Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Visualisation is an analytic technique

I'm working on an article at the moment, as part of a broader series of work on the topic of analysis. That article - which will be published soon, and I'll post a link to it when its available - is about the different techniques we use during our analysis work.

I won't pre-empt the main article, but as I've thought about these techniques I've come to the recognition that data visualisation is an analysis technique. It's a tool that helps us not only make sense of the data, but offers us a way of analysing it as well.

How does that work? We're not really doing anything to the data, just making a diagram or illustration, right?

Well, what we're doing is providing an alternative representation of the data. Let me give you an example: let's say our data is a list of words and the frequency with which they appear in an interview transcript. It looks like a table of word-value pairs, a little like this:

Analysis: 12
technique: 8
well: 6

Now compare that to this:
Wordle: analysis_technique

Suddenly, the data takes on a new dimension. Literally. The significance of those numbers is made more real, more tangible through the visualization. The same is true of graphs, charts, histograms, radial graphs and pie charts: the visualization of the data adds to the narrative and helps expose patterns, grouping and holes that are otherwise ambiguous or completely obscured as a list of numbers.

Visualizations have the added advantage of being a much better tool for communication than a spreadsheet or lists. You can bring them out at a meeting and elicit interest instead of the glazed expression that only a large spreadsheet seems to bring about. And they can be re-used down the track as an illustration for any reports that may be required.

Lastly, they give you something to look at. A good visual is one of those things that brings your data to life, making it stand out (as we saw above) and really start to speak to you. So during those periods when you're soaking in the research data and the progress you've made on the analysis, those visualizations can provide an anchor for your thinking and help you move on to the next stages of the analysis.

So, don't discount the power of a good visualization to do more than just communicate. Remember that it can also be a powerful tool for gaining insights from your data, which is, after all, what analysis is all about.

Monday, January 12, 2009

User Experience Design doesn't need to be a big deal

I was going through the process recently of gathering together all of the articles I've had published over the years into a sort of portfolio. This included a bunch of articles written by others that include quotes of mine in them.

I was struck by a theme that runs through a number of articles over a four-year period; a belief I seem to hold that I wasn't really conscious of until I saw those articles laid out side-by-side (so to speak). And that belief is this: user experience design - in all it's forms - doesn't have to be a big deal. Sure, it can be complex; and it can be undertaken on a large scale: but if you don't have the time, or the budget, or the people, it's still worthwhile doing whatever you can with the time, people & resources you have at your disposal.

In March 2005 Builder Au published an article titled What users want, written by Ian Yates. In amongst the material written by the author, and the quotes of other industry people, here's what I had to say (sorry for the editing):
I think one of the main problems that people have in approaching usability is the idea that you need a big team of specialists and it is an expensive exercise and something that it is hard to do," says Baty. The simple fact of the matter is there are maybe half a dozen or so good solid usability principles that will improve your work enormously."

For Baty, just asking the right questions can mean the difference between useable and useless. A visitor to a particular Web site should be able to answer a few questions: Where am I? What is here? What else can I get to from here? How can I get back to where I was?" says Baty. The other key thing about usability in particular is to remember that the sites are not for you, the person building it." By a factor of thousands to one the people visiting the Web site do not know your company, do not know you, do not think the same way you do, view your organisation from a completely different perspective and you need to look at it from that point of view, when you build the thing," he says. The end result of incorporating some form of usability thinking into a project is that it will have tangible benefits to what you are doing. The end result will be better. I cannot stress that enough. It is not a fuzzy, you know, look, everybody feels better because we can say we have gone through and done some usability stuff, it really does make the end product better."

Baty's advice to software developers is simple. For people who are in the development area and who look at usability as being something that they either do not understand or think is an expensive exercise, the simple fact of the matter is, it does not need to be, the more effort you put into it the more benefits you'll get out of it. If you need to, start small, but do not just ignore it.

Three years later I wrote a piece for UX Matters (at the suggestion of Russ Unger, and with input from Dan Szuc & Ruth Ellison) called Bite-sized UX. The whole article looked at what to do when time, people and/or resources are short on your project. You can read the entire article if you want, but in it I talk about the need for targeting your limited time at the areas likely to deliver the most value:

Go for Impact

Concentrate on getting bang for your buck. Depending on your circumstances, you may not get many opportunities to demonstrate the value of UX, and when time is short, there can be a tendency to just do something—anything. It’s an urge you should try to resist. If you want to have a greater impact, ask your project team—the project manager, the development team, and the business stakeholders—a few pointed questions before you get started:

  • What are the critical features of the Web site or application?
  • What features would be hardest for the developers to change once they’ve developed them?
  • What are the areas of greatest ambiguity in terms of user requirements, audience groups, or competitive offerings?

And then ask a few more questions:

  • How can I best document my user research findings, so the project team can use them?
  • Do we have time for iterations? And if so, how many?

With this information, you can start planning some activities that focus on the most important elements of the project—the critical features for success; the features that are hardest to change; or the gray areas of the project—and deliver some real value.

When Whitney Hess asked me before Christmas: "What is the biggest misconception about user experience design?" my immediate response was "User experience design will add too much time to the project." Whitney went on to write all of the responses she received, adding in her own contribution to the question, and published an article on mashable.com just last week: 10 Most Common Misconceptions of User Experience Design.

Here's my quote as it appears in her article:
Steve Baty, principal and user experience strategist at Meld Consulting, combats the fallacy that UX design adds too much time to a project. “Sometimes a fully-fledged, formal UCD process may not be the best thing to try first time,” he says. “It’s extremely important - and totally possible no matter where you’re working or when you arrive on a project - to make small improvements to both the project and the product by introducing some user experience design techniques.”
There was more to the response I sent to Whitney, part which is worth repeating here:
we should be able (and good enough) to tailor our work process to suit the client and their project.

In Whitney's article, my own quote is followed by this comment from Dan Saffer:
“People cling to things like personas, user research, drawing comics, etc.,” notes Saffer. “In reality the best designers have a toolbox of options, picking and choosing methods for each project what makes sense for that particular project.”
I'll end with the same ending I used in the UX Matters article:

If you don’t have the resources of a large UX team, with the budgets and timelines to undertake the ideal user-centered design (UCD) or activity-centered design process, you can still make a valuable contribution to a project. Undertake small, tactical, iterative user research activities throughout the course of the project. Focus your efforts on the areas of greatest impact, and produce documentation that your project team can understand and use efficiently.

If you demonstrate value through a series of small, high-impact UX activities, the extra budget, people, and timeline flexibility you need will eventually come your way. Then, you can come closer to implementing your ideal UX process.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

10 Common Misconceptions of User Experience Design

Whitney Hess (independent user experience designer, writer and consultant based in New York City) has published an article in mashable.com which looks at 10 common misconceptions about user experience design. The article includes comments and quotes from a whole bunch of luminary practitioners, and then there's a quote from your's truly.

The article is very well written, and a useful way of answering questions about UXD.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

Social media creates social neighbourhood

If you're a touch cynical about the various social media tools out there, and the value of a service like Twitter, I recommend you taking a look at what's going on at David Armano's personal blog - Logic + Emotion - or his Twitter feed @armano.

If you do you'll a see a man - a normal, flawed (his words :), but well connected man - reaching out to his immediate contacts and asking for help on behalf of someone else that desperately needs it. The plea is honest, open, and heartfelt, and the cause is very close to home (even for me here in Australia). David has reached out to his neighbours and friends (in his digital life) and asked for a hand - not for himself, but for another.

The response has been phenomenal. It's been genuine. It's been built up in donations of $2, $5, $10, $50 and more. It includes offers of books, clothes, furniture. And it's still going.

If you have ever wondered how we might respond to the increasing isolation and anonymisation that comes from high-density city living and the death of the local neighbourhood that flows, then look at this example of how a digital neighbourhood is pulling together to help one of their own.

In Australia we call this 'mateship'. You help out those around you when times are tough. You get through tight times collectively, or not at all. Which is what we're seeing here in a small, but nonetheless grand scale.