Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My new favorite thing

The first time I used it I was skeptical.  Since I only signed up because I wanted to checkout their AIR app I really couldn’t do much with it – no I knew was using it – so I went onto other things.  This was March, 2008.

I went back last month.  Why was that?  I can’t remember why.  Somehow I found some people I knew there – not friends from high school (unlike the Facebook experience) but some highly respected colleagues from a previous company.  I enjoyed their tweets.  They were intimate but also public.  I felt as though I was getting updates of a more personal kind but not just about leaving work and picking up animals from the vet or eating lunch.  Work related subjects came up, along with links pointing me to new information.  And even better I was able to find other people and, without having to read a huge profile (like LinkedIn, like Facebook) I could decide if that person was observing things I found interesting.

The first few weeks I found myself circling certain networks – HCM software professionals, Obama supporters, designers, Itsy sellers.  I began to notice trends in things people were posting.  What could be better than news events (in a very news-worthy period) interlaced with suggestions for music, statements about the commute and links to Flixr albums? 

I don't have to change hats to use Twitter.  My multi-layer interests can all be supported, at once, in one place. 

Love it. 

Eventually I'll want to do something with Twitter, integrate it into something, use the data for something, but for now I’m just enjoying it.  Haven’t had that experience with a piece of software since Genius came out. Ha!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Not all habits are bad ones...

Yesterday I suggested some ideas on getting out of the inevitable designer rut.

 Somewhat on topic, here is a great discussion on the habits of effective designers:

 (No surprise to see perfectionism listed in there.  I've shied away from social media for a long time because of that one...  No control for the control freak!) 

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Getting back to innovative

In the 10 years I’ve been a designer I’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep my design quality and interest levels high. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with some excellent designers – designers working on start-up products in new technologies and designers pushing established products to the next level. One thing I've noticed is that no matter how excellent a designer is everyone has some times when the interest lags. Everyone has some times when the quality just doesn’t seem as high. When that happens how can a designer get excited, creative, and innovative again?

Here a few ideas I’ve seen work:

  • Create some designs for something you know little (or nothing) about
    This is a different take on “get out of your comfort zone”. Work exclusively on PCs? Try designing for the Mac. Work mainly on web-based applications? Try a desktop application. Create designs for a narrow demographic? Change those designs to target another audience. Getting away from your expert areas might set you up for a failure (at least the first time around) but it will give a new perspective and open some new creative pathways. Who knows – this may be your big eureka moment.

  • Work in a different department for a while
    Have no business sense? Maybe it’s time to face that fear. Ask for a 6 month stint in the sales department or a chance to work with the business development team. It may seem like a crazy idea to you and your manager (let alone the sales team) but getting out of your normal routine and trying to meet a different set of objectives improves your product vantage point. Leadership in design, as in other areas of the organization, has far more impact when the leader has hands-on knowledge outside of the design department.

  • Present a bad design
    Can’t work on a new project? Can’t try a new job role? Try opening creating new pathways and facing some fears by presenting a bad design. Design something you know isn’t up to par. Identify an appropriate audience and present it, thinking of yourself as a teacher testing a design class. As your audience starts pointing out what’s wrong congratulate them. Encourage them. Your teammates might think you’ve gone a little crazy but you’ve gotten yourself out of an innovation-killing mindset: defensiveness. The next time you present a design (hopefully a better one) if you can keep that same mentality you’ll start seeing some innovative collaboration begin.

This is list is pretty short -- send me what works for you.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Build, baby, build

I needed to articulate the paradigm shift that would allow me to fully leverage social networking, collaboration, and rapid prototyping.

I got some serious help from this article:

While it’s always a good thing to get a different vantage point on a problem – especially one that can empower and enable – this viewpoint gave me much food for thought. After considering it for a few days I’ve reached these conclusions:

  • Controlling all aspects of the design = reduced scope
  • Comprehending all object/system inter-relationships = linear hierarchies
  • Designing complete feature set = mediocre interfaces

It is the small, targeted features (or applets) rapidly prototyped with the collaboration of users and engineering that provide building blocks for further iteration and development. While I’ve known this for a while this is the first time I’ve articulated it clearly.

shwup media

Friday, October 10, 2008

Getting Innovative

I was recently given feedback on my abilities to design for web 2.0 technologies.

When I found the time and space to reflect on that feedback my first reaction was dismay. As a designer it is my job to take advantage of technologies. A design is pretty much worthless unless it is actually built. To fail to take advantage of a technology because I don’t understand it would be akin to a painter not using red because he hadn’t painted with red before.

Then I admitted that I was afraid: afraid that I wouldn’t be able to successfully design for these technologies. In retrospective that’s a silly fear – the purpose of design is not to make a technology possible for the sake of a technology. User and market requirements/needs/expectations drive the choice of technology. (Choosing to successfully design for a technology would be like looking around the house for a job that needed a hammer. What if what I really needed to screw a leg back on a chair?)

Then I got to my core fear: I was afraid that my toolbox was full of outdated tools. I was afraid that I my world view was too static, that my experience integrating iterative design practices into waterfall software development had “hardened” me, so to speak, and that the flexibility of web 2.0 models and paradigms were out of my reach.

Perhaps my need to create a user model – so helpful at the start of the web-based application era – was a process that sacrificed real output.

So I reviewed my basic process: let’s say I’m trying to design a shopping site. I’ve designed many browse categories, search results, details, shopping cart and check out processes quickly and confidently. There are paradigms, documented paradigms, for each part of these processes and there are still great places for innovation. I would have started with some task flows, then made a conceptual level diagram documenting the main features and users, then would have begun a site map and wireframes, and then written a detailed specification (if needed).

This design process is very linear; breaking down the problem from big picture to low-level details. And along the way there’s validation with users, exploration of designs with users, paper prototyping with users.

So what about building the same application using web 2.0 technologies – would that impact the design process? Would it impact the design documentation? Should it? And how do new software development processes, such as Agile, impact that process and documentation?

I think designers are in a hard spot right now. Designers are being asked to be innovative, to take products to the next level, to make software purchased by IT departments to be as appealing to users as consumer products. (How many of you have heard, “We want the next ipod!”) But at the same time designers are being asked to produce careful, concise documentation on how to implement that innovative design.

Why is that? Because user experience teams have traditionally fought to prove their profession role in the industry: they have fought to have their work respected and implemented, they have been continually asked to prove their ROI in organizations.

But we’re heading into a new world paradigm. Computers are almost ubiquitous in America today. The next generation coming into the workforce doesn’t remember a time without the internet. People expect more from their computers and software than ever before. And people are more comfortable demanding good design. The days of “user error” are coming to an end.

So designers must design better, faster, smarter, cooler. But owning the detail specification does not give user experience teams the ability to design better, faster, smarter, cooler. It keeps user experience teams tied to software development cycles, it keeps user experience teams focused on change requests and ECOs. It keeps user experience teams focused on the short term and not the long term.

The only way a designer can give herself the time and space to create innovative design is by developing true collaboration with the rest of her organization. Designers must be true leaders and empower the rest of the organization, chartered with design excellence, to follow.

Don’t think your organization has a design excellence charter? Think again. Those crappy applications don’t have a lot of time left.