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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Become a Better Designer with Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research and user-centered design go hand in hand.  It may be something that you already do as an experience designer, but may not be familiar with the term.   Ethnography is derived from the Greek word “ethnos” meaning people and “graphos” to write and is typically used as a way to derive more information on particular cultures or groups of people.  This research method is primarily qualitative and has its roots in sociology and anthropology, and has more recently been adapted as part of a key process in user experience design. Often, researchers completely immerse themselves in the experience and become part of the group to understand the ways of life, cultural beliefs, and social norms.

Last semester, I took one of the best graduate level classes I have ever taken: Ethnography of Work for Design at Bentley University.   I was asked to through out the course of the semester, choose a topic to observe and by the end, find design or process improvements.  I chose coffee shops, a very popular upscale coffee chain located worldwide.  Within the first visit, I sat near the condiment counter, and noticed a few ways to improve the process and design.  Although those structural suggestions were incredibly important for service design, my final paper outlined key characteristics of the types of people who hung out at coffee shops, in particular this upscale shop.
After 10 visits to the coffee shop, I felt like I knew the regulars and the etiquette associated with this chain.  So what were my take-away from this experience and how to incorporate this into my design process:
  1. Just be chill and take it in.  It is best to observe and not ask a lot of questions. Typically in user testing, we are taught to prompt the user and ask questions.  In ethnography, it is best to be part of the group and engage in normal conversation. Remember – you are one of them.
  2. Go often.  Don’t make assumptions off of minimal visits.  Often see how the environment or group changes based on other factors like time of day, weather, etc.
  3. Participate and try it out . If you are studying how an ice cream scooper typically makes a banana split, try making one yourself. Then you can ask her about the job, but it is important to test it out yourself.
  4. Don’t judge.  The thing or people you are studying may be different from you or your belief system.  That does not make it wrong, just different and that is why you are studying them.
  5. What are other people reporting: Do a literature review. Are your findings consistent with what other people have found?  Check journals, websites, asking your peers, etc.
The key to being a good ethnographic researcher is to just report the facts: what happened, to who, when.  Once the researcher documents all the actions and observations, can he make assumptions, but it is important to key individual biases separate from the research.
As an experience designer, we try to get in touch with our users.  But how can we put them and their goals first when we may not completely understand them?  Getting in the users head and understanding what the user is trying to accomplish is important to design the optimal experience, but actually “walking in the user’s shoes” brings user empathy a new level.

'Gamifying' Weight Loss

Have you ever been on a diet, wanted to lost weight for an upcoming event, needed to feel good about the bikini for the summer vacation?  Weight loss has become a competition, a social network, as well as a gamified experience to get you to that goal. Competitions like “Biggest Loser” at work, workout communities like Cross Fit, Jenny Craig, and Weight Watchers are everywhere.

Gamification uses game play mechanics to applications that are not games and aims to encourage positive behavior through incentives.   One common trait found in games and typical of gamification is the implementation of gradual rewards to the user.  This reward-based model is typically referred to as the SAPS model:
Status | Access | Power | Stuff
Weight loss used to be a very individualized experience and relied on the person to set and monitor his or her own goals.  Now weight loss is a socially inspired and now “takes a village” to lose a few pounds.  Biggest Loser, a hit TV show, publicizes the weight loss journey of the contestants and uses a rigorous physical workout, specialized diet, emotional support, and periodic competitive challenges where the contestants get a reward that may help them get to the ultimate award as the “Biggest Loser” along with a cash incentive.  Gabe Zichermann, author of Game-Based Marketing in a recent article featured on NPR, says "What's interesting about Biggest Loser and other gamified examples of weight loss is they hew to a model for user rewards that I call SAPS” turns out," he says, "that cash isn't that good of a reward. Status is a fantastic motivator for getting people to do stuff."

This TV phenomenon has also created an off shoot of family and professional “Biggest Loser” competitions with periodic weigh-ins and competitive weekly announcements. These competitions mainly appeal to the Status aspect of SARS, but could also involve other monetary incentives.
Cross Fit is another interesting example of how weight loss has changed. Cross Fit is a crazy workout inspired by military drills and uses one program and scales for the person.  With Cross Fit, you are in competition with others group members as well as with yourself to meet and exceed your own goals.  With the support of the team, the trainee gets through the workout and aims to increase intensity.
Weight Watchers, recently voted #1 Weight loss plan by US News and World Report, has a robust online tool that offers ways to monitor self-progress through charts and tools and set personalized goals.  There is also a community that offers users support to reach their goals.   The main way this service uses gamification is by following a point based system and ensuring the daily and weekly meals stay within this point based system.  The user “wins” when they stay within the point allowance and can meet their ultimate goal.

There is no doubt that weight loss has changed with the onset of newer technology.   It has become competitive with the integration of perfect strangers as well as setting goals and visualizing the outcomes with gamified tools.

Top Picks for Experience Design Blogs

Here are the blogs I check daily or weekly.  This is my blogging bookshelf – what’s on yours?
UX Booth -
Boxes and Arrows -
Luke W: Ideration & Design -

Wireframes -
90% of Everything -
Smashing -
UI Trends -
IA -
52 Weeks of UX-
Johnny Holland Magazine-
Usability Blog -
A List Apart-
Adaptive Path-
Designing the User Experience at AutoDesk-
Pleasure & Pain -
Logic and Emotion -
Putting People First -

Numbers and Design? Say What?

“Usability is often quantitative. But design is qualitative. Is this why usability experts so often make poor design recommendations?” I saw one of my connections on LinkedIn had commented on this post and I came to the following conclusions:

1. This is a huge generalization
2. Designers should form their own informed decisions based off of the analysis and synthesized data
3. This problem is two-fold - designers should have a better understanding of the quantitative side
In my grad program, I decided to take a stats class, “Measuring the User Experience”. Many who asked what I was taking were surprised and a common question was why do you need stats”?  To me, this question can be compared to a chef at a local upscale Boston hot spot.  Would you not expect this chef to have a basic understanding of where the ingredients to his food come from?  He may not be the expert at growing the food, but he knows enough to appreciate his dishes even more.  So why should we not be that intimate with our data?
Although it is ultimately the designer’s job to design and the researcher’s job to research, we should all have one foot on each other’s turf.  Just as researchers help us with design puzzles, we should also try to understand where our data comes from.  This means both the qualitative and quantitative.
Not everyone should be a stats expert, but it makes us much more valuable when we have a general understanding of what metrics to capture and the various ways to analyze the data.  For example, when you see the term confidence interval in a report, do you know what that means and roughly how that came to be?   Or what about when a mean or median should be used? T-test – is that what a pregnancy woman takes?  We don’t need to know every stats term, but it would not hurt to have a basic point of reference by adding another book to the bookshelf.  Not sure about you, but I want to know what food I use in my kitchen.

The New Go-to Movie Production Tool

DJ Caruso, director of “I am Number Four”, in an interview, talks openly about how the iPad is now his go-to production tool, using it to edit storyboards, reference the script, and research locations to act out certain scenes.  Caruso says he does not even carry a paper script around with him anymore.
In a recent project for grad school, I worked on a remake of a popular desktop script writing software, Final Draft for the iPad.  In speaking with script supervisors and writers, it was clear how much the entire production staff relied on the hard copy script in both preproduction, when numerous copywriters sit together cranking out scripts, as well as when they are in production running through the scenes.    Updated scripts and script inserts are printed out daily and handed out to the entire staff, which is far from being environmentally friendly.
One issue my team confronted was how to translate the current process, which was incredibly manual and relied heavily on hardcopies, to a more digital and streamlined process.  Currently, staff takes notes directly on the hard copy and a staff member transfers the edits to the digital version, and prints out the changes for the team.   The biggest problem we needed to solve was how to ensure all of the notes are captured similarly to the way they add notes on the hardcopy.  For example, some staff write notes up the side of the page reflecting on the scene, where as other notes may be contextual and word changes. To handle this problem, we investigated the integration of a stylus to capture notes and adding the notes to the master copy in the cloud where all staff can access the master version.
iPads can help movie and sitcom production with improving efficiency and saving the environment.  If staff can make changes using their iPads directly, this eliminates time wasted at the end of the day updating the script with changes.  Just as Caruso mentioned, it also can serve as a creative tool for sketching and marking up storyboards.   And best of all, think about all the trees it can save!

Design Less, But Better: Dieter Rams Design Principles

“My goal is to omit everything superfluous so that the essential is shown to the best possible advantage”. Dieter Rams, 1980.

Dieter Rams is a German industrial designer, who is associated with the company Braun as well as Functionalist school of industrial design. Rams is educated in architecture and once explained his design approach as "less, but better".  Many of his product designs can be found at the MoMA in New York, including coffee makers, calculators, radios, audio/visual equipment, consumer appliances and office products.

In the 1970s, Rams introduced the idea of sustainable development in design.  He often felt that designers needed to take more responsibility for the state of the world around us and think more about sustainability.

His 10 principles of design were relevant them and it still relevant today:
  1. Good design is innovative: The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
  2. Good design makes a product useful: A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
  3. Good design is aesthetic: The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
  4. Good design makes a product understandable: It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.
  5. Good design is unobtrusive: Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
  6. Good design is honest: It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
  7. Good design is long-lasting: It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.
  8. Good design is thorough, down to the last detail: Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.
  9. Good design is environmentally friendly: Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the life cycle of the product.
  10. Good design is as little design as possible: Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.  Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Forrester Predicts Huge Tablet Growth – What That Means For Designers

In a recent report, Forrester predicts tablet sales will reach 195 million between 2010 and 2015 and most of these sold will be Apple products. Forrester also believes laptop sales will continue to grow from 26.4 million in 2010 to 38.9 million in 2015. Desktop PC sales will decline from 20.5 million in 2010 to 18.2 million in 2015.

When Users Consume
This increase use of tablets is already changing the way tablet users consume content. Reading content on mobile devices is causing a shift in when users consume material – prior to mobile consumption there was a bigger jump in users consuming material at their desks. Now, much to employer’s satisfaction, users are reading more articles and content on their own time, before and after the typical 9-5 office hours. In a recent study on the application Read it Later which allows users to save articles for later use, there are major spikes in iPhone usage: 6am - Early morning, breakfast, 9am - The morning commute, start of the work day, 5pm – 6pm - End of the work day and the commute home, 8pm – 10pm – Couch time, prime time, bed time. Similarly, for the iPad, usage spikes between 7 and 10 pm. Although additional research needs to be done to repeat these conclusions and support this hypothesis, the shift in user control over consumption and how they consume it (i.e. laying in bed reading articles or on the subway ride home), is an important factor to consider as we think of this changing landscape
 What Do We Do Next?
As designers, these numbers and predictions are pretty significant. If Forrester is correct, tablets usage will expand and cause a huge shift in behavior with touch screen devices. More research needs to be done on these devices and more standards need to be put in place.
One recent article I read from Smashing Magazine offers one solution to how to design for the myriad screen sizes of mobile devices – the solution is Responsive Web Design. “Responsive Web design is the approach that suggests that design and development should respond to the user’s behavior and environment based on screen size, platform and orientation. The practice consists of a mix of flexible grids and layouts, images and an intelligent use of CSS media queries”. When users switch back and forth between the devices, the design changes automatically to provide the best display of information. Aside from different screen sizes, both landscape and portrait views should be considered. Also, as we design, we should have flexible everything: fluid grids, fluid images and smart mark-up where needed.
Aside from Responsive Web Design, we also need to consider how these devices change they way users interact with the devices from a physical perspective. We are going to move away from the cursor and rely solely on direct manipulation of the devices. More consideration will need to be paid on ensuring touch targets accommodate the “fat finger” and more interactions will need to made standardized.
Older work from Dan Saffer, should also be considered and expanded upon. Some principles to keep in mind as we go forward trying to design for the here and now, as well as the future, is to keep his principles in mind. Good gestural interfaces should be:
  • Discoverable and have natural affordances
  • Trustworthy
  • Responsive
  • Appropriate
  • Meaningful
  • Smart & Clever
  • Playful & Pleasurable
  • Good
This change in consumption and behavior is exciting to me and should excite you too. It is not an understatement to say this IS BIG and will impact our interaction design landscape going forward. There is not a lot of research in this area since it is so new – which is one thing I have found as I delver deeper into Graduate level thesis work on this subject.
Now is the time to start thinking about these issues and continue to research and design to meet users mobile needs. My prediction is the next coming years are going to really distinguish the “men from the boys”, or to be PC, the “women from the girls”, and “designers from the dinosaurs”. In order to meet the needs of our clients going forward, we need to be aware of this change and understand the overall impact. Real change is here – be ready or stay home.