Usability vs. Innovation? Stop already.

I was attending a UPA talk yesterday, and although I came in toward the end of the session, managed to catch a glimpse of what was about to turn into a flame war about how companies aren’t really innovating to their fullest potential. The speaker also apparently implied that usability is becoming less effective a tool in making great innovation happen, to which some people clearly disagreed.

It’s interesting to note that Martyn Perks has mentioned these things before, in a similar way a few years ago, also at another UPA event, so it seems he’s making a name for himself on this.

I’m setting aside the obvious flame baits here, because innovation and usability can too often be defined in ways that mean lots of things depending on what you’re talking about. Maybe what Perks was referring to reads something along the lines of this research article, which evaluates how (occasionally rigorous or ‘standardized’) usability work can hinder the creative progression that may be essential to produce effective innovation (whatever that innovation means).

I feel this comparison is partly pointless already, but I am summarizing my reasons as to why I feel this is so.

1. inevitably, all solutions are aimed at the long term and the wider good

Cast the net, aim for the greater good – let’s make both the usability and innovation folks happy. Let’s make them celebrate why they believe usability and innovation are so deeply connected to one another, it would be ridiculous to separate them – even if there are differences between the two.

2. don’t be afraid to use the P word

Politics are an obvious reason why we often do any innovating or usabilit-izing(?), or not. It may not have to be the case of the-bad-boss, since even small groups at peer level suffer from organizational behaviour influences. One case study I learnt this week revealed how a information architecture project failed because some people were afraid they would lose their jobs to an effectively redesigned website. This is one reason why I don’t think we’ll be seeing robots more than we’ll be seeing secretaries over the next 100 years (secretaries always do a better job).

3. many different people are good. many different people are bad.

Information architects. Brand strategists. Marketers. Usability testers. Users. Organizational psychologists. How many terms do we need for people who get paid to solve “new” problems for old and clueless people who can’t understand it anyway? And it seems that everyone has a specific trait, formed quite commonly by a shared interest in being really creative, solving real problems, and making real users happy. So why is there such an internal confusion? Let’s be nice to one another, since the future is inevitably ours since old people die anyway, and the clueless move on.

4. So what if the word usability and innovation has been overused?

Everyone knows what it sort of means, just work around it. We’ve beaten this to death.

I’ll do my best to attend the next and final UPA talk in London before 2009 comes around. Hopefully with less flame baits.

My 2 hours at Serco Usability

We had a field trip to Serco Usability Labs today. We were hosted by Andrew Swartz, who was very friendly and helpful in talking to us about the company and giving us a brief overview of the lab and even getting us involved in some usability activities.

It was great that they brought out a whole table full of snacks – grapes, corn chips, mini pretzels, twinkies,… the works. We were sheepishly holding ourselves back while Andrew was talking us through the slides, but we had our fill during the minute break though.

We didn’t get to visit the offices, which were located upstairs. We hung around the reception area and were brought to one of the testing labs, which is quite a comfy room with a large TV screen and a computer inside. The place was set up well for observation, with a huge glass window-mirror to the observation room.

This lab was a lot more customer-facing than the BT lab I visited a few years back. I just remember walking through a series of store rooms in a building in Adastral Park, before I got to the nicely decorated BT usability labs. The Serco one was conveniently located just after the reception room past a set of doors.

Although we were there for over 2 hours, it didn’t feel all that long. I was surprised at how fast time passed, and it could’ve been the fault of the snacks but Andrew did a really good job of grabbing our interest and creating some good interactions in the room.

We got a feel of how it’s like to do a usability test when a few of us tried walking through introductions for users who come into the labs. I volunteered to facilitate one of the sessions with a ‘fake’ user, who was one of the Serco staff, and it went really well and we had good things to talk about. My classmates heard me say “this sucks” from the observation room, which is really funny. I felt like I was being observed more than playing the part of the observer (of the user).

One key thing that was repeated a lot was to avoid our tendency to help the user during the think-aloud process, which I thought was a valid point to make, because the user does seem like they need help a lot sometimes. But facilitation requires a kind of real-time observation and curiousity, and sort of being in two places at once – an observer as well as a host.

If this is a taste of what the usability industry is like, then I am sold. I absolutely love interacting with users and learning how they make use of systems, and being part of the process of providing solutions that can help both companies and users build better products.

Web Without Words – the danger of using wireframes

Yahoo Without Words
Yahoo Without Words

UX Magazine posted a short note about Web Without Words, a site that strips down popular websites like Yahoo.com and CNN.com to its wireframes. Everyone in the IxD community knows what wireframes are used for, and this approach is sort of the reverse-engineering attempt of that.

My question is – does anyone really rely on wireframing to determine the quality of information architecture? When I compare CNN and its wireframe, I get the sense that typography makes a lot of difference here, as well as text colour.

While wireframes are useful in providing structure to an initial layout, but is hardly ever used again to evaluate the quality/usefulness of a site unless there’s something really wrong with it.

In terms of human perception, color tends to dominate shape. And in this case, I feel that wireframes should only be represented in grayscale instead of having multiple colors to influence a design decision.

Take for example the following experiment, which I grabbed from this site:

The “Stroop Test” is a good example of how color dominates shape. The test works by taking a color term, such as “Blue,” and showing it printed in either blue or red ink:

Blue Blue

When asked to read the word, people take longer to read the word “Blue” in red ink than in blue ink. Color perception is fast and automatic.

This is a good example of how color can greatly influence a decision, and while wireframing seeks to inform how users evaluate priorities of information according to shape, the dominant influencer here is not shape but color.

Hence, I feel that you can probably treat wireframes in various levels:

1. layout areas

Have separate containers marked completely in grayscale, with specific parts in color if they are indeed going to be in that color (for the purpose of prioritizing that area).

2. layout areas with blocked out text

Blocked out text should be indicated with its intended colors, to communicate how specific colors are used for communication (blue for links? red for errors?).

3. layout areas with subtle design trims (with or without text)

This is based on another human perception observation that shape dominates texture. Design cues such as color gradients, drop shadows, tiled backgrounds, and the like – can be present in a wireframe to observe the balance of shape vs color vs texture.

Obviously you don’t want to overdo this. The whole purpose of color vs shape and shape vs texture is to use it as a design tool to help users navigate your content or to communicate your content effectively.

Design is a holistic process. Which is why I feel sometimes a part of it gets a lot of attention while others doesn’t. But that’s what design is all about – making something clear, specific, focussed, articulate. In this sense, it’s hard to realize that design elements that are unpronounced in a particular subject could be there for a very good reason.

Blogs on Interaction Design, Usability, and User Experience

Here is a list of some blogs and podcasts that I subscribe to and read regularly for insights into interaction design, usability and user experience. I usually go for breadth, and there’s no “one blog to rule them all”, since all of these different fields (IxD, UxD, usability, ergonomics, HCI) intersects in ways I cannot even begin to imagine.

http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/ (rss)

UIE (User Interface Engineering) is a “leading research, training, and consulting firm specializing in web site and product usability”, according to the website. It was founded by Jared Spool, a heavyweight in the usability industry. He has a podcast called SpoolCast, which I also listen to. UIE features articles and blogs from its employees and other folks, not just Jared. The podcast often features interviews with noted experts in their various fields related to IxD.

http://bokardo.com (rss)

Bokardo is a blog by Joshua Porter, author of “Designing for the Social Web”. He writes on interface design for social websites and applications. His articles are very insightful, and are very applicable in the field of IxD.

http://www.bplusd.org (rss)

BplusD is a blog by Jess McMullin, from nForm and co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute. He often writes about innovation, creativity and design from a business perspective.

http://metacool.typepad.com/metacool/ (rss)

Metacool is a blog by Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO. Great stuff on the intersection of innovation, design, creativity and business.

http://jasonsantamaria.com/articles/ (rss)

Jason is a graphic designer and creative director at Happy Cog Studios. He writes on photography and design (and occasional random stuff).

http://www.findability.org (rss)

Peter Morville has a huge list of credentials, being the author of two books, founding several organizations and leading established companies, any post from him is worth a read.

http://www.adaptivepath.com/blog/ (rss)

Adaptive Path was founded by Jesse James Garrett, who is credited to have coined the term, AJAX. The company focusses on user experience solutions, and the blog features a lot of articles from its well-established team. I don’t know why but the Web 2.0 community think very highly of Adaptive Path.

http://experiencecurve.com (rss)

Karl Long is a product manager by trade, but blogs on innovation and social media (amongst other useful things). Not purely IxD stuff, but worth a read.

http://www.subtraction.com (rss)

Khoi Vinh is a graphic designer, and now Design Director of NYTimes.com. Good posts on design, web innovation, social media.

http://www.uxmag.com (rss)

An online magazine dedicated solely to user experience, featuring articles contributed by a community of designers, usability practitioners, marketers, business gurus, technologists. Contains good “news” content.

http://www.netmag.co.uk (rss)

Netmag is a magazine for web developers and web designers. I find that sometimes these two fields intersect. The articles often deal with the technical nitty gritty of web interaction design. Good to have if you’re constantly coding CSS, HTML, Javascript and the like.

Other IxD related sites which I read:

http://www.uxmatters.com

http://www.disambiguity.com

http://www.graphpaper.com

http://www.usabilitypost.com

http://www.ixda.org

The UCLIC Experience

I’m only about a month into the UCLIC program, but I thought I’d pen (key?) down my overall impressions about it first, and come back later to fill in the blanks. The whole point is that postgraduate education is quite often a very personal choice, and that students often choose based on very different factors.

How I got here

So, I’ll explain a bit about how I got here. When I started off half a year ago, I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do this. My plan was to get some UK exposure, more specifically in London. I had been applying to a few British companies to see if they would sponsor my relocation, but it became increasingly difficult. I was also presently working with a large British company, but hopes of getting relocated within the company was bleak.

I started thinking about doing a Masters when I went to a UK education fair organized by the British council. Not many universities were offering programs related to usability, human-computer interaction, interaction design or innovation. The few who did were Middlesex and City University, and I do not know why UCL was not represented on that day. I knew very little of UK universities.

My initial research on City’s program got me excited, but upon further research I found out that UCL was offering a very similar program, albeit at almost twice the price. This was when it started becoming hazy for me. How different was City’s program compared to the offered at UCLIC?

Up till now, this is one question I cannot answer completely. There is great lack of information regarding this field in the UK, and I suppose the US fares a little better but I didn’t want to go back to the States.

City University HCI vs UCLIC HCI-E

On the surface, City U’s HCI program focusses more on the working man’s objectives. It offers a whole set of modules focussed on very professional objectives such as requirements gathering, systems specification, multimedia, with less focus on theoretical or analytical parts of the subject (design theory, cognition, etc.)

UCLIC’s HCI-E program offers more breadth – allowing you to evaluate a variety of different aspects in order to draw good conclusions on a particular HCI or E (for Ergonomics) related problem. The inclusion of Ergonomics implies that UCLIC is not just about web usability. In fact, this year they’ve introduced a module on Affective Computing, which takes a look at computing from the aspect of emotion.

I chose UCL because I needed more from the analytical and reflective parts than I did from the practical and professional parts. At the same time, UCL being ranked 9th in the world meant I had some bragging rights, if at all.

The UCLIC Way

UCLIC takes a very pragmatic approach in getting you bridge the gap between theory and practice, and students are assessed on how well they fare on this. I’m required to do about as much self-study as class time, and class time is divided into 50% teaching time and 50% practicals. The self-directed reading encourages investment in topics of interest, maturity, reflection, and creativity.

I don’t get the sense that I’m being isolated from what’s happening in the “real world”. Every Thursday evening, a member from the HCI or Ergonomics industry will spend an hour with us talking about their work and get the class involved with small industry-related activities, which help to give us a flavor of what it’s like.

2 weeks ago, Gigi Demming (ex-UCLIC) from Amberlight made us work out a usability consulting proposal based on a budget and some price indicators (how much it costs for a consultant, test users, etc.). I felt it was useful, even though I was dead tired by the end of the day.

The folks here

UCLIC is made up of strong academics and practitioners who teach. Some of the lecturers are quite established in their respective fields both academically and professionally, so it’s good to be able to draw from those experiences. The class is also made up of a very diverse crowd (gender, practice, background, nationality), and it makes things more well-rounded. It’s fun when we go out for a pint or two.

We get to do field trips like visits to the Serco usability centre and attend the Ergonomics Society Conference for Students. They made us volunteer for class representation, so some of us help plan social activities like visits to museums and so on. It feels like a good place to be.

ex-UCLIC

I must thank my friend, Alex Baxevanis, who helped answer a lot of the questions I had before coming here. UCLIC is quite well represented in the HCI industry here in the UK, and that gives me a bit of confidence that the program is quite well established. Even my ex-employer sung praises for it.

Quite a few UCLIC-ers set up blogs (e.g. http://www.usabilitytank.com) and are quite active on Facebook. It’s quite a community, really.

New Flickr Homepage

Flickr Homepage Redesign

Labdien!

I love the new Flickr homepage redesign. They’ve made it more easy to do common things on one page, instead of having to move about different pages.

Overall, the original page hasn’t lost its flame. It still shows your latest photos, photos from your contacts, and photos from other people. But it’s been upgraded to provide activity filtering (via the activity page), preferential settings for contact photos displayed, most recent photos from groups (wasn’t there before), a ‘reload’ feature for explore, and bits of other interesting things, like a mini stats graph right above your latest photos (which could well be a ploy to get non-pro users to sign up for a pro account).

The new homepage feels a lot more dynamic too, with updates from the Flickr blog and tips giving you new feeds from time to time. I like how they didn’t displace things too much – the photos are on one side and the text activity (Flickr blog and tips) on another side. And they still maintained the international greeting at the top of the page, so I can continue learning how to greet people in different languages (not that I can remember them all).

The tips aren’t simple help advice that bore advanced users, either. One tip I just read informed me about how Flickr gives away free pro accounts to individuals from specific charity groups. Nifty! It’s a great way to explore the site’s diversity, and I’ll commend Flickr on this for the user experience bit. Tips are relevant, useful, timely ways to explore Flickr in new ways.

Flickr is sticking to the overall feel of its site, not by adding new core features, but by making existing features more accessible, therefore more ‘useful’. Things like the stats feature, flickr blog, tips, activities, group and contacts photos, are all central to the whole Flickr experience, and they made a good decision to make improvements to access those things.

For example, with the new ‘recent activity’ link at the top of your photos, you can easily see the latest “conversation” threads for comments around your photos, all at one glance. It’s quick, partly because of the AJAX work they’ve used, but it’s a good use of it here.

The overall impression that I got was that Flickr is still on the ball when it comes to user experience. I signed up many months ago for a pro account and I’ve not been dissapointed. I do know that the original founders have left Yahoo recently, but the Flickr team still ‘gets it’ and I’m looking forward to more Flickr goodness in the future.

Check out the screencast.

(this is a expanded copy of an article I posted on my personal homepage)

A year ago

A year ago, I stumbled upon a large green book by Alan Cooper and some of his friends. I was browsing for some material on Interaction Design, and this book provided a very sound basis for implementing software unlike any of the software development books I have read.

The book was called About Face.

It was first published in 1995, and the book I had in my hands was in its third revision.

This was the book that ultimately changed my life. A textbook no doubt, but it was so practical yet poignant that I could no longer implement software the way I had been doing in the past.

There have been many, many other books written on the subject. Why this one?

Well, I believe it was because Alan himself had once been a software person himself. After many years of pioneering software systems, he came to realize the paradox that software doesn’t always make users more productive. In his seminal book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, he described how software is often written for software people, not normal people, and this ultimately causes a lot of problems.

… I ceased all programming to devote one hundred percent of my time to helping other development firms make their products easier to use. – Alan Cooper, The Inmates are Running the Asylum

In a way, his perspective of interaction design often considers the possibility that his audience may include software people. This isn’t obvious to non-software people, who read this book just like any other text, but it is written in the style of common software textbooks (e.g. Java Network Programming published by O’Reilly).

Unlike Sharp, Rogers, and Preece’s more common academic text, “Interaction Design“, Alan’s book cuts to heart about effectively resolving software’s most dangerous problem so far.

This wasn’t just useful to me as a software developer. It is a fundamental shift in the way software is being developed. It begins with users, rather than schematics and requirements. It tests on user goals, rather than functional specifications. It makes users the center of everything, and how software should be designed for users, and not the other way around.

It offers a pragmatic framework for building software towards the one thing that makes it truly successful – that it brings the most good to the largest amount of users who use it. It’s so prescriptive that it was quite hard to ignore.

If you are committed to improving the world by improving the behavior of digital
products and services, then I welcome you to the world of About Face. – Alan Cooper, About Face 3

That was a year ago.

Now, I am writing this article in my rented room in North London, waiting for the weekend to arrive. I’ve got a stack of books on Cognitive Psychology, Ergonomics, and Research Methods on HCI on the table. My green tea is getting cold, but I’m excited about the possibilities ahead of me.

I’m about a month into UCLIC’s HCI MSc, and really getting to grips that this field which dawned upon me in the past year isn’t just plain common sense.

I was talking to a CEO of a fairly new startup. He was interested in recruiting me as part of his mobile software development team, and I was reasoning to him why this MSc was more important than a shot at software success.

It went something like this:

“Of course our objective is to make software usable”

“Users are very important to us”

“We wouldn’t sell it if users found it hard to use”

But the more I investigated, the more I realized that their setup was as common as any other software development firms. Their whiteboards were filled with class diagrams, possible feature lists, a development team roster. The cubicles were very open-plan, very developer friendly. I wouldn’t doubt that this team could pull off a very decent software package in a very short time.

Still, I still hadn’t the slightest clue who the intended user was.

“Mobile users”, I was told, “who have friends,… and family”.

I would have bought it two years ago, but I’ve already gone through the Matrix experience. I was having to choose between the red pill or the blue pill.

Swallowing the red pill wasn’t easy, but I still believe I’m doing the software industry a big favor. I love software, and I want to see it succeed. But it can’t be at the expense of users. So, in a way, I’m starting again from scratch.

So, thanks to Alan Cooper, I’m now officially part of the world of About Face.

The New Whitehouse.gov

Change has come to America… and to the Whitehouse website too. It’s been, er, Web 2.0ized. Clean, frugal lines, punchy and concise content, navigatable – I like it. And of course, it has a blog. If this was a branding exercise, it’d definitely be on the ball (or “spot on”, as the Brits like to say).

Interestingly, the “main” navigation isn’t along sidebars, but at the top menu bar and bottom footer – keeping the body fairly open for content – divided mostly into a 3-column layout or 2-column layout (with a right sidebar). Even content on the whitehouse blog is kept terse. The first post gets an average readability score of 11.3, which is slightly above what a teenager would be comfortable reading. Firefox showed up multiple RSS feeds, which was a bit confusing, but the blog does have an RSS feed.

Comments are closed for now, but it would be interesting to see how the site will evolve.

Accessibility could be improved, I guess. There’s a link for “Accessibility” in super tiny font at the bottom. This opens a page that explains the government’s stand on accessibility, but it doesn’t have the common characteristics of a page designed for accessibility (large fonts, condensed text).

Navigational fonts could be a little bigger, at the bottom.