Stay on the “Happy Path”

Do you use Google to search the Web?  Isn’t it great that Google returns a search result of relevant information for just about anything that you enter.  In software engineering, there’s a term that describes such predictable and reliable outcome.  It’s call the “happy path” and it defines the default user experience when the software works as intended.  I first learned about it in college.  It has been a while, but I think the
subject still has a lot of relevance today, especially in Web application design.

Imagine your reaction if Google errors out or returns no search results, every other time you use it.  That would not be a good user experience.  So how do you factor in the happy path into the design and the implementation plan for your application?  Whether you are building a Social Media Website or an IT application for internal consumption, the process starts with good product or business requirements.  When you write the high level requirements and use cases, you are defining the happy path.  Good requirements should specify how the application process the end user’s request to deliver a user experience that meets or exceeds the end user’s expectations; focuses on the desired functionality.  In the case of Google Search, I’m guessing that the original requirements may have been written as follows:

Build a search engine with a simple user interface that accepts the user’s input, intelligently determine the most relevant Web resources, and present the user with the search results sorted by popularity.

Good requirements also facilitate great design.  When evaluating your design options, you should focus on a design that engages the user and keeps the user on the happy path.  Some Web applications calls for rich interactions (RIA).  In the case of Google Search, as simple design seems to work very well too.  Either way, a streamlined user experience will definitely appeal to the users and enhance conversion rates.  Your design should also account for how the application recover when something goes wrong.  There’s a popular saying “Sh*t happens“, and it definitely applies to anything on the Web.  Most users will tolerate some mishaps,  but you really should do your best to minimize the impact to the user experience.  Your average Joes won’t put up with HTTP 404 or 503 errors, but they will appreciate good humor such as the case with the Twitter Fail Whale.

Finally, how do you ensure that you are on target with your design?  It is important to test out the new functionality and verify the outcome against the original requirements.  In-house User Acceptance Testing (UAT) is a common practice for IT applications, and external Web applications without established communities.  Since UAT involves a controlled group of testers (generally superusers), be sure to provide all users with a feedback loop.  Public beta testing and user-driven designs seem to be very popular among Web 2.0 applications.  GMail which was launched in 2004 has retained its beta status despite its success and mass adoption.  Facebook with over 200 Million users engages the user community through the Facebook Blog.  Both are tremendously successful in attracting and retaining users.  Although there’s not a singular approach to engineering great solutions, there’s definitely one common theme:  Stay on the happy path.  After all, who doesn’t appreciate software that simply works.


The Voice of the Customer (VOC)

One way to develop a better understanding of the customer’s needs is to simply ask for their feedback.  Through out, you will notice a floating [+] icon in the lower right corner of your Web browser window.  When you click on this icon, an OpinionLab scorecard pops up allowing to you provide input on your Web experience as it relates to the content, design and usability of the current page.  Below is a screen snapshot of a sample scorecoard:

Recently, we added the OpinionLab icon to the Web pages for the download application that powers the Sun Download Center.  In the month of April alone, we received 481 ratings through the OpinionLab scorecard.  90 people chose to provide additional feedback through the Comments field. The overall rating was 3.5 out of 5.  It was a bit lower than I expected.  Again, this is why we’re asking for your input, so you as the customer can help drive further improvements base on your needs.

I would like to thank you if you took the time to provide us with your feedback on the Sun Download Center.  While I cannot share the specifics of the feedback that we received through the Comments field, I can say that most of the comments were fair.  I’m still flattered by the number of people who are fans of Sun, our products or the Sun Download Center.  Regarding the constructive feedback related to the download experience, if it’s actionable, we will definitely include the enhancement in one of our upcoming releases.