Off the Top: HCI Entries


January 31, 2007

It is Finally IT and Design in Enterprise (and Small Business)

My recent trip to Northern California to speak at the UIE Web App Summit and meetings in the Bay Area triggered some good ideas. One thread of discovery is Enterprise, as well as small and medium sized business, is looking at not only technology for solutions to their needs, but design.

IT Traditions

Traditionally, the CIO or VP IT (and related upper management roles) have focussed on buying technology "solutions" to their information problems. Rarely have the solutions fixed the problems as there is often a "problem with the users" of the systems. We see the technology get blamed, the implementation team get blamed (many do not grasp the solution but only how to install the tools, as that is the type of service that is purchased), and then the "users need more training".

Breaking the Cycle of Blame and Disappointment

This cycle of blame and disappointment in technology is breaking around a few important realizations in the IT world.

Technology is not a Cure All

First, the technology is always over sold in capability and most often needs extensive modification to get working in any environment (the cost of a well implemented system is usually about the same as a built from scratch solution - but who has the resources to do that). Most CIOs and technology managers are not trusting IT sales people or marketing pitches. The common starting point is from the, "your tool can not do what you state" and then discussions can move from there. Occasionally, the tools actually can do what is promised.

Many, decision makers now want to test the product with real people in real situations. Solution providers that are good, understand this and will assist with setting up a demonstration. To help truly assess the product the technical staff in the organization is included in the set-up of the product.

People and Information Needs

Second, the problems are finally being identified in terms of people and information needs. This is a great starting place as it focusses on the problems and the wide variety of personal information workflows that are used efficiently by people. We know that technology solutions that mirror and augment existing workflows are easily adopted and often used successfully. This mirroring workflow also allows for lower training costs (occasionally there is no training needed).

Design with People in Mind

Third, design of the interaction and interface must focus on people and their needs. This is the most promising understanding as it revolves around people and their needs. Design is incredibly important in the success of the tools. Design is not just if it looks pretty (that does help), but how a person is walked through the steps easily and how the tools is easy to interact with for successful outcomes. The lack of good design is largely what has crippled most business tools as most have focussed on appealing to the inner geek of the IT manager. Many IT managers have finally realized that their interface and interaction preferences are not remotely representative of 95 percent of the people who need to or should be using the tools.

It is increasingly understood that designing the interaction and interface is very important. The design task must be done with the focus on the needs of real people who will be using the product. Design is not sprinkling some Web 2.0 magic dust of rounded corners, gradients, and fading yellow highlights, but a much deeper understanding that ease of use and breaking processes into easy steps is essential.

Smile to Many Faces

This understanding that buying a technology solutions is more than buying code to solve a problem, but a step in bringing usable tools in to help people work efficiently with information. This last week I talk to many people in Enterprise and smaller businesses that were the technical managers that were trying to get smarter on design and how they should approach digital information problems. I also heard the decision managers stating they needed better interfaces so the people using the tools could, well use the tools. The technology managers were also coming to grips that their preferences for interfaces did not work with most of the people who need the tools to work.

Technology Companies Go Directly to the Users

I have also been seeing the technology tool makers sitting with their actual people using their tools to drastically improve their tools for ease of use. One President of a technology tool maker explained it as, ":I am tired of getting the blame for making poor tools and losing contracts because the technology decision makers are not connected with the real needs of the people they are buying the tools for." This president was talking to three or four users on problems some of his indirect clients were having with a tool they really needed to work well for them. This guy knows the tech managers traditionally have not bought with the people needing to use the tools in mind and is working to create a great product for those people with wants and needs. He also knows how to sell to the technology managers to get their products in the door, but knows designing for the people using the product is how he stays in the company.



June 21, 2006

Still Thowing Out the User

There is much buzz about getting rid of the term user these days. Don Norman talks about using the term person, PeterMe picks up on this, and others are not happy with the term "user generated content", like Jon Udell who would like to use "reader-created content", Robert Scoble who believes it is screwing the Long Tail, and Jeff Veen who talks about people writing the web. I have to agree, well I did more than agree.

Throwing Out the User

More than a year ago I got fed up with the user and wrote about saying Good Bye to the User. In years prior I have watched people having painful moments in usability testing. These people felt sorry that they could not easily use what we built and designed. They had empathy for us, but we just lumped them in the category "user". User is not a good word, it is a dirty four letter word. Far too many times designers and developers blame the "user". We tried to solve the user's problems. It was not the problem of the user, it is a real person's pain.

As designers and developers we know deep inside that technology is complex and difficult to use, but we often forget it. The term user has stood in the way. But using person or people, we can see the pain and feel the pain. Many of us consider ourselves users and we do not have these problems, but we are über users, who at one point had the same pain and struggles.

People are different, we have learned this early in life. We can take some characteristics and lump groups of people together, but there are so many important facets that that make us who we are it is difficult to lump people across facets. The only way to lump people separating ourselves as designers and developers out of the equation and putting the focus on regular people. If you are reading this, you are most likely not a regular person who has problems using technology as they wish or need to. It is real people with pain. It is real people who worry about privacy, identity issues, easy access to needed info for themselves and some easy access for some people they know but impossible access for most everybody else, etc. But, the problem with this is these real people do not know this is what they want or need until they do not have it an it becomes painfully aware to them.

Generating Content

I like approach of Jeff Veen and Jon Udell who focus on person-created content. In a hip world of popularity engines like Digg where the masses or crowd bubble up information we forget that most people listen and trust individual voices. We have done this with mass media for years. We trusted certain news anchors and certain reporters on television. We read and trusted certain journalist, columnists, reviewers, and opinion writers. This trust was not always to the wrapper of the communication, like a paper or the whole network news offerings. It comes down to people trusting people. Individuals trusting individuals.

Those of us who have been blogging for nearly a dog year or more understand it is about the individual. We are individual people creating content. We are individual voices. We may be part of a collective at times, but people trust us the person and over time may come to trust people we trust, whom our readers do not know and do not trust yet.

Bringing People Together with People

So what do we need in these social computing environments? We need to see the person. We need to have the ability to find the person similar to us. We want to find those whom are near in thought to us. This may not be the most prolific person on a subject or the most linked to, but their interests match our interests and or vocabularies are similar (often a very good sign of commonality). In the popularity engines we should be able to find those who have "liked" or "dug" things similar to that which we have the same feelings and/or interests.

Doing Without the User

The past year I have been asked many times how easy it is not to use the term user. Well, at first it was hard to transition because it was a term I just used with out thinking. It was also hard because many of my clients and customers I worked with liked using the term user (they also have had many of the problems that come with the term user). But, over time I have a few clients using people and the empathy for the pain that the people who use their products feel is felt and it is reflected in their work products.

One benefit that came from focussing on the person and not the user has been being able to easily see that people have different desired uses and reuses for the data, information, media, etc. that the products I am working on or my clients are developing. I can see complexity more easily focussing on people than I could the user. Patterns are also easier to see looking at the individual people as the patterns resemble flows and not steps. When we focus on the user we try to fit what we built to pre-determined patterns, which we have broken into steps. We can determine steps that are roughly common points of task changing in the flows (changing from seeking to recognizing in a search task it part of an iterative flow, which we can determine is a separate step, but whether that leads to the next step or iterates a few more times is part of a person's information workflow.

Steps are Broken

One of the steps that is getting broken by real people is that around process. People use tools in different ways. For years we have been looking at a publish and subscribe model. But, that is missing a step or two when we look at the flows. People create content and publish it, right? Well, not quite. We are seeing people skipping the publish and pushing it straight to syndication. There is no single point where it is published and has a definable address. The old publish and subscribe model assumed publishing would syndicate the information (RSS, ATOM, RDF, etc.). But, we all know that syndication has been a really slow adoption for traditional media. It was many years after those of us blogging and syndicating information saw traditional media pick-up on the trend. But, traditional media has always understood going straight to syndication with columnists, radio, and television shows. It was the blogging community and personal content creators that were late to understanding we could just syndicate the information and skip the publishing step in the flow.

Getting to Watching People and Flows

How do we not miss things? We watch people and we need to pay attention to their flows. Each individual, each of their desires, each of their different personal information workflows, across each of their current devices, and how they wish they could have what we build inflict less pain on their person.

The person should not feel empathy for those of us building and designing tools and systems, we must feel the person's and peoples pain and feel empathy for them. Where have we stood in their way of their desired flow? Now we must get out of the way, get rid of the user, and focus on people to build and design more effectively.



August 17, 2005

User Experience Design in the Come to Me Web?

A question came up with Rashmi in the week prior to the BayCHI Web 2.0 event that I thought would definitely come up at the panel in the Q&A session, but most of the questions related to the application and technology side of things.

As content can be repurposed in and pulled into various tools with drastically different presentations than the sites they sit within. There seems to be a logical question as to the value of the user experience of the initial site. We are spending a lot of time, effort, and resources building optimal user experience, but with more and more of the content being consumed in interfaces that do not use the user experience should we spend less time and resources on perfecting it?

One answer is no, things are fine the way they are as the people that still consume the information in the traditional web manner (is it too early to call it traditional web manner?) are a narrower audience than the whole of the people consuming the information. The design of the site would have to add value, or provide additional service to continue enticing people back. I have been talking about the Perceptual Receptor in the Model of Attraction for a few years and the sensory components of design, look, and appeal should be targeted to the expected users so it fits their expectations and they are attracted to the content they are seeking in a manner that is appealing to them.

The converse to this is we are spending too much time on the ephemeral in relation to the benefit. With increasing consumption of the information done though RSS/ATOM feed readers and aggregators on the desktop, mobile, or web (as in Bloglines or My Yahoo) interfaces, which nearly all strip the presentational layers and just deliver the straight content with the option for the person to click and get to the site we developed. Information is also pulled together in other aggregators as summaries on various websites and versions e-mailed around. The control of the user experience has drifted away from the initial designer and is in the hands of the tools aggregating (some provide presentational layers from the content owners to show through on the aggregators), or the people consuming the information that choose their own presentation layer or just strip it for other uses.

With content presentations in the hands of the people consuming and not the crafting designer how does branding come through? How does the richer integrated interface we spent months designing, testing, and carefully tweaking? Branding with logos may be easier than the consistent interface we desire as the person consuming the content has a different idea of consistent interface, which is the interface they are consuming all of the information in. People have visual patterns they follow in an application and that interface helps them scan quickly for the information they desire.

Where the content creator puts their content out for aggregation in XML related feeds, they have made a decision at some level that having their content in the hands of more people who want it is more important than a unified user experience. Consumption of the media has a greater impact than fewer people consuming a preferred experience. All of the resources we put into the refined user experience is largely for the user's benefit, or at least that is what we say, but it is also for the business benefit for consistent branding and imprinting. The newer consumption models focus on the person and their getting the information and media they want in the easiest and their preferred manner for that person.

Is there an answer? One single answer, most likely not. But, I personally don't think we and crafting designer have a great say at this point. As tools people use mature, we may get more control, but optimally the person consuming is the one in control as they want to be and should in the "come to me web".



October 1, 2003

Apple love

Mark Morford explains why Apple deserve gushing adulation in his San Francisco Gate column. For me yesterday's plugging in a new digital video camera and having the video just seemingly show-up ready for viewing and importing into iMovie was another jaw-dropping simple it-just-works moment for me. There have been very few difficult moments for me and my Mac. And when they do occur I am tweaking at the command line and getting used to a slightly different syntax for the variant of UNIX that Apple uses. (Note: there is no need for me to play at the command line, but it is something I find fun and rewarding, in a sick build my own soda can sort of way.)

I was also able to use the a Firewire cable to connect to my video camera and have iChat sense it was attached and put me in video iChat mode automatically. Oddly the Sony camera did not come with an iLink (Firewire) cable, odd in that they own some of the rights to Firewire but do not use the superior technology out of the box, instead opting for the poorer quality USB product. The Sony camera came with a CD full of software for Windows machines and drivers so that Windows users can use the digital video output on their machines. My TiBook needed none of that, it just worked easily and wonderfully.

While I am off work for a few days to help Joy and Will adjust I get to fully live in a Mac world. I can get things done and fit work in easily, I have had no virus problems, bugs, halting interfaces, or connectivity problems that plague me at work. Having work environments standardize on Windows is akin to having them endorse non-productivity.

Needless to say I love my Mac and Apple's attention to detail. It is almost as if they care about me and the work I do, by just letting me do my work. Apple does not care if I am coding, programming, being creative, writing, or performing analytics it just allows me to be productive. The amount of money saved in using my Mac more than makes up any price difference (laughable in that there is not a comparable product in the Windows world) for a similar product.



June 23, 2003

Interact Lab research papers

Department of Informatics, University of Sussex, Interact Lab, HCI papers provides offerings in: Pervasive Environments and Ubiquitous Computing - Shared Interaction Spaces; Playing and Learning - Tangibles & Virtual Environments - Collaborative Learning; Theory & Conceptual Frameworks; Technology Mediated Communication; and Interactive Art. [hat tip Anne]



June 3, 2003

Social computing needs more than chat

I was awake at an hour only God, ravers, and vampires would love this morning and stumbled across Bill Thompson's BBC article about social computing needing to be more than chat. I went to bed after I read this then thought I may have dreamt the article, and did not know where I had read it. The article brings the recent hype about social software down to earth as it was and has been a discussion point in many things Internet since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bill does suggest we may have evolved enough to discuss the social changes that are brought about in a digitally networked world without discussion of packets and protocols.

This article also jumps into the attention ideas get when published in a weblog as compared to an academic research paper. Bill's perspective is the lack of research into what has been discovered and written about previously is detrimental to social software and networking moving forward. This resonates with those who have liberal education backgrounds that have been taught to seek out the fountainhead of an idea and find what others have communicated so to build upon experiences rather than offer up a "me too" or a "that was my idea" (20 years or centuries after it was common thought).



June 1, 2003

Usability of users who listen to Web sites

Ginny Redish and Mary Frances Theofanos have written Observing Users Who Listen to Web Sites article for the STC Usability SIG Newsletter. This article is a great insight into how blind and partially sited individuals interact with Web Sites that are being read to them by devices. This is a must read article.

This article helps developers understand how auditory reader users consume information. There are many similarities to users how use their eyes, but some of the devices we commonly use to assist auditory readers, like skip navigation, are not used as many developers think. The accessibility assistive technologies are still needed and still requested, as thie article points out. This article provides a great insight for those people who do not have a sight challenged user to learn from and to test their products with. Those who do not actually test their work or have never seen their work tested can only guess what is going on. This article helps developers get insight that helps us develop for accessibility from step one, which is where we must be thinking of accessibility.



December 10, 2001

Foundations of Hypertext Navigation, Part 1

Another discussion on Peterme that has fallen into the discussion of spatial metaphors and the Web. The general feeling is that the spatial metaphor provides a poor descriptive language and metaphorical base to discuss the Web. Finding a replacement seems to be the focus, but there is an embedded base in the population of users that have adopted these analogies. I agree to a great degree that the spatial metaphor is not the best (agreeing with the negative of a positive superlative is the easy way out as there is very little room to be wrong so it is a false method of looking smart).

There is a chapter on "NAVIGATION THROUGH COMPLEX INFORMATION SPACES" from Hypertext in Context by Cliff McKnight, Andrew Dillon, John Richardson, which provides a solid understanding of some of the history of the navigational metaphor in hypertext services.



November 28, 2001

Taylor makes a wonderful HCI observation. Oh, have I been down this road and wondered the same thing.


November 8, 2001

The following is an overview of the ASIS&T lively debate between two leaders in the field of human-computer interaction -- Dr. James Hendler and Dr. Ben Shneiderman. I have heard Schneiderman a couple times before and agree with much of his approach. I had not heard or read Hendler, but I have a feeling I will be digging out some of his works. There is a lot of common ground between the two speakers. Again these are rough notes. The future of web use: visual, social, universal (Ben Schneiderman)
  • Getting the cognitively comprehensible right your users get feeling of mastery
  • Effective visual display is key
  • Community has become central to Internet use
  • Central to Internet use is trust
  • Key element is building trust
  • Universal usability is essential
  • Online help does not go far enough to helping the user
  • Human interaction over intelligent agents
  • Ontology is very important

Creating Ben's Web (James Hendler)

  • Agents interact in conversational interaction: user asks question agent replies w/ options
  • Shared communications extends knowledge & gives context & depth
  • Agents work on your preferences
  • Web does not have central ontological organization principle
  • Schema to schema translators needed
  • Semantic web

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