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We talk user experience with Craig Tomlin

Posted by Jacob Creech on April 4th, 2012

In today’s interview we’re going to talk with Craig Tomlin, one of the 3000 Certified Usability Analysts (CUA) in the world.  Craig is a very active blogger and has written dozens of blog posts about usability.

Craig is an incredibly experienced usability expert, he’s vice-president of one of the largest independent search-driven marketing companies in the United States and has headed up some really impressive user experience projects.

So who better to explain usability than Craig.

The interview

Would you give a brief introduction about you?
I’ve been in the online marketing and user experience space for over 15 years now. I started waaaay back in the days before there was a Google, or a Yahoo, or Mobile, and “broadband” meant you had the latest tool, a 56k dial up modem!  I’ve done web marketing, redesign or user experience projects for big and small companies over the years, including Blue Cross, Countrywide Home Loans, Disney, Kodak, Prudential Insurance and many more. I like to say that I’ve become quite good at what I do because I’ve learned from ‘experience,’ in other words I’ve made just about every mistake you could make and have learned what not to do!

As one of only 3,000 CUAs in the world, how did you initially get involved with usability?
Being a Certified Usability Analyst was a big deal for me because way back when I received my CUA there were very few courses focused on usability and user experience design that I could take. Most of the courses back then were PhD tracks, and were either focused on psychology, or on engineering.

HCI* had been around a long time, but with a full-time job I found it difficult to get a Masters and then Doctorate in HCI. I knew I needed education in UX and usability because I learned quickly that website design is far more than just a pretty website with brochureware. To create a successful web experience, you must know who’s trying to use the site, what critical tasks website visitors have, their “mental model” and much more.

All of that coming of course from understanding and applying user research and design best practices. The CUA courses and certification helped provide me that of training. But I fully recognize that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know! It’s an ever expanding subject.

* Human Computer Interaction

As vice president of Apogee Results you have studied, tested and honed the art of influencing people’s behavior. Which steps would you recommend to bulletproof an UX strategy?
The answer is somewhat simple, yet hard to execute: “know your users.” Strategy comes from identifying goals, both the goals of the business and the goals of the users. Good websites (or applications or devices) meet and hopefully beat users’ expectations and needs.  A successful UX strategy comes from applying those goals and expectations to a design based on:

  • Using a unique understanding of who will be interacting with the experience
  • Identifying what their tasks and expectations are
  • Fully leveraging their mental map
  • Evaluating their domain expertise

Good UX strategy fully uses that understanding to deliver an experience that meets, or hopefully beats, those expectations.

On your blog usefulusability.com you address several usability topics.  What do you think is currently a hot trend that UX practitioners should be aware of?
Without a doubt the next hot trend we all must come to grips with when dealing with UX is understanding that “user experience” does not mean just “web site experience” or “mobile experience” or “phone experience” or “store experience.”  Separately, these are all experiences, that’s true, but sadly most companies design each experience in a vacuum, seldom putting together the holistic understanding of how users actually interact with Brands. But put them all together, and they represent the real “user experience,” which can be called the Brand Experience.

What’s a Brand Experience? Think about a person who wishes to purchase a car. She may go to several websites to evaluate prospective car brands. She may go into a showroom to test drive a couple cars. She may ask friends on Facebook or other social sites about their opinions. She may evaluate features of cars on her smart phone multiple times. Eventually she will go to the finalist car lot and interact with the dealer to purchase her car. Given that she has interactions that transcend any single experience, why would we design the user experience she has with the website without consideration of the other critical interactions she will have during her process of purchasing a car?

Good Brands, and good UX designers, understand the holistic nature of user experience and include multiple interaction points in their thought process as they develop their UX strategy. I think that’s the next big thing in UX.

Can you tell us the difference between market segmentation and persona development?
Most marketing organizations in firms have a good sense of creating target markets based on market segmentation. They may use clustering to identify like-groups or set of prospects based on various data. The data is typically not task-specific, it may range from geographic information (all people living in New Zealand) to demographic (all people older than 30 years) to psychographic (all people who intend to purchase in less than 6 months). This data can then create a market segment that marketers can use to try to reach the intended audience (all people living in New Zealand, over age 30, who intend to purchase in less than 6 months).

Personas however are quite different. I like to think of a Persona as a fictional representation of a typical user, in which the common element that defines the Persona is a critical task (or tasks). Personas have names, they have faces, they have a story and a critical task. And Personas have the ability to be used broadly across an enterprise for purposes other than designing a website or mobile user experience. A good Persona, if done well, can be used to make design decisions across the holistic Brand Experience. For more information about Personas see my Useful Usability post on the Forrester report of Personas.

How can two, three, four or even five user profiles represent the entire user community?
This is a common question I receive from developers and those in I.T. I believe they confuse Personas with Use Cases. The most common question is; “If you’ve identified four Personas, does that mean I need four different websites?” The short answer is: Yes, and no.

Yes, in theory it would be great to have a website experience aligned directly to the needs of each Persona. However, often this is not possible from either a business or Brand standpoint.  So, one website has to fill the needs of all Personas.

But how? The answer is by making sure you address at least the initial critical task that each Persona is seeking on your home page and other pertinent pages. One website, if the information architecture and related navigation systems are set up correctly, can handle each of the needs of multiple Personas.

What do you think?

We want to thank Craig again for making time to answer our questions. His ideas on focussing more on the holistic understanding of how users interact with brands are definitely insightful and something we should be aware of as UX designers.

What do you think?  Do you use personas to represent your entire user community?  Feel free to share your opinions in the comments below, on Twitter @IntuitionHQ or at Facebook.com/IntuitionHQ.

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  • Anonymous

    Great interview and congratulations on your success Craig. Just to update you on the number of CUAs in the world, according the Human Factors International website its currently 3705!

  • http://www.rubywebdesign.com/ freelance web designer girl

    I landed here from another web design blog article that was talking about heat map services and IntuitionHQ was recommended! Is this click-tracking or heat-map testing/tracking?  I guess I do not entirely know the difference; I have never used either of them before (unless standard Goole Analytics counts.) As a website designer I would like to be able to view heat maps for both my own website, and for my clients’ sites as well – it would just be awesome! I thought these were tools only available to the rich and famous companies of the world; didn’t realize monthly srvices were available for the little guys that do this, too! Can someone please explain exactly what a heatmap does? Is it tracking / mapping clicks, or eye views / movement?


  • Kirstin Donaldson

    Hi Ruby,

    Thanks for your comment, IntuitionHQ heat maps display clicks rather than eye tracking. Heat maps are a way to visually display the volume of participant clicks on an area. Results will also show a percentage of participant clicks in the area.

    You can also do preference testing and A-B testing of UX and design with IntuitionHQ. We’ve put some ‘How to’  posts on this blog and linked to them here: http://www.intuitionhq.com/tutorials

    If you’d like to find out more about our monthly plans, it’s all detailed here: http://www.intuitionhq.com/pricing/ If you need any further info or help, drop us a line at info[at]intuitionhq.com

    Kirstin, IntuitionHQ