Oct 4, 2016

Hiding In Plain Fictional Sight

Anita Raja / Elena Ferrante should have the right to create any sort of characters for her novels; should she also have the right to create any sort of story for her upbringing and background?
There are many ways in which artists can remain anonymous and protect their privacy. Hiding one's  name and identity is one of them. Writers, musicians and painters over the centuries have adopted pseudonyms, avoided public appearances, went into exile, to protect their art and, more often than not, their life from censorship, death and torture. Falsifying one's cultural and socio-economic background is another way of ensuring one's anonymity.

Or is it? Not if you ask Anita Raja after being "outed" a few days ago as being not just the novelist writing under the pseudonym "Elena Ferrante", but also as a privileged middle-class professional claiming to have grown up in the working-class Italian neighborhoods that she'd chosen as the setting for her novels. In her autobiography Anita Raja talked about growing up poor in Naples with a seamstress mother, when in fact, she grew up in a middle-class household in Rome with a magistrate/judge father.

Anita Raja could have chosen to just write and publish under a pseudonym. Did she really need to also fabricate a cultural and socioeconomic identity for herself in order to remain anonymous? Was it her life that was threatened by her real identity, or just her lifestyle?
Much commentary that I've read online centers on the question of cultural appropriation, ie. whether artists should write/compose/paint characters from cultures different than their own. http://nyti.ms/2d1eqh1

That's not the issue in Anita Raja's case though. Her right to create characters culturally different from herself  (ie her right to cultural appropriation) has nothing to do with the way she chose to protect her anonymity. She didn't just strive to hide her real name and background, she consistently promoted a false story of a working class upbringing that made her similar to her novels' characters. To me, that doesn't sound like an anonymity/privacy protection strategy, but rather, like a publicity story, promoted over decades to maintain the author's professional success.

May 16, 2016

UX Without Borders

A borderless yet seamless UX field. Is that a dream, or "is it something worse"? Actually, it's reality,  happening right now, among and by those who are concerned less with labeling themselves and others ("designer", "quant. geek", "ethnographer", "design integrator"), and more with pushing against the artificial borders, barriers, and preconceptions in  UX  that we all have been complicit in preserving even as the field keeps out-growing them and out-distancing them.

F. Chimero says it better:
For a long time, I perceived my practice’s sprawl as a defect—evidence of an itchy mind or a fear of commitment—but I am starting to learn that a disadvantage can turn into an advantage with a change of venue. The ability to cross borders is an asset....These borderlands are the best place for a designer like me, and maybe like you, because the borderlands are where things connect. If you’re in the borderlands, your different tongues, your scattered thoughts, your lack of identification with a group, and all the things that used to be thought of as drawbacks in a specialist enclave become the hardened armor of a shrewd generalist in the borderlands.

Designing in the Borderlands”, by Frank Chimero, is about design, but the ideas behind it applies to all UX, or anything that happens at the "seams" of disciplines, particularly research! Much like the concept of disciplinary silos, the practice of design is full of artificial and unproductive barriers that designers themselves have erected (with the silent or vocal support of non-designers). The author insists (correctly, I think) that the most inspiring, let alone productive, design happens in the borderlands, at the seams, where these different media and disciplines (dis)connect. That could be the borders between physical and digital media, text vs images, responsive vs. non-responsive design, or larger and more unproductive borders, such as those between design & UI, or UX vs UI, and the list goes on, and on.

Particularly within UX research, I keep encountering such artificial borders and barriers in people's thinking (both insiders and outsiders to UX), such as quant vs qual research: stupidest interview Q: "are you" an [stats person, ethnographer, X]? The question isn't whether somebody "is" an X type of researcher, but whether they have the skills to use a method and ability to learn from their practice of each method. Nobody should have a a life-long badge of "being" anything, let alone an ethnographer, which is an evolving practice in UX.
So, next time you interview (me or anybody who can think over and above such silly barriers), ask about T-shaped experiences, try and spend an extra minute to figure out whether I can learn fast and think forward vs. what I "am"or have been by training or some other static designation.  UX is an evolving field, and to innovate you need to know how to think across, above and over disciplines and silly  designations, so your questions should be innovative and push against borders set up by hiring managers and academic courses.

Feb 21, 2016

Leaning and Pivoting in UX Research

When a new technology first appears, there’s a tendency to see it as a replacement for the previous generation of that tech (horse-less carriages! wireless phones! driverless cars!). Len Epp at TechCrunch, writes about moving past the driver-less car concept and see the possibilities created by autonomous vehicles: “To pick just one example, companies like Walmart will almost certainly let their robot cars drive you to and from their stores for free, as will their competitors.”

What's the project management takeaway? Innovative product development is done in small cross-functional teams; the overarching goal is to create value (deliver outcomes rather than features),  UX researchers test hypotheses and pivot rather than chase statistical significance. Enter Lean UX.

Lean UX means researching "just enough" to gain  confidence in the design direction and manage the ROI. It also means leveraging the context that the participant provides; the Researcher needs to listen to the information the participant is providing, and pivot the conversation as necessary, in order to get the max value from each participant. Nobody is after statistical significance (p values, effect sizes... there's nothing Lean about them), and nobody is stuck with ridiculously rigid protocols much less the users.

Jan 29, 2016

"What If" is the Most Beautiful Question

Warren Berger in "A More Beautiful Question" discusses the why and how of asking questions, which happens to be my number one favorite topic, across contexts and roles I've been in, both personal and professional.  Questioning is an inherent skill, according to W. Berger, and  we’re quite adept at it during childhood. You can disagree with that (I'm not totally convinced that that's "inherent" or inevitable) but that's not the point. The point is, as W. Berger notes, that children haven’t developed a solid “mental model” of the world, so they [can] question everything. As children grow up and go through standardized education, they begin to suppress their curiosity, however inherent and inevitable it might have been.

What's really frustrating, and the point of relevant here, is that in certain cultures (US/American being the first on that list), it’s frowned upon to ask too many questions, socially, and also in the workplace. And paradoxically enough, we’re often embarrassed when we don’t have immediate answers. But Berger claims the ability to admit you don’t have all the answers, but can ask better questions, is a superior skill. Actually, he's not a alone in this, and that skill of admitting to uncertainty and open-ended curiosity is hardly original but, unfortunately, rare in the workplace and in multiple non-professional socio-cultural contexts.

Berger identifies three  types of questions that lead to breakthroughs: why, how, what if? The first two are commonsense and often inevitable, but the 3rd one is less often entertained in professional contexts. Asking "what if" and more crucially, encouraging whoever you supervise or manage to ask "what if" questions is really where innovation begins.  "What if" is about mashing up ideas, go against common logic, or add/remove factors that make the challenge more interesting. 

Dec 4, 2015

How far/close can prototypes go to replace documentation?

A UX-mag article raises the issue of whether prototypes can replace documentation as client deliverables, and concludes that that's hardly a choice any more as prototype deliverables are increasingly popular, practical, agile, and inevitable. But the real question is when, not whether, prototypes can be used in place of user documentation. That's a question about high/low fidelity, and the relative value of different kinds of prototypes, with paper sketches at one end of the fidelity "spectrum" and detailed documentation at the other.

Pencil -paper sketches are great for initial, investigatory wireframes assuming that in early design stages, the emphasis is not so much on the proposal but on the conversations the proposal generates among the development team and the client. Fundamental elements of design such as function, behavior and form can be represented with sketches, but software captures them in an explicit way, and that makes software efficient at an engineering level, but cumbersome for design conversations. Unlike sketches, digital prototypes can show design relationships to other elements beneath the visual layer e.g. a navigation link on a global/master layer. Axure can be used to create both prototypes and documentation, and even has some built-in collaboration capability.

Prototypes will always be faster, leaner, more agile than any sort of documentation. But prototyping, much like designing and documenting (and just plain working), can't be separated from its project management. Nobody likes that (or do they?), and everybody knows that nothing can replace face to face dialogue among designers, developers and clients. From a project management perspective, the prototype vs. documentation issue is an issue of perceived sunk costs. How much, or rather, how little fidelity can be efficiently, not just effectively, invested ("sunk" in PM terms) into the client deliverables?

Aug 11, 2015

Participant Recruiting Tips for UX Studies

As UX research expands outside of traditional computing fields and as we seek to design for users who are not like us, recruiting participants can become a really time-consuming and challenging process. A few tips and techniques I've used across quantitative and qualitative studies:

 - Even if you don’t think that your potential participants have a relevant formal organization, try searching for meetup groups that match your target user base. This is best for local recruiting, as  there's groups about just about everything, and they're welcoming members with new perspectives and backgrounds. Meetup group organizers will be particularly happy to have somebody who is interested in their issue join their group,as a member or even a speaker, so there's many opportunities to make a connection.

 - Snowball Sampling: ask a participant to recommend other possible participants. A tip here is to asking asking the snowball question twice: once when I follow up with the participant reminding about our scheduled meeting and again after the study is complete. This gives them a chance to think about it a little bit.

 - If a UX study can be done in one session and without special equipment (e.g., an interview), take advantage of the times when you are travelling. Just through posts or meetup groups or connections to friends, I usually get an additional 2 or 3 participants when I visit another state. For some reason, just because I’m there for a limited time, people feel more excited about being in the study (“You came all the way to CA to talk to me?”).

 - Ask widely in your social network to see if anybody can recommend a participant for a specific study. Facebook is actually quite good for this task, but I’ve also found that bringing it up with people face-to-face gets people to think about it harder. I like to do a lot of looking on my own first, so that I can say “I’m having a hard time finding participants. Here’s what I’ve done so far. Do you have any other ideas?”

May 5, 2015

Using YouTube: Is There A Generational Gap?

Studies of online video users have identified age-related, or rather generational differences, in how adolescents vs. adults are using YouTube and other video apps. 
In terms of content, adults were most likely to post videos of friends and family doing everyday things, videos of themselves or others doing funny things, videos of an event they attended, and videos of pets or animals. In a sense, they treat video as an archive to collect and keep  memories of everyday life with their family, friends, and pets, humorous moments, and special events. 
In contrast, adolescents most often posted videos that were intentionally staged, scripted, or choreographed videos, ie., "video selfies". Basically, children and teenagers are more likely to treat video as a stage to tell their stories and show their talents. Knowing this, we can design systems that support young users not in capturing and archiving, but in planning and performing and editing compelling narratives. A better approach would be to design tools to help them reflect on their online persona and better understand how their videos are viewed and shared by others.

Apr 8, 2015

UX Has Changed Your Life

Lots of people think about UX as something that just adds a thin veil of “prettiness” on top of existing apps and systems — something that you worry about once you have the tech working, if there’s time. But UX is (or should be) about conceiving and creating  user experiences. UX can help you decide what you should actually build, not just how it should look. And that’s not just a veneer, it really changes what users do.

Some examples of great (and hugely successful) UX:

Interacting with Data: Dropbox was the original cloud-storage service that came with the "Public Folder" option, but GoogleDrive is servicing the same user needs:  easily “cloudify” all sorts of programs such as Zotero libraries and  Eclipse workspaces. Even though those two provide their own storage options, but it’s so much easier to just use one place/service.
Mobile Banking: this is increasingly becoming a basic banking need. US banks have started offering mobile deposits, and mobile transfers, so that ATMs will (hopefully) one day become obsolete. PayPal was the leader in online money transfer, and with new services like Paypal Credit, is also driving the ATM-less banking trend.

Online Customized Food:  If only more food services could be like Dominos. While taste-wise, their pizza is basically the same as that of other competitors, their ordering interface and easy customizing made users fall in love with Domino's. Plus, being able to to see the preparation process and interact with staff working on your pizza -  it's just the experience of being able to think about my pizza-providers as real people can change customers' relationship to pizza.

What all of these sites and services have in common is that they’re not about cutting-edge technologies, and their UX isn't about the color of the buttons, or layout of the page, or anything else that can be A/B tested. They are about combining common tech capabilities and great user experiences.

Dec 27, 2014

Whose data is easier to find?

The Global Data Index ranks countries based on the availability and accessibility of their data in areas such as government spending, election results, pollution levels, and transportation schedules, among others. The UK is at the top of the list, with a 96% score!
Most interesting, and amazingly, the GDI website compiles country comparisons  annually: http://index.okfn.org/.

Dec 19, 2014

Predicting the Future in UX

Paul Kincaid has written about  how fiction, and its writers, tries to predict the future: “we began to feel that the present was changing too rapidly for us to keep up with … things are so different that there is no connection with the experiences and perceptions of our present.” So, even science fiction writers now find it difficult to consider what the future may look like. That made me think about how UX-ers (researchers, designers, developers) are also trying to predict the future, sort of.

When the task is to design something for “three years from now,” we look at how users currently approach a specific challenge, and design to do the same thing better, faster, stronger.That method doesn’t work as well for designing for ten years from now. Designing for ten years from now requires envisioning the infrastructure and complex ecosystem of other technologies that will (likely) be available in the future. Assuming that a nascent technology will be common place, UX researchers and designers need to envision the challenges and opportunities that they may face in that future environment. What would people do if anything could become a display? What would people do if they no longer had to worry about driving themselves from place to place? What would people do if they could instantly connect with anybody in the world? And what would be the best questions to ask, as UX-ers and as future users?