PoetPainter - Thoughts
Tuesday June 23, 2009 / 3 Comments

My Thoughts on the New Whitehouse.gov Site

Last month, I was interviewed by Jon Ward of the Washington Times for an article about the new Whitehouse.gov Web site. The article, published this morning, speculates that “information is harder to find on the Obama Web site than it was on the site created and run by the Bush administration.” Since the views represented in the article do not necessarily reflect my own, I thought it might be best to share my personal thoughts on the redesigned Whitehouse.gov site:

General impressions:
I remember visiting the Whitehouse.gov site prior to and immediately after President Obama’s inauguration. What first struck me about the new Whitehouse.gov site was the dramatic full-width carousel or messaging area. Whereas the previous site felt more like a news site with lots of useful information spread throughout, this administration’s version of Whitehouse.gov has more in common with product or service sites— there’s a clear central message being communicated. This design choice is consistent with the current administration, as President Obama has tried to remain firmly focused on a core set of issues. (If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you know how important I feel it is for leaders to cast a clear and compelling vision.)

Social Media
The second thing that really stood out was how the site — and this administration — is embracing social media tools like YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter. I remember hearing about how Obama would be using YouTube for his Weekly Addresses, a break with the traditional “radio” address. Moving to a video format demonstrates an awareness of how more people are communicating and sharing information. But, aside from just participating in these existing platforms, I’ve been more excited by the various areas created to facilitate a dialogue between individuals, neighborhoods and our nation’s leadership. From “crowdsourcing” topics to be addressed to making financial decisions transparent and accessible— it’s obvious that conversation and participation are a priority.

Visual Design
Beyond the structure and content changes, I’m impressed by the overall aesthetic. Whereas previous versions of Whitehouse.gov felt a bit stale and older, the new site manages to feel fresh and contemporary while retaining a sense of heritage. I appreciate subtle gestures like the textured backgrounds and attention to typography. I think the bold use of blue does a lot to create a modern feel, but then all the little accents, soft shading and nods to architectural details keep the pages distinctive and appropriate to the function of the site.

Content
I can’t say I ever frequented previous versions of Whitehouse.gov. That’s been different since this administration took office. Given the regularly updated blogs and video content, I feel a lot more connected to what’s going on in the Whitehouse. And the fact that this less “formal” content is integrated into the site (versus being buried behind a “blog” tab) creates a sense of… intimacy? I feel more connected to the conversations, issues and personalities in Washington, more so than ever before. Just look at the site navigation— “Contact Us” is part of the main navigation! With that said, I have read some articles indicating content (press briefings and presidential remarks) is missing from the site or not current— that concerns me. But the fact that we as a people, organized together online, can identify these gaps is a testament to new levels of accountability that elected officials and businesses now face.

Site Structure
Concerning main navigation, I also find the structure of the site to be intuitive. Moving from left to right you have

  • content that changes frequently (“The Briefing Room” and “Issues”),
  • …followed by information about our current administration (“Our Administration”),
  • …which leaves the historical content that rarely changes (“About the White House” and “Our Government”).

I can stay current with the most recent events or zero in on a specific topic I care about— this structure seems natural and supports different ways people might interact with information.

Finding Information
While the new site makes it easy to browse through recent content by either the issue or media type, finding an older press release on a specific topic is best accomplished using the search tool.

To test out the previous and new versions of the site, I performed a few searches. Both versions face the same universal search problem— how do you best help people sift through thousands of documents? “Paging” results is a pretty common solution for dealing with too much content, though probably not so useful for finding a specific video or executive order. That said, the newer version of search results is better in several respects:

  1. The “narrow results by:” sidebar allows you to quickly filter a long list of search results by specific categories.
  2. Search results are much easier to visually scan, and
  3. The “view all results on one page” feature is really useful for people who want to search within a page (with a browser search, for example).

(As a point of comparison, here is the same search on the previous version of the site. )

Also, Whitehouse.gov content hosted on external sites (such as video content on YouTube) is very well organized into different groups, making it very easy to browse through videos. And, in the case of YouTube, as the ability to search spoken words within videos becomes common, it’ll be much easier to find specific video content. This is another advantage to embracing social media— we can all benefit from the advances of those external sites who are financially motivated to improve their different technologies. One feature missing from the current site (that existed in the previous version) is the ability to browse news by date (my thoughts on this below).

I also performed a few different searches using the Whitehouse.gov search and Google site search— I didn’t find any discrepancies.

Concerning browsing behaviors, while the main “Issues” pages are obviously edited content, I feel much more comfortable with the newest versions of these pages. On the new site, the writing within the Issues area is much more terse and to the point. Comments are written like a progress report: a list of short, bulleted accomplishments, with— and this is important— links to supporting events or comments. Contrast this with lengthy fact sheets from the previous site, which often felt more like press releases and photo opps. And on the old site, where there were specific accomplishments called out, there were rarely any links to supporting information. It’s also worth noting that within the issues area, the new site surfaces related content in a sidebar area. This is useful for browsing content related to that specific issue.

Disagreement
Contrary to what the Washington Times article suggests, I do not believe the new Whitehouse.gov site has traded substance for style.

  1. Style is important, not just for making a good overall impression but for also communicating information. The new Whitehouse.gov site does a much better job at communicating information.
  2. Decentralizing content and making it sharable beyond the Whitehouse.gov domain not only demonstrates community participation but actually increases accountability and accessibility, and introduces a certain vulnerability to those external systems.
  3. While organizing content by date is currently absent from the site, there are much better ways of finding information that have been introduced or improved (see above).
  4. And what about not organizing content by date? From the article:

The biggest difference is that the Bush Web site archived all its information by year, month and day, with a sidebar menu that allowed a user to view virtually all the information from, for example, a day in 2002 — speech transcripts along with video and audio of the speech, press releases, official statements, nominations, letters to Congress, executive orders — with three clicks of the mouse.

This suggests that organizing news by chronology is a better (“three clicks!”) way to sort information. I beg to differ. Who can tell me the year/month/week that Bush stood on that carrier and declared “Mission Accomplished” with regards to Iraq? Unless it’s a significant event, or happened at or around the same time as a significant personal event, we aren’t going to think about information in terms of time stamps. Keyword searches and topical filters are going to be much more effective ways to sift through a high volume of information. “With three clicks of the mouse” assumes a user know the exact date, which is rarely the case!

There you go. My 2¢ on the Whitehouse.gov site. Is it an improvement over the previous version? I think so. Can the site be better? Of course. Is is as good as promised by Obama— the popular opinion is not yet. But, as anyone who designs Web sites and applications knows, a site is never done— only launched and then improved with time and usage.

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Monday April 20, 2009 / 5 Comments

The Art and Science of Seductive Interactions

See if any of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • You’ve got a great product, but you can’t seem to get people to stick around long enough see why it’s so great
  • All of the fun built into your application requires some basic registration information, but not enough folks are registering
  • You have a high bounce rate— visitors just aren’t coming back
  • You’re in a crowded market and the nuances that make your service unique are lost on the casual visitor
  • You’re situation involves corporate software, where despite having hostage users, you’ve seen a really low adoption rate

Each of these scenarios point to the same business and user experience problem: How do we get people to stick around long enough to see and evaluate the value we’re offering? Or, to put it more crudely:

How do we get to first base? (with our users!)

This is the topic of my most recent presentation, “The Art and Science of Seductive Interactions,” in which I explore some of the more clever ways sites are leveraging basic human psychology to create what I would describe as “seductive interactions.”

Here’s the formal description from the IA Summit 2009 conference, where I debuted this presentation:

Remember that “percentage complete” feature that LinkedIn implemented a few years ago, and how quickly this accelerated people filling out their profiles? It wasn’t a clever interface, IA, or technical prowess that made this a successful feature– it was basic human psychology. To be good information architects we need to crack open some psych 101 textbooks, learn what motivates people, and then bake these ideas into our designs. We’ve spent the last decade perfecting how to create applications that serve our users needs. Now it’s time to create applications that are engaging. It’s time learn a bit about the art and science of seductive interactions.

We’ll look at specific examples of sites who’ve designed serendipity, arousal, rewards and other seductive elements into their application, especially during the post signup process when it is so easy to lose people. Examples will mostly include consumer applications such as Muxtape, Dopplr and iLike, where engaging with users through a process of playful discovery is vital to continued use; however, we’ll also look at how these same ideas might work in corporate environment, with a glimpse into a few corporate apps that have succeeded at being playful. Regardless of your current project, the psychological principles behind these example can be applied universally. In the spirit of “expanding our boundaries,” we’ll look to disciplines like social sciences, psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science for insights. However, attendees will leave with actionable tools and examples making it easier to bridge theory with tomorrow’s deadline.

As a profession, we talk about mapping user goals to business goals. But what if this focus on goals is no longer enough? And what if we can’t get users to stick around long enough to see the value in our apps? Come get inspired by examples of applications that have moved beyond just goals, and succeeded in both satisfying and delighting people.

I have much more planned for this topic, including the project I hint at beginning on slide 131. But, I’ll stop here and save these thoughts for future posts.

In the meanwhile, enjoy!

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Sunday July 13, 2008

Speaking 'In Defense of Eye Candy' at UPA

For those of you in the DFW area, I’ll be speaking at Tuesday night’s DFW-UPA (Usability Professionals Association) meeting. That’s this Tuesday, July 15. If you can make it out, the meeting starts at 6pm; I’ll be presenting shortly thereafter (more info on meeting time and place here).

chopsticksI’m excited, as this will be the first public appearance of my ‘Eye Candy’ presentation. I’m also curious as to how it will be received, especially by this audience. As I indicated in my original post on the topic, visual design— so called “eye candy”— get’s a bad rap, for the wrong reasons. This presentation is my way of stringing together some of the solid research and perspectives supporting the functional value of aesthetics.

Formal Description:
Graphics, eye candy, sexy interfaces— while these aren’t as seemingly strategic as say a mental model or BCG Matrix, it’s time to stand up for these misunderstand elements. Aesthetics play just as critical a role in business as picking the right server or insuring your data is accurate. But here’s the catch—it’s not about shiny buttons or gradient fades in and of themselves. Rather, it’s about “the psychological response to sensory stimulus.” It’s about people. And how people respond to these elements.

If we truly care about making things work for people, then we should care about aesthetics, or the science of “how things are know via the senses.” And it’s much more than graphic design: Sights. Sounds. Smells. Motion. Aesthetics is concerned about all the senses. And it’s about how people respond to these elements (and not the elements themselves).

To understand so-called “eye-candy” in proper context, it’s critical that we stop focusing on particular design elements (rounded corners or drop shadows, anyone?), and instead look at the response that is triggered by these elements. We’ll do just this, looking at a variety of design details, focusing not on their stylistic qualities but rather the cognitive and affective responses these details elicit. In doing so, we’ll skim across a variety of research findings from the last decade that will both confirm and challenge many of our assumptions about design.

Oh, and what do the chopsticks have to do with this presentation? You’ll have to make it out to find out! Hope to see you there.

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Tuesday June 24, 2008 / 1 Comments

Changing the Experience of Search, or Why Am I at Viewzi?

Viewzi logo

So, a bit about my ‘not-so-new-anymore’ gig.

As some of you already know, I joined Viewzi, a small startup in the Dallas area, back in mid-December. For various reasons, it was a fairly quiet transition. Why? For starters, it’s been a busy time!! I’ve also been speaking and writing more on topics that didn’t seem consistent with my being at a startup, topics pertaining to management, design thinking, being a corporate change agent, social design, innovative thinkers... Topics more fitting of a consultant or director at a large company (exactly the positions I had prior to this, which afforded me the experiences to write and speak about such things). Just as investors consider the financial investment they make in a startup, I’ve had to consider the professional investment I’m making. “How is this furthering my career?” Honestly, I struggled a bit with this. But in the end, I chose to invest myself in Viewzi because it’s something I really believe in (more on that in a moment).

That said, my biggest hesitation in not being more vocal has been a personal struggle to find the deep rooted story that gets someone truly fired up.

Big Vision image

On the surface, there are a ton of cool things going on at Viewzi. Our product manager Jay Horne sums these things up rather nicely as ‘food, folks, and fun’. From Viewzi cafe on Fridays to getting to work with some of the best talent I know, to a really fun work environment and a fun product-- there’s plenty to love. But these aren’t the things that keep a curious, passionate learner around for the long haul. As I mentioned earlier, one of the most critical things a leader can do is to find that ‘story’ that gives everyone a sense of purpose in their role. The “we’re putting a man on the moon” message that gets everyone up in the morning and gives context and meaning to all the exciting and mundane tasks that will be required of you.

For me, I have to have a vision and a passion for the idea. To be clear, I’ve had various stories I’ve been trying out, but these weren’t the deep-rooted motivation I was searching for. It wasn’t until we started looking at the feedback and taking a long hard look at our core message that I finally ‘found’ my story, why I am here. And here’s the ironic part— it’s the same message I’ve been giving for the last 3 years…

“It’s all about experiences”
In 2006, I developed a model for understanding where exactly a product is in its maturity. Think of this as a ‘UX hierarchy of needs,’ with six levels ranging from useful/functional up to meaningful (the highest level a product can achieve). This was my way of resolving a lot of different ideas around what makes up an experience, and the relative priority of those things:

Moving from bottom to top, you have a basic product maturity continuum:

Functional
Ideas typically start off as functional solutions to a problem— something useful. Think of the first Motorola cell phone. Sure, it was a brick, but it allowed you to make calls untethered to a fixed spot!

Reliable
From there, things have to be reliable. This can be reliability of the service (5 9’s uptime?) as well as integrity of the data. If I purchase tickets on a travel site, the ticket prices need to be current and reliable. If I host with a site, I need to know my data is backed up and accessible at all times. This is reliability.

UX Hierarchy Model

Usable & Convenient
It’s not enough to allow me to simply do something— it has to eventually be less awkward to use. This is where the next two levels, usable and convenient, come into play. I draw a distinction between usability and convenience. Both make something easier to use, but in my experience most usability groups focus on fixing known problems— removing the hurdles. A focus on convenience asks “is there a more natural way to make this work?” MapQuest and Google Maps are a great example of this contrast. MapQuest was perfectly usable. But Google Maps, with it’s draggable interface, physics, and other more ‘natural’ behaviors was a much more convenient way to interact with maps data.

Pleasurable
Whereas convenience focuses on cognition, the next level— ‘pleasurable’— focuses on affect and emotions. How can we make something emotionally engaging? (And a memorable experience!) This is typically accomplished through things like friendly language, aesthetics, humor, arousing curiosity, creating flow, leveraging game mechanics and other similar tactics.

Meaningful
The highest level is of course ‘meaning. And no, you can’t make something meaningful— that’s a personal area. But you can design for meaning by focusing on the preceding levels as well as shepherding beliefs and the communities surrounding the product or service experience. Also, whereas the other levels build on each other, a product can be meaningful without any of these levels (I have a 1966 Karmann Ghia that doesn’t even run— ‘function’; sheer ownership connects me with a group of people in a way that is meaningful to me).

The big takeaway from this is that if want to truly create a revolutionary product, you have to shift you’re thinking from a ‘bottom-up’ task focus (which will only get you so far) to a focus that starts from the ‘top-down’ with the experience you want people to have. By approaching things from this perspective we see a host of new ideas, not to mention better ways to implement the same ideas that have been around for a while.

But there’s another takeaway: In mature markets, where you have stable, usable products, taking it to the ‘next level’ means focusing on more experiential things like emotions, clever language, aesthetics. This was the topic of my pleasurable interface presentation, where I gathered dozens of examples of these experiential qualities:

But search?
So, all that’s nice. But what about a search engine? Can a utility tool like search offer an improved experience? And I’m not talking about the algorithms or the results themselves. But the experience of interacting with the search results themselves. Can, or should, searching for information be a fun activity?

The problem with search:
Travis has written an excellent and accurate description of Viewzi. I encourage you to read his explanation of what we’re about. But for the purposes of this post (and to understand why I am so excited by what we are doing at Viewzi), here’s a short description of what we are doing…

Viewzi is changing the face of search. Literally. We’re asking the question: Is there more than one way to look at search? Does everyone see things the same way?

With traditional text-based search engines, no matter what or how you search, your results are delivered the same way. Searching for “Bono” looks the same as searching for “chicken recipes” or “sports cars.”

Why do all search results look the same?

We think there are better ways to present information than in a simple list. We start with specific topics or search terms and ask: “Is there a better way to present this data?” The result? Dozens of new, unique ‘views’, or ways to look at information, each custom-tailored for that content. It’s the right data, presented in the right way.

Changing the experience of search
When I first described Viewzi to my friend and mentor Rob Moore, he commented with some enthusiasm “you’re changing the experience of search. Most search folks I know are still focused on how to improve the performance by a few milliseconds. No one has really focused on how people actually interact with the data being returned.” (Or something like that!)

Rob nailed it on the head. We’re changing the experience of search. More specifically, we’re changing the experience of searching for [insert topic of choosing or manner of searching]. Contrary to some of the press that is going around, we are not a visual search engine, not exactly. We do place a premium on aesthetic considerations. However, we’re more about the right data presented in the right way. I like to think of ourselves as a designing custom search results for very specific scenarios. I was excited when Brian Oberkirch asked: ‘what can Stephen Anderson do with hyper-niched search contexts?’ That’s exactly it!

Viewzi. Search, your way.

With Viewzi you can, eventually, experience search results however you prefer. On one end, this could be a crazy digg labs style visualization. On the other end, you could have something very much like Google, but with ‘that one little change’ you’ve always wanted. Think of Viewzi as ‘search results, exactly the way you want, how you want.’
We are really the platform upon which hundreds of ways to view information will eventually reside. We currently have 17 views, with many more planned. Some are “all purpose” search views (different ways to view and interact with general search results) and many more are specific to a niche topic (recipes, music, celebrity photos).

Here is an example of what I mean by scenario-based search views:

Searching for recipes
Here is what you get if you search for ‘chicken recipes’ on most search engines.

Recipe search results from Google and Yahoo

If our goal was simply to create better search results, you’d get little more than some light typographic treatment, or perhaps some subtle information design changes. Hardly the stuff of dreams. But, if you change the question to something based in the experiences people have, in this case ‘how can I make searching for recipes more enjoyable?’, you might end up with something like our current recipe view:

Viewzi Recipe View

I’ll be the first to say, this is one of my favorite search views. It is (for many contexts) a far superior way to search for recipes. But is this the best way to display recipe search results? No. This view supports the offline behavior of flipping through a book to discover an appetizing recipe. But what about the scenario where…

  • someone has 4 ingredients on hand and they want to find a recipe that uses those ingredients
  • someone is focused on finding recipes that fit certain nutritional criteria

The resulting recipe view for these scenarios would be (a) quite different and (b) much less visual, as we would focus more on ingredients than appetizing photos. This is what I mean by search results custom-tailored for specific people, activities and contexts. And from this perspective, you can easily image dozens of different recipes views, many of which we will never think of, which leads me to my final though…

“But wait, there’s more…”
So far, I’ve only described the search views we are creating. But it’s ridiculous to think that a bunch of designers and tech geeks might know everything there is to know about [you name it]. The bigger story is the search platform we are creating, a platform that will allow anyone to create their own search views. For now, it’s an API than anyone with Flash AS3 or JavaScript skills can start using right away. In the future, we’d like to enable anyone to begin creating their own search views. That, is exciting. Whether it’s a better niche view or an entirely different way to experience search results— we’re building the platform that will enable user-generated (viewzer generated?) search views.

Pleasurable Interfaces + Search
And here’s why I am so fired up about Viewzi: everything I was talking about in the upper half of my pyramid— taking usable products and making them more convenient, pleasurable and meaningful— that’s exactly what I’m responsible for at Viewzi. I get to test out these ideas in a maturing field that is ripe for a focus on better experiences. When was the last time you described a search engine as fun? Viewzi is a company who’s business model is precisely that— to make search a pleasurable experience!

Viewzi has been called the

It’s a crude comment, but more than a few people have described Viewzi as the“‘iPhone of search.” If we can do for search what the iPhone did for mobile phones—change how people do what they’ve been doing for a decade—wow. Now that’s something I can believe in!

What about you?

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Tuesday April 15, 2008 / 4 Comments

[IA Summit 2008] 'Inspiration from The Edge' Presentation

This past weekend I had the pleasure of presenting at the IA Summit in Miami. The topic of my presentation? Other places to look for UI inspiration, specifically, other digital interfaces, such as the Wii, Tivo, Club Penguin, etc.

The Presentation:

The Description:

Want a fresh perspective on UI design? Look around. Not at other web sites or desktop applications but at other interactive media. Tivo, the iPhone, the Wii software interface, the ‘Sugar’ OS for the XO Laptop… there’s a world of new UI inspiration that is already being proven out in other devices— yet much of what we see in application design is more of the same. Tabbed menus. Drop downs. Form fields. Sure, patterns and conventions are important. But is ‘familiar’ always better? What might be more natural? While years of usability studies assert that consistent UI elements are a critical requirement, we also know that people quickly adapt to new patterns of use, new game interfaces, and new hardware-specific interactions.

To increase our field of vision, we’ll take a macro view of interface design, focusing on alternative UIs— and emphasizing patterns that can be leveraged in a business context. What might World of Warcraft tell us about improving our business intelligence tool? How might Club Penguin, a virtual destination for young children, influence the information architecture of our new CRM tool? How might designing for the iPhone affect our desktop UI designs? These are the types of questions we’ll explore, along with how skills in abstraction and synthesis can open our eyes to see new opportunities all around us.

Overall, I believe the presentation was well received. I had a great time preparing for and presenting this. And yes, this time round, I’ll be adding audio to my SlideShare presentation! :-)

To all who were in attendance at the Summit— thank you! I was blown away by the packed room and by all the compliments that followed. Oh yeah, I now have a complete set of the UX Methods trading cards. Whew!

But wait, there’s more…
A lot of folks asked about where (and how!) I collect all these reference screenshots. No secret really. Given how many people asked this, I’ll write a post listing some of the sites I frequent. However, here’s a much better option: Kevin Cheng has started a grouptweet called @inspiring where we will post interesting designs and ideas (web or otherwise) as we come across them. Spread the word!

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Thursday March 6, 2008 / 7 Comments

Are Image Reflections A Cliché?

Or, when is a cliché, not cliché?

I’m working on project where we will be displaying images. And I’m probably going to recommend adding a reflection to the images:

Screenshot from Viewzi showing the use of reflections

Yes, the played-out, trite design aesthetic: the reflection. Made popular by Apple and (in their wake) every other ‘Web 2.0’ styled site . So popular in fact that there are a variety of different scripts written to make it effortless to add a reflection.

So, being aware that this is not a unique visual signature, and that it seems to have peaked as far as visual trends go, why am I recommending we add reflections to our images? Because it’s natural.

Shadows, reflections, translucent surfaces— we interact with these in the real world, and there are very real cognitive (and emotional) associations with these visual elements. Aside from attractiveness, a reflection is associated with clean surfaces and high style. Long before Apple, most luxury product shots for the last 30 years have included reflections. Reflections communicate class. Also, to have a reflection (of the variety we see today) implies that the object is standing up. If these images were laying down, on a table surface for example, we’d invoke a shadow— another cliché, right?. But they’re standing up, which means reflection (if the surface is at all reflective). Again, these interfaces mimic natural design patterns, and carry with them the same real world functional qualities. I might argue that the concept of affordance, while typically associated with more directly actionable things (like buttons), would also apply to this ‘styling’ decision, given my views on how aesthetics— for information or style— contribute to function.

In this sense, I don’t see the use of a reflection as a trend, but rather a small part of a steady, longer-term progression in interface design. Albeit one that could stand to be refined and served up in a variety of ways— different reflections for different surfaces, for example.

But, consider this: Can a visual element become so trite that the ‘Ugh, here we go again’ response overrides our natural, biological response? Can we reach a point where it is ‘classier’ to not invoke a reflection or glossy surface? I start to think perhaps so, that we can, through overuse, create a learned response that overrides our natural response.

And then I waffle on that position.

Spending just a few minutes on a photography site such as Strobist makes me reconsider this position. Skilled photographers use lighting to accomplish a particular effect, or communicate a particular tone. Watch the end of this video on lighting (about 6 minutes in), and consider our natural response to the different lighting setups. Harsh lighting suggests cheap (by learned association) or naturally suggests harsh weather conditions. Dramatic lighting can be a bit… ominous. Diffused lighting creates a smoother, softer effect. And so on. In a century of photography, our natural responses to lighting conditions haven’t changed. Don’t misunderstand me. Personal preferences for or against these treatments have come and gone. But the effect of these lighting treatments has not changed. And as an interaction designer, I am concerned about the effect of visual treatments, not the artistic merits. Aesthetics—whether through emotion or cognition— play a functional role in how easily something works for someone.

Still, a bit torn on this, I looked up the term cliché. While mostly used of phrases, a cliché is just about anything “that has become overly familiar or commonplace.” I think the intent of something being cliché is that it was original at one time. The first time someone used an expression it was quite charming, and it went downhill from there. But can we ever label something that is naturally occurring as cliché? Is the sun rising and setting cliché? Can the effect of a squat, boxy shape making us feel safe become cliché?

Or consider the reverse: Would we ever say making alert messages red or yellow has become passé? Or that we’re sick green meaning ‘go’ or ‘move forward’—let’s change all our green street lights to brown?

Using a trendy typeface, that might qualify as cliché. But how something is lit, meanings we associate with colors, imbued meaning in shadows and reflections— higher order cognitive patterns govern our response to the deign elements, and for that, they can’t be cliché.

Or can they?

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Saturday November 10, 2007 / 11 Comments

In Defense of Eye Candy

I’ve done the unthinkable: I tried to communicate the value of aesthetics to a group of developers. Read on for an explanation, or jump into the slides…

Background
In most presentations, I rarely if ever talk about visual design— at least not directly. While I do mention design decisions in the context of more ‘important’ things, like structure or interaction, my goal is typically to divert attention to the critical thinking behind the visible surface.

Most people get what they see. And what most people see from ‘design’ are pretty pictures. Or bright shiny objects. By presenting this kind of visual design as a by-product of some larger effort, and avoiding the subject all-together, I’m trying to direct folks to view ‘design’ in the sense of something much grander — an approach to framing problems and devising solutions. An approach that works with imperfect data and produces multiple options. An approach that shows empathy for people involved. Design is about so much more than ‘making things look pretty’. I tend to favor Herbert Simon’s description of design as devising “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Design in this more general sense applies to moving pixels around on a screen just as easily as moving people around in an org chart. This more strategic application is the Design I normally discuss.

But enough is enough.

Graphics, eye candy, sexy interfaces— while these aren’t as seemingly strategic as say… Information Architecture, it’s time to stand up for these misunderstand elements. In a mature product space (pdf file), Aesthetics play just as critical a role in business as picking the right server or insuring your data is accurate. Yes, I’m being serious. But here’s the catch—it’s not about shiny buttons or gradient fades in and of themselves. Rather, it’s about “the psychological response to sensory stimulus.” It’s about people. And how people respond to these elements.

If we truly care about making things work for people, then we should care about aesthetics, or the science of “how things are know via the senses.” And it’s much more than graphic design: Sights. Sounds. Smells. Motion. Aesthetics is concerned about all the senses. And I’ll say it again: it’s about how people respond to these elements (and not the elements themselves).

Bottom line? Visual design is more than styling. It is function. And not only because it communicates, but also because it makes us feel. And between feeling and communication, people find things easier to use.

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Thursday August 2, 2007 / 1 Comments

Presenting at Adaptive Path’s User Experience Week and Webmaster Jam Sessions

I’m honored to be presenting at two great, upcoming events:

User Experience Week
First, Adaptive Path’s User Experience Week in Washington D.C., August 13-16.

Adaptive Path's User Experience WeekNot only will the fabulous folks from Adaptive Path be sharing their expertise, but also they’ve gathered together a pretty stellar lineup of speakers with some brilliant ideas to share. It’s definitely looking like an event not to miss. I’ve been fortunate to hear a few of these speakers at other conferences; for this event, it looks like they’ve collected some of the most interesting UX related topics and rolled them into a week-long (well, four days) event.

I’ll be presenting on ‘Adaptive Interfaces’. Most applications are one size fits all, in a world that is heading in the direction of ‘custom tailored’ apps. I’ll be sharing some ideas on how the applications we use, more specifically the interfaces for the applications we use, can change over time based on individual usage and history.

And, later that same day, I’ll be joining Dan Brown’s panel discussion Documentation: Choosing the Right Tool for the Job. As much as I enjoy presenting, there’s something equally pleasurable about the uncertainty of a panel discussion. This one should be lively, as we’ll be discussing (and sharing) the documentation we use in our day to day practice. We’ve already met to discuss some possible topics, and… well, this should be an interesting discussion (I’m glad to see the conversation has moved past wireframes and RIA).

Short notice, but if you’re still considering this event, here’s a little extra incentive: 15% off of the regular price. Simply enter the promo code “UXSA” on the on-line registration page in order to receive a 15% discount on the conference registration fee.

Webmaster Jam Sessions
See me speak at Webmaster Jam Session Second, I’ll be joining another great, albeit different, lineup at the Webmaster Jam Sessions in Dallas, September 21-21nd.

This is a newer event, and one of the best I’ve seen in Dallas. I wasn’t able to attend last year’s premiere, though I did catch up later thanks to the audio archives. Based on the lineup, this conference look like another one not to miss. Content wise, it’s a bit more like SxSW, with more of a Web Standards/development focus. Though, as Garrett and I were discussing recently, it’s increasingly difficult to discuss things like semantic markup and interface design without discussing bigger issues like culture change and strategic direction. I’m looking forward to this one as well, though for a completely different set of reasons. This will also be the first time to present the ‘Adaptive Interfaces’ topic in my hometown— I’m looking forward to the discussions that follow!

This is definitely a good ‘off-season’ conference event. And the $195 price tag removes any excuse for not attending— especially if you live anywhere within driving distance to Dallas.

If you make it out to either (or both!) of these events, swing by and say hi!

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Monday July 9, 2007 / 1 Comments

7 User Experience Lessons We Can Learn from the iPhone

Given all the iPhone mania, I thought I might share this little presentation:

Context: Back in January, a week or so after the initial iPhone announcement, I was working on a presentation to introduce the ‘user experience’ group to our development team. As I started reading reading this Time magazine article, I was struck by just how perfect a case study the iPhone is for explaining the role of a user experience group. This formed the basis for my presentation, in which I cite ’7 Lessons About User Experience’ based on comments that article made regarding the (development of) the iPhone.

I’m sure I could add more UX lessons regarding hype, delays, design tradeoffs, and teasing people with ‘new’ features. But I’ll leave this presentation ‘as is’.

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Friday March 30, 2007 / 2 Comments

[IA Summit 2007] 'Tasks to Experiences' Poster

Getting from Tasks to Experiences: What’s Next in Interface Design

Tasks to Experiences Canyon

Download the Tasks to Experiences Poster (pdf file)

Description
If we look to established fields such as product or environmental design, we can draw some interesting parallels to the still maturing field of UI design. An initial focus on function gives way to better performance, usability testing and eventually differentiation on more visceral and reflective attributes. Of course, this latter focus is far less tangible and certainly subjective— it’s easier to perform a heuristic evaluation than it is to measure a product’s emotional appeal.

With rich interactions, the Social Web, and other recent web application advancements, we are reaching the point where it’s finally appropriate to discuss things like ‘joy of use’ and ‘pleasure’ in interface design. This is also the point at which we must stop designing only to support tasks and begin designing to support experiences. Unfortunately, this transition is a difficult one to get companies to invest in, except where the product is consumer facing and needs to remain competitive. I dub this difficult transition the UX grand Canyon. This is the chasm between designing to support tasks (with a focus on products and features) and designing to support experiences (focusing on people, their activities, and the context of those activities).

As a consultant, I found that Usability, Information Architecture— disciplines that help people accomplish their tasks— were relatively easy to justify. But how do business owners justify desirable experiences, especially where the application is an internal application, a portal for example?

To communicate that this is a critical next step in interface design — and and not a luxury to be marginalized — I developed two, complementary models:

The first visual takes a speculative view of how things have evolved and might evolve, tracing the evolution UI design from the early days of text only functional apps to a not so distant future where people define themselves by the software they use (as with products) and software can personalized, and assembled for use by individuals.

The second model comes at this idea from a slightly different angle, communicating the relative priority of UX . This model is a variant of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, tailored for UX, with six levels ranging from useful/functional up to meaningful (the highest level a product can achieve)

In various conversations and presentations, I have found early drafts of the models to be invaluable tools for identifying where exactly a product is in its maturity, and where it should go next. This has also been useful to illustrate that while many of the new ‘Web 2.0’ application are succeeding at creating emotional experiences, Enterprise software is still struggling with usability issues.

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“Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent — not with how things are but with how they might be — in short, with design.”
— Herbert Simon