HCI Students’ Questions: Answered (Part 2)

Let’s take a crack at a few more questions from HCI students. I’m going to give a real thorough answer to one question, and knock out a few more with a simplified response. If you haven’t done so already, check out part 1 of this article.

  1. What are professionals & hiring managers looking for in a designer?

    This is a topic that’s particularly near and dear to my heart at the moment. I’m in the process of hiring Interaction Designers and User Researchers at GrubHub as we speak. There are a number of things we’re looking for, including:

    • Writing Skills – Good writing is an indication of an organized mind. If you are unable to throw together some specifically tailored prose explaining why it would be great for us to work together, getting to the interview stage is a non-starter. If you’re not comfortable with your writing skills, practice! There will never be a better place to learn to write than while you’re in school. Take some classes that require lots of writing. Oh, and have someone read over your application materials before you send them in. It would be silly to get rejected from a job you really want just because you made a few typos.
    • The ability to speak in-depth about your past projects – By the time I’m talking to someone on the phone, they’ve impressed me with great application materials and personal history. The phone interview is your chance to start talking about who you are and what you’ve done. I want to know that you’ll be able to communicate with coworkers who may or may not understand what your job is all about. If you can’t explain the stuff you’ve already done, how can I expect you to explain the stuff that is yet to come?
    • Proof that you’re motivated (and excited) – Yes, the job application process is the time to go above and beyond. If you’re asked to write a paragraph, add a little visual diagram. If you’re asked to write a little code to do X and Y, throw in a little Z, just for flair. Prove why you’re going to be awesome to work with.
    • An understanding of the technology you’ll work with – No, you’re not expected to be an engineer (unless you’re applying for an engineering job), but you will be expected to communicate with engineers on a detailed level. If you’re applying for a web startup and you have never touched CSS, it’s time to start learning. Once you’re comfortable with that, teach yourself a little jQuery for good measure.
    • User-Centeredness – Not only should I be confident that you can sketch, build wireframes, do a little coding, and lay out page that doesn’t make me cringe, but I should also be confident that the users that my company caters to will be at the forefront of your mind. If you’re not asking questions about users during the interview, you’re doing something wrong. Questions about the user research methods we currently employ should be asked, as should ideas about what else we could be doing to assess and improve our users’ experience. That’s the whole job, in a nutshell.
    • And, of course, knowledge of all the methods you should have studied in school – This is not a test, but yes, the basics should be there.
  2. What did you learn at school that you use at work?

    Everything. Literally, everything I learned at school I’ve used at work at one point or another.

  3. What can students do to get the most out of the program?

    Everything. Don’t sleep too much. Get to know your peers and professors. Learn what kind of designer you are. For that matter, learn what kind of person you are.

  4. What do you wish you learned in this program?

    Sometimes I wish I learned more about how to actually implement things. In the end though, that’s something you can learn on the job or after school is out, so I don’t have many regrets in this category.

C’est tout for now. Enjoy!

HCI Students’ Questions: Answered (Part 1)

This weekend I returned to my design roots and met a ton of Indiana University’s current HCI/d students.

A room full of designers
A room full of designers

I was pleased to be a member of the Alumni panel and was impressed by the questions that the students asked. I was so impressed, in fact, that I think many of the questions they asked are worth answering for myself and others. I’m going to try to do my best to provide some answers to these questions. I’ll do a few questions each day for the next few days. Let’s give this a shot.

  1. How you you describe HCI/design to people?

    Easy: HCI is the academic field that studies how people interact with machines in their environment. Design is about making things that fit well into peoples’ lives. So, HCI/design is all about making machines that fit well into peoples’ lives. Not necessarily an elegant explanation, but it does the trick.

    Outside of academia, people talk much less about the field of HCI, though it tends to be an impressive moniker when you bring it up. Professionally, I am more likely to talk about User Experience than I am about HCI. And I often leave out the whole concept of design when speaking with some audiences. Many people think of the term design as making things pretty, or relate design to fashion. That’s not the way I think about it, so I often avoid the topic altogether. Business stakeholders want to hear that you’re going to make systems that are easy to use and enjoyable, so as long as you can do that, you’re golden. Be aware of the words you use, and be mindful of your audiences’ interpretations.

  2. I have my masters degree (in HCI), now what?

    Now the fun begins! Consider your degree a starting point, rather than an end goal. Once you’ve earned the degree, it’s time to start thinking about your next goals. You’ll have to reassess these goals throughout your career and life, so make sure you plan on doing that early and often. Even the people you consider to have “made it” are constantly adjusting. You should too.

    Your degree in HCI should open some doors for you, but don’t expect it to work magic. You’ll still have to work hard every day to prove your worth. My dad used to say to me (warning: baseball analogy ahead), “Josh, you’re only as good as your next at bat.” I like that. It means that you’re only as good as the next opportunity that is provided. You can never rest on your past successes. Keep getting better with each project. But while you’re at it, make sure to realize that you have a long career ahead. Make sure you enjoy it.

  3. How do you personally stay up to date with design?

    This question was originally asked in the context of academic papers and journals, and I have to admit that I’m pretty out of sync when it comes to those publications. The first problem I have with them is that they’re expensive. It burns a little bit that I would have to spend $19 to read a paper I wrote. But I guess the publishers have to make money. That’s why I tend to read more books than articles. I get more bang for my buck when I’m buying a whole book, and my employers do too.

    In particular, I like to read the books published by Rosenfeld Media. They’re typically pretty dense, but aren’t so long that I can’t give them a quick read over a weekend. They’re nice summaries of a topic, and they go much deeper than many blogs. I also geek out on books by other publishers. I’d estimate that I read 5-8 industry-related books per year.

    Of course, there’s also plenty to read on the internet. These days I follow Hacker News pretty closely. There are often articles posted there that cause me to think deeply about design. I get a lot of other random articles from the people I follow on Twitter. In fact, looking at recommended articles has replaced my addiction to Google Reader.

    I also try to attend conferences, but that gets tough sometimes. Conferences are fun, but they’re costly in terms of the amount of time away from work, as well as the pure cost of attendance.

More to come soon…

Aurora, the Future of the Browser, and Agile Envisionment

As your local Interaction Design opinion one-stop-shop, I feel obliged to weigh in on Aurora, Adaptive Path‘s newest concept series in collaboration with Mozilla Labs. First off, if you haven’t watched the videos they’ve published so far, do that first:

Aurora (Part 1) from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

Aurora (Part 2) from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

Aurora (Part 3) from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

There are a few more videos on the way, but those should be good enough to kick off a little commentary.

First off, it should be noted that envisionment videos like these have become an often used tool for Interaction Designers. When you’re intent on creating an experience that does not yet exist out in the world, an envisionment video invites viewers to see how people might be impacted by new technologies, and allows technologists to begin to build the future. Bill Buxton describes Envisionment Videos in his already classic Sketching User Experiences:

As their name suggests, these are clips that are created to communicate some holistic view showing an envisioned system in context. Unlike many of the examples that we have seen, they go beyond just presenting a demo. Rather, they usually are built around a narrative that tries to capture a way of working with technology, as opposed to the design specifics of the device itself…Overall, they are very much part of the story-telling tradition of design.” – Bill Buxton

If you’d like some more examples of envisionment videos, I recommend checking out the ones Buxton discusses in his book:

One of my favorite envisionment videos is HP’s Cooltown, which is extremely polished, but a cool look at the “future” nonetheless. Unfortunately, it seems that the concepts in HP’s video have not come to fruition, at least in a way that impacts HP’s wallet. That’s the way of many of these videos, though. They tend to be so forward looking that one company could not hope to build tools to enable all of the concepts in the sketch, at least in the short term. But, the videos can be used as a guide to the company’s long term future. For example, we’re seeing concepts from Apple’s Knowledge Navigator come to fruition only now, many years after the release of the video.

When it comes to long-term vision, I believe that the “just-in-time” philosophy causes Agile methods to fall apart. See, from the Interaction Design point of view, technological innovation occurs to solve big & ugly human problems. Agile methods encourage developers to build the simplest thing that works in the hope that incrementally (and sometimes iteratively) big & ugly human problems will be solved. But the whole solutions to the big & ugly problems are often not the sum of their parts. More often than not, it takes a long-term strategy to solve these issues.

I’m not saying that the Interaction Design and Agile Development points of view are too incongruous to come to terms. Quite the opposite, in fact. Long-term visioning Interaction Designers and just-in-time Agile developers should be able to come together to solve those big & ugly human problems, but must agree that their day-to-day goals are not the same. I’ve seen too many Interaction Designers called in (myself included) to tweak an already developed application’s interface when the entire vision of the product is unclear.

I just returned last night from the Agile 2008 conference, and if there’s anything I learned there, it’s that Interaction Design and Agile Development are friends, not foes. However, we need to work together to understand our separate goals and outputs. At the end of the day, both groups need to be successful if we want to build great software.

So Agilists, let’s think about long-term vision a little bit. Let’s create some quick & dirty visions of the future. Then let’s build the heck out of them.

And finally, to return to Aurora, I simply want to say that I am really enjoying the videos. Is this what the future of the web browser will really look like? If the other videos I mentioned are any indication, probably not. Still, there are some fantastic concepts packed into those short videos, and we have a lot to learn from them. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those concepts do see the light of day, and at the same time I won’t be holding my breath.

The Elements of Design (Part 1)

(If you’re reading this from a feed reader, you’ll want to jump to my site so you can see the images.)

Today I want to talk about something a bit academic. More of a thinking game than anything else. I chose to start with Graphic Design because, well, it seems a bit more established as a field than Interaction Design and I think there’s a lot we could learn from them.

In two-dimensional graphic design, a core set of elements have been defined to specify the designer’s most basic toolset. These three elements can be combined to create a rich array of visual objects that give the designer near limitless options. Let me explain visually:

Consider the Point


A Point simply denotes a position in space. Many points in space can show contrast, and from an appropriate height will tend to show texture. This is the most basic of the basic graphic design elements. But oh so much can come of this simple dot.

Many Points Make a Line


If a Point is made the first time a piece of chalk is touched to a chalkboard, then a Line is created as that chalk is dragged across the surface. That Line is an infinite chain of Points, or the connection between two starting and ending points.

Lines create Shape


Moving the chalk perpendicularly to the original line creates an intersection. Multiple intersections eventually create shape. That is, when multiple Lines are strung together, they take Shape. Shape is where we begin to embrace the power of visual imagery. People will create meaning out of multiple shapes strung together, and the meaning that is elicited is the core goal of Graphic Design.

Where are my elements?

Of course, this is by no means all a Graphic Designer must know to be successful. This is just the start. In Part 2 of this series I’ll consider Dan Saffer’s Elements of Interaction Design. Prepare yourself for that.

Who’s My City?

The last few days I’ve been reading Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City? In this book he talks about how populations centers have changed since the rise of the creative class. For the most part, Florida refutes Thomas Friedman’s theories in The World is Flat. Florida believes that where you live still matters, despite today’s advanced communication technologies. I definitely agree with this thesis. One can only do so much over a phone or internet connection. I have had my most rewarding moments in the workplace when I am able to sit and think about something with a coworker on a shared whiteboard.

Florida’s site has a Place Finder survey that attempts to rate which cities you should consider moving to. Here are my results:

  1. San Francisco, CA
  2. Chicago, IL – My current residence
  3. Tel Aviv, Israel
  4. New York, NY
  5. Los Angeles, CA

I’m not so sure I agree on all counts, but it is quite an interesting result. One that I wasn’t expecting.

Of course, the survey is all self-report, so it’s definitely bound for some level of error. But still…it’s interesting to think about: in this ever so mobile era, where will any of us live a year from now?

If you’d like to take the survey, you can do it right now! Check it out:

Banana = Design = Innovation = Vision

Banana = Vision

Love it or hate it, Bruce Nussbaum makes some great points in Are Designers the Enemy of Design? I think I buy most of it.

Is Design a specialist activity? If it’s done well, generally yes. Is that likely to change? For the most part, I don’t think so. Will ‘the everyman’ have the opportunity to design more and more in his lifetime than ever before? Absolutely, so we better start learning how to share Design Strategies.

Also, can Apple move past two major strikes (closed source everything and unsustainable products) and really survive the long haul? I just don’t know anymore.

Anyway, have a read for yourself…

Update: Sorry about the dead links…I think they should be fixed now.


November is NaNoWriMo! (Translation: National Novel Writing Month) Will you be participating? What shall you write about?

Will I participate? How hard could 1000 words a day really be?

Testing Testing Testing…

Hey ThoughtWorkers,

So at TWU we learned about a ton of different ways to test software: Unit Tests, Functional Testing, GUI Testing, etc. Here’s my question:

What’s the point of a tested tool that the user (or perhaps customer, if you prefer) finds difficult to actually use? What about Usability Testing? How about testing to see if your deliverables meet the problems found during analysis? Where do these kinds of testing come in?



UCD @ TW: What You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know

When I came to ThoughtWorks University a little less than a month ago, I set as my main goal the task of discovering what kinds of User Centered Design practices were occuring at ThoughtWorks, and how I could help progress those tasks. After two blazingly fast weeks of class, I’ve learned a lot, hopefully taught a little, and have come to this point surprisingly impressed at the user-centric ideas that shine through in the lessons here at TW, and possibly in Agile Development in general.

Many of the analysis techniques in use here align closely with a number of standard HCI practices. For example, last week we were taught a lesson about how to best gain knowledge about the organization, business process, and/or needs of the client. The lesson reminded me so much of Contextual Design, an analysis and design methodology that has been around the HCI field since the early-1990s, which makes it quite ancient in the field. I was completely staggered to learn that the lesson was not based on CD, and even more surprised to learn that the trainer had not heard of it at all.

Further lessons have discussed External Cognition (pdf link), process modeling, and interview techniques that would make most HCI-designers proud. We’ve also learned about how to incorporate Personas and Scenarios into our analysis work. Not to mention the fact that user stories, which guide the development of specific software functionality, are based directly on user needs (as mentioned earlier).

The fact that these practices are built directly into the system is uplifting for an Interaction Designer like myself. Now, I take it as part of my responsibility to point out when these known techniques are used, teach people their formal names, and discover how we can further leverage their strengths, while being aware of their weaknesses. Of course, it’s also important to add new tools to the TW toolkit, which I plan on doing.

So far, though, I am impressed by the User Centricity of the processes here at ThoughtWorks. Score one for the users.

My Agile Excitement, Part 1: Stories are based on Users

As noted in my first agile worry, I am often scared that features of a given piece of software will be built based on reasons other than user needs. Yesterday I learned that story cards are, indeed, quite user centered.

The format we learned for creating a card is as follows:

As a [ person ]
I’d like to [ action ]
so that [ reason for action ]

This card is used as a discussion piece with clients, and is eventually used by developers to create particular functionality.

What excites me most about these story cards is the fact that right at the start, a person is identified for whom the functionality is important. This means that one cannot simply create a story for a feature that is “cool,” nor one that is simply unneeded. Also, the cards are to be specific, so the user cannot simply be some general party involved, such as “customer,” “client,” “computer user,” etc. User needs are heeded in a feature-by-feature manner, so the people who will eventually use the software simply cannot be ignored.

Now, there are still a number of ways in which a particular piece of software can veer from user-centredness. A bad interface to a set of features, for example, will make all other attempts at user centered design moot. Also, simply because the features of a piece of software have user needs in mind, the package of features may be counter to this spirit. Among other things I hope to learn at TWU is how to apply standard User Experience Design principles to Agile Methods so that the process and product are excellent for the builders and users of software, respectively. Hopefully what I will learn in the coming weeks (not to mention months and years) will help contribute to the growing knowledge in these combined fields.

For the moment, I am excited about agile…keep it comin’.