Category Archives: Tech

Understanding context when designing a product

Last week we had an offsite in Santa Cruz where we got to spend 2 days with colleagues in the product organization. Apart from bonding activities (I finally learned to build sand castles properly – no easy feat!), we got to hear from a great lineup of internal and external speakers, including Tim Browm, CEO of the legendary design firm IDEO. Among various topics he touched on, I particularly liked the way he thinks about user context when designing a product, which I’ve summarized in my own words and examples:

    • Take one step back – Whatever you are designing, always take one step back to understand the user’s context. If you’re designing a feature, what is the user doing with your product at the time? If you’re designing a product for a single user, what  else is happening when she is using your product? Similarly, if you’re designing for a group of users, why are they interacting and what else are they doing together? Understanding these context helps ensure what you designed truly adds value to the user. 
  • Understand expectation  – Every product has a learning curve. As much as Apple is famous for design simplicity, it still takes time for a new mac user to fully understand the UX paradigm and be productive. On the other hand, if the user is given time to repeat the same action over and over, chances are she would become proficient at her task even if the design is awful. So how do we know if the UX of a product is “good enough”? It highly depends on the user’s expectation. Users are likely to be much more tolerant if they believe what they are using is “new” and expect to spend time learning (think the first generation iphone). On the other hand, users will quickly lose patience if they believe your product should work similarly as something they’ve used before, but it doesn’t (e.g. the new Windows 8 design). These classifications may or may not be just (arguably Windows 8 is designed for a whole new set of touch devices and use cases), but figuring out how users perceive your product is crucial to understand how much they are willing to tolerate a learning curve. 

First impressions on Google Shopping Express

Last month I signed up as a tester for Google Shopping Express – a local delivery service aims to let users order online and receive same day delivery at a low cost (though as a tester I get free, unlimited delivery for 6 months). I finally placed my first order yesterday and thought I’d share my experience.


Google Shopping HomepageThe interface is similar to most e-commerce website which lets you browse by category or simply search for the product you need. I was going to make some cookies the next day, so I decided to search for flour, sugar, white and semi sweet chocolate. Unless you specify a particular provider, Google will pull relevant results from all its local partners.

Result list

A search for sugar returned all things from granulated sugar, coconut sugar, to cotton candy maker & dolls (!?) . If multiple providers offer the same item, one is chosen as default but you could always switch. Overall It was a fairly unstructured list and it took me a while to narrow down the item, compare prices and decide on the brand. Several interesting observations: 1. Even some of the most common items like C&H cane sugar are only offered by one provider 2. (To my dismay) The default provider isn’t always the cheapest! A search for semi-sweet chocolate returned a result from Target for $3.44 when in fact it costed only $3 from Nob Hill.


Google has mentioned that they’re still experimenting with pricing, but presumably it’ll be some combination of subscription fee, per store delivery fee and basket size. I had unknowingly chosen the 4 items from 3 separate stores, so I was really lucky that this is a free trial. Since having Google Wallet is a prerequisite, the checkout process is simple. You just need to choose a delivery time frame, let Google substitute for an equal or lesser value item if the item is out of stock (optional), and leave a delivery instruction (also optional).


The delivery came on time, and I immediately received a confirmation email once the items were delivered. The items came in 4 individual packages (the two chocolates were stacked up in the picture) which was utterly wasteful, but perhaps understandable given it was from 3 different stores. I felt like a kid opening her present on Christmas Day!

Price Comparison

Out of curiosity I decided to look up prices of the same items from a nearby grocery store, which isn’t one of Google’s partner. I’m happy to report that of the 4 items I bought, 3 items were cheaper on Google Shopping! The white chocolate was cheaper at my local store only because it’s on sale, and I also could have gotten the flour at a lower price if I went with the store brand. The delivery fee  would have made a difference, but again it wasn’t a consideration this time.

Some Thoughts

Google Shopping Express does what it’s suppose to do – allow busy professionals to shop any time, from anywhere. However one significant deal breaker with the current service is the lack of produce and other perishables. Despite all its convenience, I still had to make a trip to the grocer to purchase ingredients for dinner last night. For an average household, the frequency of food shopping far exceeds the need to purchase other household items, which means they can easily be picked up during the same shopping trip. AmazonFresh & other companies have offered such service for years yet none has really taken off. I have not followed closely to understand the issues but it would be amazing if Google can pull this off.

Some other features I think would be useful:

  • Learn my shopping preference: If I’ve purchased sugar before, automatically picks the same item for me next time instead of making me choose from hundreds of results again.
  • Help me save money: Give me an option to just pick a category, then automatically choose the items that would minimize my bill. This is particularly useful once the user has to take per-store delivery fee into account.
  • Ditch the current packaging: The high quality and individual packaging is completely unnecessary. Save the trees!
  • (Minor) Saves my delivery detail: Probably just an oversight, but it’d be nice not to have to type up a delivery instruction every time.

I’m sure the product is still at an early stage and will be improved over time. For now, I’d probably keep doing it the old fashioned way just to be more environmentally friendly.  


Information at your fingertips?

The last two weeks had been a rough roller coaster ride, with various project deadlines and my  involvement with the Wharton Tech Club at full swing. One more week till winter break and I can finally see the light.

No matter how busy I am, I try to stay on top of my daily reading. Yet I find myself increasingly getting lost in the sea of digital information. Let’s take a quick look at my daily reading routine:

  • US/World news: Google News
  • Tech headlines: Techcrunch/Twitter
  • Specific topics that I follow: Google Alert
  • Staying in touch with friends, particularly those in another city: Facebook

This doesn’t seem like a long list, but each of those is a whole information universe of its own. Just take Techcrunch as an example: between the 10 funding and exit articles, product rumors, guest posts, tech events etc, there are easily 50 posts a day with no prioritization. And then there’s the problem of “content creep” – i.e. reading updates from one source led me to discover more content from another source. Last but not least there’re those really long or non-mobile optimized content that require me to go back to it at a later time, which adds to my headache.

There are some great startups out there attempting to change the way we consume content. From those that provide mobile-optimized reading experience like Flipboard, to ones like Summly that tries to summarize articles into bite-size content. Yet I feel that the complete solution is still missing: one that truly solves the problem of information overload. As old-fashioned as it sounds, what I really want is a digital assistant. Like a trusted assistant who’s been with you for 20 years; who understands what you consider to be important news (be it public or personal); and who can quickly and precisely summarize them for you. If you feel like going in depth or reading the rest of the reports, he/she would also have those articles ready on your desk.

Until this day comes, I feel like I’ll always be struggling to keep up with the digital world. Internet definitely helped bring information to our fingertips, but you’re only able to take full advantage of it if you have 10 hands.


My husband and I went to a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant for dinner tonight. For those not familiar with the concept, it’s like a small buffet where you fill an empty bowl with raw meat, vegetables, various condiments and sauces, and the chef cook the food for you on a large round iron skillet. According to Wikipedia it traditionally does not involve any starch, but these days most restaurants include choice of noodles to be stir fried with the rest of the ingredients.

I was surprised to find a big bowl of rice when I brought my food back to the table. My first thought was this seems really unnecessary. Sure a handful of customers do skip the noodle, but when I looked around virtually no one else has touched their rice, and those who did got a spoonful or two just because it was there. How much rice the restaurant must be wasting every day!

The point of the story isn’t just about food wastage, but how often people or businesses get into the habits of doing things a certain way without asking the important question – Why. Perhaps the rice was essential before they introduced the noodle. Had they pay attention to their customer lately,  they should have realized it’s no longer the case. We see similar patterns in tech – features that exist because “they were there since v1”, even though data shows no customer really uses it. It’s true that unused feature does not cost a company the same way wasted rice does to a restaurant, but it could make the UI clutter or worse, gets in the way of simplifying the overall UX.

Of course one also has to be careful of the opposite issue – taking away features/options that actually delight your customers. So it’s crucial to really spend the time to understand your user base. In the restaurant’s case my guess is it wouldn’t make any difference to its popularity if instead of giving rice by default one has to ask for it. They might, however, lose some customers had they hid that self-serve ice cream machine. At least it got my attention.