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!