Friday, June 24, 2011

There is no user experience design process

Whenever I look at a new project and I’m mapping a process to the task in hand, I’m reminded of those cutlery deniers in the Matrix. There is no user experience design process.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few processes to choose from. It’s easy to argue that user experience design doesn’t follow process, because really, as Chandra Harrison pointed out the other day, the process is really user-centred design. User experience is really, well, the user experience. Except, I call myself a user experience designer, and when it comes to ‘designing stuff’ that addresses user needs, identifies requirements, suggests solutions, optimises performance, but also needs to be designed efficiently, predictably, and consistently, there’s got to be a reference model for how a design project runs. Well, I say there’s got to be, it’s more like there should be.

Building a design framework

Whatever process you use, if you’re just using one, that seems to work for everything, it might not really work for anything. At least, it might have worked for one thing, but a singular success does not necessarily define a re-usable method. Much better to understand and review previous design projects to understand which approaches worked best in specific instances and then build a design framework that actually supports building your own, modular process to support multiple projects.

There’ll be traditional activities in there, identified from the ground up, like research, design workshops, competitive analysis, wireframing, persona definition, prototyping, and so on. There’ll also likely be a more generic process pathway within which those activities sit. Think ‘discovery’, ‘ideation’, ‘visualisation’, that kind of thing. How you put your framework together largely depends on what kind of projects you, or your organisation, run, but you’ll only know what the elements are if they’re based on a thorough understanding of prior and planned work. How rigid the resulting framework is will depend on your client mix and how diverse your projects are. The flexibility in how you allow staff to pick the best, most relevant elements and roll their own process to suit those clients and projects, is what makes your framework delightful, rather than frightful.

Framework schramework

I should point out that everywhere I’ve worked as a designer in the last 15 years or so has had a project on the go to build the framework I’m talking about. The ones that don’t work tend to focus on deliverables between activities and phases. The ones that work better tend to be more focused on the definition of the activities themselves and what value they add. And, of course, they're probably redundant anyway, since lean and agile anti-processes are surely going to take over the world. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing the next one. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Usability and the Business Analyst: Smuggling UX at the UK IIBA

There’s a new contraband changing hands in clandestine boardroom exchanges in the most powerful businesses in the land. It doesn’t fall off the back of a lorry, or get swept up on the beach, following the sad demise of some stricken thought tanker, however. No, this new currency is traded under the cover of business analysis. This illicit commodity is user-centred design.

I recently attended an event run by the UK chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis, hosted at Credit Suisse, in their rather nice offices at Canary Wharf. The event was a panel-based discussion of how user experience and business analysis might gracefully collide, somehow becoming something more than the sum of their parts. Put another way, how does user-centred design affect the business analyst?

The panel

On the panel were erstwhile and engaging practice professionals from both sides of the collision: Cennydd Bowles and Chandra Harrison, with many years in user-centred, experience and interaction design (other design practices are available) and Jake Markham, who built the business analysis and design practise up at Credit Suisse. It was chaired by Nick de Voil, from De Voil Consulting, who conveniently bridged the gap between user experience and business analysis.

Nick Dunlavey of Information Architects, who had invested significant effort in pulling the event together (largely crowdsourced via twitter, incidentally, in case you’re wondering how a meeting of UX and BA professionals in an investment bank gets put together), kicked off proceedings in the plush 7th-floor theatre with an admission. He has been smuggling UX into projects. Appropriately, he’s been using Cennydd’s Undercover User Experience Design book as a reference to do that, and thought it would be a good idea to try and link usability and the business analyst.

To set the context for the discussion, Chandra and Jake took some time to talk about, respectively, what user-centred design and user experience is and where we are with it right now, and the development of the business analysis skills and competencies framework for Credit Suisse.

Understanding user experience

Chandra gave a whistle-stop tour of UX, from its mostly overlooked early development in product design to its subsequent and most recent focus on user satisfaction, via world war one biplanes, personas and skills matrices. She was careful to describe user experience as ‘just a term we use at the moment’ and to be clear that ‘user experience’ is not a profession, but, rather, it simply describes ‘what users experience’. What we really do, as practitioners, is apply user-centred design as an approach to system design that supports those experiences. As it turns out, most of the tools and techniques we use to do that are very similar to the tools and techniques that business analysts use, but, critically, we talk about them in very different ways. It might be rather too simplistic to say that business analysts focus on business and user experience designers focus on users, but it’s definitely the user that is the differentiator. The depth of understanding and appreciation of user behaviours, gained from years of observation and dialogue, is what user experience brings to the business analysis party. And then eats all the canap├ęs.

Business analysis and user experience

Following Chandra, Jake was also keen make an admission before he began his talk. He is also a ‘professional smuggler of user experience’. Since Jake is responsible for defining the activities of the business analysis and design group at a company like Credit Suisse, this is good news indeed. In talking us through his own history at the company, we got an invaluable insight into how a global investment banking business is defining its business analysis function and how closely that may be aligned to user-centred design practices. Ultimately, the business analysis function is about identifying needs, collaborating on requirements and facilitating solutions, but it’s focused clearly on the bottom line for the business and the customer. Conversely, the user-centred design function is about identifying needs, collaborating on requirements and facilitating solutions, but focused clearly on user needs. This means that there are clearly opportunities to embed used-centred methods into the business analyst skills and competencies framework and satisfy goals for business benefits and enhanced user experiences.

As I read the definitions of the four roles that have evolved from Jake’s business analysis taxonomy, I was simply changing the job titles for those we use in user experience and the descriptions were pretty consistent. For Business Architect, read Information Architect and you’re nearly there. In line with a comment Cennydd later made about the demise of specific ‘user experience’ roles, I don’t really see the need for the fifth, UX-specific role Jake suggested they might need. Rather, the user-centred design methods and practices should pervade across all roles.

In the middle of all this, Jake also put up a slide that had some enormous numbers on it that spoke to the scale to which a global investment banking business like Credit Suisse operates, at which point I had to check I was wearing the right glasses.

Questions, answers and opinions

On to the panel session itself, and thanks to a brief introduction by Nick, I think I now know what a lasagne panel is. I can’t imagine why I never knew before.

The debate was eloquent, lively and, with the inclusion of Cennydd, was determined not to just turn out stock answers or platitudes. For the most part, the panel vehemently agreed when questioned on things like the business benefit of usability, quantitative measurement, accommodating user requirements without scope creep (BAs love scope creep), and the perception of user experience design operating exclusively in the digital space, on web and web apps. One of the emerging themes was the business benefit of creating ‘value through change’ rather than working to functional requirements. I can’t say I grasp this concept well enough to say whether I agree or not, but if it means understanding user needs, and designing, possibly disruptively, for that, then I’m all for it.

I’ll be honest, I took more notes when Cennydd spoke than when others did, since he catches the zeitgeist of my profession better than anyone else right now, but I did admire Chandra’s enthusiasm and deliberately wider view of usability and Jake’s measured, literate and erudite responses. However, Nick de Voil probably expressed the relationship between user experience and business analysis best:

User experience practitioners have permission to ask people how they work, operate, and do what they do. This approach has emerged as accepted practice in the last few years and it is this that makes them a powerful ally for business analysts.

As I have spent a number of years as a globalisation manager for a large corporation, I was amused to see that nobody wanted answer a question on globalisation strategy. I think we all know you might as well ask for alchemy on toast. I was also reminded, from previous work with another investment bank, that if someone from a global trading division asks a question, you need to be ready. They are scarily efficient in their questioning and can spot flannel through walls of lead.

If you thought about going to this event because it had ‘UX’ in the title, but didn’t go because it had ‘BA’ in the title, you missed a trick. Both our professions require a broadness of understanding that can only be developed through immersion, discourse and appreciation. Many thanks to Nick Dunlavey, the UK IIBA, Credit Suisse, and, of course, the panellists for a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening evening.

And there was caviar. You’ll go next time, won’t you?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Undefining ourselves: More might be less for user experience design

As I was reading through Jeff Gothelf’s blog entry on the mythical user experience visual designer unicorn, I thought way too much about the current apparent need for user experience professionals to wear more than one pointy skill hat in order to somehow make themselves that much ‘better’.

In a nutshell (which, by the way, is a cleverly crowbarred reference to my own developer background) it seems to me that the more skills we pursue, the less skills we can practice and develop. Under a rather broad categorisation of ‘user experience’, which I’m not even going to set the boundaries on, because I still don’t know what they are, there are a huge range of techniques, skills, practices and methods that are constantly evolving and shifting in response to needs, innovations and opportunities. We learn, use, modify and generally make our best use of those techniques and skills, to help us solve problems and design solutions that we hope make the world a better, more delightful place. And I think that’s enough to be going on with. At least, in terms of a value proposition for a User Experience Designer.

There is a tendency for us to refer to ‘full-service agencies’ as some kind of 7-fingered, flat-footed cousin and the very idea that they might make a claim to be able to provide user experience expertise is roundly scoffed at. Which seems a contrary position, if we can be quite so pleased with our own ability to write code, build platforms, deliver compelling visual designs and so on, effectively pitching our own ability to full-service clients. If we’re making this shift by design (which, by the way, is a woefully crowbarred reference to my own design background), then the strategy is somewhat grab-bag. User experience design can be a hard sell, but it has a certain purity of intent that can be evangelised. As we seek to extend our reach, that intent becomes less clear.

Maybe we are all just 'designers' after all, but if that's true, I've got loads of profiles to update.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Let them meme cake: Conspicuous connection in the social network.

I’ll be honest. I’m only writing this post because I thought of the title. Now I have to write the content. I know I’m not the only person who does that.

Having said that, the title was borne of an observation that we’re moving/have moved into a new phase of conspicuousness, driven by the desire to belong. This time it’s a curious elitism defined by your connection mass in the social network, but conspicuousness draws on a strange lineage from a mythical Marie Antoinette to many on the net via as much as I can get and mourning those I’ve never met.

Conspicuous consumption

As a device to delineate a social class, as with the conspicuous consumption of the cake-eating French aristocracy, its intention is clear: to define yourself irrespective of others. While not so much about cake, there were clear, if unwritten, rules about the externalisation of wealth and power to demonstrate your status. This was mostly manifest in the construction of elaborate and ornate dwellings and the furnishing of one’s self with much dandyness. However, it also demanded that you were a magnanimously social creature - the burden of lavish party-throwing and fatuous, fabulous benevolence was great - but all these attributes identified you as belonging to that noble, narrow aristoclass, unattainable through mere social climbing and fiercely protected by the bourgeois with their own laws on how to use the dressing-up box.

Conversely, through the industrial revolution of the late 19th century, when the term was first used, and the post-war era of the 1950s, particularly in America, conspicuousness was all about perception of social power and ascending the social strata. Conspicuous consumption here was more about demonstrating accumulation of wealth as a means to describe your social standing, in the process, creating its own social class – the nouveau riche. In contrast to an aristocratic, 6-fingered, birth or marriage right, this was an attainable variation of social climbing, and conspicuousness was part of its tactical implementation. While often attributed to the already wealthy as some kind of vulgar, modern rendition of cake-baiting, it probably more accurately describes the actions of those who can ill-afford the conspicuous investment, but still have that desire to be seen to belong to the class that can.

Conspicuous compassion

In the tail-end of the 20th century, a more emotive form of conspicuousness began to surface, that seemed to suggest a different kind of need: to define yourself to be just like others. Conspicuous compassion was posited by Patrick West, for Civitas, as a kind selfish, ostentatious recreational grief, which was triggered in individuals who had somehow lost their way due to the diminishing social influence of the church. It is suggested that this ‘mourning sickness’ pervades our modern society, because we have need a to show how much we care, without actually wanting to waste our Sunday mornings at church when there’s a sale on at Next. Think flowers on royal hearses and ten-minute silences.

Conspicuous compassion, as described by West, is a mawkish ‘me too’, whereby the collective forms in an extravagant display of ‘grief-lite’. Strangers coalescing to cry over strangers. Make of that what you will, but how they come together is what makes his opinion interesting. It’s the idea that the conspicuousness of the individuals’ emotional response is the qualification for belonging to a particular social group that says ‘I care’.

Conspicuous connection

In contrast, conspicuous connection in the social network says ‘I care’ in a very different way. It satisfies a quite different need: to define yourself to be more popular than others. Conspicuous connection doesn’t necessarily speak of influence, which is a quite different metoogorithm , but it definitely speaks of volume. It says ‘I care that you ‘like’ me’, and it is an evolved ranking system that simultaneously holds no value and means everything.

You could argue, in hindsight, that the volume-driven connection model that was first massively popularised by MySpace was a kind of post-modern ironic, generation Y in-joke, as the friend numbers passed from ridiculous to sublime and back again. There was no real connection in MySpace. I was more like stumbling into the biggest teenage house party in the world. There wasn’t really any social collateral in the numbers, it was just a bit of a laugh. Friends were added, rather than tactically coveted.

As Facebook really told hold, rubbing MySpace’s face in the corporate sand and as Twitter appeared as the curious IM/blog hybrid it was ok to admit to, then conversion tactics really emerged. Driven by the inflation and recommendation model of the herd and the revenue from ads for baldness remedies and weight loss (is that just me?), marketing strategies developed to maximise, monetise and commoditise the network. One of the primary strategies was volume. And that is why conspicuous connection is so prevalent.

Conspicuous connection is the manifestation of the desire to be seen to be a social prime mover. Influence is hard to measure. Numbers describe a kind of brute-force reach. Consequently, the larger the numbers, in theory, the further the reach. Which is why elementary volume tactics, developed by gurus, used by the rest of us, account for a sizeable proportion of content itself. Following, liking and connecting, is what creates your social mass. In some cases, the mass is so large it creates its own social gravity, sucking in the rest of us. It’s this planetary tipping point that completely alters perception of influence, and so the very act of asking other to get you there is now an acceptable strategy.

It just doesn’t appeal to me. But then, you’re probably not reading this.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Writing to be read: A workshop on being a better writer

Martin Belam and Cennydd Bowles have written popular and successful books, articles and blogs on user experience. On Tuesday evening, I attended a writing workshop, where they shared tips, tricks and best practise for ‘better writing’.

I write too much. When I write about an event, I fill the page with clever, but meaningless sentences. Seeing the details of the workshop, I thought it would be a great way to learn from others and share opinions on what makes a better writer. It ended up being all that and more. It was an insight into methods and practices that Martin and Cennydd use in their own writing, highlighting that personal approaches to writing differ, but common creative techniques and some rigorous editing can nearly always improve output.

First off, Martin shared some of the tactical armoury he has developed through his own writing. He focused on tips and tricks for writing to be read and was able to provide some excellent examples of the dramatic impact simple devices can have. Some of his advice was common sense, while some was quite crafty. Some was plainly evil, but, nonetheless, common practice, when writing with particular targets in mind.

Cennydd, on the other hand, wanted to help us understand that after writing, the real work starts. Editing your content is just as important as writing it. Through a series of classic examples and anecdotes from his own experience, he gave practical advice on analysing and improving your own writing, through careful, considered editing. In common with Martin, Cennydd also was keen to make the most important point of all: if you can’t speel, please don’t write, especially if your grammar do suck.

It was thoroughly enjoyable evening, with practical, actionable advice. Clearly, there is no one ‘right way’ to become a better writer, but if you can learn from others’ experiences, you can, at least, take steps in a better direction.

[This post is an edit of the previous post ‘This title is clever but pointless and inefficient’. It is an attempt to put some of the learning from the writing workshop into practice and so it’s not a great post, more of an exercise. If you prefer one or the other, leave a comment. You might not like either of them, which is more likely]

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

This title is clever but pointless and inefficient

This is the post I would normally write about being at an event in the city with a collection of like-minded individuals who were compelled to attend to on the promise of solace at their smiting of writing with encouraging words from the scribers of note that can say what they wrote with articulate summary, a sprinkling of chummery and, not least some encouragement, wrapped up in wit, delivered in earnest, with meaning, to whit, I give you a paragraph to be used as example, to print and to squint at in lieu of a sample of how you could simply just dribble away like a gibbering goon for the rest of the day.

Except, I now know better.

This evening I attended a workshop run by Martin Belam and Cennydd Bowles, which, ostensibly, was about being a better writer. That sounds like a rather lofty and grandiose concept, but, you know, I like those. Realistically, the workshop was more about personal approaches to writing, learned writing skills, need-to-know and evil-to-use devices for being read, and a heavy dose of editing. Oh, and spelling. And grammar. Which, I plainly flout irreverently and irreconcilably and even irresponsibly. In fact, there were so many golden nuggets of ‘better writing’ advice that I didn’t even have time to flippantly flap about it on the twitter.

Not really knowing what to expect from the evening, I did approach it with an open mind, and an open bottle of Corona. I was hoping that I might get some opinions other than my own on what might constitute good writing and take those opinions away to inform my future output. I did get that, but I also got a rather delightful insight into the methods and practices of two writers that I rather admire. If were to make some dubious football analogy at this point, which I am going to, I’d suggest that Martin’s approach was that of a wily, crafty, tactical midfield genius, who has a great eye for an opportunity, knows all the tricks and can pick out the killer pass most of the time. He’s always the first man to be picked, notwithstanding his occasional tendency to argue the toss with the gaffer over formations. On the other hand, Cennydd would be more of a silky, clinical, methodical kind of player. While apparently effortless in his command of the ball and organising the team (for he does wear the armband), he will be the one on the training ground under the floodlights at 2a.m., repeatedly kicking a ball at a wall until he can predictably hit the same brick every time.

All of which is just a way to say that when describing how to be a better writer, you necessarily end up describing what you’ve done to try and be a better writer yourself, and this will be different depending on who you are. Martin and Cennydd described quite different experiences and approaches, but they shared a common aim. Clearly, there is no right way to become a better writer, there are many right ways. However, what this evening demonstrated is that if you want to focus on a few of the many, some of those right ways are more righterer than others.

Tomorrow, as an exercise, I shall mostly editing the life out of this post before publishing it again. It will be like harvesting antimatter with a sock.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

overloading my function

since waking up in a real job where I do proper work and stuff, I've been spending less and less time expounding on such hot topics as situational awareness or pressing buttons in a manic fit and when I have managed to construct a few over-long run-on sentences, I've mostly been doing it for my current employer who has kindly let me do so in between the other bits of time when I'm actually doing the work. which is to say, I've not been writing here for a while. which is fine, because I've been busy, and I've been expressing my ideas and thoughts somewhere else.

now I've settled into some kind of cadence with regard to writing, and since the blog I write for my employer is a shared blog, and there's any number of brilliant minds there who can contribute, I'm currently compiling drafts of thoughts of ideas that will never get published unless I funnel them into an appropriate bucket, which is where this am is, right here. so that what I shall be doing.