February 2007  
Review: Designing the Mobile User Experience

I was fortunate to get an advance copy of Barbara Ballard's Designing the Mobile User Experience. In general, it is well-written, authoritative, and a boon to interaction designers working (or better, starting to work) in mobile. While I'm not sure this book alone will really enable you to design mobile user experience, it is a good introduction and overview of the mobile space.

It's great that, rather than dive immediately into application design, Ballard spends the second chapter on the needs and contexts of users. I like that her definition of "mobile" has nothing to do with the device, but is instead a characteristic of the user. It's the user that is mobile and is carrying the device. I was particularly drawn to the idea of user "microcontexts:" the social context, the physical environment, the application, and the interpersonal context of whom the user is interacting with all come into play.

Although the section on international usage patterns is good (albeit incomplete: no Korea or India?), Ballard makes some judgement calls that may only be true in the West. She says, for instance, that mobile devices being used by more than one person are rare. In some parts of Africa and, I believe, Indonesia, it is actually common. Families own sets of mobile phones and individuals simply take whichever one is charged and ready.

Ballard presents a number of different frameworks, models, and dissections that are useful for understanding the fractured nature of the mobile space. She presents a taxonomy of devices, a device hierarchy chart, the anatomy of Personal Computing Devices (PCD), and a method for selecting the device's technology/platform (something interaction designers rarely get to do).

Designers, especially those new to mobile, will likely find the chapter on Mobile Design Principles particularly insightful, although here (like in other parts of the book) the technical jargon gets thick and becomes geared towards more developer types.

For designers of a certain ilk, the meatiest part of the book will be Chapter 6 on Mobile UI Design Patterns. (I personally find patterns hard to put into practice, but that's another story.) Missing from some patterns is an accompanying image of the pattern, however, which makes some patterns hard to understand. Images of the patterns in actual use in addition to wireframe-like figures would have been nice. Designers who are into patterns might also checking out Ballard's Mobile UI Design Patterns Wiki.

I was personally more interested in Chapter 7, strangely titled Graphic and Media Design. I'd call it, well, Interface Design. Using the brilliant metaphor of portrait miniatures, Ballard offers some really interesting advice for designing UIs for the small screen, such as that designers might want to replicate some of the characteristics of amateur art in their designs: no attention paid to the background, close cropping, and to play with perspective. Some color plates and examples of these practices on mobile devices would have helped this chapter.

Chapter 8, an overview of industry players, is probably crucial to any understanding of mobile even though for anyone with experience, this chapter contains very little insight. It's also an industry that changes rapidly (although not rapidly enough in some cases). Likewise, chapter 9, on Research and Design, interaction designers will probably find puzzling and dated, springing from a very HCI/usability approach. A complementary book--and indeed, almost the inverse of this book--is Mobile Interaction Design, which I would recommend to really dig into interaction design for mobile. What's missing from Ballard's book is well covered there, and visa versa. I'd recommend the two books be read together (if you can afford the hefty price tags on both: $75 for this book, $60 for the other. Why are these books so expensive??)

As a final note, it will be interesting to see how the industry shifts (if at all) when the iPhone debuts in June. And how those shifts will affect this book. Very little is mentioned here of gestures, for example, and the iPhone makes some use of those, not to mention new haptic paradigms like multi-touch. Mobile design is changing rapidly and it is tough for any book to keep up.

Originally posted on Friday, February 23, 2007 | Link | Comments (1) | Trackback (0)


The Cult of Innovation

I am as pleased as Punch to announce that I am in the March 5, 2007 print edition of BusinessWeek (the one with "Customer Service Champs" on the cover) with an editorial called The Cult of Innovation. An excerpt:

Innovation is traditionally understood as a combination of insight and invention, with insight being the "Aha!" moment and invention being the company's muscle to make it happen. This is all well and good, but one crucial aspect of the definition is missing: the ability to judge the inspiration and determine whether it is worthwhile to spend the company's resources on the invention. Without this judgment, innovation is just The New, and new isn't always better. It's a louder sizzle, not a juicier steak. For innovation to be truly important, it needs to resonate with consumers. Insights need to be derived from the unmet needs and desires of people, not simply the company's feeling that it needs to innovate.

Update: This is no longer premium content, so the link now points to the free version!

Originally posted on Thursday, February 22, 2007 | Link | Comments (2) | Trackback (0)


From Parsimony to Bounty (and Back Again)

I have this week off, and one of the chores I'm doing is that I'm ripping all my old Elvis Costello CDs to MP3s. When I first got iTunes, I did this for selected tracks off each album--I knew I had only (only!) 20 gigs or so to hold my music. But now, with a new 160g MacBook Pro and an 80g iPod...well, I no longer only have to have just some of my collection. I can pretty much have every album I've ever owned and then some. And then double that again.

It's odd how behavior changes when one constraint (in this case, memory storage) vanishes. What was once a precious commodity becomes cheap and available, and all of a sudden, people act differently. We've seen this time and time again with computers of course, as processor speed and memory become faster and larger, but it also happens all the time away from the digital as well. Economists have known this for some time, of course, with behavioral finance. You can observe it in both small and big gestures. Despite the warnings, I used to top off my car's gas tank at the pump. Once gas hit $2.50 a gallon in the US, I stopped doing that little gesture. It also, on a large scale, stopped many from taking car and plane trips.

At MX last week, Adam Richardson talked about constraints using the metaphor of walls: some are load-bearing and cannot be moved; others are for decoration. I'd like to add that, over time, some walls can change from load-bearing to decoration (like my hard drive's memory) and visa versa (gasoline, once cheap, is now an impediment).

Originally posted on Wednesday, February 21, 2007 | Link | Comments (1) | Trackback (0)


Learning (Interaction Design) from Las Vegas

When it was announced last year that the 2007 IA Summit was going to be in Las Vegas, Bill DeRouchey had the great idea that, since we seldom get a couple hundred user experience designers in Sin City, we should do something based on the city itself. This is when I came on board. Sitting on my wish list was a book I'd been meaning to read for a while: Learning from Las Vegas. When I was in Portland last summer, I found it at Powells and devoured it in a few hours.

As I read, one thing became clear to me: how architects thought of Las Vegas in the 1960s is how interaction designers think of MySpace now. The "ugly" architecture of Vegas is like the "ugly" functionality of MySpace. And yet, there is a lot of stuff to be learned from Las Vegas (and thus from MySpace): designing for the shape of action, making use of the ordinary, what role taste has in design, and the role of class in design.

Over the last few weeks, I've put together a short presentation on this topic that I'm going to give first at SXSW Interactive on Sunday, March 11 at 3:30. Then, with Bill and Steve Portigal, we'll be leading a full-day workshop Learning from Las Vegas: Insights from the Ordinary and the Extraordinary at the IA Summit on Thursday, March 22. I'll be presenting again (Why to Observe), then Bill and Steve talk about What to Observe and How to Observe It (respectively). We'll spend a good part of the day doing observations at three different (and stylistically varied) casinos, then come back together at the end of the day to create our insights from the ordinary and the extraordinary.

I hope you'll come out for one or both!

Update: Despite there being a lot of enthusiasm about the one-day workshop, there weren't enough actual attendees for it, so the Summit Committee has decided to cancel it. Which is a shame, because it means I'm not headed to Vega$ now and I had been looking forward to this day for nearly a year. Oh well.

Originally posted on Sunday, February 18, 2007 | Link | Comments (1) | Trackback (0)


Review: Catching the Big Fish

I seldom read books on creativity. Which is kind of stupid, I suppose, since my livelihood depends upon my being creative. But for some reason, perhaps because he is one person in film who really follows his own vision, I was interested to hear what David Lynch (of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks fame) had to say about it in his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity.

Not surprisingly, Lynch has his own path to creativity: expanding his consciousness through Transcendental Meditation (TM). TM has been the way that Lynch expands his consciousness and thus he feels he is better able to catch "the big fish." From the introduction:

Ideas are like fish.

If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you've got to go deeper.

Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They are huge and abstract. And they're very beautiful.

Lynch details how he got into TM and what it has done for his work and life and if you like Lynch's films he offers some interesting insights, especially about the role of the accidental during filming. (Note: I really think there are more parallels between the world of film and the world of interaction design that haven't been explored at all. Some of the creative process is remarkably similar.)

Towards the end of this small book, Lynch offers this good advice: "Stay true to yourself. Let your voice ring out, and don't let anybody fiddle with it. Never turn down a good idea, but never take a bad idea."

May it be so.

Originally posted on Saturday, February 17, 2007 | Link | Comments (1) | Trackback (0)


Design Solutions to Puzzles and Mysteries

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker a few weeks ago sort of defending Enron. It's an interesting article and I highly recommend it. One of theme of it that I think is relevant to designers is the difference between a puzzle and a mystery.

Gladwell writes,

Osama bin Laden's whereabouts are a puzzle. We can't find him because we don't have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn't a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.

Usability experts tend to see everything as a puzzle. The reason users don't click the button is because it is in the wrong place! Puzzle solved. Designers see everything as a mystery. Users aren't clicking the button is either because the whole product isn't serving their needs! We need to start over and make it more elegant. Now, obviously, I'm stereotyping for effect here, but I like how this puzzle-mystery model works. One of the things experienced designers are pretty good at is determining on any given project what the puzzles are and what the mysteries are. Does the button need to simply be bigger, or is the whole application a mess? This is where, like in so many other places during a project, professional judgment comes into play.

When can you determine if a problem is a puzzle or mystery? Stakeholder interviews and user research are certainly places to start. Is there a piece of information you need to make a correct decision, or is the problem (as is often the case in our line of work) too much information without enough analysis? Gladwell again:

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it's the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we've been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren't very smart about making sense of what we've been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don't.

This is why, in nearly every case, every solution to design problems is an incomplete one. There is always something that could be improved upon, or we simply can't address the whole problem because it's too big or too complex. We only have to see it through.

Originally posted on Wednesday, February 14, 2007 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)



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