Information Design Watch

June 15, 2010, 4:53 pm

Boston UPA Conference Review, part 2

By Kirsten Robinson

Here are summaries of two more presentations from the Boston UPA conference that I really enjoyed.

Racing with the Clock: VERY Rapid Design and Testing

Presenter: Will Schroeder of The MathWorks

Summary: Will’s premise is that in design, as in psychotherapy, the most important part of any hour is the last five minutes. So he sought to eliminate the first 45 minutes (an hour of therapy is only 50 minutes, as you may recall from the old Bob Newhart show). Will described a 2-hour design process that allowed a team of 12 people to create three parallel design concepts, review and iterate on them, and usability test them, with a successful outcome. My favorite quote from Will’s talk was, “Brainstorming is so much fun, I’m surprised it’s still legal.” Another key point was the need for show and tell: “You don’t understand [a design] until you explain it.”

The Power of Focus Groups in Design Research

Presenter: Kay Corry Aubrey of Usability Resources

Summary: Focus groups (essentially, group interviews) can be an effective way to gather qualitative data on perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. Examples of how focus groups can inform the design process include:

  • Learning about your users’ decision making process, needs, and pain points
  • Determining questions for a survey or content for a card sorting exercise
  • Gathering content and feature requirements

Important elements for a successful focus group include careful planning and recruiting the right participants. A skilled focus group moderator must be able to establish trust, ask good questions, listen actively, remain neutral, and manage group dynamics.

This was an excellent overview or refresher, especially for recruiting and moderating.

More info: Kay’s slides are posted on Slideshare.

Will and Kay both deserve kudos for making their slides readable. You’d think that would be expected for a bunch of usability professionals, but at least half of the presenters had slides that were illegible both in the room and in the conference proceedings.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, PowerPoint, Usability, User Experience

June 11, 2010, 4:18 pm

Boston UPA Conference Review, part 1

By Kirsten Robinson

On Wednesday (June 9) I attended the Boston Usability Professionals Association annual conference. I’ll record a few impressions and share some highlights from the presentations.

First of all, the increasing size of the conference (450 attendees, 32 presentations in 4 simultaneous tracks this year) reflects the astounding growth of the usability profession. These are the people who conduct user research, design and evaluate interfaces to ensure they provide an effective, efficient, and satisfying experience for users. Better user experiences increase productivity, reduce costs, and increase market share for companies and organizations that use and sell technology.

I noticed some interesting trends in conference technology and culture. A few years ago, most conference attendees toted their laptops along to take notes and keep in touch with the office or clients via email. This year, I saw very few laptops — instead, nearly everyone had smartphones and similar mobile devices. I even saw an iPad or two, typically with hangers-on eyeballing the device with jealousy or skepticism.

Twitter was a little less visible this year. Last year, a twitter feed displayed conference-related tweets on a large screen for all to see. Arguments ensued (over Twitter, natch) about whether it was rude to tweet during presentations. This year the twitter feeds were no less active (see #upaboston and #miniupa), but they were not projected. Toward the end of the day, it was fun to see the final tweets about dying batteries in the aforementioned mobile devices. I’m happy to report my rollerball pen made it all the way to 6:00 without needing a recharge.

My favorite presentation of the day was Lynn Cherny’s Mining Your Data: An Easy Intro to a Tough Topic. Lynn discussed and demonstrated several methods for analyzing qualitative data — such as the answers to open-ended survey questions — and turning messy text data into numeric data for further analysis. Tools included:

  • Excel’s convert text to columns feature, pivot tables, and sparkline plug-ins
  • R (open source statistics software) for more sophisticated methods such as cluster analysis
  • Linux command line tools (e.g., grep) for manipulating and exploring text data across multiple files
  • Wordles, Many Eyes, and Concordance software for further text analysis

She inspired me to finally learn to use pivot tables — something I’ve been meaning to do for years. What a time-saver. Contact Lynn at Ghostweather for a copy of her presentation.

Watch this space for more presentation summaries.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Usability, User Experience

June 8, 2010, 10:05 am

The Medium is Not the News

By Henry Woodbury

Who’s going to save the news? According to James Fallows, Google is. Fallows makes two key points. First, explicitly, that Google is serious about improving the economics of news gathering. Second, implicitly, Google had better be doing it because traditional news publishers are clueless:

…people inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether “paywalls” for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? The important questions involved the details of how they would pay, and for what kind of news.

The inefficiency of traditional news organizations is far more profound than the costs of grinding up trees into pulp and running “them through enormously expensive machinery” to hand-deliver a product that is almost immediately out-of-date. That lets television news off the hook. The inefficiency seen by Krishna Bharat, director of Google News, is the redundancy of thousands of publications writing about the same events using the same, predictable, story lines. On this score television’s focus on the blindingly obvious is, in my opinion, far more offensive than print.

The message to traditional news organizations isn’t just “go online.” It’s “start being distinct.” In a global, decentralized, electronic medium, boilerplate reporting deserves to be bested by smarter, deeper, more eclectic aggregations.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Technology

June 4, 2010, 10:21 am

Visual Explanation, 17th Century Version

By Henry Woodbury

Flora's mallewagen, Allegory of the Tulip Mania, by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot

Flora’s mallewagen, Allegory of the Tulip Mania, by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot:

The goddess of flowers is riding along with three drinking and money weighing men and two women on a car. Weavers from Haarlem have thrown away their equipment and are following the car. The destiny of the car is shown in the background: it will disappear in the sea.

(via Walter Russell Mead)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Illustration, Visual Explanation

June 3, 2010, 11:08 am

Visual Bias at Work

By Henry Woodbury

Last week I blogged about a Harvard Business Review article on the inherent biases in visualization. Visual information makes people overconfident of outcomes.

Today the New York Times offers a perfect example. In the debate around U.S. health care overhaul, the president’s budget director Peter Orszag argued that savings could be found by reforming the current system:

Mr Orszag displayed maps produced by Dartmouth researchers that appeared to show where the waste in the system could be found. Beige meant hospitals and regions that offered good, efficient care; chocolate meant bad and inefficient.

The maps made reform seem relatively easy to many in Congress, some of whom demanded the administration simply trim the money Medicare pays to hospitals and doctors in the brown zones. The administration promised to seriously consider doing just that. [my emphasis]

Unfortunately, the maps don’t show what they seem to show. While they show cost of care (a very specific kind of care it should be noted), they don’t show quality of care. Nor do the maps show anything about the demographics of the patients being cared for.

The Times compares the Dartmouth map (on the left) to Medicare’s own analysis of hospital quality (on the right) to show the disconnect. However, the Medicare map raises questions of its own. To start with, it shows a suspicious correspondence to U.S. population density.

Health Care Cost vs.  Quality (New York Times)

Perhaps quality of care relates to the proposition that higher population density creates demand for more specialists which leads to better diagnoses. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this. Before anyone draws another map, let’s work on better analysis.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Scholarly Publishing, Visual Explanation