I'm currently BETA (ahem) testing the new blog which will mean that this version will be migrating. I'll be re-directing the www.smorgasbord-design.co.uk address and the feed here will cease to be updated in the near future. In the meantime, take a look at this clever little robot. I don't normally post stuff like this so be happy.
Facebook has a lauded interface for restricting privacy. One can customise their profile so that only their closest friends can view their photos, post on their wall and find out what books they have just read. This control even goes so far as to hide your Facebook presence from particular members.
Where these controls come unstuck is in the sensitive area of posting photos; a paradigm not restricted to Facebook of course. It is perfectly possible for your next door neighbour to post a picture of you on their profile featuring you sunbathing in your garden in the kind of bikini that would make Jordan blush. They can then tag this photo and share it with the rest of your street. Worse than that, there is nothing to stop someone defaming your character on their wall, something that must happen with monotonous regularity amongst Facebook’s younger user-base.
That there is nothing on Facebook to stop these actions occurring is not the end of the story. Fortunately the British and European legal system is, for once, moving quickly to adapt. Fuelled perhaps by the thought of celebrity action and the associated fees, lawyers are lining up to unleash legislation not just on the operators of such sites but on the users themselves. Of course, under such circumstance you can bet that Facebook would be defended and a recent article by Ashley Hurst (a member of the media litigation team at Olswang) suggested that e-commerce law could provide that such operations are simply hosts of defamatory material and it is the users that are responsible. Now that’s not particularly sociable of them.
It’s at times like these that we’d all do well to stop inviting our friends to become pirates and tickling vibrating hamsters and spend some time reading through the legals on the sites instead. When we sign up we’re reminded that “content that Facebook deems to be harmful, threatening, unlawful … [etc] “ should not be uploaded or transmitted. Of course, such catch-all terms and conditions can only be invoked to remove content when it has been spotted and objected-to. In the Web2.0 era this could well mean that the image has been circulated or the statement copy and pasted widely before action is finally taken at the source. The fact remains that users only have control over the content that they post and, this is often overlooked, this extends to people who have so far resisted the urge to join.
Facebook recently announced (although you may have missed it) that profiles were to become searchable from Google. Although this can be switched off by users, once again you cannot control whether your ex-girlfriend’s profile can be uncovered by your prospective girlfriend’s Google search and her bitter rants about your sexual prowess poured over and dissected at will.
All this only serves to fuel Facebook’s near-exponential growth. The only defence is ‘attack’, or at least vigilance. If you’re not a member you’ll not know what people are posting and saying about you. Best you get yourself signed up, who knows you might even uncover something delightfully salacious yourself.
Inspired by a Design Critique podcast I wanted readers to consider the experience of owning rather than consuming a product. More often than not User Experience Architects (UEAs) like me will pour insight and design into the choosing and purchasing of a product or service. We sometimes refer to these as ‘moments of truth’. Experience design shouldn’t stop there though, because the experience itself doesn’t.
In the podcast they discuss the packaging of an iPod (the 1st generation Nano as it happens) which I also own. Where this resonates with me is the fact that I didn’t purchase this product, it was a Christmas gift and as such I didn’t have the purchase experience; my first interaction with the product was to unwrap the box. At this point I’ll skip to the end; the box for my Nano sits proudly on my shelf. I haven’t retained the box for some perfunctory purpose to store the Nano again when I come to move house. I don’t keep it so that I can put the Nano away every night either. I keep it because, in itself, it’s a beautiful little piece of design that is worthy of display.
That morning when I received the gift I remember distinctly being impressed with the occasion of opening the packing. The box opens like a book, or perhaps a limited edition CD, the iPod was recessed into the box and encased in a cellophane wrapper so I could see it clearly and see its virginal newness. The tape that stuck the cellophane wrappers down was printed in an established Apple typeface, the whole package (and I use the word literally and metaphorically) was an example of minimalism and lean design. It almost seemed a shame to ruin it by actually getting the iPod out. However, once having done so it remained intact and thus it remains on my shelf.
And I’m not the only one who was impressed. All over the web you’ll find blog posts, flickr photosets and suchlike documenting the arrival and unpacking of their iPods and other Apple consumables. Apple are thinking experientially about ownership, about the loyalty that owning one of their items creates. Hence why so many of their consumers are brand advocates. This is a wonderful example of marketing extending into ownership to create or strengthen a positive opinion of the brand.
Maybe this is not by design, but by accident. Maybe it’s the result of over-design; a marketing and design team that just don’t know when to stop? Who knows how much this packaging actually costs Apple. Is it the most cost-efficient packaging? Does it protect the item better than the usual bubble wrap and polystyrene? Is it environmentally ethical? To answer some of those questions we might well look at the 2nd generation Nano. This came packaged in a polycarbonate case, reducing the overall size of the box but retaining two core factors – clarity (the item was visible and did not require a cover photo - the item’s form factor was immediately obvious) and secondly, durability (the Nano was safely surrounded by shatterproof plastic). I can’t comment on the environmental aspects sadly but I’m sure Apple’s site has the answers.
Now this may seem a bit vacuous, after all we’re talking about the box for an MP3 player, but perhaps the type of device actually goes some way to explaining the effort Apple have gone to. Would you keep the packaging of, say, a new razor, if it was stylishly designed? Almost certainly not. Your MP3 player is not just a device to be used to perform a needed function, it is more personal than that. It reflects your style and your taste, it’s a personal accessory, a luxury item, a nice-to-have. Of course size helps here too – your new 50” Plasma might say similar things about your success and style but it’s a bit more impractical to store the box for that on the shelf. We need to look at items that compare in terms of cost, size and personal association, and for items that are similar we nevertheless find a dearth in experiential packaging.
I find it’s always worth putting a comparison alongside to illustrate the point even more clearly. Consider an alternative packaging style for consumer electronics, the clamshell. These hugely frustrating ultra-sonically sealed packages have no clear opening and require the consumer to cut them open. These are borne out of a fear from the manufacturer that their item, a highly portable and valuable product, will be divorced from its packaging and stolen. Their products are less popular and compelling than the iPod, Apple can afford to solve the theft problem not by introducing a clamshell but by ensuring customers have to ask for their product, they’re generally not left out on the shelf. Asking for the product only adds to the sense of luxury and exclusivity. Once again Apple have solved a problem in a way that enhances the user experience.
It’s certainly worth taking the time to listen to the (albeit lengthy) podcast over at Design Critique where Tim unravels these kinds of issues in some detail. The podcast discusses a fascinating paradigm of allowing non-dextrous patients (i.e. the arthritic) access to their medication whilst preventing the same medication from being accessed by highly-dextrous children. This problem and its leftfield solution is one which would prove to be a great interview question for aspiring UEAs
Facebook had started to take over my web time until a week or so ago when I realised I'd not done anything on Last Chance Saloon for a while. Then I realised I'd not posted our wedding website yet either. Then it became clear that I was falling behind on the stuff I actually get paid for too. But frankly that doesn't seem to matter as regardless of how far I fall behind on that stuff, the other people who'll plug it all together behind the scenes are even further behind and even more under-resourced than I am. So where to focus my attentions?
Well, the invites went out for the wedding and since then it's been a bit of a whirl of RSVPs, sorting out groomsmen's attire, stag events (thanks Robin), website stuff (Marisa and I are getting there on that) and more. Floristry and church arrangements seem to be a never ending saga with the former causing the most headaches both financially and logistically. I'm sure we'll get there in the end but it's hard to think that I'll not resent the money and hassle on the day when I look around at all the hours of work and £s of cash that have been poured into it all. It's all well and good starting the whole wedding process with intentions of project managing the whole thing to within an inch of its life but it's another thing when you reflect on some of the principle reasons it was never going to work that way:
- I'm not a project manager. In fact I'm not even half a project manager. I'm a thoughtful creative type who's easily distracted.
- I no-longer live with my fiancee and, worse still, I live 3hrs away in Norwich.
- My fiancee couldn't be less interested in the whole affair as she's got bigger fish to fry throughout the courts of England now.
- Two years of intermittent planning enthusiasm is enough to stall the momentum of the best laid plans.
- Financially it's all become so obscenely expensive that the scattering of luxurious touches has just been turned into paying someone a King's Ransom to re-arrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.
That said, there are moments of brilliance. The band, the invites, the reception venue, our enigmatic priest, my shoes ... so I'm quite sure it'll become more than the sum of its parts. I only hope SWMBO's employers let her have the day off now to enjoy it.
Wedding aside, Last Chance Saloon is careering along at a pace. A frankly bewildering generosity from the many nooks and crannies of The Company has ensured that much of the expense for our ludicrous project to drive to Rome in a tired old Volvo has been borne by generous benefactors. Some creative writing, a smattering of mediocre photography and a few long train journeys to Surbiton have resulted in an update this morning which starts to reveal more about the direction we're heading in (predominantly South West after we pass Paris).
The lack of a commute (Shank's Pony now gets me to work in under 5 minutes) has killed off my inspirational out-of-work thoughts around user experience and the intensity of the laborious projects i'm engaged on at work has stiffled some of my much needed thinking time. In a desperate attempt to nod myself back in that direction I have resolved to pick up listening to IA podcasts and have been networking on LinkedIn as well as joining the Information Architecture Institute to try and become part of a wider knowledge sharing community.
My intention this week was to write a lengthy piece about why Facebook has captured the imagination and web-time of millions of people who never before would have considered signing up with and dedicating time to photo-sharing, blogging and general social networking. Why, for example, is Facebook's growth causing people to peel away from Friends Reunited and MySpace in droves? I think I know why and, if you're lucky and I start to find some time amongst cars, weddings and work, i'll explain all next week.
I have watched every episode of Lost broadcast including up to episode 7 of season 3 and and anyone else who has will know exactly what I mean. Until this point Lost had taken a place alongside The Sopranos and 24 as being one of a new breed of multi-layered, complex television dramas that epitomised the rise of Steven Johnson’s Sleeper Curve.
Lost needed no ‘flashing arrows’ to indicate important screen elements, it had complex mythology, multiple plot-lines, cross-overs, time-slips and more. Yet in series three we’re treated instead to obvious placements of characters and props, heavy-handed flashbacks and dialogue that, with little regard for subtlety, hold the audience’s hand through the first episodes.
The series was criticised in season two for it’s complex mythology and the writers reportedly toned it down for season three preferring to focus on relationships but in doing so the story (and I’m beginning to suspect there isn’t really one) is becoming laboured and sentimental.
Adding to the criticisms, the writers seem to ignore fundamental parts of earlier series:
:: What happened to the cave or the mortal dangers in the forest from Season 1? They never get mentioned despite the fact that the cave would still occupy a useful function for the beach dwellers. The beach dwellers are all seemingly content with their existence yet it doesn’t seem that long ago that a stroll in the woodland would result in a ferocious unexplained chase and attack.
:: What about food? With the hatch destroyed are they all relying on the airdrops for stores? With Locke off wandering around trying to unravel the island’s mystery who’s hunting for boar?
:: What about ‘the button’ – with the hatch destroyed how is the electromagnetic status being maintained?
:: What about Walt and Michael’s captors? What about the illusion of poverty in The Others’ camp?
:: What about Rousseau, her experiences, her maps, the French annotations?
:: What about the numbers? The black and white stones? The island’s healing properties – (which incidentally didn’t seem to work for Ecko’s mortal injuries or Ben’s tumour)
By ignoring these elements from earlier series the writers have lost credibility. The very nature of the show has meant viewers have absorbed masses of seemingly incidental information with the belief that it will be required to piece together plotlines later in the series. Remembering characters in flashbacks, the maps in the hatch, the cross-reference dialogues. Investing this amount of time in a series needs to be rewarded and, in this regard, I believe Lost is beginning to pay more attention to what clips will get salacious edits up on YouTube (and subsequent audience figure increases) than they are with continuing to form a complex, well-considered and intriguing drama.
Instead I chose to trawl through some of the documentation I produce. Since taking Dan Brown’s tutorial at User Experience 2006 and reading his excellent book I’ve become a bit of a documentation junkie to the point where the documentation is clearly overkill for certain smaller jobs. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to show off some of the styles and approaches I’ve adopted.
I tend to start with personas, which, as any number of user-experience articles will tell you, are a foundation stone for understanding how users interact with a system. This involves defining a group of users (generally from research data), building demographic profiles, and understanding their needs and motivations before sketching out the scenarios in which they might find themselves. I present each of these in a summary page and detail page . I am not a huge fan of using photographs to illustrate personas as I think the audience dwell on any physical appearance, so I have borrowed from Loz Gray’s work and introduced iconographic representations. These have the added benefit of being race-neutral and re-usable for various ages.
Having produced these, the next step in the process is to define a sitemap. The sitemap, such as it is, has a limited lifespan. In the next few years I doubt we will see many produced as the web moves away from individually coded static pages. Sitemaps do a great job of representing hierarchy, taxonomy and the long-view of how things fit together but they don’t really give us much insight into how, for example, a complex dynamic service application or something like Google Maps works. More and more I find myself representing stacks of pages in a sitemap rather than individually referenced HTML documents.
That said, in the absence of producing something more ambiguous, like a conceptual model, they are churned out continuously here at The Company. If I am honest, they are welcome relief for me as I am not a great fan of the chore of creating personas and prefer moving around boxes and arrows. I think this can be seen in the detail of my recent sitemaps, which present a considerable amount of information to the build team, the content developers, and the information architects.
For example, this blow-up detail shows the relationship between pages (connecting lines), their hierarchy (top down), their category (blue background), whether they have had content produced (green circle), where they are hosted (colour of title), their reference number (top left of box) their wireframe type (top right of box) and, of course, their title (centre). In other pages, not shown in this detail, I have used the bottom left corner to indicate whether there is any embedded video on the page.
Granted a sitemap like this has gone through much iteration as the project moves through the design phase toward build (hence there are references to wireframes and content) but to me it shows the level of detail to which one can go whilst maintaining an accessible document. The classic example of which is C. J. Minard's seminal diagramatic map "Napoleon's March to Moscow".
From the early sitemap we can walk the personas and their scenarios through the screens and map their journey. Interchangeably known as user-journeys, task flows, page flows or scenarios, these documents demonstrate how well your information architecture (as seen in the sitemap) works. Again, I borrow here from Loz Gray and use an isometric style that I think promotes a clear view of the journey the user takes. Flat 3D boxes and arrows don’t really inspire or compel stakeholders, if you put up a nice diagram like this it becomes easier for your audience to visualise the journey and the sense of the user being ‘presented’ with screens. I have used this approach for the last five months across static and active sites, allowing clients to visualise everything from amending personal details to clicking through a knowledge store or finding help. With the shape set now firmly embedded in my Visio toolbox I can drag and drop shapes leading left and right, different arrow forms to represent strong, weak and conditional paths, decision points (an isometric diamond is a difficult thing to draw indeed), error points and just about anything the sitemap can show.
In several instances, the barriers between processes have jumped out at me when presenting them in this format. Missing links suddenly seem even more obvious, lengthy diversions and crowded critical paths are quickly spotted and revised.
The final step in my documentation journey is the wireframe. Having experimented recently with the low-fidelity ‘page description diagram’ approach – which to me is like describing the front page of The Times when a blurred photocopy would have been more effective – I have resolved to stick to medium-high fidelity wireframes. In part this is because I’ve always liked the creative construction side of wireframing. I’d feel cheated having gone to great lengths in describing personas, the sitemap and the journey the user takes only to be produce an ambiguous written description of a screen. A well considered wireframe still leaves the designers with more than a colouring-in job. The designers can add visual prominence, alter sizing and positioning and consider complimentary form and colour. What I feel the information architect’s job is to do is to say ‘here’s how the page should function, this is where they should look for x, this is where they will find y and these are the relative levels of prominence’. It is less prescriptive than the building architect’s blueprint but considerably less ambiguous than saying “the room in this house should have three windows, two electricity points, a wooden floor and four brick walls”. So, my wireframes show text placeholders, pseudo-latin text, layout, order, scale, complexity and also contain build or dynamic element-related annotation.
I’m pedantic and fastidious about version control and document referencing. All my documents are peppered with notes about page and document versions, titles, page references, disclaimers (“Wireframes do not represent the final design…”), client names, contact details and relevant key/legends. It is crucial when so much documentation is floating around that we have a clear view of what it does, who did it, for whom and when.
I hope this has been an interesting read, please do get in touch (john at smorgasbord dash design dot co dot uk or in the comments) if you’ve got examples of documents you produce or alternative approaches to this kind of stuff.