Thursday, December 23, 2010

Developing with gingerbread at Karos Health

No, not the new Android release.

Yesterday at Karos Health we spent time building something special and appropriate to the holiday season. We built several gingerbread houses. Happily, though we were inexperienced builders, we were able to bring in some expert consultants to help us get the job done. The children of various team members came to the office and actually did pretty much all of the heavy lifting in building the candy-encrusted homes. It was fun to watch, and I know my boys had a great time.

Here’s a big thanks to Gillian for organizing this.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Conference strategy at Karos Health

I recently spent a week in Chicago at the annual conference put on by the Radiological Society of North America. I was there along with Rick, Michel, and Jeff, three of my colleagues from Karos Health (that’s Jeff in the picture). While it was my first visit to this conference, the others had all made the trip multiple times over the years. We had a great strategy for getting the most out of our visit, and I thought I’d share it here.

We had a minimal presence on the show floor, with just a tiny display as part of a booth organized by the Government of Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. It was perfect for us, though, as our strategy revolved around pre-arranged meetings and visits to specific companies rather than simply waiting for visitors to find us. Our display served as a place where people could find us if needed, with someone always present and ready to talk about our products and demonstrate our latest product, Rialto Consult.

We were able to provide demonstrations for a range of visitors. Some were people my colleagues knew who wanted to see our new product, some were existing customers, and some were new contacts that we made at the show. All were attentive while we showed what Rialto Consult can do and positive in their feedback. In fact, we were a little taken aback at the reception; we were pleased with what we were showing, but the response was even more than we could have hoped for.

There were a couple of highlights for me. One was prompted by a data issue, in which a customer noted that a sample document was missing from what we showed. I was able to add the document that evening, and when the customer returned the next day with some colleagues, the presence of the document did not go unnoticed.

The second was a visit to our booth by a colleague from one of our Karos Innovation Centers, who arrived while a demonstration was in progress. After we completed the demonstration, our colleague was able to answer some questions from the small audience relating to our work together. The timing was perfect!

RSNA 2010 was a successful conference with much positive feedback and a great response to Rialto Consult. In fact, on our return to Waterloo Rick characterized it as perhaps the most satisfying RSNA conference that he had attended. We’ll be there again next year.

This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, on the Karos Health blog.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Designing the BlackBerry user experience at RIM

Following our November 16 event with Google’s Adam Baker, the November 24 meeting of uxWaterloo featured a terrific presentation by Joey Benedek, Director of User Research at Research in Motion, on designing for user experience at the mobile pioneer.

Joey focused on examples from BlackBerry OS 6 in a presentation that was funny, frank, and insightful in its examination of the challenges that RIM faced in this major upgrade to the user interface of its iconic products.

Joey gave some specific examples of how user experience techniques were applied to specific design challenges. For example, a diary study, in which user participants kept a diary and recorded how they worked with BlackBerry, was used to inform the design of universal search in OS 6. Card sorting, another classic technique, was used to understand how to organize the configuration of options in OS 6.

He was pretty direct about the need to deliver a major improvement in the BlackBerry user experience in a short amount of time — the overhaul was accomplished in just nine months. He was also pretty direct about the company’s logic-driven culture, and how an understanding of, and level of comfort with, the UX organization’s process and data helped make the case for what needed to be done.

Joey provided some great observations that may challenge the perception of RIM in some quarters. As Joey put it in response to a question, “There’s no confusion on our part about whether people are enterprise users or consumers. They’re all humans.” Later, he added “We don’t pick users. We pick contexts of use,” and “I’m a fan of the classic usability test”.

Overall, it was a treat to hear from Joey, and we all appreciated his presence at uxWaterloo.

Julie Rutherford has provided a more detailed summary over at the uxWaterloo site.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Designing for everyone at Google

As expected, it’s been a busy month. As a result I’ve let some obvious blog posts slip. Time to catch up!

Last week’s uxWaterloo meeting was a particularly interesting one, as it featured a design workshop facilitated by Adam Baker, a user experience designer at Google.

Adam divided the large crowd (over 70) into groups of four and gave each group a design to complete as well as a constraint. It turns out that there were only two designs being worked on amongst the groups, though there were several constraints.

After a short period of design activity, Adam directed that pairs of groups merge. At this point we discovered that half the groups were designing a user interface for specifying a pizza to buy, while half were designing a user interface for specifying delivery instructions. We now had groups of eight, and needed to integrate our designs for pizza and delivery UIs into a whole design. We also had to handle new constraints, as each former group of four brought one to the new group of eight.

After another short period of design, the groups were merged again, resulting in larger groups of 16 or so, and a larger group of constraints in each group. The larger groups engaged in a final period of design work, after which each group shared their results with the larger meeting crowd. At this point it became clear that the constraints were quite varied: design for someone just like you; design for iPad; design for an old BlackBerry for use on a train; design for 9-year olds; design for blind; design for first-time users; design for 100 pizzas delivered to 100 locations, etc.

The exercise was a practical demonstration of some of the challenges for user experience at Google, where designing for everyone (many millions) carries with it many specific and even opposing requirements.

Adam followed up with a fine presentation in which he identified some of the design considerations that are important when designing for search at Google. He likened it to travel in the “back country”, where a premium is placed on solutions that are lightweight, field-repairable, multi-purpose, few frills (are fast), degrade well, and are adaptable.

Famously, Google places an emphasis on measurement, which informs design rather than dictating it. Amongst the kinds of questions they ask, and look to measurements for answers, are “How long…”, “How many…”, “How ofter…”, and “When…”. Nothing earth-shaking there, but the rigour with which they approach measurement is striking.

All in all, it was a highly successful night, and there may be similar uxWaterloo events in the future. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A busy calendar for November

November features a full slate of local events that I’m looking forward to.

StartupCampWaterloo is, at this point, well-known in the technology community. I’ve always enjoyed attending the events, and have presented there in the past as well. At the tenth edition on Nov 10, Rick Stroobosscher and I will be talking about, and showing, what Karos Health is doing. As an aside, this is right in the middle of Entrepreneur Week, a yearly “innovation festival dedicated to entrepreneurial spirit”.

I’m particularly close to a couple of organizations that have three fine events coming up, and I’m going into carnival barker mode here!

uxWaterloo has not one, but two, events this month. The first, on November 16, is Lessons from designing at Google, a workshop presented by Adam Baker, a user interface designer at Google. Closer to home, we’re excited to have Joey Benedek speaking on November 24 about User Experience at Research in Motion. Both these visits have been in planning for some time, and we’re happy that the stars aligned to bring these exceptional speakers to the group. Register soon, as these have become two popular events.

Another group that I help organize is Ignite Waterloo. We’re putting on a fourth event on November 18. and are pretty excited about the talks that we have lined up. Be sure to get your tickets if you haven’t already, as tickets are moving fast.

Somewhat farther afield, in Guelph, the fifteenth edition of DemoCampGuelph is happening on November 17. It’s always a good time, as past posts here should indicate. Happily, I’ll be just sitting back and enjoying the talk and beer at this one!

Plenty to do!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Marshmallows at Karos Health

Several weeks back I reported on the results of running two editions of the Marshmallow Challenge. Yesterday I tried it out with my colleagues at Karos Health. Three teams completed three towers — a 100% completion rate, a higher rate than at the previous two events that I wrote about. It was good fun, though after facilitating three of these events it would be fun to build something as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A visit to a Karos Innovation Center in Boston

I visited Boston last week along with Karos Health’s Rick Stroobosscher to meet with our partners in the Department of Radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a recently announced Karos Innovation Center. We’ve been working closely with the team there on a project, and the time had come for an on-site visit.

In addition to very productive meetings, I was able spend time with some of the department’s radiologists during an overnight shift in the Brigham emergency department. It was an eye-opening experience to observe how they do their jobs. Their knowledge, skill, and dedication in providing timely readings of the imaging studies that came to them was striking. Beyond that, knowing that there were real medical emergencies being handled with such calm expertise was quite humbling. I also appreciated the team’s gracious accommodation of my presence and their interest in the work that Karos is doing.

I’ve written previously about the sense of purpose that working at Karos provides. Seeing the radiologists at work brought that purpose to life in an unambiguous way. I’m excited by what we’re doing and looking forward to a long and fruitful partnership with the Brigham team.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Scary pumpkins at Karos Health

We had a fun end-of-day session at Karos on Wednesday this week, carving pumpkins into Jack-o’-lanterns in anticipation of this weekends’s Hallowe’en holiday. This was the first time that some our team had ever carved one before, which made the session special. We had children from some of the team come to the office, as well, to contribute their scary carvings. I managed to let my four-year-old work on his own carving without too much interference, and he did a great job without losing any of his fingers! As the photo shows, the results make for a fine display.

Monday, October 25, 2010

After the curb, where does our waste go?

My family and I went for a tour of the Region of Waterloo’s Erb Street landfill site over the weekend. It’s the kind of thing that my sons and I usually enjoy doing, and this time my wife went as well.

There were many interesting sights and a lot to learn; I feel like I should have been taking notes! For example, the scale of waste management that goes on at the facility is eye-opening. We learned that while power generations isn’t the focus of the facility, methane that is produced by the waste is enough to fuel the on-site generation of electricity that is sufficient to power 4,000 homes.

A message that our guide repeated a few times is that the landfill site has a finite lifespan. Everything that we, as individuals and families, can do to divert waste from landfill helps lengthen that lifespan.

For me, though, nothing conveyed the scale of operations and the importance of diversion as much as seeing the bales of plastic or the mountain of corrugated cardboard that filled the building where processing of recyclable materials happens. The reason to reduce, reuse, and recycle becomes visibly obvious when seeing these sorted recyclables.

On a final note, we were delighted to replace our curb-side green bin while on the tour. Our old one has been in use for quite some time and has an impressive hole gnawed through it as a result of squirrels trying to get at the contents. Thanks to the Region for that, and for the opportunity to see the final destination of the stuff that we put out by the curb for collection every week.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Murphy was an optimist

I visited the Accelerator Centre this week to do a presentation/workshop for an MBET class at the University of Waterloo. The first part of the class turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Well, it was more than a bit of a challenge. It was a vivid manifestation of Murphy’s Law in action.

My presentation included supporting visuals prepared in Keynote, Apple’s wonderful presentation software for Macintosh. While I had brought my laptop, and everything else needed for the class, I had neglected to bring the correct video cable to connect my laptop to the projector in the classroom. No connector meant no supporting visuals.

Not a problem. There were other laptops in the room and there was a viable plan ‘B’ — all I had to do was export my Keynote presentation to a Powerpoint version, and transfer it to a Windows laptop. I had, in the past, done this translation many times. On this occasion, though, it didn’t work.

OK, then, on to plan ‘C’ — upload my presentation to slideshare.net. The conversion failed there, too.

Plan ‘D’ was the one that finally worked. A great colleague at Karos Health graciously hand-delivered the right cable after I called the office with my tale of woe. Cable in hand, I connected my laptop to the projector and jumped into my delayed presentation.

Of course, theres an inevitable punchline to this story. The presentation/workshop that I was delivering was about delivering presentations.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My primary design tool is a pencil

I sometimes have conversations with designers, and non-designers, about tools used in designing for user experience. While I’ve used many software tools over the years, such as the venerable Adobe Photoshop, some folks are mildly surprised to hear that my primary design tool, one that I use every day, is the decidedly humble pencil.

A pencil is simple, highly portable, reliable, and works well for a number of tasks. My main pencils are mechanical ones that takes .5mm leads. I’ve found that .3mm leads are too thin for my often-heavy hand and easily break. I also have a pencil that uses .7mm leads, but I don’t use it as much.

The primary, though not sole, design task that the pencil supports occurs early in the design process. Ideation involves a lot of generation, exploration, and development of ideas. The pencil is the tool that enables me to capture my visual thinking quickly. Whether used to create tiny thumbnail pictures of a screen’s overall layout, or for capturing more details on a form design, a pencil enables me to get the job done quickly. The drawings are often pretty rudimentary and ugly, but that’s fine for capturing my visual thinking for my own use. For sharing ideas I usually render the visuals in a more refined way.

A companion tool much of the time, particularly when at work, is a 7.5 inch by 9 inch notebook. Sometimes, though, I’ll switch to a larger pad of grid paper. When I’m away from the office or home, I use a smaller Moleskine notebook, which has a lovely tactile quality as well as paper that takes pencil marks quite well. Really, though, any small notebook would do.

In addition to my mechanical pencil, I also use wood-cased coloured pencils for various reasons and at various design stages. They’re a little messier, as they need periodic sharpening and the leads are more prone to breaking, but I like them. I’ll use colours to lightly shade areas in a pencil sketch to help me easily pick out major features at a glance, or use a heavier coloured line to call attention to a particular feature.

As an aside, one of my favourite books is The Pencil, by Henry Petroski. It’s a great read that explores the nature of engineering and product development via an engrossing story of the history of the pencil.

Friday, October 8, 2010

User Experience in Waterloo Region


This piece first appeared this week as a blog post on the newly launched Communitech web site.

We’ve kicked off a new season of uxWaterloo events last month with a design workshop. As it turns out, Communitech is launching a new web presence this month as well, which makes this an opportune time to write about designing for user experience (UX).

Many articles and books have been written on the topic of user experience, and there might not be a universally accepted definition of what it is. It’s reasonable to say, though, that designing for user experience in a software product will often address the following:

  • Functionality: what does the product do? Is it useful?
  • Interaction design: how does someone actually use the product?
  • Information architecture: how is the functionality in the product organized and presented?
  • Visual design: what does the product look like? Is it appealing?
  • Usability: how easy or hard is it to get something done with the product?
Getting these pieces in the UX puzzle right isn’t easy, but the results can have a major impact on a product’s success.

Waterloo Region is well-known for its innovative software and hardware companies, many of which devote dedicated resources to designing the user experience of their products. For some of the user experience researchers and practitioners who call the region home, getting together at a uxWaterloo meeting is a monthly activity.

uxWaterloo is, among other things, a Communitech peer-to-peer group devoted to building a community around the practice and understanding of creating a great user experience. While we’re primarily software-focused, we touch other areas on occasion as well. At our monthly meetings we explore a variety of topics through guest speakers, workshops, and even just discussion sessions at local pubs. In the last year we’ve explored table-top interfaces, guerilla usability techniques, personas in product design, and more. The atmosphere is friendly and folks are generous and willing to share their knowledge.

So here’s an invitation to all designers, product managers, developers, technical writers, and other interested folks to join us at a uxWaterloo meeting and help us to continue to grow our vibrant community around a common interest in user experience.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Can I quote you on that?

Since hearing Trevor Herrle-Braun speak at the Communitech Community Managers peer-to-peer group, I’ve been thinking a little about how I use Twitter for messaging.

Like many people, I exchange tweets with friends and colleagues, and occasionally with people whom I know only through Twitter. Being busy with other things tends to limit these interactions for me, though, which reduces my engagement compared with someone like Trevor.

I tweet about events that I attend, including regular events like uxWaterloo and DemoCampGuelph as well as one-off events like the talk by Google’s Alfred Spector last spring. (I also write at this blog about these things, as it turns out.)

One of the staples of my own tweets has been quotations that are, at least for me, inspiring or insightful. In large part that’s a result of my own reaction to seeing great quotes tweeted others. Jim Estill, whom I met while working at Primal Fusion, has been a steady source of such quotes and I’ve often re-tweeted his. John Maeda is another great source for me, with many of his best quotes being his own excellent aphorisms.

The last few weeks I’ve experimented with a higher volume of these quotes. Some of them get re-tweeted by others, so it feels like a worthwhile thing to do.

I discovered, though, that managing my collection of quotes in a text file was getting a little unwieldy. This past weekend I set up a prototype repository to manage the quotes more effectively. I had a few simple requirements. For example, I want to know which quotes I’ve tweeted and when I tweeted them. I also want my quote repository to automatically format my quotes for use with Twitter; I set it up to format my tweetable quotes using real opening and closing quotation marks (like “this” and not like 'this') and a tilde character (~) separating the quote from its author.

So far the prototype seems like a good tool and has met its modest goals. As I use it I’ll iterate on the design and implementation and make changes that reflect my usage patterns. Being a designer, that’s about what you’d expect me to do, right?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Karos Health is hiring

I’ve been at Karos Health for several months now, and I’m excited by what we’re building here.

Our team is doing innovative work to connect health care records to the stakeholders that need them, supporting collaboration that improves the quality of patient care. It’s a huge area in which to work, there’s a lot to do, and our products make a meaningful and positive impact on people’s lives.

We’re building not just great products, though, but a great company. While we’re a small startup with a great team, we’re growing to ensure that we can continue our success and take it even further. We currently have a two full-time developer positions open, as well as a co-op/intern position for the Winter 2011 term.

Have a look at our careers page and get in touch if you see a fit.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A dozen ears of corns and a bushel of tweets

Yesterday was a meeting of the community managers Communitech peer-to-peer group, held for the first time in their new space at The Hub. The speaker was Trevor Herrle-Braun, of Herrle’s Country Farm Market, who talked about how he has embraced the world of Twitter to evangelize his family’s market and its farm products.

While new to social media when he took to tweeting through @HerrlesMarket last spring, Trevor quickly developed an identifiable and authentic voice and has grown a healthy list of followers that today stands at over 500. His tweets go beyond announcing that fresh corn is available as he has found a way to engage the community deeply through Twitter. A couple of keys to success have been a great understanding of what will work for the Herrle family and business, and a decision to take on one thing and do it well. That one thing, from a social marketing perspective, has been Twitter. Neither Facebook nor blogging have been a part of the mix.

It was interesting to hear how a business as ancient as a family farm has embraced new technology to reach customers old and new.

On a related note, I’ve written in the past about some of the independent businesses that enhance the experience of living in Waterloo Region. Herrle’s is one of the places that my family has enjoyed for many years. The fresh produce is an obvious attraction, but the outdoor play area, corn maze, and generally friendly atmosphere all contribute to a great experience.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Marshmallow-centred design

Last week I had the good fortune to facilitate not one, but two Marshmallow Challenge events. Briefly, the Marshmallow Challenge has the deceptively simple goal of building a tower using spaghetti, masking tape, and string, that will hold a marshmallow highest above a table top. Of course the lessons learned and the experience of building the tower, rather than just reading about it, are revealing and meaningful. The two big ones are to question your assumptions and to prototype early and often to learn as much as possible.

The first event, on Thursday, was the September meeting of uxWaterloo. The competition was close, and the teams all had a great time. After declaring a winner, we watched a video of a TED talk about the Marshmallow Challenge. That was really just a starting point for some enlightening discussion about the experience of building towers and about the ideas explored in the video. My favourite moment of the night was the realization that when designing for user experience, the user isn’t a marshmallow that can be plopped on at the end. Tower-builders that take that approach rarely succeed, and a user interface that doesn’t involve users early in the design process will often fail as well.

The second event, on Friday, was at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. Having experienced the uxWaterloo event, I knew that VeloCity should go well, but I was still taken aback by the large number of students and by the enthusiasm and positive energy in the room. The event structure was the same as for the previous night, and the students dived in and seemed to have a great time with the challenge. Needless to say, I had a fine time as well, and enjoyed the conversations immensely. A major bonus for me was that Dan and PJ from tinyHippos were their as well, their young family in tow, to talk about what’s important in building software products at a startup.

Thanks for the invitation, Jesse.

Monday, September 13, 2010

uxWaterloo this week and Ignite in November

This week I’ll be enjoying the September meeting for uxWaterloo (the snappily, and concisely, renamed User Experience  Group of Waterloo Region) on Thursday at the Accelerator Centre. We’ve got a fun design workshop planned, which should be a great opportunity to work together with UX folks and maybe we’ll all even learn something, too. Come on out.

Looking farther down the road, Ignite Waterloo has announced the date and location for the fourth evening of talks, conversation, and general good cheer. November 18 is the date, and the new location is the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts. We’re excited about the new venue, and hope to deliver another great event. If you’re interested in being a speaker, head on over and sign up.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A user’s experience shapes user experience


I had a conversation with someone a while back about user experience on mobile devices. In the course of it he asked me how much I use video on my iPhone. I responded that I used video occasionally but not much, which was accurate in that it characterized my behaviour but which also felt incomplete.

I’ve been thinking about it since then and observing my patterns of use. I think that I now better understand why I answered the way I did. That is, I now understand the why of my behaviour. It’s not that I’m uninterested in watching video. It’s that I’ve shaped my behaviour to match my experience of the capabilities of the device. Two big factors colour my experience.

The first is battery life. My iPhone 3G will, in normal use, last the whole day on a single overnight charge of the battery. I found early on, though, that watching even a few videos will cause the iPhone to run out of power before day’s end. For a few reasons normal use for me has changed for me over time. So, too, has my iPhone battery’s ability to hold a charge. As a result, many months ago I started to regularly use my mobile data plan for connectivity rather than WiFi — turning off WiFi extends battery life.

More recently, while reflecting upon the video question from that conversation, I (re)discovered that I’m more likely to watch a video if the day is mostly done and I have a good charge left on the battery. This behaviour was almost unconscious; I had to notice myself doing it a few times before realizing why it was happening.

The second factor is network performance. The value of the video needs to overcome the cost of waiting for it to download, which can vary dramatically on my mobile provider’s network. As well, even if the video starts playing quickly, the download is rarely fast enough to allow me to skip ahead conveniently, which I often like to do. In the end, while using my iPhone if I encounter a video that seems interesting I most often reserve it for later viewing on my laptop.

I’ve discovered many other subtle behaviours that distinguish my own use of an iPhone from my use of a laptop on a fast network, but thinking about mobile video is what got the exploratory ball rolling for me.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Motivation 3.0: doing more at Karos Health

I wrote earlier this week about the importance of purpose in motivating people who are engaged in creative work. Karos Health has a pretty motivating mission that easily provides a sense of purpose.

We go beyond that, though. Karos has a policy of letting employees devote a percentage of their working hours to doing good out in the community at large. That could be achieved by organizing a fund-raising event for a not-for-profit, or building a web presence for a hospice, or serving meals in a homeless shelter — it could be anything. There are only two rules. First, present your idea to the team — not company management, but the entire Karos team. Second, provide updates on your progress with your activity. That’s it.

We truly believe that allowing people to pursue purpose on their own terms, as Dan Pink puts it, is an important path to growing a high performance team.

Does that sound appealing? Check out our careers and get in touch if you think there’s a fit.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Motivation 3.0: a sense of purpose

Some time ago I read a book by Dan Pink called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates. It’s a fine read and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding how to get the most out of a team (or just out of yourself). If you want to get a taste of the book, have a look at this wonderful illustrated version of a talk that Pink gave to the RSA.

Pink identifies three things that matter to people who are working in creative positions, or positions that don’t just involve repeating the same kinds of tasks again and again.

  • Autonomy. Ideally, over what you do, when you do it, who you do it with, and how you do it.
  • Mastery. Your abilities are finite, but infinitely improvable; improvement demands effort; and mastery can never be fully attained, which is part of the allure.
  • Purpose. Within an organization, use profits to reach purpose, emphasize more than just self-interest, and allow people to pursue purpose on their own terms.

At Karos Health, last week, I was vividly reminded of the role that purpose plays.

Karos Health is about improving the quality of health care through information-sharing and collaboration amongst health care stakeholders. Among the things that our products do, for example, is moving diagnostic images like CT scans from a scanner to a radiologist who will read the scan, and moving the resulting diagnosis from that radiologist to the physician who requested the images.

In a meeting with a customer we heard that in many cases their expected turn-around time for having a CT scan read by a radiologist and a result delivered to the requesting physician is under twenty minutes. Why? It isn’t for money-related or market-related reasons. It’s because for a stroke victim waiting to receive treatment, every second counts. That’s a highly motivating purpose for us at Karos.

Obviously purpose isn’t confined to helping save lives. What’s your purpose?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hiring at Karos Health

I haven’t really written much about Karos Health since joining the company a while back. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I do have something to share today.

Last night Karos Health’s Rick Stroobosscher and I attended a job fair in Milton, Ontario. Organized by Communitech, the event brought several Waterloo Region companies together to meet with job seekers. We were in very fine company with respected stars like Christie Digital, Desire2Learn, and Research In Motion, as well as fellow startups like Kik Interactive.

Rick and I really weren’t sure what to expect at the event. What we found was a well-organized venue with helpful Communitech folks there to help us get oriented. The space was relatively small, which made it easy for job seekers to get to see everyone. And there were a great many job seekers there, with a range of skills, experiences, and interests. Rick and I were busy all night talking with people about what they are looking for and what Karos is about. Happily, we even talked to a few software developers who may be able to help us. We’re looking forward to future Communitech events like this one.

We’re looking for developers at Karos, and down the road perhaps other people. Have a look at our careers page and let us know if you think there’s there’s a fit.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Like a truck hauling a load of scrap iron

As I wrote back in May, performance is an important part of a good user experience. The perception of performance is something that a designer can manage by providing appropriate feedback, such as a progress indicator or message. Sometimes, though, the actual performance needs to be managed rather than just the user’s perception of it.

I’ve been thinking about this over the last several weeks in the aftermath of updating my Apple iPhone 3G to iOS 4.

What had been a fine mobile device prior to the update became a sluggish annoyance after I installed iOS 4. In addition to noticeable overall slowness, my iPhone became prone to random screen freezes that lasted four or five seconds or more.

Even though Apple had disabled some of the features in the iOS 4 release when installed on an iPhone 3G model, there were still several remaining enhancements that I enjoyed. While appealing, though, none of them were enough, for me, to make up for the severe performance degradation that accompanied the release.

This past weekend I finally took the plunge and downgraded my iPhone to version 3.1.3 of the OS. As this is something that Apple appears not to want users to do, I used directions that I found in this article at Lifehacker, and they turned out to be clear enough for me to get the job done. The improvement in performance has been dramatic. Under iOS 4 my iPhone felt about as responsive as a flat-bed truck hauling a load of scrap iron. It’s now back to feeling like a small sports car, fleet and nimble and fun to use. I’m happy to sacrifice the iOS 4 features that I now no longer have for the snappy user experience that again defines my iPhone. And that says a lot about the importance of performance to user experience.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Perils of a gestural UI, part 2

Back in March I wrote a post about how I had discovered the source my discomfort with two-fingered scrolling on my MacBook. Basically, two-fingered scrolling goes in the opposite direction to what I experience when scrolling on my iPhone. In the end, I figured I could get used to it and make it work for me. I finished that post, though, by asking “how many more of these collisions will appear as Apple continues to build on its gestural UI?”

A new collision appeared this week, as Apple released a software update that adds three-finger dragging to the trackpad. That is, moving three fingers across the track pad will drag whatever is under the cursor (assuming that it’s draggable). The behaviour feels great when moving windows around, though moving icons around on the desktop feels slightly odd to me still. The collision, though, relates to my previous post.

With two-fingered scrolling, moving my fingers towards me on the trackpad moves the scrolling page upwards within the screen — my fingers are, in effect, interacting with the scrolling control rather than the page content itself.

With three-fingered scrolling, moving my fingers towards me on the trackpad moves the window (if it’s a window I’m dragging) downwards within the screen — the opposite direction to what happens with two-fingered scrolling. My fingers are interacting directly with the object that I’m moving.

I haven’t yet spent enough time with the change to know how this behaviour will feel for me in the longer term. My guess though is that I’ll find it more disconcerting than the contrast between trackpad and iPhone that I previously wrote about. And I do suspect that there are more collisions to come.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Designing, building, and sharing at kwartzlab


kwartzlab is a society and hackerspace that launched in the community last year. From all accounts the enthusiasm and commitment of its charter members got the group off to a great start and kwartzlab is thriving. After all this time, though, I hadn’t been able to visit the space.

That changed on Tuesday as I finally managed to make the trip to the Duke Street location, along with my three boys. My friend Darin was kind enough to give my sons and I a tour through the space, and everyone we met was enthusiastic and generous with their time. A highlight of the night was seeing a Dalek built by local Doctor Who fans Pete Nesbitt and Rob Green. I’d read about the builders previously, but seeing their creation up close was even more impressive. That’s Pete in the accompanying photo, while Rob is inside the Dalek.

What’s so cool about the denizens of kwartzlab is their passion for designing and building cool stuff, and their dedication to sharing what they know and do with anyone who’s interested.

A community that’s great to live and work in is built upon the initiative and energy of the people who live in it. Even though I’m unlikely to be able to devote time to kwartzlab, I know that Waterloo is that much better for its presence.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Camping! Leading! Scoring!

As I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks back, July is full of great events here in Waterloo (and nearby Guelph). Last week featured two of them and I’m happy to to have made it out to both.

Communitech held a day-long Tech Leadership conference last Wednesday, which I somehow neglected to mention in my earlier post. Highlights included a presentation by author and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen on business and product innovation, an engaging talk by Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor, and a variety of breakout sessions. There was also a Tech Expo featuring displays from several local tech start-ups. I was happy to see Alex and Chris from Snapsort there, as well the gang from Tiny Hippos. In fact, the tiny chocolate hippos from Tiny Hippos enabled me bring home a small part of the event for my sons to enjoy. Thanks, P.J.!

The ninth edition of StartupCampWaterloo was also held last Wednesday at the Accelerator Centre. Oddly enough, while the turnout was about as robust as at previous events there were only four demos. All were interesting, though the one that stood out for me was ReserveMe, a product that enables clients of salons to book their own appointments online. While they have a lot more work to do, they showed a polished initial version that solves a real problem and they appear to be off to a good start.

As an aside, milestone of a different kind was reached over the weekend in our family. As I wrote at the beginning of the summer, I’ve enjoyed three seasons full of soccer with my sons this year. My middle son wrapped up his soccer season with a tournament this weekend, and even scored a goal in their final game. As my youngest son had already finished his very first season some weeks ago, that leaves just my oldest son with remaining soccer games this summer. In addition to playing, all three boys enjoyed watching World Cup games on television back in June. Soccer makes for an interesting way to mark the passage of time this summer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

You did WHAT with our product?!?

I wrote recently about the risks in listening to what users say they do rather than observing what they actually do. The bottom line is that people are not necessarily reliable reporters of their own actions or preferences.

Another reason to observe users is to discover the innovative uses to which they put a product, uses that may never have occurred to the product’s creators. The implications of such uses can be a great source of product or feature ideas.

I was vividly reminded of this during a bicycle ride this past weekend. I’m guessing that the designers of the Zoom Boom shown in the accompanying photo hadn’t conceived of it as a security device for construction sites. Here it is, though, providing protection for a trailer-based concrete mixer on a Sunday morning. It would be pretty tough for thieves to steal the mixer out from under the Zoom Boom.

While I design for user experience in software products, this kind of ingenuity obviously isn’t confined to that realm. Seeing examples out in the world is always fun.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Learning about cameras at Snapsort.com

I worked with many engaged and thoughtful people at Primal Fusion. One of them was Alex Black, who left the company last summer to launch a new venture. The fruits of his and his team’s labour first emerged last January with a very simple initial release of Snapsort.com, a resource for people who are shopping for cameras. Since then, they’ve continuously improved the product, incorporating feedback from their users and adding functionality that has pushed Snapsort.com forward. Last week’s most recent release has taken the product well beyond what it was less than six months ago.

For example, visitors can now explore the similarities and differences among ultra compact cameras, among other types, with nice faceted navigation for filtering the presentation. There are also some fine learning resources for helping visitors understand how they might best think about a camera purchase.

The approach that Alex and his team took has made for a fine product, but is also a model for how to make progress with a consumer-facing software product: release early, listen to your market, and iterate often.

Congratulations on the new release guys!

Monday, July 5, 2010

July yields a bumper crop of local events

Speaking of events that exist due to a community of people who share generously, July is shaping up to be a month full of fun events. Here are a few that I hope to attend.

First up is StartupDrinksWaterloo tomorrow night at Chainsaw in Uptown Waterloo. The conversations are fun and it’s a great group. If you haven’t been before, do come out and see what you’ve been missing.

Update: And, of course, the third Ignite Waterloo event is this Wednesday evening, July 7! Thanks for the reminder, Joseph.

On Wednesday July 14 is StartupCampWaterloo at Accelerator Centre in Waterloo. The demos and discussions are always worthwhile.

Just a week later on Wednesday July 21 there’s DemoCampGuelph at eBar in Guelph. As with the Waterloo event, the demos and discussions are always worthwhile.

Every month the UX Group of Waterloo has an event lined up. This month it’s on July 22 at Accelerator Centre, and we’ll be getting European conference reports from a couple of members.

As ever, a great way to keep on top of this stuff is the Waterloo Tech Startup site, which includes a calendar among other handy tech-oriented resources. There’s more going on than I’ve highlighted here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Waterloo designs, builds, and shares

Today is the July 1 Canada Day holiday where I live. Picking up from my post of last year, I’ll again celebrate Canadian achievements based on the design/build/share theme of this blog. This year I’ve focused entirely on those things here in Waterloo region.

Design: Sure, the Apple iPhone gets all the media attention these days, but Research in Motion created the market with its iconic BlackBerry more than a decade ago. Much of the design work is still done right here in Waterloo, in any of the many buildings that the company occupies.

Build: Speaking of mobile connectivity, tech behemoth Google relies upon a talented Waterloo team to build many of the cutting-edge HTML5-based Google Mobile applications (among other things). One of the reasons I enjoy my iPhone is that the mobile Safari web browser gives me access to these great apps.

Share: One of the things that I value (and write about often on this blog) here in Waterloo is the supportive technology community. DemoCampGuelph (@brydon), StartupCampWaterloo (@jrodgers, @sbwoodside), StartupDrinksWaterloo (@confusement) are just three events that I look forward to attending. All are organized by dedicated people who see value in building community and who generously share their time to make it happen. Thanks, all of you!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mental models matter in product design

At the June meeting of the UX Group of Waterloo Region June Meeting last week we had a fine presentation from Amy Gill on her research into think aloud usability assessments, in which users are asked to verbalize their thoughts while using a product and performing one or more tasks. There was a lot of great discussion on the topic and on related issues, as many folks who were in the room have experience running test sessions with users.

I’ve had experience on both sides of a test, though not everyone thinks that UX professionals make for good test subjects. When the discussion touched on mental models, I was reminded of an experience that I had as a test subject for a software product.

On one of the first screens that I saw, there was a reference to David Allen’s Getting Things Done and how the product being tested related to it. As I have used GTD for many years, that immediately set my expectations and a particular model snapped into place in my mind. That model was the lens through which I looked at the product for the rest of the session, during which I struggled somewhat with fully grasping the product and how to use it. After the session ended, there was some discussion, and it turned out that the GTD reference was not intended to have been there, and that the product is not meant to be a GTD implementation. Such was the power of the wrong mental model, though, that I simply could not see the product in any other way, despite many other cues in the user interface that contradicted my model.

While the details of interaction design, visual design, and information architecture all matter, if the resulting product is conceptually unclear or leads to an inappropriate mental model for users, the product will be challenging to use. It’s critical to get the mental model right.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Learning from a giant chicken at the side of the road

One of the things that I understand as a user experience designer is that it is often better to observe how users behave than it is to listen to them tell you how they behave. This was driven home for me quite vividly on a visit to a customer site several years ago.

A colleague and I were meeting with truck drivers to better understand how they thought about getting directions for routes they needed to take. The drivers that we met were all thoughtful and understood their work well, even if they had different ideas about what worked and why.

One driver was especially articulate in explaining how he worked and what issues were important to them. He provided a lot of insights, and was generally engaging and fun to talk to. One question that I was particularly interested in was whether he found landmarks useful in directions. He was quick to say that he didn’t like them, and provided some quite rational reasons as to why. For example, landmarks aren’t always visible at night, or they may have disappeared. Great points, and we were happy to hear his insights.

As it turned out, this driver was our last meeting of the day. While packing up, I asked him for directions back to our hotel. He was happy to help, and started to sketch a simple map on a piece of paper while providing verbal directions. His directions included the memorable instruction to “then take the next right after the giant chicken at the side of the road”. I waited for him to complete his directions, and then asked him why he had included a landmark (the chicken) in his directions when he had previously indicated that he didn’t like landmarks. He was a little surprised himself, and we discussed it a little. What it came down to was that he liked landmarks when he knew that they were accurate and visible, and could thus be relied upon.

How he behaved when providing directions was different from what he had reported to us in an interview. Users aren’t always the most reliable reporters, even of their own actions or preferences. Observation is a great tool for getting around that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The wild blue yonder

My sons and I attended the Waterloo Aviation Expo and Airshow on Sunday, organized by the Waterloo-Wellington Flight Centre.

We’ve attended various aviation events at the local airport over the years and always enjoyed ourselves. This year was every bit as fun, though the drive to the event was tough going. The announced crowd of 30,000 was easy to understand after enduring the heavy traffic. Having said that, the slow-going drive was mitigated by seeing several planes flying overhead. The Sabre, MiG 15, and Corsair all looked impressive from our vantage point stopped in traffic on the road. At the site itself, four vintage Harvards made an impressive roar as they flew by, and we viewed the improbable spectacle of a plane landing on top of a small truck!

While the aerial displays are exciting, we’ve always enjoyed the ground displays as well. Over the years, my boys and I have been inside several historic aircraft, including a Lancaster, a Flying Fortress, and a Catalina, and have talked to a few pilots about their experiences. This year it felt like we saw fewer planes up close on the ground, though the Silver Star, Sea Bee, and Jet Provost were all cool.

Alas, we didn’t see the Snowbirds perform (though we saw them on the ground), as my youngest two sons made it clear that they were ready to leave before they flew. We headed home, with me feeling somewhat like a dad who leaves a baseball stadium after the seventh inning stretch in a tie game, just to beat the traffic!

I know that there are larger and more impressive air shows in the world (some of which I’d like to get to some day), but the Waterloo show is a real treat and it’s just the right size for my young sons. What a great way to have spent Father’s Day this year.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A whole new adventure at Karos Health

As occasional readers of this blog may know, I embarked on a bit of a career exploration some months back after leaving Primal Fusion. I enjoyed many fine conversations, flirted with creating a product with some friends, and generally learned a lot. There were a few intriguing opportunities along the way, too.

The opportunity that has emerged as the right fit is with Karos Health, a startup company here in Waterloo. As the website says:
Our mission is to advance the quality of patient care through collaboration and information sharing. Operating in an industry where systems are complex and no single vendor can provide one solution for all aspects of healthcare, Karos strives to enable vendor collaboration. Toward this goal, we work with partners and vendors to build information technology solutions that support collaboration between healthcare providers and the patient.
That’s lofty stuff, and I’m excited to have joined the team to drive user experience for Karos Health products.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Big machines at play in Waterloo next Saturday

An annual tradition in my family is our visit to the City of Waterloo Service Centre Open House. This year’s edition is next Saturday, June 12. As I wrote following last year’s version, it’s an amazing event, it’s free, and there’s lots to do. If you have kids, I highly recommend taking them.

Friday, June 4, 2010

I’m tired of waking up tired

I’m not really tired of waking up tired. I was, though, a little tired on Thursday morning after two worlds collided for me on Wednesday night at the Starlight in Waterloo.

When I worked at Platform Computing I had a fine manager, Ian MacKay, who was a great supporter of our user experience team. We got along well, and he was a generous collaborator in addition to being an inspiring leader. Ian was, and is, also a man of many other talents, including visual artist and musician. Around the time that I left Platform to join Primal Fusion, he left Platform as well. One of the things that he’s taken on since leaving that company was to return to his roots as a Canadian punk rock pioneer, playing bass and singing in The Diodes. Some of you may remember their catchy hit “Tired of Waking Up Tired”.

Happily, the band played here in Waterloo Wednesday night, as part of a mini-tour that they have underway. I was glad to have a chance to catch up with Ian, along with another friend and former Platform UX colleague who joined me at the show. Hearing The Diodes was fun too. I wasn’t sure what to expect musically from a band that has played very little together in the couple of decades, but they were tight and sounded great.

So which two worlds collided? As with my Ignite talk on metaphor in product design, the Diodes show saw my working life as a user experience professional intersect with my leisure life as a music enthusiast with too many albums in too many formats!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting Things Done

I’ve had occasion in recent weeks to talk with a few people about personal productivity, and about how to manage competing priorities and get work done. There are a variety of systems and products out there that promise to help get you organized — Jim Estill’s thoughts on Time Leadership come to mind, as he did a great presentation on it to the Primal Fusion team while I was there. An approach that has worked well for me for several years comes from the book Getting Things Done, by David Allen.

I was introduced to Getting Things Done indirectly in 2005 while working at Platform Computing; my manager at the time left a printed copy of a New York Times article on my desk. “Meet the Life Hackers”, by Clive Thompson, provides a great overview of the problems with, and possible solutions for, dealing with information overload. As I recognized from personal experience that information overload is an issue, I spent some time tracking down many of the references in the article. One of the things that I found was Allen’s book, which resonated for me when I first read it, and which is well-worth reading if this topic is remotely interesting to you.

(As an aside, those of you who are familiar with GTD may have guessed that the reason that I’m able to cite Thompson’s article after so many years is because I’ve implemented a reference system to keep track of useful things like the article.)

I won’t describe GTD in detail here, as many others have done so elsewhere. I will say that the keys to its success for me have been the inbox, where I put all the bits of information that may otherwise interrupt me during the day, and the weekly processing of inbox items into projects and tasks that can be completed in particular contexts. I’ll also say that truly understanding the power of GTD may be elusive based on just a description or on just reading the book. It was only after I had tried it for a few weeks that some of the nuances started to make sense to me.

Early on I used a variety of GTD implementations. Some used files on my computer, others were paper-based. At one point I created a database implementation in Filemaker, including a mobile version for my Palm PDA that synched with a version on my Mac. It worked reasonably well and was fun to build.

The GTD solution that I use now, and have used for quite some time, is OmniFocus for Mac and iPhone, in combination with Google Calendar (along with a physical filing cabinet for reference items). There are other tools available, but OmniFocus has worked well for me, and Omni is a pretty cool company.

Having finished this post, I can now mark it as “done” in OmniFocus!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sometimes faster is indeed better

One of the important factors in a good user experience in a software product is performance (or, more accurately, the user’s perception of performance). That is, how responsive to user input does the product appear to be?

I’ve been thinking about performance since my switch from using Firefox to using Google Chrome as my primary web browser. Safari remains my secondary browser. I still use Firefox on occasion for a few specific tasks.

The first time that I used Chrome, I was struck by how much snappier it seemed to be compared with Firefox. There are probably more than a few technical factors that feed into that perception, along with important goals that the Chrome team set out to meet. As an aside, it’s well worth talking the time to read the comic book created by Scott McLeod in 2008 to explain Chrome.

Interestingly, once I had grown accustomed to my newly peppy browsing experience, I started to notice specific points of slowness. A big culprit was when the browser consulted a name server (part of the domain name system, or DNS) to find the location of a given web resource. I had always known that this was a bottleneck, but it really stood out now. DNS is typically handled by your internet service provider, but there are alternative DNS sources available. Hoping to address DNS slowness, I decided to try Google Public DNS, which launched late last year.

Lookups became far quicker to resolve — in all my browsers, not just Chrome — though slower sites are now more obvious than before, as resolving the domain name is dealt with right away (Twitter comes to mind in that regard).

I’m a big fan of Google. What strikes me here is the lengths to which they have gone to improve the user experience for their products by attacking performance in a big way. In addition to the work that they have done directly on their existing products (such as Search, Gmail, and Reader), they went far further and created a new browser and a new DNS product to speed up the performance of the web for all their users. In this case, where the performance gains are real and measurable, reality is also perception.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What my mom taught me about search engine optimization

Actually, my mom taught me just about nothing about search engine optimization (SEO). What she did, though, was do a Google search on her son’s name. She discovered this blog was the number one response, and she told me about it on the weekend.

I checked myself, it having been some time since I had done a vanity search, and discovered that this blog is, indeed, the number one result for a search on ‘Mark Connolly’. It was a pleasing result at some level, though it did make me wonder how it happened; SEO is big business, and there is more than one Mark Connolly in the world who might be expected to show up higher in the results. Somehow, I stumbled into the top spot.

As it turns out, I may be number one on Google (for now, anyway), but this blog didn’t show up until the third page of Bing results for the same search. On the other hand, I turn up twice more on the first page of Google search results (my Twitter page and my Ignite talk video).

I am curious as to whether this result is peculiar to Canadian Google users, or is it the same elsewhere. Any input, blog readers?

And if you’re reading this, Mom, thanks for letting me know!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Oblique strategies provide a creative spark

Anyone who has a job that requires creativity — artists, engineers, scientists, musicians — has encountered blocks where the ideas just don’t seem to be there. While potentially frustrating, it’s not at all unusual and can be dealt with. There are many approaches to drawing out creative thinking, often with the goal of unblocking creative flow by guiding you down paths of thinking otherwise untaken.

A favourite tool of mine is Oblique Strategies, which started life as a set of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in the 1970s (and which have been updated several times sine). The Oblique Strategies cards provide a way to get around creative roadblocks, each featuring an instruction on how to proceed. By selecting a card at random and following the guidance on the card, one can ‘trick’ the mind into exploring potentially novel paths in response to the card. My favourite has always been “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”, but they are all useful. Here are some random selections:
  • Breathe more deeply
  • Use an old idea
  • Destroy -nothing -the most important thing
  • Think of the radio
  • Only one element of each kind
  • Would anybody want it?
Now the ideas that emerge may not be good ones, but you’ll at least have explored a part of the solution space that you may have missed otherwise.

For those interested, a current version of the card deck is available at Eno Shop.

There was, in the past, an elegant Mac OS X dashboard widget that provided access to the text of the Oblique Strategies cards (all editions), as well as a similar iPhone app. It appears that both are no longer available via Apple, possibly for quite reasonable reasons relating to copyright. I still have my app, though, sitting next to Bloom, Trope, and Air on my iPhone, and I still draw on it regularly for inspiration. It would be lovely to see Oblique Strategies made available in these formats again.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Yet another demonstration that beer and user experience go well together

We had a great discussion (or, rather, series of discussions) at this month’s UX Group event at the Huether Hotel in Waterloo last night. We started off talking about iPad, which was certainly in the spirit of our announced NUI discussion, but soon wandered off down various interesting conversational side roads. From business models, to retail user experience, to music and movies in the digital age, and more, it was a terrific night. Thanks to everyone who came out and made the event so special. And here’s to a speedy recovery for co-organizer Bob Barlow-Busch, who was too ill to make it out. You missed a good night, Bob!

The current plan is to try to assemble a group post that represents our collective take on the evening. Check back at the UX Group blog for more on that.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Staying grounded with Boys Breakfast

One of the enduring traditions that I’ve been able to enjoy every other Thursday over the last decade here in Waterloo is a morning gathering known to its participants as Boys Breakfast. The attendance has varied dramatically in the years since the regular meetings at the long-departed Texas Bar-B-Q (a ghostly reminder of which appeared briefly late last summer while the space was being renovated; see the accompanying image), but some of the original founders are still there. While not exactly a secret society, it’s certainly been a well-kept secret, with new breakfasters joining via invitations to come on out and try it.

What’s the attraction? The diversity of breakfasters and the resulting wide-ranging conversations is certainly top of the list. This week’s gathering, for example, saw an architect, a writer, a historian, a venture capitalist, a librarian, a land developer, and a designer, amongst others, taking the conversations hither and yonder through the news and local topics of interest. Happily, conventional ‘networking’ isn’t on the menu!

The food has for some time been a top notch feature; Chris and Chef Willie regularly deliver wonderfully unique and delicious morning meals. Green eggs and ham (!) were  a special surprise, and I have particularly fond memories of the scotch eggs served up some time ago.

In the end, the regularity of the gatherings may be a big part of the appeal. Year in and year our, Boys Breakfast is there, providing a defiantly local communal experience. Guys, you know who you are, and I thank you all for creating and maintaining this Uptown Waterloo tradition.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Digital Media Boot Camp

On Monday and Tuesday this week I hosted a Digital Media Boot Camp at Canada 3.0 in Stratford, Ontario, on Canada’s digital media future. The goal was to come up with some concrete ideas around how to move forward on the vision of being able to do anything online in Canada by 2017, the country’s sesquicentennial year.

I was struck by a couple of things.

First was the diversity of people that showed up for what was essentially the “general public” stream of Canada 3.0. The range of experiences and backgrounds represented resulted in some great discussions.

The second was the recurring theme that emerged that access to the online world remains, in 2010, a real issue in Canada for a variety of reasons: economic disparity, urban/rural divide, fear, inexperience — all prevent full participation in Canada’s digital present. Ironically, technological barriers were emphasized at the conference, where both WiFi and mobile access were severely constrained.

(As an aside, there was also the irony, visible in the accompanying photo, of talking about a digital future using decidedly analogue markers and flip charts!)

There’s a lot of work to do to make a future a vision a reality.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bigger than the World Cup!

2010 is an important year for me as a soccer fan, but not because the World Cup takes place on the continent of Africa for the first time (though that is, admittedly, big).

I’m a big fan of watching my sons play organized soccer here in Waterloo. The new season kicked off last week for all of them, and the big 2010 highlight for me is that my four-year-old has joined a team for the very first time this year! I’m pleased to note that, like his brothers before him, he managed to get uniform number six for his inaugural season; he’s a free man, and number one in my heart.

Between the three boys, this season I’ll be watching games five days a week at fields all over the city.

Organized soccer is available in my community thanks in large part to the work of many volunteers, and I’m grateful for that. My boys are too!

Monday, May 3, 2010

This boot camp needs you, no marching required

Next week is the Canada 3.0 conference in Stratford, Ontario. I mention it because I’ll be there on the afternoons of Monday May 10 and Tuesday May 11, facilitating/hosting DigitalMediaCamp from noon until 4:00pm. The great thing is that DigitalMediaCamp is free, courtesy of The Record. All you need to do is register for either Monday or Tuesday and then get yourself to Stratford.

What should you expect? As it says on the site, “the DigitalMediaCamp will allow participants to interact with others, experience new software and provide input to decision makers shaping the future of Digital Media in Canada.” DigitalMediaCamp registrants are also entitled to attend the morning keynote presentations that are part of Canada 3.0, and to explore the showcase booths and more.

Sounds like fun to me. Tell your friends, get thinking, and bring your ideas and an open mind to Stratford. Take the opportunity to work with others to help build a digital media vision for Canada.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Albertasaurus poised to rampage through Waterloo

While I’ve known about it for years I only recently visited the Earth Sciences Museum at the University of Waterloo for the first time. I was accompanied by all three of my sons, two of whom had been there before, and we were there with a group of kids with their parents. We saw a presentation on dinosaurs that was engaging, fun, and educational. Millions of years were covered, with museum exhibits of an Albertosaurus and other extinct species illustrating points about how dinosaurs lived. The boys and I learned a new word too, discovering that the Brachiosaurus, as well as other dinosaurs and some modern animals, swallowed rocks to facilitate digestion; the museum has a specimen of such a gastrolith.

Finally, just prior to leaving, my sons led me to the 8.5 meter gneiss monolith, a truly massive slab of rock that dominates a stairwell in the Centre for Environmental Information Technology building in which the museum is housed.

As with other entries in this series, the Earth Sciences Museum makes Waterloo a better place to live — even if the large and extinct carnivore won’t really rampage through the city.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Startup Lessons Learned Conference

Jim Murphy has organized a fun looking event for next Friday, April 23 from noon until 9:00pm at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo. It’s a simulcast of the Startup Lessons Learned conference happening in San Francisco. From Jim’s event description:

Startup Lessons Learned is the first event designed to unite those interested in what it takes to succeed in building a lean startup. The goal for this event is to give practitioners and students of the lean startup methodology the opportunity to hear insights from leaders in embracing and deploying the core principles of the lean startup methodology. The day-long event will feature a mix of panels and talks focused on the key challenges and issues that technical and market-facing people at startups need to understand in order to succeed in building successful lean startups.

Enjoy the thought provoking presentations and panels from San Francisco, and talk about it with like-minded people here in Waterloo. All that, and it’s free! What are you waiting for? Go sign up!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

They built a faux iPad and they’re going to use it

Speaking of UI prototyping, have a look at how the folks at Omni approached designing for the iPad without having laid hands on one. Not only did they make great use of paper prototypes, they created a non-functional mockup of an iPad to help get a feel for the interaction on a physical device. This reminds me of Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm, carrying around a crude wooden prototype of the original Palm Pilot as part of his design research into that product.

UI prototypes help explore, share, and validate a design. Going the extra mile to create a simulation of the device on which a software product will be used undoubtedly contributes to a successful design.

Monday, April 12, 2010

I built a ray gun and I’m going to use it

This month’s approaching UX Group meeting, a UX ‘show and tell’ for artifacts developed in support of creating a user experience, has me thinking about UI prototypes.

Creating UI prototypes is an important part of the design process. Whether built using pen and paper, dedicated prototyping software tools, image-editing software like Adobe Photoshop, or plain old html, a UI prototype makes the design concrete and helps to build a shared understanding of what a product’s user experience will be like.

At one end of the prototyping fidelity scale is a paper prototype, which has the great merits of being inexpensive, easy to create, and eminently disposable.

At the other end of the scale is what I like to call a ray gun. What’s a ray gun? To answer that, I’ll go back to my inspiration for this particular metaphor. One of the first science fiction books that I read when I was young was Tales from the White Hart, a collection of generally humourous short stories by Arthur C. Clarke. I haven’t read it in many years, but I have fond memories of it. (I’m not sure how accurate those memories are, though!)

One of the stories, “Armaments Race”, describes a competition between the makers of rival science fiction television programs to create impressive special effects for weapons. The details of the titular armaments race are quite entertaining as each program’s team unveils increasingly realistic simulations of ray guns. At this point I’ll add a warning for those of you who haven’t yet read “Armaments Race” that the next sentence is a spoiler, albeit one that is crucial to the point of this post! The punch line of the story is, in essence, that an actual functioning ray gun with real destructive power is built in the pursuit of a great simulation.

Metaphorically, then, a ray gun is a UI prototype that crosses a line into a functioning product. I have to admit that I’ve built more than one ray gun as a user experience designer. Depending on who you talk to, that’s either a good or a bad thing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A busy couple of weeks

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and I appear to have neglected the blog. Here’s a quick roundup of some of what I’ve been up to.

The most recent edition of StartupCampWaterloo was two weeks ago already, and it was another fun edition with a variety of demos and great conversation. My former Primal Fusion colleague Alex Black showed off the cool stuff he’s been doing at his newest venture, Snapsort. It was fun to see the great progress that he’s made.

Last week I had the great fortune to hear a talk by Alfred Spector, VP of Research and Special Initiatives at Google. Inspiring stuff, and there’s clearly a lot of great work being done at Google in general and at the Waterloo office in particular.

This month’s edition of StartupDrinksWaterloo was last night, and while the free pizza was certainly a plus, it was the conversations and connections that remain the big attractions.

Meanwhile, in between these events and a variety of productive conversations with people, I’ve been chugging away on a product prototype as part of an informal project with some friends. I have to say that the recent warm weather has reminded me of the joys of coding away on the front porch and bringing an idea to life. Looks like I’ll remain heads down on design and prototyping for a little while anyway!

Monday, March 22, 2010

A fretboard tribe leads to print success

Traditional print publishers have been facing a challenging environment the last few years (though I have to think that there have been challenges of one kind or another for as long as there has been print). More astute observers than me have written extensively on the travails of the industry, but as a former designer of print publications it’s hard for me not to hope that the industry figures out how to make it work.

There are pockets of hope out there though. For a while now I’ve been telling friends and colleagues about one publication that I read that seems to have found a winning formula.

The Fretboard Journal started life as a high-quality quarterly magazine featuring beautiful photography and well-written articles by people passionate about music. Now in its fifth year, it remains that today, but the FJ team has augmented the magazine with a variety of online activities that support the printed product, build a community of passionate readers, and make real offline connections.
  • There’s a monthly email newsletter to subscribe to on their home page. Perhaps that’s a little quaint in the Internet of the 21st century, but I devour it as eagerly as I do the quarterly print magazine.
  • FJ is active on Twitter via both a @fbjournal and, somewhat more erratically, individual staff accounts. They’ve also created Twitter lists related to various fretted instruments. Nice!
  • I have to confess that I make little use of Facebook these days. In fact, the main reason that I check in is to see FJ updates — there’s a steady stream of announcements and pointers to YouTube videos.
  • The FJ podcast (also on iTunes) is an audio treat, with the focus being great conversations with a variety of musicians, luthiers, music store owners, and other folks. It has been weekly in the past, but seems to be on hiatus right now.
  • The FJ blog was far more active in the early days, and seems to have been supplanted by other activities. Still, it’s a presence. Of course, there’s also a website.
Is this a formula that can support a business? As it turns out, a new issue of The Fretboard Journal arrived in my mailbox while I had this post in draft form. It included the following from editor Marc Greilsamer in his ‘Opening Notes’ column:
It seems that the death of the magazine industry is upon us, or so we’ve been told by whatever media outlets still remain. But while it’s certainly true that many publications — young and old, big and small — seem to be falling by the wayside, The Fretboard Journal somehow continues to grow. For that we only have our wonderful readers (and fellow tribesmen) to thanks.
Not just a community, but a tribe. Sounds like a pretty healthy business to me.

Update (April 7, 2010): FJ recently unveiled a new web site and blog, with exclusive web-only content.