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Archive for December, 2002

Year in review

Tuesday, December 24th, 2002

Over the last few days, I have read a number of ‘year in review’ summaries.

So, here’s mine. I like to think in terms of what I have given and what I have gotten…

Given:
- tutored HCI to two classes at university
- guest lectured in user-centred design & usability evaluation
- mentored workmates in user-centred design & good information architecture
- started a local IA cocktail hour

Gotten:
- learned a lot more about Intranets, CMSs and distributed authoring
- talked to many more users, and added their behaviours to my ‘experience store’
- met lots of fabulous people at conferences and through work

And some other random achievements:
- left a stable, secure public service job to work on contract in the profession I love
- completed the first year of my Masters degree
- moved into my beautiful new house

Hmmm…not a bad year!

Authoring & IA

Wednesday, December 11th, 2002

I’m a true extravert – often I don’t know what I’m thinking until it comes out of my mouth or I see it on the screen in front of me.

So today when I was trying to write a blurb for a conference I’m speaking at, I had a really brilliant insight ;) (Oh, did I tell you that I’m a modest extravert)

We talk lots about creating information architectures, making hierarchies & taxonomies and figuring out how to group content in ways that are easy for people to find information. I hear many of the same things over and over again when talking with people, reading SIGIA-L etc.

One thing I never hear is how the information architecture of a site links up with the authoring of content. I suspect sometimes we create great sites without ever really thinking about how the content is going to get into the site.

But these two things (authoring and structure) can’t really be separated. Say you create a great architecture, where you have a fantastic overall hierarchy and brilliant cross linking, where you have tested the whole thing and users can find stuff easily. What if the concepts behind this are too complex for authors to understand, or what if the metadata load is too much, particularly if your authors are non-technical and your indexing resources are limited. All of that great work in creating a brilliant architecture may be completely wasted.

Here’s an example. On the site I’m working on, I have a newsletter about looking after your safety when flying. In card sorting & testing, users thought this information could be in three places – with the travel stuff, with the newsletters and with the health information. All quite sensible places. And much of the content is like this – it could be located in a number of very sensible places. So, the obvious answer is to allow it to be displayed in all of these places. No problem.

But (and there has to be a but) – for ease of authoring the system needed to allow authors to create a page and have it appear in the appropriate place automatically, rather than having them edit three different pages to create links. At first I figured that authors could identify in metadata where the content should appear. Then I thought again – with a bunch of distributed, non-technical authors, it would be hard enough getting the content placed in one sensible place, and certainly not three. So, I eventually made a decision to store the content in one primary place, and have an administrator create some sensible cross linking. This of course compromised some of the clever things that I had designed in the information architecture. But there is no point having the clever things if the content is never going to be authored well.

To make these type of sensible decisions, I needed to know my users well, know their skills, and be thinking deeply about the link between authoring and presentation. And I wonder how many of us are doing that.

Harry Potter & usability

Tuesday, December 10th, 2002

This has got to be the oddest alertbox ever:

In the Future, We’ll All Be Harry Potter

Uni marks

Monday, December 9th, 2002

I usually like the end of semester at uni. Waiting for final marks is really exciting. And this semester was no different. I checked the uni website twice a day to find out whether marks had been released.

Can you imagine my horror to find that results were released, but instead of the good mark I was expecting, there was a WH (withheld). This usually means that a student has not completed all work. I was a bit worried…

Anyway, after querying this, I got a note back from my lecturer today. She said that I hadn’t submitted my major assignment, and could I please send it to her. However, I had submitted it, and it had been marked and returned to me. At the time I was surprised at how fast it was returned (a matter of days).

I think I know what happened. I was the only student in my class to hand in the assignment on time. It got marked and returned. Then when everyone else handed theirs in late, mine wasn’t in the bundle, and was forgotten.

Hmmm…pays to be on time, doesn’t it?

Promoting IA

Monday, December 9th, 2002

Information architects often talk about what we do to ‘promote’ the field. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty that I don’t do a lot of evangelism.

But I do promote the craft in a more subtle way, just by doing what I do best.

And it rubs off. In the last few weeks, I have seen people in the office starting to pick up some of my work practices (or should I just call them habits). For example, the use of post-it notes to organise everything from reports to sites has skyrocketed. One colleague the other day pulled out a bundle of wireframes to discuss, rather than jumping straight into coloured designs. People are really starting to believe that we should talk with users more often (and suggesting it before I do).

So, I do have an impact. Just not the evangelical type…

Boredom & underwear

Thursday, December 5th, 2002

Some days at work are more boring than others.

How did I tell that I had a boring day. The highlight of my day today was finally finding my underwear – we moved house last week, and I couldn’t find the right box (no, I haven’t been re-wearing my underwear – I did have a few pairs)

I think I need to find something more interesting to do next week at work. Today I trawled through our Intranet looking for links to out of date legislation. Deadly!

Justifying decisions

Wednesday, December 4th, 2002

One of the hardest things when doing IA, UCD etc is justifying every decision I make. Even if I put a lot of effort into the research phase of a project, and follow a solid user-centred design process, I still end up having to argue over silly nitty gritty details.

I guess part of the problem is that even with a great process and ample time, some of my decisions are made on gut feel (James called this ‘professional experience’, and I probably should too). For example, I can’t include every piece of content from a diverse 5000 page site in a card sort. I can’t include every possible scenario in a usability evaluation. So in designing a site there are some things that I know are right, and a whole lot of things that I’m fairly confident are right, and a couple of things that I know need more work.

So, I have to choose. Do I explain every single decision and thought that I have put into creating a design, only to have the detail picked apart, or do I discuss broad concepts and ideas only to have the detail picked apart.

Hmmm… I don’t think I can win sometimes. I guess I had better do the political thing and negotiate endlessly. What a waste of time.

PS – I did one of the many personality profiles recently (you know, the ones that give you a set of letters that vaguely describe your preferences). The description of mine for what happens under stress was interesting – it indicated that when stressed I will start doubting all of my decisions and lose confidence in them ;)

Quiet here

Monday, December 2nd, 2002

Things have been a bit quiet here for a few weeks. Why? Because:

  1. Work has been busy, but that is quite normal
  2. Last week I spent most of the week at the “Human Factors 2002″ conference – a Human Computer Interaction conference. I met lots of really cool, really smart people, and have some good ideas from the papers that I understood!
  3. On the weekend I moved into my new house. It is fabulous, but still lots of work to do…
  4. I couldn’t log into movable type – I think my cookies on IE & Phoenix became mixed up. Obviously all sorted now.

But now those minor details are mostly sorted, I might be able to get back to writing ;)