Category: Tools

User Experience: About To Be Commoditized?

October 2nd, 2008 — 7:02pm

Read­ing about the recent release of Social­Text 3 I was struck by the strong par­al­lels between the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of enter­prise envi­ron­ments in 2003/2004, and the emerg­ing pub­lic Web 2.0 land­scape. The essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tics of many enter­prise envi­ron­ments are:

  • Syn­di­ca­tion: streams of mod­u­lar con­tent and func­tion­al­ity broad­cast widely to sub­scribers within the fire­wall, such as enter­prise data feeds, ERP, BI capa­bil­i­ties, CRM, cus­tom capa­bil­i­ties shared via SOA
  • Ser­vices (e.g. envi­ron­men­tal, like the bees we used to have for pol­li­na­tion): iden­tity, secu­rity, pub­li­ca­tion, data man­age­ment, cloud stor­age, imap email, etc.
  • Social Struc­tures: tan­gi­ble net­works & com­mu­ni­ties of like-minded peo­ple, ori­ented around a com­mon prac­tice, pur­pose, process, or pain; think of all the matrixed, hor­i­zon­tal org struc­tures and ad-hoc net­works encoded via inter­nal email lists, IM, sprawl­ing intranets, cor­po­rate direc­to­ries, etc.

These same attrib­utes are emerg­ing as the hall­marks of the pub­lic Web 2.0 land­scape. This is how the three S’s man­i­fest for Web 2.0:

  • Syn­di­ca­tion: A lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive tor­rent of con­tent in the form of blogs, RSS, feeds, streams, APIs, for social objects of all types, as well as cat­a­logs of rentable content
  • Ser­vices: This layer is grow­ing rapidly for the pub­lic inter­net, with OpenID / OAuth, map­ping, visu­al­iza­tion, backup, cal­en­dar­ing — the list is nearly infi­nite, and still expanding
  • Social Struc­tures: The Web (and soon the mobile uni­verse) is pro­foundly social now, and will con­tinue to become ever more so.

I think you can eas­ily see the strong par­al­lels. It’s this sim­i­lar­ity between the older enter­prise envi­ron­ments and the emerg­ing Web 2.0 envi­ron­ment that user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers, — and espe­cially any­one prac­tic­ing infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture — should note.
Why? As I’ve writ­ten before, mod­u­lar­ity is every­where in this new envi­ron­ment, it’s appar­ent at all lay­ers of the infor­ma­tion world, from util­i­ties like pro­cess­ing power, to ser­vices, to the ele­ments that make up the user expe­ri­ence. The effects of mod­u­lar­ity in syn­di­ca­tion, ser­vices, and social struc­tures on devel­op­ers and IT have been pro­found; prac­tices, processes, orga­ni­za­tional struc­tures, and busi­ness mod­els have all shifted in response.
This wave of change first affected the devel­op­ers who build and work directly with code and sys­tems. But inevitably, dis­ci­plines fur­ther up the stack are feel­ing the impact of this shift, though many of us (and I’m putting user expe­ri­ence in this class) may not know it yet.
How will we feel that impact? One obvi­ous way is in the pres­sure to adopt agile and other mod­u­lar prod­uct con­struc­tion prac­tices cre­ated by and for devel­op­ers as the pre­ferred way to struc­ture user expe­ri­ence and design efforts. This is a mis­take that con­fuses the dif­fer­ent stages of soft­ware / dig­i­tal prod­uct cre­ation (as Alan Cooper explained well at Agile2008). Design is not con­struc­tion, and shouldn’t be treated as if it is. And one size fits all does not work when choos­ing the process and toolkit used for cre­at­ing com­plex dig­i­tal prod­ucts, ser­vices, or expe­ri­ences.
One result of this mod­u­lar­ity rules all approach to user expe­ri­ence is the ero­sion of bounded or well-structured design processes that bal­ance risk effec­tively for the var­i­ous stages of design, and were meant to ensure the qual­ity and rel­e­vance of the result­ing prod­ucts and expe­ri­ences. Ero­sion is vis­i­ble the trends toward com­pres­sion or elim­i­na­tion of rec­og­niz­able design con­cept explo­ration and usabil­ity ver­i­fi­ca­tion activ­i­ties in many design meth­ods.
More imme­di­ately — in fact star­ing us right in the face, though I haven’t seen men­tion of it yet in m/any user expe­ri­ence forums — is the grow­ing num­ber of sit­u­a­tions wherein there’s “No designer required”.
Exam­ples of this abound, but just con­sider this fea­ture list for the Social Text 3 Dash­board:

  • You decide what matters
  • Cre­ate your dash­board in minutes
  • Include 3rd party infor­ma­tion and applications
  • Track & attend to what’s most impor­tant to you
  • Sta­tus updates flow auto­mat­i­cally, as you work

If that’s not spe­cific enough, here’s what comes out of the box, in the form of pre-built widgets:

  • My Con­ver­sa­tions — changes oth­ers have made to any Social­text work­space page you authored, edited, or com­mented on
  • My Col­leagues — recent updates made by peo­ple you are sub­scribed to
  • Work­spaces — work­spaces you have access to and their activ­ity metrics
  • Work­space Page — any page from any of your Social­text workspaces
  • RSS Viewer — results of an RSS feed you configure
  • Work­space Tags — a tag cloud of all tags in a par­tic­u­lar workspace
  • All Peo­ple Tags — a tag cloud of all tags on peo­ple in Social­text People

No archi­tect required for most peo­ple here… and this trend is every­where.
And then there’s the awe­some spec­tre ofcom­modi­ti­za­tion. Lis­ten­ing to a friend describe the con­fus­ing expe­ri­ence of try­ing to select a short list of design firms for inclu­sion in an RFP made the link­age clear to me. I’ll quote Weil’s def­i­n­i­tion of com­modi­ti­za­tion from the paper ref­er­enced above, to make the point explicit.
Please recall that com­modi­ti­za­tion denotes the devel­op­ment of a com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment where:

  • Prod­uct dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is very difficult;
  • Cus­tomer loy­alty and brand val­ues are low;
  • Com­pe­ti­tion is based pri­mar­ily on price; and
  • Sus­tain­able advan­tage comes from cost (and some­times qual­ity) leadership.
  • Com­modi­ti­za­tion is dri­ven by excess capacity.

Please note that I’m not imply­ing user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers face overnight obso­le­tion.
But I am say­ing that I doubt our cur­rent dis­ci­pli­nary world­view and toolkit ade­quately pre­pare us for the real­i­ties of the new envi­ron­ment emerg­ing so rapidly. Code, by con­trast, is and always will be mod­u­lar. (After all, that is the defin­ing attribute of our alpha­bets.)
But user expe­ri­ence is holis­tic, and has to learn to build in its own way from these smaller pieces like a writer com­bin­ing words and phrases. Even­tu­ally, you can cre­ate works of tremen­dous depth, rich­ness, and sophis­ti­ca­tion; think of Ulysses by James Joyce, or the Mahab­harata. These are richly nuanced expe­ri­ences that are the result of work­ing with mod­u­lar ele­ments.
My sug­ges­tion for one response to the oncom­ing wave of mod­u­lar­ity and com­modi­ti­za­tion is to focus our value propo­si­tion in the cre­ation of tools that other peo­ple use to define their indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. In other words, shift our pro­fes­sional focus to higher lay­ers of abstrac­tion, and get into the busi­ness of defin­ing and design­ing frame­works, net­works, and sys­tems of expe­ri­ence com­po­nents. Prac­ti­cally, this will mean things like observ­ing and defin­ing the most valu­able pat­terns aris­ing in the use of sys­tems of mod­u­lar ele­ments we design, and then advis­ing on their use to solve prob­lems. This is the direc­tion com­mon within enter­prise envi­ron­ments, and in light of the appear­ance of pub­lic pat­tern libraries (Yahoo’s UI), I think I see it hap­pen­ing within parts of the user expe­ri­ence com­mu­nity. I’m not sure it’s hap­pen­ing fast enough, though.
I hoped to com­mu­ni­cate some of these ideas in my talk on why frame­works are the future (at least for any­one prac­tic­ing Expe­ri­ence Archi­tec­ture) for the 2008 EuroIA Sum­mit that just took place here in lovely Ams­ter­dam. I’ll post the slides shortly. In the mean­time, what do you think? Is user expe­ri­ence ready for the mod­u­lar­ized, enterprise-like envi­ron­ment of Web 2.0? How are you respond­ing to these changes? Is com­modi­ti­za­tion even on your radar?

2 comments » | Enterprise, Information Architecture, Tools, User Experience (UX)

Al Gore Wins The Nobel *Presentation* Prize...?

October 12th, 2007 — 4:14pm

For­mer U.S. Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore and the United Nations Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Pre­sen­ta­tion Prize today.
Al Gore
Though I’m sad to say it, this lat­est round of Celebrity Infor­ma­tion Design Death Match, pit­ting Infor­ma­tion Visu­al­iza­tion Guru Dr. Edward Tufte vs. pre­sen­ta­tion tools and their legions of dron­ing slide shuf­flers goes too -
Pre­sen­ta­tion soft­ware (at least it’s Keynote)…
<announcer voice>
Gore’s Nobel Prize must truly be a bit­ter pill for the esteemed Dr. Tufte, whose exten­sive decla­ma­tions on the evils of Pow­er­Point remain insight­ful and even amus­ing, but have been out­flanked by Gore’s com­bi­na­tion of savvy pre­sen­ta­tion tech­niques, and repeated use of the famous “Earth’s Envi­ron­ment Is About to Per­ish” fly­ing scis­sor­kick move.
</announcer voice>
Seri­ously: Aside from the envi­ron­ment (we fer­vently hope), the real win­ner of this year’s Nobel Peace prize is effec­tive sto­ry­telling that blends qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive mes­sages to cre­ate a com­pelling visu­ally sup­ported nar­ra­tive expe­ri­ence that clearly com­mu­ni­cates com­plex ideas in an emo­tion­ally com­pelling pack­age.

The sci­en­tists and Mr. Gore take quite dif­fer­ent approaches to the cli­mate changes. The com­mit­tee has been a mea­sured, peer-reviewed, government-approved state­ment focused on the most non-controversial find­ings, whereas Mr. Gore rails against a “plan­e­tary emer­gency.“

Both mes­sages — how­ever imper­fect — play their part, sci­en­tists said on Fri­day. The Nobel Prize “is hon­or­ing the sci­ence and the pub­lic­ity, and they’re nec­es­sar­ily dif­fer­ent,” said Spencer A. Weart, a his­to­rian at the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Physics and author of The Dis­cov­ery of Global Warm­ing, a recent book.

From Gore and U.N. Panel Win Peace Prize for Cli­mate Work
Dr. Tufte says, “Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tions too often resem­ble a school play — very loud, very slow, and very sim­ple.” Too often, Dr. Tufte is right: think about how many times in the last five years you’ve con­sid­ered feign­ing a seizure or gastro-intestinal dis­tress to escape a truly awful pre­sen­ta­tion.
Yet for some ideas — and per­haps the very biggest of audi­ences — ‘the [school] play’s the thing’. Loud, slow, and sim­ple might be just the right rhetor­i­cal style for com­plex mes­sages that require the broad­est kinds of con­sen­sus. (If Gore had fig­ured this out dur­ing the cam­paign in 2000, the world would cer­tainly be a very dif­fer­ent place today…)
And yet, despite Gore’s piv­otal role in shap­ing the Inter­net, a search for “al gore incon­ve­nient truth” on the Slideshare web­site turns up — well — noth­ing that seems rel­e­vant in the first 10 results. There’s like­wise no slide­ware to be had at the offi­cial site for the movie. But rest assured Mr. Gore, we know the hum­ble ori­gins of your Nobel Prize and Oscar win­ning doc­u­men­tary An Incon­ve­nient Truth lie in a mere slide show.

Comment » | People, Tools

Jumpchart Sitemap Service: 3 Months Free

October 11th, 2007 — 12:52pm

Jumpchart - the online sitemap ser­vice — is about to move from beta to sub­scrip­tion pric­ing.
Any­one who like to try it out, or who wants 3 free months of ser­vice should drop me a line to get an invite code.
Good luck to the Jumpchart team!

Comment » | Information Architecture, Tools

Intranet Review Toolkit Version 1.1

April 1st, 2006 — 7:48pm

Con­grat­u­la­tions to James Robert­son and StepTwo Designs for releas­ing an updated ver­sion of the Intranet Review Toolkit, just before this year’s IA sum­mit in lovely Van­cou­ver (oblig­a­tory flickr link).
Ver­sion 1.1 of the Intranet Review Toolkit includes a heuris­tics sum­mary designed for quick use; it’s based on a con­densed ver­sion of the com­plete set of heuris­tics you may remem­ber I offered a while back. StepTwo was kind enough to credit my mod­est con­tri­bu­tion to the over­all effort.
Other addi­tions include a col­lab­o­ra­tion / com­mu­nity of use des­ti­na­tion site

Comment » | Tools

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

New Web Service for Sparklines

June 27th, 2005 — 3:57pm

From some­one else named Joe, a free ser­vice that gen­er­ates sparklines:

Now I can plot the truly dis­at­is­fy­ing long-term per­for­mance of my 401ks using a con­ve­nient net­worked infra­struc­ture service…

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