March 2012

At my day job, our UX team is, well, fledgling. One reason I wanted to learn about UX at this year’s SXSW is to learn more about bringing a user-focused culture to my team. Today’s first session, Bootcamp for a UX Team of None was ideal for beginning to answer these questions and the panelists gave helpful ideas on everything from sketching and prototyping to testing and validation. One of these ideas is the 6-8-5 method where you get down 6-8 ideas in 5 minutes. They handed out sheets of paper and had everyone practice. I was surprised at how fast that time goes. You have to be quick—and that’s the point. These are not meant to be any kind of finished work. This is only to get down lots of ideas in a short amount of time. After a round of this, we collect feedback from colleagues. Then, do it again. After another round of feedback, put each idea onto its own page and you’re ready to go out and test with people in the street.

I can’t wait to try this, but what about sketching in the first place? How do you communicate through a sketch? Well, the next panel, Shut Up and Draw, gave some strategies for that. Dan Roam (Back of the Napkin and Blah, Blah, Blah), Jessica Hagy, and Sunni Brown each discussed how to start sketching quickly. They described how when you’re trying to get someone to understand what you’re saying, a sketch is most often the best way. People understand images far better than more words. In other words, shut up and draw.

Personas are always a hot topic, and I want to learn how to do them better. The speakers for Avoiding BS Personas worked through the process using Bolt Peters’ work for Lynda.com as an example. One item that needs to be cut from personas is fluff. People will not take them seriously and it can lead the development team down the wrong path if you use them. The fluff increases the signal to noise ratio and as a result, the persona is useless. The other end of the spectrum is a stock photo with some demographic info attached. This often is too little info and does not give a full picture of who the people really are.

Instead, Jill Christ and Stephanie Carter say you need to go out into the field and test real people where they actually use the website. Taking photos and video of their environment as well as taking care to note items they use and how they use those things in their space. Then synthesize the data and look for patterns. This is not a quick task, in the Lynda.com study, they talked to upwards of 2,000 people (although I don’t believe they visited all those). In the end, Lynda.com had a very clear idea of who their audience is and are able to use that information to create products that solve their needs.

Finally, RJ Owen spoke about UI design at Don’t Build a Power Glove. Growing up, he loved the power glove, although he never played games with it. One day he read how the power glove was an example of horrible design and set out to find why. In a week and a half and on his own time, he did his own study to replicate the conditions before the Power Glove came out in 1989. He talked to families and watched them play video games. He asked them questions about the controllers and what types of controllers might be best for which types of games. Basically instead of starting with technology first (like Nintendo did), he started with looking to the user and figuring out what problem they had and set out to solve that. Nintendo didn’t have any idea what an actual user’s environment was or how they actually played the game. If they had, they may have never came out with the Power Glove. The takeaway here is that before you set out to make the next great app or website or product, talk to your users, do a little bit of research (maybe even go more in-depth as in the Lynda.com example) and solve the User’s problem.

Tomorrow is the last day, I really can’t believe it has gone so fast. Jeffery Zeldman will be inducted into the webbie hall of fame, so that should be interesting.

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Steve Krug at the UX Smackdown session at SXSW

Shuttles again were a problem, but we were able to come in a little late to the first session of the day on using HTML5 and JavaScript to build apps. It sounded really good, but it was definitely for developers, not designers.

Next up, though, was a panel called “UX Smackdowns: Usability techniques in the ring.” This compared 6 different techniques head-to-head and asked the audience to vote for which was most effective. Here were the rounds:

  1. Focus Groups vs. Field Research
  2. Eye Tracking vs. Unmoderated Testing
  3. High Fidelity Prototypes vs. Rapid Iterative Testing

I was shocked that the guy arguing for focus groups actually made a little sense. It didn’t help him though as probably 99% went for field research. This session also made me wonder how I can get my boss to sign off on a $10,000 purchase to get some eye tracking equipment. That paired with a moderated test would be amazing. With the final round, everyone pretty much decided that both have their place. In any case, it was a fun look at how different UX methods compare and really, remembering the first day’s session, thinking of different ways to use combinations of tools rather than hoping for a silver bullet.

The other session of note today was “High Online: Applying Psychology to Web Design.” Right off the bat, I like his approach. He began by talking about the downfall of the “tips and tricks” types of advice out there. Yes, they may be scientifically proven, but these types of articles rarely get into why they work. Jason Hreha, the speaker, did his graduate work for BJ Fogg at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology lab. His mentor, Fogg, came up with a behavior model that describes what causes behavior.

  1. Ability
  2. Motivation
  3. Trigger

Ability and motivation are always there in some measurable quantity, but the trigger is not always present. In fact, if you were to graph ability and motivation, when both were high, that’s the most likely place to plant the trigger. The rest of the hour, we talked about how we might apply this concept to web design as well as using both off-line triggers (emails mostly) and on-line triggers (calls to action) most effectively.

So that’s all for the Sunday sessions, looking forward to tomorrow.

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The beginning of SXSW day 2 brought more disatisfaction with the R&R Limo and Bus transportation service. There were some reports of waiting over an hour and others missing some of today’s sessions.

Today was also the first full day of sessions at SXSWi and the day of Trey Ratcliff’s photowalk. It began with “Brands as Patterns.” Brands, argued the panel, exist in media that is ever changing and iterative. The brand itself may change once every 4 years, though. Instead, brands should be the interface, they should become iterative. The way they do that without losing the permanence of the brand is through patterns.

When you hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, it begins with the instantly recognizable four note pattern. Imagine that being played 45 times. It would not be interesting in the least, right?

It may then surprise you to find out that’s exactly how many times the pattern is repeated in this piece. However, each time Beethoven repeats the pattern, he does it in a new, fresh way and Brands should be the same way. In the end, Beethoven’s genius was described by one expert not in the individual bit of pattern he wrote, but the long sentences he mastered using that pattern.

Dave Hogue talked about reducing complexity and designing for simplicity. Oftentimes, we will begin a project very excited, but as complexity rises with input from others, new feature requests, etc. we lose energy for the product and finally something happens that halts the never-ending march towards complexity. The server can’t handle it, it breaks something else, etc. From there, we need to reduce the complexity using clarification, structure, and flow until its ready to launch.

I met Erin Kissane, one of my favorite writers, today at the “Rude Awakening: Content Strategy is Super Hard” session. We briefly talked about content strategy as a leading role on projects and how I might play a part in that. I’m also proud to say, I didn’t gush like when I met Jason Santa Maria last year.

Finally, the last session played off one of my interests—the intersection between physical architecture and interaction design. The two speakers, one an interaction designer and the other an architect, explored the notion that interaction design makes place in two-dimensional environments and architecture makes place in a three-dimensional environment, but both are seeking to fulfill more or less the same set of needs. These include functionality and reliability to higher order needs like proficiency and creativity. Definitely an interesting talk, especially near the end, I just wish we could have talked a bit more.

Tomorrow starts day 3 and my schedule takes a decidedly more UX turn. See you then!

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Alan Cooper talked yesterday about users and customers. Years ago when a company would release a piece of software, the user was the customer. Today with the advent of Facebook and Twitter, the user is becoming separated more and more from the customer. You might argue that the advertiser is the real customer now and that the user is actually the product being sold.

The pervasive idea today is that the “customer is always right.” However, this concept needs to now shift to users. Mr. Cooper said that you can keep the customer happy—for awhile. But if you keep your users happy, it keeps the customer happy. Ultimately, the best thing for the new customer (or advertiser) is a happy user base.

Developing personas

The way Mr. Cooper developed Personas was to find one person and make them ecstatically happy. He reasoned that assuming this person was not a huge outlier, they represented a group of people. This one person became a persona.

So what is the way forward? How do you make that one person ecstatically happy? It has to start from some type of research. Perhaps you know someone who is in your target audience. Maybe you use a tool like Ethnio to apprehend an user in the middle of what they’re doing. Or, like Nate Bolt from Designing for Context, you could use several tools to get at that one person. Any of these will give you a better informed persona, resulting in something more useful.

I used to have a little bit of trouble using the persona to develop the product. I had a picture of who a person was, but didn’t know how to turn that into features. The answer, of course, is to make that persona ecstatically happy. How can you build your website or webapp in such a way that it solves some of their deeper needs? What would make them smile?

What about you? How have you developed personas or worked to make people happy through what you made?

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Jared Spool tweeted that “This year’s killer app at SxSW is the umbrella.” Definitely not far off as rain pummeled the area all day and there’s bound to be more tomorrow.

South by Southwest kicked off for me with “Designing for Context” (slides) where a bunch of former Adaptive Path people talked about how a particular context dictates the design. They touched on the notion that Mobile First is not always the solution, which probably gave a chill to Luke Wroblewski. But really, as it is with most shocking statements, they really say about the same thing. Nate Bolt discussed utilizing several UX methods to get the information you’re looking for—information that could take lots of time and money if done the traditional way.

“Design from the Gut” (website) came next and while an interesting topic, I don’t know that its potential was realized. The one fun thing was that my tweet garnered 12 “favorites” putting it tops on the charts. The question was what are some of the most surprising or counterintuitive successful designs you’ve seen? The panel kept coming back to the app for iPhone called “Path,” which is a type of sharing app that allows you to chronicle your daily life with those you’re close to. It broke a lot of conventions at the time and has continued to iterate. A particular feature that was surprising, but worked, is the pull to refresh. It is such an intuitive gesture, it caught on immediately and spread to many apps.

Finally, the last session today was one I would not have picked for myself, but my friend Adam wanted to go, so I went to. It turned out to be really great. “Software Alchemy and the Arc of Technology” featured Alan Cooper, the father of Visual Basic, and the creator of Personas. He began by talking about software as needing to have a people-first approach. He would say that to make a successful product or website or piece of software, go find one (and only one) person and make them extremely ecstatic. This led to the development of Personas who stand in for that one person. As long as that person is not an extreme outlier, they are representative of a group of people. Something to consider the next time I sit down to draw up some new personas.

Tomorrow will be a busy day. I hope to meet Erin Kissane, go on a photo walk with Trey Ratcliff and enjoy more of the best of SXSW 2012

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One of the great things about SXSW is how big it is. The moment you step on the plane to Austin, you can sense it. When you get to the Austin Airport, signs are everywhere welcoming you to SXSW. There is something about it that makes you feel a part of a much bigger thing, pushing you forward and expanding your horizons.

Of course, it also means vying for position when registration opens and struggling to get to sessions early so you can have the privilege of getting a seat. It definitely favors the prepared.

All this to say, if you see a session you’d really like to know more about, tell me about it.

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It’s that time of year again. I’m heading down to Austin, TX to take part in SXSW 2012. One of the great things about SXSW is that it is so big, you can make it about whatever you want. There are sessions on just about anything you can imagine.

This year, I’ve chosen to focus on User Experience Design (UX). This is a newer field in the larger web design arena, but I see it as the culmination of everything a web designer can be. A hurdle I often run into is the belief that a web designer is little more than an order taker who makes someone else’s print idea happen online. However, it can be so much more!

A UX designer is responsible for how a visitor moves through a particular website or app. They combine knowledge of graphic design, content strategy, marketing, psychology, usability, and web development to design a plan for how a website will feel, work, and move. The work is far more akin to a master architect than a trained monkey.

Another aspect that makes this work exciting is that a UX designer is the advocate for the user. Too often, those needs are forgotten or only briefly considered. The company is far more concerned with getting their message across than solving users problems; the result being frustrated consumers and lower profits. If you think about it for a second, it makes sense. Why would anyone keep talking to someone who only wants to talk about themselves?

A smart UX designer understands this and can sidestep About Us pages that say nothing and replace them with drivel-free pages that put the user first.

So given the choice, I want to be a UX designer. It’s much more rewarding.

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