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Archive for April, 2006

On prototype theory and quiz shows

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

I’ve figured out quiz shows – all based on prototype theory.

Easy questions (where competitors can guess right) are those where the answers are prototypical for a category. Hard questions (where competitors guess and get it wrong) are those where there is a prototypical item, but the answer is not the prototype.

Go watch – most of the answers are guesses, and most of the correct answers are prototypical.

Visio and IA Tip – hide and show annotations

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Here’s my latest useful visio trick – a macro that hides and shows annotations on all sheets at once (it hides them for view and print). Very useful when you want to print everything with or without annotations. Label your annotation layer “annotation” or change the annotation to reflect what you usually call that layer.

Let me know if this is useful or if there is a better way of doing it ;)

Public Sub HideAnnotationLayers()
Dim layer As Visio.layer
Dim PageToIndex As Visio.Page
Dim curPage As Visio.Page
Dim layerObjVisCell As Cell
Dim layerObjPrintCell As Cell
Set curPage = ActivePage
For Each PageToIndex In ActiveDocument.Pages
ActiveWindow.Page = ActiveDocument.Pages(PageToIndex.Index).Name
For Each layer In Visio.ActivePage.Layers
If (layer.Name = "Annotation") Then
Set layerObjVisCell = layer.CellsC(visLayerVisible)
Set layerObjPrintCell = layer.CellsC(visLayerPrint)
layerObjVisCell.Formula = 0
layerObjPrintCell.Formula = 0
End If
Next
Next
ActiveWindow.Page = curPage
End Sub
Public Sub ShowAnnotationLayers()
Dim layer As Visio.layer
Dim PageToIndex As Visio.Page
Dim curPage As Visio.Page
Dim layerObjVisCell As Cell
Dim layerObjPrintCell As Cell
Set curPage = ActivePage
For Each PageToIndex In ActiveDocument.Pages
ActiveWindow.Page = ActiveDocument.Pages(PageToIndex.Index).Name
For Each layer In Visio.ActivePage.Layers
If (layer.Name = "Annotation") Then
Set layerObjVisCell = layer.CellsC(visLayerVisible)
Set layerObjPrintCell = layer.CellsC(visLayerPrint)
layerObjVisCell.Formula = 1
layerObjPrintCell.Formula = 1
End If
Next
Next
ActiveWindow.Page = curPage
End Sub

Why I read

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Mum: What are you doing
Me: Reading
Mum: I thought you were meant to be writing a book, not reading one
Me: But I ran out of words today and need to top up

I’m so funny…

Discovering great writing

Friday, April 21st, 2006

I’m reading ‘The Best Software Writing‘ at the moment and have found two pieces that are both beautifully written and compelling in content. You can read them online, and I encourage you to do so (or buy the book of course):

  • Paul Ford’s Processing Processing which is a wonderful ramble about elegance, the web, the world and his attempts to make something better
  • Paul Graham’s Great Hackers which is an insgightful discussion about what it takes to be an amazing person (not just an amazing programmer, although that’s his pitch)

There are other great articles in the book (and I’m only half-way), but these two really grabbed me. They are great pieces of writing. They are also quite personal pieces, which I think supports the message. You don’t have to agree with it to be moved.

My card sorting book is underway

Friday, April 21st, 2006

I’m very excited to let you know that, between now and the end of the year, I will be writing a book on card sorting. Specifically, it will be about how to use card sorting in information architecture and similar projects. I think it will fill an important gap – there is some material about how to run a card sort, but little on how to actually use the outputs.

My book will be one of the first published by Rosenfeld Media, a new publishing house focused on producing short and practical books on user experience design. RM will be applying UX methods to determine what books to publish and how its books should be designed. RM will also be incorporating users’ input as much as possible throughout the writing process, primarily via a blog and dedicated site for each book. You can find mine at the Card sorting book website and monitor it via an RSS feed:

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences conducting card sorts and have set up a survey to help collect this. It is short – 10 questions – and should take no more than 10 minutes:

Card sorting – your experiences (survey)

I’m really looking forward to working on the book, and hope you’ll consider participating by sharing your suggestions. Send comments and ideas via the site or to me at (cardsorting -at- maadmob -dot- net).

Spam justice

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

Michael S. Cox is a spammer.

Hah!

New book goodness

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Most of my recent book order just arrived and I’m so excited – new books are better than Christmas!

books.jpg

I’m going to start with Understanding Comics and The Best Software Writing. My head cold won’t let me do anything harder just yet.

A minor redesign

Monday, April 17th, 2006

I just finished doing some minor redesign work on my weblog. My sidebar now pulls in content from a bunch of services such as upcoming, del.icio.us, blogrolling (don’t know how long I’ll stick with this) & pandora. Still could do with some tweaking, but it is OK for now.

Next job is to install a tagging plug-in and re-tag all my posts. Only a job an IA would do…

Best cioppino almost ever

Thursday, April 13th, 2006

I just made a batch of cioppino – the first I have ever made, only the second time I have ever eaten it (first time was in San Francisco, in an italian restaurant on the wharf). Been thinking about it for years. This recipe is amazing.

Let me review the usability of your RIA (for free!)

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

I’m talking next month at Webstock (which I’m very excited about). One of my talks is called Usability for rich internet applications in which I want to do a similar thing to my recent Digital Web article – to take a look at some RIAs and explain why various aspects should and shouldn’t work from a theoretical usability/cognitive/perception perpective.

I don’t want to pull out the prototypical examples (flickr, googlemaps), and would be interested in looking at some other less well-known applications that use some richness (either AJAXy or Flash).

So if you have one of your own, one that you like or one that you hate, please let me know (comment or email) and I’ll take a look.

I’ll also write up some critiques here either before or after the conference.

(caveat: this is free, so I get to choose what and how much I cover, and you don’t get to approve my opinion first)

Getting people talking

Tuesday, April 11th, 2006

I’m reading William Zinsser’s ‘On Writing Well‘ (which is amazingly good). Apart from the beautiful writing and must-remember ideas (all duly highlighted), I’m struck by how much of what he says is applicable for user research and design work.

I’m reading the chapter ‘Writing about people’, in which he says:

  • Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does–in his own words
  • Take heart. You’ll find the solution if you look for the human element. Somewhere in every drab institution are men and women who have a fierce attachment to what they are doing…Find these people to tell your story and it won’t be drab

To me, this is the beauty of doing user-centred design (true user-centredness, not just glib methodology). People are amazing and, moat importantly, the people who we may stereotype as boring or ‘not-as-smart-as-us’ are so very interesting. Almost everyone has an unusual passion that does not relate to their work – it may be their grandchildren, their collection of rare orchids, their daily work with their animals or their love of a particular style of wine. This is what makes people tick, and these are the people who we are meant to be working for.

For me, the most rewarding part of my work is getting to know very interesting people of all types – teams I work with and people I design for. Zinsser obviously has the same interest and I think is a reason his writing resonates so strongly for me.

On why I gave up consulting

Monday, April 10th, 2006

I’ve told this story in person more than once, but thought it might be good to get it out in writing (if any post is to come back and bite me in a couple of years, this will be it).

As you may know, I left a consulting job last year. I was a usability specialist with a good company who had sufficient client work and a nice team. They paid me well. I was able to write and teach workshops and sometimes to design stuff. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?

But there came a point in time when I realised it wasn’t for me, or perhaps I wasn’t for it.

I think user experience consulting in Australia is similar to elsewhere. Client asks consulting company to bid for work. Client usually has a budget in mind already. The playing field is fairly level, so consultants compete a lot on price (there are some different skill bases, but for many services there is not much difference). Consultant has to determine up front what they will do (with little knowledge about the real details of the project), how they will do it and when they will do it. Client accepts someone, writes a fixed price or capped price contract. Consultant signs it and starts work.

This model is OK for easy work – straightforward user research, straightforward usability testing, expert reviews. But it doesn’t work for anything more complex than that. The real world doesn’t fit into the neat project proposal that you write. People aren’t available to meet, there is less information available than you expect, the team doesn’t have required skills, the assumptions you made about users are plain wrong. On a project of any complexity, particularly design projects, you can’t learn how complex it is until you really get your teeth into it (and that would take all your allocated time).

So what happens:

  • The consultant ends up doing the easy work because it is possible to define up front, scope and cost
  • The consultant ends up delivering broad, high level work (like the top level hierarchy of a site) because it is impossible to estimate and scope the real work
  • Work is done as one-off chunks, ‘delivered’ to the client and the consultant disappears
  • Clients do the design work and get a consultant to usability test

It’s clear who ends up doing the hard work – the client!

This is all backwards – the client is the person who is least able to do the complex work, which is why they hire out in the first place. Usability testing and user research are dead easy compared to designing the system. Creating top level items is a no-brainer compared to placing all content within a structure, identifying content relationships and creating an IA that sings from top to bottom. Doing an expert review is a piece of cake compared to redesigning and implementing changes as a result.

We know that the best work is done iteratively. Design, test, tweak, design, test, tweak, leap, design, test, tweak. Lots of small improvements, products out earlier, ability to fix things that aren’t quite working. The consulting model just doesn’t allow this. Everything takes forever as the purchase process takes so long and there is no room to design iteratively.

After 18 months I finally had enough. I knew I was doing sub-standard work, skimming the easy stuff and leaving the client to do the hard. I knew the process wasn’t going to change.

Now I’m not saying all consulting is bad. It does suit high level strategic work and discrete activities that are easy to define. It suits clients who have the flexibility to hire well and design well. It also suits clients who have a high level of skill and just need a short term prop to their skill set. But I never worked with any of these, and don’t see many of them around. Maybe my experience was unique.

My solution to this problem was to freelance. For me, that means I work on fewer projects in a year, but I do them more deeply. I hang out with the team instead of in a separate office. I spend as much time mentoring and sharing skills as I do creating designs. I encourage the people I work with to be confident in the skills they have (and understand the ones they don’t).

I produce work that I’m proud of, and that’s the difference.

Chick bloggers not hiding

Saturday, April 8th, 2006

There’s been a bit of a discussion over on Leisa Reichelt’s new blog about where the women are hiding. I commented that I read stacks of women who are not hiding and Leisa asked for a list. So here it is, from top to bottom from my RSS reader (I am a bit picky with what I read):

So I do still have more boys than girls in my RSS reader, but this is a pretty good list…

On why I quit university (again)

Saturday, April 8th, 2006

I had a moment of clarity last week at the IA Summit. One moment I was studying a Master of Human Factors, the next I wasn’t.

This is the second Masters degree I haven’t finished. The first was a Master of Internet Communication – I completed 2/3 (with top marks right through) before I realised I had spent a whole lot of money on not learning much (the link goes to the new program, which is much stronger than the old).

Second time round and I spent more money and at least learned a little more. But the moment of clarity came when I was thinking about what I was going to do when I got back from Summit. The presentations and discussions had given me loads of interesting things to follow up. I was thinking about what to do, and realised that it would be tricky as I had assignments to complete. Then I realised that was backward – I was sacrificing things I am passionately interested in for writing a assignments on things I already know. Duh!

I also realised that I don’t need the qualification. I’m experienced at what I do and my clients and peers think I’m pretty good at it. I have no problems getting work. I’m very self-motivated and can book learn easily (I should also mention that my study was all remote, so I am not going to miss the face-to-face that, for some programs, would be the benefit). A qualification will add little to my life.

So I’m free and unqualified. But look at some of what I just ordered (for a fraction of the cost of a semester):

There’s no program that covers such an odd mixture…

So hopefully I’ll dust off MaadBooks and review some of these as I go.