links for 2008-03-07

links for 2008-02-20

Links for 2008.01.15

» QR-Code enhanced scarf [via cookin’/relaxin]
Geeky clothing adverts for website. QR codes are ‘physical hyperlinks’ – take a photo of the matrix code with phone and visit the webpage.

» More info on those QR Code
Pictographic representaitons of URLs.

» QR-Code Generator | QR-Code
Get your own QR codes here.

» Jonathan Ive’s passion for simplicity and honest design is rooted in the work of Dieter Ram [gizmodo via blackbeltjones]
His passion for “simplicity” and “honest design” is at the core of Dieter Rams’ 10 principles for good design. Both designers shape their products around the function with no artificial design, keeping the design honest.

» Looking increasingly likely that the UK government will repeal the law against blasphemy [davblog]
“Following a debate the Justice Minister, said that the government had “every sympathy for the case for formal abolition” and that, subject to a “short and sharp” consultation with the Anglican church, they intended to table their own abolition amendment.

Link for 2008.01.02

» When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy. When God changes your mind, that’s faith. When facts change your mind, that’s science [O’Reilly Radar]
Tim O’Reilly changed his mind about social software

» End of Support for Netscape web browsers [The Netscape Blog]
AOL to finally pull the plug on Netscape. Netscape never recovered from browser wars with Microsoft – of course it didn’t help they went to battle with a broken stick aka Netscape 4.7.

» Eyetracking research highlights the importance of the resource [useit.com]
Appears to show that people focus on the centre of the page and then the ‘more info/related content boxes’ and only a cursory glance at the left hand nav – possibly to help locate themselves on the site, not for navigation?

» Steve Furber one designers of the BBC Micro and ARM processor made a CBE [BBC]
The BBC micro was my first computer and got me hooked on computing and technology – and I know lots of others that owe a similar dept to Steve.

Designing products that people like

Jamie has just written an excellent piece over at the BBC’s Radio Labs blog about his recent work on the design of the /programmes website. Jamie explains his analysis of existing ‘competitors’ using Polar Maps and Topography.

It reminded me of an article about the design of the Xbox 360 who also used Polar Maps to help understand what people wanted and to then align the designers and Microsoft Execs.

Patterns arose in the responses. People wanted a softer look than the original console. They wanted Microsoft to tone down the logo. They loved the use of chrome as an accent color.

At the same time, the team solicited the opinions of Microsoft executives. Jonathan Hayes, the 37-year-old design director for the Xbox platform, didn’t show them actual models for fear that each executive would pick one to champion. Instead, he asked them to consider four themes: mild, wild, architectural and organic.

The original Xbox was certainly on the wild end of the spectrum. And, with its complex geometry and lines, it was architectural as well. Should its successor have the same look?

The executives talked about vehicles as a point of comparison. A Hummer had the same wild, architectural sense as the Xbox. On the mild, organic end was the Porsche 911, which had a well-evolved and distilled feel. That’s the look the group eventually settled on.

Apple Computer’s iPod is mild, executives said. Mild will still look fresh five years from now. Wild and aggressive will seem dated.

As I’ve said before I don’t believe that asking people what they want works. Polar maps do. They help understand what our users’ expectations are and that means we can design products that fit our users mental model – it helps us design intuitive products.

Making Agile User Centered

To integrate UX activities into an agile software development process can be tough. Just consider this discussion between Kent Beck the creator of Extreme Programming and Alan Cooper a leading proponent of Interaction Design.

I’ll divide what Alan is talking about into two things: a set of techniques, and the larger process into which they fit. While I’m 100 percent with the techniques themselves, I’m 100 percent against the process that he described for using them. The techniques are optimized for being thoughtful in a cognitively difficult, complicated area where you’re breaking new ground, and the thinking that’s embedded in the practices is absolutely essential to doing effective software development.

The process, however, seems to be avoiding a problem that we’ve worked very hard to eliminate. The engineering practices of extreme programming are precisely there to eliminate that imbalance, to create an engineering team that can spin as fast as the interaction team. Cooperesque interaction design, I think, would be an outstanding tool to use inside the loop of development where the engineering was done according to the extreme programming practices. I can imagine the result of that would be far more powerful than setting up phases and hierarchy.

To me, the shining city on the hill is to create a process that uses XP engineering and the story writing out of interaction design. This could create something that’s really far more effective than either of those two things in isolation. (Kent Beck)

The techniques that Cooper proposes seek to define the behavior of software products “from the point of view of understanding and visualizing the behavior of complex systems, not the construction of complex systems.” He views “interaction design as part of the requirements-planning or product-planning process rather than as something that comes after the product planning is done.”

The User

Despite the fact that its tough to integrate agile and user centered design approaches it is possible because there are similarities – most notably the desire to create useful software. Take, for example, Alistair Cockburn’s comparison of agile development to a cooperative game:

Software development is a (resource-limited) cooperative game of invention and communication. The primary goal of the game is to deliver useful, working software. The secondary goal, the residue of the game, is to set up for the next game.

And as the name suggests, user centered design is about placing people, users of a piece of software, at the centre of the design process – making software that is useful to them – to do this effectively UX professionals seek to understand user goals and motivation through user research.

Or put another way user centered design helps us understand how people use our products, while agile development let us build and deliver software that is more relevant to its users. Both approaches are trying to deliver meaningful software products to people.

The problem then is not because the two approaches are trying to achieve something different but rather the way of achieving it is different; and specifically the sequencing of events and the time given to different aspect of the product development life cycle. Agile’s iterative development cycle is its key strength, but it also makes for some tight deadlines and people often question whether there is sufficient time to fully consider the users’ needs? However, as Alan Cooper suggests, the time to define the user’s needs is not during the development but before the development starts.

I’ve written previously about using an envisaging team to scout out ahead. Not to design the solution but to understand the problem space – understand what the business needs, what users need, who the users are and what the technology ecosystem looks like – and report this back in a coherent fashion to the rest of the team. This isn’t Big Design Up Front by another name. The envisaging team’s work should be limited to discovery work only. This combined with regular rounds of user testing between each iteration – the results of which are fed into the next round of development – can mean that agile software development can be highly user focused.

Photo: The User, by Pete Ashton. Used under licence.