September 2006  
User Research: Questioning the Answers

Notes from Ash Donaldson's talk at Oz-IA 2006.

Most of the time, people gather poor requirements. We typically understand tasks, but we also need to understand the mental models, motivations, goals, and behaviors of users.

How we think.
Don Norman's layers: reflective, behavioral, and visceral.
Metaphors. We conceive of the world in metaphors. It's the only way we can understand how everything works.
Memory. We know how it doesn't work: it's not a filing system. Memory only remembers points and makes up the gaps between the points. Every time you remember something, you remember it differently.

Personal perceptions.
"I know what people want!" The transfer of assumptions. You see things in your own frames of reference. The Echo chamber.

How do I ask you how do you behave when you can't tell me?
"Draw me an animal that represents X" People get distracted by embarrassment. Drawing provides a metaphor for them. "Why did you draw that animal? What is it about this animal?" Able to articulate their feelings. It's a good way of getting people's feelings out.

"If I see it, I can believe it." But you aren't going to see everything.

Field Studies
Pick a focus. Observe and take notes on that. Observe in pairs.

It's not just talking. Symbolic (55%), verbal (only 7%), and non-verbal (38%). It's not just what is said, it's who said it and how it was said.

It's an inexact process. The sender and receiver have their own perceptions, values, knowledge, expectations. There's also problems with message and feedback: encoding, decoding, noise, vibration, etc.

The problems with self-reporting: interviewer bias, idealization, rationalization. An interview is an unnatural thing. Things you don't want to ask: So what would you do now? and So if we did this, what would you do?

Contextual Inquiry
Master/apprentice relationship: let's them do their job, and can explain it in context ("situated recall").

Making research more valid
Triangulate your data. Use other sources of data like web analytics, market research, metrics, feedback.

Originally posted on Friday, September 29, 2006 | Link | Comments (0)


Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Every IA Should Know

Notes from Donna Mauer's talk at Oz-IA 2006.

Based on George Lakoff's book about categorization and cognition. The way that we think about categories in our brains. It offers a challenge and alternatives to the classical theory of categorization. (Most of the good stuff is in the Preface and Chapters 1 and 2.) Understanding categorization is central to information architecture.

The reason it's important is because the idea of category is central....most of our words and concepts designate categories. How we think is in categories. We don't think in discreet elements.

This goes against the classical theory of a category, which is an abstract container with things inside or outside clear boundaries. Categories are defined by common properties of the members. No member of a category has a special status--all are equal. All levels of a hierarchy are important.

All of this isn't true.

There are no clear boundaries. There aren't common properties.

Basic-level categories.
Generalization occurs at the middle of a hierarchy. Learned earliest. Usually has a short name that is used frequently. A single mental image can reflect the entire category. No definitive basic level in all cultures. Dependent on who is thinking about it.

Prototype Effects.
Categories often have best or prototypical examples. (Robins are more "bird"-y than a pelican, for instance.)

Other challenges to classical categorization theory.
There are degrees of membership in any category and no clear boundaries. Not always clear what is inside or outside a category.

Idealized cognitive models: some of our models are complex structures that need a frame of reference (like what a weekend is or what a bachelor is or what a lie is).

Cluster models.
Mother--birth mother, genetic model, martial model, genealogical model.

Radial categories.
A central concept, with variants (like Mother).

Abstract ideal cases, which may not be typical of stereotypical ("the ideal husband").

Why is this important to us? Our computer software is built around the classical idea of categorization. Especially in our file systems! We define categories to fit the computer.

How we can use basic-level categories in our work.
Analyze user research data to identify basic-level. Words that are used frequently, that children understand, and come out easily.
Use basic-level categories as trigger words. Easily recognized and have good scent.
Card sort with basic-level content items rather than more granular content elements.
In navigation, get people to basic-level as soon as possible.
Instead of top-down or bottom-up, working at the basic-level up and down.

Knowing all this will make you less stressed about why the categorization is not neat.

"Miscellaneous" categories are cognitively real, just not easy to use as navigations.

Being approximate is ok. We can put some things in two places.

Use prototypical items when communicating because they represent the category well. People connect strongly with them.

Is this why tagging is so popular?

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Reinventing Social Networks

Notes from Mark Pesce's keynote "You-biquity" at Web Directions South 2006.

The web's been dull for five years, but right now, anything is possible. The heart of that possibility is that we're starting to understand what the web can do for us as human beings.

I'm trying to understand how we interact with each other and with technology. To do that, I need to peel back the layers of technology, language until we get back to what we were like millions of years ago--like chimpanzees. We've found the gene that gives us bigger brains, but what is it good for? Nature didn't give us a big brain for nanotechnology. But we need it for socializing. We're all social animals.

Why are we social? Why is it important to be social? If you are social, you will live longer! When you are social you stand to live long enough to pass on your genes. Chimps grooms, humans gossip. The social is essential to our origins. But being social is one of the most difficult tasks we can perform. Last stage of brain development happens as a teenager: the capabilities of being social. Learning to model all our social interactions. We carry around a model in our brains of all the people we interact with all the time. The better you are at socializing, the more you can manipulate the model.

Social modeling takes place in the neocortex. There's an average number of relationships humans can hold in the model: The Dunbar Number. About 150. The reason we have a bigger brain is so that we can hold a bigger social network in our head because it confers benefits.

The term social network has become the topic de jour. But is MySpace really like your neocortex? Not really. Why is MySpace big? The network effect. Why is it good? Possibly lots of reasons. Not all that interesting except that I can make a map of my social networks.

Their big secret? These social networks are currently a lot of work. My MySpace page isn't really me. This is the achilles heel of the social networks today. They are passive. They wait for you to feed them. If you don't feed them, they die.

What really could be going on could be so much more profound. We're being asked to fill the social networks with time. But time is a scarce commodity.

No one is thinking about tying together things like email to social networks. Finding, Filtering, Forwarding. Each of us are finding things then forwarding that on to people we know. We're sharing media in ad-hoc social networks. We find things, we filter them, and we forward them. There's a lot of potential here for social networks to help us communicate more effectively than ever before.

When you are a human being living in the Western World right now, you have a data shadow that follows you around. All electronic communication can be used to model your social networks. But all that data is being poured on the floor. We don't use it, we get rid of it.

The mobile phone is an even bigger offender of getting rid of useful data than the computer.

Even anonymous social networks (like Amazon) are useful.

Mash-ups are just the beginning of the job. We need to comprehensively and obsessively mash up our data. The web is the universal glue between our devices. How do we reinvent our social networks using the data we already have.

We've forgotten the real world. It's easy to forget about this these days. But our neocortex is wired for the real world. We need something to tie them together: the mobile phone. It's a nexus for social communication. For human communication. It's the place where the real and virtual world touch. But most of the time, it is doing nothing at all. This is an enormous waste.

We need to start thinking about that device as the center of the social world, the way into the data shadow. We need it to start active listening. Email, IM, Skype, World of Warcraft...all need to actively listen.

Just by letting devices listen, we can produce a model of our social networks. The ubiquity and utility of mobile phones lets them do this. The value of this information will increase once it's shared. And it all has to happen invisibly. It doesn't have an interface, it just sets the stage for everything else.

Lots of people are nibbling at this problem, but no one is tackling it head on. If we don't get in front of this, we will be run down by it. Users will do it themselves.

Originally posted on Thursday, September 28, 2006 | Link | Comments (1)


Creating Inspired Design

Notes from Andy Clarke's talk at Web Directions South 2006.

Inspirational session to get us all to think a bit differently about what we do for a living. We're all involved in a creative medium no matter what we do: coding, visuals, whathaveyou.

"Art is design without compromise." -Jeff Veen

Limitations and restrictions for us: environment; the inflexibility of the 2D screen; materials, the limitations of markup and CSS; medium; poorer CSS support. But the biggest limitations are those we impose on ourselves. We need to unlearn what we have learned from past experience. The web's only 10 years old! We need to think more about letting go of what we've done in the past.

Without knowledge sharing, we wouldn't be doing what we do now.

"Absolute positioning is the new Ajax."

There's an enormous selection of great stuff going on. There's a huge amount of talent on the web doing vastly different things all with the same technology. It's no longer about the technology or the markup or the CSS. It's about meaning. We should never forget that it's the visual design evoke emotions have help our audiences understand what we mean. How do we use design to convey the deeper message? Through the use of imagery, typography, layout. We need to be refocusing back on design, not being obsessed with technologies.

We've reached a level of maturity with web standards and CSS. Now, we're just starting to know what to do with it. We shouldn't stop designing because we'd had some successes. The job is far from done.

No matter what the challenges are we face (technological or psychological), technology isn't an end to itself. We need to make things that people love to use, to bring into their lifestyle. It's about the love and about getting people to feel passionate about something. When we buy an iPod, we're buying the dream.

The web is not a power drill. Not much I can do with my power drill except drill holes. It's a creative, artistic medium. People come on the web to find out about things.

Don't forget the stuff that regular people go to. It's not just about our own small community. People going to sites for a movie isn't like going to a site to buy the DVD. Usability and efficiency isn't always the point. There are other things going on outside of what we consider our core community.

How can we bring this stuff from outside into what we do?

At the end of the day, the whole development process should be a fluid one. Understand what your teammates are thinking and doing. Break down the barriers between design and programming.

When you are not experimenting for clients, you can do it for yourself. I keep a scrapbook for inspiration. Finding stuff is great--you'll never know when you are going to use it. We can get ideas from around and bring them into our work. Yes, the web isn't print, but there's a ton of stuff we can find just from opening up magazines and ripping stuff out. Look for the semantic meanings behind the things we see.

We should bring the users' conventions into the web, not our conventions onto them. Look at things in a different way. Does every ecommerce site have to look like Amazon?

We can't constantly look inwards or the on the web for inspiration. We need to look to the world. If you look up in the city, you get all this hidden detail.

We need to have an appreciation of what the guy across the room is doing. In design, there's hundreds of years of experience and inheritance that we've nearly thrown out on the web. Our terminology is different. We're concerned with boxes on the web. And yet there's this similarity: the grid. We need to know what's gone on before for inspiration and to know the rules--perhaps so we can break them. We have have some exciting visuals all based on the same structure.

It's not the technology that's limiting us anymore, it's our imagination. We need to not only look at what we normally see, but things that are outside of our experience. From different parts of the world and different areas.

The next time you are out walking, just find something that inspires you and try to bring that back in to the work you are doing that day. Out there is this massive amount of opportunity--the world is a collage and so is the web. It's knowing how to bring all these things together that makes web design a fine art.

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Krikey! Dan's Down Under

I'm in Sydney for a week, first giving my Designing for Interaction workshop at Web Directions 06 on Tuesday. Then, next weekend, giving a talk on Documenting RIAs and leading a workshop on Models of Invention at OZ-IA 2006. Hope to meet some of you there! (Wait for it...) Put another shrimp on the barbie, will ya mate?

Originally posted on Saturday, September 23, 2006 | Link | Comments (0)


On Simplicity

People have asked me, in light of John Maeda's new book and blog, I suppose, why simplicity isn't one of the characteristics of good interaction design I list in my book. (The characteristics are trustworthy, smart, clever, appropriate, responsive, ludic, and pleasurable.)

The reason is pretty, well, simple really: I don't think every good interaction design needs to be simple. Certainly, many good designs are. But many aren't, and I don't think you'd necessarily want them to be. I don't want my games to be too simple, for instance. Nor would I want it to be too simple to, say, launch a nuclear strike from a control center. I tried to chose characteristics that held true in most circumstances.

Users don't always want the advanced features stripped away from them, and sometimes prefer having more complexity because more complexity can sometimes provide users with more control. Simplicity puts a lot of control in the hands of the designer. We say, you only get these features and users have to deal with that. Sometimes, this is great: we've hidden a lot of complexity. But sometimes, we de-skill users by only giving them the lowest common denominator. No advanced features for you! It has to be simple! It's a fine line to walk.

My take on it is roughly Einstein's: "As simple as possible, but no simpler."

Originally posted on Friday, September 15, 2006 | Link | Comments (1)


What I'm Up To, September 2006 Version

Mostly, I've been busy writing essays and preparing my presentation material for the Designing for Interaction workshops this month. The first essay was my updated take on Robert Reimann's classic essay: So You Want to Be an Interaction Designer 2006. The second essay--which has generated more discussion than just about anything I've ever written--was the light-hearted Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Designers (But Were Afraid to Ask) for Vitamin Magazine. It was really the only thing I could think of that might appeal to their audience, and boy did it, apparently! 40 comments as of this writing!

But the bulk of my energy has been spent designing and rehearsing my two upcoming workshops: one in San Francisco next week and in Sydney the following week, at Web Directions. A few seats are still available for each workshop! Over the last few weeks, I've put together what I hope is an interesting, challenging, and useful day of material, using the book as a starting point for explanation and discussion. Don't forget to use my code--FODS--for the SF (and New York!) workshops and get 15% off.

While in Sydney, I'm also speaking at OZ-IA, the Australian Information Architects' Retreat/Summit/Conference. I'm talking about Documenting Ajax and RIAs there, and, even better, doing a workshop about a new project called Models of Invention. It's about ways of thinking about (and doing) brainstorming sessions and designing new products. Should be a blast! I hope to meet and talk to some of you at one of these.

Originally posted on Thursday, September 14, 2006 | Link | Comments (0)


9/11: Year Five

This is the last year I will write my annual post about 9/11. I'm alive, and so are my family and friends, and thus I have the luxury of not remembering if I don't want. And I do not want. I'm tired of looking up every time I hear a plane overhead. I'm tired of being startled by accidental encounters with 9/11 images in magazines and 9/11-themed movies and television shows, determined to wring every last drop of pathos from the event. I'm tired of the most vivid, horrible day of my life being used for political gain, to kill those who had nothing to do with the attack. I'm tired of the ridiculous squabbling over the former site of the World Trade Center. I'm tired of it all.

It is time for me to set that day aside in my mind, as one might lock away a dangerous and volatile chemical--one that should be monitored but not handled too often. It does me little good to reflect on that day; my thoughts turn dark and it is though a shade becomes drawn across the world and everything becomes dim. If you gaze for long into an abyss, Nietzsche reminds us, the abyss gazes also into you.

The message for me of that day, as I stood there--still stand there--on the roof in SoHo watching the Towers fall, is how little control we have over our lives. And that is a message one can either embrace or deny. I have tried both.

My message this year is exactly the same last year: Osama bin Laden is still at large and three thousand people remain dead and unavenged. Nothing has changed, except that more people have died for nothing. But I am not surprised. 9/11 was the excuse for evil people to do more evil. As the Buddha rightly noted, hatred does not cease in this world by hating, only by not hating.

Enough. Enough.

I will close with a piece of my Year Two Remembrance, when I think I saw the event through the clearest lens: close enough to still smell the acrid stench of horror, but far enough away to turn away from it as well.

I also have something else: thanksgiving. I'm glad I didn't go in early that day. Glad I didn't get that job on floor 83 of Tower Two I interviewed for just weeks before. Glad I was not on a plane trip or simply walking by the WTC, like I did every day for a year. And glad I could make it home on September 12 for my daughter's first birthday.

Thanksgiving will come early for me every year from now on. September 11th will be a day I remember how much I have to lose, and how quickly it can be taken away. I will remember the value of friendship, how I fled to Brooklyn and sought shelter at Sylvia Bachmann's house. I will remember the feeling of walking through my front door the next day and seeing my wife and child. I will remember that although there are those whose hatred of us is so strong they would fly planes into buildings, there are the people who knowingly went into those buildings to save people. I will remember that life is precious, and that we do not not know the day or the hour or the way it will all end, so every day should be our September 12th: a day of homecoming, and birthday cakes, and the smiling face of a one-year-old.

Never forget.

Amen, and amen.

Originally posted on Monday, September 11, 2006 | Link | Comments (0)



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