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…

Google Chrome’s Design Comic

So the big news on the internets today is Google’s new browser: Chrome. It’s only available for Windows as of today, and since I’m on a Mac I haven’t been able to play with it yet. But that’s ok, because Google hasn’t completely left me out of the loop. I have access to the comic interpretation of their engineering decisions.

Google Chrome Design Comic
Google Chrome Design Comic

Comics have been a topic of discussion in the Interaction Design Community for a while now. With Scott McCloud providing the art for Google’s message, they really couldn’t go wrong. McCloud has quite literally written the book(s) on creating effective comics. (Of course, you can create your own design comics too, thanks to projects like Martin Hardee’s Design Comics.)

One thing that I’d like to applaud Google for with this comic is their use of actual Googlers as the narrators of the story. Naming names like this gives credit to the actual thinkers behind the work. All too often in the business world today, we hide individuals behind a big corporate brand. In this example, these Googlers will feel real ownership and responsibility for their product, and they’ll be motivated to continue working on the project even if (and when) they leave Google. Of course, I’d also like to call out the fact that no User Experience team members were named in this document, even in the section titled “Search and the User Experience.” This is strange, and I hope there was a User Experience team dedicated to this project.

And another thing Google did well here was in not trying to over-engineer their explanations of highly technical processes. They simplified their message down to bare essentials, and I felt enlightened after reading this document. Most technical documentation talks down to people, assuming that all the basics are already understood. Google removed some barriers to entry by explaining their new technologies in a way that almost anyone with a little technical know-how can understand. This is something almost every other open source project out there fails at. Technical documentation is far more than simply documentation…it’s an implicit invitation to take part in the experience.

Browser Threads Vs. Processes
Browser Threads Vs. Processes

At the end of the day, I’m really impressed at the quality of this documentation. I actually read the entire thing, which is much more than I can say about the technical documentation for any other software I use. Who knew that I could find the difference between multiple threads and multiple processes interesting?

Well done, Google. Now I just have to find a Windows computer…ugh. I swore off those things months ago…

Generate Design Ideas. Rinse. Repeat.

Adaptive Path‘s Kumi Akiyoshi blogged a quick piece about the visual design of Aurora. I really love the exploratory designs that were created before deciding on the one we saw in the videos. I don’t necessarily love all of the features within them, but it is so important to create multiple design options before settling on the one that will be developed.

Aurora Design Option

A visual design option for Adaptive Path’s Aurora, by Kumi Akiyoshi

Another Aurora Design Option

Another design option (see more)

These examples show different options for the visual design, but you can generate ideas for anything you design. I do this all the time when I’m designing exactly how a feature will work. Anyway, go check out Kumi’s post. There’s lots more to see.

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.

Design for a messy world

So often we assume that the problems we are solving for are “pure”, even if they are somewhat complex. The images we see in advertisements help this base assumption survive, and so we don’t think to go a little deeper in our analysis of a problem before we jump right in to offering a solution.

The things we see in an Ikea showroom assume pure use patterns

The things we see in an Ikea showroom assume “pure” use patterns

But problems in the real world are almost always more complex than we can initially imagine. Deep down, we all know this. Our actions and activities are filled with complexities that we rarely think about. Real patterns of use are never represented the same way as they are on the Ikea showroom floor. We all accidentally leave books on the table…to the disappointment of those we live with. Sometimes it helps to look at an extreme case. Check out Possessed, a video about people who suffer from Hoarding:

POSSESSED from Martin Hampton on Vimeo.

Sure, these people are an extreme case, and as such they make up a case that is rarely ever considered by Ikea. Still, I’d imagine that there is a little Hoarder in all of us. This is why I recommend that my clients do user research before we begin designing solutions. I want to see the imperfections that exist out there…all the little “tricks of the trade” that people use to get things done. Yup, the real world is messy, but by getting out there and seeing some of the mess, we can design solutions to better support our users.

LinkedIn looks so fresh & clean clean

One of my little delights in life comes when I see a website or tool that I use has been refreshed. This morning, I was surprised to notice that LinkedIn has a new look. Check it out:

New LinkedIn

There’s a nice entry up on the LinkedIn Blog that talks about the three major changes:

  1. System Navigation
  2. Profile Snapshot
  3. Customizable Widgets Panel

Of course, I don’t think the redesign can really be summarized by these 3 independent features. The fact is that the site has a completely new feel, and I doubt if you asked an everyday user what changed since yesterday they certainly would not list those three items. Instead, they would likely remark about the sweeping changes overall…then they would perhaps notice the feature changes.

Fighting the Backlash

Redesigns like this can be extremely challenging to implement for a company like LinkedIn. Not so much in the sense that they’re difficult to build technically, but for the backlash that is sure to follow. Already one user has commented on the blog asking for the ability to access the old version:

I was shocked by the new interface cause I was addicted to former layout for 4 years as I was shocked by the new layout of Office 2007 … I’m still using Word 2003.

So … Is it possible to have for some time to come (3 or 4 months) the choice to switch on and off the new interface.”

Carmelo Cutuli

I never really understood the mentality that one would want to switch back and forth between old and new versions of a tool in order to learn the new one. So often in the physical world we leave our old junk behind, like when we trade in an old car for the updated model. But I guess that’s the difference between physical and digital: if you really wanted the old version back you’d be able to get it. Alternatively, there’s no way to get the old version of LinkedIn back. It’s completely gone (until LinkedIn decides to give access to it).

I’ve often thought about whether it would be possible to truly incrementally release design changes like the ones LinkedIn did. If they released small changes each week, would it have the same desired effect? I doubt it. Sometimes you just need to release a new design upon the world…it is jarring to some, but others will be impressed.

Count me in among the impressed. Well done, LinkedIn.

View Josh’s LinkedIn Profile

Am I the only one who gets lost at Target?

Target Logo

Every other weekend or so I take a trip to my local Target store to stock up on necessities. Let me start by saying this: I love Target. For the most part I have a wonderful experience there…well, except for one section: the toiletries area. For some reason, I can never find the things I’m looking for in this section. Yesterday it was shampoo. I looked for minutes and could not locate my Pert Plus. The visit before it was my face wash. And before that it was the soap that I like.

My question is, does anyone else have this problem in this area of Target? Or is it just me? If it’s not just me, then perhaps Target is ready for a little reorganization.

Assuming it is a problem others have as well, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to reorganize this section of the store based on the needs of shoppers. First, I would want to do some user research, likely by bringing people into the store and asking them to find the things that they would normally buy. This would yield a few different results:

  1. We would confirm whether others can find the products they’re looking for, and assuming it is still an issue
  2. This would shed light on navigation patterns through the aisles
  3. So that we could restructure the contents of the aisles

In effect, this is a little like what I do every day. Of course, I’m sure the people at Target work hard to make sure items are as easy to find as possible. I just wonder if they’re doing any contextual research to find solutions. It’s important to see people in the act of finding items…be they real items, or links on a webpage. Otherwise the solutions are based simply on theory. And when I’m desperately trying to find my Pert Plus, that’s not good enough.

You should see my sketchbook

It is truly one of my favorite design “tools:” A good notebook. Personally, I like the full size Moleskine models, but whatever you can manage to carry around will work best. I carry mine everywhere with me, always with a pencil attached.

Check out these notes, if you dare, which preceded my recent talk with Jeff Patton at Interaction08.

Sketchbook pageHere’s a first page of general notes about what could happen during the talk.

Sketchbook page 2
The crux of my thoughts here is that many Designers, Interaction Designers included, don’t really tend to think about software development methodologies in their day-to-day life. Thus, they may need a little brush-up on what a development methodology is, with some examples.

sketchbook page 3
Still, it’s important for IxDers to understand why software is developed the way it is in their organization, and to be a stakeholder in this process.

Sketchbook page 4
The prevalent development methodology in use today is waterfall. It should probably look familiar to most designers & developers.

Sketchbook page 5
With Agile Methodologies, we have the opportunity to get our software working, and out in the real world quickly. This allows our concepts to see the light of day, so that they can be improved upon. Of course, these methods do have their drawbacks…

Sketchbook page 6
Some snapshots of what agile methods look like.

Sketchbook page 7
So, the big question is whether Interaction Design methods can fit within the Agile Context, or vice versa. The answer to this is complex, but I think the talk covered the topic well.

Back to the point — Sketching really helped me sort out these topics in my head. Sure, it took longer than just bullet-pointing out a PowerPoint…but I was able to visualize my thoughts, and look at them later with clarity, and pass them on to others to digest. Visualizing my thoughts really helps my process, and maybe it’ll help yours too.

How do you visualize your thoughts?