18 Feb 2012 1814H

And so…

I am in a new job, after quite a bit of searching, and a few unexpected events in our life, I joined User Centric as of 01 November. It has been a bit of a shift, and it has been pretty busy, with a lot of hours doing data collection, but learning a lot and seeing a lot of interesting things. Life at my previous employer, Siemens Healthcare (not only did Siemens survive two world wars, but prospered) was good, benefits were quite generous, and hours were occasionally long but very stable. There were of course the usual frustrations and difficulties of big companies. I quite likely could have followed the path of many others who retired from Siemens. But I’m a big believer that you actively manage your career: at some point, you measure your results against progress plans, people have to move on, learn new things, engage new challenges, otherwise, you stop growing. I have a lot of hope for the future of our system, AXIOM Sensis, and I think we designed some interesting things and fixed some serious problems. I’m looking forward to the day we can tell the whole story about the things we did there. In the meantime, onwards!

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11 Jul 2011 0552H

What a manifesto!

I’ve been mulling over this fantastic post from Abby the IA, sort of haunting me the last few weeks.

It’s easy to lose track of what’s important in life. Everyone has to manage their own lives, their own careers. There are many people who cannot do this, but, for those of us who can, we should seek out the situations and people that foster the best within us.

Just sayin’.

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26 Jun 2011 1508H

What is your kung fu?

Had a conversation with another martial artist the other day who is also a UX practitioner, which got me thinking about the relationship between UX and martial arts.

Gung fu (功夫), as we pronounce it in Cantonese, is not literally a martial art, but a kind of euphemism, literally meaning, “a skill,” or perhaps more subtly but accurately “an achievement.” To “know gung fu” therefore refers to someone possessing any kind of skill, only achieved after long, grueling hours of repetitive sacrifice and training: a cook, for instance, possesses a skill, as do any number of artists, craftsmen, and skilled workers. One must keep in mind that martial arts in imperial China used to be practiced almost exclusively by the military, the police, and by people who had to use force for their living: private security forces, mercenaries, the criminal underworld, and those who dwelt at the interstices of society. Given the difficulties of living in old China, everyday people had little free time beyond meeting basic needs, and learning a martial art was not one of those needs. In the procrustean logic of the authorities, this potentially meant a “skilled” person could be a criminal or a political threat, which were often one and the same (one can see how this has carried over to modern Chinese legal thinking), and so one had to mask and talk about one’s true abilities, if one talked at all about them, through codes: He knows a skill. He dances with skill. His skill is quite good.

For many years, gung fu has shaped my thinking, and become a metaphor for life. But over the years as my study has deepened, and as my thinking has evolved, a new understanding of gung fu has been emerging: it’s not enough to know only the individual movements of gung fu. The learning of our system, like all martial art systems, is not recorded in writing, but in these dance-like forms that dictate the movements of the body, passed on by oral tradition, inscribed in the body’s muscle memory, in the physical postures and delivery of the practitioner. These forms consists of individual movements: a punch, a kick, a block, a stance, timings, executions, transitions.

To recite the form’s movements from memory — which is no small feat, some of our forms consist of more than a hundred movements — is actually only the first and surface level of understanding. But that itself is not true gung fu. It is like memorizing the words of the poem, or notes of a piece of music, and reciting them plainly without understanding of the relationships between the words and notes, only understanding the individual words or notes. That is where most beginners remain.

But the next deeper level of understanding becomes building relationships between the basic elements, that is, line-level meaning. One understands not only words, but how they fit together into sentences, phrases. Each sentence has its own meaning, and each section of a poem has its own meaning. The sections of the piece have their own relationship to each other and to the whole. Now the practitioner has attained basic understanding and can interpret in a way that is unique to them.

Perhaps the next level of mastery is that one understands at last the spirit of the form, and then one can transcend the form itself, so that the user refines it or can build something new from it. Or perhaps one comes to believe there is no need for that form at all: one realizes there was never any form at all, that this was only a structure that was placed and shaped in such a way to facilitate learning, but over time, the form itself, a collection of structures, became the art, instead of the study, interpretation, generation and testing of new ideas, a prison and not an agora.

Perhaps when we talk about user experience, we really should be asking, what is your gung fu?

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19 Jun 2011 1702H

Where do user experience problems come from?

If we accept that user experience is a person’s conversation with numerous elements of a service or technology offering — they need not and indeed should not have to know anything about the technologies and business models that gird that face-level interaction — then it also quickly becomes apparent that user experience problems arise from various failings of the layers and components that support that surface.

Typically as UX professionals we’re often called upon to solve problems having to do with the cross-streets of user-facing strategy and implementation, either some absence of understanding, perhaps unsubstantiated assumptions made about that user’s real needs, and how they were concretized in the user interface, that itself is comprised of some usability problem due to structure, which translates further into poor assumptions made regarding the communication design or interaction design.

Garrett’s famous Elements of User Experience model (Strategy-Scope-Structure-Skeleton-Surface) can be simplified a bit further to reveal that user experience problems can be diagnosed and treated at one of three levels:

1) Surface level UX problems. While assumptions were substantially if not fundamentally correct about the user’s needs and that their requirements were adequately captured and realized in the UI, something failed between the translation from structure to the UI, either due to interactions between the graphic design, the information architecture, and the interaction design, performance issues having to do with the technical architecture or implementation, or failures of the interaction design on the whole. Usability tests and observations of user behaviors, whether contextual or quantitative, will reveal these problems. Interaction design and communications design changes are required here to correct these types of problems. Many UXers, Front-End Engineers, Graphic Designers, IxDs, Rich Media professionals are engaged in trying to implement at this level.

2) Structure level UX problems. Although the assumptions made about the user’s needs were substantially or fundamentally correct (or validated as such through prototyping), they were not translated or integrated into well-structured labels, organizing schemes, hierarchies, categories, mappings, functional blocks and modules of interactions. This is a failure to adequately capture understanding of the user’s mental model and translate this into the touchpoints where the user interacts with the service or the technology and will almost certainly affect everything downstream of it, but often this is the root cause of the problem, not per se the surface UI, which is only the control layer. Most UXers who call themselves IAs and IxDs are engaged here, trying to implement at this level. The major challenges at this level involve understanding the strategy, translating the strategy into the structure, then integrating it into some kind of whole for handoff to creatives and technologists.

3) Strategic level UX problems. The fundamental assumptions about the user’s needs were substantially incorrect, due in part to absence of learnings, user engagement, validations, and that any requirements derived from these learnings were essentially poorly translated due to this lack of understanding. This is perhaps the most difficult type of problem to diagnose since the assumptions about the user translate forward into bad results in the structure and the surface, but this is the root cause of the problem. If the fundamental business assumptions that undergird the service or technology offering are incorrect, this is quite likely a fatal error that no amount of implementation optimization or spin can ever help recover. Comparatively few UX professionals are engaged at this level, but this is where they can have the greatest impact not as value-adders, but as value-creators, by using integrative thinking on observations collected from multiple data sources: indirect or secondary sources like service data, quantitative usage data; primary or direct sources like contextual observations, surveys, usability tests, interviews, anecdotes, complaint reports, so on.

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08 Feb 2011 1234H

On Twitter, again

Yeah, it’s bullshit but I update Facebook and Linkedin more than I care to admit, so I am going to place all my liveblogging and microblogging eggs in the Twitter basket. Follow me @genemoy on Twitter:

Follow genemoy on Twitter

Readers of this blog have no doubt noticed the disappearances of the regular Delicious bookmarking updates. I been taking a look at the bookmarking strategy lately. I will need to put some more time into this site. Technorati used to be huge and now it’s where? And so too with Delicious, I think. Thoughts?

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Filed under Strategy, Web

31 Jan 2011 1200H

Why change fails

Here’s something that became pretty clear for me this weekend at UX4Good.

While reading the IDEO HCD Toolkit I came across this diagram:

Kinds of change

Kinds of change

This diagram illustrates largely the business demands of the new product development lifecycle and should not be surprising to anyone who does any user experience work. But this is really only one half of the conversation between the business and the user.

To see how the other half works, let’s envision the “derivative” of rollout of the change as the probability of adoption or sustaining change, as measured by resistance or friction from the targeted users, using the same visual vocabulary (pardon my shoddy Illustrator skills):

Resistance to Change

Resistance to Change

This diagram represents the user side of the conversation. In terms of metrics, I’ve used “effort” and “cost” as determinants of resistance or friction in adopting and sustaining the change. As you can see, the more difficult it becomes for the user to adopt the change, due to either more effort (new ways of doing things, cognitive feats) or having the user bear costs (time, money), the less likely the change will be successfully adopted or sustained.

It is possible to reduce the effort through better usability, workflow, interaction design; this tends to reduce friction and increase adoption, but those improvements may differ in value compared to other factors, such as having to pay for an upgrade or buy a new device: this is where the user does a cost-benefit analysis. Therefore, when designing the change effort, a similar “resistance analysis” should be performed to identify the potential friction points so they can be targeted by user experience mitigation efforts.

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30 Jan 2011 2153H

The Postpartum

Starting from Friday 2PM-7PM and on Saturday 8AM-5PM, I was essentially sequestered in a room with 10 user experience designers, all senior people, generally with different lenses, and on Saturday, we were also joined by Dr. Gary Slutkin, the epidemiologist from the UIC School of Public Health and ED of CeaseFire, and LaMont Evans, an interrupter at CeaseFire from the Englewood neighborhood. Each of the designers had, like myself, been invited by someone from UX4Good to participate in a design challenge, detailed in the previous post. On Friday we were duly circulated a design brief with some initial persona skeletons and some constraints.

In retrospect, this initial five-hour period was probably necessary given the size of the group to form, storm, and norm, and to understand the scope of the problem first. There were some initial attempts to trundle out the canon of predictable and obvious user experience tools to bring to bear on the problem, but, these were generally restrained as the group rallied to reject simplistic and obvious techno-centric solutions in favor of understanding what the organization really needed first. Of course, that couldn’t come until Saturday morning when our stakeholders arrived and answered a list of questions we’d assembled to help us focus the direction of the design effort. As the day unfolded, I think a number of us understood that there was only so much time to present, and secondly, the barometer of the room tended positively towards some further post-challenge engagement with the client, as they have some serious needs to fill but no capacity to do so, so we hung back as a subset of us ideated around the core concepts, which took some time away from the assembling of the presentation. This probably hurt us a bit in the final eval, but I think we were certainly up there, since three of the solutions hurt themselves by staying relatively in-the-box. Everyone shared some leadership in shaping the solution — we have really great people there in the team: Brian Maggi of Idea Momentum, Joe Juhnke of Tanagram, Halley Hopkins from Collective Context, Stephen Lund of Digital Primates, among others — I have to say, a very impressive effort was led by the emergent team lead, Tanarra Schneider of Manifest Digital, a natural leader of tremendous empathy whose career will be interesting to watch, and some serious last-minute heroics, as usual, visited on our creative lead, David Scotney of Reach, who executed with flawless celerity and aplomb.

Looking back over this past weekend, while we did not take the prize — the crew working on re-envisioning public education with my old colleague Pete Simon from Sears did, although it seemed more of a re-presentation of the concepts that would lie under the actual product — what we gained was far more important. If the energy level in the room was any indicator, and if my colleagues and I act correctly, it is not hard to see the day that casual, everyday outbreaks of urban violence here in Chicago will be reduced to an incidence level similar to that of polio, and then those numbers can be scaled to other cities, to other countries, and so on.

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28 Jan 2011 0028H

Primum non nocere

Starting Friday afternoon, for 24 hours, at a gathering called UX4Good, also known mysteriously also as UXXU, I’ll be one of 40 area UXDs working on one of five social challenges here in the city of Chicago, although really the issues we face could be those in any city in the world: community mental health (good timing), unemployment/underemployment, urban violence, cross-cultural understanding (whatever that means, hopefully not another ebony and ivory lovefest, our city is more diverse than that), and public education (especially needed now that the state pension fund is bankrupting us all out of house and home, with no other creative option than to raise taxes).

While we’re on the subject, not to give Hizzoner Mayor Richie a kick in the rear on his way out (what the heck, what’s one more footprint, really) but between him and his dad they had almost 50 years to alleviate these problems, and to unite, rather than divide our people against each other, one ward against the other, thereby creating a truly great and enduring legacy, but they chose to spend their time and influence in other ways. I don’t expect the situation will change in the all-but-christened Emanuel administration or any other pretenders to the throne. And now it is here in the second decade of the 21st century where a team of largely white, relatively privileged, predominantly north-side dwelling and socializing (but well meaning) young people come to play.

Primum non nocere!

I was originally going to write about how I, who marched in countless rallies in California in the ’90s, marshalled innumerable campus protests, once even arrested for the union, who held the briefest of tenures as a community organizer in Uptown, and was once the national coordinator of one of the largest Asian American community based organization networks online at the time, welcomed this as a return to my true form, relighting the bonfires of progressivism, long lain dormant, possibly invoking the names of deceased mentors and colleagues in the struggle, etc. Well, that was almost twenty years ago. . . suburban living and a fat corporate job blunts that gruntled leftist edge very quickly. Hardly what I’d call smashing the state where I’m at now, and it has not been so for some time, since I was obviously so good at it that I went into this business instead.

Anyway, given this city’s reputation for bluster — we are not called the Windy City for nothing — I’m not exactly sanguine about tomorrow’s brazen assault upon the ramparts of Chicago’s unmet social needs. Sure we are making an effort, that counts for something, no? But to have anything more than extremely modest hopes and expectations for tomorrow would be nothing less than arrogant, speed of the internet or no.

It would be a great thing if we performed a heroic, creative and even unexpected application of design thinking in a way that would involve real people and neighborhoods, with all their messiness, their failings, their deceits, thereby putting to the test Tim Brown’s thesis about applying design thinking to social needs, which in another form others for decades have called community organizing. That would be interesting.

It may however be considered within some quarters a great thing if our solutions turn out to be unimaginatively and predictably technology-centric, revolving around some combination of the web plus mobile — Twitter, Facebook/LinkedIn, Web — a glamorous, not-for-profit, and safely liberal version of what many of us in this line of work do on a daily basis: peddling or prettifying things without really any contact at all with customers or people who actually have to use our wares. Well, if we do that, we don’t need to attend in person, we can simply phone it in from Bar Louie and then it’s onwards to the next great powerpoint deck!

So why do this then?

For me, there is, despite the failed expectations and the missed opportunities and the squandered trust along the years, a part of me that still impossibly dares to hope, in the way that Ted Kennedy hoped, that for all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures. Perhaps it is because I have spent too many hours buried in peddling and prettifying over the years that I am still curious about what will come about if and when we put a bona fide effort into these causes. Sure, tomorrow, we leave behind the workaday world, with its endless handwringing over budget items, and regression testing, and pointless email arguments across 11 and a half time zones about relatively tiny matters for a day, a welcome respite against the everyday office unpleasantness. But I want to see and shape for myself and I am willing to see, for one more day, how far that goes. Against my better judgment, I will place my abilities and my trust in others to do the same, and in sharing there is also learning. Against those who chose not lift a finger for fear of failing, we have been given a golden opportunity, a permission, and not a judgment, to try and to fail; to fail early, so we can succeed sooner. Since we acknowledge the possibility of failure, and that fear has been put aside, what we do will be tiny. It will even be insignificant. But this much I can do.

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31 Aug 2010 2259H

Prototyping with Microsoft Sketchflow

Well, bosses sprung for a copy of Expression Blend on my request — our software runs on Windows, we’re a Microsoft shop, so behooves us to find efficiencies and smooth transitions in the development lifecycle in any way possible — spent a few days last week picking it up and playing around with it. The copy of Dynamic Prototyping with Microsoft Sketchflow that I bought on my Kindle for iPhone was not so much helpful. I largely spent that time watching a bunch of very helpful videos on the Microsoft Design .toolbox and Expression website. It took a few days of wrasslin’ with the software to understand the capabilities and limitations came relatively late in the game, about day four or so.

Quickly evident, Expression is Microsoft’s answer to the Adobe creative suite juggernaut, but specifically for developing the front end layer, known as Windows Presentation Foundation, to the Microsoft .net platform that powers their desktop and the web platforms. The Expression package I got contains web, video, and vector graphics software, as well as the Sketchflow prototyping tool. Clearly the whole package is meant for driving Silverlight experiences across the web (I of course need not explain to the erudite followers of this pitiful blog what Silverlight is) and less so for desktop applications such as we design at Siemens, but still useful to a certain degree. Sketchflow comes with Expression Blend 4 and only in the Ultimate package, which is sad, because it really could be much more, like for instance if it was integrated with Visio. As I am writing this it is becoming more clear to me why Visio is being deprecated in favor of this tool, since Sketchflow generates actual code as well as UI, but I precede myself.

Sketchflow allows you to use a pre-skinned “sketch” style to plunk down user interface elements onto a workspace called the Artboard. After positioning and grouping the elements together in gestalt-y ways, you can create two types of screens with them: navigation and component screens, which can be linked together in various ways to simulate interactivity. The navigation screens are your main screens, such as one might envision using in Silverlight or laying out in Visio, and the components are parts of those screens that are used over and over again or that might have state changes and the like. You can control the different visual states of screens with built-in, pre-scripted behaviors relatively painlessly. It is rather easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of properties that a user can assign through the Windows Presentation Foundation to these Windows Forms, but fortunately, it is also easy to ignore the majority of these properties and focus solely on building your forms, navigation schemes, and how transitions and various visual effects might occur.

As I was saying previously, the bonus of working with Expression Blend 4 and Sketchflow, which is embedded in the Expression Blend vector graphics app, is that as you are designing in Sketchflow, you are generating XAML through the application, which allows you to create applications in Windows Presentation Foundation, so, this actually speeds up and eases the development and integration process between the UX and front end development efforts with the backend ones. Another very powerful feature of Sketchflow is that once you have your different states and layouts, it is easy to build the project and package it so it can be deployed to the web for quick remote u-testing or other feedback sessions, as there are built-in feedback tools that allow the reviewers to export their comments and visual guidance as files that can be sent back through email or the web. Also I like that you can keep building different levels of fidelity on the prototype all the way from the initial sketchy style, used to defuse potential misguided attention about the look and feel that sucks needed attention from the interaction and business logic, all the way to very polished software. As usual, it is pretty easy to do some basic things in Microsoft, but when you want to start doing some more, it starts getting more complex and you have to dig deeper into the Microsoft morass.

And that is where I left it, because I’m sure that somewhere, the business decision was made to support the development efforts of people working primarily on the web, which is where money still is being spent, as opposed to those folks who are doing desktop applications work, which is admittedly a minority these days. Sketchflow’s designers do not exactly support the desktop app designer as its very structure fundamentally assumes that most users are designing Silverlight apps to be deployed on the web or as rich media apps, so it’s disappointing at that level. Still, compared to the out-of-box experience of Adobe Flash, Sketchflow does more and more quickly. Palo Alto could take a hint from Sketchflow, except that Flash isn’t really used for developing desktop apps either.

However, as I also said previously, just the fact that there’s this possibility that you can speed along the effort towards tighter integration with backend development by passing them some working code is potentially a good thing if there is not too much rework. I remember, by the way, the days when FrontPage would generate so much bad code that as soon as we could, we abandoned it wholesale for Dreamweaver, and even then we still wrote our own code. But I leave that now to application developers, and I focus on interaction design.

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Filed under Geekery, Interaction Design, Technology, Work

25 May 2010 0739H

Conducted international remote usability testing the other day

Rather interesting experience. Client was in Cleveland, which is only an hour time difference, but the server was in Bangalore (India!) being run by a colleague between 11:30PM and 1AM their time. Somehow we got Microsoft Live Meeting working and were able to get them to take control of the Bangalore computer, so they could execute tasks. Didn’t get visual feedback but we had a colleague in Cleveland sitting next to the “test subject.” It’s hard to feel amazing at 1AM Indian Standard Time, I suppose, but on the whole pretty darn amazing that the thing worked as well as it did.

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