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 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?

Nov 3, 2014

The Science of Art / The Art of Science

Math and Literature. What's the connection? What can writers learn from math?  Great literature and high math have more in common than they seem to. Their similarity centers on the creation of patterns, argues the author of the New Yorker article: "Why writers should learn math". 
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/11/writers-should-learn-math.html#ixzz2BCP2TFjP


Note that it's the creation, not the detection, of patterns that matters. Anybody with a sophisticated software can detect patterns in data, however you choose to define data. Likewise in creative writing, anybody with attention to detail can represent and reflect back to readers some slice of reality, theirs (easier), or that of others (harder, it seems). That's not what math and literature are about. Not really.


"In literature, that big picture means you have to extrapolate to people who are not yourself, which can be a risk as great as the potential reward"


"Presently, we have become too enthralled by the notion of literature as Jackson Pollock action painting, the id flung with violence upon the canvas....The result can be a suffocating narcissism, a lack of interest in the kind of extrapolation and exploration that is necessary to both mathematics and literature".


On chess and literature: "Chess....too [like math]
 requires great intelligence, but it resolves nothing of the human condition. The same distinction exists in fiction, between the diverting and the serious, the trivial and the universal. In both cases, too, formulas are but guideposts that fall away the higher you climb. In the end, you are left alone with your own variables, your own private equations".
I wonder if the reverse has ever been discussed as persuasively: do scientists also need literary skills (beyond the ability to appreciate literature: eg., creative writing). What are the benefits of studying poetry, and even trying to write poetry, for scientists? 

A decade before this article came out I was taking classes in a major business school. Everybody was obsessively searching for ways to be more creative, come up with new ideas, new technologies, innovative businesses, innovative research in business etc. Prescriptions by faculty abounded and still do: read X on creativity, read Y on creative destruction, figure out how to creatively self-destruct your prior initiatives as a way of moving on to something even more creative. 
Good efforts, but the creative process still eludes many. What nobody ever mentioned, let alone suggested, was study poetry, read literature. No MBA of a standard major business school in the US will probably hear such a thing in their program: "take a poetry class", much as they are encouraged to take acting classes to improve their presentation skills. As a literature major, I found that comical to say the least. Can you really expect people to become creative by reading about it, rather than practicing creativity? By reading standardized business books about "creative destruction" and HBS cases, class after class, semester after semester? Really? I kept thinking, if I were to recommend something, that would be to take a poetry class or workshop. But then again, that's why no business school would ever hire me to make such prescriptions. Definitely not the ones I have attended. Or I might be just wrong.

Aug 10, 2014

Ladino Travelogue

A film made for Spanish TV, “El Ultimo Sefardi”  (in Ladino, Spanish subtitles) is a documentary tracing the story of Sephardic Jews through the travels of a young man, Eliezer Papo, born in Sarajevo and now  teaching Ladino at Ben Gurion University. Part travelogue, part documentary….even if you do not know Spanish, enjoy the music and the sights.Runs approximately 1.5 hours. Today Ladino is still used in a few communities in the US, Israel, South Africa, South America, those being the most common countries to which Sephardim migrated.  It is a language of memory — words and phrases we remember hearing others using even in the context of other languages; sadly, it's nobody's native/first language any more.

Sep 1, 2013

Loaded Terms in Socio-Technical Work

The biggest problems in interdisciplinary work arise not when we don’t know the terms that other scientists are using, but when we use the same terms in different way. A recent workshop on sociotechnical systems (at Maryland's DSST Institute) targeted such challenges, and as we tired to make sense of them, we realized how common ground, in language and practice, is necessary (but not sufficient) for interdisciplinary teamwork.

Here are some examples:

Problem: In Computer Science, this term often means “research challenge,” as in “I’m working on the problem of how to connect parents and children who live apart.” However, in some Social Science domains the word “problem” may be reserved for situations that are broken or non-normative. Using the word “problem” takes agency away from the people we am trying to support, instead positioning the designer as “the fixer.” Usually, this is not what people who build systems actually mean. This is a loaded term and, for better or worse,  social scientists, educators and therapists have replaced it with “challenge.”

Theory: In Computer Science, theory is the study of abstract constructs like Algorithms and Data Structures and  developed through mathematical proofs. In the Social Sciences, theories are  heuristics used to make sense of empirical data, and may or may not need to have strong predictive power. There are many types of theories serving different functions (see Halverston’s “What Does CSCW Need to Do with Theories”)

Social Computing: This is a new term, and the jury is still out on what it does and coul mean, both to designers and researchers ("social technologists"). Social computing at the intersection of social science and computational systems, but what is included or excluded? Some people at the workshop equated Social Computing with large-scale social network analysis (e.g., “we looked at 3 mill Tweets”) or Crowdsourcing (e.g., “we leveraged the crowd to do citizen science”), and broadly,  mediated communication for supporting social relationships. Video chat, haptic connectedness devices, online support groups, depending on the research and design goals, can all be aspects Social Computing.

At the workshop we mapped out the research space of DSST, focusing on how we fit into the research space of many different communities of researchers and practitioners.