Archive for the 'Usability' Category

Information Architecture Primer

Just experimenting some more with Prezi. Been meaning to try to explain I.A. more in a simpler way. I’d like to go back and apply a metaphor to this.

Click the link above to view the Prezi

Click the link above to view the Prezi

How Good Instructional Design Can Help You Build Better Web Content

I’ve been reviewing GUI Bloopers to reaffirm some of the design issues I’ve been facing lately, and I ran across the following principle:

Basic Principle 2: Consider function first, presentation later.

Jeff Johnson goes on to better define what this means in this quote:

“A software application embodies certain concepts and relationships between concepts. Designers should fully define the concepts and their relationships before they design how to present the concepts to users.”

Applying Instructional Design principles used to do a simple task analysis can help facilitate better design. Simply, you should be able to clearly define the tasks you want the users to complete in interacting with your site, application, or GUI.

I have a somewhat simple example.

Say you’re creating a site for users with the purpose of informing them how to effectively podcast.

You do a simple task analysis that asks the following:

  • What knowledge do the user/learners need?
  • What behaviors do they need if any to do this?
  • What skills do the need to be able to perform?

After you answer these questions (identifying the content items for your site),  you will need to create formal learning objectives to guide users through the content they need to be able to accomplish the task, activity or perform the skill that the site is teaching.  There is an art to writing good learning objectives that are measurable, and there are whole websites and books devoted to this subject, but for the purpose of this exercise, I am writing them in a very simple form. In the podcasting example, a set of learning objectives may look like this:

Learner will be able to:

  1. Define what a podcast is and how it is used by both podcasters and listeners.
  2. Identify tools needed for downloading podcasts.
  3. Use a simple audio recording tool/software to record a podcast.
  4. Publish their podcast.

In this scenario you could organize the learning content by the learning objectives. Let’s say you create a simple schematic/wireframe for your web page that looks like this:

This, of course, is a very simple example but the same steps could be used to determine the page layout or content for a site or sub page to a site. From this point you could treat all four of the items above as main categories in the site and determine sub or enabling learning objectives and content items needed to meet these over-arching objectives.

It may seem like this method is over thinking the development of content for the web, but I have found that this method of determining content by ‘Task Analysis’ actually helps better address learner needs rather than simply spilling out a pile content items and then trying to figure out an organizational structure around your pile after wards.

The same task analysis methods can be applied to GUI design of a tool.  Just ask yourself (bear in mind some of these questions are over-simplifying things but but there are still users out there who don’t know these things):

  • What to the users need to know to be able to use this application?
    • Example question – Do they know how to use a file menu?
  • What skills do the need to successfully work with the tool?
    • Example question – Do they need to know how to upload a file such as a .gif or a .wav file?
  • Are there any behaviors or attitudes about technology your audience has that may impact how they use and view the tool?
    • Example question - Do the users in your audience like to read printed materials? (Though personally I think we should discourage this as much as possible)

I believe that if you answer some of these questions up front before you start designing the tool, you win at least 80% of the the battle when it comes to conceptualizing design effectively.  The result: More happy users.

Happy User vs. Sad User

Happy User vs. Sad User

#dl09- Leveraging for learning

Presentation Description

Key take aways:

1. We don’t leverage data we collect to improve learner experience in the now

2. Amazon uses 3 things to personalize user experience: user created content (reviews); analytics/data; collaborative filtering

3. Personalization can be scaled see white mindmap.*

* I think we should keep the following chart in mind when we are developing solutions in Drupal.

Is Web 2.0 over complicating things?

Technology allows me to be an ‘on-the-fly’ sort of tourist. I don’t have things planned out before I get to a destination like my parents did. They had travel agents who got them packaged tours where everything from morning wake-up to afternoon snack and evening meals were all scheduled on a daily plan. I shudder to think of enjoying travel in this way. I might read extensively about a place and it’s neighborhoods before I go, but if I know that I can have Internet access when I’m there, I pretty much leave it up to the moment. When we were vacationing in San Francisco, I did my usual thing… went straight to Google maps and searched for places that I wanted to see or needed to visit: food, shopping, neighborhood historical spots, or the nearest Rite-aid to buy a replacement pair of pantyhose. When I was searching for eating places and boutiques, I noticed that a number of places had websites. A number of restaurants sounded good, but they just had too much ricketa-racketa (flash) on their websites. Come on! I just want a menu… or maybe even photos to look at. I want to know what you’re store, business or restaurant has to offer. A few sites required me to download a plug in. Others sites seemed like some design nightmare similar to some conceptual art experience designed by an irritating esoteric character from Nathan Barley. Worse, important information like ‘store hours’ or a phone number was often hidden under some cryptic heading other than the obvious ‘about us.’

Nathan Barley's Website -Bells and whistles and too much junk

I actually thought if their websites are this pretentious, then they must be pretty annoying. Ergo, I didn’t want to give them my business. The funny thing is some small mobile devices don’t play Flash very well. Often the information I needed could just be on a list. Yes, from a consumer’s point of view the web needs to be simple and easy to use. As Jakob Nielsen put it:

“Most people just want to get in, get it and get out….For them the web is not a goal in itself. It is a tool.”

Pushing bells and whistles or other advanced features may be too much if you’re forcing them on users. On the other hand, people should be restricted to just using the ‘tried and true’ methods. Mr. Nielsen argues that focus on Web 2.0 development and applications is causing many website builders to forsake good design. But I think there’s a growing market/audience of people who know how to take advantages and use the newer web technologies. To be fair to these pioneering web developers… they’re still trying to figure out what works and how to make it work well. Though many business successes have demonstrated the power of social networking through blogs, wikis and social networks/online community. A product or service can take off if a few connected users or mavens start talking about it on the web.

From a web educator’s point of view, the web has great potential to bring people closer together and these tools are more than just ricketa-racketa. Also, users can work collaboratively to develop content from written text, to music, podcasts. They can even build on concepts and enrich discussion with video sharing.

If you read this article… Nielsen sounds kind of like (excuse my words) an old fogy… who predicts that people’s use and behavior with and on the Internet will not continue as they grow older. He predicts that Internet use will go down as people age. For the sector of society who will become more involved in the ‘creative’ and ‘technology’ economies this will not be the case. And, of course their use of the technology will change because technology changes. Something just tells me that Mr. Nielsen or his perception and vision of things is sort of …. stuck. Maybe things will be this way for me when everyone is plugging directly into USB (or some kind of electronic) ports or even buying cyborg bio-add ons… I just won’t get it or understand. (Of course, you know I’m joking about the cyborg thing… well sort of).

Does Everything Microsoft Touches Turn to Suck?

I can name a few things that come to mind….the “Ipod Killer,” attempts at Voice recognition software, their MSN web, Vista….

I know they have a few good things (at least from appearance) like the “Surface” project. Though I have never actually interacted the with device, so I can’t give a personal assessment of the tool.

This whole takeover of Yahoo by Microsoft worries and annoys me. Maybe it’s because MS is just again throwing their muscle around rather than focusing on creating new and innovative tools that people will like. Maybe I just don’t like the idea of large, looming bodies of companies that swallow up smaller businesses and then pass them through like refuse. Didn’t these Microsoft executives read the “NEW RULES” for running a corporation? I suppose you could just say that this is ‘normal’ behavior for a large predatory company and we should just write off these actions as expected. But as a consumer, I just want to make sure the products that I have available to me are “usable” from my perspective as a user, not a software engineer’s idea of ‘usable.’

Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in a very dysfunctional corporate environment similar to Microsoft’s, and I’m just assuming that most large corporations operate the same way (with very little imagination and too much politics). The are so fat and lard ridden that they have no choice but to throw their weight around like a corpulent bully, who must rely on manipulative and predatory tactics to maintain his position.

I also know that large companies use their patent attorneys to search out new and innovative processes developed by smaller companies. These patent attorneys work around the clock to develop broad patents so that once they find instances of small businesses and individuals actually developing something that works, they claim the right to the patent. Evil, huh?

I realize that History shows that Microsoft has given us products in the past that have pushed computing forward. Also, so many companies and people have become dependent on their software and tools. They’re big so they have better resources for offering technical support* Gee, I’m starting to sound like that bit in the film Life of Brian where the group of Judean Peoples front (or Peoples’s Front of Judea) asks…. “What have the Romans done for us?!” I just take issue with the way Microsoft does business, and before anyone points out that their behavior as a company is natural for their size and position, it seems that their way of doing business doesn’t meet everyone’s (the end users) needs. Therefore it’s in all of our interests to have other companies large and small who can fill these niches for us.

But when it comes to this recent takeover, I really can’t see them improving tools like the photo sharing tool Flickr. Also, having had a great deal of experience using Microsoft tools like MS Project and Sharepoint. I really don’t get the feeling that Microsoft really has a cultural appreciation of usability. Maybe Microsoft also suffers from the innovation drain, or their execution of new products just stinks. I could be wrong, but my intuition tells me that companies who are innovative and dynamic usually draw the right types of people who can think, create and implement dynamically. Maybe the combination of the doldrum suburban location and the restrictive politics and culture hurts some companies who can’t draw ideal teams of innovators and star project developers, I don’t know.

*Though one might argue with a well designed product you need less support.

What have the Romans done for us?


I hate my laptop

It gets too hot on my lap… I mean that’s great in these over-airconditioned conference rooms, but still, unless I’m having knee problems, I don’t want a heating pad on my lap.

Also, this keyboard typing thing… I officially feel like I’m done with this. Keyboard shortcuts are so 90’s.

I want to be able to easily draw, mind maps, diagrams.

I miss writing things out.

And I want to interact with the web interface. Isn’t Ajax making this possible?

Stop making me fill in forms.

Tablet PC

The other thing… I want this thing to fit in my purse, my sweat-shirt pocket. This 5 lb thing… it’s not cutting it. I mean when I need a big screen and I’m not away from my desk, I will watch or use any web interface you develop that requires me to pay more attention to content, writing and details… but in terms of being a tool that helps me in the field or when I’m networking with people in person. This laptop sucks.

Is anyone out there developing a tool for me?

A tablet PC might be nice, but even that is too big and clumsy. I don’t want to read tiny print. I just want to be able to skim the internet and find what I need when I’m away from my office. I aslo want to listen to stories case studies with simple visuals and share these with my colleagues. If they (and I) want details, we’ll go back to the website for the company or organization later and check out the details.

Interaction Designer? Sounds like a Fun Job

So you want to be an interaction designer.

I thought this was a great article on what interaction design is and the philosophy and approach to good interaction design.  If we think about it web technology is really in it’s infancy or perhaps maybe it’s toddlerhood.  We’re still really in the beginnning of developing a science around interaction on the web. Who knows by the next half generation we may be using internet tech that differs from the media and forms we use today. Some how my gut tells me that it’s best to leave your options somewhat open when it comes to technology. The best place to start in designing tools is with the people, their tasks, their needs, their culture and behavior. More, it’s good to be somewhat open about how to best suit their needs, and give them as many options as possible.

The interaction designer who focuses on developing web-based environments for large populations has their work cut out for them. Developing a way to standardize organization of content and how to retrieve this content from the structure is probably one of the biggest hair-pulling task anyone must face.

I read from Chris Hoskin’s blog that some UX (User Experience) folks are aiming at developing interactions and User interfaces that help the different MBTI types.  This may make some system analysts and developers heads spin to think of so many different possibility for design, but that’s the point, you should be designing your tools for a wider range of user types.  Perhaps starting with Kolb’s 4 learning styles ( Concrete Experiencer, Active Experimenter, Reflective Observer, and Abstract Conceptualizer) might be an easier goal to shoot for for starters.


My love of all things Wii

I love the Wii!  I usually not so gung-ho about products, but when I am I can’t stop singing their praises. The Wii is just too much fun and is super easy to hold and use. Some of the movement and actions simulated isn’t exact. I do worry that getting accustomed to the swing motions in the golf and tennis game will affect my actual ability to perform in the real arenas. I few weeks ago I saw a clip on the Conan O’Brien show where Conan challenged Serena Williams to a quick match of Wii tennis.  Of course O’Brien won.   I noticed very quickly when I was playing tennis that using a real swing doesn’t actually put you to an advantage in the Wii world.

Still, I don’t think I can ever go back to the old type of gaming system other than for brief nostalgic fixes.  Alas, even my Nintendo DS sits on my nightstand gathering dust.

But wait there’s more!  I’m super psyched to see this as well… a Wii gun remote.  I’m a really big fan of shooting gallery games.  I’ve been reading that it’s not that strange to see more and more women into gaming. I’m just excited that can actually be a little more active and play games at the same time. Not to mention, it’s fun to have people over and pay Wii… it becomes a social activity which is quite fun. Though if you’re guest have a few cocktails make sure they fasten the wrist strap securely :)


Flint tool cartoon is from this page at the Flints and Stones: Real Life in Prehistory site.

Personality Matching for applications

SAP is…

MS Sharepoint (Many MS products) if the “Trust me Guy” and “Anal Retentive Guy” had a love child it would probably resemble someone in the Microsoft family…



Images are from Creating Passionate Users

Companies are like bad marriages

From Creating Passionate Users: Too Many Companies are like Bad Marriages.

I really needed a good laugh. Thank you Kathy Sierra.

That’s true if you ever purchase software and then have to swim through help files to find what you need the help files are not organized or written in a way that’s easy for a user to search for the pieces of information that they need.  But this brings me to a point that’s been bugging me for the past three years: Designing great help and educational materials takes time and early and active participation from the training group!!!

I might also point out as well that products should be designed so that little or no training is necessary, and this is where the Human Factors Engineers or (HFEs) come in.  It may sound strange that a training developer is openly advocating a practice that could literally put herself out of a job, but I do so understanding that there will always be a need for good training and good documentation. At least if we’re designing better products my work will be directed to areas where it’s much needed.

Kathy Sierra points out that “World Class Training Materials” have three characteristics:

  1. User-friendly
    Easy to use when, where, and how you need it.
  2. Based on sound learning principles
    i.e. users actually learn from it, not just refer to it.
  3. Motivational
    Keeps users willing to push forward to higher “levels”

All three characteristics take time to build and design. Though if a training organization starts building usability practices and training it’s folks to identify when training interventions are not user-friendly and correcting them accordingly then you’ve probably got #1 nailed down.  #2 requires careful analysis and definition of the performance goals of the project or product. This requires more than just content experts throwing their design over a cubicle wall.   The project developers and designers must tie the design directly to the initial requirements (including user performance requirements), and training and the Human Factors Engineer should have direct exposure to the design as it’s being built.  The training developer can provide insight to the designers when it appears that the process or tasks will be difficult to learn. The HFE can let them know when the interface is a real pain in the butt for the user (and help them correct the design so IT IS NOT).

However, when you work for a company where engineering and design take the front seat…the Training and HFE roles are seen as an ancillary parts of the product development process. Consequently, it’s often hard to integrate Training and HFE activities into the process.  It gets even worse if you have to develop tools or products on a short time cycle.  The HFE has no time to provide input to the design of the tool or interface and the training developer must crank out sub-standard training materials because they don’t have enough time.

I believe that true incorporation of Training and Human Factors Engineering is a big change in behavior for some engineering companies.  It takes both a cultural change in understanding the value and how to apply both functions and areas of expertise correctly. It also takes leaders at the top who get the value and actively champion the best utilization of both groups instead of just paying them lip service.  I’ve seen our activities treated as ‘support’ functions and take a backseat to the others.  I’ve also seen HFE expertise and function as a whole being misunderstood and under-utilized. Yes, it’s true that you can’t have a product without a design, but how can you make it work if you haven’t assessed how the users are going to adopt it or have a plan for making it possible for them to do so?  There’s an ugly answer to this question and it sounds like this: “It doesn’t matter because the users don’t have a choice. They have to learn how to use the tool no matter how hard it is to use or learn.” But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the price that we must pay if we want to develop products quickly and without good usability practices and standards in place. The users will be frustrated, but tough termites, they simply have to deal with it. 

Some people may argue with me and say spending too much time on usability design and training will cost too much time and money.  On the training side, I believe that if at least three conditions are met this becomes easier:

  • Acceptance of Training: Leadership from the top down accepts, understands and champions the value of training and knows what it means if training is being involved correctly. Training partners design engineers, project team, etc. also understand and accept the role of training.
  • Business Process in Place: Training has a standard business process and practice in place (note business process is flexible – not a rigid procedure as for manufacturing) for developing training and have them incorporated the overall product design and development cycle.
  • Organized use of Learning Assets: Training organization has a well organized series of adaptable re-usable learning objects designed (there’s a great deal of efficiency gained). 


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