Archive for the ‘User Experience’ category

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January 12, 2009

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September 22, 2008

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Interaction flow or Activity flow?

August 12, 2008

Boxes and Arrows is a great source for the publication of in-depth discussions of ideas and concepts emerging in the user experience community. Originally more of an information architects how-to, nuts & bolts go-to service, it has grown into a true eJournal with good editorial review and a “real” community of readers that know each other (supra-virtual?). EiC Christina Wodtke and editor Austin Govella have done a great job of encouraging publications beyond the expected scope in the IA readership.

A new, well-cited article by (another sharp alumnus of Calgary’s nForm shop) Trevor van Gorp –  Design for Emotion and Flow – brought a raft of comments related to designing for flow and to enhance positive emotional response in an interactive experience. Trevor gives a guidelines for design based on his research and the classical model from Csikszentmihalyi:

Flow channel

Flow channel

1. A clear goal… The user navigates to accomplish a task, like seeking information on a particular topic or surfing for fun. This is an evolving goal, dependent on the options presented to the user and aided by logical information architecture, intuitive navigation, effective wayfinding and clear options for proceeding like information scent, breadcrumbs, meaningful labels, clear page titles, etc.

2. With immediate feedback on the success of attempts to reach that goal… The user receives quick, sensory feedback in the form of a visual shift and/or sound from links, buttons, menus, or other navigation items.

3. Presented as a challenge that you have the skills to handle. Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow in the context of user experience was debated between designing flow into the experience, and deisgning to optimize the flow as an end in itself.
“The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.”

Andy Polaine, who’s doctoral research was also on this topic, described another path toward interactive flow:

“The main point here is that interaction designers can encourage this self-contained activity, the intrinsically rewarding aspect unrelated to future benefit through the design of interactions and interfaces that are rewarding in themselves to use. Interfaces that are satisfying in their own right encourage users to play with them and explore them further, which means they learn them without thinking about learning them.”

My notion of facilitating flow in interactive experience design leans more toward optimizing the experience of a real world activity or a whole system. In most of my design challenges, for Redesign Research anyway, we are aiming to design a total service to support a professional or intellectual activity of some sort. Consumer or discretionary experiences that may lend themselves to interaction for the sake of its own enjoyment, or a gaming-type pursuit experience.

In professional activity we might consider several questions relevant to optimizing their cognitive flow, such as:

How is individual flow affected when multiple players are involved? (For example, you need a critical mass to make a multiplayer game, or Second Life, compelling enough to flow – there are tradeoffs between individual and group experience of flow).

How about the world beyond interactivity, which is where work and play live for most people?

Where is the focal experience of the flow? Where is it experienced?

Is it in the interactive experience or in the activity that the interaction supports?

Consider the design requirements for medical decision making – the flow is happening in the consult room, not in the information display. The physician, nurse, order clerk, pharmacist are part of a complex, continual loop-closing communications feedback system. The attempt to design-in flow states to an interactive experience could be counter-productive to total flow, which requires maintaining context awareness, status updates, attention cues to change in patient state, and providing brief-but-accurate communications at the time and point of need. Yes, flow could be improved. But a UX, designed in relative isolation from the total system, might over-flow the information display and sub-optimize the activity.  Is this situation amenable to design for flow?

Trade-offs. There might also be multiple interactions involved that trade-off “more flow” or enjoyable challenge in one state versus more radical efficiency in another.

Take an eBook reader for example (a project I just finished). If an eBook vendor designs their platform for the purpose of maximizing reading flow while online, they may inlcude features or navigation that impedes the flow state of the researcher, who is attempting to understand a thread of ideas across a number of publications (common task), or who is maximizing the number of references to an idea by finding all the citations in and across books.

Flow is a good example of a classical concept that has been retrieved for adaptation in a pragmatic design context, and may have a lot to offer practitioners. But we can also see where Flow Theory becomes weak – other theories (whole system) may require us to expand the flow theory to accommodate it. Is Flow scalable? Should we keep interpreting Csikszentmihalyi or should we start to make our own observations about interaction flow and extend the aging theory of flow for other domains?

Designing design in non-design organizations

June 3, 2008

Should designers embed with their clients?

Designers have tied themselves closely to their clients since the early days of the Vatican. In design consulting, you must understand your clients’ business to advise effectively. So we have to work closely with clients to understand their users/customers.

We’ve done this since 2001 as a boutique research/design consulting firm, and have noticed that smaller consulting firms have always done this. Its the larger firms likeIDEO that have to formalize a process for customer intimacy – but when you’re already close to your client, you nurture them in many ways outside of the contractual relationship.

The evolving processes of “Design 3.0” have now also turned this imperative toward the organization itself – organizational processes are becoming “designable options.”  In ever more projects, we are advising user experience processes, consulting on overall product design and branding, conducting holistic UX research (end to end), and advising on organizational design and new practices.

Rather than merely extending an organization’s UX capacity, we are designing that capacity, more management consulting than “design delivery.” I stay close to long term clients and often work as an extended capacity for their internal UX organization. Redesign has partnered with organizations that have no formal UX group, and we’ve developed a model for just-in-time education of product managers, prototypers, and the closest equivalent to UX in a company. We call this process socialization, which looks like collaborative consulting in practice. This approach also lets a smaller consulting firm like Redesign consult strategically through process change and adapting the new UX processes closely to their strategic intent and product portfolio.

A problem with larger design agencies is they cannot afford to seat their better designers or advisors with clients in a mentoring capacity, and their rate structure won’t easily allow them to give up the time. If we all did a better job of educating the client while working on projects, this would not seem a novel idea but instead a standard practice. We also need to realize that better transition planning (the deliverables handoff from design to development) will reduce the need for mitigating turmoil in the client’s implementation of our design plans.

Adobe’s CTO on UX Design

May 29, 2008

Knowledge@Wharton recently interviewed Kevin Lynch, Adobe’s AIR apparent CTO, elevated to CTO earlier this year to make Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) the next disruptive tech platform. What’s in the secret sauce? Lots of UX, since that’s the first thing Lynch mentions at kickoff time:

Knowledge@Wharton: You were recently given the title of Chief Technology Officer at Adobe. How is that different from your previous role as Chief Software Architect?

Lynch: I’ll be involved more with Adobe overall in terms of our technology direction and the problems we are trying to solve; working across the different business units at Adobe. To some degree, I was already doing this in my previous role with the platform technology [unit at Adobe] because it touches so many of the other things that we do. This is formalizing that more.

In terms of my day-to-day activities, I’m continuing to work with the platform [group] and I’ll also be working with our design group called XD — Experience Design — to pull together our Experience Design and our platform efforts. They are obviously somewhat related — you can see a lot of great design in the Flex framework and in the applications we produce — but there’s more opportunity to build usability and best practices into our frameworks that we are learning from the XD group.

Lynch notes three disruptive technologies they are focused on – web applications, mobile computing, the ecosystems of social networks (and integration with directory management). But you knew that already.  But it is a good sign they are starting to lionize The Experience Design, even if they are overdoing it a bit on their promo pages. (I mean, do you ever see cool B&W shots of the software engineers that build the stuff? No, just designers, or now, as so many titles read, ‘experience designers”. Yes, but, do they know Human Factors?)

Adobe is still about tools for hot geeks, and not so much end user applications. But I have to admit, they finally took a big leap forward with the latest Reader, which was improved when some UX researchers noticed that people often select text, and right away, making that the default interaction mode when launching a PDF document.

Powerset – Toward semantic search in a closed ecosystem

May 29, 2008

Powerset provides advanced natural language browsing of searched terms and topics in Wikipedia. It’s designed to handle conversational language entries, and the tool is a good start. Try it on a few simple searches (e.g., a name) which is simple, then throw something abstract at it. Like “sensemaking” or “design theory” and the gaps in Wikipedia show up quickly. Wikipedia does not search across all articles for close matching terms (their search is an article finder, not a browse view). So Powerset fills a real need for knowledge awareness as Wikipedia becomes a popular starting point for Q&A, student-level research, and scanning the current cultural repertoire for memes and conventional wisdom.

The Powerset model makes sense – semantic relevance is achievable in a closed ecosystem where you have some level of editorial control of the content. They also index Freebase, which is much less mature than Wikipedia, so Powerset’s indexing of the two services does not yet offer access into deep knowledge resources.

For reaching deeply into authoritative publications, and indexing qualified (institutional) servers using the FAST search engine, I like Elsevier’s Scirus. It now looks almost exactly like Google, which was the direction we steered it in 2001 when I advised on redesign. In my opinion it has lost some personality on the start page due to its recent facelift though. Scirus’ indexing and retrieval are very powerful – the browse experience is much more inviting than Google Scholar, and it accesses highly relevant content form multiple artefacts, not just citable articles, but research reports, lecture notes, online presentations, good stuff shared online by the same authors Google Scholar only cites. Scirus indexes a different a closed content ecosystem as well – based on validity (academic, institutional, verifiable publications) and not domain (Wikipedia or .edu sites) or authority.

Multisensory Medical Informatics

February 7, 2008

Wow – The Wii earns my respect as a serious haptic interface. A University of Arizona team has shown improvements in fine hand motor skill developed from exercises in continuous practice of the Wii for simulated laproscopy.

I’ve interacted with the virtual gall bladder removal and cauterization simulation at Riverside Methodist hospital’s Virtual Care Unit. It tallied a game score just like a Wii game – but the Wii interface may have leveled the playing field by making it possible to learn and tune fine-grained motor skills in the context of purposeful (and cheap) simulations.

The virtual OR lab at the National Center for Collaboration in Medical Modeling and Simulation has been developing alternatives to learning hands-on procedures, primarily based on practice of motor routines in roughly simulated situations. Mark Scerbo, human factors psychologist (and a Cincinnati grad), explains:

“It’s like doing very sophisticated surgery with chopsticks in your hands,” Scerbo said. “It takes a lot of training to look at a two-dimensional display and understand what your instruments are doing. There’s a real need to train doctors, and not on patients.”

Surgeon Leonard Weireiter said: “It turns out you don’t need the high-fidelity haptics. It’s the repetitive practice of the motion that counts.”

Consider the similarity to sports psychology research that shows significant performance improvements from visualization exercises and mental practice. The brain-body system entrains toward the optimal physical movements, timing, and interaction with devices over practice, even when roughly simulated.

Impact on Medical Practice?

Healthcare informatics and e-Learning are rapidly evolving, from several directions –  clinical decisionmaking, patient eMR and personal healthcare records, consumer health information, drug information, resident education, specialist informatics, nursing education, genomics, institutional workflow, finance and insurance integration, and collaborative diagnostics. (I’d link all these to examples, but this was a handful just to type – if I get a reply, I’l do the links!)

Healthcare services and institutions represent a massive information ecology and infoconomy. A significant activity for design research involves understanding these resources and content sources as living, growing players in an ecosystem that cannot be designed, but rather interfaced, linked, connected, and metadatabased. We need ways to visualize the resources, ontologies/taxonomies and information objects available in the overall emerging system – a picture of the stable niches, emerging services, publishers and providers, institutions and their drivers, the relationships among these, and the size/impact of each service in the overall scheme of things. (Let me know if you find one!)