Chris Khalil's Musings

My thoughts on work and life

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UX Storytellers

About a year ago I was delighted to receive an invite from Jan Jursa to contribute a chapter to a book he was compiling entitled ‘UX Storytellers’. The book describes itself as ‘42 UX masterminds tell personal stories of their exciting lives as User Experience professionals.’

After some thought, I decided to use the opportunity to follow up on a presentation I gave at UX Australia on Culutural Probes.  This chapter would give me more scope to really delve into the detail of the methods I used and outcomes we achieved.

UX Storytellers has now been published as a free PDF download with other formats and a print edition to follow.  My chapter was imaginatively titled ‘How to love and understand your audience by probing them’.

You can see a free preview below.
UX Storytellers

Innovation through Design Research

I had the pleasure of participating in the inaugural AIMIA Customer Experience Forum today along with James Breeze (Objective Digital), Stuart Edwards (Profero), Yuri Narciss (Google) and Klaus Kaasgard (Telstra).

As a new group it’s not looking to compete in the same space as the UPA or CHISIG as it’s aimed less at practitioners and more squarely at the broader online business community.

My presentation was on ‘Innovation through Design Research’ which I’ve embeded below.

UX Australia Presentation: ‘New Digital Ethnographers Toolkit: Capturing a Participant’s Lifestream’

Finally got around to putting my presentation from UX Australia up on Slideshare. Take a look, would love to hear any feedback you might have.  For a more detailed description of the background on this topic, please check out my previous post on the rationale to use digital cultural probes.

UPA Presenation: Future of HCI: Intelligent User Interfaces as Agents of Change

I was fortunate enough to be invited by the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) to come and talk at their 2nd anniversary party. alongside the excellent Cameron Adams who talked about the design of Google Wave.

It was a fantastic event, with an amazing turn out, so thanks to all involved in organising it.

Copies of my presentation can be found on ‘The Future of HCI: Intelligent User Interfaces as Agents of Change” can be found on SlideShare.

Launch of ‘The Punch’

Last week saw the launch of a project I’ve been working on called “The Punch”.  It was a great project to work on with some really talented people.

The Punch logo

The Punch is an Australian opinion-driven news and current affairs site, that aims to engage its audience in discussion on the topics of the day.  I won’t dwell too long on its raison d’être as David Penberthy has already given a very eloquant explanation for this.

However, I thought it would be worthwhile briefly outlining some of the user experience/ interaction design and visual design decisions we made:

  • The site is about discussion and opinion, so a simple blog format was the obvious direction to take.
  • The classic blog format is one that clearly, in most peoples minds, communicates the fact that the content is opinion based rather than, say, news.
  • It has the virtue of giving the homepage a certain dynamism, as it’s constantly in a state of flux as new posts very prominently replace older ones.
  • It gives the reader a chance to explore, and find out more about, the content of a post on the homepage itself.  This is due to the the introductory paragraphs of the post being visible on the homepage.  The aim here, then, is to help the reader decide whether they wish to read more based on what they’ve read, and consequently give great content the best chance to shine. This is as opposed to, say, a classic news site design in which a brief headline link performs the job of communicating the content.  Furthermore, it’s less apparent change is happening on a site when simple textual, headline links change.   They are less strong, visually, than the large headline/images/content format of a blog post segment.
  • A blog format allows large, engaging images, media (video) etc to be shown on the homepage, further driving engagement.  Again, this provision allows the reader to experience these elements rather than hide them behind a link.
  • The stripped back visual design was very deliberate.  We have a great team of journalists and contributors with really interesting things to say, and we wanted to provide them with the best possible platform with which to have a voice.  Content is King, and we didn’t want lots of unnecessary visual elements compete or detracting from it.
  • Comments were showcased on the homepage, allowing readers to get a feeling for the conversations happening ‘under the bonnet’.
  • Most Commented and Recent Posts modules on the post pages provide an alternative navigation for those reader entering from search etc.
  • The Hot Topics bar is another form of navigation.  It’s an adaptive nav that aims to surface the zeitgeist topics of the day and is an alternative to the standard static global navigation

There is plenty more that could be said, but I think that’s enough to be going on.  I’d suggest taking a look around the site itself.

I’d really welcome any comment or feedback you have on the design, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Oh, and by the way, the editorial team humoured me by putting up a post I wrote on how Google Maps allows you to plot a route from Australia to the US and suggests you kayak over the pacific ocean to get there!

It wasn’t really possible, in the Punch post itself, to give credit to the person who actually discovered this.  Dianne Knott, a friend of mine, was looking this up with me and came across it, so huge credit to her!

The new digital ethnographer’s toolkit: capturing the participant’s lifestream

I’m pleased to say that my proposed presentation for UX Australia 09 has been accepted.  It looks like this is going to be any exciting conference and I look forward to making my maiden trip to Canberra.   The speaker lineup looks great and good to see fellow NDM UX USiT team members Patrick Kennedy and Stephen Cox also made the cut.

The abstract has yet to be posted to the UX Australia 09 site, but here is my prelimenary description

Introduction

The talk will explain what the ‘new ethnographer’s toolkit’ is, and how it can be used to reconstruct user behaviour and thus enable better informed design decisions.

A great user experience is grounded in the insights gained from understanding users’ needs, behaviours and motivations.  One powerful way of gaining this insight is by simply observing users in their natural environment, often over a long period of time by means of ethnographic research.  However, this isn’t always possible, due to factors such as a lack of time or resource.  In these circumstances, a good alternative is to use a Cultural Probe.  A Cultural Probe often, simply, takes the form of a paper diary that the participant uses on a daily basis to record their thoughts.

In this talk, Christopher Khalil of News Digital Media (NDM) will explain how NDM are using an innovative web/mobile based approach to Cultural Probes (digital scrapbooks) and other research tools, utilising an array of low cost and freely available web and mobile applications such as Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Dial2Do.  He’ll step through a specific case study based on one of Australia’s largest transactional websites, taking the audience through some of the lessons learnt and giving examples of some of the actual digital scrapbooks generated.  Advice will be offered on how to analyse and mine such rich resources of information.

Full Abstract

Digital cultural probes give participants the platform with which to capture events in their lifestream, whilst they happen, and also offer a self-reporting diary/blog tool. (Instead of the traditional, more asynchronous, method of filling out a paper diary at the end of the day).  This ‘as live’ capture ensures a more realistic, natural record of the participant’s life than asking them to fill out a diary entry alone.  Furthermore, it closely connects the researcher to the participant, since the researcher can also monitor updates to the probe as they happen.  Having a digital only record also facilitates easier analysis, versioning and distribution

An example of this type of study might start with the researcher recruiting a participant straight from the site they are working on (using Ethnio).  The participant is then issued with a login to a Tumblelog (a special form of blog) and is asked to use this to record anything they find interesting on the web during the next week. A special property of the Tumblelog is that it offers a very simple mechanism for the user to capture videos, emails, images, text, audio and IM conversations as they engage in their normal online behaviour.  It also facilitates simple aggregation allowing the Tumblelog to integrate other feeds such as their Twitter or Flickr streams.  The participant can then, optionally, add commentary around any of the items they log or posts they make.  In this way, the researcher is capturing the participant’s digital fingerprints, in the form of a digital scrapbook or diary.

Away from recording their online life, the participant can capture events on their mobile phone via voice recordings, SMS, MMS or email.  These are all sent to the single Tumblelog, giving the researcher an unprecedentedly rich tapestry of contextual, in situ information about the participant.  NDM are using this knowledge to improve the user experience around several major online presences.  Christopher will take the audience through real life case studies, making available some of these digital scrapbooks and illustrating how powerful their use is, and offering advice on how to analyse and mine such rich resources

digital ethnographers toolkit

digital ethnographers toolkit

Background

Paper or Video diaries and other traditional forms of Cultural Probe are not ideal, because they are largely asynchronous (from real life) and self referential (i.e. I talk about my day through a frame I think is important).  For example, in a traditional probe, the participant would go about their everyday life, and then at the end of the day reflect back on the significant events that have taken place.  The issue with this is that the minutiae and richness of the everyday (despite being potentially important) is often lost in the edited and processed view the participant takes in their diary entry.

In this talk we look at ways technology can help capture many of these moments, recording events in the participant’s lifestream as they happen using mobile and web applications.  In other words we are capturing their digital fingerprints. The advantage of this approach is that the recording mechanism is often in the same medium and context the researcher is trying to find out more about (the web).

These tools allow the participants to easily capture videos/photos/text snippets/instant message conversations/emails/audio etc they have found interesting and put some commentary around them.  This lifestream data can then be used as a form of moodboard/scrapbook, giving the participant the ability at the end of the day to look back on what they have recorded and make sense of it.

Since many researchers don’t have time or money to setup bespoke solutions or understand technical details, this study focuses on products which are largely free or inexpensive and which can be easily configured and setup by even by the less technologically savvy researchers.

Are Apples Designs too Simple?

I’ve written a post on whether Apple’s approach to interface design is too simplistic over at the USiT Blog.  It’s a discussion piece around Bruce Tognazzin original post.

Excert:

…Now (confession time) not being an Apple aficionado I can’t really pass comment, however his general points seem quite valid. One of the founding principles of Interaction Design is to create solutions that are eminently understandable by the novice, but grow as the user become more competent then expert.

Read more….

Web 3.0, User Experience and Intelligent User Interfaces

If Web 2.0 was all about fostering social interconnectivity, then the loosely termed Web 3.0, appears to be about the intelligent web. It’s about, amongst other things, contextually aware user interfaces (UI’s), hyperconnectivity, the semantic web and intelligent agents. These are all concepts which have existed for a very long time. Primitive implementations of Intelligent UI’s and Knowledge based Expert Systems have been around for decades. Successive generations have tried, and largely failed, to get these working and so we’ve seen these technologies re-invented in waves. The failure was often due to both the primitive nature of the machine intelligence and the unwillingness of users to accept some measure of control being surrendered to the machine.

The latest wave promises better things, and maybe we are on the cusp of a time where both machine and human are ready to make the leap. The increasing symbiosis between machine and human has see many of the trust issues erode, as users come to accept that their lives could be made easier by allowing machines to take some degree of control. It may, therefore, be that we see an increase in the number of what Alan Kay termed ‘Indirect Management’[1] interfaces augmenting the now omnipresent direct manipulation interfaces, as the amount of information we have to process in our daily lives becomes too much to handle.

Indirect Management

Indirect Management means machines that learn our preferences, using inference, and that leverage the collective unconsciousness/knowledge of the web to help us manage information overload. Typically, software entities termed ‘agents’ would help manage our goals, tasks or activities.

I think the sheer volume, and nature of information, out there and the growing momentum behind the semantic web might give this wave a better chance of success. The idea that we directly manipulate everything places too much cognitive load on users, machines need to take up some of that slack, if we are to make sense of the digital world especially as computing become more ubiquitous (ubicom). This is a real challenge for those of us working in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

Example of Indirect Management

So, a typical example of how this might work, and something of a familiar metaphor, would be the process of booking a holiday. In the real world we might visit a Travel Agent and give them our general holiday preferences and budget. They may even know us and have tacitly learnt some of our preferences from the past (that I had a bad experience on a particular airline or already know where we live and so can pick the best airport). We then trust them to use their expertise to look around and come back with options for us to choose from.

Now if we transpose this example to the web, it may be that we have a trusted advisor agent/site/application on the web (an entity of some sort that we turn to). It would have learnt from its past experiences dealing with us, can leverage expertise and knowledge it’s gained from talking to other customers (and other agents) and is an expert in knowing where to find the best deals and sources of travel information.

Interaction Design Implications

So what does this mean to us who work in the User Experience and Usability fields? Well, it’s still early days, but it may mean we need to surrender some degree of control at the interaction design level. We are used to crafting interfaces with well defined behaviours in mind. Indirect Management means we still design the touch points between the user and the machine, but also – perhaps – we need to create the rules and contracts that exist between human and machine below the interface, to in fact, define very primitive (rule based?) levels on intelligence.

Emergent Behaviour may well dictate the overall system intelligence and this is pretty hard to get a handle on. We can already see this sort of behaviour in numerous recommendation systems, such as Amazon, lastfm etc and their early ancestor, firefly. But these are just the beginning, the real challenges and issues lie ahead. These are exciting times.


[1] A. Kay, “User Interface: A Personal View,” in The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, B. Laurel, ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass., 1990, pp. 191-207.

Redesign of news.com.au

This weekend saw the relaunch of the new news.com.au.

This is a project we’ve been working on for quite some time.  I’m really proud of the way it’s turned out, and it introduces a whole raft of new features not seen on any Australian media site before. These include:

  • Personalisation through drag’n’drop
  • Cookie based Personalisation, so no need to register
  • Ability to dynamically open sub-sections within the page (for instance you can now have a ‘Movies & Television’ content area show on the homepage itself)
  • A visual take on the news (click on the News Visualiser tab)
  • Improved page layout
  • Rationalised and simplified Information Architecture
  • Dynamic infotips and help
  • Improved, higher contrast font colours and typography
  • National & World sections which showcase the best news from around the world (we aggregate from other news sites)
  • Faster page load times
  • Improved navigation
  • Story pages which use highly contextualised linking to give you access to related stories
  • Story pages which include new site-wide navigational footers
  • Cleaner visual design
  • Improved Search form placement and optimised search results page

I’d like to hear any feedback you have on what we’ve done (both positive and negative welcome!)

Please, either reply here or on the news.com.au editorial blog.

User Centred Design Vs Activity Centred Design

I’m a self-proclaimed fan of ACD or as Constantine calls it, Usage Centred Design, as opposed to pure User Centred Design.  There are a number of discussions around this subject on our USiT Blog and the IxD list .  The prevailing opinion seems to be that pure UCD is a bit outmoded.

As we look at sites which have fragmented, or ill defined, audience profiles it’s hard to find commonalities in behaviours or attitudes.  However common activities, goals or tasks can be teased out, regardless of archetype.  Designing for these activities or usages gets us closer to a better design solution, perhaps, than attempting to design for several different user archetypes.

Furthermore, there can be little doubt that there are some negative connotations to being seen as purely the ‘User Advocate’ in a real life business environment.  Our job is to design successful, usable and elegant solutions.  Yes, we must fight for the optimal design solution, which by necessity must include the needs of our users, but we must also create designs which achieve business goals, are eminently findable and are technically feasible.  Sometimes these factors oppose each other and it’s our job to achieve a successful balance.

I think this discussion might just run and run, and does seem to be splitting the community.

‘Ambient Personalisation’ presentation at Web Standards Group, Sydney

I’ll be doing a second take of the presentation I gave at OZIA this year for the Web Standards Group, Sydney on Tuesday 7th October.

Date:
Tuesday 8 October
Time:
6:30pm for 7:00pm start
Where:
Australian Museum – 6 College Street Sydney
Cost:
$10 per head (pay at the door)

Rhyl to Sydney (Via Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg)

Got back last week from a month long visit to the Old Country.  It’s been 3 years since I last returned to the UK.  It was an opportunity to see my family again and catch up with old friends.

The first weekend was spent recreating the madness of student days at an old friend of mine – Kevin’s wedding.  The old crew was re-assembled in the relative calm of Ross-on-Wye (near Gloucester).  We celebrated Kev and Liz’s wedding Loughborough style!  Plenty of drunken shenanigans I can tell you.

The next few weeks were spent lazing at home in Rhyl (North Wales), eating my Mum’s delicious food and walking down the beautiful beach.  It was so fantastic to spend a bit of time with my parents and sister.

Rhyl doesn’t seemed to have changed all that much since I left.  Curiously and rather sadly many of the favourite drinking haunts seemed to have closed down.  Still, I think Rhyl gets a bit of bad rep, but for me it has just so much potential.  The beach and surrounding area are truly spectacular; it’s close to Chester and Liverpool.  I hope over the next few years the area will be much rejuvenated and gentrified.

North Wales has so much beauty and history it’s a fantastic place to spend some time.  We took a few days out to visit places like Dyserth Falls, Conwy Castle, Llandudno etc.  Captured some of these moment on my photos page.

Whilst being in the Northern Hemisphere, I thought it would make sense to head to Europe for a bit of an odyssey into the classical architecture and countryside of Central Europe.  Followed the route below:

Australia Day Weekend (Avalon Beach and North Heads National Park)

We’ve just been celebrating Australia Day weekend, which means a public holiday! So, I went back to Melbourne to catch up with old friends and celebrate my friend Emma’s birthday. It was really great to see my old city, and a place that still resonates with my soul. I love the really laid back feel and effortless cool the place radiates.

Emma took us to an outrageously good pub in Brunswick called the Retreat Hotel. Grungy, funky, vibing and charismatic, it’s a place you (as we did) sit for a good meal in a comfortable environment, drink good beers and then as the evening progresses enjoy the huge beer garden, and then wile away the committing the dance crime of choice.

We also ate at a Cambodian restaurant called Bopha Devi in Yarraville. The food was first class, spicy but delicate with complex favours. Wish they’d open one in Sydney!

After saying my goodbyes I headed back to Sydney. The weather was fantastic, and on the bank holiday Monday a few of the beach crew (Phillipa, Sarah and Maree) got in the old beast and drove North! With windows wound down, the sun shining and music blasting from my little stereo we gleefully headed towards the glorious Northern Beaches. After a bit of deliberation we decided to check out Avalon Beach.

You can view photos of the afternoon here.

This really is a beautiful haven of a beach. Largely uncrowded, it has a relaxed and easygoing air about it. We stayed for the afternoon, read, chatted and swam. It encapsulated all that is great about living in Australia: clean air, exercise, sunshine and lifestyle. As the afternoon became early evening we decided it was time to head home. En route we stopped at North Heads National Park which has the most epic views of Sydney imaginable. Sweeping views of the city and bay vistas arrest you from every angle. If you ever get a chance to visit Sydney, I’d highly recommend checking out both these places.

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