Hello, my name is Michael, and I’m a cordcutter. Years of cable rate increases, additional hardware requirements, and garbage network selection recently drove me to canceling my cable subscription. I already have a home theater PC and Chromecast hooked up in my living room, so the addition of a streaming service was pretty straightforward. My HTPC has a tuner card installed, which lets me use an antenna for broadcast stations (FOOTBALL), and I use Kodi along with a NAS for media. I know that might sound like a lot of complexity to some folks, but it’s not bad if you’re willing to just put a few hours into it, and the flexibility is fantastic. When I first moved to streaming TV, I used Sling. Sling was far from bad. What got me to jump was the initial DirecTV offer of their penultimate streaming package for $35/month. I’ve been using it a while now, and given that time, I feel obligated to bitch about some stuff. Like I do.
For quite a while, I’ve wrangled with the challenge of physical books versus eBooks. On one hand, physical books just look nice on a shelf, especially if they are nice books to begin with. Plus, physical books are easy to lend when someone asks me if I have a suggestion on a good book on social media marketing, or content strategy. On the other hand, I can carry thousands of eBooks on my tablet and have them anywhere, any time. As time has gone on, eBooks are slowly winning out more and more for me. Read More
At this point, my feelings and frustrations with Kickstarter are well known. When you are an ecommerce driven organization with a wealth of historical trend data about a user, you’re simply throwing away opportunities at making money when you don’t use that data to your advantage. Today, I felt that feeling all over again. Today… was Prime Day.
This time of year brings with it a particular discussion that I always see repeated in the various higher ed circles I still follow. That topic is the question of commencement livestreams. Not if universities should be doing them – dear no, that’s long since settled – but rather what should go with it. Should they be encouraging people to take selfies, what’s the hashtag, are they curating content from Instagram to a projector, are you using this tool, that tool, and blah, blah, blah. Some recent reading I was doing also felt poignant to this topic, and so I wanted to challenge my higher ed friends out there in webdev, marketing, advancement, et cetera to a question: Why aren’t you trying to focus on the business value of commencement streaming? Read More
March is the one year anniversary of the “new” social network Ello. Ello was (is?) striving to be a social network free of advertising, that gives users more freedom and simplicity in sharing than existing options. Their goal seemed noble enough, and four months ago I signed up to give it a look. They had a motto and plan that there was an apparent demand for. People came. After the time passed, I thought it was worth taking some time to share my reactions and thoughts on the platform.
In case the title wasn’t obvious, the tl;dr opinion is that it has a long, long way to go. I’m going to try and temper my comments as much as I can to strictly UX related things, and not stuff that might be the result of my limited friend base. But some of that has to factor in out of necessity. I’ll try to be clear when that’s the case. It’s also worth noting that the owners still consider Ello a “beta” product. I don’t allow much leeway on this, since if you’re going to let people into a beta product, it better be good enough to wow them and keep them coming back. If it isn’t, it isn’t ready to beta. Read More
Two years ago, I wrote a post about the numerous problems/opportunities I saw with the Kickstarter platform. I’m a big fan of Kickstarter, as a concept, and to date have backed well over 30 projects (for the record, I have an almost perfect record on picking good projects, as well). As a result, I’m on the site a lot, and looking for things that would interest me. After all this time, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the last post and look at what’s changed, see where they’ve improved, and where they haven’t. Read More
Does anyone else find the usability of Kickstarter maddening, especially for a site that makes money by trying to convince people to throw their money at something in hopes of getting something in return? You would think that the experience using the site would be so slimy and simple that money would just fall out of my wallet down their drains. And yet no.
For instance, connecting with people. If you have more friends that you are connected to, especially ones with similar interests, it stands to reason you’ll be more likely to invest in projects that you either didn’t know about, or were on the fence about. But apparently, you can only connect with people you are Facebook friends with (assuming you’ve set up your account using Facebook to begin with as well). If you don’t specifically hunt that information out, you’d never know though. You can look at someone’s profile, but it’s baffling to me that you can’t interact or otherwise connect to them. What is gained through that approach? And that’s not to mention the fact that you can’t connect other platforms, like Twitter or Google, to help with connections. Facebook only. Awesome.
Search. Christ. To start with, the inline results panel is maddeningly simplistic. Four things at a time, click, scroll. Then, there are no filters, so you can’t restrict the search to a certain category, or only completed projects, etc. There actually is a static results page, but if you don’t know it’s there, I’m not sure there’s a “real” way to get at it. It’s basically the most simplistic implementation of a keyword search they could get away with.
Recommendations and project discovery are possibly my biggest sore spot with Kickstarter. First off, after I’ve started sinking money into projects, Kickstarter should be building a crazy detailed profile of me. Where does most of my money go? Do I invest in popular projects, or smaller things? Do I invest more than the average contributor? What am I commenting on the most? What sections do I never even look at? With the wealth of information my buying habits generate, they should know what I want to invest in before I do. Instead, they just show me things my friends invest in, which frankly, is a pretty poor dipstick. Or worse yet, I have to rely on the Staff Picks section, which I’ll get to in a second.
Then there’s just browsing. Let’s start with tabletop games, because that’s where I happen to spend a lot of time. The page features four sections: Staff Picks, Popular This Week, Recently Successfully Funded, and Most Funded. The last two, while novel, are not really at all helpful, and are a total waste of real estate. If I can’t invest in them, why are they there besides idle research? How are they worth that kind of placement? The very first section, Staff Picks, is an exercise in futility. The page it goes to shows you nine projects before listing nothing but completed projects. The Popular This Week section is the only remotely useful section, and that page has no apparent order to the sorting that can prove useful, it comes across as being totally random. So maybe you think you’ll look at game projects ending soon, so you click the Ending Soon link in the sidebar. And no, that’s not game projects ending soon, it’s ALL projects ending soon. I dare you to figure out how to look at all tabletop game projects ending soon. I’m left feeling like virtually every project I’ve put money into has been by the chance that I stumbled across them. Where are tags? Faceted search? Sorting? Why do I have to work so damn hard to find stuff I like, Kickstarter?
As a user, why don’t they give me a dashboard to help me be a better “investor?” For instance, it’d be great if I could mark projects that I’ve received, and track things like average delivery date accuracy, project success versus fulfillment, my average versus global average contributions to projects, etc. How about satisfaction and reputation scoring, and a way to compare the scores I’ve given on a project to the project whole, vs the category, vs the overall site? So many metrics could be presented or created that would help me know if I’m making smart decisions. Then, you could go in before jumping on a project and stop to think things like “Gee, I invest in all these design projects from first time project creators, and the fulfillment rates have been really low, maybe I should reconsider.” Sure, that could be a disadvantage to first time project creators, but I think the advantages of knowing the risks better far outweigh the disadvantages – at least to my wallet.
And then there’s accessibility. Accessibility is really about usability, at the end of the day. For instance, I use my laptop in the living room a lot. I don’t want to play sound on videos when my wife is watching TV, but without captions, the videos can frequently be useless. Tabbing through the page? Hope you don’t want to use buttons, because there’s no :focus state to go along with :hover, so you can’t tell when a button is selected via tabbing. These are the little touches to a page that make them better for everyone. And it just shows some care and attention.
In the end, I’m just sort of amazed at the problems that continue to persist on the site. I’m generally fond of the principle of the site, and have had three of my projects come through as expected so far. But that endears the project creators to me, not Kickstarter. They can do better, and they should do better.
Take a moment and think about your listing of majors and minors. Really think about it. Is it good? Does it reflect how great your offerings are? Is it even accurate? Is it just a stupid, boring, damned list (if you’re interested in something a bit off the beaten path, check out RIT’s Pathfinder system or look at what the University of Arizona is doing)? If the answer is yes, I want to kick you an idea. Filtrify.
On its face, Filtrify is just another jQuery plugin that you can use for atomic control of a collection of DOM elements. Which is cool enough I suppose. But check out this example on their demo site. Now, instead of movies, imagine it’s student action photos from different programs, or some other visual representation of the program. Instead of genres and actors and directors as filters, you have schools and interests and jobs. It would leave you with an interactive program listing that invites a user in to play and explore. In this particular case, Filtrify is serving as an extension of the live filter design pattern – enabling a user to see all the available options, and then selectively removing that which isn’t relevant to them. People like toys, and they are inherently curious. Create an environment that promises an opportunity for exploration, and you’ll net some explorers.
But wait, it doesn’t have to be Filtrify per se, either – that’s just one idea. Something like filtering blocks would work just as well. As would something you come up with entirely on your own. The trick is, you need to start rethinking the UX of the program listing (and probably a lot of other stuff on your sites, too), and really consider how your tools may be impacting prospective students’ ability to see you as the right institution for them. Jakob Nielsen pointed out how bad lists could be nearly a decade ago (see #7), yet schools seem to be married to them for lack of the desire to construct a better way. People don’t find long, unfilterable lists to be user-friendly at all. We already know that 17% of students will drop a school from their list if they can’t find what they want on your site. Even more will mark a school down if they have a bad experience. What is that risk worth?
The underlying issue here is that schools need to start putting more effort into the next step of their web design processes, and start looking at the user experience of what they are making. It’s easy and fast to slap stuff together and move on, but there is enormous value in usability testing. It’s part of the overall process that is too frequently skipped, since a webpage published is frequently seen as “good enough.” While the old fashioned linked list may be functionally adequate for the data being displayed, it’s a terrible way to encourage interaction and leave a good impression on your visitor.
Even if you didn’t want to use a library like Filtrify, you can still come at the problem of filtering content in a user friendly way by falling back on some basic principles like LATCH. LATCH is a content filtering methodology that most users are, consciously or not, readily able to adapt to. That makes it a great place to start when trying to solve the problem of helping people find what they need in any large archive of structured information.
So how could we apply LATCH to a set of link filters for our program listings? Here’s one example (and there are plenty others):
- Location: This could be a physical campus location, online programs, or a more meta concept like a college or school.
- Alphabetical: This pretty much goes without saying. But keep in mind your taxonomy might not be the same as the visitors. Don’t be afraid to overload topics and point them to the same overall detail page.
- Time: This one can be harder, but could be length of the overall program, number of credit hours, or number of total semesters.
- Category: Think generalized subject or job areas here. For instance, “teaching” will likely return a number of different specializations.
- Hierarchy: You could use this to break down by schools and departments, or requirements, or to set up graduate tracks
The insane part about all this is that in many cases it would only take a little work to make fairly significant usability improvements over the current lists of programs. Something as basic as a live search filter would provide users with at least a little empowerment over the current model for many schools. Empowered users will be engaged users. And it’s much easier to get an engaged user to fill out an application. And on the other hand, if the technology you’re employing on your website doesn’t instill them with faith in you to be modern and student-centric, then they’ll move on.
Majors, minors, and programs are just one of many examples that could benefit from a little of this kind of TLC. I mention it as the focus of this post mainly because it tends to be really high in the funnel though. But how about:
- Student organizations
- Offices and departments
- Faculty listings
How many things could you improve with just a few hours work, and a little focus on the overall UX of the content you are trying to present? Which do you think your visitors would get better use out of? Are you particularly proud of your program listing page? Share it in the comments below for others to see. And if anyone actually does build a site based on Filtrify, let me know, I’d love to see how it turns out!
Okay JCPenny, this is your homepage. What the hell am I supposed to do with this? I’d love to know how you’re measuring the efficacy of this as your main focal point. Then for kicks, I clicked one of the things on the calendar and ended up at the second page. Nothing about this feels like a good idea to me.
October is rapidly approaching. What’s so special about October? According to the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), any Title IV institution receiving federal money will have to have a cost calculator on their website by October 29th. As this deadline approaches, tools are beginning to be made available to help you meet the requirements of the law. The problem is that while it’s easy (generally speaking) to comply with the law, it’s quite hard to do it in a way that makes the tool easily usable by prospective students.
So, what’s the issue? Well, the least of the problems is the fact that the law was written by people without the slightest clue as to what “usability” means. In typical fashion, they threw down requirements and expected us to solve the problem. However, meeting the requirements involves calculating a relatively complex amount of data, forcing asking users to fill out detailed forms to get the cost of attendance (in some cases, needing to answer as many as 48 questions). So, in demanding we make available the net cost, they’ve outlined a tool that is, at its base implementation, something people won’t use.
You may already have a calculator on your site (you certainly should, you’re selling a product, and people want to know what it costs), but it’s important to realize that it may need modified to meet federal requirements. Here are the main things:
- Average “net price” is the yearly price actually charged to first-time, full-time undergraduate students minus the amount of aid given to all students divided by the number of students getting aid. So NP = Cost – (total aid given/# students getting aid)
- Include data elements to approximate the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC), such as income, number in family, and dependency status or factors that estimate dependency status (An institution may use either Federal Methodology or Institutional Methodology to approximate the student’s EFC)
- You can ask for additional information to better compute net cost, but you cannot require any data beyond the base requirements of the Federal Template (see below).
Additionally, when calculating the final net cost, institutions must give the user:
- Estimated total price of attendance
- Estimated tuition and fees
- Estimated room and board
- Estimated books and supplies
- Estimated other expenses (personal expenses, transportation, etc.)
- Estimated total grant aid
- Estimated net price (calculated as much as practical given appropriate need and/or merit based aid)
- Percent of the cohort (full-time, first-time students) that received grant aid
- Caveats and disclaimers, as indicated in the HEOA
To put it simply, go look at the federal template below. Whatever it does, you need to do.
Cost calculators should be considered one of your best recruitment tools on your website, regardless of the federal mandate. The 2010 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations data showed that 68% of prospective students indicated that calculators had a lot of value to them, with nearly a third saying it actively improved their perception of the school. Luckily, there are a number of paths you can take to get a calculator on your site, if you are still wondering what to do.
This is the little guy that started it all. It is a great place to start if you need an idea of how this thing should work. Also, if you simply need to get something up and running, this will satisfy all of the base HEOA requirements. You’ll need quite a bit of data from your financial aid people (but that’s true no matter what), but with that in hand, you just fill out a couple pages of forms and it will give you a zip file to download that’s customized with your data. The Good: it’s a quick, canned solution. The Bad: it’s ugly, it’s inaccessible, and it’s not real easy to customize. This really should probably be considered just a starting point, rather than a long term solution. For instance, the final result page isn’t particularly user friendly and doesn’t do much to present the final cost in a way that makes it stand out. If you just need to get a handle on where you should be starting, this will definitely get you rolling.
The folks at Noel-Levitz were fast to jump on the calculator train, and were one of the first (if not the first) to have an offering to the market back in July of 2010. That said, I will call them the best of a bad breed (sorry guys). The advantage is, they are actively committed to making sure their tools come out top notch. Why am I not totally on board here? Accessibility is still a problem they need to address (in all fairness, no different from anything else I’ve seen so far). Also, the accordion style form they implemented as you proceed through the calculator runs the risk of intimidating or confusing users. This is supported by their own data which shows an 81% completion rate of scholarship estimates, dropping to a 39% completion rate of full estimates. That’s a major dropoff in the funnel that I would argue is a clear indication of usability problems (again, not unique to Noel-Levitz, I’d expect similar results for others as well). The output isn’t terrible though, for the users who are willing to stick it out to the end. They also allow pretty complete customization of data collection. You can try it out at their demo site.
Sorry, I don’t know anything about these folks, aside from the fact that they made calculators for higher ed. If anyone is using either of these options (or something else entirely), it’d be nice to hear your assessment in the comments.
Back in 2009, Robert Collins, vice president of student financial aid at the University of Phoenix, commented on cost calculators: “There is a tradeoff between accuracy and complexity. You need to balance the way that you present this to students.” He couldn’t be more right. And as soon as you start talking about things like EFC, you’re already making the calculator more complicated than a normal user should need to put up with. Cost calculators are a beautiful disaster of factors, combining UX with federal law, internal campus politics, math, and programming. Basically, I feel like we can break this down to three major problems.
There are two big issues I see with the data of calculators. The first is the array required to determine aid for EFC. It’s a pain to input and visitors will rarely know their anticipated EFC when filling out the form. Without EFC involved, you’re talking pretty simple stuff. The second main issue is that while HEOA gives us minimum requirements, it has set up an arms race condition for schools. Financial aid offices are terrified of providing inaccurate cost estimates, and will be driven to compete with schools providing lower or more accurate figures. They are bound to get hung up on minute details of financial aid calculations. You can’t do that though without causing more setup work and making the user end more complex. The problem is, you can not and should not be trying to port your full blown aid calculation algorithms to a simple cost calculator. It should be just that: simple. People will understand it’s just an estimate, like the sticker price on a car in a commercial. Some calculators ask for information that simply should not be necessary for a simple cost calculation, like age of oldest parent or number of people in household. A prospective student shouldn’t be worrying about that kind of data until they are filling out the FAFSA. Period. The less data you require from the end use, the better conversions will be.
It’s a fact of life. The more fields you put on a form, and the more steps it takes to fill out, the worse your conversions on that form will be. Every usability expert on the planet will tell you that. As mentioned, the Noel-Levitz numbers back it up. On top of it, there aren’t a lot of high schoolers floating around that know what their parents reported income was for the past year, or have an idea how much their parents will be contributing to their tuition payments. Towards the end of the article, you’ll see a gallery of current calculators. Some of them look like they want to actively discourage people from using them. At the end of the calculations, many of the tools spit out so many numbers and dollar values that you need an accountant to figure out which one you should be paying attention to. And if they are doing something wrong, offer clear and obvious error messages. Don’t deny them results if they forget to tell you how many cats they own. And for gods’ sake, don’t reload the form page empty if there’s an error and force them to re-enter all their data. Stop hating your users, please.
Improvements to Consider
Here are a few thoughts to consider that would help your overall calculator. Additionally, I’d love to hear what you think would help as well, just drop a comment.
- Make it accessible. Please. This isn’t hard to do.
- Start with a SIMPLE cost calculation that requires the absolute minimum amount of information possible from the user. Once they complete that, offer to give them a more accurate assessment if they are willing to take a few minutes and share more detailed information. That way you don’t discourage window shoppers.
- Make use of nice, visual price representations. The Noel-Levitz True Cost Calculator has done a nice job at this. The Google Charts API can help the DIY folks. People process visual data faster and easier than text.
- Make the total cost obvious. Like crazy obvious. You have to present a lot of numbers under the guidelines, you don’t want the most important number lost in the mix.
- Give users a channel to get help quickly: phone, Twitter, Facebook – whatever will get them answers fastest while they are at the calculator.
- Make it easy to get the users into an admissions funnel after they’ve calculated costs.
- Include helpful tips that can lower the total cost further.
- Let me reiterate making the initial experience as simple as possible. We’re talking Fisher-Price simple here.
- Net Price Calculator Requirements
- Price Tags and Net Cost Calculators
- Adding It All Up: An Early Look at Net Price Calculators
- An Early Look at Net-Price Calculators
Some Examples From Around the Web
These aren’t necessarily highlights of good calculator design. Rather, I just went out and grabbed a random sampling of what people are doing. Actually, if I had to grade us based on this sampling, we aren’t doing so hot. At best, some of these are functional, at worst, they are outright confusing. But I still think it’s worth seeing how others are approaching the problem, if only to get an idea of what to be avoiding.