Archives For September 2012

I’ve been job hunting for the last couple of weeks, and have had interviews at a number of different places. It’s interesting to hear some of the same themes coming through:

- Content is important, and simple IA / card sorting approaches aren’t enough. Content strategy, communication strategy and in-context content flows are increasingly important.
- Too many UXers are precious about their wireframes and produce work that encroaches on visual design, confusing clients and user-testers.
- Some UXers treat visual designers as people who colour in wireframes.
- Process is important, but flexibility more so.
- People who only deal in ideas and never get their hands dirty in implementation never learn what actually works and what just sounds good.

The more time I spend doing UX, the more I think the tools and the deliverables aren’t important. What’s important is using whatever process and tools are necessary to create a shared understanding of the project. That might mean sitting with the designers and sketching, that might mean play acting a customer conversation with the copywriter, or simply listening to the developers concerns and taking them seriously. It can mean explaining what the site analytics are saying about the users, or interviewing the users directly.

I developed a bit of a nickname as the ‘office mum’ when I worked at Sputnik. Increasingly I’m thinking that’s actually a good model of what UX should be about. Listening, caring, and helping people understand each other. And sometimes baking a cake.*

*Office parent, sorry.

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Just back from a holiday in Fiji. Read a lot of books, went swimming, went hiking, and made some career decisions.

Cyberpunk notes

September 2, 2012 — Leave a comment

I would argue that the significant interest directed toward the cyberpunk genre in the 1980s reflected not merely the topical appeal of computer adventure for readers, but also an interest its technologically inclined readers felt as writers – individuals already trying to write themselves into the global network, looking for vocabularies and identities to borrow and cut up in this process of self-creation.

Hicks, HJ, ‘… She’s Since Become”: Writing Bodies of Text and Bodies of Women in James Tiptree, Jr.’S” the Girl Who Was Plugged in“ and William Gibson’s” the Winter Market’, Contemporary Literature, 1996

Unsolicited redesigns and design commentary | TechRepublic:

There are valuable design insights to be gleaned from these sources. Seeing a different solution to a problem can spark new insights and new designs. Commentary can also spark useful debates about particular approaches and aesthetics.

That said, visual design is only an aspect of software design, not its entirety. UX designers also have to help make decisions about affordances, functionality, trade-offs, business decisions, and monetisation.

UX Kit

September 1, 2012 — Leave a comment

Need to get a better photo, but this is my basic UX kit.

Laptop, Wacom Intuos5 Touch Tablet, iPad, Unlined Moleskine, Nikon D40, Microsoft Mouse, assorted Artliners, JustMobile tablet stylus.

kit

I’m usually fairly wary of calls to apply design thinking to politics and to fields like education – it frequently leads to problematic calls to ‘flip the classroom‘, learn to code and de-politicised yet heavily ideological political movements at best. Design thinkers often try to apply domain-specific knowledge to other areas without addressing the existing knowledge of that domain – political process and pedagogy being two of the areas that frequently get ignored. Designers can be pretty unaware of their class privilege and design thinking can lead to some amazingly offensive solutions to political problems. The technocratic authoritarianism of China is another example of applying design / engineering process to political process. There’s a lot of work to be done in understanding underlying ideologies in the design / engineering process and what happens when they apply to politics, whether they be democracies or technocracies or non-state actors.

However, Ben Hoh’s thoughtful piece about progressive enhancement within web design as a frame for political change is intriguing. I find it particularly interesting as I tend to think of politics in a discursive frame rather than a problem-solving frame, which tends to separate design-as-problem-solving from politics-as-discourse in my head. Of course, there’s more than problem solving to design, and problem solving is a core part of politics.

My particular field – UX design – tends towards more democratic engagement with users, often to the point of argument with creative designers. I’m excited to see projects that advocate a sense of political engagement from designers, that reject technocratic approaches, and seek to empower users.

From degradation to enhancement: redesigning society

So, if our degraded attempts at Utopia remind me of design’s graceful degradation, design should return the favour: what might progressive enhancement suggest in the world of culture and politics? As a designer who hungers for progressive political change, this question intrigues me. At the very least: rather than groping for a Lost Symbol of freedom, which would leave plenty of us with a “graceful”, less-than-ideal experience as a fallback position from a fetishised Utopia, progressive enhancement suggests instead that a well-designed experience of freedom can be built outwards from a core structure of meaning, in multiple ways, and in uneven terrain.

Ben’s only just started thinking about this, so I’m not going to engage too critically with this idea just yet. I think there’s a lot of value in it. It also interests me particularly as Ben has worked in fields outside of design and has written about design, media, politics and science fiction. He also wrote my favourite analysis of the conspiracy theory mindset.

My initial thoughts are:

The move from the frame of ‘degradation from the canonical design’ to ‘designing outwards from the core content of the page’ is certainly feels more emergent. However, progressive enhancement designs are still designed. Even the best computer with the largest display and the latest browser will still only display what has been designed to display there. You may be able to incorporate some generative animation to make use of the extra space and functionality, but that’s still not emergent in any true sense. I feel any frame that’s applied to politics must allow for emergence or it runs the risk of being overdetermined and technocratic.

I imagine user-generated content and iterative co-design practices may fit into this project somewhere, as parallels to the public engagement aspect of politics. That said, UGC and co-design aren’t exclusive to progressive enhancement.

Accessibility is another aspect of web design that has its own explicit political project. Accessibility and web standards in a sense analogise the welfare state, insofar as they provide a base level of access to those with limited resources and ability. This political project will need to be addressed within this frame of progressive enhancement.

The idea of using breakpoints to display content rather than simple mobile / desktop versions might nicely analogise a move away from reductive class analysis to a move granular view of class politics.

And lastly, we need to think about political analogies will work with progressive enhancement. Ben makes the point that the language of degradation parallels the discussion of Stalinism:

Meanwhile, you can find graceful degradation’s ambition — assuming a maximum specification, and then making do in less than ideal circumstances — in the experience of Stalinism, and that really wasn’t so graceful, was it? In the absence of a worldwide socialist revolution in the wake of World War I, Stalin’s defensive pragmatism of “socialism in one country” was clearly the wrong kind of pragmatism. (It’s no accident that orthodox Trotskyists, who utterly opposed Stalinism, still defended the Soviet Union as a “deformed workers’ state”, i.e. a degradation of a canonical design.)

I’m wondering then what progressive enhancement might align with. Design that provides more content to those with greater (browser) capacity might end up paralleling meritocratic capitalism as much as it parallels social democracy. Then again, design that provides more capability to those with greater capacity-for-engagement might nicely parallel a participatory democracy. There’s a lot of think about here, and I’m happy to see design thinking engaging with politics in a nuanced way.

There’s just no point in thinking that you’re picking up things that don’t exist, or talking to people that are just part of some dummied-up sensory load. The kind of stuff died out back in the mini-theme-park days. Kids standing around with big ugly goggles on, swatting at nothing. That kind of stuff’s crap. But seeing the same things that everybody else does, but just seeing them differently… hey, that’s the way it is for everyone.

Noir, KW Jeter

Jamais Cascio recently posted a call for more social-cultural futurism. This is a theme I’ve been thinking about a bit lately, particularly as it fits within my ongoing research about cyberpunk science-fiction and its role in creating capital imaginaries. It’s also an interesting thing for futurists and science fiction writers to focus on, with the emergence of a narrative about the supposed end of generational fashion, culture and music.

I want to look at a cyberpunk novel that examines different perspectives rather than different technology, and gives us a vision of a post-cyberpunk world that has passed its initial hyper-acceleration, and settled/devolved into stasis. It shows us how people engage with the shock of the new psychologically – by constructing belief systems and ‘ways of seeing’ that interpret the world in ways that make sense and allow them to function.

Noir by KW Jeter functions as an interesting examinations of noir tropes, but also as an examination of false consciousness, ways of knowing, ways of doing and critical inquiry outside the bounds of modernist scientific investigation. The plot hinges on an alternative investigatory heuristic that is enabled by McNihil’s (surgically implemented) ‘way of seeing’.

The science fiction novel in this case is a ‘lens’ system. It allows us to view what is already here, from a different perspective or a different level of focus. Of course, all fiction does this to some extent, but it’s usually implicit rather than explicit. Literalising the change in vision allows us to see things from a different perspective without having to adopt a worldview that we’re aware of but dislike. It’s hard to get inside the worldview of a white supremacist, but it’s not so hard to imagine seeing the world in cinematic noir.

McNihil’s lenses function in an interestingly self-aware way. McNihil has them implanted because he’s more comfortable in the eternal night of the black and white world of noir film. He’s not happy, by any means – but the lenses function as a cushion. He’s well aware of the reality of what he’s seeing, but his lenses translate it into a visual language that better fits his image of himself and the world around him. Certain objects do not translate into his world, though. Some items do not have appropriate analogues within his noir visual system, so they take on extra import because they don’t fit.

In this way, Jeter puts us in the mind of someone who, despite knowing the truth, returns to the comfort of his way-of-seeing because it makes sense to him, and indeed it is only way he can function. Even though he knows it is false, and even though he is reminded of its falseness when reality forcefully intrudes, even though he has learnt tricks to see through the noir vision and see reality when he wants to, he falls back to his way of seeing. He cannot not fall back to his way of seeing, because to see reality as it is would require rewiring his head.

McNihil acquired his lenses by choice; he wanted them, he paid dearly for them. But he has become so used to them, he may not be able to function without them. And despite the knowledge that he does not see ‘reality’, he functions within the world effectively.

I think Noir functions as a nuanced critique of the science-god clear-eyed barrel-chested hero of golden age science fiction, but also the march of progress modernism that runs through that body of literature. It’s a dystopia, but not a conventional one. It’s not a dystopia because of the conflict between great forces, but because that’s where we ended up.

I keep coming back to Noir for a couple of reasons. Jeter is an underrated science fiction author, partially because much of his output has been within other people’s universes. He’s written in the Star Trek and Star Wars universes as well as a criminally underrated set of sequels to Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. His Blade Runner sequels delve deeper into the questions of identity and memory that were raised in Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in a way that prefigures a lot of the themes and plot points in the recent Battlestar Galactica remake. He also manages to draw the Blade Runner film and the Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep discontinuities into the same universe in a way that feels satisfying.

Noir is set in the same universe as Jeter’s earlier novel, Dr Adder. Dr Adder was, but for the cowardice of publishers, one of the the first cyberpunk novels. It prefigured the obsession with communications technology, surgery and body modification as personal expression, weird sex, post-corporate societal breakdown and leather and chrome that exemplified cyberpunk style. Noir includes elements of this, but it’s set much later in the same universe. The characters have gotten past the shock of the new, and have started to cobble together their own styles, belief systems and ways of living. If Dr Adder prefigured the hyper-acceleration of early cyberpunk culture, Noir sets out a vision of a mature, semi-static cyberpunk culture.

I’ve been working on this project at Sputnik for that past couple of months. It’s a microsite for Google Apps.

I worked on the creative concept, the content strategy and some of the copywriting. I’m currently working on the UX for the second release.

I’m really proud of it. I’d love to hear what you think!

Try it out on a mobile or a tablet.

What Are You Working For?

UX, at least in my experience, is multidisciplinary practice that entails an indepth, embedded knowledge of one’s culture. It’s a practice that sits at the nexus of creative design, content, and technology. It’s in the middle of hard data, soft data, aesthetics, intuition, communication, and account management. Not many people can hold every single aspect of a web project in their heads, so inevitably we develop heuristics and shortcuts to make things more efficient. We rely on our experience, our implicit knowledge and our intuition to work together.

Research is important. Data driven design is important. UX practice can and does involve very close-focus decisions that are informed by testing and analytics. Testing is everything from guerrilla testing to A/B and multivariate testing. Analytics is everything from bounce rates and page consumption through to user flows, goal funnels, hover patterns and user tracking. This is all important.

However.

Chances are, unless you’re working in a consultancy with an extensive testing contract, or working in a UX team with a testing lab, or working on a high-traffic web site with functionality for rapidly-deployed multivariate testing, you’re not going to be able to do all of this. On some projects, you’re not going to be able to do any of this.

If you work in a design agency, or a creative agency, you’re probably working on multiple client websites. You’ll rarely have access to the history of the project, particularly anything that was done by the agency before you. You’ll probably only be brought on to specify the current project, which may be anything from a whole site refresh / rebuild, to the design of a single page. You won’t know what the previous agency tried to do, and why it didn’t work. Chances are the previous agency was in the same situation you’re in. They were probably using a best practice approach with limited information, and the project may have failed in spite of that. Maybe there was a downturn in the market. Maybe someone stuffed the site with keywords and Google nuked its pagerank for 6 months. Maybe the client had $10k and wanted to compete with CNN. Maybe the client got cold feet halfway through the project.

You will probably never know any of this. But you have been tasked with making a website that keeps the client happy, appeals to their users, is usable and accessible, on-brand, on-message, within budget, on-time, and beautiful, even in IE6. And by the way, the client’s bought into a ten year contract with a kludgy CMS that never, ever generates decent code, your dev team are overloaded and have priority bookings on other clients, you’ve only got 16 hours of billable time for UX/content strategy/analytics framework and your designer is about to go on holiday. What do you do?

This is a little checklist that I try and work from. I don’t always manage to use it, but it’s pretty good place to start. It’s useful for getting on top of a project from the very start.

Step 1: Get a brief.

Do you have a brief? If not, get one. Get a sit-down briefing from the account manager.

Still no luck? Write your own brief. Should take about 15 minutes.

Basic brief structure:
- what is the project?
- what do they want to achieve?
- budget
- timeframe
- constraints
- requirements

Ok, now you’ve got a brief. Give it to the account manager. Account managers are always busy, and they can be a bit hard to deal with if they’re in the middle of something. However, account managers are your friend. This doesn’t get said enough, so let me say it again: account managers are your friend. They deal with all the numbers, the clients, the organisation stuff so you can do your job. You know how much you hate doing your tax? That’s the kind of stuff they do every day so you can be creative. So cut them some slack.

So, with that in mind, ask your account manager to have a quick look at the brief you’ve written up. They’ll very quickly let you know if you’ve missed anything, or you’ve gotten anything wrong. Take notes, fix your brief.

Ok, great! We now have a brief.

Step 2: Coffee shop

Now, take your brief, a stack of paper and some sharpies, and go to the coffee shop.

Purchase a caffeinated beverage of your choice. I like a soy latte. Doppios are good too.

Don’t begin your beverage just yet. Let it sit on your table, gently tickling your nose. Mmmmm.

Ok, so, now read your brief. Read it again. Highlight the things that jump out at you. Highlight the things that you _know_ are going to be a pain in the ass. Highlight the things that you’ve worked on before. Circle the things that need research. Note down any references to previous projects that were similar. If you work in an agency, you’ve worked on at least 3 specifications for every 1 project that actually got built. Some of that stuff is reusable.

Ok. We’re trying to see this project from every angle. That’s why you’re not allowed to drink your coffee yet. I want you to mess with your brain chemistry just a little bit. The perspective of a hungry, impatient, un-caffeinated person is different from that of a well-fed, juiced-up coffee fiend.

Ok, now you can have your coffee.

Step 3: Drink your coffee!

Mmmmm. Good, yeah?

Step 4: Sharpies.

Once you’ve got some coffee inside you, pick up a Sharpie and start taking notes.

Firstly: what is the client trying to do? Not ‘what have they asked for’. What are they trying to do? The answer is rarely ‘build a website’. A website is a means to an end. The end is usually ‘make more money’.

List out all the other things the client could do to achieve the same goal.

For example:

You have a client with a small business selling bath soaps. They want you to build them a brand new website. They have an existing site that has never generated much business, and they feel a new site will bring in more traffic. They have a budget of $5k, and one of the owners can edit a bit of HTML and is familiar with Facebook and Twitter.

What else can we do in this situation?

Well, we could:

- Tidy the existing site
- Run a social media campaign
- Do some SEO and SEM to drive traffic to the existing site
- Create a content strategy

There’s a few things we can do in this situation. Take note of the other possibilities, and take a few notes on what the project might entail. Take note of how much it might cost. Particularly take note of possibilities that are likely to be more effective for the client. Clients are usually willing to be sold on a more effective solution. In this situation, my initial thoughts would be to:

- Tidy up the existing site template
- Work up an SEO / SEM strategy to bring in more site traffic
- Work up a content strategy to ensure the site is being regularly updated, in line with the SEO strategy
- Sketch out some ideas for a social media strategy that the staff can work on together, to launch in a couple of months
- Propose a stage two project with a more in-depth site redesign, contingent on the success of the initial project.

In this situation, we want the client to have some ‘quick wins’. There’s a lot they can do, and a full site redesign is just going to chew up money and time. Some smart campaign work with social and SEO, and a site ‘tidy-up’ is going get them some results now, rather than six months time.

Also, once they start making more money, they can see a) your skills and b) the value of investing in their web properties.

This, hopefully, means you’ll have a larger budget for the stage 2 project.

Step 5: Diagram.

Ok, so, you’re still at the coffee shop, and you’ve thought through all the different options. Take 5 minutes and sketch up a diagram of the different options with some notes about complexity, benefit and cost. You’re going to take this back to the account manager and show it to them, so make it easy to read. They’re busy, remember?

Now pay for coffee, pack up your stuff, and go for a walk around the block.

Step 6: Walkies.

Pull out your mobile and call your favourite developer. (Well, I do this because my developers are in Melbourne. You might be able to just chat to them in the office.) Have a quick chat to them about what you’re proposing, and get a sense of the relative complexity of it. Developers are also usually busy, and they don’t appreciate distractions any more than account managers do. If anything, they’re probably more irritated, because they had the entire structure of their current project in their head when you called. So be nice.

Make sure they know that you want to get their input because a) they know more about actually building the damn thing than you do and b) you don’t want to give them a poorly specified job. Also, you want their input because it’s much more efficient for you and them if you have the chat up front, rather than in a week after the client’s already signed off on the specification.

Ok, now you’ve gone through the initial process. You should have a sense of the project scale, the alternate options, things to look out for, and what other projects you’ve worked on that you can reuse / appropriate. You’ve gone for a bit of a walk to clear your head, see if anything else comes to mind.

Step 7: Accounts

Now, go back to the office, and have a chat with your account manager. Wow them with your attention to detail, your commitment to creating the best solution for the client and the users, your thoughts around how they can position the work into an ongoing project, and your thoughts around potential budget-busters. They’ll appreciate your work, and they’ll take it back to the client and convince them of its value.

Having gone through this process, you’ve given yourself a good start on the project, brought the account manager and client into line with your thinking, and you’ve given the developer a heads-up on what’s going to land on his desk next week.

Step 8: Get to work.

You know this bit. Hop to it.

I’ve been interested in taking part in Jason Wilson’s Pomodorojerk for a while. I’m trying to get into the habit of writing regularly, and this seems to be a good way to get words onto page.

It’s not like I don’t write a lot at work. Most of my job is communication – ultimately, most design jobs are about creating communication tools, communication artifacts, or design specifications for other creative workers. And I’ve also been doing a fair bit of copywriting on a work project that will be launched next week. I wanted to try my hand at copywriting because, well, I’ve been a writer and editor in the past, and wanted to see how I fared writing advertising copy. I also wanted to try it again because copy and content strategy is a big part of UX design, and it’s good to know how it works. It’s good to be able to visualise the copy in your head while laying out site wireframes, to know where the copy should sit, how much space it will need and what kind of headings it should have. It’s also good for laying out the IA of a site – adding scratch copy to wireframes allows you to layout the IA and see where duplications and omissions might be. It’s also much more interesting than lorem ipsum.

So I’m going to try writing each morning before work. I’ve started going to the gym in the mornings, taking my Kindle to churn through some reading while on the cardio machines. I can’t handle the garbage that they have playing on the TVs, but I can easily get through a couple of chapters of a novel or a textbook in half an hour.

25 minutes of writing as soon as I get back home is an easy commitment – and doing my writing before I jump in the shower is a good way to limit myself to 25 minutes.

I’m not a huge fan of New Years Resolutions, they never really seem to work for anyone. Having a birthday in January tends to conflate birthday resolutions with New Years as well, lumping personal commitments and reflections into that lazy morass of post-celebratory remorse. That said, I’m trying to focus on a few important projects this year, rather than spreading myself thin across whatever sounds interesting.

I’m holding off on committing to any new academic projects. I’ve been working on a research proposal for a study of cyberpunk literature and capitalist imaginaries, but between my proposed supervisor disappearing to the USA and my partner’s sister giving birth to twins, I think I’ll put that project on the backburner. I’m still reading through a lot of the literature on science fiction, cyberpunk, futurism and feminism because, well, it interests me! But I also expect I’ll pick up the project in some form in a couple of years. I imagine I’ll blog some reflections here as well. Science fiction, futurism, design fiction and user experience seem to make sense to me as a grouping of interests. Cyberpunk authors have always had a strong focus on the built environment and its effect on people, and more nuanced approach to portraying affect (in some cases).

I’ll be taking part in Jurassic Lounge again this year with eightfilters but I’ll be doing less performance. Dermot and I are working on a curatorial project that will bring in musicians, artists, filmmakers and creatives to talk about their visual influences, in a casual setting.

My main project for this year will be focusing on building my UX skills out into a broader design skillset. After reviewing some work I did a year ago, I’m pretty impressed with how far I’ve come. I’ve got a solid grasp of my UX work, to the point now where I can start slimming down my specifications to fit into an agile workflow, and I can estimate the size of a specification project fairly easily. The next stage for me is to start prototyping the projects that I’m working on – moving away from thick specification documents into working prototypes. I’ve tried basic clickable prototyping using InvisionApp, which is good for mapping screen flows, but I’m keen to start creating high-fidelity prototypes with working JQuery animations. I’ve found a solution using Fireworks and a JQuery tool called TAP. I’ll blog some more about how it works over the coming weeks.

Oh, and lastly, I’m going to redesign this blog, as a proper design project. I’ll be documenting that as I go.