Sunday, March 28, 2010

Give Em What They Need

Bloomberg terminalImage via Wikipedia

Jered Floyd pointed me to the UX Magazine article where Dominique Leca writes about The Impossible Bloomberg Makeover. This Makeover was commissioned by Portfolio and asked 3 design firms to make over the Bloomberg news terminal. The Bloomberg Terminal is an information service used by financial and other analysts, that consists of hardware and software as a package to deliver near real-time information for people who make very quick decisions based on the market. And has a very distinctive and hideous interface

The highest-profile firm to submit a design was IDEO, who took 3 weeks of study and drew on years of experience in the financial realm. 3 weeks is nothing, by the way, for an overhaul of a known and important service like this, especially when commissioned on a magazine's article budget, or having to be billed internally as a promotional project. In 3 weeks you get a couple of service designers and visual artists to look at the original for a few days until they go "Uh-huh, oh yeah, I kinda get it", generate some wild brainstorms, sit down with the local senior partner to pick two to expand on, and then select one of the two up for final presentation. I've done cycles like this myself inside large design agencies. You do not get a final product. You do not even get anything that will be recognizable after contact with actual reality.1

The UX Mag article goes on to leave the impression that Bloomberg explicitly rejected this make-over because on an Old Boys Tree-house Club-house mentality: they prefer the ugly tough-to-master software because it keeps newbies and the uncommitted out. Of course, Bloomberg did not ask Portfolio to redesign their terminal, and there was thus preciously little for them to accept or reject. Some of the comments already state that UX Magazine is getting the narrative wrong, and it is not about keeping newbies out and feeling big, but also that the current terminal has a high utility that the redesigns simply do not recognize.

Having Tweeted this article indicating I was buying the magazine's narrative, I got a response from someone with a past as an insider in a company that had similar news stream products. I am not quoting this person directly, because what I was sent was off-the-cuff and needs a little restructuring.
  1. A lot of the displays include 100ms real-time updates that subconsciously inform the trader as to what's going on. Color and Motion are not only important to the experience, they ARE the experience. Going to some calligraphy on papyrus experience breaks their understanding of the data, and this understanding goes back decades.

  2. The Terminal and its ilk are optimized for no surprises ever. It's not stubbornness that keeps things from changing, it's an overwhelming desire to have the exact same thing in front of you in the morning.

  3. We had a product called [...] that had that exact same white portal look and users hated it beyond belief. It says "I'm a fluffy web portal", not "I'm a business tool".
Literally trillions of dollars ride on this UX experience.
Point 3 is close to what the magazine says, Point 2 is something all us ovehaulers have to deal with, especially in combination with the last line about the trillions, but Point 1 is, to me, the most important one here. The redesigns obliterated the utility.

Yes, the Bloomberg Terminal is ugly, but if read the feedback correctly, the display gives you glance-reading flash-understanding in return. It's very Tufte in that sense: the display shows quantitative information in a way that lets you absorb it all very fast, by quickly intepreting patterns, as the comments on the magazine I linked to indicate. Making a display that has this feature likely could be done in a more visually pleasing way, but IDEO's mock up, especially the point of more and more identical black-on-white panels being added to the side, is not it.

As Craigslist shows 'Pretty' is a 'nice to have'. 'Utility' is the 'must have'. The Bloomberg Terminal has the 'must have'. Understand what that is before moving into the 'nice to have's.

1 What you do get, however, is a direction and conversation piece to galvanize you and your client into making the time and resources available to do the service overhaul properly and right, as you now can show that there is a promise for something better at the other side, and that your agency can deliver it.