Archive — Design
Photo — 2019-05-25
My awesome colleague Lauren Tormey wrote this blog post about a brilliant project she’s been involved in. She has been collaborating with our Information Services Helpline to reduce unnecessary support calls by iteratively improving content with a regular cycle of usability testing.
Over two summers, we had done work to improve content related to getting a student ID card. This was another case of turning long pages with giant paragraphs into concise step-by-step pages.
From July to September 2017, the IS Helpline received 433 enquires related to student cards. For this same period in 2018, they received 224, so the figure nearly halved. I repeat: halved.
An article published yesterday in The Washington Post demonstrates the danger of design’s failure to broaden popular understanding of our craft.
The article pinpoints Nest’s focus on reducing friction as the reason for their cameras’ weak security.
Khoi Vinh points out that…
…the concept of user experience writ large is not to blame here; what’s actually at fault is bad user experience practice.
The point being that good security is fundamental to good user experience. As any good designer would know, they are not in conflict. Quite the opposite, in fact.
It strikes me that Nest are using ‘reducing friction’ as a poor excuse for not implementing better security. I’m sure they’re not the only ones guilty of this.
On another point, this article got me thinking about journalism. Khoi Vinh refuses to blame the Washington Post’s perspective on “lazy journalism”, perhaps correctly.
But any time I read a mainstream/non-specialist journalist write about a topic I know a little about (motorsport, the web, whatever), I’m always astonished at how many basic errors are made. It’s a challenge if designers want the help of journalism when “explaining what it is that we do to the world at large.”
Since September, my main focus at work has been to carry out a comprehensive programme of user research for a project aiming to improve services surrounding Blackboard Learn, the University of Edinburgh’s main virtual learning environment.
I wrote this blog post providing a high-level overview of all the work that’s taken place this academic year. More detailed blog posts about each of the strands of research will come in due course.
This is been a brilliant project to be involved in. We’ve been given a lot of time and freedom to do large amount of research in support of one of the university’s most important digital services, used daily by most of our students, and many staff members.
We have made some really important discoveries. This work is ensuring that improvements are based on a strong understanding of users’ behaviour and needs when working with course materials digitally.
Check out this video, where I describe the work and some of the findings in a bit more detail, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming blog posts.
Personas are one of the most popular techniques in the user experience toolkit, but they also remain among the most controversial. It is often still unclear to some what value personas can bring, and how to avoid the pitfalls of bad personas.
This article brings one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of how to make good personas. It is a lengthy but must-read article if you make personas and want to make them work.
This article is particularly useful at explaining why obsessing over demographics is bad, and why you should instead focus on “thinking styles”.
Statements-of-fact, preferences, and demographics frequently serve as distracting barriers. They kick off all kinds of subconscious reactions in team members minds.
Is convergence in design thinking problematic?
The problem I have with it is it models a form of Normality. You can diverge but, in the end, you must converge.
An interesting idea from Alastair Somerville. He explains his alternative design process:
Yes, there is a convergence to design a product that meets identified user needs. Yes, there are constraints around what can be made.
However, divergence is recognised through the process.
My colleague Alex Burford from the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics has written this great blog post about some usability testing we have conducted in support of the Learn Foundations project.
I thoroughly enjoyed working with Duncan Stephen on this mini project. The feedback was informative, encouraging, and a call to action. I’m looking forward to embedding similar practice across the School for alternative platforms for content delivery.
Each month we are working with a different school to conduct usability testing in Learn, the virtual learning environment, to inform improvements to the Learn service.
This is just one strand of a huge amount of user research I’ve been carrying out for the Learn Foundations project. It’s been a fascinating and very enjoyable project to work on. I’ve been pretty lax at writing about it yet — but I’ll be posting much more about it soon.
An interesting experiment to place pedestrian crossing signals on the ground, “where everyone is already looking”. The Netherlands seems to be the place for experimental road safety design (see also: the squareabout).
This has got to be an improvement on the modern fad of placing pedestrian crossing signals at chest height to the side, where they simply get blocked by other people, rather than across the road where everyone can see it.
Photo — 2019-03-20
I had a fabulous day at the Service Design Academy bootcamp yesterday.
It’s part of the PDA in Service Design. I never thought I’d be a student again. But I’m loving the opportunity to get stuck in and get talking to like-minded peers from other organisations.
It’s great to be back in Dundee again too! Looking forward to seeing what day two has in store.
An incredible set of photographs documenting life around Birmingham’s Bull Ring shopping centre, its decline, demolition, and rebirth.
A sobering summary of WebAIM’s accessibility analysis of the top 1 million homepages. In short, the picture is much worse than we might have hoped or expected.
…we’ve created a web that’s actively excluding people, and at a vast, terrible scale. We need to meditate on that.
Why Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again hat, was a wildly successful design, despite being reviled by gatekeepers of good-taste design.
The “undesigned” hat represented this everyman sensibility, while Hillary [Clinton]’s high-design branding — which was disciplined, systematic, and well-executed — embodied the establishment narrative that Trump railed against and that Middle America felt had failed them. “The DIY nature of the hat embodies the wares of a ‘self-made man’ and intentionally distances itself from well-established and unassailable high-design brand systems of Hillary and Obama,” Young says. “Tasteful design becomes suspect… The trucker cap is as American as apple pie and baseball.”
This reminds me of the story that the most “tasteful” office spaces are less productive. When given a clean-looking office cubicle, people fill it with garden gnomes.
I don’t agree with the article’s premise that this challenges the idea of design thinking. Surely it means that Hillary Clinton’s designers simply didn’t do a good enough job at it (because nice typefaces ≠ design thinking).
But this does provide a challenge to the received wisdom of what good design is, and whether tasteful design is desirable.
A very useful contribution to the debate surrounding the usefulness/harmfulness of net promoter score. Jeff Sauro transcends the often polemical nature of the debate, by analysing actual research on the effectiveness of net promoter score.
The news still isn’t all that great for proponents of net promoter score. But at the same time, it’s not quite as bad as its detractors make out.
Kudos to Jeff Sauro for doing some actual research on this.
Dial in the feedback — Gregg Bernstein
UX your life: Applying the user-centered process to your life (and stuff) — JD Jordan, Smashing Magazine
I’m always in two minds about whether people should use work-based techniques on personal problems. I have heard of people using Trello boards at home to organise tasks, which sounds as nightmarish as it sounds sensible. I’ve even heard of people running scrum-style weekly planning meetings with their family, which definitely sounds overboard to me.
But I do like the look of some of the ideas here. For instance, I’m keen to map out out my life in weeks.
And I already know that affinity mapping can work great at home and for other stuff.
When we did the MoRun in November, Lauren and I made an affinity map to decide which of two runs to enter. My gut feeling told me another run would be better. But writing down all the pros and cons of each race, and grouping them, made it clear that my gut feeling was actually wide of the mark.
Making the case that, sometimes, friction in design is a good thing.
Often, invoking the concept of friction is a useful way to obscure some larger, less savory goal. For Facebook, “frictionless sharing” was a thinly veiled cover for the company’s true goal of getting users to post more often, and increasing the amount of data available for ad targeting. For YouTube, auto-playing videos have sharply increased view time, thereby increasing the platform’s profitability. And for Amazon, tools like one-click ordering have created a stunningly efficient machine for commerce and consumption.
Thoughts on vulnerability
This is a really enlightening and enjoyable article about how vulnerability can sometimes be a strength.
What I’ve realized is that sometimes being vulnerable is a really powerful feeling, like being bilingual: being present and making clear decisions in a meeting while rocking a baby, or confidently stopping someone mid-presentation to ask what an acronym means. Or having my waters break and calmly finishing a meeting. Like, that’s bad-ass, right?
But what struck me most about this article was the point about how a thoughtless office space design in a less-than-diverse workplace created an unforeseen problem for a woman who needed a little privacy.
Adding value, by adding values
Ben Terrett from Public Digital has written something similar to I tried to write last week about designing for society, not just for individuals. Of course, this is much clearer and more succinct than (and written before) mine.
To illustrate the point, the article uses the example of an electric scooter hire scheme in San Francisco:
This is a service where every detail has been designed for the user. It’s unbelievably convenient—for the user alone, and no-one else.
The downside is streets swamped with dumped scooters. There’s nowhere “official” to put them, so like me, no-one knows what to do with a scooter once they’ve finished using it. They just get dumped anywhere.
These scooters are absolutely meeting a user need, but at the expense of a societal need.
Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Rams, about the designer Dieter Rams, is released digitally today. It’s bound to be good — not least because it features original music by Brian Eno.
But perhaps it would have been more apt to include music from the Jon Brooks album Music for Dieter Rams.
Every sound on this record, from the melodic sounds to the percussion, the atmospheric effects to the bass lines originates from the Braun AB-30 alarm clock.
An enjoyable and informative history of user experience. Some familiar themes, but not entirely your standard take. A reminder that people have been doing something like user-centred design for longer than we sometimes think.
…UX is not really a new thing. It might seem new to your organisation and its design process, but in fact it’s been emerging since before the dawn of the internet, back in the 80s, and people have been looking to solve similar problems for almost 140 years.
Keeping it weird
Or, more accurately, stopping it being weird. This refers to the problem that most psychology research is conducted on people that are western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.
Tim Kadlec considers the implication this has on our understanding of how people use the web.
We’ve known for a while that the worldwide web was becoming increasingly that: worldwide. As we try to reach people in different parts of the globe with very different daily realities, we have to be willing to rethink our assumptions. We have to be willing to revisit our research and findings with fresh eyes so that we can see what holds true, what doesn’t, and where.
What the Sydney Opera House teaches us about Brexit
It’s well known that large projects often fail. Daniel Kahneman calls it the planning fallacy.
Academics have identified six indicators of a successful large project. But they spell very bad news for Brexit.
A reminder why finding the right problem is often more important than finding the right ideas.
[M]ost of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having…
Creativity is not innovation. Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.
Making work meaningful: A leader’s guide
McKinsey report on how to engage employees.
People who find meaning at work are happier, more productive, and more engaged. Four practical interventions can help make the search more likely to succeed.
I am struck by how two of the four interventions listed are fundamentally about understanding your users better.
Talk with employees about who their customers are, and encourage each employee to connect with one.
Build regular, face-to-face interactions with customers into existing processes, stimulating employees to learn who is most affected by their work.
Help people grasp the impact of their work
Invite customers who have had the best—and worst—experiences with your products to talk with employees in person so your team can see how their work affects customers.
Another reason why user experience is worth it.
Live well for less
Present&Correct has noticed that the Sainsbury’s own brand packaging archive is now available online.
I did snap up a copy of Jonny Trunk’s Own Label book when it came out. It features a wealth of Sainsbury’s own brand packaging from the 1960s and 1970s. The period marks a shift towards a more experimental, modernist approach to packaging design, “completely different from what had gone before,” according to Jonny Trunk’s foreword.
I find this sort of thing fascinating, because it’s almost telling a social history by stealth. It’s an insight into everyday life in mid-century Britain. When you turn the page and see packaging for broken eggs, you’re not just seeing a history of graphic design.
It’s one of the reasons why I also really enjoy visiting the Museum of Brands.
Where is here? And what is now? The answers are more complicated than you might think.
Eno’s realisation that “people live in different sizes of here” led him to the idea of The Big Here and Long Now – a way of thinking that asks fundamental questions of who we design for, the scale we design at, and the timescales we design in…
According to Danny Hillis, the inventor of the Clock of the Long Now, “the more we divide time, the less far we look into the future.” So what impact is this having on the design of our cities? And how can we create real and lasting public value in the context of an increasingly narrow and short-sighted here and now?
How architects, designers and urban planners can learn from Brian Eno’s generative music.
The FAQ as advice column
FAQ sections are derided by most content designers, myself included. But (as usual) it is not necessarily the format itself that’s the problem. Normally, the real problem is bad implementation.
This piece by Caroline Roberts makes a provocative case in favour of FAQs, by comparing them with advice columns.
The FAQ structure has held up for so long because it is a brilliant pattern. Think the Socratic method. Or the catechism. Or Usenet. Or “FAQs about FAQs.” Or — you guessed it — “Dear Prudence,” “Dear Sugar,” or any other popular advice column. Users will always have questions, and they will always want answers.
What makes FAQs troublesome is incorrect or lazy use. Lisa Wright has already shared what not to do, but perhaps the best way to start an FAQ is to choose each question with great care. For example, advice columnists spend plenty of time selecting what questions they will answer each week.
Distracted driving — UX’s responsibility to do no harm
More on the need for (UX) designers to consider ethics in everything they do.
I urge you to consider your own design priorities and choices in the same way that responsible physicians do when they take the Hippocratic Oath, saying “first, do no harm.” So, I ask the UX community at large: what is an equivalent code of ethics for our discipline?
Security design: Stop trying to fix the user
On the tendency of security approaches to rely on somehow educating users on this complex problem.
I’ve read dozens of studies about how to get people to pay attention to security warnings. We can tweak their wording, highlight them in red, and jiggle them on the screen, but nothing works because users know the warnings are invariably meaningless. They don’t see “the certificate has expired; are you sure you want to go to this webpage?” They see, “I’m an annoying message preventing you from reading a webpage. Click here to get rid of me.”…
We must stop trying to fix the user to achieve security. We’ll never get there, and research toward those goals just obscures the real problems. Usable security does not mean “getting people to do what we want.” It means creating security that works, given (or despite) what people do.
The same could be said for usability of any kind — but it seems especially vital in this case.
Somehow we missed it
More on the hard work designers need to do to ensure they have a positive impact on society.
To create a platform designed to connect millions of people and not imagine its potential misuses is wilful blindness. When we imagine and design and build tools and technologies and platforms and services it’s as important, perhaps more important to ask ‘how might this be misused’ as it is to ask ‘how might this be used’.
How computer software can make policy, explained by family separation at the border
How bad software design decisions can have a more devastating impact than bad policies.
At a time when Silicon Valley and the larger public are waking up to the government’s reliance on software to carry out its agenda, it’s more important than ever for tech workers to be thoughtful about how they can be a force for good.
6 mistakes that prevent UX teams from having boardroom influence
A good list of don’ts when you’re trying to set up an effective user experience function.
In particular, the pitfalls of “cargo cult usability” could do with being more widely understood. But I also enjoyed this point about being too insular.
Newly formed UX teams have a tendency to quickly turn inwards and focus heavily on their own practices, tools and methods: heads down, working in a vacuum, doing great work that doesn’t actually influence anything. As a result, we hear frustrated stakeholders say things like: “I don’t involve the UX team because they always seem too busy”. We’ve even heard UX team members themselves complain that, “We’re so busy and so mired in the day-to-day that we don’t have time to work alongside the development team.”
This reminds me of the (hilarious but true) story of the Staffordshire UK bus company. In 1976 it was reported that the buses on the Hanley to Bagnall route were not stopping to pick up passengers. People complained that buses would drive right by long lines of waiting passengers. The complaints prompted Councillor Arthur Cholerton to make transport history by stating that if the buses stopped to pick up passengers it would disrupt the timetable!
The hunt for missing expectations
Jared Spool tells the story of a bookkeeper who became frustrated using Google Sheets because it didn’t have a double underline function.
To keep [usability] testing simple and under control, we often define the outcomes we want. For example, in testing Google Spreadsheet, we might have a profit and loss statement we’d want participants to make. To make it clear what we were expecting, we might show the final report we’d like them to make.
Since we never thought about the importance of double underlines, our sample final report wouldn’t have them. Our participant, wanting to do what we’ve asked of her, would unlikely add double underlines in. Our bias is reflected in the test results and we won’t uncover the missing expectation.
He suggests interview-based task design as a way of finding these missing expectations. Start a session with an interview to discover these expectations. Then construct a usability test task based on that.
I recently ran hybrid interviews and usability tests. That was for expediency. I didn’t base tasks on what I’d found in the interview. But it’s good to know I wasn’t completely barking up the wrong tree. I plan to use this approach in future.
Photo — 2018-10-01
Failed on the first banana I tried.
Open office plans have a surprising effect on communication at work
More on the seemingly negative effects of open plan offices.
When forced to share space, humans behave much like swarms of insects. This has appeared to be true in a range of contexts, the authors note, citing studies involving the US Congress, college dormitories, co-working spaces, and corporate buildings.
However, as far as we’re aware, hornets and wasps are not as psychologically and socially complex as people. For instance, they do not regularly switch between their front-stage self and back-stage self, managing the impression they’re making, per a longstanding theory about humans.