Normal Modes UX & Usability - User Experience Training, Usability Testing Services, & Qualitative Research Lab Rental

Job Opening – Account Executive

Normal Modes, a Houston-based (Rice Village) company, is looking for an account executive who is comfortable working independently in a fast-paced, varied environment translating and matching prospective client needs with Normal Modes’ suite of solutions.

You’ll be responsible for targeting, acquiring, and retaining clients; managing ongoing client relationships; and meeting monthly and annual revenue goals.

What we’re looking for:

  • Possess a strong understanding of technology, in particular software-as-a-service and/or market research;
  • Have a demonstrated track record of sales strategy, planning and execution abilities with mid-sized businesses to large companies. Consultative sales experience a plus.
  • Excellent listening skills with the ability to understand customer wants, needs and motivations.
  • Self-motivated, organized and reliable.
  • Superior customer service skills.
  • Positive, can do attitude! Fun to work with! Easy going! Someone we’d want to have a glass of wine with! (Not that drinking wine is required.)

If this job description sounds like you, please email angela at normalmodes dot com with your resume and the reasons why you’d be a perfect fit.

Please, no phone calls and no recruiters.

Job Opening – Full-stack Ruby on Rails Programmer (A Generalist)

Normal Modes, a Houston-based (Rice Village) company, is looking for a full-stack programmer (a generalist) with extensive experience in Ruby on Rails.

What we’re looking for:

  • 5+ years of experience overall.
  • Ruby on Rails 3.2 (At least 3 years experience with Rails.)
  • Javascript/AJAX/jQuery
  • MySQL
  • Git
  • Basic UNIX sysadmin skills
  • Self-motivated, organized and reliable.
  • Positive, can do attitude! Easy to work with! Someone we’d want to have a glass of wine with!


  • Rackspace Cloud Server and/or Amazon Web Services
  • Chef
  • Twitter Bootstrap
  • Spree

This is a contract role that will start as a 3-month engagement and expand with your awesomeness.

If this job description sounds like you, please email angela at normalmodes dot com with your resume and the reasons why you’d be a perfect for this role.

Job Opening – Office Generalist

If you’re interested in customer experience, usability, web and software development, and/or entrepreneurship this is the job for you. Normal Modes, a Houston-based (Rice Village) company, is looking for office generalists who are comfortable working independently in a fast-paced, varied environment.

You’ll be the host for clients conducting human factors and market research studies: setting up the lab, helping with participants, troubleshooting light technical problems, and generally ensuring the studies go off without a hitch.

But wait, there’s more! You’ll also update our client’s website content. You don’t need to know HTML – we have a proprietary software program we’ve developed to make this process easy and we’ll teach you anything more technical you might need to know.

And finally, the classic “all other duties as assigned” definitely applies here. We’re a small company with a distributed work team across the U.S. You’ll be in the office, helping with all the boring administrative stuff that happens behind the scenes. You’ll pick up the mail, run errands (don’t worry if you don’t have a car), and help take care of the 1,000 little things that keep the CEO from getting her work done.

What we’re looking for:

  • Experience helping people.
  • High comfort level with technology and/or computers.
  • Self-motivated, organized and reliable.
  • Positive, can do attitude! Fun to work with! Easy going! Someone we’d want to have a glass of wine with! (If you are of wine drinking age. Not that you must be.)

We’d LOVE to find someone who was in the AV club in high school (or should have been) and/or someone with experience creating/maintaining a website.

If this job description sounds like you, please email angela at normalmodes dot com with your resume and the reasons why you’d be a perfect Normal Modes office generalist.

UX Tips: UX Maturity Model

Lately, I’ve been considering the future of UX. Recruiters often reach out to me looking for candidates for job opportunities they have open. I’m often stunned by the breadth of expertise UX applicants are expected to have: business analysis, visual design, application UI design, usability research, project management and programming skills – skills covering all aspects of the project lifecycle.  Which prompts the question:  should one person on the project team really be responsible for all aspects of user experience?  Would it be more reasonable to expect that user experience is not one team member’s job but rather the responsibility of every member of the project team – from project manager to developer, business stakeholder to visual designer?

Likewise, we regularly talk with folks struggling to sell UX and usability in their organizations, even when their organization fully acknowledges it has a problem. The UX champions are often frustrated and beaten down, and in some cases, it’s been a several years long struggle. The problems they’re encountering are usually one of the following:

  1. Political struggles prevent adopting UX as a solution. The central problem in these cases is usually low trust between the team advocating UX and the other teams.
  2. The organization wants to adopt UX as a solution, but there’s disagreement about how UX will impact their workflow, budget, and their customer experience.
  3. UX is embraced as an organizational strategy only to come under scrutiny later for failing to provide measurable value.

In a mature organization, should there even be a conversation about UX as its own distinct activity? Shouldn’t the user/customer’s wants/needs/motivations be the focus and priority of every job position in the organization?

So how does an organization adopt and integrate UX into its culture, and, perhaps more importantly, how does the role of UX in the organization evolve until its totally integrated? Over the years, several UX Maturity Models have been proposed, but even two of the better models we’ve found — Bruce Tempkin’s Customer Experience Journey (2008) and Tomer Sharon’s UX Research Maturity Model (2012)  — don’t reflect our experience trying to establish user-centered cultures at many organizations. Bruce’s model is written from the perspective of somebody on the outside looking in. It’s missing an understanding of the politics and dynamics of how an organization integrates UX into its culture, and this limits its utility to UX champions trying to convince senior management to commit to UX. Tomer’s model might be useful to a consultant trying to identify a difficult client, but it’s too simplistic to be of any value to a UX champion trying to create change. Any large organization will have varying levels of buy-in and staffing across multiple groups (simultaneously approaching maturing and immaturity), and UX professionals need to understand how to be successful in those environments. Most of us don’t want to flee from a challenge as Tomer would recommend we do.

So we set out to create Normal Modes’ own UX Maturity Model based on our experience introducing UX to large and small organizations. We’ve adopted Bruce Tempkin’s five stage structure, but you’ll notice that the stages of our model focus more on the early stages of adoption (where the struggle is most acute) and on the internal dynamics. We hope that his model will provide comfort, guidance and professionalism to champions as they navigate their way toward better applications.


Normal Modes  UX Maturity Model

UX Maturity Model - Normal Modes (Angela Schmeidel Randall)

(Full detail version available as PDF)

Stage 1: Unimportant

No institutional consideration for how users engage applications. If a user has difficulty with the application, the user is often belittled and/or mocked. Technology/design team is arrogant in their assessments of how applications should be built and defensive about any feedback which criticizes the application. Product/project team is bewildered about how to improve application for better outcomes.

UX isn’t even on the radar as a possibility. If awareness exists, the concept is often derisively considered a frivolous activity, akin to “putting lipstick on the pig” or adding in wiz-bang features of little substantive value.

Stage 2: Exploring

Little institutional awareness of how users engage with application. Using more organized language from previous ad hoc reports, users now state the application is “difficult to use,” “difficult to learn,” “cluttered and ugly,” and/or “unusable.”

One or two like-minded individuals from the product/project team begin to research user-centered design as a way of mitigating future issues. Armed with information about another way, they approach members of the team and leadership about their findings.

RISK: Feeling ineffectual, team members move on to “more solvable problems,” like feature enhancements, complete redesigns of the application, or other jobs (internal or external).

Stage 3: Emerging

Personas emerge as a tool to connect team with users. Pilot programs may emerge, though methods for obtaining user feedback are poorly structured. UX is considered a “nice to have” optional add-on feature to the application, so the ability to quantify investments is explored. Many still view UX as simply pretty “design.” UX is seen as a zero-sum game versus technical imperatives and business objectives. Funding and staffing for UX efforts is limited.

The concept of UX as an institutional value is a political battle between two sides: the dogmatic believers and the skeptical/no-frills/paternalistic traditionalists. Believers are hampered by their naïveté & lack of specificity, but helped by obvious application problems coupled with user feedback. Traditionalists are aided by a strong institutional legacy that protects or promotes their dismissive/hostile attitude toward UX/usability, while they’re hampered by feedback from the application’s users.

RISK: Unless organization leadership signals approval for UX in both financial and symbolic ways, UX efforts will collapse and team will revert to Stage 1.

RISK: Frustrated early adopters may flee to more mature organizations and efforts will revert to Stage 1.

Stage 4: Committed

Projects strive to balance business, technical and user needs with great success. UX is the responsibility of several specialists who have titles like UX Designer, Information Architect, and Usability Specialist. Major portions of the application are overhauled, often in a phased redesign. Usability testing, if conducted, is at least partially outsourced. Quantifying the ROI on projects includes UX.

Some traditionalists remain skeptical. Users and UX-related roles momentarily marginalize all other project roles in terms of perceived importance. The potential negative effects are somewhat neutralized by the organization’s excitement over seeing positive feedback from users and visible progress toward successfully meeting project objectives.

RISK: Identifying and hiring qualified UX-related job candidates.

RISK: Excessive focus by UX team on meta activities that provide little residual value.

RISK: Never progressing to a point where UX is the responsibility of the whole team, not just individual contributors.

Stage 5: Mastered

UX is an institutional value that every member of the organization shares equally in upholding. Feedback about the application’s usability is captured proactively and transparently with a in-house usability lab, even if uncovered issues cannot all be resolved in the immediate future. The development teams use a robust design patterns library to facilitate rapid development, with assistance from a UX expert as needed.

Every team member’s contribution is known and valued. Users are treated with dignity and respect.

RISK: Slip in application’s performance as hubris leads team members to make false assumptions for complex or tricky issues. Lack of ongoing education, which can be expensive for such a large team, may play into hubris, knowledge, and limited skills. (Dunning-Kruger Effect)

June UX Events in Houston

June’s shaping up to be a great month for UX networking in Houston. We’ve got two events that I’m aware of next week:

Thursday, May 31st | 12 noon – 1pm
Rice University’s Fondren Library
Featured speaker: Austin Govella
FREE coffee & cookies (how could you pass that up?)

Wednesday, June 6th | 6pm
Houston UX Happy Hour
Nouveau Antique Art Bar
Organized by @themoleskin & @austingovella
More information
NB: This happy hour is always on the first Wednesday of each month.





UX Tips: Effective Use of Video

Usually I like to do one tip at a time, but certain situations call for more of an all-inclusive approach.  Chief among them: video.

One of the objectives in our political candidate website usability study was to investigate the extent to which video had an impact on engagement and perceptions about how video fit into the overall experience. Political candidates this election cycle are making aggressive use of video, so it was a valid inquiry when evaluating their websites, and we’ve been aware for awhile that certain firms heavily push video with their website engagements, with little data to support the efficacy or ROI on such a considerable expenditure.

While there were quite a few interesting moments and outcomes of our investigation, the one that stands out most is our conversation with a 30-something undecided voter with a mixed voting history who lives on the East Coast. Our participant, we’ll call him Mr. X, was intrigued by a 5:07 minute clip from a Rick Santorum interview with Glenn Beck on FoxNews.

Mr. X watched the video in its entirety.

Not only that, but Mr. X’s engagement was so high that he moved from sitting up at a desk to laying back in a recliner.  And even further into the clip, he pulled out a blanket and made a pillow with it as he settled into a more comfortable position.

You can see the progression of his engagement below:



At the end of the video, he declared “Oh, yeah!”

He continued, “I was actually starting to get comfortable to watch more [videos] to be honest with you. I, um, you know [the video] was really informative, I loved [Santorum's] body language, the confidence. These are all things that are making me want to learn more about the candidate. So, I think this has been the most powerful marketing tool that he’s got going so far.”


We’re asked quite a lot about whether or not companies need video on their website.  My standard answer is that it depends: what’s the video’s purpose (not just to claim you’ve got a video?), who is going to watch it, and what are their expectations in terms of content?  Then I follow with a discussion of potential points of failure gathered from our usability studies and our own experience developing videos for our customers.



Based on what we’ve observed in usability studies, there are two kinds of people in your audience:  people who would never consider watching video and those who might, in the right time and place, possibly consider it. As a rule, people don’t go to websites to watch video unless it’s a site whose sole purpose is video, e.g. Hulu, YouTube, Netflix.

There is good news though:  for the small percent of users who watch, video has the power to dramatically increase engagement. And because of that, user experiences with video are an important consideration in the overall experience.

In our studies, only about 25% of participants claim to ever watch video.  In three years, we have not seen this number go up; it’s remained relatively constant.  The most critical factors appear to be 1) whether or not the person has speakers attached to their computer (many office computers do not); and 2) whether the video is personal or professional in nature and how that relates to the venue in which it’ll be viewed (watching personal videos at work is more taboo than surfing personal websites).



Your video’s length and content are the two biggest factors in its success. We used to recommend videos last no more than 1.5 – 2.0 minutes, or no more than 175-225 words, whichever came first. But in recent studies we’ve noticed those videos that perform best clock in at around 1 minute.  The only exception to this rule is for video clips from actual television program broadcasts.  Then you can play as much of the clip as is available and relevant, so long as you advise users about the clip’s length.


Retail marketing websites

  • Product demonstration-type videos improve conversion rates (some sources say they double conversion rates).  People like seeing other people using a product, especially when they’re trying to determine fit, size and quality.  Two companies who do this well are and
    • Avoid “marketing videos” (AKA commercials) that are provided by manufacturers.
  • “Behind the scenes” peeks that offer a special perspective on the people behind a process, especially if it’s a creative process. For example, furniture maker Thomas Moser features a behind the scenes look how their furniture is made.  While the video is a bit long, as a buyer it’s nice to have a face to put with my new, finely crafted rocker.  I better appreciate the artisan and their work product – and I’m more likely to pay a premium.

Software-as-a-service marketing websites

  • A short product demonstration noting key features. In studies, potential buyers often comment that they first compare multiple products and then provide a report to their manager or group before making a purchasing decision.  Several study participants in the past have stated that short videos with an overview of key product features eliminated the task of sorting through a company’s website, making it easier for them to compare feature sets.  Strangely, these videos have fallen out of favor lately, but Zoho CRM has a decent example.
  • Testimonials from actual clients and how they use your software in their organization.  My all-time favorites are the testimonial videos from 37Signals, which unfortunately aren’t easily found on their website anymore. Testimonials are powerful, because they demonstrate that 1) someone is actually using the product and 2) the narrative theme often resonates with potential customers in a “ya, I have that problem too!”   I love these testimonials in particular because they promote their customers’ businesses at the same they promote 37Signals’ products.  I love win-win situations like that.
Web Applications
  • There is no better, more practical use for video than inline help for web applications.  Seriously – FAQs and help sections are dead. Providing help, especially on the page in the area where the point of confusion might exist, is both proactive and practical.  Who wants to read detailed instructions for how to complete a complicated process?  It’s often much easier to watch someone – especially if you’re a visual/auditory learner like me –  complete a process, rather than toggling back and forth between a list of instructions and the actual task.



Our Recommendations

  1. Keep it short.  Videos that perform best clock in at around 1 minute.
  2. Disclose the length of the video adjacent to the title.  For a short video, the disclosure can act as an additional enticement.
  3. Decide what type of content will best engage your audience.  Is it a testimonial, a peak behind the scenes, or a product demonstration?  Choose one.
  4. Tell a story with a narrative theme. Every video should have an introduction, body, and closing.
    • Get right down to business when the video starts playing – “Hi, I’m Angela and today I’m going to go over the key features of Brainiac.” Avoid long musical introductions with stylized title slides.  Get to the point quickly.
    • Present content in a structured, linear format.  Even if the video is unscripted, the content should be thoughtful and concise.  Don’t ramble.
    • Close with a one-sentence recap and a thank you.
  5. Remember that video is a complement to, not a substitute for, content. Be sure the content in the video can be found in other areas of the website
  6. Above all, don’t autoplay.  In one of our recent studies, users were deeply annoyed when one website’s video autoplayed. And not one of the users watched the video, even if they watched video on other websites.  Several made comments along the lines of  ”I hate it when they do that.”