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January 26, 2007

Ask Q & A: Michael Ferguson, Senior User Experience Analyst (Part One)


"I like solving puzzles," Michael Ferguson notes in his Q & A, "And I'm curious." For Ask's resident User Experience guru, it's that curiosity that's has taken him from Lollapalooza, through the 1990's tech boom, and up the ladder at Ask.com to his current position as our Senior User Experience Analyst.

Michael's interactive experience goes back to production work on CD-ROM and digital interactive kiosks and art projects for the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. Later that year he started an interactive design & production company, adding educational and entertainment CD-ROM projects to his CV. Projects for the Web followed, and Ask.com soon came a-calling.

Michael started Ask's first in-house group focusing on understanding User Experience. He's our first stop when we want a better understanding about end-user motivations and behavior--so we made him our first Q & A interview as well. In Part One, we learn more about his work with Ask, usability in general, and how it factors into his beef with DirecTV.

"Senior User Experience Analyst"--that's a mouthful. What's that entail?
A lot of the job is gaining insight into people--their motivations and behavior. I try to understand them in all aspects of their lives, and then focus on how they find and use information, especially with search. I then help the design, marketing, engineering, and R&D teams build valuable and delightful experiences. (At least, I hope I'm helping!)
I also act as an evangelist for users--both publicly and within the company. The more empathy for user experience everyone involved has, the better products we deliver.

The job title is a wink to The Daily Show, where Jon can turn to the "Senior Media Analysis Analyst," or the "Senior Star Trek Analogy Analyst," et cetera. If someone doesn't pick up on that, it still sounds legit.

User Experience in 30 words or less. Go.
User Experience is the full range of thoughts, feelings, needs, values, perceptions,  abilities, and goals people bring to your product or service, and then experience while using it.

With two words to spare. How do you get that across to the various disciplines at Ask?
Basically I work to understand user needs, and help the product design and search  teams to get ideas in front of users. We keep in mind that user experience includes  understanding brand perception, culture, technology, usability, the competitive  landscape, and social and lifestyle trends. Obviously this crosses over into what marketing seeks to understand--so I work with them lots and they help us. Then I interpret user actions and perceptions, and make recommendations to improve the experience. We try to get everyone at Ask to get to know the end user.

What happens during a typical user testing session?
We capture user experience in a variety of ways, from server logs to ethnographic studies, where users keep journals and take note of what happens in their home, work, and mobile experiences. The basics are always the same: we have people complete tasks with our (or our competitors') products and see how it goes.

We have some basic rules for user testing:
1. Make the user comfortable--let them know they are not being tested, the product is.
2. Listen and watch carefully--there's often an illuminating story in an offhand remark.
3. Thank and compensate them!

Funniest thing you've ever seen in a user testing session?
You definitely meet all kinds of people. But there was this one guy who somehow got through the original screener interview who didn't know how to use a computer. I think he thought it was going to be a focus group where he could fade into the background--but it was a one-on-one session with me. He sat there terrified.I felt bad for him, so I taught him some basic stuff about how it all worked and gave him his money.


Who's doing user experience right?
With so many businesses focused on customer experience, it feels to me like generally everyone's doing better. Even local government and the IRS have been trying to be more approachable and "usable," both in physical and virtual spaces. Online, I'm impressed with Wesabe, which shoots the tricky whitewater of mixing social network collaboration and your credit card activity. Check out all the ways they get you comfortable with that--like the CEO's phone number front and center.

Who's doing it wrong? What's your best recent example of a bad user experience?
Um, DirecTV telling me on January 8th that they can't install my new service 'til February 7th--three days after Prince plays the Super Bowl half-time! And this is after they set up my account and took my credit card. Now, I understand that this time of year is hard: football season combines with the Holidays to move lots of TVs. But it's like that EVERY YEAR. So DirecTV needs to manage hardware inventory and installation contracting to account for that seasonal burst. Ugh. Otherwise, I like their service a bunch.

Come back Monday, when Michael makes some book and website recommendations, offers some celebrity dish, and tells us his favorite offline usability examples--including the most usable thing in his home.

Ken Grobe
Product Content Manager

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