Information Design Watch

November 28, 2007, 3:18 pm

Improving Excel Charts

By Kirsten Robinson

Recently I was preparing a presentation for a client to summarize the findings from a survey. I was frustrated with the appearance of the default charts from Excel — ugly colors, slanted labels, a scale that went to an impossible 120%, and various other bits of chart junk got in the way of the data. After experimenting with formatting options, I was able to improve the appearance. Here’s what I changed:

Excel chart - default formatting

And here is the final chart:

Excel chart - after changes

If you’d like to try this yourself, you can find these formatting options by right-clicking on different parts of the chart. You can also modify settings in the chart wizard while creating the chart.

Now, if only I could save my preferences to use in future charts.

In case you were wondering, the survey question was, “How do you currently use the Web for teaching?” Teachers could select any or all of the five options. I converted the scale from raw numbers to percent of respondents to normalize the results between middle and high school teachers.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon

Comments (3) | Filed under: Information Design

November 28, 2007, 1:58 pm

Sketching, comics & the “napkin” look and feel.

By Kirsten Robinson

Recently Mac attended a talk by Bill Buxton on sketching and he summarized the talk for the rest of our user experience team. Here is my “Father Guido Sarducci’s 5-minute University” summary of Mac’s summary of Bill’s talk:

  • Sketches are not prototypes. Sketches are quick, timely, inexpensive, disposable, and plentiful. They are used for ideation or “getting the right design.” Prototypes are further developed. They are used for evaluation or “getting the design right.”
  • Bill encourages people to make at least 5 sketches and not to have a clear favorite.
  • The rendering technique or fidelity of a sketch should communicate the level of doneness. In other words, the sketch should not be more refined than the idea.
  • Leave holes when sketching to provide room for imagination.
  • Sketches could be words, not images (think of comedy sketches). A user scenario is a form of word sketch.
  • At Dynamic Diagrams, we tend to show our clients presentation drawings rather than sketches. But we use sketching internally to develop our ideas, before choosing the one that we will develop into a more robust design.

Our discussion about sketching reminded me of a couple of related topics.

In The Power of Comics: An Interview with Kevin Cheng, Jared Spool asks about Kevin’s experiences using comics to communicate user experiences. Kevin notes that,

“One of the strengths of comics is that they’re very condensed. It’s almost like the whole picture is worth a thousand words. And a comic is just a series of pictures. Therefore, a lot of data can be condensed into the comic. I’ve found people tend to read these types of comics more often than requirements documents.”

Napkin Look & Feel for Java is “a pluggable Java look and feel that looks like it was scrawled on a napkin.” The developers recommended it for developing prototypes that are fully functional, but don’t look too done.

I’ve experimented with hand-drawn sketches and low-fidelity wireframes made in Visio (try Comic Sans font to make Visio drawings look “sketchy”). I like that they are fast to create, and I also believe I get better, more comprehensive feedback from people reviewing my designs.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon

Comments (1) | Filed under: User Experience

November 27, 2007, 1:57 pm

Two hot concepts: iPhone and periodic table. What could possibly go wrong?

By Mac McBurney

Two dazzling and totally irrelevant visual metaphors in one thoroughly annoying interface.

I loved the novelty of being a kiosk/iPhone and the creative, behind-the-glass point of view. Then I tried to get something done. 3M is a kind of hometown hero for me. I know some good people there and I want to like the company, so part of me wants this crime against usability to be intentional, logical somehow. QWERTY keyboards were designed to discourage excessive speed. Could 3M have any conceivable reason to discourage excessive understanding? Anyone… Hello? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon

Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Usability, User Experience, Web Interface Design

November 27, 2007, 12:05 pm

The Slow Death of the Technical Specification

By Lisa Agustin

The days of the web developer’s technical spec are long gone, writes columnist Richard Banfield: “In a world of intensely visual design, we have to ask why we still need to write massive documents to describe web products that real people will use.” According to Banfield, there was a time when it made sense to document everything before starting any software development, and that this way of doing things was largely a result of limited technology and lower design costs. These days, developing a web site or application demands a more agile approach–one in which visual tools play a key role:

“Once the priority of a project is established, the team should immediately move toward visualizing that idea. This can take many forms, but we have found that whiteboards and large pieces of paper work wonders to get everyone on the same page. Nothing slows down the creative process like a 60-page document, complete with spreadsheets and appendices.”

This has been our experience as well. While some engagements do require some type of written narrative — especially in cases where there needs to be a more detailed explanation of the application for a broader group outside of the development team — we’ve seen immense value in translating requirements into a visual form during all phases of a project. I would take Banfield’s comments a step further by suggesting that visuals are not just helpful tools, but can often replace specification documents as deliverables. Diagrams (for expressing high-level user experience), process flows (for explaining complex transactions), and heavily annotated wireframes (for describing functionality at the page-level) are “closer to reality” than a Word document that describes them. This makes the idea behind an application easier to understand and discuss, leading a group to consensus about direction much more quickly.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon

Comments (2) | Filed under: Implementation, Technology

November 26, 2007, 3:18 pm

Dynamic Diagrams’ Project Wins Award

By Lisa Agustin

WaveNet, Sentara Healthcare’s employee Intranet, recently received a Gold “eHealthcare Leadership Award” for Best Intranet Site from publisher Strategic Health Care Communications. As with many Intranets, WaveNet is not so much a single web site as a collection of sub-sites produced for business units, internal programs, and promotional efforts. Dynamic Diagrams helped improve WaveNet by creating an information architecture that is more intuitive, making it easier for users to find information, but also standardized and modular–a plus for developers who are implementing new sub-sites. Using our final information architecture and supporting wireframes, Sentara created page designs which we then reviewed to ensure that they followed best practices for usability.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon

Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News

November 12, 2007, 10:37 am

Dynamic Diagrams Launches Two Web Sites

By Lisa Agustin

Two web sites created by Dynamic Diagrams were launched last month at the annual Global Forum for Health Research in Beijing.

The IP Handbook of Best Practices is an intellectual property management resource for policy makers, technology transfer professionals, licensing executives, and scientific researchers. Core to the web site is the Intellectual Property Management in Health and Agricultural Innovation: A Handbook of Best Practices, a printed text comprised of 153 chapters covering a variety of topics ranging from subject overviews (e.g., technology evaluation and valuation) to more practical concerns (e.g., contracts and agreements). The IP Handbook site leverages the capabilities of the web by enabling users to explore content based on their audience role with links to user-specific site and topic guides, and a blog for keeping up to date on the latest IP management news and views. The handbook also takes advantage of existing IP-related resources, with links to networking opportunities, training programs, publications, and IP-related databases. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the site was developed with MIHR (the Centre for Management of Intellectual Property in Health Research and Development) and PIPRA (The Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture).

The Tropical Diseases Research to Foster Innovation and Knowledge Application web site, or TropIKA, is a global knowledge management electronic portal for sharing essential information and facilitating identification of priority needs and major research gaps in the field of infectious diseases of poverty. Areas of knowledge include: public health research needs and scientific opportunities; research-based evidence in support of control and policy; high profile research activities and control projects; international research funding and support opportunities; and potential innovations for interventions and control of infectious diseases of poverty. Intended for policy makers and research scientists, the site offers research, news, commissioned thematic reviews, virtual journals, policy and strategy briefs, funding opportunities, networks (communities of practice, forums) and resources (training packages, factual databases, multimedia). To help users access specialized content quickly, the site offers a mechanism for filtering content across multiple diseases, content types, and geographic regions. This site was developed under the leadership of the World Health Organization’s Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR).

We are grateful to the project team members that made these endeavors a success, especially those at Frederick Toth & Associates, Inc., our development partner for both projects.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon

Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News

November 12, 2007, 9:17 am

See for Yourself

By Henry Woodbury

The Laboratory of Dale Purves MD at Duke University has a page of optical illusions and perceptual challenges. Interactive controls allow you to test the “illusion” part of each example while links to the empirical explanations describe why your brain interprets what it sees the way it does.

The website for San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum of Science has a small gallery of similiar illusions, with shorter explanations.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon

Comments (0) | Filed under: Cognitive Bias, Color, Design, Illustration