Roundarch Isobar Storms NNG’s Usability Week

Authors of this post: Adam Rayman, Randy McDonald, Justin Ludington, Sabrina Fonseca and Osmaan Akhtar

A band of User Experience Designers from Roundarch Isobar recently attended Nielsen Norman Group’s Usability Week in New York City.?The conference was jam-packed with great insights and useful take-aways, much of which revolved around usability, a fundamental building block of our craft.?Our attendants share a sampling of their experiences below.

Credibility and Persuasive Web Design – Sabrina Fonseca

This session, presented by Jen Cardello, showed how recent academic research on cognitive psychology and neuroscience can be applied to design to make users comfortable and brands more credible.

Many of the psychology principles discussed rely on the fact that some decisions are made subconsciously, while others are made consciously and rationally; a outcome may change depending on that factor. Persuasive design can work by ensuring the user is doing the right thing, in the easiest manner, with the least strain possible.

Credibility is affected by cognitive strain, which is a state of mind characterized by vigilance and suspiciousness. In such a state, people invest more time and effort in what they are doing. For example, a good video game is engaging when it causes the right amount of cognitive strain in the right times, but e-commerce websites should cause the least amount of cognitive strain. Credibility is considerably higher when the user is put in a state of cognitive ease, on which he likes what he sees, believes what he hears, trusts his intuitions and perceives the situation as familiar.

Ease of use, legibility, easy-to-scan language, consistency, simplicity, transparency and perceived generosity are some characteristics that help put users in a cognitive ease state.

The best way to have a better understanding of the user’s desired state of mind in a digital experience is by using tools like personas and user scenarios. At Roundarch Isobar, they are created as part of the research and conceptual design phases of our user-centered design process.

Personas are profiles of people who represent an experience’s target audiences, their needs and goals; user scenarios depict these people’s desired path through the experience in order to achieve their needs and goals. Personas and user scenarios are used throughout the detailed design process, keeping teams focused on the most important tasks users need to accomplish while designing an experience.

Emerging Patterns for Web Design – Adam Rayman

Kara McCain‘s session Emerging Patterns for Web Design focused on the latest trends in designing for the internet. We explored infinite scrolling, responsive design, skeuomorphism and several other rising trends, focusing on when to use them and how to implement them correctly.

One of the trends we explored in depth is the carousel. Carousels are used across the web as a means of prominently displaying different content in the same space. Much of the success of a carousel can be attributed to its design, and there are many choices we can make to be sure we’re presenting our carousels in an optimal way.

The carousel on the home page of the site Roundarch Isobar designed for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) is a great example of a well-designed carousel as it employs several of the guidelines we explored.


  • Content within the carousels should be clear and useful – The content within the CTCA’s carousel presents the organization?s core principals and offerings. Every item within the carousel features a clear header and a brief description, informing the user of its purpose without bogging them down with information. It also uses original images (no stock photos) and enhanced functionality via hover states.
  • Offer users control – Some carousels advance on their own, while others depend on the user to advance the content. While either is acceptable, users should always have options for manual control. The carousel on the Cancer Treatment Centers of America website is dependent on users to advance it, which ensures they’ll have the opportunity to fully absorb the content before it slides off the page. It also offers clear, visible controls to advance the carousel and a hover state for inactive items to further guide the user.
  • Keep it small – Carousels should be limited to one per page, and content should be limited to 3-7 items on desktop and 3-5 items on mobile. The CTCA’s site meets these guidelines, with a single carousel containing seven valuable content items.

Agile Development and User Experience


Agile Development and User Experience – Randy MacDonald

How can UXers pick up the pace and still deliver compelling products beloved by users? Jorge Morkes and Lynee Pausic of Expero Inc. made a strong case that agile UX is the answer. Railing against heavy spec documentation and design pre-planning, they call on UXers to ditch their outdated waterfall process and embrace a post-industrial process that encourages collaboration between departments and rapid, iterative design and development. They encouraged UX teams to break their designs into the context of epics and user stories.

The folks at Expero clearly know their stuff. However, some are skeptical about the process. Agile UX could lead to tunnel vision and neglect for the greater product vision, and a UX team?s limited focus on particular epic user stories within the confines of a sprint could lead to neglect of larger design questions.

It can be difficult to imagine agile applied to a typical agency environment such as Roundarch Isobar, where rounds of reviewing and approving complete requirements, wireframes and visual designs before transitioning into the development stage is the norm. Maybe in the future, as competition demands even faster product development cycles, agencies and clients will evolve their relationship and agile UX will make a lot of sense.

Mobile Websites and Apps – Osmaan Akhtar

In 2010, we might’ve asked ourselves, “I wonder if there’s an app for this.” Three years later, we shake our heads when our favorite site still doesn’t have an app or fearfully ponder credit card fraud when paying on a buggy mobile site. Our expectations have heightened, and the bar has been raised on what we know as good app design. At Roundarch Isobar, we are attuned to the demands of today’s mobile user and realize how many routine tasks are now done – sometimes exclusively – on phones: checking email, navigating directions, accessing social media sites, etc. With an explosion in mobile usage and a dramatic peak in smartphone sales, our designers and developers not only commit to building impressive mobile sites and applications to appease the world’s tap-happy thumbs, but also understand how to provide an enhanced experience that often is, and arguably should be, superior to that of the desktop interface.

We’ve seen it with Avis, Bloomberg and many other clients. Presenting a user with a full-featured desktop site can be overwhelming to the user and detrimental to the client. Showing more information than needed puts users at risk of over-complicating straightforward, meant-for-mobile tasks with the worst possible outcome: leaving. Simply optimizing a site for mobile is a precarious move, too, as it leaves desktop users with bland, sub-optimal experiences. The perfect medium and first guideline for improving the mobile user experience is designing a separate mobile site (or if you can afford the time and labor, a mobile app).

In order to design a mobile site, the following Nielson Norman Group (NN/g)-endorsed mobile-specific usability guidelines must be considered:


  • Eliminate features and content that aren’t essential to the mobile use case. A user doesn’t need to see years of transaction history when paying a bill.
  • Design for the small screen (and for fat fingers). Make interface elements bigger, including buttons, links, text and text fields. Apple’s iOS7 has nailed this.
  • When a user navigates to your site on a mobile device, ensure a smooth redirect to your mobile site and/or present a link to download your app.
  • Offer a clear link to your full-featured desktop site as some of your users may prefer it or require certain elements or features that are only found there.

Desktop interface differs from a mobile user interface in a number of ways, including how users accomplish tasks, how quickly content is comprehended, and how users interact with features and functionality. A proper synergy of both interfaces – using separate, but complimentary designs – promises an unparalleled user experience

NOTE: This excludes tablet users, which more often than not, are comfortable using a full-featured site on their mobile devices.

The Human Mind and Usability – Justin Ludington

Janelle Estes examines the psychological, social, and behavioral influences on how people take in information, process it, and retrieve it later. Using psychology as a foundation, she presented a number of methods for using these concepts to overcome design problems and understand how your customers think. It covered the following topics:

Attention:?People have limited attention and can only process information linearly. When engaged in a task, they will quickly scan to find things that support their effort and block out details that don’t help them. This is called “inattentional blindness”. To see it in action, take the “Awareness Test.”? Good content formatting helps aid cognitive processing, but don’t overly design entry points as they tend to get disregarded as banner ads.

Perception:?For information to be useful it must be perceptible, noticeable, and meaningful. Many things affect perception, including size, color, contrast, motion, and context. Using Gestalt principles, the Laws of Closure, Similarity, and Proximity can be leveraged in designs to create order and better understanding. See the “Swap Experiment” to see how perception is affected by context.

Memory & Knowledge:?Never force your customers to rely on memory to complete tasks. Short-term memory and working memory are fleeting, temporary buffers that require a high degree of concentration. Take advantage of long term memories by designing things that follow established conventions. Your customer’s mental model is shaped by their past experiences, culture, and context. These are based on beliefs, not logic. Don’t expect your user’s mental model to bend to match your business process. Conform your design to address their needs.

Language:?Words are processed as units. People won’t focus on details to take away meaning. 79%of users scan content, and only 28% of words are read. Make scanning easy, and set context early by making the first two words in the first two sentences of the first two paragraphs contain words with strong associations to the task at hand.

Problem Solving & Decision Making:?The perception of choice is greater when there are more options, but actual decision-making is easier when fewer options are presented. Perceived value and loss aversion can be used to persuade conversions. People will value something that is earned more than something given. Reciprocity is twice as likely than reward when asking for people to give you their information (you should offer something first).

Social Behavior:?People are influenced by groups and seek social proof. Reviews increase conversions, and people who read reviews spend 63% more money. Testing designs is critical to avoid a “false consensus” effect, which is a tendency for people to overestimate how much others share in their beliefs and ideas. The client and design team might love a solution, but it should be validated with people outside those groups.

Emotions & Design:?As Don Norman said, “Attractive things work better.” Understanding how people process things on a visceral, behavioral, and reflective level can help you create a product that elicits sensory delight and brand loyalty. Avoid stock photography. Like (or because of) banner ads, people have learned to ignore them. We seek authenticity.

We apply many of these principles to the projects we do at Roundarch Isobar. These aren’t always things we articulate to clients in explicit psychological terms, however they influence our design decisions large and small. At every point, from strategic visioning sessions, sketching out interaction designs, or drafting microcopy for some rarely seen screens, we try to empathize with our audiences. Understanding the nature of cognition and how people think allows us to work around innate limitations and leverage natural strengths to craft the best experiences possible.