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Other People’s Underpants July 21, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in tools and methods, Uncategorized.
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To my sometimes peculiar way of thinking, User Experience documentation is a lot like underpants. You can create an application or website without it, just like you can “go commando” or do your best Jean Harlow impersonation. It’s faster (less to put on), cheaper (less to buy and launder), and there’s a certain “pioneer spirit” that you only get with an unfinished basement. And sometimes there’s a downside…which I won’t bother to describe, because nobody needs to spend the rest of their day thinking about THAT.

True as all that may be, this article isn’t really about underpants, or the risks of going native. It’s about what happens when you inherit someone else’s documentation.

So why does this make me think of underpants?

Recently I inherited a simple site map from someone who was just trying to get ahead of the game, not a UX professional but a smart cookie who did a respectable job of organizing and representing the content and linking strategy. She asked me to look it over, and even though it wasn’t done the way I would have done it, it didn’t really need to be changed much, so I kept my edits minimal.

I didn’t bother to put in a detailed title block.

If something wasn’t aligned to a grid, I left it alone.

And all the while, I felt like I was wearing someone else’s underpants.

At first I thought it might be because I don’t really do site maps that often; most of the work I’ve done over the last two years has either been research or large-scale strategy work.

Maybe I was just a little hurt that someone who wasn’t a UX professional had done a good job, marginalizing the talents of my team.

Of course, it could just be that I have an obsessive compulsive disorder when it comes to site maps.

The reality is that it was probably a combination of those things, plus one more. An important one, it turns out, as I reflect on the project and how it evolved.

For me, and many other UX professionals, the documentation we create becomes our medium of expression. The decisions we make about the radius of our corners, the pattern of our dashed lines, the font of our title block, those are neither uniform nor arbitrary. When we use color, we do so thoughtfully. Gradients and fill patterns are pondered, tried, rejected.

The project progressed, and in deference to a tight budget I continued to avoid non-critical changes to the site map. Until today.

At last, the scope of change was significant enough that I could justify a total re-do. It’s been ages since I felt so liberated, and it wasn’t until now that I felt truly connected to the project. Until today, it was someone else’s site; today it became mine.

Rectangles were grouped and aligned. Connection points became uniform. The garish gold was gone, the cross-links were given reduced emphasis, rules were used to convey line breaks. And as the ideas were translated into my visual language, the speed and engagement of my work increased exponentially. The mouse movements became more fluid and accurate. I was “in the zone”.

And I wasn’t wearing anyone else’s underpants.

The moral of the story is this: sometimes you have to take the time to make your work comfortable and personal to free your mind and hit your stride. Don’t let an artificial “efficiency” twist your knickers. Like Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

How about you? Spend any time in someone else’s underpants lately?

Embrace the Wrong April 19, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in tools and methods.
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A UX Practitioner’s Guide to Satisficingembracing the wrong

Have you ever wondered why people do such stupid thing?  Why they ignore the obvious, cling to outmoded beliefs, and act contrary to their own best interest?  Maybe, as a way of coping with the inevitable tide of stupidity in our profession, you’ve developed a cheeky infographic that represents the various forms of stupidity you’ve battled.  I have, and it’s made me feel better…but only for a little while.

What I’ve learned, as my role has become more about partnerships and strategy, is that there’s a lot less stupid in the world than you think.  Consider the following:

  1. People are stupid 
  2. Sometimes smart people do stupid things
  3. People do things that I don’t completely understand

Now, I’m not going to try and convince you (or myself) that #1 is not true.  Some people are stupid.  But unless they’re also crazy, they usually do things for a reason.  Now, that reason might be stupid, but a lot of times the reason makes perfect sense based upon what the person knows or believes to be true.

Which brings us to #2.  Just so nobody feels like I’m picking on them, I’ll share something very stupid that I did to illustrate my point.  When I was in the 4th grade I started riding my bike to school.  My mom got me a padlock with a key and a chain so I could lock it up at the school.  As the weather got warmer I started wearing shorts to school, which had no pockets.  I didn’t want to lose the key to my bike lock…so I tied it to a string and tied the string to the bike.

It all made perfect sense.  I would never need the key except when I was at my bike, the string was tied on really well, and I didn’t have to fumble around in my backpack looking for the key under all of my books and lunch and other junk.

The good news is that whoever noticed the obvious flaw in my design only took the lock and key, and my lesson was learned.  Mom got me a combination lock, which solved all my problems.  (The combination was 3-1-4-1, or the first four digits of Pi.  I told you I wasn’t stupid!)

So what made my mom such a good designer?  She listened to my explanation of why I did what I did.  #3 was the key.

Admittedly, most of your clients and collaborators will be more than 9 years old, and the problems you’ll be asked to solve are probably more complex than how to lock up a bike when you don’t have any pockets.  But the tools for solving the problem are the same.

Assume that there is rational causality for all of the actions you observe.  Even when emotions are the root cause of an action, the resulting action is often based upon some logic.  The problem arises when your customer or collaborator is unable to articulate that logic.

There are a couple of things you can do about this.

The first is to determine whether educating your team is necessary.  Nobody likes a pedant, but it’s important for everyone on the team to have a shared baseline of understanding about both the problem and the proposed methods and tasks for solving it.  If your client doesn’t know what a card sort is, take the time to explain and demonstrate it in a way that is meaningful to them and to the project.

Demonstration is a great way to get buy-in on your ideas, whether they are solutions or methods for achieving them.  People believe what they see and experience for themselves because they are able to process and index the information in their own way.  When you only explain an idea or method, a translation between your mental model of the task and the listener’s is required…and often imperfectly captures the meaning.

Many times, you as the designer are not sure what is the right solution or methodology.  At least not right away.  But there you are, in front of your client, gobbling up budget while you try to figure out your next move.  Make the client part of your exploration.  It’s OK to not be sure of exactly what happens next; after all, that’s why the client hired you.  You just have to reassure your client that their time and money is well spent in learning and ideating.  As mentioned above, educate and demonstrate along the way, justifying your activities and theories as part of the design process.

A key element of each of these is the use of prototypes.  Knowing what to prototype and in what fidelity demonstrates tangible progress with an eye toward efficiency and speed.  Your prototypes doesn’t always have to be an element of your final product; in some cases, it makes sense to prototype a participatory design session to make sure you have the content, pacing, and staging right.

All of this presumes that you can “Right the Wrong” by being transparent, inclusive, and clear in your methods.  But the name of this article is “Embrace the Wrong”.  So let’s do that.

There are a handful of immovable wrongs that a designer will have to face in his career, and probably the most common is the client who asks you to design the wrong product.  They want an animated intro page when what they really need is a clear content strategy, or they want an iPhone app but they can’t tell you why.

If you have the luxury to walk away from this kind of work, do it.  There’s another designer out there who needs the work, and you don’t need the headache.  But few of us have that luxury.  Instead we need to do the best we can to help our clients achieve their business goals, even when the idea appears doomed from the start.

Once you realize that you can’t change you client’s mind about the product, stop trying.  Change your strategy from “no, but…” to “yes, and…”.  Make their idea the centerpiece of the project, but integrate the idea that is supported by your research, experience, and effort.  Use the animated intro to showcase the content strategy, or imbue that “me-too” iPhone app with an element of unexpected delight that differentiates it and makes it worth doing.

A related and nearly-as-common problem is the client who insists on a specific design or research methodology regardless of its appropriateness.  As long as they are committed to doing the activity, make the most of it…but no more.  Don’t try to learn everything you would have learned in a participatory design session when the client insists on doing focus groups; you’ll end up making assumptions instead of informed observations, and the product will likely suffer.

Instead, build certainty upon certainty.  Determine what you can learn from the activity and focus on learning it with maximum depth and clarity.  Everything you learn, you can use.  Achieve whatever economies you can, and see if you can divert any saved time and money into activities that bridge the gaps in knowledge left by the inappropriate methodology.  And if you can’t do that, take your best guess.

The last and most insipid wrong is the project aimed primarily at efficiency.  These projects are inherently wrong to the User Experience professional because they focus on cost reduction for the client rather than service to the customer.

The longshot in this race is to demonstrate a visionary concept that has a greater ROI than the projected cost savings of the efficiency-driven project.  Instead of cutting service to save operational costs during non-peak hours, a business might expand offerings that make the most of available infrastructure during non-peak hours, growing the overall business.  The reason this is a longshot is twofold; first, ideas that good don’t grow on trees, and second, many times the project is budgeted before the RFP goes out.

So let’s assume that we can’t change the wrong idea into the right one.  “Embrace the Wrong”, remember?  What you need to do is make sure that the efficiency-driven decisions your client is making are informed by indicative experiential KPIs.  If you can identify the key drivers of trial, satisfaction, and loyalty, defend and optimize those while letting what remains fall victim to the scythe.  Use competitive and heuristic analysis to determine service baselines and benchmarks.  Deconstruct the client’s service offering and let participatory design help you identify the elements that must be maintained or optimized.

Sometimes success is measured not by what you achieve, but by what you overcome.  When you can’t right the wrong, embrace it.

It’s In The Bag January 17, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in design research, tools and methods.
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Over the last several months, I’ve done a lot of travel for work. I’m not quite in Jared Spool’s league yet, but recent assignments have taken me to Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Sao Paulo (Brazil) and Tokyo (Japan). And the one constant on all those trips has been my bag.

My well-traveled bag, and a sampling of its contents

My well-traveled bag, and a sampling of its contents

It’s not so much the bag itself that I wan to talk about, although I am very fond of it, it’s more the idea of a designer’s bag having everything he needs in a simple, portable package, marrying the utility of Batman’s belt with the whimsy and magic of Felix the Cat’s bag of tricks.

Felix and his Bag of Tricks

Felix and his Bag of Tricks

The Cat and The Bat both always seem to pull out the one perfect tool for whatever their predicament, a clear sign of their fictitious roots. Today’s designer faces many challenges in his profession, often in a single day, so versatility and low weight are more valuable than bat-shaped grappling hooks.

The Batman Utility Belt

The Batman Utility Belt

First of all, I prefer a messenger-type bag to a backpack because it’s very easy to get stuff in and out even while you’re wearing it.  Mine has pouches and pockets a-plenty, great for keeping a camera, cell phone, note pad or umbrella at hand.  This is extremely important when doing ethnographic studies, especially covert ones, but it’s also helpful for those hallway conversation with a client that so often become the turning point of a project.

Whatever kind of bag you prefer, the most important thing is what’s in it when opportnuity and inspiration come calling.  Here’s what I carried on my travels, and a couple of quick notes about things I wish I had brought or left behind.

  • Netbook or other lightweight computer: Mine is an HP Mini, not a very powerful machine but since I mostly use a portable computer for writing and editing documents and presentations, I didn’t need to spend a lot of money (or weight) here.  I’m also more likely to bring it into “hostile environments” because it’s fairly easy to replace.  Wireless internet capability is essential, and you really need the laptop form-factor because not even the fastest thumb-typist in the world can effectively take notes on a mobile phone keypad.
  • USB thumb drives: I like to keep two, one that is the repository of all of my critical working documents, almost like a portable back-up memory for my hard-drive, and one that only has files on it I am wiling to share with a client.  This is really essential since my computer does not have a VGA port, so anytime I am unexpectedly pressed into presenting I am borrowing someone else’s machine.  (When I KNOW I am presenting, I bring a full-scale laptop.  And usually my own projector, power strip, and extension cord.  Semper paratus.)
  • Sketch book and notebook: I prefer to keep a separate sketch-book for drawings and quick compositions and use a steno pad for general notes and quick doodles.  The lined paper in the steno pad helps keep things orderly, but makes it hard to draw in perspective.  Whether you use two books or one, you’ll want to be able to do both notes and sketches.
  • Assorted, pens, pencils, and erasers: I’m old-school when it comes to pencils, prefering the variety of point profiles you can get with a wooden pencil over a mechanical one.  That means I have to carry a sharpener too.  And I like to bring a good eraser, whether to correct an errant line or just to clean up those inevitable smudges.  For pens, I always carry ball-point in blue, black, and red, plus a fine-point highlighter and a medium-point Sharpie.  The multiple colors are really helpful when you’re annotating a document, or when you have a variety of ideas that you want to group without re-copying the whole list.  And without sounding like too much of a shill, I’ve taken a Sharpie to hell and back and never had one leak or explode.
  • Livescribe pen: This gets its own line because it’s more than just a pen.  The built-in voice recorder is amazing, and the ability of the pen to synchronize your notes and sketches with the audio is very valuable when doing interviews or ethnography.  Add in the search functionality and the handwriting-to-text conversion, and you have a pocket-sized stenographer.  It means hauling around the proprietary notebook, but it’s worth every ounce.
  • Ruler or scale: If you’re doing product design, you may want to go for the scale, since physical dimensions in your sketches may need to be very precise.  But even for those who design in the digital medium, general scale and aspect ration are important.  And it never hurts to be able to draw a straight line when you need one.
  • Sticky notes: If I’m doing research, I always bring a variety of colors, usually as many as six, but for day-to-day use I generally just carry two pads, the standard 3″x3″ and the much-smaller, postage-stamp size that I generally use as bookmarks.
  • Camera: I like having a separate camera than the one in my phone for a couple reasons.  First, the image quality is much better.  Second, I find it is much easier to get images from my camera to a computer; for the phone, you either have to use e-mail, MMS, or the proprietary “desktop” software.  With the camera, it’s a cable and a click.  You can also deploy a camera much more quickly; on my phone, you have to unlock the device, then select the camera function, then wait while the software loads…it doesn’t sound like much, but five seconds is an ETERNITY in ethnography.
  • Business cards: Not only are these still an important tool for networking, but they are also helpful in establishing the legitimacy of on-site research.  Also, in some cultures, they are socially de rigeur.
  • Design book or magazine: Long ago I stopped counting the number of times a book or article I was reading became the key ingredient or turning point of a project.  Whatever you’re reading, bring it with you…a conversation will remind you of something, and you can quickly refer back and make your case with the supporting text and examples of the author.
  • Chargers and spare batteries: Day to day, you can get by with one or the other, but for long trips, bring both.  And make sure you have the right adapters for whatever country you are visiting.
  • The essentials: Of course you’ll also want to leave room for your mobile phone, tissues, clips, and pictures of your kids…you know, so you remember what they look like when you get back.  Because THAT would be embarassing!

I’ll never say I’ve lived a life without regret, and my bag is no exception.  Here are some things I wish I had, or could have easily done without.

  • Wireless card for laptop: I managed to get by on hotel wireless and the data plan for my phone, but it was a compromise.  One more promotion at work and I can get a company-sponsored card; until then, I’ll probably rough it.
  • Laptop with webcam: Mostly because I wanted to video chat with my kids, I hauled TWO laptops 26,000 miles, my HP Mini for its intergrated webcam and general portability and a larger machine for on-site design work.  Never again.
  • IDEO Method Cards: I didn’t bring them with me, but I wish I had.  Great value for their size, and even though I’ve probably done every method listed there’s no substitute for a well-organized library of tools.
  • Plastic bags: At the end of my travels my bag was a veritable ticker-tape parade of receipts mixed in with notes, business cards, tourist maps, and other bits of paper I can’t even identify.  Having a couple of empty freezer bags that I could easily label would have saved me a lot of sorting and guessing when I got home.  Also good for saving that half of a sandwich, in case you get hungry on the 13-hour flight from Hamburg to Tokyo.

I’m sure I’ll keep tinkering with the forumla, but that’s what’s in my design bag.

What’s in yours?

The Joy of Running (On) September 15, 2009

Posted by dantemurphy in tools and methods.
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When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

the joy of running_smallIn case you don’t recognize that, it’s the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence.  And it’s a WHOPPER.

Throughout our careers as professional communicators, we are consistently encouraged to be brief, concise, efficient.  But when you’re looking for a unifying statement to rally behind, whether as a mission statement of an enterprise strategy, nothing can top a well-crafted run-on.

Here’s an example, anonymized to protect the interests of the original client:

The proposed solution is…

…a common set of services and tools that provide services and information to customers in support of their business and patrons…
…and enhance their relationship with MANUCORP…
…available on each MANUCORP website focused on a specific product or category…

…accessible by mobile devices…
…whose content and services are organized according to their timeliness…
…supported by a customer profile which grows over time…

…informed by explicitly stated preferences, search terms entered and acted upon, and other online patterns of use…

…designed to provide increasingly personalized content and tools, based on the evolution of the customer profile…
…that may include information about the customer’s business, personal messages and alerts, and specified links to content and tools…

…which can be accessed through any participating product or category site.

OK, so you’d probably never say it out loud, and you would surely need cue cards if you tried.  But there were some very good reasons for cobbling together this grammatical Frankenstein, and the fact that these reasons keep coming up suggests that others might benefit from this insight.

So here you go.

A run-on sentence has a single subject.  Unlike a paragraph, which may dedicate a complete thought to each individual feature, or might speak on even terms about the research methodology, technology, and design, a run-on sentence speaks only of “it”…whatever “it” might be.  All of the detail in the run-on…and there’s quite a bit there, as you can see…is subservient to “it”.

Despite the presence of numerous verbs in subordinate clauses, a run-on sentence has only one predicate.  What this means is that the run-on has only one action, most often an assertive declaration that defines “it”.  Intransitive verbs work well, especially forms of “to be”, but you can also put together some pretty compelling active statements using verbs like “will prove”, “out-performs”, or “has requested”.

In a run-on sentence, there is only one tense.  No muddling the past and the future, there is only one focus.  When defining a problem or opportunity, the tense may be past or present; when describing a solution or strategy, present and future make the most sense.

Most importantly, a well-crafted run-on sentence (I can see the edges of my degree in English curl and fray as I write that) represents a quantized thought.  It may have many components or instantiations―in fact, it has to in order to earn its stripes as a run-on—but no piece can be taken out without impacting the integrity of the whole.  Its singularity confers cohesion; anyone who agrees with “part of that sentence” appears wishy-washy.  A run-on is the Texas Hold ‘Em of strategy statements; either you’re all in, or you’re out.

play like a champion_smallBy the time you present your run-on, you’ve carefully vetted each component and its contribution to the meaning or relevance of the whole.  Each direct object maps to an important feature or offering, and each indirect object represents a key audience or channel.  In fact, whether you present the run-on or not, it can unify your team .

Of course, not every run-on has to be a 129-word monstrosity.  Let’s call that, with a nod to Jared Spool, a run-on-and-on.  A simple run-on can be as short as this most recent example from my growing portfolio:

The vast supply of information tools and services does not meet the growing global demand, because the digital channel is underutilized and the content is not optimized for interaction and engagement.

More important than its length is the singularity of the run-on.  If you can represent your objective with a single, albeit complex, thought, then your path to resolution will be fast and direct.  And if your solution can be described with a single thought, consensus will prevail over the coalition-building that often hampers efforts that lack focus or suffer from competing agendas.

So next time you’re facing a large, complex problem—whether the source of that complexity is the size of the issue or the number of stakeholders —try piecing together your own run-on.    And if you do, please share it…maybe you’ll make the Run-On Hall of Fame!