Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008 has been a good year

As the year draws to a close, looking back on 2008 I'm really thankful for the following things:

My health
Unlike last year (when I snapped my right achilles tendon playing soccer), or 2005 (left Anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction), or 2002 (cholesteatoma & radical mastoidectomy - left ear), this year has been one of steadily improving health and fitness. I've been going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week; walking more; sleeping more (generally 8 hours a night!); and eating much, much better. My weight is the same, but it seems that there's more in the right places, and less in the wrong.

My work
My company - Meld Consulting - started up just over a year ago. Our first projects kicked off in January with some UX work carried over from my time at Red Square. I did some work on projects for oneworld Alliance (oneworld.com) and YHA Australia (yha.com.au), which I'd started in 2007. I was fortunate to do some UX/IA work for Andrew Morse at Digital Tsunami (multinail.com.au); and then did some usability/UX consulting work for Maersk Line (maerskline.com).

As the year progressed, things picked up: some work with Lisa Herrod at Scenario Seven; and then UX consulting work for the NSW Department of Education & Training. That work came in three parts: UX strategy & architecture for the Click technology guide for parents (http://www.schools.nsw.edu.au/news/technology/index.php); then some UX & IA work for the DET Procurement unit; and then the major piece of work for the year - the UX strategy, stakeholder research, and UX design for the redesign of the DET Staff Intranet.

Most importantly, though, I've been busy. The work has been coming in steadily, with the occasional peak; and without any real troughs.

Writing & Talking
One of the things I really hoped to do this year was to write more. Last year I had a few articles published in UXMatters, which was great, but this blog was sorely neglected (only 16 posts, and none that were really memorable). I wanted this year to be different - for articles (of some substance) to appear both on UXMatters - which I did, four of them - and here, 32! some of which weren't totally trivial.

I also wanted to make a concerted effort to contribute to other people's writing, by posting comments to their articles and helping to further the discussion around their work. I haven't really been keeping track, but I know I've posted more comments this year than I have in the past.

I've also been privileged to be invited to present at two conferences during 2008: Web Directions UX '08 held in Melbourne in June; and Oz-IA 2008 held in Sydney in September. Two very different, but equally excellent conferences. I'm hoping I get a chance to speak at both again in 2009, but we'll have to wait and see.

I'm really thankful for what Twitter has contributed to my life this past year. And by 'Twitter' I mean the 350 people or so who communicate with me on a daily basis, and who have enriched my personal and professional life to such a large extent during the year. It really isn't possible to articulate what a difference this has made for me during the year - the innumerable conversations, comments, links, ideas, dialogue (in the Greek sense) that have helped me gain a much greater appreciation for this thing we do called User Experience.

I've also been most fortunate to get to know people around the world just a little bit better. To share, in some small part - and to be able to share - the more mundane, but much more important things that enrich our personal lives. I don't want to single people out, because that's not really the point.

Giving something back
2008 has been a very good year for me - both personally & professionally - and I've been lucky to have a few opportunities to give something back to the community and industry as a whole. Earlier in the year Meld was one of the sponsors of WebJam (webjam.com.au) and just recently one of three sponsors of Sydney's WebBlast end-of-year party (webblast.org).

I've been honoured and somewhat humbled (I'll be honest and say that humility in my case is a really relative concept) by being asked to provide feedback and input into other people's work. I can't express just what it means to be asked by a peer to assist them with their own projects; I just hope my small contribution repaid their faith in me.

Towards the end of November I posted a message to the IA Institute members list about an idea I'd had for a local group - a book club focused on User Experience books. The idea elicited quite a bit of interest and as we approach the year's end 31 local UX Book Clubs have been formed around the world, with some 450+ people signed up to attend. The Silicon Valley UX Book Club was the first to hold a meeting - on Dec 16 in Mountain View, California. I'm hoping we see a lot more of these in 2009.

None of that would have happened without the support and active contributions from a whole group of people - including the 30 people who volunteered to coordinate a book club in their city - but especially Russ Unger, Andrew Boyd, Will Evans and Livia Labate. These are amazing people, and not because they helped with the book club :)

And of course...
I wouldn't have been in anything like such a good position if it wasn't for the strong, steadfast, and unwavering love and support of my wife, Danielle. She is simply wonderful; I did well to marry her.

And finally...
I hope 2008 has been a good year for you. More importantly, and regardless of what this year has been like, I hope 2009 is better. As this year draws to a close I'm already looking forward to what 2009 has to offer. I hope you are too.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


A film - large or small - comes together through a long process in which filming is just one component. Individual scenes are filmed, edited, special effects added, edited some more. And the filming of each scene doesn't occur in sequence: the crew doesn't open the script on page 1 and start shooting. No, each 'shot'; each scene of the film is shot separately; out of sequence; and in a schedule suited to availability of actors, locations, equipment & crew.

The final result is the sequenced combination of each of those scenes, after shooting, special effects, and editing - into the integrated whole that tells a tale; entertains us; frightens us; makes us laugh or cry, think or angered. A sequence of small snippets building into a powerful whole.

In a well-made film every piece is contributing to the overall effect. Nothing is extraneous; nothing detracts.

One of the lesser-known roles in film-making - and TV, for that matter - has the job of making sure that everything flows smoothly from scene to scene. They ensure that a watch doesn't suddenly appear as an actor exits through one door and enters the next room because the scenes were shot days, weeks or even months apart. They ensure that a vase full of flowers don't change colour during a scene; or that a rower on a Viking long-boat in the 6th century AD isn't wearing spectacles!

This is the job of the continuity person. And their role is important, because they help to preserve the illusion on which the entire film or performance rests. We need to be immersed in a film; engaged in the story; not distracted by the flaws in the production. Any discontinuity causes us to step back out of the experience, and lose our engagement.

Such disruptions to the flow of a performance ruin our experience and irreparably harm our perception of its quality and value.

The same thing happens with our perception of an organization when one interaction is discontinuous or inconsistent with another. This may be the rude delivery guy juxtaposed with the friendly sales assistant; or the unexpected charges added to a transaction after a smooth online ordering process.

The question is: who's looking after continuity at your organization? Who's job is it to ensure that the spell is never broken? Who's making sure that all of the touch-points and all the separate interactions we design and deliver over time fit together seamlessly, without gaps or inconsistencies?

Who's your continuity person?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Information Architecture, Content & SEO

I was reminded during a discussion this morning of the interplay between information architecture, content and SEO in the success of a Web site. I thought back to a thread on the IA Institute's mail list from July that touched on one element of this issue, and I figured I might as well extract that conversation and make it available here.

The initial question in the thread came from Jenny Wallace, a candidate for the masters in Interaction Design and Information Architecture at the Univ. of Baltimore. Jenny asked:
"How Search Engine Optimization and Information Architecture can build a reciprocal trust relationship between information providers and information consumers. Any thoughts?"
My response was this:
"The notion of trust in this relationship is primarily one - to my mind - of meeting expectations for the information consumers. The consumer will, frequently, land on a page deep into the site content hierarchy and will immediately begin assessing the page for relevancy based on the high-level content labels presented to them. This is clearly where a partnership is most strongly required between IA and SEO practitioners, so that the visually-dominant labels (headings, titles, sub-headings, bold terms etc) are closely aligned to the original search terms that brought the consumer to the site in the first place.

Trust online is a highly fragile thing, and visitors to a site - particularly when originating within a search engine - will be twitchy to begin, so it is imperative that relevance is established quickly, clearly and unambiguously. It should be the case that the higher-level content labels are the ones most closely tied to the search terms - and it's here that the semantic structure of the HTML comes to the fore.

It is also important to recognise the conflict inherent in the relationship between SEO and IA. Although the goal of SEO should be to attract pre-qualified potential consumers to site, quite often this is interpreted to mean "attract as many people as possible". For the IA, this represents a real conflict of interest: they're being tasked with structuring site content to suit the needs of an audience who - by rights - should never be considered in the information architecture.

And it is here that trust can be destroyed very, very quickly: SEO tactics that are designed to draw in visitors with only a very tenuous interest in the actual product or service on offer; and those visitors being presented with content that has little or no relevance to their needs.

One last point: the information architecture strategy for a site must explicitly accommodate visitor behaviour that does not initiate on the home page. Each and every page must provide the sort of context and relevancy triggers for the visitor so that they can not only decide to continue their journey on the site, but also can see clearly how to commence that journey."
Regular readers of this blog may have come across another post of mine from July that listed out a bunch a questions that UX practitioners can use as a way to frame the development of a UX strategy for their (web-centric) project. Two of those questions were:
  1. If people arrive at your site somewhere other than the home page, how will you provide them context and communicate both intent and possibilities?
  2. How will people find your site? And how do the activities you undertake to encourage them tie in with your other design consideration?
[Note: they actually appear as questions 13 & 14 in the original post.]

The issue of establishing trust and credibility in the minds of visitors arriving via search engines can be seen to be a sub-component of the overall set of responses one might make to these two questions. Trust and credibility should be two of the considerations when formulating your overall content and SEO strategies, and these should tie in to the information architecture you design for the site.

These three areas: information architecture, content, and SEO, need to be considered together in order to meaningfully address the two questions above; and one is not really complete unless it is being complemented by the other two.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What experience designers can learn from the Mini...

The very first car I owned was a Mini. That was back in 1988, just after I finished high school. It was worth about $1,500; was British Racing green in colour; and stuck in third gear when it was cold. It didn't have air conditioning; there wasn't much room in it; and it was nowhere near as good as the cars my mates were driving.

I loved that car. It cornered like no car I've driven since - including two sports cars. The car body is wide, and low to the ground. You could throw it into a corner at 70 or 80km/h and it would just hug the road and turn like it was on rails. When they were first released in the '60s, they came with a guarantee that you couldn't roll one.

[Historical note: Turns out that last part wasn't entirely true, as my older brother demonstrated by falling asleep at the wheel and rolling it down an embankment. Ironically, he wasn't wearing a seatbelt, which saved his life: he fell flat across the front seats as the car rolled and hit a telegraph pole - across the roof. A seat belt would have held him upright in his seat, and his head would have been crushed by the telegraph pole. Instead, he walked away with a split forehead.]

The Mini Cooper S was also a very powerful little car. When combined with it's cornering and general handling, it made an awesome little race car. It's hard to believe when you see the parade of V8 cars going around the race-track today that the Mini won the Bathurst 1000 in 1966. Actually, Mini's came in the first nine places. If you want to know why your Holdens and Fords have good handling today, you can mark it down to the embarassment they experienced getting trounced in '66 by a little Mini :)

The Mini was, quite simply, an enormously fun car to drive. More than anything else, that sense of fun was what made the car unique - as much as its iconic shape.

So in 2002 when new owners BMW re-launched the Mini marque, there was a great deal of consternation felt around the world by Mini owners and drivers all terribly worried that the new version would have lost those characteristics that made the car unique.

A few years back a friend of mine was looking to replace his car - an Audi TT. He had a mind to get something a little more sensible, which in his case meant an Audi A4 Cabriolet. While he was in the process of looking he also figured he might as well test drive a few other cars that he had no intention of buying, but would like to drive at least once.

One of the cars he wanted a turn in was the new Mini Cooper. So he rolled up to the Mini dealership in his TT, wandered in and asked for a test drive. A few minutes later he was rolling out of the dealership in a Mini, ready to put it through it's paces.

Now, I'm not sure this is the same all over, but in Australia the car salesman (literally true) comes along with you. My friend was behind the wheel; salesman in the passenger seat. Away they go.

My buddy drove that car around for a few minutes getting used to the handling (much better than his TT), the performance, brakes etc. But he wasn't really all that thrilled. He even said so to the salesman. To which the salesman replied: "You're driving it like an Audi. This is a Mini. Drive it like you just stole it."

Ten minutes after that he was filling in paperwork to buy it. After 40 years Mini had changed a lot in their car: but they retained the essence of what made the original such a joy to drive. And in doing so, they're winning over a new generation of enthusiastic car owners.

The lesson here is that, having gone to so much trouble to design and build a product that creates a unique, highly-valued experience, it's possible to reinvent the product without losing touch with the core elements of the experience that made it successful.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A note about queues and service windows

We've all experienced that annoying sensation that we're in the "slow queue". The line next to us seems to be moving faster, but you know that if you shift queues that'll be the when the new line slows down. You've also probably seen that some places set up their queues differently. Typically, you'll see one of the following configurations:
  • everyone queues up in one line, and goes to the next open service window/register/person (often seen in banks these days, and at airport check-in counters); or
  • people join a queue behind one service window or another. Typically, people will join the shortest queue. (This is what you typically see in fast-food outlets and supermarkets.)
What you may not know, is that getting people to form a single line and go to the next available service window is much more efficient for everyone. Because no-one is necessarily held up by the person with all the excess baggage, or the wheelbarrow full of pennies that need counting, everyone tends to get served faster, on average, than the other model.

The down-side, is that the single queue *looks* longer, and can increase the potential for people baulking. But, the queue also moves much faster, so people are also less likely to abandon the queue altogether.

When designing your service, and looking at your layout options at check-out, it's important to keep these things in mind.