Friday, May 08, 2009

In Defense of Hard Skills for Designers

The other day I was in a meeting in which evaluation criteria for developers came up; nice concrete stuff, like writing code that other people can read and modify, putting in comments, resulting bugs, etc. It made me pause and admire the local weather of that strange country. In my experience, it's vanishingly rare for an interaction designer, usability specialist, or User Experience professional to have such nice hard criteria applied in evaluation of their work. Far too often, we're judged on mushy subjective factors like whether some team likes working with us, or feels we're doing something valuable--often outside their expertise or range of view to make this judgment, but that rarely stops anyone. I have some stories about this subjective mushiness in my article in HCI Remixed, titled "Designing 'Up' in the Software Industry."

Why is this--sign of an immature field? evidence of double standards, for sure, but also imprecision of job role? Poor management, perhaps contributing?

I suspect it's related to the observation that many designers have trouble achieving credibility in their role. Scott Berkun's seminar for UIE on Why Designers Fail advocated working on "soft skills" over hard skills, such as learning ways to win friends and influence people via negotiation, diplomacy, and other interactional condiments.

Not to pick too hard on Scott - it's hard to disagree that people skills are valuable and most of us in the computer industry are weak in some of them - but I think it's generally NOT true that designers have sufficient hard skills. I think gaining and using hard skills are our best bet for being taken seriously in places full of skilled workers. Most interaction designers spend too much time in "soft" areas that can too easily look like matters of opinion to others, or overlap and sometimes threaten other existing professional roles like product management: user testing (which often looks like "anyone could do this"), observing people work and suggesting improvements to their tools, pointing out issues in existing products that could confuse users (heck, everyone has an opinion on that), scheduling and managing stakeholder meetings, writing requirements documents and functionality specs. Most of these activities are politically difficult, and don't make other colleagues drop in their tracks and say, "Oh, you're so valuable and provide skills we don't have!" As I pointed out in my HCI Remixed article, a common reaction to much of this work is, "Didn't we already know that?" Finding problems with software is relatively easy; creating solutions is not.

We can convey solid, indisputable value when we focus on creating concrete, skilled deliverables that NO ONE ELSE CAN MAKE. In economic crunch times like now, consultants hear this from the front line. If a client or potential client has someone on staff who can apparently do what they do, they're not a clear asset. Never mind that they have 15 years of experience doing it, if their value looks like primarily "opinion" or "process," it's not very convincing when it comes to opening the bank account.

Here are some of my suggestions for hard skills, that many interaction designers and usability folks could stand a more training in:

  • Technical prototyping skills: Flash programming, javascript/ajax, css, html site design, Flex, Expression. Use of the tools that are used by developers, at a basic prototyping level, is a solid PLUS, because you can make things that everyone can see are relevant to the end product.
  • Ability to make high quality visuals: Visual design training, skills with Illustrator, Photoshop, page layout applications, and other design tools for good looking mockups. Low fidelity may be useful and helpful with fast user testing and concept evolution, but you want to be able to make something your client or non-designer colleagues can't make. I know one case of a visual designer hired into an interaction design role because of the caliber of his mockups. Never mind how wrong this was for him and his manager eventually-- it got him the job to start with.
  • Data analysis: For user research, learn some solid statistics. Even just pivot charts! Maybe some VBA for automating actions in Excel. Eventually, data mining, increasingly important with the large amounts of data around. (This is a career growth area all on its own right now.)

I'm with Scott that it's not a highly valuable proposition for a usability engineer to learn to do a cognitive walkthrough when they already know how to do 5 other methods for usability evaluation. But that's the wrong "hard skill," in my opinion. One who learns to make beautiful designs, which no one else could have made, will have a serious edge in their job role. Same goes for other skilled, niche deliverables. True story: A client with a budget problem told me recently that she had people in-house who could do an InDesign layout project, and that my value to her was in the data analysis and recommendations I could deliver for her that no one else could do. Good thing I'm working on that array of hard skills!

If only the university programs for HCI, UX, and usability thought like this, designer credibility issues would start going away a little faster. And performance evaluations for more designers could be done in concrete terms like how much good stuff we MADE during the design process, not how much we talked in meetings and if the other people there liked us when we did.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

CHI 09 Panel: Moving UX Into Strategic Importance

At CHI 2009, I took a lot of notes at the panel "Figuring Out the 'One Thing' That Will Move UX Into a Position of Strategic Importance." This is a rather random summary of it; see a similar topic in my post on User Experience Organizations discussed at BostonCHI a couple years ago.

Jim Nieters, Director of UX at Yahoo!, advocated speaking the language of business, and addressing business concerns in our design work and priorities. UX at Yahoo is now in marketing, after another reorganization. They will be providing input on the product funnel, helping to prioritize company efforts.

He reminded us that even at the executive level, it's a life or death battle, and everyone has someone to answer to at the end of the day. Convincing stakeholders of the design profession's value is less important than delivering as individuals; we need to be personally accountable for our work and stay focused on the right projects.

Regarding the standard issue of having too few resources: Invest in projects carefully. A team too diluted on too many projects can't be as visibly effective. Turn things down, and focus on the most important. Work on the revenue generators, and work with the business to understand the right problems and the solutions that can come from design.

During questions, he revealed that for products to move forward at Yahoo, they need "3 in a box": key stakeholders from Product Management, Engineering, and UX have to all be in agreement before work proceeds. Sounds good to me!

Laurie Pattison, Senior Director of UX at Oracle, was up next. Her message was that you get one chance, and have to sell yourself well. You only get one chance to make that first impression. At the management level, you have a calendar quarter to make an impact. Since you can't succeed at everything, you need to pick projects carefully, and provide business value. Businesses are in the business of money, after all.

As part of the sales process, deliver something other peers at the company can't do themselves. Make smarter wireframes, prototypes, or more attractive deliverables. Come up with innovative ideas that they can't think of themselves and the value will be clear.

Her example case study was a project to help reduce tech support calls. The team did simple usability studies and discovered that users couldn't find answers to items that were in the documentation. Their redesign put answers in context and reduced the need for the search functionality; the number of calls reduced as a result, and the bottom line was visible. The CEO was educated about the process and methods and it was a clear win for the team and their methods.

One questioner asked her why not just do this on every project, it's the standard research and design process. But resources limit what you can work on. "Pick projects that matter to the bottom line. You pick mind share or market share."

In a somewhat depressing note, several panelists agreed that your team (or your contributors) are only as good as the most recent success, that failure follows them around forever otherwise. "If you spend only ten minutes working on something because you don't have time, and it fails, people will remember you were associated with it and blame you. Better not to work on it at all." I'm disappointed when I hear this sentiment, given the recent discussions in other places about taking risks and embracing failure during design. I'm afraid failure may be a luxury for very well established teams.

Craig Peters, consulting as Awasu Design, argued that we need to pay more attention to the individual contributors in our organizations and their basic skills and effectiveness. "No matter what the strategy, if we don't think about the individual level interactions, the big picture won't be helped." He described a situation at Wells Fargo in which a UX team had reached a limit on their effectiveness; and he investigated and found that non-UX colleagues had had varying types of interactions with the team and found no consistency in their expertise or work. (I'm reading this in - Craig was pretty vague about the actual details of the findings and recommendations for improvement.)

During the questions, the panel and audience debated some on whether we count as a "young" field after 20 years of CHI conferences. Regardless, it does seem that different skills may be needed to convince different organization types and sizes.

Lauri represented the absent Killian Evers, UX Program Manager at PayPal, who argues for the need for program management skills in larger companies. Program managers can successfully bring metrics and rigor to UX and bridge UX and development. (I myself agree with the need for project management everywhere, but think that UX teams need to be able to work with software culture metrics, processes and tools, and there's no excuse for requiring a third party to manage this. But I may have misunderstood the points here.)

Some comments made during the question period, not all of which I was on board with:

  • If your company doesn't value your contributions, move on to another one. Corporate Darwinism works.
  • Don't waste too much time on ROI attempts. Testimonials from internal folks can go a long way. If you can find someone who needs something and you make an improvement, communicate it afterward with a story. Could even create internal portfolio of examples to help support your value.
  • "If you're in a confrontation or argument, you're already lost." (I find this of some concern; many dev cultures produce lots of argument and confrontations, and if UX people aren't allowed to play in those, the field is not level and we're really handicapped.)
  • The impression of many UX teams is "often you come in too late, you don't understand our jobs, our deadlines, our deliverables." My comment: Who's fault is this, actually? Bring us in earlier, etc.
  • UX teams without domain knowledge can be seen as liabilities. Response: Get them educated about the domain, it's part of onboarding.
Finally, there was an acknowledged tension between the desirability of being an outsider brought in for point expertise ("like a lawyer") or a team member long term. These are obviously very different models, for staffing, for hiring, for seeking positions of corporate influence.

At this panel and at the one on "Fault Lines of UX," individual contributors asked how they can make change as single UX people alone in non-UCD environments. There were no simple answers for these folks. I particularly feel for the student who said to me after the Fault Lines panel, "I was taught UCD very rigorously in school, and I thought everyone did it. Now I find out most companies don't. How can I proceed, what should I be doing?"

An ongoing exercise for our profession, as mentors, educators, and colleagues... We need to help her.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

So You Need to Do a Usability Test... But the Product So Obviously Sucks.

Most of us in interaction design jobs have been asked to do a usability test on something that we don't think is ready for prime time. You think it needs some design work before it even gets to users. The usual scenario is that your company or client is unwilling to listen to another stakeholder with design opinions (yours, or your team's), but will believe it coming from users. Either that, or they don't know what design is yet, but do have an idea that usability testing is a good idea.

Some strategies for turning this to your advantage, if your ultimate goal is being involved in the design, not the evaluation:

  • Make it a test that's just Pass/Fail. Don't allow room for wiggling on the results, or you wasted your time getting them data they don't want to hear. Agree up front on what this thing is supposed to support, scenarios they think it has to handle, and be firm on delivering the news afterwards. It's too easy to get wishy-washy about informal usability testing, and leave room for argument, otherwise.
  • Create alternate designs for use in the usability test. One of the best ways to educate the organization about the value of design is to DO IT. And to turn the test into an evaluation of multiple designs will help build your credibility and turn post-hoc evaluation into formative, and more useful, usability testing. Throw in some mockups at the end, or at the start, and ask for comments on those in comparison to the product that so clearly has problems, from your perspective.
  • Write the report before the test. No, not as unethical as it sounds - you won't deliver it, but you're checking on your skills to predict what's going to be hard to use. So, you got all worked up about how this thing is hard to use, for obvious reasons; now check to see if you were right! Better yet, have more than one person on your team do their own reports, privately, before the test, and seal them up. Afterwards, see who was the best at predicting the disaster. Chances are, the users will fail in ways never imagined (thanks to Kevin Berni for this line), and you'll be a little less cocky next time this situation comes up. But if you get it all right, you're building your case and confidence for pushing back on this kind of request next time around.
  • Ask others in the org to predict what might cause the users problems in the current design before the test. I used this tactic once when a QA organization felt the way I did about the usability of the product we were testing. I gave an award to the person with the most accurate prediction of user difficulty after the analysis. You want everyone in the company to know who has good insights into design and usability, right? People with good instincts need to be making the judgment calls, in the future. And you need to be able to illustrate that not everyone's opinion is equally valuable when it comes to making design decisions. Design insight requires talent and skill. This contest before the usability test helps identify talent-- skill development can come later.
Again, the only way you'll get involved in the earlier stages of design is if you show you can do that part, and what it entails. Make alternatives, and show why they are better. Next time, you'll be at the table for that part of the job instead.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Animated Drawings (and Meta There-upon)

Today I ran across a whole class of items that are oddly similar, in different places: drawings animated, in not your usual way.

First, "Notebook," a video of a world in which paper and books are computers, in unexpected ways. What you draw is what you click on. It's more art than engineering, and I like the whimsy, especially the toaster.

Second, a wonderful new game you have to play to fully appreciate. CrayonPhysics Deluxe is remarkable. The demo video might look too good to be true, but it really does work exactly as shown, and I found myself grinning a lot as I played. Great for kids and casual gamers like me, it's forgiving, mellow, and can be played in short chunks. And I'd rather be playing it right now, to be honest! (I gather the iPhone version is not so impressive. You really need to be able to draw and immerse yourself in the screen world for this.)

Crayon Physics Deluxe from Petri Purho on Vimeo.

Last was a video I re-ran across while looking for some tips on animating stick figures. I pretty much stopped wanting to animate stickfolks after watching it: in case you haven't seen it, it's Animator vs. Animation. The sequel (Animator vs. Animation 2) is even more extreme, because the stick guy takes on the entire Windows OS. Satisfying!

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Task Failure in a Digital Frame Design

I shouldn't look a gift digital frame in the interface, but it contributed to a badly spent Labor Day, so I will: the Philips 7FF2M4. In February I posted a link to David Pogue's review of other digital frame designs that mostly got it all wrong; consider this a detailed sequel from yours truly.

This frame is not wifi or bluetooth enabled - so no home networking to connect to etc. Good, because I don't leave my PC with my photos on all the time. And I wanted to take this to the office. My gift-giver kindly included a 2GB card with it, too. My naive, starting assumptions for how this works, without having looked into digital frames much previously:

  1. I will be able to put photos on the card, or use one from a camera as is
  2. I will put it in the slot on the frame
  3. It will play a slideshow of all the pictures on the card.

The end. I expected to stick in the card and have it cycle through them, maybe with a nice dissolve between them. That's the task that I'd assume as designer, and design to support. But the difficulty for consumer electronics design seems to be keeping the product focused on the core task, and not getting lost in the options possible to throw in there. (I think most of these companies don't have UI designers on staff, honestly. Apple taught us about the importance of industrial design, but the UI part didn't come across so clearly to the world.)

Physically it's a nice frame, with a solid plugin foot that's heavy enough to hurt someone. I think it's a 7x5" display, although that's a bit vague on the box. It claims to do auto-rotation, to landscape or horizontal, which is nice - I remember that my smarter cameras know to rotate pics, but not all do, so my cards from my cameras might not work well "as is." Okay, I'm not averse to dragging pics onto the card from a computer.

Which I do, and then stick it in the frame. It does not play anything automatically except its own menu - and when I find the slideshow button (I do like the physical controls on the back) I try to play it. But it plays some generic Philips ads, not my pictures. What?

It turns out that you have to navigate through a menu to reach your card, and then into the directory on the card itself, and then it gets really complicated - you get the option of making "albums" there and other things. It's hard to get it to play a damned slide show! (Or find your pics, if you aren't familiar with your directory structure on your camera card.)

Eventually I managed to get an album and get a slideshow to play (you can see my abortive attempts called "1" and "Empty" and "Excerpted" above; my path involved debugging my card's directory issues with their provided software for creating "albums" on my card or frame, which I don't get much benefit from, I just want to play the contents of the directory!). The slideshow has some oddities; it has bad transitions, and a weird too-many-pictures-at-once display mode. It turns out this is a "collage" option on by default, which squeezes in 6 pictures into the 5x7" frame size, way too many for them to look good. You'll also notice it regularly uses two of the same one, an odd programming choice (is it meant to look good that way?):

I find the settings to choose another collage and it sure has a lot of them. Sheesh. The only one I really would consider using in a small frame size is 2-up, a split screen of 2 images, and that setting is NOT offered.

But then, there are lots and lots of settings...

But the kicker is this: None of my choices stick. When I power down and restart it next morning, it's back to playing the Philips internal frame memory, and using a collage of 5 pictures. What the heck? With all those menus to go through, it requires some real work to get it into a state without too much setup time. I managed to erase the Philips frame pictures so when I hit slideshow it finds mine, but have not figured out how to get it to remember the collage style I prefer.

I realize the market is crowded with digital frames, but I suspect we are not really ready for complex feature wars yet. Ease of use out of the box seems like the most important aspect here. The task of playing photos (with simple defaults - dissolve and no collage mode, remember last directory played from) is not rocket science. Okay, there may be some clever design required for cases with multiple directories of photos embedded in a frame, but some code that FINDS THE PHOTOS instead of requiring the user to navigate through strange DCAM directories would seem doable. A very simple startup option in the case of multiple directories would seem doable too - which one do you want to play now? Let's assume for jollies that it's probably the card contents that should be the default, not the internal frame's limited memory.

    There are multiple photo directories. What do you want to see?
  • Play all my CARD photos (280 photos, Jan 2008)
  • Play CARD DIR1 (245 photos, 15 Jan 2008)
  • Play CARD DIR2 (35 photos, 16 Jan 2008)
  • Play FRAME photos (4 photos, 7 Jun 2007)

It wouldn't surface multiple card directories if they were just the automatic camera directories, only if they were made by a user in a non-camera manner. So the simplest case is just look for images and play them - card first. They can keep their buttons for getting to more interesting settings if they want, but any of that is advanced gravy. Plus, remember the damned last power-on choice! How often do I want to be fiddling with this thing? (Not ever.)

One Philips frame review at CNET says the next model is an improvement for ease of use.

Our biggest complaint about the 7FF was that the unit wasn't a little more intuitive to navigate right out of the box. Although it didn't take us that long to figure things out, the unit's internal GUI (graphical user interface) could have been a little more user-friendly. Philips seems to have gone out of its way to fix that problem in this next-generation model with a totally redesigned interface.

I sure hope so. I admit I doubt they get as close as my suggestion above... but I'd be pleasantly surprised if so.


Sunday, August 03, 2008

Staffing for User Experience: What Can Go Wrong

You decided to hire a bunch of interaction designers and "user experience" people to improve your product, service, or general business from a customer-focused design perspective. You were lucky enough to find some experienced folks, who've proven their worth at other companies.

It may not be obvious, even if you hired evangelists to help convince the rest of the company of their value, how many ways you can still get it wrong AFTER the hiring. It takes more than headcount! Your new people need to be empowered to make a difference on the product. The issues below amount to (a) cultural and process openness around adding more design into the team software mix, (b) how the dynamics of decision making in your company can impact design for evil rather than improvement.

  1. Did you hire the right people? Let's assume you did, but a couple reminders here: Your biases and your interviewer biases may be some of the problem you are actually hoping to solve. Did you hire looking for collaborative people who get along with everyone (and cave in an argument, in order to preserve the peace?). Did you hire people who do evaluation of other people's designs, or did you hire designers? Did you hire GOOD designers? (Would you know how to evaluate their design skills?) What kind of power dynamics are going on with the interviewers you lined up: Are any of them threatened by the whole idea of outside new people influencing the product? Are they looking for "yes" people or new ideas? Remember they may say something quite different from what they really secretly feel after 3 beers.
  2. Does anyone other than development or product management get a say in how things turn out? How much will these expert new hires be heard? A development manager who is used to being in control may not like having to invite someone new to his planning meetings; a product manager may be unhappy if your new hire questions her market research based on usability data. How much of the time will your new staff be looking for data and ways to convince people to listen, versus actually making an impact on the product? If you had to hire evangelists, you're set up for this problem from the start - expect a lot less productive impact on the product from your new hires, and a lot more organizational time suckage.
  3. Do you have ugly cultural problems you don't know about: Prejudice against non-"technical" input, assumptions that women aren't as smart or good at software or technical decisions. Women are more likely in UX/design than they are in engineering jobs, even if they started in development positions. Check out the dynamics at the whiteboard here, a scene I've watched many times...
  4. Will other people take UX team work as optional input to modify, redo, ignore? Does someone else secretly want their job; not realize it's a separate real job in the process; or actually HAVE their job on the project. I've seen teams where two people were meant to be the customer design input, and didn't agree, and it led to time-wasting fights for the whole group around them, with people taking sides on issues and duplicate work being done. I've seen plenty of QA teams forgetting about the spec, developers not reading or forgetting about the details, and other errors of omission that prevent design from being fully effective.
  5. Do you have decision processes that are functional in your company - or do you regularly have meetings that bog down with "votes" or too many inputs, and open more issues than they close on a regular basis? This environment won't scale well to adding players especially in design discussions. (If your team is arguing with the designer about whether to use radio buttons or checkboxes, you have a dysfunctional decision process which means you are wasting resources and time.)
  6. Is there enough time in your shipping cycle to actually add design as a separate process? Not a trivial question to laugh off; mistakes made early, in requirements and design, are much easier to fix than anything after some code has been written, assuming you have processes in place to catch them before you get too far. This well-known fact doesn't make most companies happier to slow down. I think it has something to do with what's seen as "progress" and "work" in the development cycle, and the glorification of risk-taking that exists in so many software companies that have money to burn.
  7. Does your company regularly bite off bigger projects than it can deliver in a release cycle? These giant projects are unlikely to be high quality when they ship after all the cuts and compromises are made to squeeze them in. Partial functionality is usually worse than no functionality because your company looks like it just didn't get what the customers were asking for. No UX person can entirely save you from this, but a good one consulted and involved in the process from the start might keep you focused on the must-haves for minimal usefulness.
  8. Have you got project management to track team issues and milestones and make sure things aren't grinding down to a halt, or loaded with bugs and unresolved issues. Are they also concerned about tracking design stages, and blocks to those deliverables, rather than just safeguarding developer efforts? (Before you say "of course," maybe you should check with the designers.) These things can add up and make everyone less useful in the end; software is a team effort.
  9. What will you do with the designs your designers produce -- they can make mockups till the cows of management come home from their offsite, but that doesn't mean it's useful in your process.
  10. Do you have your new UX people spread too thinly to be effective -- with an average of 20 developers to one designer (who is shared over multiple projects), there will be a large number of meetings they miss; bugs they don't have time to provide input on; bugs they don't have time to file; builds or releases they didn't get to see closely enough to catch last minute errors; bug review sessions they weren't at to push for the usability/experience bugs; doc they didn't look at to see if it covers the main use cases and important details; customers they didn't have time to call or visit. And spec modifications they couldn't keep up to date. Their morale will suffer proportionally to the things they don't have time to do that decrease their effectiveness.
  11. Is the UX person involved early enough to be (a) able to influence the crucial early decisions (b) and to be a true team player in the project, rather than an end-game consultant check-mark on your process? It's often in an overloaded (dysfunctional) environment that the designer or usability specialist is involved only at the end of the cycle to "review" and "bless" things. If you're tired of hearing from your new hires that they didn't know something had been decided, or that they wish they'd been consulted earlier, then you've got this problem headed your way. Remember it's much harder to effect change after code is written! And they want to be able to make an impact, otherwise they will be wasting their skills.
There are lots of ways to miss, even with good staff. I've been in good teams and bad teams for design process, but seen a lot of these failure modes. I'm keeping score of how many companies have teams that argue with their designer about radio buttons versus checkboxes, wasting valuable time in their cycle. The stats aren't looking good. But if you take care of your processes and oversee design as a separate stage and responsibility, your company can be better than that.

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Wordle on Ghostweather

Playing with Jonathan Feinberg's artistic tag cloud generator Wordle, I plugged myself in (of course) and got this one (this is the "ghostly" color scheme):

Randomness is a powerful toy in design - it helps you discover things you wouldn't have seen with a purely organized eye. It's inspirational. It's fun.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Some Fun Entries in the Create the Future Design Contest

Now that the Create the Future Design Contest is open and collecting entries, it's time to point out some of the reasons I love this contest. Before I do, I should say that although I help with the site design and administration, I have nothing whatever to do with judging, which is done by a panel of engineering and research experts recruited by NASA Tech Briefs. And my opinions won't mean anything to them!

One thing that makes this contest fun are the wacky ideas - the napkin sketches, the weird diagrams, the mad scientist schemes. Some of them just sound funny at first, but are actually quite earnest. Take, for example, the "Thumbtack Remover." Or the "Personal Transport Pod" (I especially like the solar panels). (Be sure to check out the scheme for the "Personal Safety Belt" by the same inventor, which slightly resembles a super hero's costume.) And then there's the eSpider, a recyclables pre-sorter with a hand that looks like a spider.

Some of the entries have terrific images, rendered with high-end tools like Rhino and SolidWorks. Here's a student entry using Rhino to illustrate a convertible boat. Another student entry uses Rhino to diagram a medical self-diagnosis unit, called Sintomatico. And there's a student design for a vertical bike rack, using SolidWorks, which makes any design look very professional. Here's a part of a SolidWorks entry for an electromagnetic rail motor:

Some have surprising descriptions - this one for a breast exam device features a quote from a famous columnist that I didn't expect, but supports the case! This one is for handling hair-oil storage, which makes me flash back on Clooney's hair treatments in "O Brother." In another odd hair-related device, you've got to check out the Bowman, which I find hilarious. He submitted pdfs, so be sure to open them up! Bowman entry on Some also have funny names, like the A.T.E.A.M, for the "ANTI-TERRORIST ECM-AUDIO MECHANISM."

A few words about the site and contest: While we are showing page view counts, there is no prize for page views this year. It was too much trouble to police last year. I will probably review and reset them any case, to keep them more or less believable. Please check out the entries with fewer page views right now, they are very deserving of eyeballs. There will be some form of public rating mechanism in October for another popular vote prize - development resources willing. Finally, if you like the home page, the flash banner of the Wright Brothers' plane with jet engines was done by an intern at SolidWorks, game design student from WPI Alex Schwartz. Awesome addition to the site.

If you have a blog and you post about the contest, I'll put your post link up on the site's press page.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Designing the Stop Sign (the Agency Experience)

Having just given a workshop on setting yourself up as a consultant with some warnings about client types, this video is especially apropos. What if a corporation asked you to design a stop sign?

In the list of client types, I think they missed the Appreciative Hands-On Committee of Passive Aggressive Cheerleaders client. Who test your design on their 6 year olds!

Thanks for the timely pointer to Steve at Tingilinde...

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Let Your Designers Design!

We all know now that good design is a crucial element in a crowded market. But just because people in your company have strong feelings about design, doesn't make them good at it. Some of their ideas may be good, but that doesn't make them good at executing either. In the worst cases, they both think they have good ideas and think they can execute, and they can do neither. (Remember, incompetent people don't know they are incompetent.)

Signs of the problem in your org:

  1. You have designers on staff, but they're demoralized and frustrated. Designers are a special breed of person, more likely to leave when they can't accomplish what makes them tick than many others; they're driven by their skills and talents more than promotion opportunity inside a company or a domain in which they work.
  2. Consensus-driven culture has ground projects to a halt. You can't break out of decision-making meetings with a clear goal, and there are too many cooks involved. Because the designers aren't empowered to make the final design decision, and other (incompetent) people are weighing in or fighting with them. (See Scott Berkun's recent take on this, and an old take on why products don't end up usable that covers all this organizational stuff too.)
  3. You may have a lipservice executive level belief in design as important (ever since Apple made it profitable), but you have no headcount for it, and no org process for it. There are no goals in the marketing pipeline that focus on it, there are no metrics to measure it, and it's no one department or person's job. It's handled diffusely, and not managed effectively.
  4. Secretly, you or other middle-level managers think design is a technical thing, or the "fun" part for the technical folks, and it's best handled by developers as a kind of prize for the good ones. Don't bother trying to hire in this climate!
  5. Final decisions about what gets in the product and what's shippable are based on criteria or opinions that don't know much about how customers respond to your stuff. Bugs that in a one-in-a-million system configuration cause a crash are prioritized about correcting a layout problem that makes you look amateurish, or a typo that makes you look like a busload of idiots.
  6. You think it's all about the documentation - the customers just need to read more.
  7. You outsource all of your visual design, and that's what you mean by "design" anyway.
  8. You didn't realize people get degrees today in usability, human factors, interface design, interactive design, etc. In these degree programs they learn the correct ways to collect and interpret data, deliverables that communicate at different levels of fidelity, how to go from abstract to concrete, how to validate designs, and how to prototype. Corollary: You also think design is work that's "obvious" and easy, probably also because it doesn't involve writing (much) code.
  9. You don't have actual project managers on your staff. You make it someone else's job, usually a development manager's; this means design as a phase and design deliverables are not scheduled and monitored in the way that code production is. Instead, it's all "where's that damn spec, we need to start making this thing."
  10. Your designers are actually trying to steal the project management, so they can get some control over the process, but this is leaving them too busy to actually do design. They schedule meetings to get stakeholders together, they try to get the PM's to articulate what the heck the requirements are, they hire visual designers, they call customers... they never actually get to design, except after hours.
  11. You've got innovation projects going on in your company, but there aren't any designers working on getting things right from the start. (Chances are, they are too busy with 9 and 10 to be contributing even if invited.) But basically you feel that design is "icing" to make it look pretty after the big ideas are implemented. You think the real breakthroughs come from technical ideas, not ideas that come from watching people work or new interaction techniques or novel workflows. Never mind how expensive it is to get requirements wrong up front and have to "fix" things later. (There are any number of software studies on this, drop me a note if you want refs. I've seen startups go under from this, before they even got out the door with their product.)
  12. You've got internal folks like usability testers who are told they "facilitate" group processes but aren't empowered or able to make overruling design decisions. This is explicit support for consensus design or committee design, dangerous when everyone else is opinionated but incompetent.
Okay, I admit it felt good to get this list off my chest today. It's not the last time you'll see the subject cross this page. Let's hear it for design moving up the org chart; and for middle management and technical management understanding there are skills that might help with product big picture and end-game success!

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mandatory Post on Twitter: A new form of MUDding?

Everyone else is doing it, so I'm posting about Twitter too. I admit I've been enjoying it, probably more so since I have less time than I used to for blogging, Bloglines, and keeping up with friends on LiveJournal.

Everyone who writes about Twitter has to compare it to other things. For me, it's most like what we did in MUDs when I used to hang out there (a kind of chat world, see MUDs and MOOs on wikipedia, and my book about one). We used to connect while working, and "idle" much of the day, but "wake up" to post links to things we thought were interesting, or to say what we were doing "in real life." We even watched TV together in a MUD group. In a MOO, you had to do something special to direct comments to someone, just like you do in Twitter (where you prepend "@name"). Voila, c'est Twitter; except that in a MUD you had to go somewhere to be in the space by connecting specially, it was less public, and a lot more synchronous. Plus not searchable from "outside" the MUD client. So, okay, it had some differences.

Other things it's like: How people change their "status" message in a chat client, and sometimes riff off other people's status messages. That's not archived in the way Twitter history is, though. And it's like SMS, in that's it's terse, but for a party. And it's like a very slow chat room, where no one really knows who's listening in or who might look at what you said later. (Watch out.)

Brief geeky research aside: There's an old paper by Clark and Brennan (1991) that's a goodie among people who study CMC (computer-mediated communication) that describes potential aspects of communication media, including whether they offer co-presence, visibility, co-temporality, and sequentiality of messages. To really consider how Twitter stacks up, you would also want to consider system features that characterize rich Internet communication tools, such as the potential for users to have private one-to-one and multi-party conversations that aren't recorded, what kind of message size is possible, availability of threading/sorting/filtering tools, ability to archive exchanges and/or prevent it, possibility of editing posts after they are made, ability to block messages from certain people.

Twitter is less synchronous so less co-temporaneous than internet chat or face-to-face or phone talk, the reviewability is possible but only fair in practice (in that you have to do some work to go back in a history to check what you missed), and interruptions between two-person exchanges are common. Threads are possibly even impolite. Private messaging is possible depending on the client used. Editing isn't possible after posting, but deletion is. The message length constraint strongly restricts the type of exchange that can happen, by design. Blocking of a kind is possible. You can filter your list of followed people to a "favorites" list if you want.

Which reminds me - all communication media allow for genres or registers of speech/writing, in which the style and topics can differ tremendously across groups of users and occasions of use. Generalizations about how people use Twitter will only be applicable to local groups of followers and their following. So I won't try. Give a look in and see what you think.

Because of the very public nature of Twitter, we get the possibility of search tools like Summize. Which means you can look up keywords or people and find out what's up with them. You can even subscribe to these searches by RSS, so thatt you can follow public chat that mentions your favorite product or TV show. (When I mentioned FIOS once, someone who works at Verizon started "following" my comments on Twitter.)

Summize also allows for interesting meta-search applications like Twitter Spectrum, allowing you to contrast word environments for two terms. Just for fun, here's a few charts of contrasts I find interesting. You can see who's talking more about what here.

Anywho, I'm enjoying Tweeting, although I still miss ElseMOO after all these years.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

CHI 2008 Conf: Usability Considered Harmful

The premier human-computer interaction conference, aka CHI 2008 (pronounced "kai" not "chee") was in Florence, Italy this year. After missing last year's in Silicon Valley, I went despite the ruinous exchange rate. (Other local colleagues went to Italy for the conference, but blew it off to go skiing instead!) One of the more interesting and crowd-drawing sessions was the paper by Saul Greenberg and Bill Buxton, "Usability Evaluation Considered Harmful... Some of the Time." Following it was commentary by Bonnie John, Tom Rodden, Dan Olsen and the ever-sharp CHI attending audience. Here's Saul and Bill listening to the commentary: Buxton and Greenberg

An initial note: CHI as a conference has a huge percentage of academic and research attendees. How to make it "relevant" to the "practitioner" audience is a regular concern of the conference committee. Why research isn't necessarily relevant is one of the reasons for their paper, I think. (And for things I've spoken and written about in the past, too.)

The main argument was...

...We too often perceive … an unquestioning adoption of the doctrine of usability evaluation by interface researchers and practitioners. Usability evaluation is not a universal panacea. It does not guarantee user-centered design. It will not always validate a research interface. It does not always lead to a scientific outcome.
Their supporting arguments were these:
  • CHI reviewers require evaluation, and usually quantitative (lab study) testing results, as a part of a submitted paper (reflected in the submissions guidelines)
  • Quantitative usability studies are often the wrong type of study for certain kinds of design: such as inventions in prototype stage; other types of user study may be more correct for these.
  • In an argument familiar from Buxton's book Sketching User Experiences, a focus on usability evaluation too early in a development cycle produces poorer final results than will experimenting with more design concepts (or "sketches")
  • Early-stage technical innovations that are disruptive or paradigm changing may produce poor or ambiguous user testing results, which may prematurely kill them off as research topics -- when long-term these ideas might find audiences and produce large-scale social or practice change after adoption.

Greenberg and Buxton argue that CHI has too great a focus on scientific results (and poor ones at that), rather than on supporting good design and invention.

“Science has one methodology, art and design have another. Are we surprised that art and design are remarkable for their creativity and innovation? While we pride our rigorous stance, we also bemoan the lack of design and innovation. Could there be a correlation between methodology and results?”
Tom Rodden at CHI

Comments ran the gamut from polite disagreement about the counts of types of papers accepted at the conference, to observations that publication-treadmills don't allow time for disruptive risky innovation that can be studied longitudinally, especially for students in grad school. Saul asked the CHI audience to review papers differently -- after all, the audience there constitutes what gets in, and what's considered good work. What constitutes good work worthy of acceptance is in the hands of the reviewers in the room! Finally, it was noted that different, "riskier" work of a design or featuring ethnographic evaluation instead of user testing is regularly accepted at other conferences in the same ACM family: DIS, DUX, CSCW, even Ubicomp and UIST.

Most difficult, for me, is the idea that the CHI reviewing audience has the credibility and experience to review riskier design work that doesn't come along with (the right kind of) user study. With mostly academics and researchers on the reviewer list, I question whether this audience has the depth of practical design experience and credentials required to recognize and talk about "good design" with credibility. What do I require for credibility: having done a lot of real-world design, and having evaluated a lot of products from a customer-centric perspective. When I say "real world" I don't mean academic design - where it's notoriously easy to go wild and crazy. In the context of a business or large organization, the kinds of compromises that designers face are what separate the real good from the mediocre.

I would like to repeat that human computer interaction is not fully represented at CHI. The conference is just one forum. While it's true that CHI publication counts more than most others to researchers in this field, it doesn't necessarily represent the full range of activities and professional expertise in the broader field of interaction design.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mini-UPA conference in Boston

Boston's mini-Usability conference is coming up on May 28 at Bentley. This is a reasonably priced one-day event that attracts quite a local crowd, and not a few non-locals. I had a good time at this last year, when I was a speaker on online community design. This year I am speaking about life as a consultant, and mistakes I made in my first year. Here's my abstract:
One year ago, I quit my job and started consulting full-time, after 10 years of industrial wage slavery. I was financially successful in this year, but made a lot of mistakes. I managed to fall into bad headhunter relationships, make mistakes in my accounting that required a 101 class to fix, became thoroughly confused about whether to be incorporated or not, and generally made a lot of newbie mistakes with a handful of clients ranging from garage startups to established software firms. Other local consultants gave me advice and I learned from my mistakes. I can tell you how I did it and what I could have done better; and how it compares to what other local consultants say. I will cover:
  • Your use of the internet to advertise yourself (search engine optimization, job sites, Linked In, blogs, etc.)
  • Portfolio work
  • Branding (logo, name, etc.)
  • Proposals
  • What to charge (the many factors and equations; plus: "they're charging WHAT and someone is really paying it??")
  • Headhunters and job offer pressures
  • Basic accounting and expenses to track
  • ... And other things I learned the very, very hard way, like the portable office equipment it might be nice to own because the client site is a cave with rocks to sit on.
You'll get a handout with the Top 10 Most Important Consulting Considerations in case you too want to do this!

BIO:Lynn Cherny has a Ph.D. from Stanford that she hasn't used in years, except for some statistical skills. She has 12 years of experience working at and/or managing interface design at companies including TiVo, Excite, Adobe, The MathWorks, and AT&T Labs. Her current consulting identity is Ghostweather Research & Design, LLC. She can be reached at

There are interesting names on the list of speakers, including Jared Spool and Chauncey Wilson, Beth Loring and Joe Dumas, plus a host of other local employers. The talks range from research methods to design case studies, with a bit of business thrown in (thankfully, for some of us!). It's even multi-track, reflecting how many submissions they get. And their cocktail hour is fun and well-stocked.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

NASA Tech Briefs: Create the Future Contest Awards in NYC

New York City, April 2008: In New York last week, the Create the Future Contest award winners were honored in a nice ceremony. The awards were presented over a swanky dinner and drinks at the Water Club in NYC. (Good thing I changed when I got there: a classic NYC taxi driver let me off early saying, "I can't turn right here. You have to cross there and go under that overpass, past the helicopter landing, and then it's on your left.")

While I was pleased for all the qualified entrants-- almost 1000 this year, a record probably due to having a website -- I was most happy about the two student category winners. Jeremy Connell, a junior in Virginia, actually used SolidWorks for his cargo carrier design. Here he is holding the paper edition of NASA Tech Briefs, which features his winning design on the front cover! Jeremy Connell at NTB Contest Jeremy would like to get a job designing boats. I'm also hoping he'll intern at SolidWorks if he's available and we can work out the details.

The winner for the Transportation design category was student Corban Tillman-Dick, who is actually an economics major at Johns Hopkins. He's the designer of a more efficient engine, the Internally Radiating Impulse Engine. His brothers were all present for the award; they are trying to get funding to base a company on this design. Sadly, their father, who helped with the design, died suddenly in a car accident a few weeks earlier and could not attend with them. Here is Corban and a brother with Jeff Ray, CEO of SolidWorks: Corban Tillman-Dick

A few other winners -- Joseph Hollman designed a beacon locator for mine workers, shortly after a serious mining disaster last year. Here is Joseph receiving his award: Joseph Hollman with award

And Dr. Ajay Mahajan and colleagues were there to receive their Medical category prize for a 3D ultrasonic neuronavigation system for realtime image guided brain surgery. Ajay Mahajan

I'm afraid my camera batteries, bought for €1 in a Venice shop, did not hold out long enough for everyone's prize.

As you may recall, I was the consultant that designed and project managed the contest site for SolidWorks. This was the first year that SolidWorks was a major sponsor, as well as the first year there was any website featuring visible entries (and featuring a frenetic, viral "page view contest" which galvanized many students, not to mention bots). Jeff Ray also accepted the SolidWorks award for "Product of the Year" given by readers of NASA Tech Briefs, entirely coincidental with the co-sponsorship of the Create the Future Design Contest. (Obviously the contest was not judged based on software used by any entrant, and SolidWorks did not participate in the judging in any way.) Instead of a boring talking shot of Jeff Ray, I like this pic of him talking over drinks to our student winner who used SolidWorks.

Apart from the chance to see the sometimes wacky but always creative inventions, I got a lot out of seeing young designers do so well in the contest up against professional engineers. And in general, there were a lot of ideas that could make the world a better place with the right exposure and funding. Providing webspace for inventions and inventors is a good thing for us to do. We'll (and I'll) be doing the site and contest again this year! Stay tuned for another June launch.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Punitive Luxury at the Marriott Marquis

I just got back from an overnight work trip to NYC, where I was booked into the Marriott Marquis at Times Square. I disliked this experience, in oh so many ways.

How about this example of a nasty use of technology? Here's a $7 bottle of Fiji water that's on a weight-sensitive stand, the kind you see in heist movies where Tom Cruise is rapelling in to help himself to something way more fun than water.

The note on this bottle says, "Your account will be charged when this bottle is off the stand for more than 30 seconds." There was dust on the stand, because even the maids are afraid to disturb this gem. [Updated to add: a friend tells me her father stayed in another Marriott in a large American city and ran into the same thing. As he was going into his room, a cleaning woman in the hall warned him, "Don't move the water, don't move the water!!"]

Note that this was a room I was paying $400 for a night. I don't know what I got for it, to be honest. The sink wouldn't drain. And they also wanted me to pay $4.99 for their "tv-on-demand" DVR episodes of "Medium." (My first response, oh so naive, was "Wow, this hotel has DVRs in their rooms, awesome! I guess it's about time since we've all got them at home!" Then I saw the price for everything on it. Give me a break. Where's that warm fuzzy -- oh yeah, this isn't a brand experience, it's a technology scam.)

I didn't bother to try the Internet. They had more neat technology where their elevator collection resided. So many floors and so many attractions in this hotel, that they had a special scheduling routine in place: you enter your floor number, and it tells you which elevator to go wait beside. Despite this clever system of crowd management, their elevators were so busy that staff were escorting the more upset customers (incl. me) to the freight elevators for more realistic timing on their people-mover service. freight elevator with big bag When I got home, I came up with a few "nice" and possibly more interesting uses for their weight sensitive technology, instead of threatening their fleeced guests.

I know a lot of architects who love good hotel design -- but let me say, it's not just about architecture, it's about all the amenities and experience, including how they use their in-room technology. I'm still outraged!


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Open Source vs. Organizational Code

An interesting, free article from Harvard Business School working papers: Exploring the Duality between Product and Organizational Architectures: A Test of the Mirroring Hypothesis (scroll down for PDF link). From the abstract:
Specifically, products are often said to "mirror" the architectures of the organizations from which they come. Such a link, if confirmed empirically, would be important, given that product architecture has been shown to be an important predictor of, among other things: product performance; product variety; process flexibility; and future industry evolution. We explore this relationship in the software industry by use of a technique called Design Structure Matrices (DSMs), which allows us to visualize the architectures of different software products and to calculate metrics to compare their levels of modularity. We use DSMs to analyze a number of matched-pair products--products that fulfill the same function but that have been developed via contrasting modes of organization; specifically, closed-source (or proprietary) versus open-source (or distributed) development. Our results reveal significant differences in modularity, consistent with a view that distributed teams tend to develop more modular products. We conclude by highlighting some implications of this result and assessing how future work in this field should proceed, based upon these first steps in measuring "design."
I've seen work on this subject before (including similar diagrams that show code module relationships)-- not usually in business press, although it's nice to see this get a wide audience. Recently I read Becky Grinter's essay in HCI Remixed which reflects on Parnas 1972's "On the Criteria to Be Used in Decomposing Systems into Modules" and on Conway's Law: The structure of the code mirrors the communication of the organization that developed it. Or lack thereof.

More than that, I'd say the UI design and the broader corporate outside facing design often reflects the organization's internal structure and different goals. Marketing groups that don't talk to engineers, executives who don't get along, customer support and sales who don't speak -- these things all hit heavily on the face that a customer sees for the company. All of which can be reasons why "User Experience" as a group can't live low-down in any one part of a company, especially a big one.

More personally, I've started using R, an open-source competitor to MATLAB, and wondering about this stuff as I try to track down the open-source resources I need. I've been enjoying ramping up on R despite finding the documentation available and code quality of some libraries very hit-or-miss. MathWorks's doc team and their demos are one of their strengths. Regardless, R has a growing number of books and sites, and I've learned some simple concepts faster in R than I ever did for the same concepts in M-code. In many ways, I prefer the language to M, despite my belief that open-source usability is generally very poor [here we might have a discussion about usability of the language itself, for different tasks, versus that of GUIs or tools available for programming support, but I'm still thinking about the topic].

In short, R works; plus it's free, and it's powerful and extensible. (For just how free is free: compare about $4K for what I'd need for statistics and database access plus some reporting, with $0K, and that's pretty free.) I wonder how the code compares to to MATLAB's.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

2007 Usability Salary Study

The results from the 2007 Usability Professionals Assoc. salary survey are now available to UPA members. I am one, so I'm posting some highlights plus some new charts I made from their numeric data. Sadly, I can't get the raw data to try anything very interesting. A caveat first: The "usability" profession is only a sample of the jobs that relate to interface design, customer experience, interaction design, and other related titles. The survey reflects this (as you'll see) but does not necessarily reach all related disciplines. I'm particularly suspicious of the low numbers who responded from the US west coast, and suspect this is to do with general organizational regional politics (who belongs to what, who reads what, who cares). California in particular might bring up some of the numbers, from what I know of their salaries and consulting rates.

In general, salaries have gone up since 2005 by about $5000, most markedly outside the US (UK and Canada) and for women (who are, however, still paid less than men). Consider me irate that women aren't as valuable as men in most organizations, for most jobs, except secretarial.

Some charts: there are linear relationships between salary and experience and salary and education level. Usability Salary by Education 2007 Usability Salary by Experience 2007

I don't know if there is any additive effect; for example, if you're me and have a Ph.D. and 12+ years experience, do you get even more? (That is, if you're not a hand-to-mouth consultant like me.)

There are interesting relationships between job title and salary. "Directorial" are the highest job bin reported, which is disappointing (in that I keep hoping there will be C-level design folks soon). "User Research" titles are the highest paid individual contributors. This makes sense to me if UR jobs are being filled by advanced degrees. I feel they should be -- statistics, experimental design, ethnography, strategic input -- these are not activities to hire a junior usability testing person to perform. And I think the software industry understands this more and more, based on the job ads I see. Usability Salary by Title 2007 Note that "usability" as a title component is now outpaid by "user experience." There were more respondents with the title "user experience practitioner" than for any other job title. This is good news, and appropriate; if a company understands that there is more to a good user experience than making it usable, then there is more involved in the job description and hiring criteria and it's also worth more. We're moving forward! (Even if women still lag behind.) Related to this, I'm personally interested in the chart of job "activities" practiced by the survey respondents. Usability testing is still way up there in frequency of mention in this surveyed pool, despite the shift in job titles. Design prototyping is close, but not at a par yet. I'm sorry to see this, since I don't think design should be done by non-designers and I don't think UX folks should be evaluating design produced by non-designers. I'm disappointed by how low quantitative activities and market research fall, but I assume this will pick up some steam as more senior quantitative user research folks are employed by UX departments. I'm especially disappointed by how low "requirements gathering" falls -- this being the number 1 cause of poor quality downstream, as found by many studies of root causes of software defects.

For a change of topic: In a sobering news story for those of us still trying to get design taken seriously as a strategic role, IT development salaries are projected to soar in the next year, well above what the data in the UPA survey shows. Read about it here.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Brain Cloud

Kyle Gabler's home page charms me as much as his simple but fun and well-executed word association game: Human Brain Cloud. You play by typing in words you associate with other words, and he grows the network of associations on the fly. The graphs are pretty to watch, easy to explore, with great motion effects; and his page of stats on players is suprisingly extensive.

Also, I adore his cartoon art. :-)

Other viral, simple online games: the Free Rice game, Just Curious (answer a question before you can ask one), the ESP game (labelling images).

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Consumer Design is Easy?

Steve at tingilinde sent me a link to David Pogue's NYT piece on design flaws in digital picture frames. From the intro section:

"We learned deeply a few hard lessons," he said. "Consumer electronics is a very difficult business. It's difficult to get it right." ...

Maybe this particular guy is rightness challenged. Or maybe he meant that getting things right takes time, money and effort, which is true.

But it sounds like he's saying that it's hard to know what's right in product design, and he'll never convince me of that. A ten-year old could have identified the design flaws in the frames I tested this week.

I don't agree on all points -- Some of the design flaws he identifies are tricky "icing" on the consumer cake that it takes a clever designer and a budget to go after: like having a little pocket on the frame back for a remote control. Nice to have, but not mandatory, even for a good consumer experience.

But getting things right does take time, money, and effort; as well as "big-picture" design management of the sort lacking at all but few companies. Someone needs to remember the people you're designing for, and to represent that by stepping backwards out of the details of schedule and bug counts and putting into perspective: "...Hey, can your Grandfather use this for the baby pictures you're sending?" It's the responsible executive's position to make the call to change the schedule to accommodate the experience-breaker issues that will threaten you in a crowded market, and to champion processes like in-home user testing as part of the design cycle.

Kodak, who comes out pretty well for their frame design in his piece, hires interaction designers, although I don't know if they have a Chief Design Officer. So why hire an interaction designer instead of, say, a 10-year old? 10 year old finds fossil. Because most 10 year olds aren't up to arguing with project managers and engineering schedules, and generally keeping their head both in the gritty details and well outside, for that important user perspective.

Pogue's piece is still good and also funny. As a former TiVo designer mystified by the crapness of most "consumer" electronics design, I especially liked this one:

Question 10: Which is the right way to label the jacks and buttons: White lettering on black (or vice versa), white on white (Momento), or with no text labels at all (eStarling)?

We did think of this at TiVo (of course), but I still wish we had added a little LED flashlight dongle to the back, since there's always bad light at the back of your cabinet!

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Look Inside SolidWorks

SolidWorks World, the annual user convention for SolidWorks CAD users, is going on now in San Diego. I'm consulting with the company, and have been doing usability research out here. (Rather strangely, I appeared in a photo posted by one of our blogger users here. The gentleman I am talking too was just made extremely happy by a brief chat with the founder of SolidWorks, who remembers his name every time he sees him.)

SolidWorks' latest release featured some major changes to the UI, which caused a bit of a ruckus among the experienced users. Matt Lombard, author of the SolidWorks Bible, is one of the ruckusers. Along with posting pictures of me (hah), Matt also just posted a YouTube interview with one of the best guys at SolidWorks and one of my clients there, Jim Wilkinson. To see some inside scoop on how the company works, you can watch it on YouTube linked from Matt's blog.

A final note: It's a credit to SolidWorks that someone like Jim exists there and has authority. Not only is he a good manager, but he's universally well-respected AND well-liked by everyone who meets him, internally and externally; and he's active in the user forums answering customer questions on top of his ever-expanding day job. Jim saw a need for a usability team long before most CAD companies found out such a thing exists (for the rest of them, that was only 2.5 years ago). Kudos to SolidWorks for having such great employees and managers. It explains a lot about the product success.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

2007 in Review

One year ago this week, I quit my job and (after a bit of interviewing and thought) decided to consult for a while. It's been a good year! Some of the things I'm pleased with:
  • Five excellent clients, and a couple of potentials I had to turn down because I was booked. Two web consumer startups, and one long-term established software company, whom I am still working with.
  • Several opportunities to work on data mining: web log analysis, survey cluster analyses, and quantitative personas. Very interesting work! (I also took 2 classes from to hone my skills.)
  • A couple of web projects for which I provided the interaction design and project management actually launched in the same year, including the extremely successul NASA Tech Briefs Create the Future Design Contest site. (Winners will be announced this week!)
  • Two publications by yours truly on the politics and skills of UI design: An article in interactions on the difficulties in practicing design today, and an essay in a new book, HCI Remixed: Reflections on Works that Have Influenced the HCI Community (MIT Press 2008). This book is hot off the press and a fascinating read.
  • Incorporation for my consulting business, Ghostweather Research and Design, LLC. Followed by a crash course in accounting for small businesses. Who knew that credits were negative and debits were positive? And that Quickbooks is still a bit hard to use?
  • I gave a handful of local talks at software companies, local design or usability meetings, etc, on design practices or online communities. Some of them are here on my essays page.
  • Some technical fun: Opportunity to use Flash (so far just on small personal projects), Illustrator, PHP, mySQL, Excel with a database backend.
I did not do as much conference travel as I wanted to, but plan to go to CHI in Florence this spring, to help make up for missing it last year. I hope to see you there!

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Southwest Gets Design

I just booked a flight on Southwest, and had a wonderful experience. Skipping past the booking part, I got a nice email receipt, which was easy to read. It's nice to get something that's easy to read. I especially liked their large friendly confirmation codes that are actually visible, colorful, short, and at the top!

On the receipt was also a very visible (above the fold) link: "Where Will I Sit?" I clicked on it, and got a popup window with a very cute hand-drawn progess bar, so cute that I had no problem waiting through it just to watch it drawing itself. And then this even cuter notebook appeared:

I actually read the whole thing, because it continued to be so cute and even funny, with hand-drawn pictures throughout: There was a sweet little animation of people getting on a plane, and a diploma for people who finish the notebook (I filled in my name, yes). At the end, I looked at the page source, hoping to find something suggesting who created it, and discovered that they had even tailored the error message for people with the wrong browser support:

I was thrilled, but also a bit sad. Apart from TiVo, I have never worked for a company that cared this much about the details; was willing to take such creative risks with how they differentiate themselves; who understand that even the error messages tell people something about them and need consideration. That's design and branding done right, together!

ETA: If you would like to play with the notebook, it lives at Southwest's BoardingSchool.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Designing Your Home Page

Kicking this one off, here's a good article by Joel Spolsky about the design of the product home page for FogBugz, which nicely spotlights the badness of committee decision-making in design. They tried to achieve too many things with too much input, the results frayed, and finally they [he] had to make the tough decision to start over and stick to a single unified vision with fewer "votes" on the matter. You can track this in the mockup screenshots.

Joel also makes a good point about the difference between the company page and the product page in terms of their goals. Nice willingness to go with entirely different styles, as a result. A brave decision!

I've been involved in a few home page design discussions the past year of consulting. They tend to be wicked problems (i.e., ill-defined, messy, and circular). Some of the reasons for this:

  • There may be a difference between who you are and what you do, which may be important and hard to describe. Or hard to recognize.
  • There may be a difference between who you WANT to be and who you are. This is hard to design for, because when you stray from what you are, you tend to confuse people.
  • Conveying who you WANT to be in a clear fashion can only happen if you have a clear idea of who you want to be, and test your methods of conveyance on people to see if it flies. This is different from usability testing as usually understood.
  • A bunch of company stakeholders who disagree on these things (who we are, who we want to be) can't communicate this to a designer very successfully. Design will then take a longer time, with more iterations, and may turn into a committee consensus nightmare.
  • Design directions can be contradictory -- sometimes you can't say two or more complicated things, and you can't do both well enough to succeed at either. Let alone 10!
  • If your business is confusing or going through a change of some kind, it's almost inevitable that the design reflects this, without a very strict control on it. No designer will succeed in clarifying confused input when the underlying problem is actual confusion. The designer may see this going on and be able to point it out, but that won't get it solved. The problems may be too high, too deep, and too wicked themselves. Solving them is much harder than the simple design problem at hand.

One client was working on a new project that was barely outlined in a development spec. He asked me "What do we do for our home page? We're really worried about that." It was premature for this, because most of the business plan didn't exist yet. The design input they REALLY needed was "Your business idea is a little too complicated right now. Can you simplify it first? Here are a bunch of others in your space with successful 3 bullet explanations on their home page. Can you meet that level of simplicity?"

Sadly, most designers aren't in a position to spur you to clean up your entire business plan. Or to make it clear that this might be needed because it's hard to make it sound simple when it's not. (At least, without lying.)

I think design is a strategic activity - requiring hard, brave, high level decisions in order to direct the minds and hearts of customers; and a creating a good business plan is therefore partly a design activity. To create a business that is clear and attractive to prospects, and therefore portrayable as such, requires high-level decision making inside a company. If more business leaders thought like designers, or more designers were in business roles, the execution of the home page would be a lot simpler.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Fast Company: ebay, and Business in Siberia

I caught up on the latest print version of Fast Company on a flight, and I have to admit I'm loving it via print. I read almost ever word, while on the site I just browse occasionally. And now I can point to fun stuff, since the mag is all online.

First, some slightly irksome "news": ebay is trying to revamp itself in the face of flattening numbers. Like a lot of business press, this makes a hero-to-be out of a new exec hire, Matt Carey, CTO. He learns in paragraph one during a focus group that the site is hard to use. He determines to "make the buying process efficient and fun again."

Having heard the industry gossip for years about the company -- mostly from designers who've left in droves -- the people who knew it was hard to use and knew it needed usability and design work weren't listened to when it might have prevented flattening numbers in the first place. Too risky to change what was seen as successful! Till the big picture numbers start to look scary, and the competition spreads, I guess. That's when it might already be too late. A reminder that design and usability are strategic competencies not handled well by most executive boards at most companies.

On to more fun: Nightmare in Boomtown, a story you could not make up. With all the twisted personalities at work, it would make a good movie. It's the saga of a fallen rabbi gone to Kazakhstan to do business, and getting eaten alive by the corrupt system and an angry gangster rival who wanted a $5 million dollar discount he didn't get. It probably cost a few hundred thousand, but the ex-rabbi gets locked up in a Siberian jail for a year and virtually abandonned by any officials who should care.

In October 2006, after 11 months in Siberia, Seidenfeld was loaded aboard a prison train to be extradited from Russia to Kazakhstan. For 32 days, he was stuffed into a 3½-foot-by-7-foot cell in a boxcar with one toilet for 60 convicts. His fiancée, Natiya, doggedly followed the train on its 3,000-mile journey, intercepting it as it stopped at detention centers. Word of the presence of a wealthy Western businessman had traveled fast among the prisoners, and Seidenfeld learned early on the importance of isolating himself as much as possible. Natiya secured lawyers wherever the train stopped, bribed officials, and did whatever she could to make sure Seidenfeld traveled in his own cell. He kept his head down while shuffling to and from different prison stops to avoid the batons of the more-sadistic guards. "If I had been kept with the rest of the population, I might not be around today," he says.
Really a fascinating read....

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Randy Pausch and Collaboration

I thought I had blogged about Randy Pausch's opening plenary talk at CHI in 2005, but apparently I didn't, and now I can't find his handout on teamwork. I know it's floating somewhere. But there are a couple of sites with notes: Usability News and the CHI 2005 conference website (the Conference on Human Computer Interaction, spelled CHI so it's pronouncable, hah).

I thought of his talk last week when I was giving a talk about design, stressing the difficulty and value in cross-disciplinary collaboration to an engineering company. (I've also been lurking on the Alice site wondering when the next version would come out, so this was timely!)

In his plenary, Randy had a bunch of great points about how hard teamwork between artists and developers is, particularly in our technocentric culture. Some of the points from the CHI summary:

  • Neither side can be in service of the other
  • A goal "above" either discipline really helps
  • Different disciplines have different values, moral and otherwise

It's a form of prejudice to assume that people who aren't technical aren't valuable during the design process. Despite being quite technical myself by design standards, I run into this pretty frequently at the places I work. Randy himself is an arrogant geek SOB (as he'd admit) but he has some ability to recognize and verbalize these issues, which means there's hope for others too -- if they're as smart as he is and capable of self-reflection. His students will probably do some great good in the world, after they get tired of the game industry.

Speaking of hope, Randy's dying of pancreatic cancer at 46; and his last lecture was televised here. He's surprisingly young and healthy, but he doesn't expect to live beyond a few months more. That's the world we've got, but it's still fun and funny, if you listen to Randy talk about being a kid and growing up to do the things he always wanted to do.

Recommended, especially the part on mentors. (Thanks for the link, Xiaoyu.)