16 June 2016

It all begins with one ... late night musing on processes and UX

The most important part of User Experience is the latter.

That is the perennial truth that has lurked up on me over the years, and now is pouncing at me like cat playing with its target. It's not that I haven't known or noticed this before, it's more about how all-encompassing it has become!

So, for many years I've done all parts of the "making something for the web" cabal, from the technical stuff to the more esoteric "this bit here, this bit there" and "let's talk about some feelings here" kinda stuff, from the hardcore inner technical magic to the outer more fluffy marketing double-speak we wrap actual content in. I've done it all, but with an innate twang towards a user-centred design process of sorts. I take no pleasure in this innate twang, though, because people don't want "twang", they want a documented process.

Over the years, after much twanging around, I've settled on the perennial truth that the process - indeed, the only process! - worth talking about, is the non-process part of UX. And by that, I don't mean the glittering wonderfulness of UX-based processes, or even user-centred design processes, or derivatives. All of those are, well, fine, I guess, and they do what it says on the tin, but there's something ... eclectic about humans that eludes most processes, and we must not forget this.

As UX people (and I'm speaking, of course, to UX people now) we can't lose sight of the most important thing; the experience itself. You can't wrap a subjective experience up in something like a mostly objective process. Sure, we'll get a lot of things right that way, but ... (and here it comes) well, at the risk of doing things a bit less awesome than if we didn't.

And this leads me to a sad truth, one that makes me worry and long for the days when I didn't know anything (as opposed to the crumbs I think I know now); all processes are wrong. Some processes are useful.

So when a customer asks about your process, I know fully well we can point to some list of things we do, some order in which we do it, and some conceptual deliveries we think we should deliver. I've worked with such processes most of my career, and indeed seem to do what it says on the tin. Want some IA? Here's what we do. Want prototypes with that? Here's how. Oh, you want some testing? Follow these steps! Build the darn thing? Sure, this is how we do it.

But.

These processes gives us all a false sense of security. Most people in the know that I talk to know fully well how they claim to be process driven, and do whatever they normally do (ie. make it up as they go along) anyway (mostly by wrapping "what they normally do" up in a language that sounds like a process, and slaps a few numbers into it to give the sense of direction and order. And this despite whether that fits into some preconceived notion of a process or not. So, do we enjoy lying to customers because it makes them feel safe? Ok, so a lot of them also follow some process - maybe some high-concept process with big, broad shoulders - and then tweak it and alter it and, well, fudge the concept of "the process" into "a process that fits this challenge." That's what it comes down to, isn't it? At the top of the UX profession sits people who are able to cobble together a number of things in various orders and importance and pull it together in ways that normally wouldn't fit in a straight-forward process. We call that a process as not to scare the customers, of course, but isn't that what we do?

Now, don't get me wrong; following a process will deliver, and probably good stuff, too, but most processes cater to some middle way. Big talent will be working down to it, and everyone else will work with or up to it. Content and structures again is drawn towards this middle point. Surely that doesn't deliver something spectacular? Or special? Or awesome?

I've done that for years. Now I've stopped. Now I'm setting aside time to custom-make every project, and then I wrap that up in a "this process" language later. I hate selling bullshit when the truth is so much more interesting!

19 December 2015

I made something : A wine site

I just finished a website for a wine-making friend of mine, check it out and let me know what you think; salet.com.au

So, I have never been a huge wine drinker, always thought that it was ok. However, after getting to know a few garagerista wine-makers here in Australia, all of that has changed; I now would love a glass (or two), provided it is of really good quality. As in, amazing quality.

That's how I bumped into local wine-maker Michael from Currarong (about 30 minutes south of Kiama) and Salet Wines, I just absolutely love these wines, so rich and full of flavour, yet smooth and delicious, with a bite and awesome feel. I honestly didn't know wine until I had these, and I'm a total convert.

Anyway, his old site was a bit naff, so I made him a new one. And as long as Michael makes these wines, I'll be buying them, because they rock!

22 October 2015

ThinkPlot.org - my new business

So, I've gone solo at ThinkPlot.org, and started my own business, and will talk more about the stuff I do there, here, over time, but first just need to get the name and concept out there. I won't go on for too long about all the things I can do, but in short;
  • UX: All things usability, customer experience, information architecture, analysis, testing, design, prototyping, wireframes, profiles, personas, user journeys, thinking, facilitating, teaching, coaching, presenting
  • GUI: All things user interface development, HTML5, CSS, JavaScripting, web technologies, frameworks, technologies, prototyping, demos, web development, REST, Topic Maps, web standards, accessibility, and so on
  • Misc: facilitation, research, deep analysis, project management, team leadership, strategy, presenting, conferences, teaching, coaching, drink coffee, medieval re-enactment and martial arts (I specialise in short sword and buckler/dagger combo, using Talhofer as a basis, but also Sprechfenster, Langenort and what I can pick up from Alber), music (composing, performing), photography and movies (writing, directing, producing)
If you need a freelance UX / GUI / coffee drinker guy, check out ThinkPlot.org and see if I can help you out. I'm not expensive, have high flexibility, and low tolerance for Biased Unverifiable Lax Logical Substantiation of Hegemonic Ideological Truths.

21 May 2015

Some other related activity : AI, Sam Harris and bad thinking about AI

I realize that my activity here has been somewhat lax of late (hmm, last three years, by the look of it), so I thought I'd just quickly point you to my other blog where I've written about AI, Sam Harris, Bostrom, and other people who bring the doomsday scenario in terms of artificial intelligence, and their lack of reason in doing so.


19 March 2015

Doing business right

A lot of my time is spent fixing broken designs, or creating new (and hopefully great) designs, and we do this through many different ways, from expert reviews and user testing to workshops and mentoring and many more.

That's all fine. That's what UX companies do.

But it's kinda wrong.

It's wrong in the sense that what is really on trial here is the business model and how we interact with it. There's no point to a great user interface that doesn't end up in some goal, be it money, or transferred message, or some other reaction. This latter compound of goals is called business objectives; it's the reason we're doing this thing in the first place.

In order to reach those business objectives we create ... a something; user interfaces, communication, a narrative. Maybe we use computers, or phones, or pamphlets, carrier pigeons. Maybe we click a button after ended call. Or we make a call after the bird lands. We have Julie talk to Mark. We have a daily meeting. Or we give out some piece of paper with words on them once dollars enter our coffers. There's a myriad of interconnecting objects, services and events that together *is* your organisation. Whatever you're hoping to achieve, it's done through this cacophony that we call the business model.

The business model is what makes or breaks your organisation, so it's very important to make it as good as possible, or as fit for purpose as we can. But how do we normally make sure it's a good one? Or the right one?

I fear the right answer is that we mostly don't, and when we do, we measure things are are only seemingly related to it, like "do we still get a salary here?" or "what is this year's profit margin?" If the organisation keeps floating, keeps staying alive, the model seems good. If it's struggling, or going under, it's probably bad. You've probably been told about KPI's, and unless you're living under a sponge, they are supposed to indicate that the organisation is, well, performing to certain standards. Key standards.

Internal KPI's are reasonably easy to find and collect (although interpreting them is not so straight forward, although that's a future blog post) To get to external KPI's, we quite often use use user surveys (and some times user group testing) to try to verify some of the basic perimeters of organisations, like brand awareness, product recognition, advertising uptake and so on, and, well, if you don't think too hard about it might give you some valuable feedback for your BI (business intelligence) . This is the bread and butter of marketing people everywhere.

However.

In my years of doing UX, process and semantic modeling, I'm struck by how poor design is reflected in poor business models. And I have a suspicion that poor design comes directly from the models it is supposed to support. And I suspect that changing business models are more important than fixing little cogs here and there, polishing them to look new and shiny when the cogs around them are rusty and old. There's squeaking and creaking in the machinery, and new cogs aren't the answer. The old cogs need replacing before the machinery comes to an unrecoverable halt.

How can we test business models, then? I'll leave the actual organisational change to the side for now (but there's a blog post on that one brewing as well) to focus on testing the model itself. Here's an unadulterated brain-splatter of ideas;

Internal

  • Hold more regular workshops to test your ideas with people who do the actual work
  • Map your current processes (on a whiteboard, and take pictures)
  • Do internal surveys where meetings can't be help
  • Workshop : If you didn't have to worry about current constraints, how would you really do it?
  • Followup workshop : how to remove those constraints


External

  • Do user groups which goes beyond the superficial (for example, what price do people think is right, as opposed to what you think is right?)
  • Do user testing of core interaction points with customers
  • User third-party professionals to conceptualize your business model
  • Have someone re-design something, even the stuff that you think works fine
  • Do user testing on conceptual designs (information architecture, processes, business values, etc.)

The key for me is to sanitize your assumptions. Whatever you already know internally to be a problem, well that's yours to fix (or hire in someone to help you do that). However, are you sure the things "that work" really work? Or are working the best they could? Do you know for certain how many business goals you're missing out on by the simplest modeling snag or, at worst, error?

I wished more organisations would spend their time verifying internal assumptions; that is where the gold is. We put too much faith in people's "gut feelings" and "being savvy". Sure, we might have skills and experience, but the truth is that even the best of people fail the onslaught of all the complexities coming our way.

Test your assumptions. Test your business model. Make sure you're doing the right thing, before some old cog goes ping, gets stuck in some gear, and kills the whole machine.

11 March 2015

I'm getting back in the UX waters ...

Hi there. Been a while.

So, another blob of time has passed. Some time ago I needed a break, and I've tried to intermittently get back into it without feeling the passion as life is more busy than interesting, and the blog suffers.

But, also; there's too much to talk about, and my mind races so much faster than what time and my fingers allow to put to the keyboard, and the blog suffers.

I'm back. I've been working in the UX field now for about a year, a goal I dreamed about some 10 years ago and moved slowly towards until a golden opportunity came last year. I now work for a company called The Fore (based in Wollongong, catering to mostly Sydney, but we have customers all over, including overseas) with a few brilliant minds, doing everything (and more) related to user-interfaces, human psychology and the design that best fits between the two.

My plan for this blog is to talk more about my experiences in this field, but I will definitely weer into the fields of philosophy, science and semantic technologies. See you soon.

3 September 2013

Hi there. Been a while. How are you going?

From the contrast between two fields of noise comes much human understanding. We are pattern-seeking mammals, trying to observe the universe the best we can so that we can survive it. We won't. The universe will in a few billion years reach it's end-point of this grand equilibrium we're part of.

My little life. It's not much to shout about, really, but I enjoy it. I go about it, doing the things I like, trying out new stuff while appreciating what I know, never afraid to admit to failings. Try, and try again. My kids, my dog, my house, my wife. There is much to love and appreciate in that, in between the quarrels and loans and wee on the carpet (mostly the dog). But these patterns of a suburban recluse don't sound very special. However, they are special in that I approved sketching them up, I thought it was the right thing to do. And I still think that.

No, another chapter unfolds, and the family and our lives are about to change. Hopefully this time not so dramatic as we have in the past, but changes there will be. And let's see if we can make them positive.

Because I do believe that; any change can be positive.

And so I shall return this blog to a place of thoughts. Don't know what thoughts yet; my mind is altered, I've taken some different directions in the last couple of years, but all in all, I promise to enjoy it more.


14 November 2012

The most baffling turd : Windows 8

In all my years as a geek and usability efficiendo I've seen a lot of strange stuff, kid, but the weirdest thing I've seen in a very long time is the latest release from Microsoft, their Windows 8 operating system that's, well, kind of like their latest attempt at win back market share of the future of all computers. The thing is that Apple and Google together have now more operating systems in the market than Microsoft and you probably don't even realize how many phones and tablets are out there. It's in the mega-millions, and Microsoft have no share in this market. Zero. Nothing. Zilch.

And, as the threshold between a phone / tablet operating system and a desktop / laptop computer slowly whither away - at least in the more casual "normal person" segment - Microsoft is rather desperate to to get in on the action, also demonstrated by the give-away prices they're offering up for upgrades. Of which I took one.

And it went reasonably smooth to buy online and start the upgrade. Had to free up some space and reinstall a few applications, but nothing noteworthy. And then ... then I was in. I was greeted by the now almost too common start screen.

My home computer is an ASUS all-in-one with touch-screen, and it swished and swooshed cool back and forth, however there was a problem; the screen resolution was ridiculously low and so I hampered away trying to find out how to increase it. Normally I would have gone to Control Panel for such things, but there was no such thing, at least not at first.

I had learned before installing Windows 8 that the functionality now in front of me was to swipe in from left or right to see menus and options, but, um, my computer has a frame around it, meaning that I can't swipe in as much as a flick off the frame and land on the screen far from where Windows 8 classify as a swipe. And so the first dent for me (and I suspect many thousands of people with a similar monitor frame) as a desktop user is that I can't swipe to get to menus.

Okidoki, the mouse, then. But where to swipe? The handy animation shown while installing does a right-to-left swipe motion with some fingers, but that clearly only works with a proper swipe (and fingers!) and not a mouse. After fidgeting around I learned that lower-right hold-the-mouse-there slowly fades in a half-contextual menu (presumably the application currently running in full-screen mode), and that the lower-left hold-the-mouse-there until a box appears and then you click (without moving the mouse into the little box which will remove it) it to return to the start screen. And, er, I'm still trying to work out the top-left hold-or-click-right-mouse-button brings up; it's some twisted version of a application or task switcher, but damn if I can properly work it out.

Often I get stuck in the Internet Explorer in full-screen mode. I can only assume the idea is to swipe back into some other place in order to stop using the browser, hiding the "complexity" of it all some how. However, what happens is that lots of windows gets opened in the background over time, but you don't realize what's going on because you only see the one window all the time. Where do we need to go to a) see what's going on, and b) do something about it? Why you right-click anywhere in the browser, of course. Of course. Yes, it's so obvious now that I think about it; the context menu of the past is now a contextual kindof page with some functionality. Wtf?

There is a serious mix of metaphors going on here, switching between the neato but limiting Metro full-screen look, to the wanna-be old desktop with task bar but without the Start! menu. What does a right-click mean? Depends. What does a swipe do? Depends. How do I find some application? Depends. How do I? Depends.

In fact, in removing the many pop-up windows and menus they've made it pretty and much clearer how you can't do many things you'd like to do. And, seriously, did you really need to remove the Start! menu from the desktop mode? What a turd of a decision that was. And how about this; I can't run websites which use Flash in the full-screen Metro way, no I have to run them in a window on the desktop. This doesn't even make sense in any way or form, but it's right there in the help files that this is how to do it. I can understand that technically the full-screen Metro browser might be different (or different profile, or different zone, or different ... something) in regards to plugins (especially from third parties, which Flash is) but pull my titties if somehow my decision to trust the plugin in a windowed browser should in any way or form not be honoured because it runs in a non-windowed browser. The technicalities might make geeky sense, but to normal people on Terra Firma it makes no friggin' sense at all. Another turd on your nice, green lawn.

I have to talk a little bit, too, about how all this ties to the new way of the future, the cloud. In order to properly use Windows 8 you need a Microsoft account. I didn't have one (being a Googloid), but my wife did have a Hotmail account. The installation happily accepted this account, but then it wanted us to "trust" our computer (in similar veins as you "trust" devices and computers in iTunes, I suspect). And where would they send this trusted verification? No, not the Hotmail account, but some long forgotten Yahoo account. I can't even begin to figure out where they got that email address from (we're talking about something on the Internet from more than 8 years ago), but the option to send anywhere else was no where to be seen. They hinted that in order to send elsewhere I had to delete that email from my profile, but it's not in there. Wtf? I've mucked about with this nonsense for the last two days; all I want is for my wife's Hotmail (and Microsoft) account to be the account, but I've had to rename her account (probably converting it from Hotmail to Outlook/Microsoft account?), I've tried to delete old stuff (which it have scheduled to do a week from now? Wtf?), renamed stuff, create a new one and link them, all sorts of stuff, but Microsoft won't budge; either we send info to your non-existent Yahoo account, or ... there is no other option. I'm just baffled as to how non-intuitive and turdish this part was. And there is no explanation anywhere as to what piece of information means what in what context. Nothing! I'm just guessing what things might mean. Wtf?

We've had Windows 8 now for a few days, and I'm starting to think that this is worse than I thought. I'm a power-user, a geek, software developer and a usability consultant, and I'm struggling to figure a lot of this out. My wife is telling me to un-install and get that nice Windows 7 back so she at least can do normal stuff, like not guessing what user-interface paradigm works in what context in order to read her friggin' email or write a stern letter to the editor of Windows 8 and tell them what a turd they've created.

Sure, I understand where they're going, why it's done this way, that Microsoft needs to refresh itself and push forward into new markets (as old markets are shifting), I understand why swipes are cool and needed or certain hardware platforms ... but there's something to be said about not being consistent across contexts and alienation in the light of different dichotomies that so easily could be avoided.

Currently, Windows 8 is a turd. A nice-looking, polished turd. And you're not fooling anyone in my family with this nonsense; we want consistency and some coherent logic to how to operate our machine. Even Ubuntu / Linux looks easier and just as nice at this point.

I'll report again in a week or so to see if the torture will get acceptance by habit, or if it is so bad we have to do something more drastic about it.