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What to Do When You Have Nothing to Do

There’s definitely a sweet spot in terms of the amount of work you do. Ideally, you have enough work to keep you busy, enough variety to keep you interested, and enough time to do quality work, without sacrificing your personal life to meet deadlines.

But for most people, there are times when work slows down. At first it’s nice to have a break for a few days after being incredibly busy. You catch up on emails, read articles that you’ve been meaning to look at, file expense reports, clean up the piles of paper on your desk, and other administrative things. However, too many days with nothing to do can be unnerving. At first, you may begin to feel restless and bored. The days crawl by. After a few more days, you may begin to question your worth and feel guilty about having nothing to do.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are a number of things to keep you busy when things slow down at work. These things will make you feel useful and give you a sense of purpose, will make your employer think that you’re doing something useful, and will help your career.

Learn something new

Especially in the field of technology, you never stop learning. No matter how experienced you are, there’s always something new to learn. It’s important to keep your knowledge up to date with new developments in your field. That’s hard to do when you’re busy. So down times are the perfect time to catch up on your learning. This can take several forms:

  • Read articles in professional journals, online magazines, blogs, and other Web sources. If you follow the right people, Twitter is a great source of links to the most interesting and relevant user experience articles.
  • Research other user experience methods, technologies, and processes you can use. Look into new research and design tools.
  • Catch up on the latest user experience books. If you haven’t looked at what’s out there in a while, you’ll be surprised by the number of new books. Look on Amazon or publishers’ sites, like Rosenfeld Media. But be careful not to read a book at work. That makes it a little too obvious that you’re not doing real work.
  • Attend professional training.
  • Do Web-based training through an online source such as Lynda.com.
  • Look into conferences that you might want to attend, and use this time to write up a justification of the benefits of attending to convince your company to pay for it.
  • Conduct your own research study in an area that interests you.

Share your knowledge

A lot of people overlook the fact that they have a lot of knowledge and experiences to share with others. When you’re not busy, it’s a great time to reflect back on your work and write down your insights and experiences from your recent projects. Many of us don’t do this because we think we don’t have anything interesting to say that hasn’t already been said before. But if you sit down and brainstorm, you’ll be surprised how much you have to contribute. Some ways to share your knowledge with others are:

  • Write a blog.
  • Write articles for online magazines such as UXmatters, Johnny Holland, Boxes and Arrows, etc.
  • Write articles for professional journals or association magazines.
  • Prepare a paper, presentation, panel, tutorial, or workshop for a conference.
  • Present at a local professional association meeting like CHI or UPA local chapters.
  • Present to an internal group within your company.

Work for yourself

When you’re not working on other people’s stuff, work for yourself. Most of the learning and sharing activities I listed above will boost your career, but here are a few additional things you can do. Be careful about doing these things at work, however.

  • Document the work you’ve done by working on your portfolio, preparing case studies (for your company or for yourself), and created scrubbed work samples to remove client confidential material.
  • Manage your Twitter profile: look into additional people to follow, look through the list of people you currently follow and determine if there are some less useful people you should remove, and do some tweeting yourself.
  • Review your LinkedIn profile and update it. If you haven’t looked at LinkedIn in a while, there are many new features you can add to your profile. See if there are more people you should connect with. Write recommendations for people you think really deserve it.
  • Look into other professional associations you can join and local events you can attend. If you’re really ambitious, you can look into ways to volunteer in local and national associations, such as organizing and helping run events.

These things can keep you busy, make you feel useful, and are a good way to keep your skills sharp and advance your career during what could otherwise be a boring and painfully slow period. When the work eventually picks up again, you’ll be glad that you used you free time wisely.

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Online Ticket Ordering Pressure!

Login problems make online ticket ordering difficultThere’s probably no higher pressure experience for a consumer than ordering tickets for a popular event online. Once the tickets go on sale, you’re competing against thousands of other people for the best seats. Time is of the essence! Once you enter the number of tickets you want and the search results come back, those tickets are reserved for five minutes. A countdown clock starts ticking down the time to complete your order. If you don’t finish within that time, your tickets are released and you have to start over again with much worse seats.

I recently ordered tickets for a Foo Fighters concert on Comcast Tix, the vendor for the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. They went on sale at 10am on a Monday, and I was one of the first into the site at 10am. I was excited to see that I had floor seats. I’ve never been so close to the stage before in a major concert.

As the clock started ticking down, the first screen asked me to enter my user name and password. I had ordered tickets from Comcast Tix before, but it was a long time ago. I don’t usually remember or take the time to write down passwords for sites that I use infrequently. I tried my standard password that I usually use in situations like this, but it didn’t work. I tried another variation, but that didn’t work either. Glancing at the countdown clock, I saw the time ticking away and started to sweat.

Maybe I had the wrong email address entered as the user name? I tried another email address. That didn’t work. I thought about going through a password reset, but by the time I got that, I’d lose the tickets.

Okay, maybe I’ll just try the option to complete the purchase with a new account. I filled out the form, but I got an error message saying that my email address was already in use as an existing account. Now I was really getting nervous. I only had two minutes left.

Finally, I hit upon the solution. I’d create a new account using my work email address. That worked! Now I had less than two minutes to race through the forms to complete my purchase or I’d lose the tickets. Glancing at the countdown clock as I raced to complete the forms, I felt like I was defusing a bomb. Finally I completed the transaction and got the tickets. Whew!

If ever there was a situation that needed foolproof usability, it’s the online ticket buying experience. I recognize the need to only hold tickets for a limited period of time, but the checkout process has to be extremely simple. An easy solution would be to give people the option to checkout without creating or logging into an account.

Especially when they charge you a $5.00 “convenience charge” and $2.75 “delivery charge” to print the tickets yourself online, they should offer a much better experience. That, or give you a $20.00 “poor usability” discount.

New Article: Client Reactions to User Research Findings

As a design researcher, I’ve heard a lot of reactions from clients about the user research findings, both positive and negative. Fortunately, they’ve been mostly positive, but the negative reactions make for the best stories. I’ve written about those in my latest article in UXmatters: Client Reactions to User Research Findings. It includes the following reactions:

  • “Ho hum. Where are the designs?”
  • “We already knew that.”
  • “You’re wrong!”
  • “You talked with only 12 people.”
  • “Why didn’t you mention this problem?”
  • “The recommendations aren’t specific enough.”
  • “We could have done that ourselves.”

Read the entire article at UXmatters: Client Reactions to User Research Findings.

Netflix: It’s About the Format

Okay, it’s also about the format. In my last post, I wrote about how the choice between Netflix streaming and DVD was about the content. Netflix’s streaming content is mostly poor quality and quantity, while you can get almost anything you want by DVD. But format also makes a difference. If the content was the same in both formats, I think streaming would have a definite advantage.

The ability to instantly watch a movie from any internet-connected device is a great advantage of streaming, although many people don’t have a wired internet connection near their TVs and setting up a wireless network is beyond them.

Streaming provides the freedom to choose what you want to watch, when you want to watch. Although sometimes that freedom of choice can be paralyzing. When you have DVDs, you feel a commitment to watch them. They came in the mail, and even if you turn them off and send them back, it will be a while before you receive more. With streaming if you don’t like what you’re watching, you can stop and have a multitude of choices available. Sometimes I find the initial choice of what to watch difficult enough, but if a movie doesn’t grab me quickly, I end up second guessing myself and wondering whether I should have picked something else. Having so many choices instantly available seems to cheapen their value, whereas a DVD that I need to watch and return to get another, seems more urgent to watch.

DVDs require much more maintenance of your queue, strategically placing new releases at the top to get them sooner. What you watch tonight is based on a decision you made several days or weeks ago. We’ve all experienced that feeling of disappointment receiving a DVD other than the one we expected. The queue for streaming isn’t that important, except to prioritize which items you want to watch first and to save items that you might want to watch later.

The mailing schedule of DVDs can require strategic maneuvering. To make sure you have your new DVDs by the weekend, you have to make sure that the previous DVDs are returned by Wednesday. How many families have been annoyed by a slowpoke who didn’t watch a movie and return it in time to get another for the weekend? To be the first in line to get a new release that comes out on Tuesday, you can time the return of your DVDs on Friday or Saturday. Send them back too soon or too late and you may not get the new release.

With the decline of DVD sales, studios are beginning to become unfriendly to the rental market by creating rental-only copies stripped of special features and filling them with previews and ads that you can’t skip through. I recently watched a new release from Warner Brothers that had 17 minutes of non-skippable previews and ads, including several promoting the purchase of the Blue-ray version. Streaming, for now, contains no previews or ads, but the studios’ influence can be felt in the limited quantity of streaming titles and Netflix’s price increase to cover the increased cost of licensing content for streaming.

So it’s the format and the content. Streaming is a more efficient format, but the content needs to vastly improve before it will replace DVDs.

Netflix: It’s About the Content

Netflix Instant QueueThe recent customer uproar over Netflix raising their prices was a little overblown. It’s a business, they need to make money. With the expense of negotiating contracts with studios over streaming content, Netflix needed to adjust their pricing. I understand that, and that’s their right.

Although as customers, we have to decide what to do. Keep what we have and accept the price increase or make changes. I started with the 3 DVD at a time, unlimited plan about 5 years ago. When Netflix added their Watch Now streaming, I saw it as a nice bonus. Most of the time I had enough on my hands trying to keep up with the 3 DVDs. I only watched the streaming when I didn’t have a DVD to watch.

But for me it’s all about the content. I couldn’t care less about the mode of delivery. Netflix’s DVD library is huge. I can get almost anything I want, and 3 DVDs at a time is more than I can handle most times. In contrast, their streaming Watch Now content is full of movies and TV shows I’ve either already seen or never wanted to see. Also there’s a lot of just plain crappy movies.

Sure there are a few things I’ll miss. I just started to get into Mad Men now that it’s on streaming, but then again I can also get those on DVD.

So I’ve decided to cancel the streaming from my 3 DVD at a time plan, and just go with the unlimited 3 DVDs. It’s actually going to save me about $5 a month. Ironically, I think that’s the opposite of Netflix’s hope to wean customers off DVDs and onto streaming only.

If they really want to get streaming going, I think their subscription model is a good plan over pay per view streaming services. But it will never be worth it to me until they get a better streaming selection and new releases. Again, it’s about the content.

Book Review: Physics of the Future

Physics of the FutureI was intrigued when I first saw Michio Kaku’s recent book, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, but I didn’t realize at first that it had anything to do with human-computer interaction. With chapters such as Future of the Computer, Future of Artificial Intelligence, Future of Medicine, Nanotechnology, Future of Energy, and Future of Space Travel, Kaku shows how intertwined technology will be in our lives.

Kaku, a theoretical physicist and co-founder of String Field Theory, talked with over 300 of the world’s top scientists in various fields to understand where science and technology is headed by the year 2100. He first addresses the skepticism that naturally arises from previous predictions of future technology. Where are our flying cars and jetpacks that we were supposed to have by now? Those predictions in the past were made by futurists, not scientists. They were not made by studying the current state of science and technology or by talking with experts. In this book, the predictions are made based on current science and where things are headed. It’s definitely a plausible peek into what might be.

Some of his more interesting predictions are:

  • Contact lenses that become our interface with computers, projecting the internet on the lenses and augmenting reality with virtual elements
  • Controlling computers with brain signals
  • Smart cars that drive themselves and eventually run on magnetic levitation
  • Bio sensors in our homes that can detect diseases such as cancer at an early stage
  • Nanobots that can go through our veins and attack cancer cells before they become too dangerous
  • A nanotech replicator in our homes to construct anything from individual atoms
  • A space elevator traveling on a cable from the Earth up to a space station
  • His assessment of artificial intelligence and whether we’ll ever experience a robot uprising against humanity

Though they are fascinating, Kaku’s predictions seemed overly optimistic to me. He didn’t address the big question I kept thinking. How are we going to produce all these great advances when it seems our world is in decline? Every day we hear pessimism about global warming, overpopulation, food shortages, and the lack of energy sources to support the growing populations of the world that are coming to expect a first world lifestyle. However, he doesn’t address these issues until chapter 5, Future of Energy. And even in that chapter he doesn’t seem to have a satisfying answer. His book seems to be an exact opposite of the dismal future proposed in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

As someone in the United States, mired in a poor economy, a dysfunctional political system, and endless wars, it’s hard not to be pessimistic that we’ll ever see Kaku’s optimistic predictions come to life. Perhaps these advances are for the “winner” countries that are on the rise, like China. Again, Kaku doesn’t address this until chapter 7, Future of Wealth.

And it’s hard to believe how we’ll be able to afford things like gene therapy to cure diseases and extend our lives to 150 years or more. How could our society support that with the current problems with our health care system, Medicare, and Social Security? It’s hard to believe that the average person will be able to afford these things. Will all these wonderful advances only be available to the rich?

Although it’s a fascinating look into what might be and an entertaining read, there were too many “yeah but what about?” moments for a skeptic like me to buy into it fully.

Another User Experience Blog?

Another user experience guy with another user experience blog. Why read this one? Well, hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to write about, and this introductory post will be the least interesting of the lot. Who reads “welcome to my blog” posts anyway?

I don’t think most people read blogs regularly. They read interesting content when they come across it, regardless of where it comes from.

Why did I start a blog? Yes, part of it was for shameless self-promotion, but also as an outlet for my thoughts. For the last two years I’ve been writing a column for UXmatters, called Practical Usability. I publish articles in that column every two months, which seems like a good schedule for me. But I have a lot of ideas that don’t fit the format of a 2000 – 3000 word article. Those ideas tend to languish on a list that never gets published. Until now.

The topics will focus on user experience, user research, usability, design, and other related things in that vein. I hope you’ll find them interesting. At least much more interesting than this first post. So, welcome to my blog!

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