My thoughts on work and life

Category: User Experience (Page 2 of 2)

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.

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.

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.

Software as a Service – The Future of Software Apps

The word ‘service’ is increasingly becoming a bit of a buzz word, encompassing anything from SOA (Service-Oriented Architecture) to SaaS (Software as a Service). I think this is part of the increasing trend towards providing users (SaaS) and developers (SOA) with the ability to access just the information they require on demand and is an extension of the Web 2.0 movement.

It may very well lead to software being fragmented into it’s component parts, and being made available to users to syndicate and mashup – allowing new and interesting apps to emerge tailored to precisely the user’s requirements (more on this later). This is *really* important for business to consider, research firm Gartner forecasts that by 2011, 25% of new business apps will be delivered via SaaS, a jump from 5% in 2005.

SaaS allows users to access fully functioned software on the web through their browser without having to download anything (webmail is a great example of SaaS as opposed to a client side app like Outlook or Eudora). Users now have the ability to access software on a pay-as-you-use basis, giving the advantage that the application software can be upgraded on the fly without having to physically distribute it on a disc. This is an extension of the Beta zeitgeist that we see in Web 2.0 websites extended to full blown online apps (Rich Internet Applications or RIA’s).

A virtue of this is that any work that takes place on a SaaS app can be accessed anywhere at anytime (as long as the user is connected to the Internet). If you think about webmail, it allows you to access your email from any machine without having to worry about the platform or location. This metaphor can be extended to the new generation of SaaS apps that imitate the Office application suite.

For instance:

(which are both Word imitation RIAs) give you hosted disc space for free, allowing you to author a document anywhere and save it remotely on their hosted server. So, as an example I could author a document at home, get to work, login and continue to work on it (in the same way I can access my bookmarks anywhere on Del.icio.us or my photos on Flickr).

The other advantage this has is that social networking comes into play, as documents can be released for public (or limited) consumption and worked on collaboratively or shared and tagged. With ever increasing bandwidth and end-user processing power I can see the old 90’s paradigm of the Network Computer returning. One could envisage a future where all storage is remote, all applications are loaded from the Internet and the machine exists only to access the network and run the browser.

As this trend progresses, we can expect web pages to be used for what they were originally intended, pure information/content sources. No longer will we have to shoe-horn workflows into step-by-step page views (i.e. buying an item etc) but can deliver them in the most efficient manner possible, which might be via the direct manipulation paradigm.

So, if this all sounds great, what are the downsides to SaaS? Well an obvious one is that these apps require the user to be online for them to operate, so how would this work if I’m offline (i.e. I want to write a document whilst on a train). Well, already technology is working to banish this restriction. Apollo by Adobe is a runtime framework which allows developers to create a container in which flash/flex/html/ajax can co-exist, but more than that it allows a webapp to be run on the desktop, independent of the network.

So we could expect something like ThinkFree/Writely/Zoho to run within an Apollo container, so the user can seamlessly work both offline and online. So if we go back to the example just mentioned, a user could work on their document at home (whilst a network connection is available) and save it. They are then free to hop onto a train and continue to work offline, then when they reach their destination and again have access to the Network, Apollo would synch it up with the mainline server – all without the user even realising it.

So if SaaS seems like the immediate future, then what lies beyond? Well, I think SaaS applications will evolve from being online facsimiles of desktop apps to a much more powerful suite of syndicated functionality from which the author can mashup their own personalised application, built to directly suit their purpose.

To help get your head around this consider how personalised homepages like NetVibes, Google/Yahoo allow you to create your own personalised information space. No longer do you need to navigate around several news sites to get the information you need, it comes to you, delivered in the way you want it, on demand, courtesy of RSS. This is precisely the sort of behaviour we’d see, but not stemming simply from information but actual functionality. Application mashups will allow the author to create a personalised app using syndicated functionality, taking remixability to a whole new level.

For instance, I might create a purpose built app that lets me type in a search term, pick a result, get the page content, edit it (in a word type app), the re-publish as another web page. Yahoo Pipes already allows the user to easily create these types of mashups, and I expect we will see something like this extended to allow much more powerful SaaS mashups in the future.

No longer will software have to exist in a single silo, forcing the user to switch their attention between different applications. User will be able to access a particular function on demand and link software silo’s together accessing just the slices they require.

So finally, where does the future of SaaS leave Usability and User Experience? Well in a very exciting position I think. Increasingly we will be released from the artificial barriers html imposes upon us and be able to have incredibly flexibility in the way we approach and solve problems. Information Architects will continue to play an important role in organising and structuring content, but Interaction Designers will truly be let off the leash!

Innovation and Usability

Right, I’m going to try and be provocative, I may not believe any or all of the following, but thought I’d throw it out there….

The age old debate of Usability Vs Innovation still continues with many still arguing that Usability rules over creative design approaches. Personally, I think the two are not mutually exclusive and are often complimentary (particularly as we move away from the page-centric view of the web to more RIA’s). However, for a lot of Interaction Design professionals it can be frustrating that they do not often get a chance to be really innovative.

Novel Design Approaches

The problem is usable interfaces often tend to be rather conservative (some would say dull). For, you see, usable interfaces tend to be consistent with the look and feel of similar applications, and have been designed for ease of use by novice users. The problem with this is that innovative or different designs tend to depart from the existing interaction paradigm, and may therefore take a little more time to learn. In the medium term, these alternate approaches may bring far greater benefits than the traditional design. However, they rarely get that far, as users are just not prepared to learn a new dynamic, they want something they are familiar with already. Even if we make an assumption that the users are willing to adapt, how prepared are management to task a risk on something different? Does making something usable and understandable first and foremost, trounce any inspiration that may yield ‘innovative’ ways of defining a system model? Well perhaps..

I believe there are two different aspects to this problem. The first is creating innovative approaches to UI design that add value over the accepted designs, but whose opportunity cost may be the increase in learning time for users (this is not always the case, particularly with some RIA’s whose new model matches that of desktop metaphors user’s are familiar with). The second is the tension that can sometimes exist between usability (minimalist, simple and clear designs) and the accepted advantages that aesthetics (in other words adding unnecessary noise to the interface, purely for visual reasons – as Nielsen would argue) can bring to an interface.

In some projects UI design is restricted to designing interfaces within an existing, well defined look and feel. Hence, the job of UI designer becomes that of a guardian of principles already defined by others. This can be very frustrating when obvious flaws exist in the current interaction paradigm, which a creative approach may resolve. In these situations the flaws must be worked around, because resolving them may break the applications look and feel. This is the kind of example where usability (in this case the usability of consistency) and creativity may clash.

Perhaps the answer to this is, on occasion, to be brave. If an evolutionary approach, rather than a revolutionary approach is taken, such that small tweaks to the look and feel are introduced over time (rather than an overhaul) a new interaction can emerge. This is often resisted by those in charge, because for some consistency is everything. I think, though, in some cases we underestimate the user. Users can adapt, more quickly that we may give them credit for, and if an approach is taken such that we can improve their ability to interact with the application, even at the expense of learning time, I believe users would prefer it.

Currently the main focus during design is on ‘user ability to do’ and not ‘user ability to learn’. In the former approach we only see what a user can do, and not their ability to adapt to new models. By listening intently to the user, and not straying from their existing mental model, we run the risk of ‘safe’ or stagnant design (in other words, sticking to what they know). If we take the latter approach it opens the door to innovation. To be really daring, I’d even suggest an approach could be taken where we stop asking users what they want and instead make assumptions about their abilities. These assumptions can be derived by doing good user research – observation/contextual enquiry/cultural probes/ethnomethodology etc the result of which may be a really good model of user activities (Activity Centred Design), by doing this we model what the user wants to achieve and from this we can design solutions the user may not even conceive of, yet once learnt will increase their efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction. An alternative to this approach is to do just the opposite, involve users completely throughout the design process. By involving the user in participative design sessions, and giving them a say in the design, potentially creative solutions may emerge. It is important, though, to make the user see past their expectations of the interface, since these are defined by their use of existing applications.

If this all sounds a bit too much (and I think it may), I’d suggest trying to implement new interaction paradigms into the existing UI structure. When I worked at Schlumberger we had some rather unique situations (highly complex applications which conventional UI patterns could not cope with). Most of these situations related to complex data visualisation and I found some rather interesting technologies out there which might provide a solution (these are probably a bit dated now but what the heck). The following links highlight novel approaches that may well resolve some of the problems encountered in some applications.

  • The TimeSearcher (A novel prototype environment for interactive querying and exploration of time-series data)
  • Fish Eye Lens Menu Navigator (A brilliant application of the fish-eye lens principle, suitable for any application which requires navigation of long lists)
  • Hyperbolic Tree Browser (Stuart Card at XeroxParc came up with this some time ago, here is the latest commercial incarnation. Interesting way to navigate large data trees)
  • Table Lens (Innovative way of navigating around large data sets, very efficient and useful)

These are a few years old now, but there are many great technologies around now which can provide fantastic alternate approaches (Ajax/Flex/Laszlo etc).

Aesthetics

Style, brand, look and feel are all very important elements of daily life -and the user experience- and are things we should be paying attention to if we really want to differentiate our products in the market place. To achieve a certain style, it is important that attention is paid to aesthetics. Yet sometimes aesthetic are forsaken at the alter of usability or cost. A usability disciple will often tell you that clarity is important and that the interface should be stripped bare of all unnecessary clutter or distraction. A graphic designer may well tell you people will sacrifice a little clarity for an increase in visual experience. Whose right? Well both actually.

Clearly most people do not use software applications solely for the purposes of being visually pleased, just as most people do not use their cars solely for the purposes of looking at them (although some do spend an undue amount of time doing just that!). Most people get into their cars every day in order to get from one place to another (as software users do), however, car manufacturers understand that one cannot build a car that is merely functional and not pay ample attention to the aesthetics.

Why? Because car manufacturers acknowledge what many usability specialists do not people are emotional beings and not simply functional robots. We make purchases based on any number of factors, usability and aesthetics being very important ones of them. If that were not the case, no one would ever buy a Porsche, why should they when a Skoda performs the same function (ok a little slower admittedly!). People would, like Homer Simpson, own several pairs of the same items of clothing so as not to spend time deciding what to wear. After all, one style of clothing serves the function of covering and protecting your body, right? What function is served having different styles?

Design, when it’s done well, is like architecture and combines the best of form AND functionality. The legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

This is where we should be aiming to go…

The Issue of Context in E-Commerce

Are people are more likely to be engaged when information is presented to them in a contextualised, relevant environment, than in an isolated disconnected one?

Well it’s all about connecting with people in meaningful ways. The Internet, for the everyman is a treacherous place. Engendering trust is crucial in a successful e-commerce environment. People tend to not trust things they are unfamiliar with. Therefore, providing meaningful metaphors that reflect real life situations is comforting to the user. Once trust has been gained and the user has successfully engaged with the site they are likely to return and interact with it (and believe it’s message).

Remember User Experience, is at the heart, about providing the user with an experience that is (and these are the standard type of definitions, there are more complex ones):

  • Intuitive
  • Consistent
  • Comfortable
  • Trustworthy

Intuitive and Consistent relate to Usability, Comfortable and Trustworthy relate to the User Experience. This is why we endeavour so much, in our field, to understand the user and why invest so much effort developing persona’s. Because, by doing so we can achieve the right tone and voice in which to speak to the user we are aiming for, this provides them with comfort and familiarity. Speaking down or obfuscating a user is a certain way to alienate them. By presenting information in a context free way, we increase the risk of this dramatically.

Trust is also crucial. If we are to compete in the ruthless on-line market where we expect users to give us their credit card details and personal information, it is critical that we build a bond of trust with our audience. This cannot be engineered per se (other than through explicit privacy statements etc). It must be gained by giving the user a sense that the site feels like a shop might in the real world. Friendly assistant and familiar surroundings contribute to this. In the real world shops go to a great deal of effort to provide many cues which re-inforce this message. So things like making a site feel personal (but not to the extent of anthropomorphising it totally which can just seem artifical) help. Providing familiar looking images or pictures of real life people add to a feeling that the site isn’t an impersonal automaton but has real people behind it. This goes back to context. In the end, the interaction a user with a site is an emotional experience. Over the course of many successful visits a positive experiences lead to trust.

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