Information Design Watch

December 28, 2011, 12:06 pm

What’s This Mobile Thing For, Again?

By Lisa Agustin

With more and more folks jumping on the smartphone bandwagon, and clients asking for mobile as part of their redesign projects, it’s not unusual to see articles on how to make your site mobile, or the latest design trends for mobile apps. How to develop for mobile is one of the forefront concerns of many web designers. But how about the Why? What are the specific advantages of mobile other than its ability to keep you distracted (productive?) while standing in line? Back in 2008, author and former Nokia executive Tomi Ahonen expounded on the unique opportunities of mobile as the “7th mass media channel” (print is the first, and Internet is the sixth). Conveniently, there are also seven unique capabilities of mobile media, which he summed up this way:

1 – The mobile phone is the first personal mass media
2 – The mobile is permanently carried media
3 – The mobile is the only always-on mass media
4 – Mobile is the only mass media with a built-in payment mechanism
5 – Mobile is only media available at the point of creative inspiration
6 – Mobile is only media with accurate audience measurement
7 – Mobile captures the social context of media consumption

These are not necessarily unique observations. But Ahonen’s perspective is one that puts mobile in the context of the media that preceded it, showing just how far technology has come. As an example, consider his first point, that mobile is the “first personal mass media”:

Never before was any mass media assumed to be private. Books and magazines are shared. Movies watched together. Radio we can have the whole family in the car listening at the same time. Records are played to a roomfull of wedding guests by the DJ. TV is watched together by the family. The internet is semi-personal, but often the PC is shared by the family or business employees. Our secretary or IT tech support (or Human Resources staff) may read through our emails. At home our parents often “snoop” what the kids do on the family PC etc. The internet is not a personal media, even if it often seems like it. But mobile. That is mine, and only mine.

Although the stats and facts are a little dated (the iPad had yet to make its debut), his post is a good read, and a reminder of why mobile represents an exciting opportunity in terms of creating innovative user experiences. It’s not just about Angry Birds.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Technology, User Experience

November 29, 2011, 10:09 am

I’d Rather Have a Rocket Car

By Henry Woodbury

In the old days the future was about rocket cars. Now it’s about touch screens.

This Microsoft production is one of the vision videos that’s been making the rounds:

It’s cool, but also cold. And it’s one of the best of the bunch (Corning’s A Day Made of Glass is also very good). Others, such as the awkward imitations produced by Research In Motion (Blackberry) invite only ridicule.

Interface designer Bret Victor has produced an intelligent critique of the Microsoft video (and, by extension the whole genre). He starts by reminding us of the incredible sensory and manipulative powers of the human hand:

There’s a reason that our fingertips have some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body. This is how we experience the world close-up. This is how our tools talk to us. The sense of touch is essential to everything that humans have called “work” for millions of years.

But what is the sensory experience of Microsoft’s future (and Corning’s, and Apple’s, and RIM’s)? It’s the feel of glass. It’s “glassy.”

Now read this: The 5 Best Toys of All Time. I think you’ll get my point.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Marketing, Technology, Usability, User Experience

November 2, 2011, 1:18 pm

The New and Improved Google Reader! Slightly Dingy and Now with Dark Patterns!

By Lisa Agustin

I use Facebook, but was not one of those people who grumbled about the latest changes. I accept that technology is about looking forward, convergence makes sense in many cases, and that improving the user experience means continually tweaking an information architecture and visual design to reach whatever your bigger goal may be (e.g., conversions).

But then Google released its redesign of Reader, and we went from this:

to this:


[Image credits: SheGeeks.net]

Google calls the design “cleaner, faster, and nicer to look at.”  But after reading their announcement more closely, it’s really more about creating a tighter integration with Google+ by turning off Reader’s friending, following, shared items and comments in favor of similar Google+ functionality. Which is okay, since I do see the point of consolidating Reader’s social aspect with Google+. But the redesign has actually made sharing harder, not easier. Former Google Reader Product Manager Brian Shih puts it this way:

Keep in mind that on top of requiring 3-4 times as many clicks, you also now must +1 a post publicly to share it, even if it’s shared to a private circle. That bears repeating. The next time you want to share some sexy halloween costumes with your private set of friends, you first must publicly +1 the post, which means it shows up on your profile, plus wherever the hell G+ decides to use +1 data. So much for building a network around privacy controls.

But then later, an update:

It turns out there is a way to share without +1′ing first. If you click on the top right “Share…” field on the OneGoogle bar [the bar at the very top of the pane], you can bypass the +1 button. It’s just completely undiscoverable.

Sounds like a dark pattern to me.

But let’s put Google+ aside, since sharing wasn’t why I used Reader in the first place. It was about the content. How quickly can I see what’s new and get to an individual story? From an information design perspective, I’d think making the design cleaner would mean maximizing space for original content. Rather it seems they did the opposite, with a thicker/more spacious header bar that pushes content further down the page.

From a visual design standpoint, greeted by a new absence of color, I wondered if they were trying to make it look like a traditional newspaper, removing colored elements as if they were distractions? While there is such a thing as too much color, the new Reader goes overboard in the other direction. With black, white, and grey being the dominant scheme, it’s hard to tell what the priority is in the UI. Google even eliminated the use of the bright blue link color that facilitates scanning.  Now nothing stands out–except for the bright red Subscribe button and the blue Search button.  Maybe it’s time to revisit the pluses of eye candy.

Kvetching aside, I suppose I will get used to the new direction (assuming I don’t switch feeds first).  I also guess I had better brace myself for the upcoming Gmail redesign.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Information Architecture, Information Design, Social Media, Technology, User Experience, Web Interface Design

September 27, 2011, 3:29 pm

Theremins, Slot Machines, and Wheels of Destiny: Flexing the UI Design Muscle

By Lisa Agustin

When building a web site or application, the wireframes usually represent the first time functionality and content requirements take visual form. Creating wireframes is both exciting and daunting, much like approaching a blank canvas or piece of paper. Luckily, UX practitioners have a lot to draw from, including user research, best practices, and existing UI patterns.

And yet the typical approaches to rendering a user interface–dropdown lists, calendars for date picking, rollovers and accordions for menus–seem to be lacking in the creativity department. Is this really the best we can do from a design standpoint? How do we infuse our interfaces with innovative approaches that delight and surprise users while letting them get things done?  Mike Heydlauf suggests thinking outside the box by designing within a smaller one. In other words, consider constraints as a creativity aid.

The idea that constraints help creativity is not a new idea, but Heydlauf wants to up the ante by introducing artificial constraints  as a way to “design solutions to problems we might not even have.”  His reasoning:

The point is not to come up with an outstanding solution, but to flex creative muscles and fill our toolbox with ideas that might lead to an outstanding solution to a different problem somewhere down the line. In short, the value is in the journey, not the destination.

To demonstrate, Heydlauf proposes a common “problem” in UI (developing a control for selecting both date and time), introduces not one but two artificial constraints (data input via mouse, and input with only one click), then walks us through a range of possible design solutions (several of which he admits are “truly awful”). It’s a fascinating view into his thought process, especially when he considers “real world” objects as new UI models (hence the title of this post).

This article is a good reminder that innovative solutions are a result of taking the time to explore possibilities and not using the tried-and-true just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  At the same time, though, I’d be interested in seeing this tactic applied in the context of a real project (or is it even possible?): How do we incorporate feedback to ensure our new approach makes sense to actual users? How do we fit exploration into a schedule that meets hard deadlines?

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

September 14, 2011, 3:23 pm

How a Bill Becomes a Column

By Henry Woodbury

There are a lot of bills in Congress. IBM Research Labs has created a new way to find them.

IBM Many Bills is a search engine that presents U.S. Congressional legislation in strongly visual format. Each bill is presented in a single vertical column with metadata at the top and sections in descending order. Sections are color coded to delineate their subject. You can show and hide sections of the bills you have found by subject (in a nice accountability feature, a rollover tells you how confident a subject assignment is), save specific bills, and view the actual text.

IBM Many Bills, Search for 'Canada', first 4 results

The color-coded sections allow you to view results in “minified” form, or as an extremely condensed “collection”, such as this group of American Housing Bills:

IBM Many Bills: American Housing Bills (42)

Many Bills is compelling on several levels. First is the hope that this kind of presentation can help make the legislative process more transparent to both experts and the general public. Second is the project as a model for content-specific search. By understanding the structure of the data, the Many Bills Team presents it in a way that facilitates findability and understanding. There is some risk that the team’s information architecture and design decisions could reinforce conventional thinking at the expense of the unexpected insight, but the source data is available to anyone who wants to try a different approach.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Color, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Interface Design

September 3, 2011, 10:25 pm

Three Takes on the Modern Sensibility

By Henry Woodbury

1. Industrial designer Dieter Ram’s work for Braun is highlighted in a portfolio that purports to describe 10 principles of modern design. It is an honest appraisal. It includes the idiotic geared mixer.

Dieter Rams’s Mixer at Museum of Modern Art San Francisco - The Daily Beast

2. Blogger Ann Althouse reduces the reductive aesthetic:

Oddly, I came away feeling that the 10 principles were all the same, and if that principle was simple functionality, the make that one thing into 10 is a violation of the principle itself. But then Rams wasn’t purporting to dictate the principles of website content, so there really is no paradox.

3. Could you have one principle with ten examples and still get the page-views? Lists are so addictive.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Cognitive Bias, Design, User Experience

August 16, 2011, 1:32 pm

The Organizational Context for Web Development

By Henry Woodbury

Why is it, asks Jonathan Kahn, that the user experiences that web teams envision and that organizations truly want to adopt often fail to meet expectations?

Here’s the problem: organizations are the context for our work, and when it comes to the web, organizations are broken…

Although we’re comfortable with the idea that the web is critical to organizations, we often miss the corollary: the web has changed the way organizations operate, and in many cases it’s changed their business models, too. When executives can’t see that, it causes a crisis. Welcome to your daily web-making reality.

Now some of Kahn’s exhortations cause me to roll my eyes. I’ve worked in a number of information-related fields in my career and I’ve heard variations on “we are the change agents” and “executives don’t get it” all the way through. But Kahn is right to demand an organization-wide framework for web development and he is right to point out the need for governance and measurement as well as strategy and execution.

And when you see an organization really commit to a comprehensive web strategy with creative follow-through, the results are obvious.

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

July 21, 2011, 12:23 pm

Crowd Control and the Web

By Henry Woodbury

We all know the problem. Any open-access forum, social network, or comments venue on the Internet can easily be overrun by savage attacks and inane vulgarities. Blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash responds with a bold claim — “This is a solved problem“:

As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.

Dash follows with a list of concrete actions responsible content owners need to take to manage the crowd. It all starts with having real people moderate the content. Dash links to Robert Niles at Online Journalism Review, who states flatly: “If you can’t manage comments well, don’t offer comments at all“.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Social Media, Technology, User Experience

June 9, 2011, 2:23 pm

Off the (Google) Grid

By Henry Woodbury

In IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on the Social Web, Joshua J. Romero attempts to decouple himself — from Google. In his article “How I Learned to Live Google-free” he writes about retrieving his cloud data and picking alternative services, issues that touch on data handling, user experience, technology, and unintended consequences. His comment about single sign-on, for example, really resonated with me:

It’s easy to get seduced by the lure of a single sign-on. But managing multiple user accounts actually isn’t as much of an annoyance as we think it is. For me, it quickly became clear that my single Google account had mixed and muddled my personal and professional services and data.

Link through to take the survey about which Google services you use (with some notable omissions), and learn about the various alternatives Romero discovered.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Social Media, Technology, User Experience

April 26, 2011, 9:23 am

Launch! (Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams)

By Henry Woodbury

Late on Friday afternoon last week we relaunched DynamicDiagrams.com and this blog. The new site is more scalable than the old and incorporates more ways to present our work. Information Design Watch is incorporated into the main navigation of the site though it still resolves to its own dd.DynamicDiagrams.com subdomain. We like the new look too.

The relaunch has given us the opportunity to update our portfolio and present the popular dD Orrery on its own page. For the latter we’ve created free Mac and Windows screensavers you can download.

Let us know what you think.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Architecture, Information Design, User Experience, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

March 9, 2011, 11:44 am

The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918

By Lisa Agustin

The Guggenheim Museum recently launched an interactive timeline to accompany its new exhibition, The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918. This colorful interactive map and timeline highlights the era’s artists, artist groups, exhibitions, performing arts, publications, artworks, historic events, and cultural movements.  Select one of these categories, then scroll across to choose a particular year.  Corresponding dots appear on the map above, and clicking on a dot displays a lightbox overlay with more information (see detail above).  Overall, the timeline works from linear, drill-down perspective: choose a cultural activity, year, and sample activity within that year.  Navigating the “Selected Artworks” category gives users the most detail (as expected), with an image of the artwork, and links to the artist’s biography and to an essay about the artwork, both housed in the pre-existing online collection on guggenheim.org– a nice way to leverage and highlight what’s already available.  Discovering these individual nuggets is a little like going on a treasure hunt.  The user seeks and finds individual gems scattered throughout.

At the same time, though, this interactive is weak in terms of  providing an integrated picture of the era overall.  Part of what makes studying an artistic era so exciting is the chance to discover connections: between artistic disciplines, or between the arts and historic events.  The timeline misses this opportunity by forcing users to choose only a single category (the checkbox-like bullet next to each category is misleading).  Additionally, once you’ve selected a dot on the map, dots of other colors at the bottom of the lightbox (see above) are indictors of simultaneous activities, but these are only visual cues and not links.  Investigating these further means selecting a different category for that year and clicking through individual dots to eventually make the connection yourself.  Allowing for multiple category selection and including crosslinks to other categories at the lightbox level are straightforward ways to make the pieces of the timeline more tightly integrated, showing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Great Upheaval is on display through June 1, 2011.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Information Architecture, Information Design, User Experience, Web Interface Design

March 3, 2011, 1:27 pm

Measuring User Experience on a Large Scale

By Lisa Agustin

So you’ve just relaunched your redesigned web site or web application.  You’ve addressed known user experience problems, met business requirements, and made sure the architecture is one that will accommodate future features, both known and unknown.  Now here’s the tricky question: How will you know you’ve improved your user experience?

The broader question of how to measure success is one that we raise with our own clients at the beginning of every project, as this helps us figure out the organization’s priorities and focus.  Definitions of success range from trackable statistics (“more users will see the catalog”) to anecdotal assessment (“employees will complain less about using it”).

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to measuring success.  Moreover, with the exception of online survey tools like Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey, which can be used assess usability and satisfaction, most tools today are designed to measure success from a business or technical staff’s perspective, rather than the users’.  Google’s researchers recognized this problem in assessing their own applications and developed the HEART metrics framework, a method of measuring user experience on a large scale.

The HEART framework is meant to complement what Google calls the “PULSE metrics” framework where PULSE stands for: Page views, Uptime, Latency, Seven-day active users (i.e., number of unique users who used the product at least once in the last week), and Earnings– clearly all stakeholder and/or IT concerns.  While these statistics are somewhat related to the user’s experience (which pages get looked at, which items get purchased), these can be problematic in evaluating user interface changes:

[PULSE metrics] may have ambiguous interpretation–for example, a rise in page views for a particular feature may occur because the feature is genuinely popular, or because a confusing interface leads users to get lost in it, clicking around to figure out how to escape.  A count of unique users over a given time period, such as seven-day active users, is commonly used as a metric of user experience.  It measures overall volume of the user base, but gives no insight into the users’  level of commitment to a product, such as how frequently each of them visited during the seven days.

The HEART metrics framework offers a way to more precisely measure both user attitude and behavior, while providing actionable data for making changes to a product’s user interface.  These include the following, which I’ve described very briefly here:

  1. Happiness. This metric is concerned with measuring the user’s attitude toward the product, including satisfaction, visual appeal and the likelihood that the user will recommend the product to others.  The use of a detailed survey as a benchmark and then later as changes are implemented will cover this.
  2. Engagement. This measures a user’s level of involvement, which will depend on the nature of the product.  For example, involvement for a web site may be as simple as visiting it, while involvement for a photo-sharing web application might be the number of photos uploaded within a given period. From a metrics standpoint, involvement can be assessed by looking at frequency of visits or depth of interaction.
  3. Adoption and Retention. These metrics explore behavior of unique users more in detail, going a step beyond the seven-day active users metric.  Adoption metrics track new users starting within a given period (e.g., number of new accounts opened this month), while retention looks at how many of the unique users from the initial period are using the product at a later period.
  4. Task Success.  Successful completion of key tasks is a well-known behavioral metric that relates to efficiency (time to complete at task) and effectiveness (percent of tasks completed).   This is commonly tracked on a small-scale through one-on-one usability tests, but can be expanded to web applications by seeing how closely users follow an optimal path to completion (assuming one exists), or by using A/B split or multivariate testing.

But these metrics are not helpful on their own.  They must be developed in the context of the Goals of the product or feature, and related Signals that will indicate when the goal has been met.  The authors admit that this is perhaps the hardest part of defining success, since different stakeholders may disagree about project goals, requiring a consensus-building exercise.

From my perspective, there is also the additional challenge of clients having both the forethought and resources available to track these metrics in the first place.  In many cases, measuring success requires a benchmark or baseline for comparison.  Without this in place, the new design itself must serve as a benchmark for any future changes.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Information Architecture, Technology, Usability, User Experience

February 16, 2011, 2:33 pm

University of Southern Maine Undertakes Re-Design with New Information Architecture by Dynamic Diagrams

By Lisa Agustin

How do you organize a collection of over one hundred, decentrally-managed micro-sites into a single, cohesive entity that offers a consistent user experience from the home page down to the lowest level?  This was the key issue facing the University of Southern Maine‘s site redesign, and Dynamic Diagrams was happy to help.  The university had plans to migrate the site to a new content management system, and recognized the importance of creating a new architecture to provide both a better experience for site visitors as well as a standardized approach to organizing content for micro-site owners.

After completing a rigorous research and analysis phase that included stakeholder interviews, an inventory of over 5,000 pages (you may have seen the earlier Post-It Note output here), user focus groups, and an online survey, we created a new information architecture (see above) and a set of core wireframes (page schematics) to illustrate the new high-level and page-level user experience, respectively.  The new architecture puts the user’s needs front-and-center by presenting all related information together (e.g., degree information that was previously scattered across the course catalog, academic department, and university system database), rather than forcing users to navigate multiple silos of information.   The architecture and wireframes will guide the development of the site’s new look and feel, which is now in progress.   Look for the new design to be launched later this year.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Diagrams, Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Architecture, User Experience

February 10, 2011, 9:55 am

Cameron & Mittleman LLP Launches New Web Site

By Lisa Agustin

Dynamic Diagrams is pleased to announce that the web site for the law firm of Cameron & Mittleman LLP is now live.  The two main goals for this project were a refresh to the site’s design, and an easy way to maintain the web site in-house.   We provided the information architecture, visual design, and web development services, which included a move to the WordPress platform.  Content for launch includes the history of the firm, staff profiles, and practice area information.  The extensible solution will enable the organization to add features planned for the future, including a blog.  You can view the web site at http://www.cm-law.com/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Architecture, Technology, User Experience, Web Interface Design

October 25, 2010, 3:49 pm

Requests from the Audience?

By Tim Roy

Over the past month, we have expanded the range of topics covered here on Information Design Watch.  By looking more broadly at art, museums, culture, and some of the earlier work at Dynamic Diagrams, we are discovering connections to our core focus of visual explanation and user experience that had not previously been considered.  We have also become much more active on both Twitter and Facebook with the intent of creating additional channels for expressing our ideas and interacting with both clients and peers.

Dynamic Diagrams has enjoyed its own share of exposure in years past.  We were featured in Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects, d/D founders Paul Kahn and Krzysztof Lenk created Mapping Web Sites, and the company was fortunate enough to contribute a chapter to Understanding USA, Richard Wurman’s book commemorating the 10th TED conference (TEDX).  Several of our friends and advisors have suggested we consider writing a new book and perhaps this work on the blog will help us to focus that idea.

More of this?

In the interim, we would like to hear from you, our readers, as to what areas you would like us to cover.  More pieces on museum interactives?  Continued coverage of terrific work in visualization?  Book reviews?  Interviews?  More work on presentation theory (I have a new piece on Shakespeare that I am almost ready to publish)?  I know that our coverage of user experience will certainly continue as we are constantly expanding our expertise in understanding user behavior and information design.

Or this?

The “Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams” series has a number of installments left and we are working to develop additional regular features.  And if the current eclectic mix of visualization, storytelling, user experience knowledge, and pointers to the fascinating work we come across is working well, let us know that too.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, User Experience, Visual Explanation

October 22, 2010, 4:46 pm

A Usability Test Facilitator is Like What?

By Kirsten Robinson

As I prepare for a week chock-full of usability testing, I’m remembering some of my favorite analogies for the role of a usability study facilitator.

Carolyn Snyder, in her excellent book, Paper Prototyping, describes three roles that must be fulfilled simultaneously:

Flight attendant: keep the test participant safe and comfortable. (Although, with airline seats getting smaller and job satisfaction for flight attendants decreasing, I’d have to say this may set too low a standard.)

Sportscaster: ensure the observers understand what’s going on.

Scientist: gather data accurately while minimizing bias.

But my favorite analogy comes from Joe Dumas, who taught me much of what I know about testing. Joe said a usability test facilitator is like a duck – you must appear calm and placid, but underneath the surface you’re paddling like crazy.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Usability, User Experience

October 22, 2010, 4:18 pm

Interaction Costs in Visualization

By Kirsten Robinson

Tim sent me a link to an article on the Interaction Cost in Information Visualization this morning. After I recovered from my grad school flashback, I got to thinking about about the tradeoffs we have to make among decreasing the various “costs” discussed in the article. For example, my visual designer colleagues are really excellent at reducing the cost of visual clutter. Less visual clutter leads to improved perception. On the other hand, removing too many elements can increase the cost of decision — an extremely minimal interface may give too few clues to what an interactive system or visualization does.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Design, User Experience, Visual Explanation

October 13, 2010, 10:27 am

What’s Wrong With These Survey Questions?

By Kirsten Robinson

I’m often called upon to design surveys and also to take them. One of my pet peeves is surveys that are released to the wild with design errors. Just as authors need editors, survey designers need reviewers to check for editorial and logical errors. Here are a few problem questions I’ve encountered recently. Can you spot the problems? If so, please post a comment.

Question 1.

Question 2.

Question 3.

Have you seen a poorly designed survey question recently? If you design surveys, what steps do you take to avoid errors?

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Comments (6) | Filed under: Information Design, User Experience

October 11, 2010, 8:32 pm

Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams

By Tim Roy

In the coming weeks, you will see a number of changes at Dynamic Diagrams.  You may have already noticed the increase in our blogging activity here on Information Design Watch.  We now have an active Facebook IconFacebook and Twitter IconTwitter presence and myself and other team members are working to add useful and interesting content to these channels as regularly as possible.

There will also be modifications to our web site.  Dynamic Diagrams has been on the web since the mid-1990s.  The earliest shot I could find using the Wayback Machine was from 1996:

Dynamic Diagrams Web Site circa 1996

Dynamic Diagrams Web Site circa 2005

We are setting off in a new direction with the goal of simplifying our online presence and incorporating the powerful social media tools that allow us to keep the content fresh and provide useful information for clients and fans alike.  We also want to be able to showcase more of our work – some of the classic user experience diagrams, the early visualizations done for companies such as Netscape, and our more recent video and interactive pieces.

While this will not turn into a reality TV event, we will keep you updated as this process evolves so that you can “peek over our shoulders”  as we work.  I will provide some behind-the-scenes insights into how decisions were made, some of the ideas we consider and reject, and how it feels to be our own client.  I hope you enjoy watching this unfold and seeing the results once they are complete.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, User Experience

October 7, 2010, 10:29 pm

Balance Beams and Information Design

By Tim Roy

My 11 year old daughter is a competitive gymnast and I recently spent an evening watching her work with one of her coaches choreographing  a new routine for the balance beam.   As I listened to her coach say things such as “where are you looking? Make sure you are looking at the judge” and “the judge is going to want to see you do this,” I began to see a connection with the work they were doing and how we at Dynamic Diagrams think about presenting information.  In both cases, it is essential to consider the audience.

With a balance beam routine, it turns out there are actually two audiences: the judges (there are usually two) who will carefully observe and then assign a score based on difficulty, lack of errors in execution, and the confidence and joy the gymnast demonstrates.  The other audience are the people in the bleachers, often several hundred of them, who are watching with varying degrees of interest and motivation.  It might be a deeply engaged parent holding their breath as their daughter flings herself into the air backwards with the intent of landing on a four inch wide beam that is four feet off the ground.  Or it might be a competing team’s coach, looking for faults in the hope that their gymnasts will produce a better score.

My daughter in flight

At Dynamic Diagrams, we work with our clients to understand the characteristics of their audience.  Unfortunately, it is never as clear-cut as having a judging table with two individuals who have been trained over the course of years to evaluate and opine.  Instead, we think about what brings a person (for what is an audience but a collection of individuals?) to engage with information or to an experience.  Is it a museum visitor who wants to see a specific collection of art or a web site user with a concrete set of goals in mind such as buying a book or paying a bill?  Or is it someone with a business challenge interested in a new technology, or a curious visitor to a blog who saw something that caught their eye in a moment of serendipity?

My daughter’s beam routine has a certain number of required elements in order for her to compete.  This includes such things as being able to turn 360 degrees on one foot, to perform something called a “dance element” and the one that makes me cover my eyes: an acrobatic flight element (this means a back handspring).  Some of these moves are quite beautiful and ballet-like; some are cute and engender a smile; and some literally defy gravity and make everyone gasp as they are performed.

Presenting information is not so clear-cut.  There are significant differences in creating an experience based on a PowerPoint show as opposed to an interactive museum kiosk.  A web-based knowledge collection requires a different set of skills than a large format process diagram.  There are the required elements: clear and legible typography; deliberate and carefully planned use of language; a color palette that does not overwhelm the message itself.  And like the best gymnasts, the “tricks” that make people stare in wonder should be used sparingly and to maximum effect.

As information designers, we almost never have an opportunity to craft an experience that will be judged by two people with a predetermined set of criteria.  Thinking about your audience is critical.  While everyone has something they feel is important to communicate, what will be the experience of your audience?  It is a worthwhile exercise to consider, even if you never leave the safety of solid ground.

Shawn Johnson’s 2008 Olympic Gold Medal-Winning Balance Beam Routine

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Design, User Experience

October 6, 2010, 4:44 pm

Place as Idea

By Tim Roy

For New England readers of Information Design Watch, the Worcester Art Museum has a new exhibit opening on October 9, 2010: Place as Idea.

David Maisel, Terminal Mirage #215-9-4, 2003, Chromogenic print, Gift of Edward Osowski in honor of the photographer and the Eliza S. Paine Fund, 2005.102

Its focus will be on the role place plays in visualizing abstract concepts such as time and memory and will feature works by a series of contemporary artists employing a variety of mediums.  Of particular interest is a collection of pieces in which the traditional bounds of photography are challenged as the canonical record of architectural experience.

I plan to visit the exhibit in the coming weeks and will post images and reactions.  It will be on display through February 13, 2011.

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

October 4, 2010, 7:31 pm

Creating Experiences with Sir John Soane

By Tim Roy

Dynamic Diagrams has been privileged to collaborate with some of the finest museums in the world including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  While our work has ranged from designing the overall information architecture of a museum’s web presence, to multi-media personal histories, to complex interactive kiosks involving 3D models, it is connected by the unifying thread of our focus on user experience.  By considering how a visitor will experience an interaction – be it a web site, kiosk, or video – we can help our clients facilitate the most challenging of communication goals: understanding.

There is little doubt that the “big” museums – the Gettys, the Tates, and the MOMAs – garner a great deal of public attention for their collections and the experiences they create.  Yet, there is something special about the “small” museums and what they can teach us.

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one such example.  Located in London, it was established in 1806 by the architect Sir John Soane in the interest of providing design and artistic resources for his architectural students.  By 1833, the collection had been made public under an act of Parliament  and upon Soane’s death, in 1837, was placed under the auspices of a board of trustees and a curator, with the sole intent of making the house and its holdings broadly accessible.

Housing almost 35,000 unique items ranging from Egyptian antiquities to medieval objects to  architectural models, Soane assembled his own secret world designed to inspire “Amateurs and Students of the Arts.”  In his attention to the smallest and most subtle detail, Soane created meaning for those who cared enough to carefully observe and engage.  Stories could be found in a letter’s postmark or in the placement of a single carved button.  In many ways, this is an early gesture towards producing an experience for a collections’ users informed by a shared language and common goals.

The newly-redesigned Sir John Soane Museum website.

The museum’s web site was recently redesigned and provides an interesting overview of the collection and some of its hidden details.  Still, there is no replacement for actually experiencing the museum in person, even if one must patiently queue for admission.  The wait is absolutely worth it.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Art, Information Architecture, User Experience

October 1, 2010, 2:57 pm

Freedom of Choice (with Assistance)

By Lisa Agustin

According to a recent article in strategy + business, creating a better shopping experience is really about offering a better choosing experience. More specifically, fewer choices. Offering people lots of options — 31 flavors! (Baskin-Robbins) 87,000 drink combinations! (Starbucks) 27 million books! (Amazon)– sounds like a great idea.  But too many choices can have the opposite effect, leading to confusion, anxiety about the “right” choice and ultimately a poor choice or even No Sale.  Why? In a nutshell, it comes down to neurological limits on our ability to process information–while the idea of lots of choices sounds exciting (there’s one made “just for me”!), it can be paralyzing to choose from too many options.

The article references studies performed in a grocery store (choosing a jar of jam) and a workplace (choosing a retirement savings plan) to illustrate its point, but it struck me that this applies to online experiences, too.  A web site with a lot of content that offers too many options that are poorly organized will lead to frustrated users who will abandon your site for your competitor’s.

So how do we– marketers or user experience (UX) practitioners–craft a better choosing experience?  Authors Sheen Iyengar and Kanika Agrawal offer the following tips, to which I’ve added my UX take:

  1. Cut the number of options.
  2. Don’t worry about losing shelf space to competitors–in the end, trimming back the product line lowers costs, increases sales, and makes it easier for consumers to choose. According to the authors, “In case the poor performers aren’t evident from sales figures, focus groups and online networks can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.” My UX take: Focus on presenting the content and tasks that mean the most to your users. A combination of web analytics and user feedback (interviews or surveys) will help you figure out what should be on the site and what’s expendable.

  3. Create confidence with expert or personalized recommendations.
  4. Expert reviews and recommendations “let consumers skip over much of the information-processing component of choosing, minimizing cognitive stress and enabling them to make good choices,” according to Iyengar and Agrawal. My UX take: This tip speaks directly to the online experience. Many web sites offering highly differentiated items (books, music, clothes) benefit from recommendation tools, or automated systems (“electronic agents”) that generate suggestions based on consumers’ expressed preferences. While these tools require more of an investment on the part of the organization and sometimes the user (e.g., if a survey or profile needs to be completed), they can be worth it if your web site is one that offers a large quantity of content or inventory to peruse.

  5. Categorize your offerings so that consumers better understand their options.
  6. “For an expert, there is no completely unique product or service; rather, each offering is a distinctive combination of attributes that the expert has seen before.” The key is getting a novice to act like an expert by creating top-level categories that are easily understood. As an example, the authors cite wine retailer Best Cellars, which limits its varieties to 100 wines that are divided into eight top-level categories, such as “fizzy,” “juicy,” and “sweet.” Once the novice has chosen a category, he or she can choose a wine within that category by reading the detailed labels that accompany all the bottles. My UX take: For web site users that rely on browsing to find what they want, category names are critical. This means avoiding terminology that is either organization-centric (“Initiatives”) or vague (“Solutions”) and using what makes the most sense to users.

  7. Condition consumers by gradually introducing them to more-complex choices.
  8. “For certain kinds of decisions, you can set up consumers for success by encouraging them to learn from, and build upon, their own previous choices.” Iyengar cites a study in which two groups of car customers were asked to customize their vehicles, choosing everything from the engine to the rearview mirror. The first group started by choosing features with a high number of options, moving to those with low numbers of options. The second group started by making choices for features with a low number of options first. In the end, the first group had a less satisfying experience: “They began by carefully considering every option, but they soon grew tired and settled for the default. In the end, they wound up less satisfied with their cars than the buyers who had progressed from low choice to high choice.” My UX take: Users can go through a lot of information online, provided it’s presented to them in a way that lets them process it in logical bite-sized pieces. This means creating an information architecture that uses categories that make sense to the intended audiences, a hierarchical structure that lets users drill down and expose more information as they need it, and a supporting design that visually prioritizes information on each page.

Iyengar and Agrawal acknowledge the dilemma: “Don’t marketers have to give consumers what they want? Yes and no. We should give them what they really want, not what they say they want…They want to feel confident of their preferences and competent during the choosing process; they want to trust and enjoy their choices, not question them.” The online experience should work the same way.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Information Architecture, Usability, User Experience

July 29, 2010, 12:26 pm

Historic New England’s Collections Online

By Kirsten Robinson

The Portsmouth Herald has published an article about Historic New England’s new web site and online collections project, for which Dynamic Diagrams provided web strategy, information architecture and design services, as well as project management for the site’s development.

You can view the web site at www.historicnewengland.org or dive right into searching and browsing the online collections — full of photos, artifacts, and reference materials having to do with 400 years of New England History.

We’re currently in the final stage of the project, conducting usability tests on the new site.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Architecture, Scholarly Publishing, Usability, User Experience, Web Interface Design

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

May 27, 2010, 2:15 pm

Historic New England Web Site Goes Live

By Kirsten Robinson

Historic New England’s redesigned web site is now live at www.historicnewengland.org. Historic New England is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and presenting New England’s history. They own and operate 36 historic house museums, provide educational programming for adults and children, collect and conserve historic objects and archives, help preservation organizations and homeowners protect and maintain historic sites, and publish books and magazines about history and preservation.

Some highlights of the new site:

  • Improved navigation and fresh visual design replaced a site that had grown organically over ten years.
  • Greatly expanded content on historic properties, preservation, and more: site updates are completely under the control of Historic New England staff for the first time, through an easy-to-use content management system (CMS) called Plone.
  • Online collections access: users can now browse and search Historic New England’s extensive collections of museum objects, archival materials, and books. Online exhibitions are also easier to create.

Users can search and browse the collections and archives

  • Interactive events calendar allows users to browse events by date and location and then click through to the online shop for registration.
  • Search engine provides quick access to site content and collection highlights from any page, and there are also specialized searches for collections and events.
  • Galleries and slide shows are available throughout the site to better present Historic New England’s great photography. Here’s one about the animals at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm.
  • Multimedia is also supported, as seen in the Berlin & Coos County oral history project.
  • Interactive map provides a visual overview of Historic New England’s 36 property locations.
Map to Historic New England's 36 properties

Interactive map to Historic New England's 36 properties

  • Integration with Historic New England’s online shop (developed by a third party) enables them to sell memberships, donations, event registrations, and merchandise. The shop integration will also enable single sign on between the site and the shop, allowing access to restricted content as well as member discounts on purchases.
  • News has categories and feeds to position news appropriately throughout the site, and allows user commenting.
  • Microsites enable visitors to rent properties for weddings and functions and to celebrate Historic New England’s centennial.
Home page for the Function Rentals microsite

Home page for the Function Rentals microsite

Dynamic Diagrams has been working with Historic New England since January 2009 to define web strategy, information architecture, user experience, and visual design for the site. We worked with our development partners to implement the site using the Plone CMS, to convert legacy content, and to integrate the site visually and functionally with Historic New England’s online shop. We collaborated with our partners and Historic New England’s collections team to define and develop the Collections Access portal. Finally, we and our partners trained Historic New England staff authors on Plone and writing for the web, so that they could develop new content for the site and maintain it going forward.

We are thrilled to see the site go live and congratulate Historic New England on a successful launch.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Interface Design

May 4, 2010, 10:17 am

Jobs Takes Flash to the Mat

By Henry Woodbury

Get your ringside seats for the Apple vs. Adobe fight, right here.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs tries the headscissors takedown:

Besides the fact that Flash is closed and proprietary, has major technical drawbacks, and doesn’t support touch based devices, there is an even more important reason we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads… We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen bounces back with a half nelson leg sweep (video here):

The technology problems that Mr. Jobs mentions in his essay are “really a smokescreen,” Mr. Narayen says. He says more than 100 applications that used Adobe’s software were accepted in the App Store. “When you resort to licensing language” to restrict this sort of development, he says, it has “nothing to do with technology.”

Meanwhile, Adobe plans to demo Flash for Google’s Android OS this month — and give Android phones to all of its employees.

By the way, here’s Rey Mysterio performing the headscissors move:

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

May 3, 2010, 1:28 pm

Social Media: The Means to the Ends

By Henry Woodbury

I’m no Jeremiah, but this critique of Facebook’s approach to privacy is quite unsettling:

When you think about Facebook, the market has very specific incentives: Encourage people to be public, increase ad revenue.

The speaker is Microsoft’s Danah Boyd. She doesn’t get into horror stories. She just nails the paradigm.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Marketing, Technology, User Experience

April 6, 2010, 11:06 am

The Audience-First News

By Henry Woodbury

Turns out that Rupert Murdoch agrees with me about content:

Speaking on the company’s earnings call, he said “Content isn’t just King, it’s the Emperor of all things electronic.”

At the completely unironic  paidContent.org, John Yemma, Editor of The Christian Science Monitor, picks up the theme, and elaborates:

Yes, people want multimedia. They want games, maps, 30 Rock on Hulu, bootlegged first-run movies from Pirate Bay, and whacked-out amateur videos on YouTube and a dozen other sites. But there’s no evidence that they want, for instance, a thoughtful interactive map/video/database mashup on Afghanistan or global warming on which they can comment. There’s no evidence that users love these things so much that they flock to them, stay around, and convert to a news site’s brand because of cool multimedia.

Yemma differs from Murdoch in his lack of love for paywalls. Instead he advances an updated version of the click-through mantra of 00s:

What we’re learning is that the key to building and keeping traffic is far more prosaic than multimedia and sharing buttons. It rests on overcoming a huge cultural barrier: evolving a serious, experienced, thoughtful newsroom into an audience-first organization. I use the term “evolving” because this is all about the present tense. Trying to understand our current and future audience is a work in progress that will continue for as long as we publish on the web.

How far removed from being “audience-first” is your web presence? It’s worth some thought. And see what Yemma says about Sandra Bullock.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Information Design, User Experience

March 17, 2010, 12:06 pm

Your Data is my Distraction

By Henry Woodbury

I recently ran across a still-fresh 2009 Nieman Journalism Lab post on “ambient visual data” — a good term for the practice of graphically incorporating metadata into a content-delivery interface. The most common idea seems to be adding subtle bar charts beneath or around links to illustrate various kinds of popularity.

To explain the importance of the concept, author Haley Sweetland Edwards turns to designer Eliazar Parra Cardenas, creator of Backbars, “a GreaseMonkey script to turn the headlines and comments of social link-sites into ambient bar charts (of votes/diggs/views/users…).” Cardenas explains:

“The whole point is to make textual information easier to absorb… [A well-designed site] should maximize the information that a user can understand — that you can just glance at, or take note of -– without actively thinking….

“We’ve already tried the obvious in print: putting as much text as possible in one glance (hence broadsheets), mixing in images, headlines, columns. I think the next step will be digital developments like backbars, favicons, sparklines, word coloring, spacings.”

Count me as extremely skeptical. The sites that Edwards and Cardenas hold up as examples seem both cluttered and shallow — a vote-stuffing contest for “news of the weird.”

I’m old school that way. What drives traffic are the editorial and authorial inputs that Cardenas overlooks in his list of the obvious. Not headlines, but well-written headlines. Not images, but compelling images. Not backbars, favicons, sparklines, word coloring, and spacings, but good ledes.

The New York Times isn’t making money online. But they aren’t lacking for traffic.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Technology, Usability, User Experience, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

February 17, 2010, 3:33 pm

Next Steps for Augmented-Reality Maps

By Lisa Agustin

Fresh from the TED2010 conference: an amazing talk by Blaise Aguera y Arcas, an architect at Microsoft Live Labs, in which he demonstrates how Photosynth software is transforming cartography into a user experience: first by stitching static photos together to create zoomable, navigatable spaces, then with superimposed video for a swear-you-are-there experience.  Not to be missed.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Maps, Technology, User Experience

February 5, 2010, 2:07 pm

Brainstorming A History of the World

By Lisa Agustin

Rattle offers its first blog post on developing the user experience strategy for “A History of the World,” the companion web site for the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name.  Written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, the radio program travels through two million years to tell the history of humanity through 100 handmade objects from the Museum, ranging from a stone chopping tool to the cell phone.  The web site enables exploration of these objects in detail, but also gives users the opportunity to participate by commenting on the collection or uploading images from their own personal collections.  Rattle’s initial post walks us through general principles from their brief (e.g., “some use of participatory media”), the resulting strategic goals (e.g., “focus on attracting, rewarding, and promoting a small minority of contributors”), and its initial brainstorm of features (e.g., “select 10 objects to represent the History of Me”).  Now that the site is live, it will be interesting to read future installments to see how these initial high-level goals and blue-sky thinking compare to what was actually developed.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Architecture, Information Design, User Experience

January 12, 2010, 11:13 am

Historic New England Centennial Site Now Live

By Kirsten Robinson

Historic New England has launched a Centennial microsite to celebrate their 100th year of preserving New England’s history and to highlight centennial projects that they are creating in conjunction with community partners throughout the New England states. Key site features include an events calendar, photo galleries and slide shows, and video oral histories.

Historic New England Centennial oral history page

Historic New England selected Dynamic Diagrams to create the user experience for the site (research, information architecture, visual design, and XHTML and CSS coding). We worked with our development partners to implement a Plone content management system (CMS) that provides Historic New England — for the first time — with complete control to create their own pages.

The Centennial site is also a preview of things to come. Watch this space for a future announcement of Historic New England’s redesigned and enhanced main web site.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Implementation, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Interface Design

December 3, 2009, 11:28 am

What once was print…

By Matt DeMeis

…is now being done very effectively with new technology. Flyp media captures that cozy feeling of thumbing through a magazine and translates it to the internet in one of the best ways I have seen in a while. It’s news, in a more exciting format. Video, audio and elegantly designed layouts definitely give a nod to the print world, all while being more exciting than a piece of paper could ever be.

Flyp Media Home Page

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

December 2, 2009, 3:31 pm

Highly Targeted Healthcare Marketing

By Matt DeMeis

These days health care is a slippery subject. This isn’t about politics or any of that. Today I came across (what I think to be) a brilliant way of marketing health care to an audience that usually forgoes coverage, Xtreme sports enthusiasts. Tonik Health Insurance has taken the daunting task of securing coverage for yourself and made it incredibly easy.

Tonik targets a finite demographic and gives them access to the information the need in a design they can relate to. In one or two clicks I was able to find all that I needed to know about purchasing a plan from them. Once you decide on a coverage level you simply fill out a form. For comparison I went to an undisclosed giant’s web site to try and find the same info (still pretending I was an Xtreme sports enthusiast of course). I gave up after some dead end digging and suggestions to download PDFs. It seemed more effort was put into the stock photography than the user experience. Ease of use is CRUCIAL for the audience Tonik is targeting. Their potential customer wants information fast. No digging. No downloading.

The design is great. Loud but very minimalist. It’s tailored for a younger, action sports lifestyle audience and it does that perfectly. Bold colors and lots of flash but these things don’t hide the information. Wonder what “$5000 deductible” means on the thrill-seeker plan? click the question mark next to the word. Easy.

Tonik Healthcare Screen

Now to be fair it must be noted that Tonik is a division of Blue Cross, an industry giant. They don’t serve every demographic, there is no “family thrill-seeker” package yet, but there is a lot to be learned by how smart and easy this site has made a somewhat complicated decision. Check it out at www.tonikhealth.com

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Branding, Information Design, Marketing, User Experience, Web Interface Design

August 27, 2009, 3:09 pm

Craigslist Makeover

By Matt DeMeis

Wired has a very interesting article up right now. Several well known designers were asked to give hypothetical makeovers to Craigslist. I use CL all the time and honestly, I have never really had a usability problem of any kind. It does what it is meant to do quite well and is a true example of a simple utilitarian web service. I don’t own an iPhone or Blackberry so mobile access hasn’t been an issue for me. That seems to be the biggest argument for some kind of partial redesign (if only for mobile clients). A lot of the designers agree “why fix what’s not broken” (myself included) but it’s still interesting to see the results. Some better than others. My take on the submitted designs…

Favorite: Simple Scott
Least Favorite: Studio8
Middle Ground: Khoi Vinh

Go check it out for yourself…

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

June 15, 2009, 12:17 pm

Erudition Analytics

By Henry Woodbury

There’s more to data mining than click-through rates and advertising revenues. This Zachary Seward article at the Nieman Journalism Lab (via Althouse) explains how the New York Times examines user behavior as it relates to their style. Using a Web analytics report of words most often looked-up by Times readers, deputy news editor Philip Corbett sent out the memo to reporters and columnists:

Our choice of words should be thoughtful and precise, and we should never talk down to readers. But how often should even a Times reader come across a word like hagiography or antediluvian or peripatetic, especially before breakfast?

Remember, too, that striking and very specific words can become wan and devalued through overuse. Consider apotheosis, which we’ve somehow managed to use 18 times so far this year. It literally means “deification, transformation into a divinity.” An extended meaning is “a glorified ideal.” But in some of our uses it seems to suggest little more than “a pretty good example.” Most recently, we’ve said critics view the Clinton health-care plan as “the apotheosis of liberal, out-of-control bureaucracy-building,” and we’ve described cut-off shorts as “that apotheosis of laissez-faire wear.”

So what do we say if someone really is transformed into a god?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Language, Technology, User Experience

March 11, 2009, 1:52 pm

Retrobrands, Part 2: The Meatball versus The Worm

By Lisa Agustin

Official Nasa Seal
Official NASA Seal
NASA Insignia (the Meatball)
NASA Insignia (“the Meatball”)
NASA Logotype (the Worm)
NASA Logotype (“the Worm”)

T Magazine’s recent writeup on the history of the logo for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an interesting counterpoint to Matt’s post on the rebranding of Howe Caverns. In 1959, a year after the agency was founded, James Modarelli of the NASA Lewis Research Center created the NASA Insignia, which was meant to serve as a less formal version of the official NASA seal. The Insignia, also known as “the Meatball,” is a composite of individual design elements — the sphere is a planet, the stars represent space, the vector represents aeronautics, and the orbit represents space travel–cast in a patriotic scheme of red, white, and blue. The result is a logo that looks, to some, too literal and amateurish, yet romantic and nostalgic to others.

The Meatball was used until 1975, when the agency unveiled the NASA Logotype, a subtler, more futuristic take on the agency logo that strips the name down to a single curving element to spell out the four letters. “The Worm” is sleek, serious, and more corporate– not a surprise given it was created by a corporate identity firm, Danne & Blackburn.

Given the history of its logo, one would assume that further work on the NASA brand would take the Worm further along in its progression — more forward-thinking, future-type approaches. Right? Wrong. Turns out that use of the Worm was discontinued in 1992 (although it may be used with permission for commercial purposes), and NASA returned to using the Meatball, which it still uses today as its official logo. Why the return to the earlier version? Columnist Alice Rawsthorn’s take:

The Meatball was revived in 1992 as part of the efforts to revitalize NASA after its traumas of the 1980s. NASA decided to bring back the symbol of its golden age and has stuck with it ever since. The Meatball still reminds us of the triumph of the Mercury and Apollo missions, even though NASA has never recaptured its former glory, as illustrated by its recent problems with the design of the Ares spacecraft system.

Unlike the Howe Caverns brand, in which the old identity was seen as an impediment to bringing in a new audience, the NASA Insignia represents big dreams and new frontiers, a transfusion that NASA’s image could really use right now.

For more on NASA’s logo, see:

http://history.nasa.gov/meatball.htm

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Branding, Marketing, Typography, User Experience

January 20, 2009, 10:06 am

Goosing the Gray Lady

By Lisa Agustin

newjournalists090119_2_560

Interactive infographics and visualizations have been part of the New York Times’ online edition for some time; typical examples include the “Word Train,” an interactive mood database for collecting public opinion on Election Day, and “Casualties of War: Faces of the Dead,” a project merging photography, databases, audio, and graphics that marked the date U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached 3,000 (both pictured above).

Now this week’s issue of New York Magazine features an article on how the Times’ Interactive Technologies Group came to be:

The proposal was to create a newsroom: a group of developers-slash-journalists, or journalists-slash-developers, who would work on long-term, medium-term, short-term journalism—everything from elections to NFL penalties to kind of the stuff you see in the Word Train.  This team would “cut across all the desks,” providing a corrective to the maddening old system, in which each innovation required months for permissions and design. The new system elevated coders into full-fledged members of the Times—deputized to collaborate with reporters and editors, not merely to serve their needs.

Most interesting to me is this idea that the roles of journalist and developer have merged at the Times, resulting in projects that aren’t window-dressing for articles, but offer new ways to explore and make the news more relevant to its readers.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Technology, User Experience

December 12, 2008, 12:17 pm

Creating Guideposts for the Visual Design Process

By Lisa Agustin

Droid SansA web site’s design is the marriage of the analytical and the aesthetic. The analytical side involves sifting through the front-end research (strategic documents, content inventories, user interviews, etc.), and translating these into a positive and engaging user experience.  Coming up with the architecture is a creative activity, but it has its roots in research activities that most clients understand and accept.

Developing the site’s visual design is usually the bigger challenge, since this is when subjective concerns like personal preference may come into play. Personal opinions about design may put the project at risk (read: endless review cycles) if these are not managed correctly.  With our projects, we frame design discussions in the context of project goals and best practices.  Conversations about the site’s desired look and feel are as specific as we can make them: Are there corporate brand guidelines?  Does the site have to complement other sites and collateral?  Are there sites you like/don’t like and why?  This approach has served us well. Still, there have been exceptions where we’ve created a visual design concept that clearly meets all the requirements, but the client is not satisfied with the result.  In the best scenarios, the feedback is specific and actionable. But then there are other design reviews where the response is a little more cryptic: “It’s not quite I was looking for,” or the dreaded “I know it when I’ll see it.”  What then?

I thought about this when I read how Droid, the font for the new G1 cellphone, came to be. Google wanted a font that was “friendly and approachable” with “common appeal.”  The iterations developed by font studio Ascender Corporation ranged from an early typeface that was considered too “bubbly” to the more “techno” computer-based font, which was also rejected.  Because the definition of an “approachable” font isn’t exactly clear-cut (at least to me), I suspect debates about the options used some kind of visual scale, a more complex version of the continuum graphic at the top of this post.  Seeing the range of options would be easier than just talking about them, and it would then be possible to pinpoint the desired result. We’ve developed such tools ourselves, adding information about what the advantages and tradeoffs may be in choosing one direction over another.

Another example of this design continuum is the perceptual map used to guide the design development of the Xbox 360 game console (scroll down for the perceptual map).  The project team arranged seven console designs on a grid that used “architectural/organic” vs. “mild/wild” axes, with the existing design as a reference.  This tool ensured that the conversation was about design language and not about design preference, while also giving non-designers a way to compare the different console designs. (For more on the Xbox 360 design process, see this earlier Information Design Watch post.)

I would love to see more examples of visual tools that can help guide the design process. Readers, have any of you successfully adapted or developed similar tools for guiding design-related discussions with clients?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Prototyping, Typography, User Experience, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

November 20, 2008, 12:55 pm

Ugly is Timeless

By Henry Woodbury

Jason Fried at 37 Signals offers an appreciation of the Drudge Report:

A couple weeks ago on Twitter I said: “I still maintain the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the web. Has been for years. A few people agreed, but most didn’t. Some thought it was a joke. I wasn’t kidding.”

Fried starts with the site’s “staying power:”

Its generic list of links, black and white monospaced font, and ALL CAPS headlines have survived every trend, every fad, every movement, every era, every design do or don’t. It doesn’t look old and it doesn’t look new — it looks Drudge.

Fried touches on design, branding, production, and content. What is the content of Drudge? Headlines and links. Why is that enough?

The more often you hit his site to go somewhere else the more often you’ll return to go somewhere else again. You visit the Drudge Report more because you leave the Drudge Report more.

Lots of food for thought.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Marketing, User Experience, Web Interface Design

October 29, 2008, 11:58 am

Improving Mobile Search

By Lisa Agustin

First, a confession:  I love my iPhone.  But using the touchscreen keyboard leaves me (and others as well) feeling annoyed and just a bit uncoordinated.  And when it comes to searching?  Not fun.  Why is mobile searching so hard?  The problem, in part, is a misconception that PDAs and phones are just small laptops.  Luckily, this mindset is changing.  Mobile technology companies are increasingly aware that technology by itself won’t fix the problem; the key will be using these solutions (voice-recognition,  leveraging of built-in cameras and, eventually, the semantic web)  to create intuitive user experiences.

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September 2, 2008, 12:20 pm

Site Maps: Helpful Tool or IA Cop-out?

By Lisa Agustin

I’ve been following with some interest UIE’s series on what it considers web design “cop-outs,” such as site maps. According to Jared Spool, a good information architecture should eliminate the need for a site map, since the map itself doesn’t “give off scent,” or clues for finding desired content:

“It’s only in the absence of anything else that gives off scent that users start to think it’s a likely help. Therefore, the real problem is the pages that lead to the site map are missing important scent. Fixing the scent issues on those pages will eliminate the need for the site map. However, deciding to improve the site map doesn’t fix the scent problem — it’s only a cop-out.”

I do agree that redesigning a site map is not the way to address findability issues, but it’s a drastic move to get rid of the site map altogether, even if there are only a few people that use them. We look at the site map not as a back-up option for locating content, but rather as the single-page view of what the whole web site offers. When done well (ideally as a single static page of links that doesn’t go deeper than 2-3 levels in the hierarchy), the site map is not a crutch, but a complementary navigation tool.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Information Architecture, User Experience

August 7, 2008, 9:02 am

Do Web Designers and Site Visitors Agree on Web Site Effectiveness?

By Kirsten Robinson

Sathish Menon and Michael Douma at IDEA report on their survey to compare expectations about the online experience among web designers, non-profit organizations, and site visitors. Not surprisingly, they found a few discrepancies. For example, “Designers underestimate the thresholds for an effective site,” and “Designers are overly optimistic about visitors’ ability to maintain orientation.” Yet another argument for practicing user-centered design, including user research and usability testing.

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

April 29, 2008, 12:06 pm

Of Wii and Waterproof Mattresses: Hotels Prototype New Ideas with “Test Rooms”

By Kirsten Robinson

The New York Times reported today that hotels are using “test rooms” to try out new designs and technology before implementing them throughout the hotel, saving vast sums by discarding or improving upon ideas that don’t work. New technologies being tested include waterproof mattresses, digital door panels, customized Wii consoles, and even wireless electricity. But sometimes the greatest need is to make sure the existing features are usable. One guest who tried out a test room commented that he could not figure out the alarm clock or how to turn on the television. “All I wanted to do was watch CNN,” he said.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Prototyping, Technology, Usability, User Experience

March 18, 2008, 9:32 pm

User Experience: Crash Test Version

By Henry Woodbury

One exhibit at the New York Auto show is a car like this:

Crash-tested Ford Taurus

The point is to show off the Ford Taurus’s five star crash rating. What makes this interesting as information design is that it’s literally a) a car crash and b) interactive:

Show goers will be allowed to sit in the post-crash Taurus to see what a crash test dummy sees after a 35-mph meet up with an offset concrete barrier.

It is easy to forget in the online world, but the best user experience is being there.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Marketing, User Experience

March 11, 2008, 9:58 pm

MOMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind

By Lisa Agustin

universcaleAt NY’s Museum of Modern Art, the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition “focuses on designers’ ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and social mores, changes that will demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior, and convert them into objects and systems that people understand and use.” The online exhibition features 300 examples of design innovation in several categories, among them Thinkering (“productive tinkering”), Super Nature (technologies based on biological systems), and Extreme Visualization, which includes universcale, a Flash site describing the size of objects in the universe using an “infinite yardstick” extending from a femtometer to a light-year.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Creativity, Current Events, Design, User Experience

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.

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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!

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

October 4, 2007, 12:31 pm

Access Control Poster

By Henry Woodbury

Model Access Control Poster, DetailI was discussing a new project with a colleague yesterday, one in which we need to turn a preliminary framework into a detailed process model, when I realized that a past project might help us out.

Back in 2002, we designed a Modeling Access Control Poster for that year’s ASIS&T Information Architecture Summit. We intentionally challenged ourselves to explain web-based access control systems on a conceptual level, rather than show a particular case.

This approach now helps us, internally, to define the appropriate requirements-gathering baseline for a newly conceived system.

The printable poster is here: Modeling Access Control Poster (PDF, 287K).

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Architecture, User Experience, Visual Explanation

August 20, 2007, 11:04 am

People Scroll

By Henry Woodbury

In a Boxes and Arrows article titled Blasting the Myth of the Fold, Milissa Tarquini runs through research that shows that browser users really do scroll down long pages. Here’s just one of her examples:

In [a report available on ClickTale.com], the researchers used their proprietary tracking software to measure the activity of 120,000 pages. Their research gives data on the vertical height of the page and the point to which a user scrolls. In the study, they found that 76% of users scrolled and that a good portion of them scrolled all the way to the bottom, despite the height of the screen. Even the longest of web pages were scrolled to the bottom.

My question is this: If people scroll, do we need “back to top” links?

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

August 1, 2007, 2:07 pm

2007 IDEA Awards Announced

By Lisa Agustin

Eclipse 500 Instrument PanelThis year’s International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) show was the latest evidence that design is a discipline that involves more than just aesthetics. Awards were won for service innovation in banking, creating broad corporate and brand strategies, bolstering sustainability via electric cars, and remaking hammers and wrenches in new, better forms. (Shown at left: The instrument panel for the Eclipse 500 jet, whose design team created a user interface that is considered more intuitive, less cluttered, less fatiguing and more motion efficient.) Run by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BusinessWeek, the competition boasted a highly international contingent (20 countries total), as well as an increase in the number of student-developed submissions. One particular trend was the rise in environmentally-friendly design, which included some unlikely product categories (green sportscar, anyone?)

A slide show of entrants:
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/07/07/0720_IDEA/index_01.htm

A highlights walkthrough by BW’s Bruce Nussbaum:
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/07/07/0723_idea_awards/index_01.htm

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

July 20, 2007, 10:37 am

IA and RIAs

By Lisa Agustin

Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) enable a user experience that’s more responsive and sophisticated than traditional HTML. But does crafting the RIA experience differ that much from architecting a traditional web site? Yes and no, says Adam Polansky in the latest ASIS&t Bulletin. Polansky, an information architect for an online travel company, was tasked with producing a trip planning application that had originally taken shape as an exciting proof-of-concept Flash demo, but which had not been scrutinized in terms of scalability, usability, or actual user needs.

Before moving forward, Polansky took a few steps back by employing traditional IA exercises such as wireframing (adapted to a more interactive experience) and usability testing to validate the direction and identify the holes. Besides pointing out the similarities and differences between building web sites and RIAs, he offers a good shortlist of pitfalls to avoid, including the potential for increased revision cycles and building interaction at the expense of content. I would tend to agree with him on both fronts. In our practice, we’ve found that constructing process flows and annotated wireframes are key to keeping everyone on the same page about the intended user experience and the possible trade-offs between vision and feasibility. These activities ease (if not eliminate) any worry of creating interaction for its own sake.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Implementation, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Interface Design

July 10, 2007, 8:50 am

Usability: the New Career Field

By Lisa Agustin

The New York Times recently covered the area of usability/human factors as an up-and-coming career field. The article doesn’t shed much light on the subject for those who are familiar with or work in the area of user experience. But for the broader population, I thought it gave an interesting perspective on the usability profession and its purpose in making technology easier to use: “Sometimes there is a huge disconnect between the people who make a product and the people who use it.”

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

June 19, 2007, 10:56 am

IA and the Agile Approach

By Lisa Agustin

Earlier this month, Fastcompany.com plugged the agile development approach that was used to redesign its home page. The approach in a nutshell, according to blogger Ed Sussman: “Vision, release, test, iterate. Repeat. Quickly.Speaking metaphorically, think of design and development as a washing machine, not a waterfall. The organization initially planned to release the new design as part of a larger effort that encompassed new features and functionality. But in the end, they decided against it:

What if we had waited to get it all just right before we released FC Expert Bloggers? We’d still be in the dugout. We’d have been guessing instead of seeing what the market actually thinks. In an effort to make our product perfect, we probably would have been forced to spend loads of money fixing problems that might not have mattered to our readers.

The agile approach is one that certainly has its benefits — it’s flexible and means users get to see the latest features sooner, without waiting for an annual update. But in order to be successful, an agile approach still has to start with stakeholder and user requirements that are validated through an information architecture, design, and development process. Only then can an organization be sure its site’s “killer widgets” are truly meeting the needs of its audience.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Implementation, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Interface Design

January 23, 2007, 9:04 pm

The Future of Gesture UIs

By Lisa Agustin

Without fail, the start of the new year gets people thinking about What Will Be Big This Year.  The latest issue of Digital Web Magazine features an interview with Doug Bowman, a Visual Design Lead with Google, in which DWM asked which apps from 2006 are most significant and what that means for 2007.  Aside from the expected endorsements of Google’s Calendar and Spreadsheets, Bowman had some interesting comments touching upon the themes of selective content sharing (e.g., Six Apart’s Vox) and more consolidation (e.g., Yahoo! Mail).

But what piqued my interest the most were Bowman’s comments regarding “gesture user interfaces,” or UIs that are driven by physical movements of the user.  This is not a new thing, of course–dragging and dropping is something that most users accept (maybe even expect) with the latest applications. But recent offerings like the Nintendo Wii and the Reactrix interactive advertising display are giving us glimpses into what user experience may hold for the future. (Okay, so maybe the holographic screen in that Tom Cruise movie wasn’t completely off the mark?)  What I find most interesting about gesture UIs is not so much what the final user experience will be for gesture-driven apps, but how would you architect and then document the desired experience?  What kinds of description languages will need to be developed to describe the experience programmatically? What kinds of new user input paradigms will emerge moving forward? Stay tuned.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Design, Implementation, Technology, User Experience

November 17, 2006, 1:21 pm

Does Good User Experience Pay Off?

By Lisa Agustin

UX consultants Teehan + Lax have started the Teehan + Lax UX Fund, an investment experiment to see if companies that deliver a great user experience will see it reflected in their stock price.  The group was inspired in part by the Design Council, whose Design Index research project showed that “the share prices of a group of more than 150 quoted companies recognised as effective users of design out-performed the stock market by 200 per cent between 1994 and 2003.”

To be included in the T+L UX Fund, each company needed to meet the following criteria:

  • A demonstrated care in the design of their products and Web site
  • A history of innovation
  • They inspire loyalty in their customer base
  • Doing business with them is a positive experience

The list of companies includes ones you’d expect, like Apple and Target, as well as not-so-obvious ones like Progressive Insurance. As to the question of whether it will pay off, the fund looks like it’s off to a good start: it’s already outperforming the NASDAQ by almost double.

This experiment brings to mind those sticky ROI discussions that are often part of justifying a site redesign and its associated costs. While client stakeholders might agree that a redesigned site could look better and might even lead to a better user experience, the “real” (i.e., monetary) payoff is often hard to assess, partly because each company may have its own measuring stick (e.g., fewer customer calls, more registered users) and partly because you won’t know the results until all is said and done. In the meantime, it will be interesting to watch how the UX Fund progresses, at the very least so those of us in the user experience/design arena can say, “See? It IS worth it.”

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July 28, 2006, 1:01 pm

Focusing on Customer Experience, Part II

By Lisa Agustin

Earlier this month we shared a story on “experience immersion,” a holistic approach to evaluating the customer experience. Continuing in this vein, MarketingSherpa recently posted the results of a panel discussion on customer experience, in which senior executives from Cingular, Avaya, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts offered their insights on the role of customer experience in reinforcing brand. According to Renee Rodgers, VP of Avaya.com:

“We look at it from a marketing perspective: How do end users see our brand online, offline, in the technicians who come to their site, in the items they discover through search? Are they getting the same messaging and communication across their entire lifecycle?…We can’t let internal company factors influence the fact that it really is the customer who has final say over whether they leave our Web site or continue the experience. We’re selling technology, so it’s important for us to show innovation on our own site and provide an experiential aspect to that.”

From an internal perspective, it’s not enough to aim for customer satisfaction through specific endeavors, such as the redesign of a web site. According to the panel, organizations need to not only understand what customers need and want, but also foster a company culture that focuses on the customer experience at all levels, while providing appropriate tools that help staff collaborate and manage content that customers will come in contact with globally.

Note: Panel notes will be freely available from the MarketingSherpa site for about ten days and then for a nominal fee in the web site’s library.

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July 20, 2006, 12:54 pm

Understanding The Total User Experience

By Lisa Agustin

In the context of web sites, the term “user experience” applies to those elements that collectively have an impact on the user’s (or customer’s) visit to the site–for example, site organization, visual design, and ease of use, to name just a few.

Usability testing represents one of the activities used by firms (including Dynamic Diagrams) to determine whether a site’s user experience is positive (e.g., translates into an online purchase or a repeat visit) or negative (e.g., drives the user to the site of a competitor).

Some organizations are taking the analysis of customer experience to a higher level with “experience immersion.” This process involves more than just surveying customers or running a focus group. Experience immersion is about making company executives literally putting themselves in their customers shoes, using a variety of real-life scenarios. Take Swiss banking institution, Credit Suisse, for example:

The two-hour exercise begins with a visit to three local bank branches. At the first branch…execs watch customers; at the second, they complete a typical customer task, such as exchanging foreign currency; and at the third branch, they’re given a few questions to ask actual customers–by far the most intimidating task. [At the] office, the executives visit the bank’s Web site and attempt to check the interest rate for a mortgage or find out which bank cards can be used abroad. And they try to fill out credit-card application forms.

Each session yields results. Two of the branches visited during immersions are now being redesigned at the request of participating execs. Another manager, who was forced to cool his heels in a long line, kicked off a project to reduce waiting time. Christoph Brunner, COO of Credit Suisse’s private-banking unit, realized that “in some cases, we actually make it hard for customers to do business with us. [I saw] that little things make a big difference. For example, just having signage that people understand. Having friendly and helpful employees. As a bank, we often think that only the financial products themselves matter–but there is so much more that goes around that.

Experience immersion illustrates a point that is basic yet often ignored (often unintentionally) by executives: that a service or product is successful only when it’s viewed through the lens that matters most: that of the customer.

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June 19, 2006, 1:01 pm

Who Are We Designing For, Anyway?

By Lisa Agustin

Consumers? Customers? Users? These are the words that we’ve grown accustomed to using when referring to the person who will benefit from the latest object or information we’ve designed. According to author Don Norman, these are derogatory terms that continue to look at the (pardon us) end user from the company-centered perspective. Says Norman, why not look at them for what they really are — People:

If we are designing for people, why not call them that: people, a person, or perhaps humans. But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as customer, consumer, or user. Customer — you know, someone who pays the bills. Consumer — one who consumes. User, or even worse, end user — the person who pushes the buttons, clicks the mouse, and keeps getting confused.

The related terminology is no less impersonal, since these users–in their various “roles”–”perform tasks” to get “results” and hopefully avoid “errors” in the process. Norman’s suggestion to “wipe out words such as consumer, customer, and user from our vocabulary” may not be possible; rather, the takeaway for designers should be to strive for an understanding of and empathy for those who will hopefully benefit from well-designed information or products.

http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/words_matter_talk_ab.html

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Architecture, Information Design, User Experience

May 15, 2006, 11:29 am

Success by Design Conference, Providence, Rhode Island, 4/27/06

By d/D

Introduction

We recently attended the Success by Design Conference, an annual event sponsored by The Center for Design and Business in Providence, Rhode Island, USA (http://www.centerdesignbusiness.org/conf.html). The Center’s mission is to explore the intersection of design principles and business intelligence. This year’s conference focused on innovation in product design and service delivery. The following is a recap of our team notes and conclusions from several key sessions.

“Service Innovation: Design’s New Frontier” by Jeneanne Rae, Co-founder, Peer Insight, LLC

A nationally recognized thought leader for innovation management and design strategy, Jeneanne Rae of Peer Insight, LLC, (http://www.peerinsight.com/) helps organizations recognize and take advantage of critical business opportunities. Services currently represent 80 percent of the U.S. economy and is growing. As this market expands, companies need to think creatively about how to get a competitive edge. According to Rae, infusing service delivery with well-established design skills can lead to innovations in the customer experience. The designer’s skill set is a natural fit for improving service delivery because it encompasses the following:

Empathy. Designing a service experience requires understanding users — not just their goals, but also their emotional, social, and cultural needs.

Broader Thinking. Designers think about the possibilities: What if? What could be?

Visualizing and Prototyping. Designers are used to developing typical scenarios to better understand how and why a product might be used. Some service scenarios can be studied with a physical model (for example, a passenger train car, built to scale); others can benefit from getting user response to verbal, visual, or virtual scenarios.

Iterative Testing. Designers know that good products only become better by repeated testing and iterative improvement.

Integrated Solutions. Design takes into account the perspectives of both users and key stakeholders. Achieving a balance is key.
Rae acknowledged that innovation in service delivery is not without its challenges:

There is no product portfolio. A company that innovates a service will find it challenging to describe the offering in a way that has immediate appeal and can, at a glance, stand apart from the competition. This is where visualization can make a difference.

Services are fuzzy. Unlike products that can use a platform strategy and established pricing model, services require companies to think more conceptually about an offering that is intangible and perishable (can’t be inventoried).

It’s hard to go it alone. Innovating services delivery with design approaches requires some expert help; service companies need to recognize this and form professional partnerships as appropriate.

We found Rae’s talk to be both observant and insightful. Design isn’t (only) about making objects more attractive or fun to use. It’s about understanding what goes into the ideal customer experience, and working to achieve that through research, modeling and testing.

“Designing the Xbox 360 Experience” by Jonathan Hayes, Xbox Design Director, Microsoft

Jonathan Hayes was responsible for leading the development of the Xbox 360 (http://www.xbox.com/), the Microsoft entertainment system known not only for its powerful performance, but also its beautiful presentation. Microsoft’s goal of expanding the audience for Xbox beyond core gamers to a global market demanded a unique collaboration of artists, engineers and researchers. According to Hayes, “technology needs poetry.” But balancing the tension between technology and design required some ground rules:

Structure the process. Because the team was very large and distributed worldwide, establishing a process, milestones, and master timeline was essential to keeping the project on track. Groups worked on specific activities independently, but also had a clear idea of when to converge with the rest of the team to share results and feedback.

Structure the solution space. The subjective nature of design can lead to excessive iterations, sometimes without an end in sight (“The right design? I’ll know it when I see it.”) The Xbox team managed this risk by creating a visual framework for articulating possible solutions: a quadrant system that indexed “Mild to Wild” on one axis vs. “Organic to Architectural” on the other. Stakeholders and users were told to frame their feedback within the context of these terms. This allowed very different prototype designs to be evaluated at a thematic level with specifics deferred for later.

Predefine inclusive design values. Before beginning the design process, the team established the requirements that the new product had to meet. By doing this, the team eliminated the risk of personal preference steering the design solution.

Look at work in context and in person. Throughout the process, the team validated the proposed solution by testing the Xbox with potential users and eliciting their feedback.

Hayes’ session demonstrated that successful design solutions aren’t crafted in a vacuum and often require the input of other talented individuals such as researchers and technologists. To make such a collaboration work, there needs to be agreement on the criteria for success and how to get there.

“Innovate/Resonate: Tools for Change” by Stuart Karten, Principal, Stuart Karten Design

Stuart Karten Design (http://www.kartendesign.com/) is an industrial design consultancy that creates products using a user-centric approach. During his session, Karten outlined a specific process, “mode mapping,” that visually represents observational and ethnographic data. The mode mapping process for human activity typically involves the following key steps:

  1. Do the research, then determining personas for the research subjects and a common set of appropriate “modes.” For example, the modes for a person’s average day might include: family, friends, work, play, rest, transit, etc.
  2. Determine more specific modes for specific inquiries. Peoples’ relationships with their cars might generate modes like: chauffer, errand, commute, maintain, etc.
  3. Create sub-modes for the personas that tie into a primary person’s mode. A “parent” may link to a “child” or a “patient” may be linked to a “caregiver”.
  4. Map the modes against appropriate axes, such as “State of Mind” and “Time” or “Active / Passive” and “Time.”
  5. Add pressure points, or the fixed demands on individuals, features that do not change (e.g., soccer practice schedule).
  6. Mark decision points — points where subject has choices.
  7. Look for patterns across multiple subjects and label them with descriptive terms (e.g., “mad rush”)
  8. Look for ways to improve transitions and decisions within the key patterns.

Karten’s approach to solving product design challenges resonated with our own approach to discovering user goals and needs. Using visual methodologies to translate research into requirements is a powerful tool for creating successful design solutions.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Implementation, User Experience, Visual Explanation

January 13, 2006, 10:16 am

So a Man Walks Into a Bar and the Usability Expert Says…

By d/D

The high end of usability testing is very high: randomly selected users, audio and video recording, one-way mirrors, etc. Most Web design teams have neither the time, budget, nor any real need to go that far. Interview-style testing of a limited number of users can give plenty of feedback for an expert information architect or designer to use. In this light, Eric Burns proposes an innovative approach for low-end testing of random users — taking your test to a local bar or café:

Half of the battle in café testing is getting participants to come talk to you. I’ve had great success with a small home-made cardboard sign with a 8 1/2 x 11 piece of printed paper stapled to it. I’ve tried a number of different promotions, but by far my most successful one to date has been ‘Want free beer?’ Free beer only costs me $4, and people love it. Oddly enough, even at 10 a.m. in the morning, this one is a winner. Most people don’t want the beer, but I think they know they’ll have fun when they come and talk to me.

As Burns notes, café testing assumes your audience is the general public (or, perhaps, coffee or beer drinkers). Beyond the scope of the article, it should be said, are many other factors that go into successful user testing. For example, testers should prepare their own version of the test script that covers expected answers. Preparing these answers helps refine questions, avoid redundancy, and make test delivery more efficient. If more than just a few users are to be tested, multiple choice or numeric answers will also streamline the tabulation and analysis of the results.

http://www.gotomedia.com/gotoreport/june2004/news_0607_wantfreebeer.html

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June 17, 2005, 1:06 pm

The End of Usability

By d/D

Software developer Joel Spolsky is almost ready to say that usability isn’t that important:

“…an application that does something really great that people really want to do can be pathetically unusable, and it will still be a hit. And an application can be the easiest thing in the world to use, but if it doesn’t do anything anybody wants, it will flop.”

Spolsky doesn’t really want to tell interface designers to retire, but he does advocate a change in focus. Instead of fine-tuning how humans interface with computers, usability experts should consider how humans relate to other humans:

“Over the next decade, I expect that software companies will hire people trained as anthropologists and ethnographers to work on social interface design. Instead of building usability labs, they’ll go out into the field and write ethnographies.”

http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/NotJustUsability.html

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February 11, 2005, 2:14 pm

Human-Computer Interruption

By d/D

An entertaining New York Times article discusses how computer researchers are trying to develop tools that help users avoid the distractions of email, instant messaging, and the Internet. This may be good news or bad news, depending how you look at it. Microsoft, for example, is working on predictive software that will decide how busy you are and shield you from all but your most important email (and you thought the paper clip was annoying).

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/10/technology/circuits/10info.html (free registration required)

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January 12, 2005, 2:35 pm

RSS and the End of Surfing

By d/D

Here’s an interesting inside take on the design implications of the RSS news feed protocol by Wired editor Chris Anderson:

“the Web for me has mostly turned into another text-and-minimal-graphics stream that automatically delivers content of interest, differing from my email only in that it’s not personal and doesn’t require my response. In other words, the age of curiosity or routine-driven surfing may be ending.”

http://longtail.typepad.com/the_long_tail/2004/12/blog_design_in_.html

RSS is still a niche technology. Its impact, if it does continue to spread, may not be to end “surfing” but to bifurcate the Internet into two different experiences: one informational and text-based; the other entertainment and multimedia-based. This is hardly a new prediction; the spread of PDAs and mobile devices is a parallel case. RSS simply adds weight to the idea.

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January 12, 2005, 2:15 pm

What Users Do Not Use

By d/D

Many usability studies show that Internet users are goal oriented. They move forward into a site by looking for whatever link seems pertinent and reverse course as necessary by ruthlessly using the “back” button. In an article on the GUUUI Web site, interaction designer Henrik Olsen compiles the evidence for this behavior and spells out what it means for Web site design:

“In [usability expert] Mark Hurst’s opinion designers put too much effort into content organisation and design of navigation systems. Organising a site into sections and subsections does not by itself create a good user experience. What matters is whether users can quickly and easily advance to the next step in the pursuit for their goal.”

http://www.guuui.com/issues/01_05.php

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November 10, 2004, 2:57 pm

Information Architecture vs. User Experience: What Is the Difference?

By d/D

Information Architect Peter Boersma argues that “big” information architecture, the large-scale integration of specialized IA tasks such as navigational design and metadata analysis with related specialties such as visual design and copywriting, should inherit the term “User Experience.”

With the aid of several condensed cocktail-napkin sketches, Boersma gets beyond the terminology debate and offers a useful way of understanding the scope of big information-based projects.

http://www.peterboersma.com/blog/2004/11/t-model-big-ia-is-now-ux.html

Boersma introduces his essay with a reference to Peter Morville’s “Big Architect Little Architect” essay, found here:

http://argus-acia.com/strange_connections/strange004.html

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June 17, 2004, 9:53 am

What is Web Credibility?

By d/D

Web site information architecture methodologies are generally focused on usability — on how users can best find the information they seek. A related issue of significant importance to businesses and content creators is how users determine the credibility of the information they find.

A landmark study in this field is Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab’s 2002 report for ConsumerWebWatch, How Do People Evaluate a Web Site’s Credibility? Results from a Large Study. This report points out many parallels between Web usability and Web credibility, with an unexpectedly strong plug for visual design:

“the average consumer paid far more attention to the superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to its content. For example, nearly half of all consumers (or 46.1%) in the study assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.”

What was the next most important factor? Information Design and Structure. The authors suggest:

“One might speculate that by providing a clear information structure, a Web design team demonstrates expertise to the users. Users may then assume this expertise extends to the quality of information on the site.”

http://www.consumerwebwatch.org/dynamic/web-credibility-reports-evaluate-abstract.cfm

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February 3, 2004, 9:28 am

Rethinking Online Education

By d/D

Presenting educational content online demands a collaborative, flexible approach. Institutions need standards that allow them to share learning tools. Individual instructors need a means to create customized content. The Open Knowledge Initiative, a proposed solution to this problem, started with a long look at fundamentals:

“For most of the project’s first year, key developers from each of the collaborating schools met at MIT to hammer out a list of the basic functions that an educational management system would need.” [Our emphasis.]

Even when specifications focus on programming, user interaction is explicit in many functions: authentication, file sharing, scheduling, messaging, etc. Software standards imply an information architecture, whether planned or not; a comprehensive information architecture helps ensure that a system is both portable and scalable.

http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/atwood1203.asp?trk=nl (free registration required)

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