Case Study: FXCM.com Redesign

Redesigned homepage & navigation
Redesigned homepage & navigation

FXCM, the top trading platform in the Forex market, reached out to have a conversation about their inordinately high bounce rate throughout their marketing site. The primary goal of the experience is to convert users to either practice or live trading accounts and the site was severely under-performing, as unique numbers were low, conversion paths were avoided and generally speaking, users would often land on key pages, yet immediately bounce back to search results with rates on pages consistently found in the high-70% range.

My recommendation for starting the engagement was to run a heuristic evaluation with a written report, which would allow me to digest the entire experience while scoring the site across a number of explicit information architecture, ui design and content standards.

The average score of the review (on a 1-5 scale, per heuristic) ended up as a 2.3 and the following were suggested as key issues to focus on in a redesign:

  • Prioritize content based on primary design persona needs and context scenarios
  • Make navigation more shallow, narrow and simplistic
  • Be consistent with the language, form and function of site elements
  • Increase the signal to noise ratio with prudent information design decisions
  • Invest in making users lives easier
  • Provide both contextual and destination help

After a few meetings with management, we agreed to take on the project to redesign the site, as well as provide specifications for an onboarding experience.

Home page & navigation of site, pre-redesign
Home page & navigation of site, pre-redesign

Post-review of the site experience, it became clear that it was speaking to everyone, yet no one in particular. This scatter approach was found in the navigation (see above), educational pages, product descriptions—clear across the site. Since archetypical user scenarios weren’t being supported, the text meandered and subsequent additions to content began to sprawl. The same could be said for new call-to-actions and large-scale additions to the site architecture; the target was wide and design standards weren’t being followed.

We didn’t have the budget to interview a wealth of potential and actual clients, so we sat down with the marketing team and walked through their understanding of who was actually coming to the site and who they wanted to visit. After weeks of reviewing market research, and speaking to SME’s across the firm, we agreed on an approach to create “stake-in-the-ground” design personas—a first step to understanding user expectations so we could create an experience that matched their mental model, provide useful information in an organized fashion and lead these users more naturally towards conversion paths.

The expectations and needs uncovered through this process led the editorial team to implement a calendar to craft a wealth of information about forex trading—from an Advantages section for the seasoned forex trader not familiar with FXCM to a Basics section for the traditional stock trader interested in forex, but doesn’t understand how it works. Simplifying the message—speaking directly to potential clients in ways they could understand—made our job easier in simplifying navigation, as well as creating recognizable affordance through a limited palette.

We began on the landing page, as historically, a large percentage of traffic from keyword buys directed potentials to the front door. Our primary concern was to provide clear paths to potential clients; creating an evergreen home for sign-up conversion in the header, provide a first visit on-boarding experience for forex platform newbs, a clean hero messaging area and spots to bubble up events, seminars and educational videos.

Once we had a satisfactory structure in place, we presented a persona-laden sketch of the information design, essentially highlighting which section would speak to which user(s). The presentation pitch of the homepage wire was a formality at that point.

In terms of conversion, we stressed the importance of keeping paths in consistent areas of the site—both in the header and in the rail of content pages. We assigned a specific color to the practice account CTA so it would stand out across the site, and clearly described what it involved above the fold on the homepage. This provided a clear expectation for what a potential client would receive when entering the first phase of the purchase cycle.

On content pages, we reduced the process for submitting information from a destination wizard to embedding five simple fields for signing-up within a practice account module, which greatly cut down on bounces. Along with the editorial shift—posting new content to a calendar, speaking directly to the needs of both potential and active forex users—organic-driven unique visitors increased immensely, which directly impacted conversion rates.

The results:

  • November 2012 (first month after launch) Practice & Account Conversion Rates increased to all-time highs and about 3 times the average.
  • Page Views & Unique Visitor reached an all-time high and Bounce rate dropped ~20% site-wide

Case Study: Ameritrade Apex Trading Platform

stock market

It would be safe to say that the internet was still in its fledgling state at the turn of the century. Aside from best of breed corporate domains, such as Amazon with collaborative filtering (and their standardization of the check-out interaction model) and Google blowing open the very definition of data mining, much of the web was relatively “dumb” in the way that it could deliver user information to databases and back to the presentation layer.

It was a much simpler time for interfaces across the board—(hash)tags weren’t used to expose similar concepts within and across domains, sites were designed with one delivery platform in mind (rather than the responsive nature of today) and dynamic, lightweight web apps as we know them today were hardly imaginable, let alone standardized in development terms.

Asynchronous displays of input/output just weren’t commonplace in the browser, so the vast majority of interactions between users and system data predominantly relied upon straight form submissions and page refreshes. While most users didn’t necessarily feel the impact of such limitations, industry domains that handled timely purchases of goods with limited inventory or changing prices felt an intrinsic need for progress.

When I joined Datek Online (2002), I imagined that these boundaries were ripe to be pushed, and I had good reason to believe so, as Datek had already revolutionized the financial industry through the release of its Streamer app, which made public a set of streaming data tools that only industry day traders had access to previously.

Internally, all streaming visualizations were handled in Java, which by definition provided asynchronous communication between the client-side & the back-end and was sturdy in doing so. The trade-off with Java, though, was that it limited the possibilities when customizing the UI to a wider set of user needs and interactions, not to mention aesthetics.

Since the the function of the Datek website was highly focused on three priorities—the execution of a trade, management of account information and marketing communication—the division of tasks between account and information on two platforms wasn’t changing anytime soon. Datek was wildly successful and management didn’t seem much of a need to rock the boat to innovate, in terms of platforms, in the day trading realm. A such, my initial day-to-day focus was centered on incremental behavioral updates to all apps within the Streamer Suite.

Shifting Focus & Opportunities

Three months after I joined, Ameritrade purchased Datek and my days became much more interesting. We had just shipped a new Streamer app called Command Center—a dashboard app that presented multiple Streamer tasks in one interface and was a centerpiece of the product suite while the merger was being discussed—but now everything was on hold as the two management teams negotiated the redundancies of both backend systems and product features.

Ameritrade, the brand, was a destination for people who didn’t know much about investing, let alone trading. Innovation wasn’t the focus, and the only “edgy” aspect of their brand was Stewart, a marketing constructed hipster created to represent Ameritrade while schooling a technically-challenged, older, potential client base on how to trade:

After six months of maintaining the product suites, we (Dan Saffer, Tom Alison and myself with the blessing of Larry Szczech, Datek’s SVP Product Strategy) made a proactive push to Ameritrade management to design a new trading platform, one that could support the day traders of Datek, the long-term investors of Ameritrade and most importantly, the unsupported sweet spot between the two—active traders.

While day traders brought in large commission-per-client ratio, the number of active traders (10-20 trades per month) dwarfed them and made them a much more valuable market segment. Everyone in management agreed; we needed a new platform, catering first and foremost to actives, yet designed in an extensible manner to support the continued focus on day trading and long-term investment.

Over the next two years, we did just that. We ran numerous usability studies to understand the major pain points for both client-bases and ran qualitative interviews to develop personas and document needs and experiential expectations.

We even flew in Cooper Design to run a workshop for my team and developers, getting them up to speed on Goal-Directed Design, while inviting both product managers and business analysts to sit in so we could all approach supporting clients using our service using a similar methodology.

All About The Interface

While were relatively hamstrung by available front-end technology, that didn’t stop us from pushing the browser as far as we could. We applied solid IxD axioms across the board, such as “no errors if they can be prevented,” by running javascript checks across fields prior to activating the submit buttons, forcing the user to get it right the first time through—whether the form was as innocuous as a support ticket or as important as a trade ticket. By doing so, we drastically cut down on time-to-task, which means everything when buying or selling in a time sensitive, price fluctuation market such as the financial industry.

deposits & withdrawals

As part of our overall interaction design philosophy, sections such as Deposits and Withdrawals were streamlined from multiple-page form submissions to a singular interface that exposed next options based on input decisions while setting the expectation for time-to-task. These conditional interfaces weren’t revolutionary by any means, but they weren’t industry standards either. Task completion improved as a result and user complaints reduced greatly—one of the overriding success metrics in the financial industry. These aren’t simply customers; these are clients.

Active traders need to move money, but they also need to open, close and change positions with an even greater attention to detail. Ancillary sections such as research were important, but the internet provided too many free opportunities for clients to research positions for us to focus on developing an industry leading research section. Instead, we felt that focusing our efforts on the context surrounding the trade ticket had the greatest ROI.

While we recognized that the holy grail of smartphones were a few years away from being a viable platform, we did recognize through research that traders needed to have as much flexibility as possible in the research ›› trade ›› confirmation process. We began to investigate the ways we could ensure that traders could always be one click away from moving on a position.

snapticket

What we came up with was Snapticket; a nifty little trade ticket with features that supported both primary and edge cases of our active trader clients:

  • The ticket in the footer area of the site, making it available at all times
  • The user could get live quotes in the header, or pull up their watchlist
  • The form applied the previously described dynamic error checks
  • A conditional design was implemented to shift the fields depending on the type of trade chosen—market trades are without a price field; trailing stops have multiple price, closing inputs, etc.
  • After submitting a trade, Snapticket collapsed to expose only the header w/ streaming quotes, allowing more room to engage above the fold
  • Most importantly, Snapticket could *snap* off of the window, and live as a separate, compact trade window in the user’s display. This empowered users to research online wherever they chose, yet still have immediate access to opening/closing positions

After one enters a position, an optimal task flow should take the user to a confirmation and a view of all/open orders. Well, that’s what we knew as traders ourselves, but neither legacy experiences behaved as such. We needed to make sure that every potential detail of the trade ›› confirmation ›› review positions scenario was supported.

Following a trade submission, we designed the flow so that the user was brought to the open order section of the account, where a confirmation—including day trading requirements such as a ticket number—was presented in a highly visible manner. We used this interface real estate throughout the site to communicate both synchronous and an asynchronous system messages. Again, not earth shattering today, but not many web services worked the interface as such to keep the user as informed in 2004.
open order

Overlooked by our competition, Open Orders are immensely important to traders across a number of important scenarios. A few that we tackled head on by making the interface the end-screen of the trading process were:

  • The most basic, and probably most important for all traders, is providing a clean display of whether or not new positions have actually been submitted.
  • When users trade after hours and on weekends they create a stack of open orders, that can’t officially enter the market until the next opening bell. Confirming their existence and providing a mechanism to make changes is important.
  • During more concise time periods—say, after submitting a limit order at a specific price near market price—a user will have a small window to make changes (price up or dow, cancel, replace, etc.). The interface needed to present all interaction affordances clearly and reduce time-to-task as much as possible.

In terms of usability, we remained consistent with our treatment of forms by only making submit buttons accessible once all necessary field were altered, thereby greatly reducing errors and improving time-to-task.

The Results

Leading up to the release, we knew we weren’t just launching a new experience; Barron’s Online Broker Review was waiting for us at the end of the road, and with public knowledge of merger flirtations in the air with a prior rating of 2.5 stars (a bottom of the online brokers rank) the pressure was mounting.

In the spring of ’05, I flew out to Palo Alto with David Whitmore, Director Strategy, to present the new platform experience to Theresa Carrey, who literally had the power to make or break a business. A quote from her eventual report:

“[…] Ameritrade, which swallowed up Bidwell & Co., Brokerage America, JB Oxford & Co. and Investex over the last year, earns four stars this year for its Apex offering. Ameritrade seriously overhauled the Website this past year, finally integrating the technology brought in with the 2002 Datek acquisition. The new site provides improved navigation, more tools and services, easier-to-find information, customization and better trading technology. […]”

Ameritrade moved into the top three of online brokers and a few months down the line, TD and Ameritrade merged.

The Crossroads of Hip Hop

maxresdefault

Dr. Walter Greason: […] “Hip hop—the only social force to create an equitable, participatory, democratic, and global system of politics and economics over the last three decades—will vanish into history under a fascist backlash, consume the soul of our generation with consumerism, or evolve to inspire greater intelligence, creativity, and faith among ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

The crossroads we face is no less than the choice about the direction of our species and our planet. This essay hopes to open a conversation about the tools of culture hip hop may provide for our uplift and empowerment.” […]

wednesday is sundae

boblick-jog

i met this girl years ago
bumped into her on the back leg of my three mile jog
the one i ran each day after getting home from the multimedia factory
you know, the place where i made the pixels dance and scream
the first mile was always a bit of a mind game
as the road would rise and dip ever so slightly
creating mirages of end states
i’d convince myself that if i could just get to the horizon line of the rise
the dip would easily carry me forward
and it did
mile two cut directly through the heart of the suburbs
as my shins began to burn, the run became a game of dodge
with low branches jetting out from behind untrimmed hedges
and dogs on long leashes challenging their slack
i’d hop over the cracks in the uneven sidewalk
making sure that i devoured at least one and a half per stride
it was how i kept my gate
narrowed my focus
as mile three began
and i made it to the edge of downtown
the rhythm just seemed to kick in
on cue, cube queued up in my headphones
bringing a good day to my today
my breathing was correct
my perspective was cubist
my self was in tune
so i’d tune out the real
pump my arms and knees
and sprint the last leg home
finishing off my circuit with an exclamation point *

* the first time i broke stride
removing myself from the sticky summer heat
to enter the hum of an air conditioned store
i did so to ask for a cup of that ice cold water i remembered
the water poured from a jug kept in a stainless steel fridge
resting behind the front counter with all those bins of flavored goodness
it was like magic
freezing cold water that somehow cured brain freeze

she asked me what i wanted
just a sip i said…

that made her smile

Digital Activism 101

Charis Tsevis
Illustration by Charis Tsevis

Al Gore from:
The Assault On Reason

[…] “Fortunately, the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework. It has extremely low entry barriers for individuals. It is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge. It’s a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas, in the same way that markets are a decentralized mechanism for the creation and distribution of goods and services.

It’s a platform, in other words, for reason.

But the Internet must be developed and protected, in the same way we develop and protect markets—through the establishment of fair rules of engagement and the exercise of the rule of law. The same ferocity that our Founders devoted to protect the freedom and independence of the press is now appropriate for our defense of the freedom of the Internet.

The stakes are the same: the survival of our Republic.

We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it, because of the threat of corporate consolidation and control over the Internet marketplace of ideas.” […]

Divide And Conquer

The reporter didn’t correct himself, forgetting to mention that the wall that Banksy addressed actually divides Palestine from itself *not* just Israel from Palestine.

The Palestinian population and its leadership are essentially unanimous in opposing the barrier. A significant number of Palestinians have been separated from their own farmlands or their places of work or study, and many more will be separated as the barriers near Jerusalem are completed. Furthermore, because of its planned route as published by the Israeli government, the barrier is perceived as a plan to confine the Palestinian population to specific areas.They state that Palestinian institutions in Abu Dis will be prevented from providing services to residents in the East Jerusalem suburbs, and that a 10-minute walk has become a 3-hour drive in order to reach a gate, to go (if allowed) through a crowded military checkpoint, and drive back to the destination on the other side.

In any event, Banksy went to town with his unique style:

banksy1

banksy2
He followed up the street art with a more traditional painting of Jesus & Mary unable to get to Bethlehem because of the Israeli wall:

banksy3
Classic.

A Perspective On Tragedy And Hope

death-and-dying
(originally uploaded by LeggNet)

On Dying In Virginia
The Black Iris of Jordan

I was kind of shocked and saddened to hear about the shooting in Virginia Tech that has dominated western media in the past 48 hours, especially the Internet. I tend to pay close attention to how such incidents unravel in the media and the public eye. The number 30 was splashed across home pages of the BBC and CNN for quite some time and it’s just one of those things where one cannot help but take a step back and realize how important those 30 lives were. I mean for instance 30 is the new 20 in Iraq; daily bombings and slaughters inspire at least that much.

One could easily cast this aside as another orientalist view of the world: that their lives are worth more than our lives. I mean I’m sure it plays a role, after all, a day after the shooting the “30 dead” headline was replaced with “South Korean gunman,” as if origin mattered; as if this was the opportunity the US was waiting for all along to invade North Korea (because their names sound suspiciously similar). But maybe there’s more to it.

In between hoping the gunman isn’t Arab, there is a common denominator to consider.

There’s something to be said about the storm that breaks the quiet; when tranquility is disturbed and replaced with chaos, which of course inspires fear, confusion and anger.

When you’re used to chaos, more if it is simply nothing new. One becomes accustomed to death. If I turned on the TV to hear that there were no new deaths in Occupied Palestine or Iraq or Darfur, then I would rush to the window to make sure the apocalypse wasn’t being ushered in with falling meteors from the sky.

You get used to certain things.

But then Virginia isn’t Palestine.

Virginia isn’t Iraq.

And yes, an American isn’t a Palestinian, isn’t an Iraqi. If anything, the media makes sure to remind us of that time and time again.

The irony of this I suppose is that if anyone on the face of the Earth right now knows what it means to have innocent life taken from them; to know what it feels to have that tranquility disturbed, if anyone right now knows that feeling, those people are in Iraq and Palestine.

The only difference is hope.

The US seems to have plenty of it. There is always that light at the end of the tunnel; the recovery, the moving on, the getting over the initial shock, the coming to terms with it, coming to grips with it.

Here in the Middle East, hope is as scarce as water these days (i.e. roughly half a century to be more accurate). There is no getting over the shock; there’s just not enough time to recover from loss before another comes along to replace it. There are no recovery stories here. No learning-how-to-move-on tales to be told. Yesterday is today; today is tomorrow.

Hope doesn’t live here anymore.

Maybe there should be a cultural exchange: we could teach Americans a thing or two about how to deal with the shock of loss and maybe they could teach us a thing or two about hope.

Being that they control the world supply of hope: maybe they would be kind enough to just lend us some.

Just for the weekend.

30 is 30, just as 30,000 is 30,000, just as insanity is insanity.

While I fully realize I live in a much more stable world than a majority of human beings on this earth—that the chances of me or my loved ones falling victim to random acts of violence are slim at best—I still feel the need to cling to my sense of hope.

Because for me, that sense of hope isn’t relegated solely to my circle of friends, family and neighbor’s well being—it’s continuously extending outwards to people who deal with depravity and destruction on a daily basis.

This week, it’s extended to my neighbors in Virginia.

Every other week, it seems to bounce between folks caught up in the system at home and folks caught up in the violence around the world, particularly in the Middle-East and Africa.

And I know I’m not alone.

Hopefully, Nas and his neighbors will one day receive a pause from the cycle of violence to breathe in and digest this reality.

Hopefully.

Traditional Vs. Non-Traditional Journalism

Chris Anderson and Will Hearst talking shop in May of 2006:

Publisher, Will Hearst, on the evolution of journalism:

[..] In the era of 20 years ago, there was a notion of a professional journalist — I’m not saying let’s race back to that era — what I’m saying is that notion is utterly gone. And what we are seeing as so-called professional journalism is really freelance material, shot in Baghdad, shipped to New York, somebody voice-overs it and that’s supposed to be “live news.”

And we’re covering Israel out of London and we’re covering Nairobi out of Tokyo, you know, we’re kidding ourselves. So in a way, I think the cure is not to go backwards, but to go forwards and to label that stuff and get more of that material and do away with this pseudo-professional news, which it really isn’t.

I mean if we’re gonna have “citizen journalism,” then let’s have it. […]

I completely appreciate the sentiment, but Will Hearst knows better than anybody that isn’t going to occur through the existing mainstream channels.

Mainstream news outlets — television and newspaper alike — are busy attempting to figure out how to keep the best parts of their old revenue model in place while leveraging the independent voices of the information age.

While the conglomerates look for new ways to count the same beans, innovative distribution models with decentralized reporting have already taken hold.

This shouldn’t be the cornerstone of the conversation, though. Even without an organized effort to distribute decentralized reporting, there are already 30 million active blogs in play around the world.

The news is becoming hyper-local and hyper-topical without the steady hand of industry drivers to guide it; traditional journalism is going the way of the stock broker.

Now traditional ethics? Well, that’s another story entirely