ux


Early in my career, when working as a data jockey with an economic consulting firm, I was on a team for a particular project where, I’ll always remember, we were referred to (in the New York Times) as “nitpicking zealots”.  While I knew it was meant as a criticism, I took the reference then (as now, for that matter), as a complement – emphasizing the attention-to-detail in our analysis.

The American manual alphabet in photographsImage via Wikipedia

For me, that focus has long been coupled with heavy emphasis on usefulness (ok, and logic) as a driving factor in doing or creating anything.  “Stick-in-mud” – maybe.  “Drive you nuts” – sure, the family says this sometimes…  But things just need to make sense.

So it shouldn’t surprise me (or anyone else) that, in my recent Experience Design mini-masters  project, I had an overriding need for the product idea my team was to come up with, to be of real use and value.  The first task was to evaluate whether design principles had been followed in the creation of a particular product (the Roadmaster – a single-line scrolling text display for use on a car).  Then we were to apply these design principles to come up with a different product/application making use of the technology for the context.  We performed our review by considering the Roadmaster’s affordances (what the design suggested about its use); its mapping of controls to meaning or functionality;  whether it provided feedback during use; its conceptual model and obviousness of purpose; any forcing functions, limters or defaults.  Having developed a “sense” of the product, as it was, we were embarked on the design effort by adding interviews/surveys to gather research on potential market need/desire.

Without getting into our conclusions about the Roadmaster product itself, of particular interest is where we ended up going with our design as a result of performing our own contextual inquiry.  Some great ideas emerged among the different teams, for which each team prototyped their design (using Axure), performed usability testing, and presented results.  Most of the teams designed mainly for social-media driven applications.  With our own goals including not just usability, but the usefulness factor mentioned above, we discovered potential in re-purposing the device – to be directed not to other drivers, but to the driver of the vehicle in which it is installed.  Specifically, to aid hearing impaired drivers – whether for receiving guidance from a driving instructor, instructions from a gps, or conversing with a passenger.

The design, which at one point we dubbed the “iDrive” (for reasons that will reveal themselves), involves mounting of the scrolling text display out in front of and facing the driver, and integration of speach-to-text conversion, so that as words were spoken, the driver would see these words displayed out in front of them, without their having to turn to see the hands or lips of a person commnicating with them, nor would they have to look away from the road to read directions on a gps screen.  In its simplest form, the design calls for an iPhone (or similar) application to perform the voice-to-text conversion, transmitting the resulting text to the display for the driver.  An extension of this concept could incorporate detection and display of other sounds, such as a honk, and which direction it is coming from. Since the program, we’ve found that the required voice-to-text conversion capability, in a mobile app (e.g. for the iPhone) as we called for in the design, does exist, so with the combination of the technologies (display, conversion, mobile application, and gps capability), the serving the hearing-impaired-driver market in this way should be within reach.

A side-note to this post: The faculty of the UXD program, Dr. Marilyn Tremaine, Ronnie Battista, and Dr. Alan Milewski, helped to revealed for me that the formal processes of experience design, and particularly contextual inquiry, parallel closely with what I’ve sought to achieve through the joining of the disciplines of Usability, Value Network Analysis (perspectival), and a dash of Semantic (extensible and interoperable) thinking.

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Morning FogImage by Nick Chill via Flickr

I have a tendency to think on the edges or outskirts of domains – in the interstices – where domains overlap with one another.  When the morning fog clears, I typically get brainstorms that result from word plays that bridge multiple domains that may be on my mind.

For example, while attending a meeting this week on Usability in the context of Agile development, I had the thought that there ought to be an application of the methodology within the realm of cooking – and the Scrum component of agile could be referred to in this context as “Scrumtious”.

Another of these hit me while walking out of the grocery store, and no doubt subliminally having picked up “low cal” while thinking about communities and marketing within them, that a calorie conscious faction could refer to their region as a “Low Cal Locale”.

On the heels of my wife’s latest marathon (her fifth), I’m thinking there ought to be a womens’ triathlon called the “Iron Maiden”.

The Scrum project management method. Part of t...Image via Wikipedia

If I had a nickel for every one of these wordplay thoughts, my pockets would bulge each day! My kids tend to be my reluctant test-subjects for these sometimes painful ideas.  As I trust their untainted minds, they are sometimes the end of the line; sometimes though, in the spirit of Agile development, they’re the beginning of an iterative process.

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FahrenheitImage by buschap via FlickrEvery now and again, you find yourself doing something that, when considered in the context of other parts of your life, can reveal interesting things about yourself or people in general.  I drew one such parallel after spending a weekend with my family hurtling through the air at Hershey Park.

For those of you who have never been there, it has 11 roller coasters – and if you’re not into them, well, you’re going to be standing around a lot waiting for your kids to come back saying “that was great”, “let’s do it again”, or something about a snack.  I’ve done lots of things that some would consider daring – including rock and ice climbing, and flying in a glider, sea kayaking, whitewater rafting… but I’ve just never been one for rides that are supposed to give you near-death experiences, because frankly, I don’t generally like feeling that close to “the edge”.

Since my wife and kids were so gleeful following each of their wild rides – especially Farenheight (pictured above) and Storm Runner, with their loops, corkscrews, and in the case of the latter, acceleration from 0 to 70 in 2 seconds – I was compelled to understand their sense of the differences from one ride to another – and how each impacted their senses.

In the back of my mind, I think I was secretly trying to ascertain which of the elements I could personally have handled – given that each person has a different sense of what “scary” is, and you cannot just rely on someone saying “it wasn’t so bad” or “you could handle that”.  Key factors which weigh differently by individual include: height, speed, drops (number, length, steepness), banks, roughness, re-direction and mis-direction… (among surely many more categorizations of the coaster-phile).

On the “handle-it” scale, I had already managed Lightning Racer, Wildcat, and Comet, and had dipped my toe into the “beyond” with SuperDooperLooper (and a few others) – and their death defying drops and loops.  To “push my research”, I finally succumbed to the pleas of my family, and (somehow) joined them on Great Bear, which added “hanging from the rail”, and “corkscrews” to my repertoire.

At the end of Great Bear though – which, by the way, I survived – I realized that I had only managed to do so by staring at a bolt – which attached the seat in front of me to the chassis holding the seats on the rails, from which we were hanging.below – for the entire ride.  A friend commented days later that the only way to do a ride like that is to give yourself over to the ride.  I fear (among obvious other things) that I did not do this.  While I can say to my 10-year-old, who finally stopped calling me a sissy,  that “I did it”, I cannot say that I experienced all it had to offer – but I survived.

The parallel I alluded to above is not related to the two tracks on each coaster – but to life in general – work, activities, people, relationships…  If you give yourself over to these experiences, you can get out of them all they have to offer, and help others do the same.   This too reminds me of the same parallel that went on in the back of my mind following a whitewater kayaking trip in the winter of 1978-79, during which a professor said to me “we need to make sure we’re moving faster than the water if we have any intentions about steering”.

If you hang on, fixing your gaze on a bolt to simply survive, you’re going to get tossed around and may not enjoy the “ride”.  In the case of the Great Bear, the truth is that the ride may never get another chance to show me its stuff.

Afterthoughts: How does this relate to some of the other things I’ve written about here?  On one hand, it isn’t supposed to.  On the other hand, it informally dives into the formalization of experience – the elements of things – in this case, the taxonomy of thrill.  I appear to have stumbled into an area known as thrill research – but I think I may leave well enough alone.

Coinage du jour: “parallel-0-gram” – a message in which a comparison or parallel is drawn or relayed.

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In an earlier post I talked about latching onto activities that people already engage in, to help improve their experience or end result in those endeavors. For some, building on what people are already doing (perhaps disruptively), rather than creating new processes that you want people to come use, is a basic business tenet.

In the context of the post referenced above, on how the semantic web comes to be, the approach suggested was intended, in part, to describe a philosophy for enabling people to achieve their own ends better, more easily, more efficiently, even perhaps to an extent beyond their own expectations. The contribution to the semantic web, in that process, is the elicitation, contextualization, and leveraging of details to further a user’s activity and the activities of others – and with proper storage, the enhancement of other activities.

How this is done is a bit like Aikido, the Japanese martial art – not so much in a defensive way, but as an interaction strategy. Aiki is the harmonization and leveraging of energy and movement. So if someone is intent on moving in a particular direction, helping her along in that direction is one of the easiest ways to become part of the knitting of an engagement to propel it along its way. Get to the heart of what people are after by helping them to understand what and where that is.

Three talks that I attended over the past week each touched on just this point – each in its own way:

  • At this month’s Usability Professionals’ Association gathering in Morristown, NJ, Gavin Lew, of User Centric, talked about their iPhone studies. While the primary focus was on the effectiveness of a particular capability of the device, one of the reasons for their having done several iterations was the need to segment the user base, highlighting the value of targeting the specific objectives of individual segments.
  • Dr. Bill Gribbons, Director of Human Factors and Information Design programs at Bentley College, spoke last week in New York to the Society for Technical Communications. In addition to emphasizing market segmentation and simplicity in design, the key differentiator to “win” in business is the user experience. Becoming more and more important in this experience differentiation will be embedded support – or what he refers to as “cognitive scaffolding”. In short, this is the elicitation and contextualization I’ve referred to as enabling users to achieve their objectives.
  • Frank Gens, in his presentation yesterday on IDC’s predictions for 2008, talked about where their research shows enterprises focusing over the next year. The same key point emerged here – that energy is being directed towards companies getting closer to the end customer to engage them in what they’re doing, via small business, social platform as business environment (for facebookers coming into business age), or gadgets – in some cases to gaining some control of mobile markets (e.g. Apple, for example, took hold of wireless customer sign-up for the iPhone, as is the case with the Amazon Kindle).

In all of these examples, it is the user base that is driving the future. Opportunities will be found in identifying networks of interaction, where there are satisfaction deficiencies, or where hiding some technology can get users past legacy system limitations they’ve come to live with.

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