Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008 has been a good year

As the year draws to a close, looking back on 2008 I'm really thankful for the following things:

My health
Unlike last year (when I snapped my right achilles tendon playing soccer), or 2005 (left Anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction), or 2002 (cholesteatoma & radical mastoidectomy - left ear), this year has been one of steadily improving health and fitness. I've been going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week; walking more; sleeping more (generally 8 hours a night!); and eating much, much better. My weight is the same, but it seems that there's more in the right places, and less in the wrong.

My work
My company - Meld Consulting - started up just over a year ago. Our first projects kicked off in January with some UX work carried over from my time at Red Square. I did some work on projects for oneworld Alliance (oneworld.com) and YHA Australia (yha.com.au), which I'd started in 2007. I was fortunate to do some UX/IA work for Andrew Morse at Digital Tsunami (multinail.com.au); and then did some usability/UX consulting work for Maersk Line (maerskline.com).

As the year progressed, things picked up: some work with Lisa Herrod at Scenario Seven; and then UX consulting work for the NSW Department of Education & Training. That work came in three parts: UX strategy & architecture for the Click technology guide for parents (http://www.schools.nsw.edu.au/news/technology/index.php); then some UX & IA work for the DET Procurement unit; and then the major piece of work for the year - the UX strategy, stakeholder research, and UX design for the redesign of the DET Staff Intranet.

Most importantly, though, I've been busy. The work has been coming in steadily, with the occasional peak; and without any real troughs.

Writing & Talking
One of the things I really hoped to do this year was to write more. Last year I had a few articles published in UXMatters, which was great, but this blog was sorely neglected (only 16 posts, and none that were really memorable). I wanted this year to be different - for articles (of some substance) to appear both on UXMatters - which I did, four of them - and here, 32! some of which weren't totally trivial.

I also wanted to make a concerted effort to contribute to other people's writing, by posting comments to their articles and helping to further the discussion around their work. I haven't really been keeping track, but I know I've posted more comments this year than I have in the past.

I've also been privileged to be invited to present at two conferences during 2008: Web Directions UX '08 held in Melbourne in June; and Oz-IA 2008 held in Sydney in September. Two very different, but equally excellent conferences. I'm hoping I get a chance to speak at both again in 2009, but we'll have to wait and see.

I'm really thankful for what Twitter has contributed to my life this past year. And by 'Twitter' I mean the 350 people or so who communicate with me on a daily basis, and who have enriched my personal and professional life to such a large extent during the year. It really isn't possible to articulate what a difference this has made for me during the year - the innumerable conversations, comments, links, ideas, dialogue (in the Greek sense) that have helped me gain a much greater appreciation for this thing we do called User Experience.

I've also been most fortunate to get to know people around the world just a little bit better. To share, in some small part - and to be able to share - the more mundane, but much more important things that enrich our personal lives. I don't want to single people out, because that's not really the point.

Giving something back
2008 has been a very good year for me - both personally & professionally - and I've been lucky to have a few opportunities to give something back to the community and industry as a whole. Earlier in the year Meld was one of the sponsors of WebJam (webjam.com.au) and just recently one of three sponsors of Sydney's WebBlast end-of-year party (webblast.org).

I've been honoured and somewhat humbled (I'll be honest and say that humility in my case is a really relative concept) by being asked to provide feedback and input into other people's work. I can't express just what it means to be asked by a peer to assist them with their own projects; I just hope my small contribution repaid their faith in me.

Towards the end of November I posted a message to the IA Institute members list about an idea I'd had for a local group - a book club focused on User Experience books. The idea elicited quite a bit of interest and as we approach the year's end 31 local UX Book Clubs have been formed around the world, with some 450+ people signed up to attend. The Silicon Valley UX Book Club was the first to hold a meeting - on Dec 16 in Mountain View, California. I'm hoping we see a lot more of these in 2009.

None of that would have happened without the support and active contributions from a whole group of people - including the 30 people who volunteered to coordinate a book club in their city - but especially Russ Unger, Andrew Boyd, Will Evans and Livia Labate. These are amazing people, and not because they helped with the book club :)

And of course...
I wouldn't have been in anything like such a good position if it wasn't for the strong, steadfast, and unwavering love and support of my wife, Danielle. She is simply wonderful; I did well to marry her.

And finally...
I hope 2008 has been a good year for you. More importantly, and regardless of what this year has been like, I hope 2009 is better. As this year draws to a close I'm already looking forward to what 2009 has to offer. I hope you are too.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


A film - large or small - comes together through a long process in which filming is just one component. Individual scenes are filmed, edited, special effects added, edited some more. And the filming of each scene doesn't occur in sequence: the crew doesn't open the script on page 1 and start shooting. No, each 'shot'; each scene of the film is shot separately; out of sequence; and in a schedule suited to availability of actors, locations, equipment & crew.

The final result is the sequenced combination of each of those scenes, after shooting, special effects, and editing - into the integrated whole that tells a tale; entertains us; frightens us; makes us laugh or cry, think or angered. A sequence of small snippets building into a powerful whole.

In a well-made film every piece is contributing to the overall effect. Nothing is extraneous; nothing detracts.

One of the lesser-known roles in film-making - and TV, for that matter - has the job of making sure that everything flows smoothly from scene to scene. They ensure that a watch doesn't suddenly appear as an actor exits through one door and enters the next room because the scenes were shot days, weeks or even months apart. They ensure that a vase full of flowers don't change colour during a scene; or that a rower on a Viking long-boat in the 6th century AD isn't wearing spectacles!

This is the job of the continuity person. And their role is important, because they help to preserve the illusion on which the entire film or performance rests. We need to be immersed in a film; engaged in the story; not distracted by the flaws in the production. Any discontinuity causes us to step back out of the experience, and lose our engagement.

Such disruptions to the flow of a performance ruin our experience and irreparably harm our perception of its quality and value.

The same thing happens with our perception of an organization when one interaction is discontinuous or inconsistent with another. This may be the rude delivery guy juxtaposed with the friendly sales assistant; or the unexpected charges added to a transaction after a smooth online ordering process.

The question is: who's looking after continuity at your organization? Who's job is it to ensure that the spell is never broken? Who's making sure that all of the touch-points and all the separate interactions we design and deliver over time fit together seamlessly, without gaps or inconsistencies?

Who's your continuity person?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Information Architecture, Content & SEO

I was reminded during a discussion this morning of the interplay between information architecture, content and SEO in the success of a Web site. I thought back to a thread on the IA Institute's mail list from July that touched on one element of this issue, and I figured I might as well extract that conversation and make it available here.

The initial question in the thread came from Jenny Wallace, a candidate for the masters in Interaction Design and Information Architecture at the Univ. of Baltimore. Jenny asked:
"How Search Engine Optimization and Information Architecture can build a reciprocal trust relationship between information providers and information consumers. Any thoughts?"
My response was this:
"The notion of trust in this relationship is primarily one - to my mind - of meeting expectations for the information consumers. The consumer will, frequently, land on a page deep into the site content hierarchy and will immediately begin assessing the page for relevancy based on the high-level content labels presented to them. This is clearly where a partnership is most strongly required between IA and SEO practitioners, so that the visually-dominant labels (headings, titles, sub-headings, bold terms etc) are closely aligned to the original search terms that brought the consumer to the site in the first place.

Trust online is a highly fragile thing, and visitors to a site - particularly when originating within a search engine - will be twitchy to begin, so it is imperative that relevance is established quickly, clearly and unambiguously. It should be the case that the higher-level content labels are the ones most closely tied to the search terms - and it's here that the semantic structure of the HTML comes to the fore.

It is also important to recognise the conflict inherent in the relationship between SEO and IA. Although the goal of SEO should be to attract pre-qualified potential consumers to site, quite often this is interpreted to mean "attract as many people as possible". For the IA, this represents a real conflict of interest: they're being tasked with structuring site content to suit the needs of an audience who - by rights - should never be considered in the information architecture.

And it is here that trust can be destroyed very, very quickly: SEO tactics that are designed to draw in visitors with only a very tenuous interest in the actual product or service on offer; and those visitors being presented with content that has little or no relevance to their needs.

One last point: the information architecture strategy for a site must explicitly accommodate visitor behaviour that does not initiate on the home page. Each and every page must provide the sort of context and relevancy triggers for the visitor so that they can not only decide to continue their journey on the site, but also can see clearly how to commence that journey."
Regular readers of this blog may have come across another post of mine from July that listed out a bunch a questions that UX practitioners can use as a way to frame the development of a UX strategy for their (web-centric) project. Two of those questions were:
  1. If people arrive at your site somewhere other than the home page, how will you provide them context and communicate both intent and possibilities?
  2. How will people find your site? And how do the activities you undertake to encourage them tie in with your other design consideration?
[Note: they actually appear as questions 13 & 14 in the original post.]

The issue of establishing trust and credibility in the minds of visitors arriving via search engines can be seen to be a sub-component of the overall set of responses one might make to these two questions. Trust and credibility should be two of the considerations when formulating your overall content and SEO strategies, and these should tie in to the information architecture you design for the site.

These three areas: information architecture, content, and SEO, need to be considered together in order to meaningfully address the two questions above; and one is not really complete unless it is being complemented by the other two.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What experience designers can learn from the Mini...

The very first car I owned was a Mini. That was back in 1988, just after I finished high school. It was worth about $1,500; was British Racing green in colour; and stuck in third gear when it was cold. It didn't have air conditioning; there wasn't much room in it; and it was nowhere near as good as the cars my mates were driving.

I loved that car. It cornered like no car I've driven since - including two sports cars. The car body is wide, and low to the ground. You could throw it into a corner at 70 or 80km/h and it would just hug the road and turn like it was on rails. When they were first released in the '60s, they came with a guarantee that you couldn't roll one.

[Historical note: Turns out that last part wasn't entirely true, as my older brother demonstrated by falling asleep at the wheel and rolling it down an embankment. Ironically, he wasn't wearing a seatbelt, which saved his life: he fell flat across the front seats as the car rolled and hit a telegraph pole - across the roof. A seat belt would have held him upright in his seat, and his head would have been crushed by the telegraph pole. Instead, he walked away with a split forehead.]

The Mini Cooper S was also a very powerful little car. When combined with it's cornering and general handling, it made an awesome little race car. It's hard to believe when you see the parade of V8 cars going around the race-track today that the Mini won the Bathurst 1000 in 1966. Actually, Mini's came in the first nine places. If you want to know why your Holdens and Fords have good handling today, you can mark it down to the embarassment they experienced getting trounced in '66 by a little Mini :)

The Mini was, quite simply, an enormously fun car to drive. More than anything else, that sense of fun was what made the car unique - as much as its iconic shape.

So in 2002 when new owners BMW re-launched the Mini marque, there was a great deal of consternation felt around the world by Mini owners and drivers all terribly worried that the new version would have lost those characteristics that made the car unique.

A few years back a friend of mine was looking to replace his car - an Audi TT. He had a mind to get something a little more sensible, which in his case meant an Audi A4 Cabriolet. While he was in the process of looking he also figured he might as well test drive a few other cars that he had no intention of buying, but would like to drive at least once.

One of the cars he wanted a turn in was the new Mini Cooper. So he rolled up to the Mini dealership in his TT, wandered in and asked for a test drive. A few minutes later he was rolling out of the dealership in a Mini, ready to put it through it's paces.

Now, I'm not sure this is the same all over, but in Australia the car salesman (literally true) comes along with you. My friend was behind the wheel; salesman in the passenger seat. Away they go.

My buddy drove that car around for a few minutes getting used to the handling (much better than his TT), the performance, brakes etc. But he wasn't really all that thrilled. He even said so to the salesman. To which the salesman replied: "You're driving it like an Audi. This is a Mini. Drive it like you just stole it."

Ten minutes after that he was filling in paperwork to buy it. After 40 years Mini had changed a lot in their car: but they retained the essence of what made the original such a joy to drive. And in doing so, they're winning over a new generation of enthusiastic car owners.

The lesson here is that, having gone to so much trouble to design and build a product that creates a unique, highly-valued experience, it's possible to reinvent the product without losing touch with the core elements of the experience that made it successful.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A note about queues and service windows

We've all experienced that annoying sensation that we're in the "slow queue". The line next to us seems to be moving faster, but you know that if you shift queues that'll be the when the new line slows down. You've also probably seen that some places set up their queues differently. Typically, you'll see one of the following configurations:
  • everyone queues up in one line, and goes to the next open service window/register/person (often seen in banks these days, and at airport check-in counters); or
  • people join a queue behind one service window or another. Typically, people will join the shortest queue. (This is what you typically see in fast-food outlets and supermarkets.)
What you may not know, is that getting people to form a single line and go to the next available service window is much more efficient for everyone. Because no-one is necessarily held up by the person with all the excess baggage, or the wheelbarrow full of pennies that need counting, everyone tends to get served faster, on average, than the other model.

The down-side, is that the single queue *looks* longer, and can increase the potential for people baulking. But, the queue also moves much faster, so people are also less likely to abandon the queue altogether.

When designing your service, and looking at your layout options at check-out, it's important to keep these things in mind.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

UX Book Club Sydney

UX Book Club has a new home at uxbookclub.org. Check out the site for details and add your name if you're interested. (If you've already sent your details via twitter or email, there's no need to add it again.)

This description has been posted to the IA Institute members list; and will go out to the IxDA list later day. But for those who aren't subscribed to either...

I'm thinking of starting up a UX Book Club in Sydney. The group would meet once a month (1 - see below), and would come together to discuss a particular UX book. The club would operate as follows:
  • Everyone who attends needs to read the nominated book (you won't be barred from entry, but it helps everyone get more out of the night);
  • Everyone needs to jot down and bring along: 2 things in the book that really struck a chord; and 1 thing they either hated, disagreed with; or don't understand.
  • The book would be within the practice of user experience, which might include books like Indi Young's Mental Models; Dan Saffer's Design Gestural Interfaces; Todd Zakiwarfel's Prototyping; and classics such as Don't Make Me Think; the Inmates Are Running the Asylum; etc.
  • The book should not be arduous to read!
  • Next Month's book will be announced at the current meeting.
  • Communication via twitter & through mailing lists like IAI-members, IxDA and some of the LinkedIn groups dealing with UX and/or IA.
In keeping with the book-club theme the location would be somewhere like a wine bar (or a bookstore), although the noise level has to be low, and be able to accommodate a group of 15-30 people.

As an added twist, each book might - where appropriate - include a film reference to watch along with reading the book. So, for example, Todd's book on prototyping - or Buxton's book on sketching - might be read in conjunction with a viewing of IronMan. Dan Saffer's book on gestural interfaces might be read in conjunction with a viewing of Minority Report or Quantum of Solace. People would be instructed to watch the film with the topic of the book in mind. An alternative - if a venue could be found - would be to show parts of the movie at the book club meeting, but I think it's more managable if people watch it themselves.

I know some of the authors who's books we'll be reading/critiquing follow this list: in principle, would you be willing to provide a signed copy of your book as a prize for the group? Would it get to be too much of a burden if this sort of thing sprang up in a bunch of different places and each one was asking for a freebie!?

Such a meeting would provide experienced folks with a chance to revisit some classics in a critical light; as well as getting an incentive to read some more current materials. And for less experienced folks it would provide them with a forum to ask those 'I don't get it' questions that they might otherwise never understand.

I haven't sorted out a location for the get-together; and it will probably not start meeting until after Christmas.

Do you think that would work? Do you know if anything similar has been tried (and failed) previously?

Note 1: There has been some discussion as to whether monthly would be too frequent. Thoughts on this point would be welcome.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why I don't go to cinemas...

Over the years I've put a fairly large investment into our home theatre set up. We have a nice TV - not HD, but close; really good speakers - without being stupidly expensive; and good-quality wiring and layout to get the most from each component.

And, of course, we have a very nice, large, and extremely comfortable sofa: it can seat four people easily across, and still leaves room for a 5th & 6th if need be; or just a 5th person lain out in the corner.

We have a large living area, that flows straight on to the kitchen, so it's easy to hit the fridge for refreshments in the middle of the movie; grab a snack; make a coffee; pour a glass of wine etc. And the TV is wall-mounted, so you can easily see it from the kitchen - you don't miss the action while you're up and about.

As the home theatre has gotten better over the years, we've been seeing films at the cinema less and less. Instead, we buy DVDs and watch them at home.

Last Christmas we received a $100 Gift Card for the new Gold Class cinemas in Sydney (Greater Union, George St). We finally decided to take advantage of that, break out of our home-viewing habits, and go to see Quantum of Solace (new Bond film) at the cinema. Gold Class cinemas provide you with big comfy seats, food & drink service during the film; and a relatively small audience. All the benefits of home, but someone does all the hard work, and the cinema experience is always going to out-do our little set-up at home.

Ordering the tickets for the movie online was a pain in the ass, just to get the whole experience started. The booking process was singularly unhelpful, and the seat layout displayed during the selection stage didn't match the layout printed at the confirmation stage - so we had no idea whether our seats would be what we hoped. Getting the site to accept the Gift Card serial number was similarly painful, but after several attempts - and the realisation that Gift Cards were different to Gift Vouchers - we were successful. $82.50 later and we have our tickets.

Arriving at the cinema everything was good. We were there in plenty of time, but the foyer at the cinema has no signage to indicate where the Gold Class lounge is situated. After looking around blankly for a while we asked a staff member who pointed us upstairs and said "Through the glass doors". "Up there?" I asked. "Yes, we only have one set of glass doors." Right. Silly us for not knowing that already.

We placed an order for a gourmet pizza ($21); and two banana smoothies ($8.50 each). Asked for them to be brought in around the 30 minute mark of the film; paid; and waited for the theatre to open.

Five minutes before the scheduled opening time we were asked to head in; up some more stairs and into the theatre. We were shown to our seats and given a cursory demonstration of the seat controls - "The seat controls are located here." *Shrug* OK.

First things first: try out the seat controls. Foot rest: check; reclining: check. Look over to my wife - nothing. Controls are dead. Go off to find the stewardess who comes over; wiggles something in back of the seat and now it works.

The gourmet pizza place that delivers our pizza on a Friday night sends us two medium pizzas for around $30. The local cafe makes a mean banana smoothie - all fresh ingredients, natural yoghurt, honey, wheatgerm - all for $6.50.

The food and smoothies served up at the Gold Class cinema were very average by comparison. The pizza was passable, but not worth the $21. The smoothies were really milkshakes, and used that banana-flavoured concentrate instead of real bananas. When they arrived during the movie, the waitress stood in front of me (blocking my view of the screen) while she fluffed around re-arranging the tray table between us. Eventually the food and drinks were served; the waitress left. And apparently someone significant had been killed, rather spectacularly and gruesomely.

The whole point of the Gold Class cinema is that it should be substantially better than any other movie viewing experience. The cinema operators seem to think that they can get away with serving over-priced, sub-standard food and drinks and people will put up with it because it's better than seeing a movie in the cheap seats among the great unwashed.

But guess what: I get a better movie experience at home! No-one gets in my way while the film's running. The ingredients are fresh; and I can at least pause the film to get the pizza when it arrives. Hell, we can make our own smoothies for a quarter of the price, and they'll be just the way we like them.

Our outing cost us a total of $120.50 + bus fares. For the same price I could have bought two new-release HD DVD titles; pizza; wine; smoothies; and be able to watch them again and again at any time.

Greater Union blew an opportunity to get my wife and I out of the house and seeing new release films with them - and paying a premium for the better seats etc - by realising that we weren't going to compare the experience with what we get in the general-admission cinemas. A little bit of care with the service; serving up food and drinks that matched or bettered the fare available from a decent local cafe; and we'd be coming back for more.

Instead, I think next time we'll be buying the movie when it's released on DVD, and enjoying ourselves at home with friends.

PS: The movie itself was enjoyable. Worth seeing, if only to see the continuing evolution of the Bond character in this new, grittier incarnation.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The problem with banks and social media

I've been doing some thinking recently about the different ways corporations of varying types could use social media as a way to reach out and communicate more openly and effectively with their customers, staff, shareholders, and the community. I've been thinking about it in the context of extending the brand values of the organisation into social media and what it means for different organisations to be 'authentic' in their engagement. And I've been thinking about how to make that social engagement a consistent part of the overall brand experience.

And I keep running into problems with two particular types of organisations: Government; and Banks.

Government & Social Media
There is so much that government - at all levels - can do with social media. The possibility for engagement with the community around policy development, social justice, customer service and law reform is just incredible; and that's without getting into the campaign and electioneering side of things we've seen recently (that's more politics than government, though).

The problem I see with Government using social media revolves around policy. Policies are formal statements of the government department's position on a particular topic. Policies are concrete guidelines, and as such aren't really open for interpretation or discussion. Which makes it hard for front-line departmental staff to communicate openly about issues except by quoting the relevant policy.

So while there's a lot of potential for Government to use social media, they also need to put in place a strategy for handling situations honestly, openly, and with real intent to listen.

Banks & Social Media
We put a lot of faith in our banks. They hold our mortgages; they hold our cash; they transfer money to other companies when we ask them to, to pay off our bills, or donate money, or simply move funds around.

We need to trust our banks; all our financial institutions. And as we've seen recently, that trust is both critical to the smooth operation of our financial markets; and incredibly fragile. Social media, and the increased level of engagement that comes from it, places that trust at risk. At least, that's how it looks when you let all of your front-line employees - any employee - interact with any customer, or potential customer, in an open and transparent manner.

I mean, as much as we like the idea that our bank will be honest and own up to making a mistake; what we'd prefer more is a bank that doesn't make mistakes in the first place. The thing is: I know they sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes systems screw up; people get the process wrong; hit the wrong button; type in the wrong amount; and the wrong amount of money ends up in the wrong account.

What I'd prefer, when that happens, is that they be honest with me. You know - own up to their mistake, and tell me what they're doing to a) make it right; and b) stop it happening again. Seth Godin put it like this:

"I'd replace the expensive sponsorships and buildings with something more valuable, quicker to market and far more efficient: people. Real people, trustworthy people, honest people... people who take their time, look you in the eye, answer the phone and keep their promises. Not as easy to implement as writing a big check for the Super Bowl, but a lot more effective." - Seth Godin

So yes, it's difficult. And yes, there are risks. But if you keep screwin' with your customers: taking their money; making a huge profit; not being honest with them; and not providing good, honest service... they'll join a community bank; or go somewhere else. And you'll have no-one to blame but yourself.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The importance of reflection

We've all been in situations in our professional lives where things didn't go exactly according to plan. But how often do we take the time to sit down and take the time to reflect on where it all went wrong?

There are any number of ways in which we can stuff things up. It's a sad fact of life that we makes mistakes - spectacularly so at times. None of us are perfect; and, more importantly, most of us are constantly trying to expand our skill set, experience, and knowledge. Learning is a critical aspect of our professional lives, and one of the best ways to learn is to just give it a try. And when you give things a try, sometimes you'll get it wrong.

Get used to it.

More importantly, if you really want to get the most out of the failure as a learning experience, you need to go back and think critically about what went wrong.

In order to learn from our mistakes our reflection needs to include several components:
  1. Reflection is best done in proximity to the event itself;
  2. Be objective;
  3. Look at the problem from a range of different perspectives;
  4. Explore different possibilities for avoiding such errors in the future;
  5. Commit to improve and do better next time.
1. Reflect quickly
It's important to take the time to look back at the events while they're still clear in your head. The longer you wait the harder it will be to remember exactly what happened, and a lot of the details will be lost.

2. Be Objective
This is probably one of the most important elements of good reflection and learning. It's normal to feel angry, frustrated, or just plain stupid when things go wrong. While you're in that frame of mind is the wrong time to try to reflect on the problem. Wait until you've calmed down; get some distance - but not too much! Don't forget point 1.

Objectivity is necessary for the reflection to really provide any value. If you're not looking objectively at the situation, then it's likely that a lot of what's going through your head is more blame than responsibility. Reflecting should be an opportunity for you to ask: 'What did I do wrong?' 'What can I do better next time?'

If you find yourself cataloguing all the instances where other people stuffed up, then I suggest you give it a rest for a while and come back when you have a bit more distance. What others did wrong is not the focus of the exercise.

3. Different Perspectives
A good way to uncover insights into why things went awry is to put yourself into the shoes of some of the other actors in the situation - client, colleagues, family etc. Try to look at the situation from their perspective: what were their expectations? How did the actual events match those expectations? Were they being listened to? What would they have seen?

If possible, and if you have the opportunity, it can be useful to actually discuss the events with others. Not as a formal de-brief - although these can be good for the project team - but as a way to gain an extra dimension to the problem. Remember, the idea here is to gain a better understanding of the path events took so that you can start to look at ways to avoid the same problem in the future.

4. Explore possibilities
Thinking about our mistakes can be painful; and something that we'd like to get over quickly. One way to do that is to come up with one good idea for not making the mistake in the future and calling a job well done.

But like most ideation activities, the first ideas are often not the best. Treat reflection in the same way: throw down a whole bunch of ideas and then start going through them. Look at each possible solution both in terms of how it might have affected the mistake for the better; and whether there would possibly be any further consequences down the track. The last thing you want to do is take a different tack next time and make things worse!

5. Commit to doing it better
OK, so you've thought about your mistakes; looked at it from different perspectives; come up with a few ideas that you think would work in the future. For many people, that's the end of it. When the same situation arises in the future, they fall into the exact same behaviour; make the same decisions; and the same mistakes occur.

The point of reflecting on our mistakes is to make ourselves better at that activity in the future. But it usually takes an explicit commitment on our parts before that change in behaviour, thinking, and action comes together and actually results in a different approach next time.

Things to reflect on...
Short answer: everything. A meeting that goes pear-shaped; a design document that is completed misunderstood; a decision that cascades into a project disaster (budget, time, etc); taking a bad job/client; a clash with a colleague.

It can also be interesting, and useful, to spend time reflecting on things that we've seen or read - articles, books, a design, a product, a presentation. In this case, the aim is to think about how we can fit this idea or concept into our knowledge and make use of it in future.

I don't have time to think!
This is a pretty common reaction whenever the topic of reflection comes up: I don't have time to sit and think. So let me ask you: do you have time to make the same mistakes over and over again.

I was once told, without any hint of irony, that I wasn't paid to sit around and think. That was, and remains, perhaps the most short-sighted thing I've ever heard.

I once read that senior managers should spend at least 25% of their time thinking about the future of their company; and another 25% reflecting on the past. Whenever I mention that to people in senior roles they can't help but laugh. It seems ridiculous that we might spend that much time 'not doing any real work'. But again I ask: if you're not learning from your mistakes, then what 'real work' are you really doing?

Do you take the time to reflect? Don't you think you should?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sample Size Oddities on UXMatters

My latest column for UXMatters was published over night. Sample Size Oddities - http://www.uxmatters.com/MT/archives/000352.php

"It might seem counterintuitive, but the larger the proportion of a population that holds a given opinion, the fewer people you need to interview when doing user research. Conversely, the smaller the minority of people who share an opinion, the more people you need to interview.

Mariana Da Silva has written an article about sample sizes in market research—or user research—titled “The More the Merrier.” In the article, Mariana made a comment that has caused some consternation—and for good reason."

Take a read, and let me know what you think.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

They're not 'volunteers'...

The October 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review carries a feature story on the ways in which organizations can harness the power of the customer-base to enhance the product or service on offer. The article: "The Contribution Revolution" by Scott Cook - sounds like a good article on the use of customer engagement in business, but instead highlights the lack of understanding of social media in business.

We'll get to the negative aspect of the article shortly. On the plus side The Contribution Revolution puts forward a model for a 'user contribution system' - new phrase; makes a good TLA - UCS. The UCS describes the different types of user contribution - active/passive; aggregates content/stuff for sale/behavioural data/resources. Utilising the power of such contribution can provide companies with a number of solid, fundamental benefits:
  • Reduced costs
  • Increased scalability
  • Competitive advantage
The article goes on to talk about the ways in which user contribution can help your company. These include:
  • customer service
  • marketing
  • employee support (intranet-based)
  • capital resources
  • design and development
  • production
There aren't really any great surprises in here for anyone familiar with social media and customer engagement, with the possible exception of 'capital resources'. So lets take a more detailed look at that item.

Capital Resources
The example offered here is Skype. Their voice-over-IP service was built using existing infrastructure - the Internet - and relies on the processing capacity of your computer instead of needing network infrastructure of their own. This is one notion of social media or user contribution that isn't widely discussed: in addition to contributing their own time, ideas, and passion - they also bring their own hardware infrastructure to the party.

This is true of all the video uploaded to youtube: the production work - what there is of it - is carried out on the contributors' own equipment. It's true of the applications submitted to Apple's appstore (for iPhones and iPod Touch) and those in use on Facebook - strong contributors to the value proposition of those services.

The bad part...
OK, so far we've seen a fairly uncontroversial discussion of the ways in which an organization can open up it's boundaries a little and reap some of the rewards discussed above. However, let me come back to the article title, in full this time: "The Contribution Revolution: letting volunteers build your business".

The choice of 'volunteers' as the label to apply to contributors in this context is rather unfortunate. It reinforces an 'us' and 'them' mentality that is at the heart of many organizations' difficulties in understanding the power of customer engagement strategies and the use of social media.

It explains why the section on Customer Service talks about company-sponsored forums rather than strategies for going out and engaging with customers wherever they may happen to be. This is why we see companies struggling to stem a tide of negative sentiment through strategies centred on the creation of 'controlled' public spaces. The aim is to control the message rather than to seriously understand the issues and address them. And companies are scared of such negativity in the public domain; they don't understand the frustration that drives such negativity; and so they assign reasons and motivations that speak to this lack of understanding rather than recognising the root cause lies with them.

It also explains why the article doesn't talk at all about customer engagement occuring beyond the bounds of the organization in channels such as Twitter. To be honest, the article doesn't cover engagement strategies at all. It doesn't cover the need for authenticity and transparency in customer engagement: look at the recent farce perpetrated by the National Australia Bank with their uBank social media experiment; or the robot-like early attempts by Telstra on Twitter. At least Telstra seems to be improving (@bigpondteam) in that issues are no longer being shuttled off-channel to be dealt with 'quietly'.

To characterise the social media and co-creation movements as a form of volunteerism is ludicrous. These trends represent a blurring of the lines demarcing the boundaries of traditional businesses. They represent a change in the economics of product and service design, and manufacturing; a fundamental shift from concrete and discrete corporate entities to networked entities whose boundaries are amorphous at best.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Boats, Bridges and Buildings: structuring UX teams

There's a recurring theme in discussions within the user experience design community on the most appropriate team structure and composition for a UX project. A range of issues tend to crop up: methodology, skills, deliverables, structure - all aimed at resulting in a 'best practice' notion.

For me, this is often akin to saying "I'm going to build something; what should my team look like?" There's simply no meaningful way to answer that question without know what it is you're going to build.

If my aim is to construct a boat, then some water and flotation modelling might be in order. A nautical engineer might be able to help me with that. They can design the actual boat for me, too. Or I might use a specialist ship designer. I'll need a master shipwright as well, and probably a bunch of shipwrights to help them. There'll be carpenters and plumbers - for the walls, floors and interiors; and lets not forget a mechanical engineer to put together and install an actual engine.

All of which would be completely useless, and pointless, if my aim were to build a bridge or a large building.

But there'd be similarities too. Instead of modelling how the boat handles high seas, I might carry out computer simulations - or small-scale prototypes - to test out how my bridge handles high winds or earthquakes. My ship designer would be replaced by an architect; my master shipwright by a civil engineer; my shipwrights by a host of construction workers; etc etc.

My bridge doesn't have an interior, so no need for interior designers, carpenters, plumbers and the like.

And, of course, all three types of building project could do with the services of a project manager.

There be similarities, too, in the types of deliverables we'd need in the early stages (especially) of the process. Detailed blueprints are common to all construction projects; materials estimates; project plans; prototypes; 3D renderings; to name a few.

The thing is: everybody knows this already. No-one would expect to take the ship-building team over to the river and get them to build a bridge; or put up a two-storey house. So why would we expect the UX team who designs a complex piece of desktop software to pick up and design - with equal proficiency - the sales and fulfilment process for an online business. Of course the requirements of the two projects are different. Of course the team, methodology, structure, skills & deliverables need to be matched to the characteristics of the project.

Thinking otherwise is to simplify the notion of experience design into an undifferentiated umbrella term that fails to reflect the complexity of the activity.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Comparing UX methodologies

In order to extend the conversation Joshua Porter kicked up at bokardo.com on the benefits of activity-centred design and its possible superiority over other design methodologies, I'd like to offer up the following by way of evaluation criteria...

If you would like to proffer up some UX methodology as being superior to any other, then what you're effectively saying is that *any* UX team, working on *any* UX project, will produce a superior result by using that methodology.

In other words, to justify the assertion, you need to agree that the team members and project requirements are inconsequential with respect to the overall quality of the end result.

So now, think of those projects where the methodology has been identified as the key success factor and ask yourself: was it the methodology alone, or the combination of people, tasks, method & the specific requirements of the project all being aligned that made for such a successful end result? My guess is that the methodology is not a sufficient condition for success.

That means for your own team, and project, cast a critical eye over your team and think about the requirements of the project. Then choose the collection of tasks & process that best suits.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Activity-centred Design - a response to Joshua Porter


[Please forgive me for posting this response on my own blog, but the editing tools are better here than your comments form, and I get to keep a copy of my thoughts!! ]

In response to your article "Activity-centered Design" published at http://bokardo.com/archives/activity-centered-design/ I would like to offer the following...

I agree wholeheartedly that ACD is a valuable, well-directed, and successful (ie proven) approach to the design of digital (and physical) products and services. However, I disagree that it is superior per se, and I'll expound on that thesis during the rest of this response.

Firstly, to my mind (and in my experience) the key factor determining the success of a methodology is the skill with which that method is applied. The second key factor is in the suitability of the methodology to the project.

Your (team's) ability to successfully apply an ACD methdology relies on a combination of capabilities, people, experience, and tools. Once you've decided to focus your attention on the application of ACD to your projects, you need to cultivate your ability in those capabilities that are most critical to the ACD methodology. You need to hire staff with the right mix of skills, who have the attitudes necessary, and who are skilled at working together in appropriate ways to make that happen efficiently and effectively.

Now, let's say I decide to follow a User-centred design or goal-directed design approach. What I will be doing is hiring staff with a necessarily different mix of skills and expertise; deep capability in other aspects of UX architecture and design; able to work together in a different configuration and on different tasks than those your ACD teams is doing.

Finally, when each team - ACD, UCD or GDD - is approached to undertake a specific project we will put together a plan of action that plays to the strengths we've developed within the broad context of our chosen methodology. The ACD team might modify their approach to bring it closer into line with a traditional UCD approach; the UCD team might modify their's to bring it closer into line with a traditional ACD approach - by emphasising certain tasks over others.

In my own experience, ACD is best applied to projects wherein the needs of users have little or no impact on the collection of tasks that are required to satisfy the activity being undertaken. I have in mind sites like harvestapp.com, rememberthemilk.com or flickr. Where the user audience is not homogeneous with respect to the core purpose of the site/application, then I (personally) find ACD to be less suitable, and an alternative approach needed.

However, this belief is based on my own capabilities, knowledge and experience. I necessarily tend towards the methodology (as a collection of tasks in a particular order) that plays to my strengths and allows me to best apply those strengths to the problem at hand.

All I can suggest is that you - and your team - do the same.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Your friend Steve Baty has signed up for Ocsober!

Here's the official blurb...

Your friend Steve Baty has signed up for Ocsober!

I have signed up as a participant in this year's Ocsober campaign.

What's Ocsober?

Ocsober is an alcohol free month being run during October. It's a personal challenge whereby I don't drink, you sponsor me and the money raised goes directly to Life Education Australia - to educate Aussie kids about the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Its going to be tough - that's why I am asking for your support - and a donation or two! Plus some messages of personal encouragement would be greatly appreciated. To sponsor me, go to my profile page .

Also, while I have already signed up - how about you? It would be a great to share the challenge with you. It's free to sign up, so why not have a look at the Ocsober website at www.ocsober.com.au

One more thing, for those who need to celebrate or just have some time out during the month - you can purchase a Legends Leave Pass for up to two (2) days during October - which allows you to have a drink on the designated days.

Remember, all sponsorships $2.00 and over are Tax Deductable Donations to Life Education Australia.

So why not give it a go? Be sober in October - for our kids.



Now, a part of me thinks this is so totally un-Australian that I can't believe the event is sanctioned in this country. I checked the rules, and by 'No alcohol' they mean "No beer" too!! Somewhere, probably Miami, Bob Hawke is weeping into a schooner glass, lamenting what this country has become.

But, sadly, that's exactly the problem. Our kids absorb attitudes to alcohol at such an early age that they hit their teens with firm perceptions about what's "acceptable" with respect to alcohol consumption. So it's really, really important that we make a conscious effort to set an example that will help the next generation of kids grow up without the same issues of alcoholism and binge-drinking - and all the social, physical and emotional problems that ensue - that haunt our own.

So, join me; support our team; play a small but significant part in helping to solve this great and pervasive problem in Australian culture.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Willy Wonka for the Age of Information

Over the past couple of months I've had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking about how various companies conceptualize, design, produce, market & support their products and services. I've being doing this as part of the preparation for my presentation at ozIA 2008, but also as a more general exercise in my work as a user experience strategist and architect.

I've taken time to look at how companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Nokia shape their strategies and what the future looks like for these companies. I've also looked at the different ways in which these companies position themselves with respect to that future. And it's been interesting to note that a lot of these companies use scenarios as a planning device.

The Nokia Morph concept, which I showed at ozIA 2008, is a good example. The video shows off a concept of what a consumer electronics device might look like in 10 years time, when nanotechnology has been commercialised; gestural interfaces and direct manipulation are the norm; and the physical world is overlaid constantly with the information shadow of the objects that make it up.

Nokia use this concept in several different ways:
  • as a means of galvanising efforts within the organization towards enabling the future as it is envisioned in the concept;
  • as a means of communicating in concrete terms the skills, technologies and capabilities staff and departments will need to master in the coming years - both singularly and collectively - to bring that vision to fruition; and
  • as a means of communicating to us, the public, a possible future in which Nokia plays a more central role in our day-to-day lives.

We were fortunate enough to see August de los Reyos from Microsoft's Surface team provide us with similar insights into the way Microsoft envisions the future of computing. It shares many of the same traits as Nokia's vision, although it takes place at that intersection between business and intelligence.

It isn't necessary to buy in to every aspect of these futuristic concepts - either in the detail or the trajectory - in order to appreciate the fact that these organizations are plotting a course towards a brighter future and asking us to come along for the ride.

But then there's Apple: a company standing apart who's not only leading the way at the present, but demonstrating - through it's new products being released each day - that the future may not be what we expect. That futuristic concepts give us a glimpse of something ultimately unsatisfying on their own.

No, rather than espouse or articulate a vision for the future Apple sets about changing our present. We are not given any insight behind the process; no sneak peaks; no road maps. Instead we are presented with a seemingly endless stream of hand-crafted, unique experiences, that change the way we interact with the world. Steve Jobs has turned Apple into Willy Wonka's Cholocate Factory, and we are left peering through the locked gates of 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino waiting for the next piece of magic to be released.

Apple product releases are anticipated, discussed, debated, dissected and anticipated some more. Like Willy Wonka's "Ever-lasting Gob-stoppers" we never quite learn the secret of how they're made, but we know we want them, and so does the rest of the world. In the meantime, Mr Wonka (aka Steve) has moved on to the next surprise.

The role of the 'future concept' is not invalidated by the success of Apple's genius design approach; nor has the use of such concepts guaranteed the deliverable of ground-breaking products for the likes of Microsoft or Nokia. However, since not all companies have a Steve Jobs at the helm, it's nice to know they're using the tools at their disposal to work towards designing a better future for us regardless.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Obama blend coffee

I was running low on coffee beans today so stopped in at Campos coffee in Newtown for a top-up. Campos is one of the best coffee houses in Australia - well worth the trip even if you aren't in the area.

I have to say, though, that their sense of humour was a bit of a surprise. They had a new coffee blend for sale today: Obama blend coffee. I can't remember the exact the description, but the following will give you an idea.

"The Obama blend:
An appealing blend with surprising depth, combining African and American beans to provide a rich cup of coffee. Good for people looking forward and interested in change."

Definition of Information Architecture

After a very vibrant, and extended (some would say 'protracted') discussion on the IA Institute members' mailing list, the IA community has put forward a range of ideas on what should be adopted as the 'formal' - or, at least, the 'official' - definition of the phrase "information architecture".

The one I most like, and the one I'll be adopting for now, was this one - articulated by Todd Zaki Warfel:
"Information architecture organizes stuff to make it useful, findable, and actionable.
  • For ecommerce sites, we organize products and descriptions to make the shopping experience better
  • For content and news sites, we make finding the stories you're interested in easier
  • For information systems (e.g. aviation systems) we organize gauges and displays to help reduce error"
I like the way this is constructed with the DIY examples at the end to help contextualise the definition for whatever audience, project, or discussion you may be having at the time. I know there are some holes in this - it doesn't address the fact that 'information architecture' is also a discipline or emerging community of practice. But, to be perfectly honest, I don't care. In 99% of cases, no-one I discuss IA with will care either. So I'll stick with this one for now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

WebJam 8 - don't be a bum!

If you've never been to a WebJam before then it might not be entirely clear what you're in for. Think 'Open Mike' comedy night for code monkeys; think rock'n'roll; think karaoke; think Australian Idol - with Big Brother-style populist voting.

WebJam is one of the most energetic, friendly, good-humored, brag-a-delic, social events for the Web community you're likely to find anywhere; ever. If you're not going to be there, then, in the words of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke "you're a bum!"

WebJam 8 is being held on Thursday 25th September at Bar Broadway, opposite the University of Technology, Sydney, and coincides with the first day of Web Directions South.

The night is brought to you buy the side-choppin' awesome of Lachlan Hardy and 'Scenario Girl' Lisa Herrod. And, of course, there's some people putting up some cash in sponsorship, including Adobe, the dudes at Happener, and your's truly at Meld.

So, don't be a bum! Come along and support your local Web talent. Have a free drink (on me). And enjoy a night with your peers.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Only 2 more sleeps 'til oz-IA 2008 !!!

Workshops for oz-IA kick off on Thursday - only a few places left, so if you're looking to attend one of these, get a damn wriggle on!

However, the main conference program kicks off on Saturday morning when James Hunter - a fellow Dept of Education consultant - talks about how he's making the transition from zero to hero (in a UXD sense).

Now that the program has been finalised I can work out when I need to be in attendance, sober, and/or attentive (honestly, I'm joking). But there are some presentations I'm really looking forward to hearing. These include:
  • Donna Spencer (4:40pm Sun), Lisa Herrod (1:45pm Sunday), and Andrew Boyd (9am Sunday) - because they're good people, and really, really know their stuff
  • Stephen Cox talking about documenting & presenting user research for business stakeholders (2:45pm Sun);
  • Oliver Weidlich (1pm Sat) looking at how the iPhone has changed the mobile landscape
There's a lot more going on, including presentations from Iain Barker, Shane Morris, Roger Hudson, and Matt Hodgson, which I'm also looking forward to hearing - although Shane's got it tough with his 9am Sunday slot after conference dinner/drinks on Saturday. He'll need a Surface computer and dancing girls to wake people up - that's a hint, Shane :P

Oh, and of course you can't forget to listen to me at 2pm on Saturday afternoon. I'll be talking about strategy, and UX strategy, and how they shape your world, whether you know it or not. And if someone could have a stiff drink waiting for me when I'm done, I'd really appreciate it. Preferably a single malt whisky. Preferably preferably an Islay malt.

See you at ozIA.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hear ye! Hear ye! Call for Proposals: 10th Annual ASIS&T IA Summit

Spreading the word for IA Summit 2009. If you think you've got the goods to present on the big stage, take note:
Call for Proposals: 10th Annual ASIS&T IA Summit
March 18-22, Memphis, Tennessee, US

The Information Architecture Summit is a premier gathering place for information architects and all those who touch on IA to discuss, share and learn more about information architecture. Last year's IA Summit attracted well over 600 attendees from a wide range of fields, from 21 countries, and from beginners to experienced IAs.

As this will be the 10th IA Summit, we are seeking proposals for presentations, panels, case studies, research papers, posters and pre-conference seminars, hands-on workshops and consortia that address this year's theme: Expanding Our Horizons.

Proposals can stretch this theme* *by looking back over our history, forward into emerging trends, platforms and technologies, in addition to addressing our core IA principles and the business of IA. The theme is wide open for interpretation and we look forward to seeing proposals that explore the field in ways that interest people most, and from a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines and functions.

Because user experience design is not just about methods and deliverables, but also about getting results for employers and clients, this year we will have a specific track devoted to business, strategy & management.

Building on the tradition from the past two events, we will continue to seek and present research papers that make empirical or theoretical contributions to information architecture. (You do not have to be affiliated with an academic institution to submit a research paper.)

We encourage submissions from both within the field of IA - practitioners, academics and students alike - and the related fields of library science, user experience, interaction design and user-centered design; as well as from those fields and disciplines that go beyond the traditional horizons of IA and the web.

How and when to submit: *For more information about the various tracks and how to submit a proposal, please see: http://iasummit.org/2009/*

When: Now! We're currently accepting submissions until October 31st, 2008, if accepted we'll notify you via email during the first two weeks of January 2009.For more information about the IA Summit and past events, please see: http://iasummit.org/

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

IA-Peers 20th August

What: good gossip, better beer, best company
When: Wednesday 20th, 7pm-9pm
Where: Woolloomooloo Hotel, the courtyard
Who: Anyone interested in Information Architecture (and user experience, usability, and interaction design :-)
RSVP: Eric Scheid <eric@ironclad.com.au> 0402 404 733

Hope to see you there.

Execution Is Everything :: UXmatters

My latest article for UXMatters has been published...

"The number one enemy of any strategy is poor execution. All across the business landscape, the ability of an organization to execute its strategy is one of the most critical elements of success. And for an effective UX strategy, the broad range of elements requiring alignment and implementation make its successful execution all the more difficult."
Read the full article Execution is Everything

Check out the wordle.net representation of the article's concept.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Questions to ask for any UX project

A question was asked recently on the IA Institute mailing list which read:
"...they asked if I can give them the top 20 recommendations of things to consider or do for every web site they approach. I am struggling to figure out where to even start as I tend to approach each project differently with some general guidelines in mind but I am not sure how to pass on or teach that to the team."

Here's the list I proposed in response, and I think it's a good list of questions a UX team should consider for any project they undertake. Although it wasn't what the OP had in mind, my list seems to have hit the money as far as other UX professionals are concerned.

  1. What is the purpose of the site as far as the business/organization is concerned? Sales? Marketing? Service channel? Entertainment?
  2. Who will use the site?
  3. What will those people be trying to do on the site?
  4. For each of those things, how do they think about those tasks?
  5. Where are those people likely to be when attempting to do these things (home, work, on a bus or at a cafe) and what will they likely have access to (computer, laptop, mobile etc)
  6. Is the organization the only one offering these services/tasks? If not, how will you differentiate yourself from the competition?
  7. If you are the only organization offering it, what will you do really well to make it difficult for someone else to do the same thing?
  8. What are the things 'behind the scenes' that need to take place in order for the site to do what it needs to do?
  9. For each of those things, is the organization up to the challenge?
  10. When these people use the site, what perception do you want people to take away?
  11. In considering that perception, how will you design the visual elements, the content, the interaction, the customer service, the functionality, and performance to make that perception a reality?
  12. What site structure will best support the tasks your visitors need to undertake? And how will they move from one task to another?
  13. If people arrive at your site somewhere other than the home page, how will you provide them context and communicate both intent and possibilities?
  14. How will people find your site? And how do the activities you undertake to encourage them tie in with your other design consideration?
  15. How will people engage with your company? Will you engage with them openly in environments like twitter, or in one-way mechanisms like email or enquiry forms?
  16. What search functionality will you provide to help people find things on your site?
  17. Including your search, what will you measure, analyse and track to help you determine the success or failure of your site?

Now, the list was thrown together and doesn't really have the structure I'd normally prefer, but then UX strategy tends to be an exercise in integrating capabilities and strategies from across an organization and melding these together into a coherent approach to delivering something meaningful to your audience.

Point 1 addresses high-level organizational goals. What's the "big picture" purpose of the site.
The answer to this question should seem fairly obvious when you hear it, but it's important to ask it, have the client think about it, and provide a response. The purpose of the site should also directly contribute to one of the organization's overall goals. If it doesn't, then why go to the effort?

Points 2 & 3 ask for information about the intended audience for the site/service. The answer can come from your Marketing team, or the Brand Manager, or Product Manager, or eCommerce Manager etc etc. The point is: you should have a clear idea of who the site is being targeted towards and why they'd use it - before you begin.

Answering points 4 & 5 usually requires some research. How much research depends on how well you know and understand the audience groups identified in 2.

Points 6 & 7 deal with competitive positioning and competitive advantage. These are business concepts that should have formed part of the thinking behind the original site concept, but sometimes an organization will come up with an idea without surveying the landscape for possible competitors.

Points 8 & 9 deal with organizational capabilities, infrastructure, resources, people, processes. Some people think of these as competencies, but that's a notion we'll have to tackle some other time. The questions here ask whether or not the organization can execute the intent of the original concept.

Points 10 & 11 relate to your organization's brand value and the core of the user experience you want to deliver. What is the essence of your organization? How would you like people (customers, staff, the public-at-large) to think of you?

Point 12 is a broad-swipe question relating to the information architecture for the site.

Point 14 needs your marketing & communications people to think about how they're going to go about attracting people *from your target audiences* to the site.

And then Point 13 ties those two activities together to ask how you're going to accommodate those people when they arrive at your site, but not necessarily where you expected them.

Point 15 refers to your customer service offering, but also refers to issues around ongoing issue identification & resolution; product/service design for future iterations; alternative marketing & communications channels; and how you draw that arbitrary & imaginary line that delineates "them" and "us". To what extent will you include existing customers in the design of future products? To what extent will you incorporate customer input into the choice & design of componentry or functionality?

Point 16 is fairly self-explanatory, and is related to both 12 & 14.

And finally, 17 should identify any key success indicators; data needed for ongoing assessment & improvement programs; and data needed to learn more about your audiences.

So, our UX strategy touches on and incorporates elements of operations and strategy from Marketing, Brand Management, Corporate, IT, Service, Product Management, Engineering, Logistics and Communications. Essentially everything: because *everything* is what affects your customer's experience with your organization.

I wasn't the only one to respond to the original question...here are some of the follow-on comments related to the list I offered above...

Daniel Szuc, Apogee HK:
"Quick Suggestion : http://www.usability.gov/pdfs/guidelines.html

Note -- you can follow all/some the guidelines (as listed above) and sadly still end up with a product that may not have value to both business and/or target users.

So this is where Steve's list becomes important as it allows the business to ask some of the more "strategic" questions up front to determine the who, what and why, understand value proposition, before moving into the design, IA and writing the content. Its the beginnings of a due diligence :)
Stephen Collins, AcidLabs (edited slightly):
Steve's list is ... absolutely what you should be showing people in terms of their building an understanding of UX strategy. While IA/UX does have aspects that can be codified, you're much better off approaching the whole question the way Steve has, addressing user types, needs and tasks as well as business positioning and differentiation.

Really good UX ... is often more about business and customer strategy applied to the web, rather than menus, navigation and the like. Those things are obvious outcomes, but the drivers should be very much business outcome and people focussed, rather than, for example, expressing the org chart in the web site structure (a mistake I have seen too often)."
And I should thank Stephen for providing the suggestion to transfer the original discussion-list response into this blog post.

If you're interested in hearing me talk about UX strategy in a bit more detail come along to this year's Oz-IA conference in September. Although the schedule is yet to be confirmed, we can always find a corner to chat in!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What I want from an e-book reader...

I buy a lot of books: paper books. Hardcover and paperback books. Books for work; books for learning; books for entertainment; books for escape. Today I spent $260 on books - 9 in total.

But I don't own an e-book reader, although I love the idea of having my library of 400+ books available on one little device. And here's why...

I'll buy an e-book reader when:
  • The reader has wireless internet connectivity built-in
  • I can buy books directly from the reader; none of this business of downloading to a computer and syncing across. A little like buying music for my iPod Touch.
  • The text of the book is presented as text, not PDF; and not an image. I should be able to change font size and the typeface; copy words, sentences, paragraphs etc;
  • I can search the text of the book;
  • I can highlight a word and execute a search on Wikipedia or Google or Yahoo! or MSN;
  • I can visit the website that's been created for the book;
  • I can publish my book library to a site, complete with reviews, comments etc and engage in a discussion with others about books that I've read, or thinking of reading. This might be as an application in Facebook, or something new.
  • I can annotate books and add tags
  • I can subscribe to online journals, magazines, and RSS feeds - including newspapers - and read them on the device.
  • The reader is a full colour screen.
  • I can 'loan' my copy of a book to a friend by transferring it to their reader. If I do that, it's no longer on my reader. This could also act as a way to give people Gifts.
  • I can organize my books by Author, Genre, or title; and I can search across my entire collection for "books that contain Linden Avery" and those will be returned to me.
What would you like to see in an e-book reader? And what do you think of my ideas above?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

In support of the Long Tail

The special (Jul-Aug) edition of Harvard Business Review released this week to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Harvard Business School includes an article by Anita Elberse "Should you invest in the Long Tail" (page 88). In the article Anita questions the way in which online sales have played out over the last couple of years and compared this to the behaviour predicted by Chris Anderson's model of The Long Tail.

The Long Tail's general thesis is that the reduced costs of inventorying large numbers of low-volume products (the 'tail') will lead to companies generating new revenue streams beyond the traditional model of 'block-buster' or 'superstar' products (the 'head').

Elberse inspects sales data from sites such as QuickFlix, Rhapsody and Nielsen VideoScan and Nielsen SoundScan 'which monitor weekly purchases of videos and music through online channels and offline retailers'. Looking at Rhapsody over a 3-month period Elberse finds that 1% of titles accounted for 32% of sales; 10% accounted for 78%; and a total of 1 million titles were available for download.

Chris has already commented on the article over at thelongtail.com where he looks at the different definition of 'head' & 'tail' he and Anita use in their analysis, and the different conclusions one reaches as a result. I won't bother going through the same points other than to say that: if you're going to critique a theory based on data your gathered, the least you should do is use a definition consistent with the original theory.

So, lets look instead at the part that really caught my attention - Implications for Strategy - the recommendations for retailers Elberse puts forward based on her analysis of the retail data.

1. If your goal is to cater to your heavy customers, broaden your assortment with more niche products. Despite the earlier conclusion about the Long Tail not being borne out by the data, this is essentially a long tail strategy. Although Elberse offers it with the full expectation that those niche products won't really sell, but will attract more people to the store to buy the block-busters.

The success of a long tail strategy relies on a strong referral network fueling new customer acquisition as a way of maintaining the low-cost positioning necessary. The breadth of the offering is one of the key factors attracting new customers.

2. Strictly manage the costs of offering products that will rarely sell. If possible, use online networks to construct creative models in which you incur no costs unless the customer actually initiates a transaction.

This recommendation seems to me to be so obvious as to be trivial. A Long Tail strategy is impossible to pursue effectively if you are accumulating costs associated with inventory regardless of sales. In order to offer a broad catalogue of product for sale it is imperative that inventory costs are either zero or entirely dependent on a sales transaction occuring.

3. Acquire and manage customers by using your most popular products. Again, this seems like trivial advice. Of the examples offered, only the provision of a recommendation engine provides any real value to the customers. Unlike "designing the flow of web pages so that consumers, even those searching for hit products, are naturally directed into the tail" - I was really surprised at this as it appears to fly in the face of any modern concepts of service design and customer-centredness. Especially as it also seems to conflict directly with the fourth tenet:

4. Even though obscure products may have a higher profit margin, resist the temptation to direct customers to the tail too often, or you'll risk their dissatisfaction.

I was a little disappointed to see no mention here of social networks and their value as a means of promotion of the store as a source of obscure products. As a form of essentially free marketing, it would seem to me that actively cultivating social network effects as a promotional tool would be high up on the list of advice to retailers hoping to take advantage of long tail economics.

I was also disappointed that Elberse performed no analysis (at least none that was shared) on how the product profile of heavy customers changes over time. Were their early purchases block-busters or obscure products? How about their more recent purchasing activity: in the head or the tail?

Finally, I would have like to have seen a comparison carried out between online & offline purchasing profiles with respect to the purchase of 'head' or 'tail' products.

I do agree with Anderson's happiness to see such a well-researched piece appearing in the HBR, and on a topic so close to our hearts. Following so hard on the heels of Tim Brown's article in the June 2008 issue on Design Thinking, it is especially pleasing. However, I don't agree with the slant Elberse has taken in her interpretation of the data, nor the strategy advice offered to retailers.

Take a read and let me know what you think.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Workshop ideas - which would you prefer

Planning ahead for a few conferences that are coming up in the next 6-9 months and I'm looking to develop a half or full-day workshop...

I have two ideas and I'm curious what people think:
i) Creating research-based personas - from surveys& analytics to finished product; or
ii) UX Strategy - defining & aligning UX strategy to meet corporate goals.

Which would you prefer to see at your next UX conference?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Busy times for Meld; busy times for me.

The past month has been a really jammed-pack one over here at Meld.

You probably already know that I was invited to speak at the Web Direction UX '08 conference down in Melbourne in May. The conference went off really well, and a lot of kudos is deserved by the organizers and the other speakers. And of course, presenting at a conference like that is pretty flat without an appreciative audience, which was a biggie. I was happy to receive some very positive feedback after the talk, including this nice piece from Matt Magain over at Site Point.

Personal stand-outs from the event were Andy Budd's opening keynote, and Jackie Moyes presentation on creating design deliverables for your internal stakeholders. Unfortunately, my own presentation meant I was unable to watch Lisa Herrod (from Scenario Seven) or Donna Maurer (from Maadmob) - two of my favourite UX pros in this country.

The conference came hard on the back of a quick trip to Vancouver for a meeting - it went all day, but yikes! - on a project to integrate 10 global legacy systems into a single customer service interface. I was fortunate to be able to have my wife along for the journey, since she's the lead developer on the project, which made the travel itinerary that much easier to handle.

Since then I've been working on four projects: two for clients; one for the business; and one personal.

The two client projects are both very interesting, but very different. The first was to produce a UX strategy for an online resource, and included a set of recommendations around the adoption of social media inside a large government department as a way of increasing engagement with one of its constituent groups (read 'audience'). That was tricky, since it involved balancing current organizational capabilities with a very distinct need for progress in this direction. The final report - which was only completed earlier today - now goes through some internal reviews before we move on to the implementation stages. But that's all for me on that one for a little bit.

The second client project can be described in a few words: 'massive', 'complex', and 'political'. I'm leading up the redesign effort on a large government intranet, and so far we have undertaken our initial planning and are three weeks in to a 6-week program of stakeholder research. We're holding one-on-one interviews (of around an hour), although sometimes with two or three people; or 3-hour workshops with up to 10 people at a time. I think so far we've fronted about 75 people, and will at least double that before we're done with this stage.

Unfortunately, I can't say too much more about this one for now, but it will make for an awesome case study in about a year.

On the business front I've just finalised the design of a logo for the company (!!) and am getting business cards printed this week. You can see the logo and design style over at the Meld site. I'd love to know what you think. A very big thank you to the folks over at Boomworks for their patience and expertise in dealing with such a noob client. In all my years in business, this is the first time I've gone through this exercise, so I needed a fair degree of hand-holding :)

And finally, my personal project. I'm in the process of developing what I hope will become an interesting workshop for people who'd like to learn step-by-step how to develop research-based personas or audience segments. I'm doing some reading of fairly heavy-duty statistical modelling and analysis texts, with the aim of translating that knowledge into some fairly simple, actionable steps starting with surveys and finishing up with either audience segmentation or fleshed-out personas. I'm not sure yet how it's going to go, but I'm aiming to be in a position to deliver it in late September at the next Oz-IA conference.

Of course, at some point I'd also like to get an actual presentation written for Oz-IA on something other than statistics! I have an idea, which I think might be appropriate, but more on that another time.

Don't forget - tell me what you think of the new logo!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Bite-sized UX research

My latest offering for UXMatters has been publised - Bite-sized UX Research - a discussion of user research techniques for teams with limited time, money or people.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Web Directions UX Melbourne

I'm very happy to have been asked to speak at the upcoming Web Directions conference in May. The conference has a focus on User Experience, and includes a great speaker list (aside from me :)

Here's the official blurb, and the list of speakers:
Web Directions User Experience is a full day two track conference, plus an optional extra day of workshops, focussing on concepts, technologies and techniques for building great user experiences on the web.

Workshops: May 15
Conference: May 16

* Andy Budd (Clearleft) - Interaction design and usability
* Robert Hoekman Jr (Miskeeto) - User experience evangelist
* Lisa Herrod - User testing
* Emily Boyd (Remember the Milk) - Ajax techniques for great user experiences
* Cameron Adams - Frontiers of Javascript (workshop)
* Donna Maurer - Getting content right
* Jackie Moyes (News Digital Media) - Turning research into products
* Oliver Weidlich - Mobile web user experience
* Steve Baty - Analysing research data
* Mathew Patterson (Campaign Monitor) - Designing for email

Need to convince the person who writes the cheques? Try downloading our executive summary:


Mark your calendars: this one looks like a great conference.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

One month in...

So it's been a month since Meld Consulting did it's first piece of work. Some thoughts so far:
- I've had more work than I thought I would. This is a good thing;
- Administrative work needs to be done steadily or it gets out of hand quickly - at which point it also becomes remarkably tedious;
- I haven't had as much time to read, write, or plan as I would like. This is something I really need to work on.
- I need to get better at scheduling my projects, setting deadlines and work schedules. Not that I've missed anything, but the amount of work is building and I can see that I need to get better at this part of the job.
- I've been happy to receive work from a number of different sources, although that exacerbates the other issues with scheduling & administration.
- I'm enjoying myself more than I thought I would.

So all in all, it's been a good first month.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

8 things you didn't know about me

Nascent author, IA, & friend Donna Maurer tagged me for the '8 things you didn't know about me' meme. The rules are simple:
  1. Link to your tagger and post these rules
  2. List EIGHT random facts about yourself
  3. Tag EIGHT people at the end of your post and list their names
  4. Let them know they’ve been tagged
Some things you didn't know about me:
  1. I can play a range of musical instruments (more or less rusty on each of them) including bass guitar, flute, clarinet, saxophone & trombone;
  2. I practice calligraphy and have an interest in pens. My collection of fountain pens includes feather quills, retro '40s celluloid, some more conventional fountain pens and a glass stylus from Florence;
  3. I once spent three weeks driving from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory, locating, surveying, photographing & documenting the colonial & indigenous artifacts at each of the telegraph repeater stations through the central Australian deserts.
  4. When I was a boy I couldn't decide whether to be a doctor, mathematician or archaeologist. As an adult I've been able to try my hand at each of them.
  5. As a 7yr old I set a record for shot-put for my local region. The record stood for 18 years.
  6. I've nearly died twice - once during birth; once in 2002 (an infection had eaten a hole from my middle ear into my cranium).
  7. I'd love to learn to speak French. As a nominally-educated person I feel the lack of a second language keenly. It would also allow me to read french literature.
  8. My first car was a mini. I had it 5 months and then my older brother rolled it down a ditch and wrecked it (accidentally - he fell asleep).
Now for those 8 others I'd be interested to learn a little more about:
  • Lisa Herrod - smart, chic usability chick, and her soon-to-be-husband Lachlan Hardy - a good & smart fellow in his own right.
  • Shane Morris - because although I've known him a long time, I really don't know him much at all;
  • Russ Weakley - so I know something other than what comes out during a drinks break at a WSG meeting
  • David Malouf - any fan of both Stargate SG-1 & Battlestar Galactica is worthy of further scrutiny
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit - my editor at UXMatters of whom I know very little aside from her grammatical skills & penchant for sci-fi TV
  • and the two Dans - Dan Saffer & Dan Brown - two of the IxD community leaders I'd like to know better

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Backyard cricket

This is me 'playing' backyard cricket a few weeks back - 10 days after surgery to repair my achilles tendon.
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