Archive for December 2005

Building Channels To Customers With User Research

December 26th, 2005 — 12:26am

Prov­ing that a well-developed sense of humor is required for suc­cess in prod­uct design — espe­cially for Lotus Notes — Mary Beth Raven, who leads the design team for the next ver­sion of Lotus Notes, recently posted a rather funny com­ment in reply to my sug­ges­tion that the Notes Design team offer cus­tomers a choice of unpleas­ant but related user expe­ri­ence themes. She used this as the occa­sion to invite all mem­bers of the com­mu­nity of Notes to users to reg­is­ter as vol­un­teers for usabil­ity test­ing.
I’ve made three post­ings to date specif­i­cally dis­cussing the Notes user expe­ri­ence: Lotus Notes User Expe­ri­ence = Dis­ease, Men­tal Mod­els, Resilience, and Lotus Notes, and Bet­ter UI Tops Notes Users’ Wish Lists. I’m not sure which of these prompted Mary Beth to reach out, but I’m glad she did, because doing so is smart busi­ness on two lev­els. At the first level, Mary Beth plainly under­stands that while vocal crit­ics may seem daunt­ing to user expe­ri­ence design­ers, prod­uct man­agers, and busi­ness own­ers, engag­ing these crit­ics in fact presents design teams with oppor­tu­ni­ties to build strong con­nec­tions to users and gather valu­able feed­back at the same time. What bet­ter way is there to show the strate­gic value of user research?
I learned this at first hand while work­ing on a redesign of the flag­ship web pres­ence of a large soft­ware firm sev­eral years ago. Some of the most insight­ful and use­ful feed­back on the strengths and weak­nesses of the user expe­ri­ences I was respon­si­ble for came from ‘dis­grun­tled’ cus­tomers. The user research I was doing on site struc­tures, nav­i­ga­tion paths, and user goals estab­lished a chan­nel that allowed unhappy (and happy) cus­tomers to com­mu­ni­cate about a broad range of their expe­ri­ences with PTC prod­ucts and ser­vices in a more com­plete way than by sim­ply buy­ing a com­pet­ing prod­uct, or renew­ing an exist­ing soft­ware license.
Based on these and other expe­ri­ences build­ing user research pro­grams, I sug­gest that prod­uct man­agers, user research leads, and user expe­ri­ence design­ers first col­lab­o­rate to define a user research strat­egy, and then define and cre­ate a sim­ple but effec­tive user research infra­struc­ture (like reg­is­tra­tion gate­ways to vol­un­teer data­bases, com­mu­nity / pro­gram iden­ti­fiers and incen­tives, con­tact man­age­ment tools, spe­cific per­sonas that tech­ni­cal and cus­tomer sup­port teams can learn to rec­og­nize and recruit at all stages of the cus­tomer life­cy­cle, etc.) that will sup­port the cre­ation of chan­nels to users through­out the design cycle.
At the sec­ond level, it allows the Notes team to directly explore col­lab­o­ra­tion meth­ods, prod­ucts, and tech­nolo­gies related to the very com­pet­i­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion suite / inte­grated elec­tronic work­space / office pro­duc­tiv­ity mar­kets in which IBM, Microsoft, and sev­eral other giant firms are look­ing to secure dom­i­nant posi­tions in the new cul­ture of col­lab­o­ra­tion. [Note: I’ve posted a few times on Microsoft prod­ucts as well — Back­wards Goals: MS Office Results Ori­ented UI, and Microsoft’s Phi­los­o­phy On Infor­ma­tion Archi­tec­ture.]
Mem­bers of the com­mu­nity of Lotus Notes users can reg­is­ter as vol­un­teers for usabil­ity tests dur­ing the design of the next ver­sion of Notes at this URL:

1 comment » | User Experience (UX), User Research

Musical Signatures From Your iTunes Library

December 15th, 2005 — 11:51am

We rely on many ways of rec­og­niz­ing peo­ple, near at hand or from afar; faces, voices, walks, and even the scents from favorite colognes or per­fumes help us greet friends, engage col­leagues, and iden­tify strangers.
I was in high school when I first noticed that everyone’s key chain made a dis­tinct sound, one that served as a kind of audi­ble call­ing card that could help rec­og­nize peo­ple. I started to try to guess who was walk­ing to the front door by learn­ing the unique com­bi­na­tions of sounds — clink­ing and tin­kling from metal keys, rat­tling and rub­bing from ceramic and plas­tic tokens, and a myr­iad of other noises from the incred­i­ble mis­cel­lany peo­ple attach to their key rings and carry around with them through life — that announced each of my vis­i­tors friends. With a lit­tle prac­tice, I could pick out the ten or fif­teen peo­ple I spent the most time with based on lis­ten­ing to the sounds of key chains. Every­one else was some­one I didn’t see often, which was a fine dis­tinc­tion to draw between when gaug­ing how to answer the door.
There are many other audi­ble cues to iden­tity — from the clos­ing of a car door, to the sound of foot steps, or cell phone ring tones — but the key chain is unique because it includes so many dif­fer­ent ele­ments: the num­ber and size and mate­ri­als of the keys, or the lay­er­ing of dif­fer­ent key rings and sou­ve­niers peo­ple attach to them. A key chain is a sort of impromptu ensem­ble of found instru­ments play­ing lit­tle bursts of free jazz like per­son­al­ized fan­fares for mod­ern liv­ing.
The sound of someone’s key chain also changes over time, as they add or remove things, or rearrange them. That sound can even change in step with the way your rela­tion­ship to that per­son changes. For exam­ple, if they buy a sou­ve­nier with you and put it on their key­chain; or if you give them keys to your apart­ment. Each of these changes reflects shared expe­ri­ences, and you can hear the dif­fer­ence in sound from one day to the next if you lis­ten care­fully.
And like those other ways of rec­og­niz­ing peo­ple I men­tioned ear­lier, which all reach the level of being called sig­na­tures when they become truly dis­tinc­tive, the sound of someone’s key chain serves a sort of audi­ble sig­na­ture.
Until now, the sound of a key­chain was per­haps the only truly unique audi­ble sig­na­ture that was not part of our per­son to begin with (like the voice). Now that Jason Free­man has cre­ated the iTunes Sig­na­ture Maker, we may have an audi­ble sig­naure suit­able for the dig­i­tal realm. The iTunes Sig­na­ture Maker scans your iTunes library, tak­ing one or two sec­ond snip­pets of many files, and mix­ing these found bits of sound together into a short audio sig­na­ture. You choose from a few para­me­ters such as play count, total num­ber of songs, and whether to include videos, and the sig­na­ture maker pro­duces a .WAV file.
I made an iTunes sig­na­ture using Jason’s tool a few days ago. I’ve lis­tened to it a few times. It cer­tainly includes quite a few songs I’ve lis­tened to often and can rec­og­nize from just a one-second snip­pet. Cal­lig­ra­phers and graphol­o­gists make much of a few hand­writ­ten let­ters on a page: music can say a great deal about someone’s moods, out­look, tastes, or even what moves their soul. I lis­ten to a lot of music via radio, CD’s and even live that isn’t included in this. I’m not sure it rep­re­sents me. I think it’s up to every­one else to decide that.
But what can you do with one? It’s not prac­ti­cal yet to attach it to email mes­sages, like a con­ven­tional .sig. It might be a good way to book­end the mixes I make for friends and fam­ily. I can see hav­ing a lot of fun lis­ten­ing to a bunch of anony­mous iTunes sig­na­tures from your friends to try and guess which one belongs to whom. There’s real poten­tial for a use­ful but non-exhaustive answer to the inevitable ques­tion, “What kind of music do you like?” when you meet some­one new. Along those lines, Jason may have kicked off a new fad in Inter­net dat­ing; this is the per­fect exam­ple of a unique token that can com­press a great deal of mean­ing into a small (dig­i­tal) pack­age that doesn’t require meet­ing or talk­ing to exchange. I can see the iTunes sig­na­ture becom­ing a speed-dating req­ui­site; bring your iTunes sig­na­ture file with you on a flash drive or iPod shuf­fle, and lis­ten or exchange as nec­es­sary.
At least the name is easy: what else would you call this besides a “musig”. Maybe an “iSig” or a “tune­sig”.
Unique ring tones, door chimes, and start-up sounds are only the begin­ning. Com­bine musigs with the music genome project, and you could upload your sig­na­ture to a clear­ing­house online, and have it auto­mat­i­cally com­pared for matches against other people’s musigs based on pat­terns and pref­er­ences. Have it find some­one who likes reggae-influenced waltzes, or fado, or who lis­tens to at least ten of the same artists you enjoy. Build a cat­a­log of one musig every month for a year, and ask the engine to describe the change in your tastes. Add a musig to your Ama­zon wish­lists for gift-giving, or even ask it to pre­dict what you might like based on the songs in the file.
You can down­load my musig / iSig / tune­sig / iTunes sig­na­ture here; note that it’s nearly 8mb.
I’ll think I’ll try it again in a few months, to see how it changes.

Comments Off | The Media Environment

New Urbanism In Practice After Katrina

December 8th, 2005 — 2:46pm

Katrina’s ill winds are bring­ing some good, in the form of increased aware­ness of and will­ing­ness to con­sider New Urban archi­tec­ture and urban plan­ning options for the rebuild­ing Gulf Coast towns.
I first encoun­tered New Urban­ism while read­ing William Kunstler’s The Geog­ra­phy of Nowhere. Kun­stler has writ­ten sev­eral addi­tional books explor­ing the cre­ation and evo­lu­tion of the mod­ern Amer­i­can sub­ur­ban­scape since The Geog­ra­phy of Nowhere, all of them mak­ing ref­er­ence to New Urban­ism. It’s recently popped up in two arti­cles the NY Times. The first, Out of the Muddy Rub­ble, a Vision for Gulf Coast Towns, by Brad­ford McKee, recounts the efforts of archi­tects and plan­ners from a vari­ety of per­spec­tives, includ­ing mem­bers of the Con­gress for the New Urban­ism, to put forth a viable plan for the healthy rede­vel­op­ment of dam­aged Gulf Coast towns.
If you’ve not heard yet, New Urban­ism advo­cates the cre­ation of walk­a­ble, human scale com­mu­ni­ties empha­siz­ing mixed use envion­ments with pat­terns and struc­ture that allow peo­ple to meet daily needs with­out reliance on auto­mo­biles. In short, New Urban­ism is an archi­tec­ture and plan­ning frame­work that actively opposes sprawl.
Sprawl ben­e­fits the short term at the expense of the long term. Crit­ics of New Urban­ism often choose to inter­peret it as a school that restricts the rights of indi­vid­ual prop­erty own­ers, rather than as a series of pos­i­tive guide­lines for how to design com­mu­ni­ties that are healthy in the long run. But of course that’s always been the short-term view of the long-term greater good…
The dra­mat­icly dif­fer­ing points of view in favor of and opposed to New Urban­ist approaches come through very clearly in this exchange:
The Miami archi­tect Andres Duany, a prin­ci­pal fig­ure in the New Urban­ism move­ment, urged the casino own­ers to inte­grate the casi­nos more seam­lessly among new clus­ters of retail stores and restau­rants rather than as iso­lated estab­lish­ments.
Describ­ing his vision, Mr. Duany said, “You step out onto a beau­ti­ful avenue, where you can get a chance to look at the water and the mar­velous sun­sets and the shops, and walk up and down to restau­rants and eas­ily find taxis to other places.“
But Mr. Duany’s design sharply clashed with the casino own­ers’ main pri­or­ity.
“A casino owner wants peo­ple to stay on the prop­erty,” said Bernie Burk­holder, pres­i­dent and chief exec­u­tive of the Trea­sure Bay Casino, in Biloxi.
“As running-dog cap­i­tal­ist casino own­ers, we need to under­stand that the com­mu­nity fits together,” he added, “but we need an eco­nomic unit that will hold the cus­tomer.“
The sec­ond: Gulf Plan­ning Roils Res­i­dents also by Brad­ford McKee, pub­lished a few days after the first on Decem­ber 8, 2005, cap­tures some of the reac­tions to the plans from Gulf Coast res­i­dents. Nat­u­rally, the reac­tions are mixed.
But it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that sprawl is a very tem­po­rary and sur­real sta­tus quo, one that cre­ated the utterly improb­a­bly eco­log­i­cal niche of the per­sonal rid­ing mower. If that’s not a hot-house flower, then what is?
Some links to resources about New Urban­ism:
Con­scious Choice
New Urban Time­lines
New Urban News
Con­gress For the New Urbanism

2 comments » | architecture, Civil Society

Intranet Review Toolkit: Quick Heuristics Spreadsheet

December 2nd, 2005 — 12:30am

Update: Version 1.1 of the Intranet Review Toolkit is avail­able as of 03/20/2006, and now includes a sum­mary spread­sheet.
Thanks go to James Robert­son for very gen­tly remind­ing me that the licens­ing arrange­ments for the Intranet Review Toolkit pre­clude repub­lish­ing it as a sum­ma­rized form, such as the spread­sheet I posted ear­lier today. In my enthu­si­asm to share a tool with the rest of the com­mu­nity, I didn’t work through the full licens­ing impli­ca­tions…
Accord­ingly, I’ll be remov­ing the spread­sheet from harms way imme­di­ately, while hop­ing it’s pos­si­ble to make it avail­able in a more legally accept­able form.
Apolo­gies to James and the rest of the Toolkit team for any unin­tended harm from my oversight.

Comment » | Information Architecture, Intranets, Tools

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