machinespace = the networked information space of ever-increasing complexity that humans have to interact with.

October 11, 2004

The need for Collaborative Design spaces

Call it what you will. War Room. Design Space. Collaboration Room. Wailing Wall. Review Room. Team Room – the nomenclature does not matter... it’s a dedicated space where a design team can get together at short notice as needed to share their ideas and ask for input from their colleagues without fear of criticism or ridicule.

The UI designer helps clients visualize solutions by creating user interfaces that will be the primary interaction mechanism between the system and its users.

However, since solutions tend to be complex, there are usually several possible interface designs that can fulfill the needs of any given solution. The choice of any one given design is usually a tradeoff between the needs of the various user groups, technical constraints on the project, and business imperatives of implementation and maintenance costs, timelines and resource availability.

The ability to balance the many requirements is a hallmark of a competent UI designer, especially since some of the requirements of the various groups may actually be in conflict with each other.

In the course of arriving at acceptable design solutions, the designer participates in many activities.Some of these are team activities carried out with other members of their peer groups and are highly relevant to the development of the designer’s role and in demonstrating continuous improvements to the design of better and more usable interfaces for applications.

By their intrinsic nature, some of these activities would be carried out in a dedicated “Design Space” that would provide the UI design group a collaborative workspace in which to brainstorm, share ideas and invite discussion and critiques of their design decisions.

It is important to keep in mind that the level of experience and educational qualifications among any medium or large Design group will most likely be extremely diverse. Even if the group has standardized design methods and guidelines with informal, semi-formal and formal training and mentoring, it is very difficult to achieve consistency in design and interactions without close collaboration between all the members of the group.

Over time, design groups tend to develop a functional design vernacular through trial and error and the use of design guidelines, but are still challenged when it comes to delivering consistent results. Formal training and design processes are structured methods for knowledge sharing and information methods, but it is a well known fact that most learning among peers occurs through informal interactions.

The primary benefit that will be derived from having a dedicated collaborative Design Space available is to provide team members with a centralized area for the activities discussed in this article.

A dedicated room will provide the Design group the “collaboration space” that can facilitate the informal interactions and help the group meet the business needs of their clients better.

Some of these activities and interactions are briefly outlined to show how they may benefit from being performed in a dedicated space.

Informal Usability Testing – Quick hit evaluation of new design concepts. Often, when formal usability testing is not possible, informal evaluations are the only way to assess the acceptability of the design by users. Currently, testing is carried out in the open, with the setup in the corridor. This arrangement does not provide the privacy needed for the user representative to feel comfortable. Having a dedicated space will improve the evaluators experience and allow the designers team members to set up many more evaluations.

Heuristic Analyses – By definition, this is an evaluation by an expert, and is based on accepted “design rules”. However, it is a subjective technique and gives rise to wide variability in evaluation results. This variability is addressed by having several experts perform the heuristic evaluation, since it provides results that are much more reliable. Having a dedicated room would permit the Designer set up concurrent reviews and facilitate post evaluation discussions between expert evaluators.

Design reviews – The essence of the design process is to arrive at a final design through iterative reviews where a design is reviewed by project team members. At present, design reviews are held during formal meetings where final concepts are presented for approval – however, this approach ignores the interim concepts and “design history”. The dedicated room will provide the opportunity to provide the team with the conceptual backdrop of a design’s evolution and help team members understand why certain decisions were made. It also allows concurrent review of several iterations simultaneously, since they are all available over a period of time.

Reviews of Design and Documents – Most document reviews are basically to ensure conformance to accepted guidelines. Having a dedicated room to place a “reference” set of documents for comparison would help designers be more consistent. It would also encourage design team members to hold more peer reviews since the room is always available and private.

Idea Brainstorming – A frequently used technique in design, it needs no introduction as to its effectiveness. Having a dedicated space would allow designers to bring together a few colleagues to outline some ideas… the results of the brainstorming session could be posted in the room for a few days for review and further analysis.

Interaction Design Mapping – Interaction maps are high level maps created by the UI designer to depict the ‘desired’ relationships and interactions between the user and various controls or information that are displayed on the user interface screens. These maps can help a design team realize the consequences of changes to the layout and sequencing of screens. Interaction mapping when used along with storyboarding allows the designer to present complex applications workflows in an easy to understand format. To be really effective, these should be made available throughout the design process, and a dedicated room will serve the purpose admirably.

User Interface Storyboarding – Storyboards are basically wire frame representations of UI screens to depict the content, controls and layout. Storyboards are a great tool for the UI designer, but they are inconsistently used by design groups because even a simple application or website information architecture would give rise to a large number of screen storyboards which need to be posted for review to ensure that there is nothing missed in the UI screens. A good set of storyboards can frequently serve to illustrate the working of an application without the expense of a prototype.

Design Critiques – The design critique is an integral process in any group involved in design – basically, a designer will post his or her design concepts with a statement of “design intent” for colleagues and peers to critique and suggest modifications that would meet the goals better. Design critiques are different from reviews in that they are performed by a non-involved group of peers and they are generally very informal. The value of having experienced colleagues providing constructive criticism cannot be overestimated. Design critiques require a dedicated room where the concepts can be posted for a few days while inviting comments.

Continuing Education – The dedicated room can also be used for Forums and Discussions that support the continuing goals of the designers and the organization.

Share research findings – Design team members frequently bring in industry examples of effective UI design solutions that they would like to share. While Email is an effective format for disseminating the information, it tends to be insular and does not encourage discussion. Having a place to share the research findings would make them more visible and likely to be utilized in future projects.

Reference desk - Most design houses possess a wealth of reference materials, examples and books that are related past work, to usability, design and evaluations. These materials are usually scattered all over for lack of a physical “knowledge repository”. Having a dedicated room will make all reference materials available in one place and will be easily accessible, and thus, better utilized.

Competitive Analysis - Although competitive analysis of websites is a very effective technique in assessing the merits of one site with respect to others operating in a similar market or industry, it remains a little used technique in design, especially in design groups that design applications that run internally on intranets, where competitive analysis is of limited utility. The technique, however is sound, and provides designers a way to look beyond their own preferences and biases and choose what works best for a particular industry application. Competitive Analysis requires a dedicated space to post printouts and architectures of the various sites being analyzed, since they have to be evaluated side by side. Since the exercise can run over several days, a dedicated space is a must.

Team internal meetings and process reviews - Any design team usually has several ongoing internal initiatives that seek to improve Design processes and methodology and are usually very successful in standardizing the organizations preferred formats for client documents and design techniques. These improvements are slow improvements and are usually “lessons learned” and thus gradually acquired knowledge or wisdom. Having a dedicated space to post the ongoing progress will be valuable in providing other team members with information they can use in planning their work.

copyright 2004 ajoy muralidhar. all names, websites and brands referenced are the copyright or trademark of their respective owners.

October 08, 2004

Why Gray isn’t Cool…

We’ve gone and made Usability Gray. Black or Gray has long been the color of things that are considered business like, serious or utilitarian. That’s what we’ve made usability out to be.

What is Cool? I asked around, not trusting my own instincts - definitions of Cool abound, as varied as the people you ask – cool is fun to use, modern, cutting edge design, advanced features, convenient and flexible, aesthetically pleasing design , comfortable shape, size, emotionally appealing etc.

By contrast, ask people what they think Utilitarian is – the common perception is that something utilitarian is functional, does the job, works well, plain, simple, no frills, useful, necessary.

See what I mean? Useful, plain simple, functional – isn’t that how we have been defining Usable? We never made efforts to convince people that Usable is Cool and that usability can lead to enjoyable or fun user experiences. Nope – we had to make it gray and utilitarian..

When we pushed the concept that utility was ease of use, we forgot that man does not live by Utility alone – once the basic need has been satisfied, we raise our expectations and ask for more – remember Maslow’s good ol’ Hierarchy of Needs?

What has happened here? Why isn’t fun to use equated to being Usable? How did Usability get stuck with a stodgy utilitarian label while fun/delightful gets the coveted “cool” label? - If a gadget is fun to use, it moves to the realm of “cool”. Why doesn’t Usable convey the sense of fun to use? Why isn’t usable considered cool? We look at the iPod mini – and the reaction - wow. cool. No one thinks of it as “Usable”.

When was the last time you looked at the nifty gadgets sold in Best Buy or Circuit City, and think.. mmmm – that’s Usable.??? It’s more likely you were drooling over how slick and ‘cool’ the gadget was, not how usable all of its features are.

If we were to conduct a study regarding all the features that are provided in a typical high end video recorder or camera, collecting information on “likelihood of use” – we would find that the percentage of “high probability” of use features is very small. Most of the features provided will rarely, or never be used and are more than likely hard to use – but that does not prevent the gadget from being considered cool or sexy. So what does this tell us?

The perception of Coolness transcends it's utility and usability. So – even if we design the “invisible” features (low probability of use features) to be very difficult to use and made sure that the high probability of use items were fairly usable, we would still be able to preserve the perception of the gadget as cool.

What about shape, weight, color and form factor and finish? How much do they influence the perception? In a piece of hardware, these attributes convey it’s physical characteristics – only a few of these attributes make it to the software world where many of these are virtual attributes. But that’s another topic altogether and we will deal with it another article.

We've done this to ourselves. Go back to all the postulates from the internet Usability gurus over the last several years – all of them have been stressing utility and efficiency as the keys to Usability – but those are the qualities that are associated with infrastructure and utilities. A commodity offering that is necessary, but preferably in the background and out of sight. Cool is something to show off and be seen with – the exact opposite of utilitarian.

Oh, I am sure there were very good reasons for the recommendations then - at that point in the life of the internet, the bandwidth limitations and the limits imposed by hardware such as memory and processor speeds forced us to take the "utilitarian" approcah - but is such a philosophy warranted even now?

How do we get away from the "graying" of Usability? The crux of the problem is not that marketers don't accept the fact that usability can sell a product; or that Usability in products and software is an attribute that is desirable, worth investing in and and seen as a competitive marketing weapon?

It's just that usability by itself isn't attractive or desirable to consumers - it has to be balanced with the other attributes of the product, attributes that are more easily acknowledged as contributing to the perceived "coolness" - materials used, size, shape, color, features etc. Companies know that all these attributes can be present, and the product can still fail badly, if it does not provide the functionality promised.

However, a product can be cool even if it barely meets the Functionality test - can we not make a case that basic functionality is no longer enough, and that users expectations should be set much highter?

No product or software can be considered well designed if it does not exhibit optimality of functional design. Usability is optimal functionality - ie, the product not only does what it is supposed to, but does it in a way that meets or exceeds the expectations of its user. Thus, usability is a key component of good design, and should be treated as such, and should not have to take second place to any other attribute.

If we succeed in raising the bar of what "functional" should really be, then the definitions of design will be re-written, and the enhanced expectations will spur the market for well designed (read highly usable) products and software.

* for more on design and utility, see John Pile's classic work - Design: Purpose, Form, and Meaning; ISBN: 0870232576 Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, U.S.A.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979. 203pp. You can find a decent used copy on quite cheaply :)

copyright 2004 ajoy muralidhar.all names, websites and brands referenced are the copyright or trademark of their respective owners.