Thursday, September 29, 2011

Design Studios, Studying Design

Back in August, while attending the ICER conference, I discussed some work being done to incorporate the studio model into the computing classroom. Several people replied, sharing their own work in this area or knowledge of others' work. At least one person I spoke with believed the studio model was impractical. Interestingly enough, there is a discussion about the use of Design Studios within the UX (User Experience) community. In late August, the first of two articles in UX Magazine discussed the basics of Design Studio. The rationale for using Design Studios included the following:

"The reality of designing modern digital solutions is that no individual can solely capture all the complexity of creating a truly vibrant product with various customer engagement points, different usage patterns, and behaviors based on complex needs, goals, and customer backgrounds, all interwoven into an emergent, ubiquitous engagement tapestry. This is why innovation really is, and should be, a team sport."

The above quote reflects a key feature of UX work: obtaining a holistic view of the interactions, perceptions and ramifications of users interacting with digital artifacts. Beyond traditional user interface and graphical design issues (although those are relevant), to include all the complexities that people, as people, bring to the table and what that complexity means for their "experience" (hence the name User Experience). Cognition, affect, behavior, environmental and social factors.

The second of the articles, which came out today, provides resources and guidelines for how you can put Design Studios into action. Very interdisciplinary:

"Teams should be designed to have some balance representing various disciplines. Mix up key stakeholders representing various functions within the company. I have found that it’s crucial to include participants from sales and customer support. They bring a unique vision of the customer and the market to a process. Ideally, Design Studio should cut across executives, sales, customer support, product management, development, marketing, and experience design."

These articles are a great resource if you are interested in the implementation of design studios - either in the classroom or in your workplace.

If you follow the guidelines shared in these articles, ... what has your experience been?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Commonalities Among Computing Professionals Who Work for Good

I am performing a final review of the the production text of my book on socially beneficial uses of computing (officially: Computers and Society: Computing For Good).  The computing topics range all across the discipline of computer science (high performance computing to social media) and the non-computing topics are as diverse as saving endangered sea turtles, medical informatics and educational software for children with disabilities.  Several years in the writing, I met on this journey either virtually or in person, dozens and dozens of people. Looking back on all these wonderful encounters I am struck once again by the commonalities among them. 

1. Passion. More than anything else, the people who shared their stories (and those of their organizations) with me felt that their work was more than a job. Again and again I heard about how the cause they worked towards (earthquake prediction, identifying best practices recommendations for infant care, poverty alleviation) gave a sense of purpose above and beyond a paycheck. When things got tough, their passion for helping people or the environment supported them.

2. Risk Takers. As many books on innovation in business have documented, a willingness to take risks, experience setbacks or even failures, is absolutely necessary. Some people I met had abandoned secure positions to follow their dreams, or within their current careers they strategically stuck their necks out to convince others that their ideas were sound and worthy of support. Again and again. Technically and non-technically. Risk taking, dealing with the inevitable setbacks by getting up and moving forward are an ingrained trait in many of the people who are doing the greatest good with computing.

3. Curious and Open Minded. A common reaction to being a risk taker (whether in the world of computing innovation or elsewhere) is to face and go beyond those who say "it can't be done" or "this is not the time". In fact, as the interdisciplinary computing pioneers I met demonstrated, you need to let these critiques roll off. Instead, keep asking questions, gathering information and recognize there is rarely only one way to solve a problem. In fact, the more that conventional wisdom says this is so, the less likely it is to be true.

4. Keep Technically Current and Constantly Learn. Just as I had the privilege and necessity of diving deep into the world of mobile devices, computer security and other areas of computing, the people who are highly effective and innovative with their socially beneficial projects are continuously studying. Not necessarily (or usually) through formal education, but through reading, experimenting, sharing, and just plain digging into material further than they "had to".

Perhaps more than anything else, the computing and non-computing professionals knew themselves well, and knew what their dreams were. They made a personal commitment to pursue those dreams.

If you are reading this, it is likely you have a desire to "do good" with computing. Do you know what your dreams are and are you pursuing them?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lacking an Understanding of Psychology Can Doom Your Efforts

Mobile devices are inherently interdisciplinary and one would hope that the design and development of them would include a solid understanding of psychology by their creators. But it may not always be so. A few days ago I was in a car with a friend, trying to use her Android to obtain GPS coordinates to a place we wanted to go up in the mountains. If you read my earlier post that included a venture to a Verizon store, you recall that I had a fairly dismal experience trying to investigate the Android. So this was my first experience trying to use an Android in a live situation under some mild pressure (we needed to figure out where we were going before we reached the limits of cell and satellite coverage). I had a heck of a time trying to figure out the UI (User Interface) on the device. All these cool apps covering a wide range of useful tasks and I finally put down the phone in frustration and we headed up the canyon using old fashioned biological GPS (Guidance via Perceptual Sense-making)

My user experience with the Android was terrible. I wondered how the designers and developers had conducted their user research prior to developing the interface. Case in Point: The little magnifying glass on the Android does not Zoom in and out. With a magnifying glass right there in front of you, and used for zooming on other applications, who would intuitively think to do that funny expanded swooping maneuver with your fingers? Who came up with that idea? I'd be willing to bet it wasn't the potential users (someone please, correct me if you have evidence otherwise, as I'd love to hear about the origin of that particular feature of smart phones). Did the product team conduct live interviews and focus groups for example? If so, how did they pose their questions and / or perform their observations?

You have to apply some psychology to the process if you want to produce effective products. Understanding the psychology of human interaction dynamics is important when conducting any type of user, client or student interview, observation or research. It is all too easy to unintentionally lead the conversation or activities and thus bias the information you are gathering. At that point you see what you want to see, and it filters into your end product.

If you want to collect data that is as free as possible from your own perspectives, you have to be on the ball. This applies to usability work, and broader user experience investigations as well.

  • Human interaction dynamics will lead someone to want to agree with their conversational partner if they feel that person is of higher status or in a position of power in some way. This can happen on a subconscious level. You the interviewer or observer have to be alert to not letting on what your hopes are for what you see and hear or what your opinion is of what you see or hear. You say "What was hard about that?" and the other person will look for hard items even if they didn't experience any. Contrast that question with "How easy or difficult was that"? The latter provides no clue as to where you might stand on the ease or difficulty of an experience.
  • You want to appear non threatening and personable in an interview without falling into the "friend trap" of holding a conversation where you will naturally dominate the conversation because the other people view you as the dominant party. Ask their opinions and for expanded explanations and avoid sharing your own - smoothly. If asked your opinion, here is a Bad Way to do respond: "I don't want to share my opinion on the ease of use of XYZ. My opinion isn't relevant here". True, but a real put off and conversation stopper. Worse Way to Respond: "I find it easy to use." Now the user feels stupid or perhaps condescended to and is likely to change their responses to not look stupid, or change their responses by simply giving up on sharing with you on that topic. Better Way to respond and redirect: "I am still forming opinions on that subject. Could you tell me more about what you think (feel) about XYZ?" This approach is accurate (you are forming opinions as you gather data) and redirects the conversation back to them and their experience.

You can try out your use of psychology in a computing context: pick a device or system you own, give it to someone else to use and see how much information you can obtain from them without dominating the conversation or guiding their answers them with your opinions. The person doesn't have to be brand new to using the device or system. although that can make your job easier.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Creating an Interdisciplinary Profile: Interview Style and Your Written Presence

Writing a profile about someone who is interdisciplinary can be challenging but is a lot of fun and an incredible learning experience. Recently, after several people asked me how I go about it I stopped to think about the process. I write these types of profiles in several venues so there isn't a one size fits all answer. No question: there is always lot of data gathering. For every line written, many lines go unwritten and you have to decide what to put in and what to leave out. However, the starting point always includes knowing who your audience is and what their expectations are. Audience understanding leads to what questions to ask in an interview, how you ask them, and then as you write, and those all-important decisions about tone, depth, and overall profile structure. Compare the approach in two very different outlets: a blog post and a book.

Blog Profile Guiding Principle: Be part of the process and keep the information to one, or at most two, points. When I write a blog post I assume my audience expects a fairly short, punchy profile. I have to get to the point rapidly. There will be a computing component and another field (discipline) component.  I assume a broad computing audience that may or may not have experience in the non-computing field. When I conduct the interview (and there is usually only one interview) I can share related experiences as I strive to learn about the other person's work as rapidly as possible. You can only keep someone on a Skype call for so long before everyone's brain wears out.  When I write the blog post I can share my own insights from the interview which helps the audience relate to what I am writing about. In fact, they expect to hear my voice and thoughts – both directly and indirectly. In a sense, my audience and I learn together.
Book Chapter Profile Guiding Principle: Step back and tell a story with many related topics under one major theme. The profiles in my upcoming book on socially beneficial computing are chapter length so you know there is going to be a lot of information which has to be spread out and logically tied together. As in a blog post, there will be a computing component and another field component; my audience is highly unlikely to have experience in the non-computing material. Therefore I know that unless I want to lose my readers at the starting gate I have to provide an engaging yet structured presentation with a clear set of goals. There is time to deepen and broaden the material. My readers do not expect to hear my opinions and insights. Thus when I conduct the interviews (usually there are many interviews extending over many months) I have to pay particular attention to not interjecting my experience and perspective into the conversation. If I don't stick to this interview approach, we will never get to all the complex technical and non-technical information about their work and how it has evolved. Given how often I talk to each person who is part of one of these extended profiles, and the time they make in their crammed schedules to speak with me, I must make every minute count. It's not about me, it's about them.

You can try something I periodically do to keep on my toes: read a profile someone wrote and try to figure out how they structured the interview(s).

Here are links to some of my prior profile posts. What do you think I did to prepare for each interview and what questions did I ask?

Monday, September 5, 2011

How To (and How Not To) Hear What Someone is Telling You

A few days ago I was standing at a store counter and fell into conversation with a programmer who was feeling on top of the world and wanted to talk about his accomplishments. I had never met this guy. When he asked what I do, I decided to share how much I enjoy working with people and discovering what they want, need,  or perhaps are stuck on with regards to computing and technology. These discoveries can lead to innovative, or more importantly, truly helpful solutions.

I had barely uttered a sentence when the guy enthusiastically told me that he "does that all the time" and launched into a monologue about how he conducts the entire software engineering life-cyle and in particular, knows all about requirements gathering and specification development. I could hardly get a word in edgewise, but tried to tell him that I was talking about something more holistic than "reqs and specs" - I was talking about a bigger picture that involves much deeper work. No such luck - he repeated that yes, yes, he worked with customers regularly. I have no doubt he was sincere in his belief that he interacts effectively with users.

Nonetheless, as he continued to talk a mile a minute it dawned on me that here was a perfect example of missing the boat. His overly assertive interaction style caused me to rapidly lose interest in the conversation and revert to  a surface level discussion - after all it was clear he wasn't really hearing me. He was completely unaware of the dampening effect he was having on his listener. Unless he undergoes a personality change at work, he probably interacts similarly with customers and clients. Will the code he develops be well targeted to address their unique needs? Will it be innovative in a way that is meaningful to them?

If you want to really understand a customer, a client, a student (current or potential) you have to stop talking and listen with more than your ears. This is sometimes called "active listening". A contradiction? Not at all - you can be incredibly active without moving, without talking, without forming premature conclusions or judgements. Active listening is how you find out what is really going on - critical subtext, or something that takes a while to rise to the surface, shows up through words, body language, intonations, and many other clues.

Active listening is a way of being - it is not something you turn on or off "when needed". Interesting and important information doesn't appear on cue or when you will it. Human psychology doesn't work like that. There are many skills and techniques you can develop to facilitate meaningful insights, but the moment you stop listening actively something critical will fly by and you'll never know it.

Test out active listening with a small experiment. The next time you interact with someone you don't know such as the guy behind the deli counter, your hair dresser, the woman whose dog wants to play with your dog at the park:

1. Talk less - let them do more of the talking. You don't have to pull a silent routine, but subtly encourage them to talk while holding back on directing the conversation as much as you can.

2. Resist coming to premature conclusions or drifting off on mental tangents ("What a boring job...why don't they use more modern cash registers?...I wonder how much money s/he makes?...did I remember to lock the car? those receipts really contain dangerous chemicals on them?). Just take it all in.

3. Listen with more than your ears. Be alert to any little voice inside that wants to point something out to you about this person's motivations and perspective. Register the information for later and keep listening.

What do you hear when you actively listen? Based upon your interaction, what have you learned about this person's perceptions and what is important to them?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Fun and Weird For Friday

It's Friday, it is the start of a holiday weekend in the US, so I thought I'd share some fun things I found. Way back in the Dark Ages when robots first hit the commercial scene I was entranced by a review of one home robot that had a built-in set of sensors to detect life forms. The robot had a limited speech capability to make it friendly. The early models had some slight glitches; apparently one robot snuggled up to a toilet bowl (the size and shape somehow registered as sentient) and talked to it. Another robot used a heat sensor to get just a little too close to the fireplace, again thinking it was alive. But oh, I wanted one.

We have come a long way. I have eyed a Roomba, not necessarily because I need a robot vacuum cleaner but because I wanted to watch it interact with my cat. But now, things have gotten even better. Check these out:

RoboKing Triple Eye vacuum cleaner - it can spy on people, scope for dirt and you can control it via Smart Phone when you are stuck in a traffic jam and are bored to tears breathing exhaust fumes.

Bakebot: Plans for a robot to cook for you...this one needs some work before it goes commercial. I happen to prefer to be my own mad scientist in the kitchen. Especially while this device is still in the oven.

Play Rock Paper Scissors against a computer. You can play against a Novice or a Veteran. Then you can read what the computer is thinking. You will get sucked right into this one...really. When I played against a novice computer my results were: Win, Win, Tie, Lose, Tie, Tie. When I played against a veteran, my results were: Lose, Lose, Tie, Lose, Lose. The computer performed a complex seeming analysis of what I was thinking and then told me what 20,000 (or so) other people did that was similar to my strategy . When I played the Novice, I was actually trying to outwit it. When I played the Veteran I just decided to randomly wing it and it was quite engaging to see how the computer analyzed my winging strategy. You can get sucked in. Look how much I wrote about Rock Paper Scissors! So if you have no plans for the evening...

I really dislike mushrooms but I had a lovely time growing little yellow mushrooms with Mushroom Life and listening to them go "eep" "eep" "eep"; the faster I clicked the faster went the "eeps" and the faster the little yellow things popped up on the grid. More smiles on your face.

You can play Mushroom Life seriously of course. But after the spy vacuum, the half-baked robot cook, and doing battle with the computer over RPS, it seems fitting to work on making music out of popping mushrooms.

Have a nice weekend ("eep").