Giving Context for iOS Permissions

Have you ever launched a newly-downloaded app and automatically tapped “Don’t Allow” on a cluster of notifications just so you can get to the meat of it?

Apparently you’re not alone.

The problem: users automatically deny app permissions. Some of the most useful native mobile capabilities depend on user permissions. Apple requires us to ask for explicit permission to use a user’s contacts, location, camera, and to send them push notifications. The most common way of doing this is to pop up an alert asking for permission to use native capabilities but users commonly ignore them.

There is a low ceiling to improving standard alerts. Apple give us space to improve the copy inside the alert, making it more friendly and informative. Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the main problem: users get trigger-happy and deny permissions without thinking much about it.

The key solution is: get users to give you access the first time. Reversing a decision to deny permission requires the user to exit your app and change settings elsewhere. Most won’t do this, forever blocking native capabilities and features that depend on them.

There are options to consider. Co-founder and designer at Cluster, Brenden Mulligan wrote a brilliant piece detailing alternatives to the standard alerts. Among them:

  • Explaining the benefits in the app UI before asking for permissions
  • Using an additional iOS dialogue for a pre-permission
  • Custom UI for ducational pre-permission overlays
  • The most successful (up to 100%!): user-triggered dialogues

Jump, the new iOS app for London busses* is a great example of the first method. During the initial tour, the app mentions the benefit of finding bus stops nearby, and shows the location services dialogue after a few seconds.

The way Jump asks to use location services.

The key is giving users context. Asking for permissions without warning can seem like a spammy interruption.

The most exciting tactic used by Brenden in Cluster is the user-triggered dialogues. In this example, Cluster ask for access to the Contacts app just when the user tries to add people in the app – in other words, just when contacts access would make their life that much easier.

Cluster asking for permissions
The way Cluster asks to use Contacts. Originally from Medium.


The genius is in waiting for a user action to trigger the dialogue in context. This way, asking for permissions is a tool to complete an action the user has already initiated. Why haven’t we been doing this all along?

For more details on all the ways you can make permissions better in your app read the full post by @Mulligan on Medium


*Congratulations to our friends Ryan and Adam from The Noble Union, and Future Workshops alum Marco for your great work on Jump!


Related reading:

iOS Human Interface Guidelines for accessing user data

Efficient App Communication by Luis Abreau



Events Methods Research

Usability testing is all practice, not magic

I just returned from Westminster Hub where I ran a workshop called “Usability Testing How To’s for Small Teams (and Little Budgets). The workshop is based on my experience setting up the usability testing arm at Future Workshops. As one UX person with fifteen developers, I learned a lot about getting by on a tight timescale.

The group of attendees tonight was great! I was so impressed with how eagerly everyone learned, and how natural they were at facilitating tests. A few things that came up in the discussions were very insightful, and echoed a lot of my experiences running usability tests:

It can be done (today!)

As one of the workshop participants cleverly concluded, there’s no magic involved. Usability testing can be done with more budget, more time, more trained staff, better recruitment, better equipment. The question is whether it’s done at all. It’s entirely possible to hold cheap and quick usability tests and still learn a lot. There wasn’t one group during the workshop that didn’t discover a serious usability problem in just one hour!

Soon after the test part of the workshop began, I started hearing familiar sighs across the room. Cringing soon followed, and then hushed group conversations about things to definitely put in the fixes list. Some attendees had never done usability testing before but were able to facilitate a test and find useful results right away. It can be done!

Workshop photos on Flickr
Instructing a test participant on her first scenario – all smiles so far!
Workshop photos on Flickr
Testing a website with a very specific audience group

It’s hard to stay quiet

Facilitating a test well takes some practice. It always sounds easy on paper, but as the workshop participants quickly realized – theory is different from practice. It’s tough sitting across from a person and watching them struggle with an interface without interfering.

I recognized a lot of the questions from when I was first learning how to facilitate: when do we interrupt the participant? What do we do when they get stuck? How do we ask questions without leading? My formula: if they’re not upset, stay quiet. If they are, tell them something nice.

Challege: DIY recruiting with a specific audience

When a website or app have very specific audience characteristics, recruiting can be a pain. So what do we do? One of the work groups decided to test their own product: a website with data on how many people are killed in drone attacks in conflict areas. They had to make due with participants from the rest of the group attending.

The key for them was setting the right context. A real user would be knowledgable and motivated to find out about drone attacks. To simulate this, they asked participants to read an article about the issue, mentioning their website, and gave them specific instructions on what information to look for. They discovered some usability problems to fix in the process.

There will be another run of this workshop on 22 January, 2014 in London. Would love to see you there!

Meanwhile, my slides are on SlideShare:

And some photos on Flickr:


Book Review: UX Team of One by Leah Buley

UX Team of One by Leah Buley has been with me since my first steps in the world of UX.

Last year, I had the chance to read a draft of the book and give Leah my comments. Back then, I was finding my feet as a self-taught UX practitioner (as a Sociology, ethnographic research, and visual design mixed-breed). The book was a life saver. I have now read it a second time, after working as the sole UX practitioner at Future Workshops for a year and a half. Below are my impressions from a year’s journey with UX Team of One:

From ideology to career building blocks

UX Team of One isn’t just a manifesto. This book is a practical guide, fueled by inspiring theory. The introduction touches on the basics of UX but only to set up the meatier parts of the book, which offer step-by-step instructions to many of the important methods in the user-centered design toolkit.

It is also immensely encouraging. UX Team of One encourages you to take the full responsibility that comes with caring about user experience. It’s not just full of product-focused methods but also tips on getting stakeholder buy-in, handling project constraints, thinking through business considerations and other “real world” concerns.

Aside from useful methods, the book is full of some unexpected gems:

  • How to respond to common objections to UX (my personal nemesis: “but we already know what needs to be done.”)
  • Tips on growing your career, not just your toolkit. Things like making each engagement ready for success, time management, professional organizations, and resources for further education.
  • Bargaining power. Each approach and method are backed up with benefits, reasoning, and case studies that help you understand when to use it and how to sell it to your boss, client, and colleagues.

The practical stuff

Leah Buley’s User Experience Team of One is packed with practical methods. Practical in the sense that they are actually possible to use. Each method Leah recommends is light on time and budget, easy to maintain, and is inclusive of your colleagues, clients, and peers. One of the key skills the book helped me develop is carefully considering the fit of each possible method based on its expected outcomes. It’s a great lesson in prioritizing.

How to make the best of UX Team of One

To get a first mental imprint of what’s inside, I recommend reading the book once swiftly. From then on, you can use it as a reference in your day-to-day work. I’ve used it as a checklist, a refresher for the methods I’d heard about but never used, a way to compare and contrast different approaches, and even a guide to explain a new activity to a boss or a colleague.

UX Team of One showed me how I could make things work within massive constraints. But it also pushed me to want to do more, grow my confidence, spread the word about UX, and keep improving. It’s realistic and idealistic at the same time – a rare gift in life and in design literature.

If I could marry a book…

Where other books felt like a foreign collection of methods, User Experience Team of One felt like a blueprint for my own journey. With this book, Leah Buley guided me as I turned my passion and varied range of skills into a focused UX practice. In the process, I discovered my own perspective and an approach that fit my unique work context. With her help, I became a UX Team of One within a supportive, user-centered team of many.

UX Team of One book page on Rosenfeld Media

Leah Buley on Twitter: @ugleah

Methods Research

Practicing Your Interviewing Skills With Strangers

It’s important to practice interviewing because it’s a skill that’s different from just having a conversation. Asking open questions, not trying to fill silence with more ideas, finding the right balance between listening and sharing – all these things are a learned skill. And learning often means making mistakes.

But how do we make mistakes without putting our projects at risk?

Last summer I read a blog-turned-book titled Talk to Strangers. The book is a collection of autobiographical posts by an anonymous  author who goes by “People Person”. The author is a shy, lonely man in Los Angeles who realizes that a few years out of university, he has no close friends and feels entirely lonely in the big city.

What he does next is pretty extraordinary. Even though he describes himself as nothing short of an antisocial a-hole, he decides to make friends by initiating conversations with complete strangers on a daily basis. What follows is a collection of hilarious, touching, and sometimes embarrassing stories that eventually land him in a completely different life to the initial lonely planet he lived on.

His successes and failures (and there are plenty of failures), made me realize this might be the most convenient, low-investment way to practice interviewing. Just like People Person, you can do this anywhere: in line at the store, on the bus, on a flight. Anywhere where you have to be in the company of people for a few minutes or longer. Be warned, however: apparently elevators are a poor place to start.

Mission: Find out one meaningful thing about a stranger

There are many detailed resources on the skills you need for effective interviewing. For these short encounters, I would suggest focusing on one thing only: finding out something meaningful about the other person. People are great at making small talk but we know that design work is best aided by meaningful insights about people, like motivations, philosophies, and attitudes. How do we find someone’s motivation? We start with a meaningful action that was driven by it.

On a flight from NYC to London, I decided to find out how the people I met chose where they lived. I started with a simple question: Where are you from? Here are some of the stories I heard.

The hair stylist who doesn’t like NYC. The woman who sat next to me on the flight was from Poland but married an American and moved to New York with him. She left on a bridal visa, had a child, and they got divorced since then. She doesn’t like NYC but is a hair stylist and doesn’t want to go through getting a license in a different state. She also loves her client base. When her daughter is old enough, she will definitely move to avoid the NYC school system.

This story is a bit more detailed than your usual small talk. It goes to show that most people are pretty happy when asked about their lives or what they do for a living. It didn’t all come from “where are you from?” I had to ask some follow up questions:

  • How did you end up here?
  • Do you like it?
  • Do yo think you’ll stay here forever?
  • Where would you move next? Why aren’t you moving there?

The Flight Attendant Who’s Never Moved. When I got up to use the rest room, I saw that the flight attendant standing near the lavatories had a band-aid on his forehand. I asked what happened and whether he’s having a good break (he wasn’t on a break!). Then whether he was from London. He was, in fact, born and raised in Glasgow and still lives there because he travels a lot and loves the feeling of a stable home base.

Here’s the entire inventory of questions I asked him:

  • Are you from London?
  • How long have you lived in Glasgow?
  • Why have you decided to stay in one place?

I didn’t get as much out of this conversation. It was pretty ambitious to ask several open ended questions while he was rushing through serving the morning tea. Eventually, he seemed to be somewhere between irritated and busy. It wasn’t the best timing.

The Student Who Has Friends Everywhere. While eating lunch at the airport, a young woman asked to sit next to me because there were no other seats available. I agreed and immediately asked to borrow her phone charger even though I had one (you gotta do what you gotta do). She politely declined and explained that it is her lifeline for the next several hours since she has two 12 hour connections. I had to ask where she was going.

She turned out to be an American college student who wanted to travel so badly that she postponed her graduation to do it (talk about a meaningful action). As a rule, she chooses to travel to places where she already knows people. What is even more impressive is how easily she opened up and began talking about her life. It took perhaps two minutes.

Mission Accomplished

This experiment was useful but also fun. It felt a little less foreign and lonely to spend ten hours in airport halls. I got to share a bit about myself and spend a lot of time listening to people’s stories. Best of all, even when it didn’t work out – I could politely get back to my reading and try again later.

What’s important here is how much more I could learn about them beyond just demographics. These were people who based their life decisions on their family, who were desperate for a constant place to call home, and who put aside a normal life plan for new experiences. Now, that’s something we can work with when thinking about personas, user journeys, scenarios, and how to plan features.