Archive for September 2005

Who Says User Research Can't Be Funny?

September 24th, 2005 — 6:39pm

User Research can be so relent­lessly earnest and pur­pose­ful that it gets to be a bit sti­fling. After a few dozen well-crafted per­sonas work their way pur­pose­fully through a set of mildly chal­leng­ing but inevitably suc­cess­ful sce­nar­ios for the tenth time in one week, a dili­gent user researcher is likely to be hun­ger­ing for some­thing a bit more sat­is­fy­ing; some­thing akin to the per­sona, but more fully-rounded; some­thing that con­veys the ambigu­ous com­plex­ity of human char­ac­ter with hon­esty; some­thing not only insight­ful, but con­sis­tently forth­right across a mul­ti­plic­ity of aspects. Per­haps even some­thing that is gen­uinely mala­pert.
Food Court Druids, Chero­hon­kees, And Other Crea­tures Unique to the Repub­lic is that some­thing. Writ­ten by Robert Lan­ham, it’s a hilar­i­ous col­lec­tion of idio­types — stereo­types out­side the design world, per­sonas within — couched as the out­come of seri­ous sci­en­tific inquiry whose method is called idio­syn­crol­ogy.
I advise read­ing with humil­ity close at hand, since it’s likely you’ll find your­self inside, and it’s only fair to laugh at every­one if you’re included…

Here’s the descrip­tion:
Lan­ham, author of The Hip­ster Hand­book and cre­ator and edi­tor of the Web site, extends his anthro­po­log­i­cal exam­i­na­tion of Amer­i­cans beyond trendy Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hoods to the entire coun­try, where Yank­necks (“rebel-flag-waving red­necks who live out­side the South”), Sig­mund Fruits (“peo­ple who insist on telling you about their dreams”) and oth­ers have existed thus far with­out being for­mally stud­ied by “idio­syn­crol­o­gists” like Lan­ham and his team. Pre­sented with the author­i­ta­tive tone of a seri­ous anthro­po­log­i­cal study, com­plete with an Idio Rank Scale that assesses the weird­ness of each type, many of Lanham’s pro­files are hilar­i­ously accu­rate descrip­tions of co-workers, fam­ily mem­bers, friends and other acquain­tances that almost every Amer­i­can has encoun­tered at some point in their lives. There are the Cor­nered Rabid Office Work­ers (CROWs), who “claim to be poets or play­wrights” when dis­cussing their work with strangers, “even if they just spent the last nine hours doing data entry on the McFlan­nery acqui­si­tion,” and Hex­pa­tri­ates, Amer­i­cans who decry every­thing about Amer­ica yet never actu­ally leave the coun­try (and who “refer to the Loews mul­ti­plex at the mall as ‘the cin­ema’ and the Motel Six by Hard­ees as ‘the pen­sione”). Illus­tra­tions by Jeff Bech­tel, depict­ing the fash­ion sense of Holi­dorks (peo­ple who wear holiday-themed cloth­ing) and Skants (women with shapely butts who always wear span­dex pants), enhance Lanham’s characterizations.

Comments Off | Reading Room, User Research

Better UI Tops Notes Users' Wish List

September 23rd, 2005 — 4:32pm

But not the new fea­tures list for the next release. In a pre­vi­ous post Lotus Notes UI = Dis­ease, I cited a arti­cle in which Ken Bis­conti, IBM Lotus vice pres­i­dent of Work­place, por­tal and col­lab­o­ra­tion prod­ucts, is quoted as say­ing “Through improve­ments such as con­tex­tual col­lab­o­ra­tion and sup­port for com­pos­ite apps, we’ve gone *above and beyond sim­ple UI enhance­ment*”. [Empha­sis mine.] Above and beyond? I think UI enhance­ment — which is often far from sim­ple, espe­cially when the exist­ing user expe­ri­ence is fun­da­men­tally flawed — is exactly what Notes needs.
After watch­ing soft­ware devel­op­ment first hand, I know that many Prod­uct Man­agers under­stand the impor­tance of qual­ity, design, and meet­ing users’ needs, but do not feel empow­ered to work against the per­va­sive fea­tu­ri­tis that leads to unus­able bloat­ware. Good prod­uct man­agers and design­ers often work for orga­ni­za­tions or man­agers who remain blinded by stan­dard prac­tices and mar­ket­ing dri­ven per­cep­tions of pri­or­ity, and thus feel it’s impos­si­ble to step off the new func­tion­al­ity tread­mill.
That is, unless they are armed with infor­ma­tion that indi­cates to the con­trary.
The arti­cle in Ken’s state­ment appears, Beyond Notes 7.0: IBM Lotus sketches ‘Han­nover’ user expe­ri­ence, is dated June 14, 2005. Yet when dig­ging it bit more, I dis­cov­ered an ear­lier piece from May 9, 2005, titled Bet­ter UI tops Notes users’ wish list, in which the same author, Peter Blochner, reports on the results of an open request for Lotus Notes fea­tures made by Ed Brill(Brill heads the world­wide sales group for Notes, accord­ing to Blochner). In his review of user responses to Brill’s ques­tion, Blochner says, “the most requested fea­ture was for an improved user inter­face for Notes.“
Sim­ple UI enhance­ment is all that the users want, and they’ve said it them­selves. Yet Notes is going way beyond this? Despite repeated and pub­lic requests for this from com­mit­ted users (Ed Brill’s blog is a pre­dom­i­nantly Notes-friendly forum) in their own voices, and in response to ques­tions from your own team. Why not lis­ten to them?
For ref­er­ence, Blochner’s arti­cle is repro­duced below:
By Peter Bochner
09 May 2005 |
IBM is already work­ing on plans for the next major releases of Lotus Notes beyond 7.0. Last week, on May 3, vis­i­tors to the blog site of Ed Brill, who heads up world­wide sales for Lotus Notes and Domino, were asked, “If you could add one fea­ture to Lotus Notes 7.x, what would it be?“
As of May 9, his ques­tion has gar­nered 184 com­ments, although many respon­dents cir­cum­vented the question’s one-feature limit by sub­mit­ting mul­ti­ple posts.
To kick off the thread, Brill pro­vided his own request — multi-level undo — and that was reit­er­ated by seven posters. How­ever, the most requested fea­ture was for an improved user inter­face for Notes. “It’s time to give the Notes client UI a much-needed facelift,” wrote one respon­dent. When peo­ple say Exchange is bet­ter than Notes, said another, “What they are say­ing is that the Out­look inter­face is …nicer than the [Notes] mail tem­plate. A top UI for the next release would top off a lot of end-user com­plaints.“
Only a hand­ful of responses men­tioned spe­cific sug­ges­tions for improv­ing the UI. One asked for “a first-class, richly con­fig­urable Wel­come Panel that resem­bles a Web por­tal.” Another sug­gested UI improve­ments such as “more user-selectable columns in folders/views, hav­ing pref­er­ences all in one place, or rules that can act on doc­u­ments already in the mail file.” Still another requested “a sexy mod­ern mail tem­plate with a sin­gle UI in Notes and on the Web.“
Finally, one user said, “What would it be worth if every part of the Notes mail expe­ri­ence, which …is the Notes inter­face for the major­ity of users, from the tool­bars to the icons to inter­ac­tion and behav­ior, was con­sis­tent, mod­ern, clean and invit­ing? There is no point in hav­ing the supe­rior every­thing if it’s not appeal­ing to look at.“
P.S. Brill has requested a mora­to­rium on sug­ges­tions, because the thread is now so long it has become unwieldy.

Comment » | User Experience (UX), User Research

Lotus Notes User Experience = Disease

September 22nd, 2005 — 10:13pm

Lotus Notes has one of the most unpleas­ant and unwel­com­ing User Expe­ri­ences this side of a medium-security prison where the war­den has aspi­ra­tions towards inte­rior design and art instruc­tion. One of the most painful aspects of the Notes expe­ri­ence is the default set­tings for font size and color in the email win­dow. The default font size (for Macs) is on the order of 7 point type, and the default color for unread mes­sages is — iron­i­cally — red. The com­bi­na­tion yields a user expe­ri­ence that resem­bles a bad skin rash. I call it “angry red microNotes” dis­ease, and it looks like this:
Over­all, it has an unhealthy affect on one’s state of mind. The under­tones of hos­til­ity and resent­ment run­ning through­out are man­i­fold. And nat­u­rally, it is impos­si­ble to change the default font size and color for the email reader. This is fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion for my the­ory that Notes has yet to escape it’s roots as a thick client for series of uncon­nected data­bases.
After three weeks of suf­fer­ing from angry red microNotes, I real­ized I was lit­er­ally going blind from squint­ing at the tiny type, and went to Google for relief. I found niniX 1.7, a util­ity that allows Mac based Lotus Notes users the abil­ity to edit the binary for­mat Notes pref­er­ences file, and change the font size of the email client. I share it in the hopes that oth­ers may break the chains that blind them. This will only solve half the prob­lem — if some­one can fig­ure out how to change the default color for unread mes­sages to some­thing besides skin rash red, I will hap­pily share with the rest of the suf­fer­ing masses (and appar­ently there are on the order of 118 mil­lion of us out there).
But will it always be this (hor­ri­ble) way?
In Beyond Notes 7.0: IBM Lotus sketches ‘Han­nover’ user expe­ri­ence Peter Bochner of says this of the next Notes release, “Notes has often been crit­i­cized for its some­what staid user inter­face. Accord­ing to IBM’s Bis­conti, in cre­at­ing Han­nover, IBM paid atten­tion “to not just the user inter­face, but the user expe­ri­ence.“
Okay… So does that mean I’ll have my choice of dis­eases as themes for the user expe­ri­ence of my col­lab­o­ra­tion envi­ron­ment?
Accord­ing to Ken Bis­conti, IBM Lotus vice pres­i­dent of Work­place, por­tal and col­lab­o­ra­tion prod­ucts, “Through improve­ments such as con­tex­tual col­lab­o­ra­tion and sup­port for com­pos­ite apps, we’ve gone above and beyond sim­ple UI enhance­ment”.
I think sim­ple UI enhance­ment is exactly what Ken and his team should focus on for the next sev­eral years, since they have so much oppor­tu­nity for improvement.

22 comments » | User Experience (UX)

Foiling Comment Spam

September 17th, 2005 — 10:12am

A tip o’ the hat to Richard Boakes for foil­ing a second-rate spam­mer by buy­ing up the domain they were pro­mot­ing with com­ment spam before they did.

1 comment » | The Media Environment

Defining Enterprise Semantics

September 15th, 2005 — 8:31am

JP Mor­gen­thal of offers a snap­shot of the process for defin­ing enter­prise seman­tics in Enter­prise Archi­tec­ture: The Holis­tic View: The Role of Seman­tics in Busi­ness.
Mor­gen­thal says, “When you under­stand the terms that your busi­ness uses to con­duct busi­ness and you under­stand how those terms impact your busi­ness, you can see clearly how to sup­port and main­tain the processes that use those terms with min­i­mal effort.“
Not a sur­prise, but how to make it hap­pen, and how to explain that to the business?

  1. Cap­ture — In this phase of the process a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for each busi­ness process estab­lishes the vocab­u­lary and their mean­ings required to sup­port that process. For exam­ple, in a sup­ply chain process the rep­re­sen­ta­tive might cap­ture words, such as buyer, trans­port or pay­ment method. In addi­tion to these words the rep­re­sen­ta­tive would explain what these terms mean in rela­tion to the process.
  2. Cat­e­go­riza­tion — In this phase, the vocab­u­lar­ies across all processes are orga­nized into a sys­tem… The sys­tem can be a sim­ple tax­o­nomic struc­ture that sim­ply relates process to vocab­u­lary, or it can be a more com­plex onto­log­i­cal struc­ture that cap­tures the rela­tion­ships of words across processes.
  3. Lever­age — This is phase where the tech­ni­cal staff imple­ments the vocab­u­lar­ies in the form of a dic­tio­nary or reg­istry. This dic­tio­nary can rep­re­sent a sim­ple lookup facil­ity or it can become an active part of the infra­struc­ture feed­ing the busi­ness rules and busi­ness process engines.

1 comment » | Information Architecture

On Semantics At The Enterprise Level

September 14th, 2005 — 5:39pm

In the same way that infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture helps take users’ under­stand­ings of the struc­ture, mean­ing, and orga­ni­za­tion of infor­ma­tion into account at the level of domain-specific user expe­ri­ences, infor­ma­tion spaces, and sys­tems, the com­plex seman­tic bound­aries and rela­tion­ships that define and link enterprise-level domains is a nat­ural area of activ­ity for enter­prise infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture.
Look­ing for some tech­ni­cally ori­ented mate­ri­als related to this level of IA — what I call enter­prise seman­tic frame­works — I came across a solid arti­cle titled Enter­prise Seman­tics: Align­ing Service-Oriented Archi­tec­ture with the Busi­ness in the Web Ser­vices Jour­nal.
The authors — Joram Boren­stein and Joshua Fox — take a web-services per­spec­tive on the busi­ness ben­e­fits of enterprise-level seman­tic efforts, but they do a good job of lay­ing out the case for the impor­tance of seman­tic con­cepts, under­stand­ing, and align­ment at the enter­prise level.
From the arti­cle abtract:
“Enter­prises need trans­parency, a clear view of what is hap­pen­ing in the orga­ni­za­tion. They also need agility, which is the abil­ity to respond quickly to changes in the inter­nal and exter­nal envi­ron­ments. Finally, orga­ni­za­tions require inte­gra­tion: the smooth inter­op­er­a­tion of appli­ca­tions across orga­ni­za­tional bound­aries. Encod­ing busi­ness con­cepts in a for­mal seman­tic model helps to achieve these goals and also results in addi­tional corol­lary ben­e­fits. This seman­tic model serves as a focal point and enables auto­mated dis­cov­ery and trans­for­ma­tion ser­vices in an orga­ni­za­tion.“
They also offer some ref­er­ences at the con­clu­sion of the article:

  • Boren­stein, J. and , J. (2003). “Seman­tic Dis­cov­ery for Web Ser­vices.” Web Ser­vices Jour­nal. SYS-CON Pub­li­ca­tions, Inc. Vol. 3, issue 4.
  • Cowles, P. (2005). “Web Ser­vice API and the Seman­tic Web.” Web Ser­vices Jour­nal. SYS-CON Pub­li­ca­tions, Inc. Vol. 5, issue 2.
  • Gen­ovese, Y., Hay­word, S., and Com­port, J. (2004). “SOA Will Demand Re-engineering of Busi­ness Appli­ca­tions.” Gart­ner. Octo­ber 8.
  • Linthicum, D. (2005). “When Build­ing Your SOA…Service Descrip­tions Are Key.” WebServices.Org. March 2005.
  • Schulte, R.W., Valdes, R., and Andrews, W. (2004). “SOA and Web Ser­vices Offer Lit­tle Ven­dor Inde­pen­dence.” Gart­ner. April 8.
  • W3C Web Ser­vices Archi­tec­ture Work­ing Group:

Comment » | Information Architecture

CMS Schematics, Page Shapes, Wire Frames

September 7th, 2005 — 6:43pm

A recent post on the IAI mail­ing list asked how com­mon it is for IAs to define page shapes or “…wire frames from 10,000 feet, with names for each of the “zones” (n.b. not “ele­ments”, “zones”). …Any given site may have a hand­ful of page shapes, and each page shape has a hand­ful of page zones. Each page and each shape would be named for easy ref­er­ence.“
I’ve used a very sim­i­lar approach based on the defin­ing a lim­ited num­ber of ‘screen types’ that show stan­dard­ized page struc­tures and lay­outs for doc­u­ment­ing browser based appli­ca­tions. I’ve posted an exam­ple of this kind of schemat­ics or wire frames packet done for a small con­tent man­ag­ment sys­tem. This packet includes a con­cep­tual overview of the user domain, as well as a set of defined screen types, screen flows, and wire frames. Here’s the full packet, exported from Visio as html.
Page shapes or screen types look like this:
Or this:
These are the accom­pa­ny­ing wire frames or schemat­ics:

Comment » | Information Architecture

Mental Models: Additional Reading

September 6th, 2005 — 1:58pm

Some addi­tional read­ing on men­tal mod­els, cour­tesy of the Inter­ac­tion Design Encyclopedia.

Comment » | Modeling

Factsheet on the Estate Tax

September 6th, 2005 — 1:16pm

From the “House Com­mit­tee on Demo­c­ra­tic Reform Fact Sheet: Esti­mated Tax Sav­ings of Bush Cab­i­net if the Repeal of the Estate Tax Is Made Per­ma­nent”:
The estate tax, the most pro­gres­sive Amer­i­can tax, is paid only by the very wealthy. The top 5% of tax­pay­ers pay almost 99% of estate taxes, and the top tenth of 1% of tax­pay­ers pay more than 33%.3 The vast major­ity of Amer­i­cans are already exempt from the estate tax. As a result, they will receive no ben­e­fit at all from mak­ing the repeal per­ma­nent.
Those with much to gain from the repeal include the Pres­i­dent and his Cab­i­net. Based on esti­mates of the net worth of Pres­i­dent Bush, Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney, and each of the Cab­i­net mem­bers, the Pres­i­dent, Vice Pres­i­dent, and the Cab­i­net are esti­mated to receive a total tax ben­e­fit of between $91 mil­lion and $344 mil­lion if the estate tax repeal is made per­ma­nent. The Pres­i­dent him­self is esti­mated to save between $787,000 and $6.2 mil­lion, while Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney is esti­mated to save between $12.6 mil­lion and $60.7 mil­lion.
The com­plete Fact­sheet is avail­able from Congress.

Comments Off | Civil Society

Mental Models, Resilience, and Lotus Notes

September 5th, 2005 — 6:05pm

Sev­eral very unpleas­ant expe­ri­ences I’ve had with the Lotus Notes web­mail client dur­ing the past few weeks have brought up some ques­tions about men­tal mod­els; specif­i­cally how users respond to chal­lenges to their men­tal mod­els, and how resilience plays a part in how changes to men­tal mod­els occur.
The IAWiki defines a men­tal model as, “a men­tal model is how the user thinks the prod­uct works.” This is a sim­pli­fied def­i­n­i­tion, but it’s ade­quate for the moment. For a deeper explo­ration, try Mar­tina Angela Sasse’s the­sis
Elic­it­ing and Describ­ing Users’ Mod­els of Com­puter Sys­tems.
In this case, the model and the chal­lenge are straight­for­ward. My men­tal model of the Notes web­mail client includes the under­stand­ing that it can send email mes­sages. The chal­lenge: the Lotus web­mail client can­not send email mes­sages — at least not as I expe­ri­ence it.
Here’s what hap­pens my men­tal model and my real­ity don’t match:

  1. I log in to my email client via Fire­fox — the only browser on the Mac that ren­ders the Notes web­mail client vaguely cor­rectly — (I’m using web­mail because the full Notes client requires VPN, mean­ing I’m unable to access any­thing on my local net­work, or the inter­net, which, inci­den­tally, makes it dif­fi­cult to seem like a cred­i­ble inter­net con­sul­tant.) again, because it’s frozen and crashed my browser in the past ten minutes.
  2. I real­ize I need to respond to an email
  3. I do not remem­ber that the Notes web­mail client is inca­pable of send­ing out email messages
  4. I open a new mes­sage win­dow, and com­pose a chunk of semi-grammatical techno-corporate non-speak to com­mu­ni­cate a few sim­ple points in blame-retardant consultantese
  5. I attempt to send this email
  6. I am con­fronted with a cryp­tic error mes­sage via javascript prompt, say­ing some­thing like “We’re really sorry, but Domino sucks, so you can’t send out any mes­sages using your email client.”
  7. Over the span of .376 sec­onds, I move through suc­ces­sive states of sur­prise, con­fu­sion, com­pre­hen­sion, frus­tra­tion, anger, resent­ment, res­ig­na­tion, and malaise (actu­ally, mailaise is more accurate.)
  8. I swear: silently if clients are within earshot, out loud if not
  9. I switch to gmail, cre­ate a new mes­sage, copy the text of my mes­sage from the Notes web­mail win­dow to Gmail, and send the mes­sage to some eagerly wait­ing recipient
  10. I close the Notes web­mail client, and return to busi­ness as usual.
  11. I for­get that the Notes web­mail client can­not send email messages.

Despite fol­low­ing this same path three times per day, five days each week, for the past five weeks, (for a total of ~75 clear exam­ples), I am always sur­prised when I can’t send a mes­sage. I’m no expert on Learn­ing the­ory but nei­ther lack of atten­tion nor stub­born­ness explain why seventy-five exam­ples aren’t enough to change my model of how Notes works.
Dis­ci­plines includ­ing sys­tems the­ory, biol­ogy, and soci­ol­ogy use a con­cept called resilience. In any sta­ble sys­tem, “Resilience gen­er­ally means the abil­ity to recover from some shock, insult, or dis­tur­bance.” From an eco­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, resilience “is a mea­sure of the amount of change or dis­rup­tion that is required to trans­form a sys­tem.” The psy­cho­log­i­cal view empha­sizes “the abil­ity of peo­ple to cope with stress and cat­a­stro­phe.“
Appar­ently, the resilience of my model for email clients is high enough to with­stand con­sid­er­able stress, since — in addi­tion to the ini­tial cat­a­stro­phe of using Notes itself — seventy-five con­sec­u­tive exam­ples of fail­ure to work as expected do not equal enough shock, insult, and dis­tur­bance to my model to lead to a change my in under­stand­ing.
Notice that I’m using a work-around — switch­ing to Gmail — to achieve my goal and send email. In
Resilience Man­age­ment in Social-ecological Sys­tems: a Work­ing Hypoth­e­sis for a Par­tic­i­pa­tory Approach , Brian Walker and sev­eral oth­ers refine the mean­ing of resilience to include, “The degree to which the sys­tem expresses capac­ity for learn­ing and adap­ta­tion.” This accounts nicely for the Gmail work-around.
I also noticed that I’m rely­ing on a series of assump­tions — email clients can send mes­sages; Notes is an email client; there­fore, Notes can send mes­sages — that make it log­i­cal to use a well estab­lished model for email clients in gen­eral to antic­i­pate the work­ings of Notes web­mail in par­tic­u­lar. In new con­texts, it’s eas­ier to bor­row an exist­ing model than develop a new one. In short order, I expect I’ll change one of the assump­tions, or build a model for Notes web­mail.
Here’s a few ques­tions that come to mind:

  1. What fac­tors deter­mine the resilience of a men­tal model?
  2. How to mea­sure resiliency in men­tal models?
  3. What’s the thresh­old of recov­ery for a men­tal model?
  4. Put another way, what’s required to change a men­tal model?

Based on a quick review of the con­cept of resilience from sev­eral per­spec­tives, I’m com­fort­able say­ing it’s a valu­able way of look­ing at men­tal mod­els, with prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions for infor­ma­tion archi­tects.
Some of those impli­ca­tions are:

  1. Under­stand the rel­e­vance of exist­ing men­tal mod­els when design­ing new systems
  2. Antic­i­pate and plan the ways that users will form a men­tal model of the system
  3. Use design at mul­ti­ple lev­els to fur­ther the for­ma­tion of men­tal models
  4. Under­stand thresh­olds and resilience fac­tors when chal­leng­ing exist­ing men­tal models

From a broader view, I think it’s safe to say the appli­ca­tion of sys­tems the­ory to infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture con­sti­tutes an impor­tant area for explo­ration, one con­tain­ing chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties for user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers in gen­eral, and infor­ma­tion archi­tects in par­tic­u­lar.
Time to close this post before it gets too long.
Fur­ther read­ing:
Bio of Lud­wig Berta­lanffy, impor­tant con­trib­u­tor to Gen­eral Sys­tem The­ory.
Doug Cocks <a href=“> On Decon­struct­ing Com­plex Adap­tive Systems
Resilience Alliance
Garry Peterson’s blog Resilience Sci­ence

5 comments » | Modeling, User Experience (UX)

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