October 2012
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Month October 2012

Thinking with Your Gut

I recently attended an AIGA Chicago Design Thinking lecture series held at Morningstar with Julia Hoffmann, design director of the Museum of Modern Art.

Being interested, I attended this lecture to understand how Julia would frame design thinking. The first thing she prefaced about design thinking is that she did not use the term or concept and had to quickly understand what it was. She stated that from what she understood, design thinking focused on three attributes : empathy, creativity and rationality.

Are We Programmed to Work?

As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.
Terry Gou, Chairman, Foxconn

That startling quote was in an article from the New York Times about the proliferation of robots in manufacturing and distribution centers. This proliferation is accelerating due to the increase in sophistication, programmability, miniaturization, and integration of vision recognition capabilities.

Is Data Experience Design?

I recently attended a presentation by the City of Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer, Brett Goldstein who discussed the city’s desire to create a smarter city.  The desire is to create a more open and transparent municipal government.

All government business is built on data transactions. The goal for the City of Chicago is to create the best data standards using open source technologies that can then be clustered and contextualized for interpretation and action. This can be done by municipal governments creating better applications to become more efficient and responsive and for citizens to adapt data to local needs. This was not as much a discussion of analytics and the meaning of data, but how data should be structured that allows for the greatest flexibility of citizens to take data files and apply them to real-world issues facing neighborhoods or the city as a whole.

IBM has been using the term smarter planet to describe a world where our environment and its objects and actions are captured by IBM to find patterns and gain insights in order to increase the performance of the planet. To most, this sounds magical and even slightly disconcerting. However from an experience design and user experience standpoint, this concept will have far ranging implications on current assumptions and interaction models.

Experience Design and User Experience models have focused on cognitive and workload issues of users and how they interact with digital systems to ease their burdens and frictions which degrade the value of digital experiences. The focus is on human to computer interactions and indirectly how it affects human to human interactions. This includes the clustering and representation of features and functions and the cognitive processes that support their utility value.

However, the role of data and computer to computer interactions are shaping more and more human to computer interactions. This is important as search, personalization, and customization are being shaped by historical data patterns between one person and a digital system, or large numbers of users that are aggregated into classes and their sum total of patterns affect the choices and results that are served to one user.

A large part of the public internet is fed by a series of databases structured by organizations accessed through front-end websites and applications by their markets. Data streams slosh back and forth between users and servers. Based on several variables such as class, location, time, date, and social networks data is structured back to the user which is served up as a series of choices for the user to act upon through event handling. “Information from all the consumer devices, in addition to data from billions of sensors and Web-crawling robots, is crunched in these supercomputing clouds, creating a Big Data revolution full of business opportunities and dangers.” Source

  • Some examples of data that is used to shape human to computer interactions through computer to computer interactions are :
  • Unique event data that the customer shares about himself or herself
  • Data that is based on specific search, or customer queries
  • Aggregate data that the company has on a specific customer over time
  • Aggregate data that the company has on a class of customers (which can include social media as a class, or series of classes)
  • Purchased data that may include geolocation, US Census, zip code, or other specific criteria
  • Data that the company uses to market products and services based on business need
  • Data that a company uses to market specific products and services at particular times

Selected choices continually refine a databases ability to be more relevant. However, business systems create computational algorithms, or sequential unambiguous instructions to be followed by a computer to further make user experiences beneficial to the customer and the company. Based on aggregate patterns and the needs of a business, users will be offered choices, usually called intelligent offers like what is found on Amazon that displays Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought or If you buy this, you may want to consider purchasing . . . So data automation and using algorithms for digital systems to self-learn based on aggregate interactions with a system continually affects the end user experience.

In contrast, Apple’s new release of their own mapping system which is a critical component to smartphone core functionality demonstrates how data does become the user experience. Apple’s desire to have their own mapping system is due to being at odds with Google’s mapping software because of the value of the data. David Pogue in his Bits blog outlined the problems facing Apple’s maps :

“Every time you use Google’s maps, you’re sending data from your phone to Google. That information — how you’re using maps, where you’re going, which roads actually exist — is extremely valuable; it can be used to improve both the maps and Google’s ability to deliver location-based offers and advertising.” He went on to say that ” . . . when the overall data set is that huge, even half a percent of faulty data means a lot of flaws. And the trouble is, you never know when you’re going to encounter one. One wild goose chase, and you’ll find it hard to trust the software again.” Source

The wrong data provides the wrong result, which then impacts the usefulness of the representations that a user relies on to make a decision.

Experience Design focuses on creating a holistic experience from a cognitive and cultural standpoint; from how anticipation is built, to the most important interactions users have that create the right perceptions from benefits derived from the experience. It is a form of cognitive design and engineering. User Experience focuses on how to take experience design goals and determine how best this can be achieved from users interactions with digital systems. Much of these activities are possible because of data and data that is bundled together to provide relevance to a user’s cognitive and workload performance can be viewed as a service.

Service Design is the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality, the interaction between service provider and customers and the customer’s experience. Source

One may ask do users of digital systems think that their online actions are being affected by data exchange and modeling? For most, their answer would be an abstract recognition that data plays some role in what is being served back to them. If you ask the same question to a user experience team, there will be recognition in the abstract that data does play a role, but not specific understanding of how data plays a role in elements and choices that are served up to a user to make decisions and complete specific tasks.

Collaborating as a senior information architect on large enterprise systems, many user experience groups only tangentially discuss data when developing user experience models, workflows and user interface elements through specific screen types – and only in specific tactical ways emphasizing the interaction. I have been only in a few meetings when data models are discussed, but not in a way that clearly connects data to how it will impact the user experience or vice versa. This has always intrigued me as my experience has informed me that if the data model is not understood or the dynamics of data interactions are not understood, how does one know that the desired user-experience is being achieved?

Returning to Brett Goldstein’s presentation, he stated that data structure and interpretation is multidisciplinary in order to come to a series of meanings that reinforce one another. The challenges to data is reducing the number of data islands that are stove-piped but continually transact; data warehousing architecture; performance management, data mining and prediction. The data mining and prediction is the most important goal in order to improve digital systems and the performance of user experience models.

The opportunity to experience design is engaging with project teams on defining and architecting data models that support a desired series of system epics, stories and use cases. Also the variability of data patterns that affect individual personalization as well as group personalization is important to understand how these will affect the choices a user will be offered – or will affect what a user will be able to do with a digital system.

A new Window to Windows?

“It is a risk to do something new, but its also a risk to sit where we are.”
Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft

Fast Company had an interesting article “Microsoft Wipes the Slate” and the UX team that developed the new metaphors for Window 8 in general and Windows Mobile in particular. With the introduction of the new Microsoft Tablet with the operating system and user experience has received a lot of press, much of it positive from communities that are not usually positive about anything Microsoft produces.

The company just redesigned its corporate identity to signal its transformation as something other than the historical engineering product based culture that brought such unmemorable products such as Zune, Microsoft Watch, Windows 7 and many other mediocre implementations. Microsoft’s long walk in the experience design desert and their recent stop at a more progressive XD/UX/UI oasis provides an interesting respite that either will point to greener pastures or simply be an anomoly to a company that has lost over half of its market value in ten years.

Windows 8 and the tip of the deployment spear of Windows Mobile has shown that genuinely re-imagining the experience design, user experience and corresponding user interface may leapfrog over Apple’s entrenched market perception as providing the best overall integrated digital ecosystem experience with Mountain Lion and iOS6. Windows 8 is built on what is called inside the company as “Metro” that espouses an “authentically digital” experience with a stripped down, flat user interface using tried and true user interface language of self-assured typography, color and screen compositions that support a focused user experience model to interact with digital content.
Sam Moreau, Director of User Experience for Microsoft called this effort “ . . .  the ultimate design challenge.” The use of tiles (or Skittles in Microsoft parlance) becomes a gateway to a diverse ecosystem of digital gateway content housed in a clean user interface. Moreau looked to the work of the Bauhaus, DeStijl, Swiss School and pre-WWII modernism to the most elemental forms and functions became their gateway to creating something very different than what Microsoft is associated with – mediocrity, function rich but experience poor products, services and content.

When the Microsoft Store opened to much fanfare where I live and was only 150 feet from the Apple Store, I was greeted by a self-assured space housing a cacophony of different OEM hardware that run Microsoft software. When I approached an HTC phone loaded with new windows mobile, the form factor of the phone with its large surface coupled with interacting with Metro was a pleasant experience. A Microsoft sales person approached and he informed me that Microsoft was providing integrated start-up experiences when users bought different OEM products. This included creating consistency in hardware form factors so certain buttons would always be in the same place regardless of manufacturer. He also discussed that the way products turn on and access functions would become more harmonized so users would associate the experience across the different OEM products.

Upon hearing this bit of news, I was both pleasantly surprised, and a bit glad that Microsoft was starting to understand the art of integrated merchandizing and product development (albeit 25 years later than it should have). Customers now expect integrated experiences that are packaged in a unified envelope. This is an extension of what is referred to as the Starbucks effect, where they transformed a simple product called a cup of coffee and created a larger narrative through unified environments, services, associations and expressions into a new experience that was priced at a premium. Microsoft, taking its cue from Apple and increased expectations of users in general stated that “[Microsoft} is placing an emphasis on design, because the dollars sit there. They're looking at Apple's market cap.

What is interesting is that Metro is questioning Apple’s current skeuomorphistic library of leather, glossy reflections, wood book shelves and drop shadows to imply three dimensional pages and as markers to past objects. Moreau calls these details ” . . . useless distraction . . .”. Metro has a unified syntactic symbology for all functions and is starting to migrate to other Microsoft products like XBox.

This points to a much larger trend of new technologies that are creating a much richer internet.  The world of gaming is impacting wider digital development of business systems through integration of game theory, multi-user environments, and social behaviors are driving new types of feature, functions and digital vessels to deliver these behaviors. The rise of data driven content, animation & responsive objects, sensors, mash-ups, haptics, gestures, and adaptable digital objects through augmented reality platforms. These trends have put stress on over ten years of user interface and user experience assumptions of the structure of what constitutes a web page, buttons, iconography, and navigation principles. The WIMP interface (windows, icons, mouse and pointer) that was developed at Xerox Parc and refined by Apple and other computer hardware and software manufacturers is becoming supplanted by new ways to search and interact with digital content.

Pattie Maes and the MIT Media Lab Fluid Interfaces Group is one example where they are exploring emerging technologies and behaviors to create new topologies, typologies and taxonomies for XD/UX/UI :

“Why do we still use a keyboard and mouse to interact with digital information? This mode of human-computer interaction, invented more than 40 years ago, severely constrains our ability to access and interact naturally with digital content. Computer systems lack the contextual knowledge to offer relevant information when and where we need it. Further, traditional screen-based interfaces divert our attention in mobile and social situations. They are designed for a single user, and not well suited to accommodate collaborative activities.”

New theoretical constructs are being proposed and pure research explorations into these concepts and technologies are producing new types of digital experiences where the collective memory of data interactions and actual user behavior modifies digital experiences on the fly creating user experiences that do not rely on static forms, lists of options, pointing, and pressing. It is still too soon to know how these explorations will impact mainstream implementations of digital platforms, but we are already seeing bits and pieces of changes and a clustering of trends around more common user interface elements.

Based on my experience in interacting with Microsoft personnel, design is still an optional add on that emphasizes downstream expressions, rather than the important upstream corporate ethos and values informed by design that drive behaviors and skills for great outcomes. But at least Microsoft is willing to consider the issue of design once again and not cling to outdated historical precedent. After many years of not embracing the internet, Microsoft through its release of Silverlight and Surface applications and platforms is providing the company with a second chance at user experience relevancy. The acceptance of Windows 8 and of their mobile platforms using Metro’s principles will be interesting evidence if the installed user base is willing to accept these principles.