User Experience 2006, London, “User Experience Documentation”.

It was inevitable that I’d want to blog about my session yesterday at the NN/g ‘conference’. What is unexpected however are the amount of thought provocations that I noted down throughout the day with little ‘Blog’ tags attached to them, some of which will end up as fully-fledged posts, others of which are, on reflection, nothing more than idle guff.

I’m glad I chose not to lug a laptop into the city and thereby blog on the day, and I’m even gladder that I took the preliminary letter’s advice to wear several layers too; the room we were in at the Millennium Hotel in Gloucester Road was borderline Arctic during the morning session. Not that that seemed to bother the extraordinary amount of Scandinavians that seemed to be in attendance. I still do not know whether their predilection toward User Centred Design is the consequence of having a Scandinavian guru at the helm (Jakob) or whether it is simply one of those accidental cultural niches that seem to develop. Either way, they were there in numbers, speaking embarrassingly great English and having a justifiable confidence in their abilities. The second largest group of attendees seems to have been the BBC. Looking down the delegate list, I would suspect that half their ‘new media’ department were there in one form or another.

I was there to learn from Dan Brown. An erudite New Yorker (now resident in D.C.) with a dry wit and a decent book to promote. We were a tough crowd, not because anyone was particularly controversial but because despite his attempts to lighten to mood with references to his experiences as a proud new(ish) father something was getting lost in translation and our continental delegates seemed more keen to read ahead in their slide packs. For the record, I thought he was a solid and amusing presenter and frankly when you are dealing with a subject as potentially dour as sitemaps, flow charts and wireframes then any smattering of humour is appreciated.

Dan’s approach has been to simplify web development documentation into ten key deliverables split by ‘User Needs’, ‘Strategy’ and ‘Design’. In the session at User Experience 2006 we looked at personas (user-need), sitemaps, flow charts and wireframes (design). As always, the best way to learn is through a combination of practical exercise and demonstration of the good and the bad, with appropriate discussion around the same. Within fifteen minutes of the session starting, we were already in and creating personas. This was absolutely the right thing to do. As we picked these apart, we progressed through what must have been a cathartic therapy for Dan as he displayed a healthy portfolio of confusing diagrams, schemas and flows from his past, this was a theme persistent through the rest of the day. Dan’s honesty in showing ‘hyperdocumentation’ (by which I mean diagrams and data visualisation on a large and complex scale) from his own collection was a compelling insight to the workings of a man who’s mind he freely admits craves the release of encapsulating his thoughts on paper and on file. Many of his examples showed an exquisitely sensitive use of colour and design to convey a wide range of attributes. A document that seemed inaccessible at first was presented gradually until it made complete sense.

He was challenged repeatedly on his intentionally inconsistent approach to documents (ironically it was internal document inconsistency that prompted me to attend the session) and his response was considered: no two projects are the same; no two audiences for those documents are the same. Bear in mind at every planning stage for your work those people who will be reviewing the document, and the document’s purpose. It seemed that there is no need to slavishly follow a given set of rules (e.g. that personas must show x, y and z and that sitemaps should be formed of boxes and arrows) if the document’s purpose can be communicated effectively without doing so.

Before I attended the conference I blogged that it was expensive and that you have to pay for the privilege of learning from the experts. In Dan’s case and, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I am glad The Company paid up because it was worth every penny.

I’ll be returning to the themes of documentation and providing examples of my own styles in the next few weeks. Tomorrow however I intend to run through some examples of User Experience tweaks in Windows Vista following Tjeerd Hoek’s plenary session demo at User Experience 2006.
Finally, quick hellos to some people I met at the session: Tero Tikkanen (Vaisala Oyj, Finland) and Nick Pleydell-Pearce (Global Beach [yikes! flash only site], UK)
:: Update with Dan's slides originally posted on slideshare which contain the examples not in our take-out packs.


Nick said...

Hi John, glad to see a review and endorsement of the value of Dan's work that he did at the IA conference last week. I think for all who attended it was a great opportunity to really learn from someone with bags of experience - who's also still willing to learn and adapt as he goes along. P.S. I know our Global Beach site is all flash - at the moment, but its a work in progress ;)

Gary said...

Hey John

I was the other Global Beach guy you met, (the even more bald one haha Nick). I was at the Wednesday session with Dan Brown.

Like Nick said, it's good to see someone so established in their field doing things differently all the time and finding that they need to constantly evolve their processes. Not just us then!