more about it. The conventions we follow, the interface metaphors we take for granted, the patterns we rely on—these didn’t spring out of nowhere. They evolved over time. People—people not unlike us—invented and refined them. Learning more about how all these decisions happened helps inform our own work. The story of the history of technology is the story of how we learned to understand our own behavior: how we learn, how we move, how we see, how we make choices. We taught machines to get smarter and friendlier and more responsive because we learned more about ourselves.

This missive is aimed mostly at the people who will be attending IxD11 in Boulder but who haven’t registered for my workshop with Bill DeRouchey, called Interaction Design History for Interaction Designers. Consider signing up, will you? I promise it will be relevant, informative, and inspiring. And entertaining.

But I want to make a point that applies to everyone, even if you’re not coming to Boulder. Take a moment and marvel at how far technology has come in the past hundred years or so. Particularly be amazed at the rapid evolution of digital computing over the past 65 years—and then get dizzy thinking about how much more work we have to do. Pay your respects to all the inventors and pioneers who made the decisions that got us here today. Maybe someday, there will be a designer looking back and giving thanks to you.

Business Models

Cherchez le buyer: Thoughts on UX and advertising

It pains me to have to admit this: I know a lot about the intersection of the user experience field and the advertising industry. Working in New York, I’ve met (and counseled) lots of people who work at both traditional and digital agencies. I’ve been recruited for many agency jobs. I even worked for Razorfish, a company that—much to my chagrin—decided to become an advertising agency halfway through my tenure. I work with many, many publishers, and in order to understand their business, I had to learn the advertising business.

I’ve been poking at the problem of how to integrate user experience processes into advertising agencies for a while. I ran a survey on this very topic last year. I gave a talk at the 2009 IA Summit on what user experience designers need to know about the advertising business model. I’ve consulted with traditional advertising agencies on how to restructure their creative group to better integrate UX (no link there, but I bet you wish you could see my findings.) I talked about how advertising works online at length on my recent Big Web Show interview with Jeffrey Zeldman and Dan Benjamin.

Normally I wouldn’t wade into the murky waters stirred up by a fractious, link-baiting blog post, but unfortunately this muck is the water I stand in every day, and I’ve already got toenail fungus from it, so I guess I might as well engage in a pissing contest in it too.

Follow the money

What I haven’t seen in any of the debate about Peter’s post — the most important thing, and certainly the first question any user experience professional should ask is: Who’s the user of the advertising agency? Who’s the buyer? And what do they want? Advertising agencies exist, in all their dysfunctional glory, because there are still people who choose to pay handsomely for their services.

What are these people thinking? Why don’t they love the internet the way we do, and shift more of their traditional advertising budgets online? Why do they choose to spend their multi-million dollar online budgets on Flash microsites? Why don’t they get that they need to engage customers through better product and service design, not just through glossy campaigns?

Given the economics of our industry, I believe this is the 64 billion dollar question. And we as user experience people should be doing everything in our power to persuade these buyers to consider our point of view. Thinking our potential clients are stupid because right now they choose to work with advertising agencies is probably not a good start.

Hate the ad, love the business model

UX people hate ads. Trust me, I get it. They’re annoying. They’re distracting. Users hate them. So UX people hate them.

I can’t say this strongly enough: if you’re a UX person, and you’re going in to talk to your clients with a snotty, condescending attitude about advertising, then you’re not doing your job. Advertising isn’t the only business model on the internet. But it’s the most important one. Look around you: publishers, startups, Facebook, Google—all based on advertising.

If you hate ads, then figure out a way to make the experience of ads better. That’s your job, isn’t it? (Also, there’s good money in it.)

UX is organizational change

You know what’s the easiest UX job in the world? Running a small UX consultancy. (She says, as the head of a boutique UX consultancy.) Your clients come (mostly) pre-qualified: they seek you out because they know they need your services. Small size means you can be picky about your clients, and picky about your employees. You only have to work with people who already grok your values.

You know what’s the hardest UX job in the world? Trying to change the culture within an entrenched, traditional business. This isn’t just advertising: it’s financial services, healthcare, media, government… any business that isn’t already on board with user-centered design. News flash: this is most of civilization. It’s going to be hard.

To me, being a UX person working in an advertising agency sounds a bit like being a Log Cabin Republican—an admirable attempt to try and change the system from within, though not something I’d personally have the stomach for. But that’s why I have so much respect for people like Abby the IA.

Advertising is no better and no worse than any other traditional industry that doesn’t get UX. But if you want more money to go towards UX design, the best place you can look is to try and take it away it from marketing and advertising budgets. Believe in UX and hate advertising? Fight the good fight, and take their money — even if it means working on the inside.

Content Strategy, Hearing Aids

The user experience doesn’t stop at the nav

If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely because you A) know me and want to hear what I have to say about content strategy and user experience design or B) found it by searching for some variant of “hearing aid reviews” on Google. Never let it be said that I don’t understand my audience. But until now, I haven’t been able to speak to the interests of both audiences at once. UNTIL NOW.

I’m doing some research to prepare for an upcoming talk at Busan Design Week in Korea, and found myself at the HTC website. Imagine my surprise when I see this:

Hearing aid compatibility! In the nav! This company is so committed to making hearing aid compatible products that they want to market this capability on the homepage of their website.

Now, if you’ve ever bought a hearing aid before (and, if I know my audience, I can safely say that half of you hope you will never need to, and the other half are trying to do so right now and it’s the bane of your existence) you know that hearing aids don’t work very well with phones. I have a well-rehearsed routine if I ever have to take a call on my mobile that involves removing my hearing aid and hooking it over my thumb. Also, please never call me. That’s why God invented text messaging.

But the promise of having a phone that would work with a hearing aid is a good sales pitch. I’m intrigued. Until I get to this page (click to embiggen):

Um. What?

Here’s my question: Will your phone work with my hearing aid? In no way does this page actually answer my question.

Because I make websites, I know exactly how this happened.

There was a meeting in which everyone agreed that it was important, and valuable, and responsible, that HTC showcase its hearing aid compatibility. Negotiations ensued, and it was decided that Hearing Aid Compatibility would have its very own place in the nav.

Someone set out to make a wireframe for this page. This person was told that there would be some text on the page, and a table of ratings information. This person mocked up a generic page to represent this information (put text here, put table here) and then went about feeling very user-centered and accessible because of the attention given to the disabled.

Someone else (perhaps the engineer or business owner responsible for hearing aid issues) was asked to provide the content. This person knows an awful lot about technical standards for compatibility, but perhaps not much about writing for a reader. The content got populated in the CMS, and everyone felt good about it.

Except me.

No one ever came back to ask if the content that got published actually met the user’s needs. Someone defined a requirement that — in essence — said “have a navigation category for hearing aids.” It didn’t say “ensure that our hearing impaired customers can determine which product will best meet their needs.”

The user experience doesn’t stop at the nav. If the content doesn’t answer the user’s question, you’ve failed.

Content Strategy

We are all content strategists now

Are you feeling left out of the party that is content strategy because you’re not a content strategist? I’ll tell you a secret: I’m not a content strategist either.

And yet, I’m still qualified to talk about why content is important to user experience. And you are too! If you don’t believe me, watch this video of my talk from IDEA 10. You can even follow along with the slides.

We are all content strategists now (on Vimeo.com)

Content Strategy

Department of Shameless Self Promotion: FIVE Upcoming Content Strategy Talks

Content strategy is on fire, and I am out there, fanning the flames. Please stay tuned for a promotional message from our sponsor, highlighting four FIVE upcoming events. They’re going to be fantastic. You know what would be even more fantastic? If you came to one of these!

UX Week, San Francisco, August 25

At this amazing event hosted by Adaptive Path, I’ll be leading a full-day, action-packed workshop on how to integrate content strategy into the UX design process. Working off a familiar UX process framework, I’ll show how content strategy fits into the mix with four entertaining, hands-on exercises.
Learn more and register now!

Planning-ness, Brooklyn, September 30

I have a particular fascination with how content strategy fits into advertising and publishing models. So I’m delighted to be leading a workshop at Planning-ness, an unconference aimed at planners and creatives. Branded content? Social publishing? Editorial workflow? See how content strategy enables all of these.
More about Planning-ness

IDEA 2010, Philadelphia, October 1-2

Wow. I am extra proud to be invited to speak at IDEA, a top-notch conference put on by my many friends in the Information Architecture Institute. Expect me to throw down the gauntlet for tighter integration between information architecture and content strategy.
IDEA program announced soon!

Iceweb, Reykjavík, October 7-8

I’m doing not one but TWO talks at this phenomenal conference in Iceland. Hop over to Reykjavík, pay your respects to the volcano, support the Icelandic economy, and see me give both a workshop and a short talk on content strategy. And an extra special bonus level of awesome: more content strategy talk from the inimitable Relly Annett-Baker.
Give it up for Iceweb

Content Strategy Forum, London, September 5-7 2011

It’s more than a year away, and I am already bouncing up and down with excitement. While it hardly seems possible that we could improve on the CS Forum in Paris, we’re going to take it to eleven at the next European event in London. This time with 100% fewer volcanic ash clouds from Iceland (I hope.) Also this time with me as a headliner, sharing the bill with the renowned Gerry McGovern.*
Register for more info

* Elizabeth McGuane, Gerry and I insist that this event is organized by Together London. Any involvement from the nefarious cabal of people whose last names start with McG is entirely imagined. I swear.