Btw, Shaw-Han sent me this video of a gangta dude rappin’ about web standards and UI design. Check check check’t out.
A couple of days ago, I attended an interesting talk on designers by Prof. Nigel Cross from the Open University, UK. Now, he himself is not a designer. But he studies designers and has a good understanding of their ‘ways’. This job of his is called a Design Researcher.
As a Design Researcher, he’s been working to build a recognition for/understanding of ‘designerly ways of knowing and thinking’ and to create a design discipline. “The ability to design is often thought to be a mysterious gift,” he said. To solve this mystery, he went and talked to the great designers and architects around the world, collected their perspectives on design, and derived generalized insights on design thinking. He presented a number of awesome quotes from these celebrated designers, and here are a few that stuck.
“I don’t think you can design anything just by absorbing information and then hoping to synthesize it into a solution. What you need to know about the problem only becomes apparent as you’re trying to solve it.” – Richard MacCormac
Well obviously we can’t just gather all these information and expect them to solve the design problem. It’s through sketching and trying to come up with a solution that we really get to know the problem space.
“Coping with uncertainty is key” – Ted Happold
Uh-huh. No one designer can see or predict all of the unknowns. We just gotta be flexible and creative in dealing with all these unforeseen constraints and wacky user behaviours that pop up along the way.
“Our job is to give the client not what he wants, but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time” – Denys Lasdun
Replace the word ‘client’ with user, and this statement holds true for me. iPod. GPS. Touch screens. Never knew we wanted these, but now that they exist, we can’t live without them.
Then he went on to talk about Roles of sketching in design. All these famous people (including Leonardo da Vinci) had used drawing “as a process of criticism and discovery”. Squid-like Lemon Squeezer by Philippe Starck is a example of some chicken scratches that transformed into a great design. The final design really does make sense (I’d buy one!) and it was interesting to see how he arrived there not in one shot, but through many sketches and revisions.
Then he discussed how design activities are different from problem solving activities:
Expertise in problem solving
- Tackle the problem in the easiest way
- Accept the problem rules
- Adopt standard problem representations
- Re-use previous solutions
Expertise in design
- Tackle the problem in a difficult way (they make the problem more difficult and work harder than necessary)
- Challenge the problem rules
- Construct novel problem representations
- Create new solutions from first principles
He emphasized the importance of creativity and boundary-less thinking, and said to put things that are previously designed in the back of your mind when you are designing. He also added, “designing isn’t problem-solving; it’s seeking opportunity.”
I do think though, there’s a value in looking at what’s been done previously. Not to follow or copy what’s been done, but to be aware of what’s been done already, what’s good about it, and what can be improved. I don’t think this stops you from being wild and creative. Einstein once said, “creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” =)
Also isn’t design all about problem solving and working within the boundaries … by definition? If there were no constraints and designers could design whatever they wanted, it would be called art, not design. When you are designing, you are planning a product that would be made and used by other people – of course there will be boundaries. The challenge is to create, innovate, and think outside the ball within these boundaries, keeping the developers and users in mind.
All in all, it was a pretty interesting lecture. People of all ages and domains from on and off campus attended (apparently Bill Buxton was in the audience – too bad I didn’t recognize him) and asked thought-provoking questions.
Traveling to NYC
I flew Porter! I LOVE Porter! it was the best flying experience I’ve had! from downtown pick-up to free internet and snacks in the lounge.. and iMacs in the lounge! I also liked the little in-flight lunch in an environmentally friendly paper box.
I don’t normally have access to users in the museum domain (who does?), whereas I do have relatively easy access to students. This second workshop was a unique opportunity for me to hang out with 40-50 museum professionals and talk about their experience as users; i didn’t want to let it go to waste.
Since the topic is on user experience and interface anyway, I thought why not do a miniature user research with them, provide instructions and tools to express themselves, and feed the information we get into design and development. Isn’t that the whole idea of participatory design?
Lucky for us, the users were mature with lots of sophisticated opinions and were very willing to share them. The hard part was coming up with the right questions to ask them. I think between my blind preparations, Jutta’s filtering and impromptu facilitation, and Colin’s tips and support, we were able to pull together a successful workshop – not to forget the hard work of the rest of OpenCollection team.
Jutta has mad winging skills. wow… it was inspirational!
What we did
It’s costly to gather together this many users, but that work has already been done for us, and our job was to make the most of the opportunity.
So we were with a roomful of museum folks who are currently using some form of Collections Management System. They had different roles and responsibilities within their organizations that ranged from a curator, collections manager, registrar, director, to “Joe the tech guy”. I’ll just share my personal account here and not bore you with the details of the preparation, presentation, and results gathered (those will go on the wiki).
- Prior to the workshop, we handed out questionnaire to gather some information on their background and previous experiences with technology in general and CMS specifically.
- First thing in the workshop, we went over the results of the survey so everyone gets some sense of who’s in the room.
- Then we handed out screenshots from OpenCollection to bring in their perspectives on the current interface (not to criticize it!). This was carried out in a break-out session, where everyone was randomly assigned to one of 8 round tables. It was interesting how most of these tables pointed out a lot of the same things as problematic areas much like what happens in user testing! After a couple of tables, people just presented the new things the previous groups didn’t mention.
- After this, we took the spotlight away from OpenCollection and discussed general issues related to Browse and Search. The users had all kinds of crazy cool ideas that a designer or a group of designers alone would never have come up with! And, since they understood the subject matter so well and have experiences with other software, they were able to think of a variety of use cases and edge cases we’d never get to.
- On the second day, we did a persona exercise. This was the most fun of all the things we did, for me and for a lot of other participants. Jutta framed it very nicely; she said something along the lines of “after this workshop, we are going to go away and hammer out the application, but since we can’t take all of you with us, we want you to create a surrogate of yourselves so we can refer to it later.” Beautiful. Then I gave a quick intro on what persona is, how it’s used, and presented them with an example persona. We had loosely grouped them into similar roles, and each group seemed to come up with a fictional representative of themselves with ease.
- After that was mostly Services Oriented Architecture discussions. I knew it would be impossible for me to stay awake through it, so I scheduled a few user testing sessions. um and also because it’s not every day that I get to sit down with museum people to do user testing. I prepared 5 simple tasks. Initially I thought nobody would finish all the tasks successfully, because I couldn’t see myself completing them. Surprisingly, all users were able to complete the tasks with varying degrees of success.
What I learned (note to self)
Allowing and empowering users to do user research on themselves seem to be very effective. The participants came up with 8 awesome personas in 45 minutes without breaking a sweat! These personas were realistic and detailed, and captured information users feel are important including information the experts may miss or overlook. I’m sure it’s very expensive to bring users together in one place at one time to do these exercises, but I wonder if it’s any more cost-effective than a team of designers spending months on user research.
For group discussions, you need to provide clear instructions (obvs!) and a small number of simple questions. Not because they’re dumb , but because it’s a big group of people and a vague question can be interpreted in many different ways. Also, people tend to have a lot to say, and discussions tend to run longer than you expect, so it’s better to ask a few simple things rather than many.
Also when organizing something like this, you need to be flexible and creative about last minute tweaks. A lot of things will happen, some things will go better than you expect, something will not go at all. =)
some thoughts after JA-SIG in St. Paul
- i always struggle with this: two nice double beds in a hotel room, one little person. what do you do? four people could sleep comfortably… how wasteful. i used one as a closet and slept in the other. did anyone figure out how to make good use of both beds? antranig says “you could trampoline between them all night.”
- when githens says he’s going to the bar to code, he means it.
- Kuali is a much bigger project than i thought. they’ve got a huge team, tight timelines, and tons of stuff to do. people in the room seemed to have subtly different opinions about how the 4 months (until their “config app” delivery) should be spent.
- antranig is a chatbot even in person.
- minneapolis is north of toronto!!! when i got there it was snowing!!! who would’ve thought. i brought spring and summer clothes only and got screwed.
- “flaming” user testing presentation
almondkey’s UI smack was born on April 30th, 2008, Eagle Street Pub, St. Paul, MN.
pure peer pressure, i tell you. I love marry poppins! working in a pub, and i must say i’m quite enjoying it! loud music, pubby stench, fellow nerds, it’s great.