Notes on IBM's Make IT Easy Conference
The IBM Make IT Easy conference runs the gamut of user-related technology design topics, including visual, industrial, and user-centered design, information architecture and usability. The conference is free, but apparently limited to IBM customers and partners. For more information, see http://www.ibm.com/easy/. Copies of papers can be found here.
These are just my quirky notes, and don't accurately represent the conference proceedings.
- Thoughts and photos on IBM and the Almaden Research Center
- Day 1: 'Information architecture' and 'A comparison of UI design methodologies'
- Day 2: 'Visual design meets industrial design', 'Using stories to design compelling user experiences' and a great demonstration of providing information to visually impaired users
- Day 3: Tony Temple on Innovation, Peter Coffee appeals to common sense, and Carolyn Bjerke's case study using OVID, Rose, and lots of user studies
- Day 4: Terry Winograd on UI decoration, Gerry Lohse on user behavior over time, and David Liddle makes several brilliant points
Day 1: 'Information architecture'
The first workshop was "Information Architecture and Architecting Information beyond the Web". btw, Is it legal to use architect as a verb? It's certainly becoming more common.
IBM uses the term "user assistance architecture" or "UAA" to mean "matching people's information needs with their goals." It seems to encompass IA, but can be applied to non-traditional IA environments, like a help system in a software app.
The presenters made some interesting points:
Karen Young, IA for the ibm.com web site, IBM New York
- A challenge to balance marketing needs and user needs. This is a point that's also been made by Karen McGrane at Razorfish. An example is, is "DB2" an acceptable label for a link? Do the customers at that point in the site have a sufficient brand understanding for the link to be effective? I'm wondering if guidelines are possible to help business units strike this balance.
- In this role, her group has webmaster-like admin responsibilities out of necessity, like cleaning up old pages.
- As part of her user profile, she has modeled the customer lifecycle, e.g. shop, buy, maintain. Business units understand it immediately and it helps guide the content on the site.
- They use database-backed publishing, but only for the 1000 or so top-level pages that change often. This is a more efficient balance of easy maintenance and building infrastructure (important for technologists to realize).
Tess Lispi from Rare Medium, San Francisco,
- Applying user-centered design to your internal design team to make sure you understand their needs. She said we should, "treat our team members as customers, then define the end product." It's important to understand how they work, what they need from you, and how best to communicate your ideas. Words of wisdom, since no documentation I've seen does a sufficient job of communicating my ideas.
- Sounded like she was using UML as part of her process.
- She was using her site map to indicate how pages changed over time, which was nice to see.
Jamie Roberts had an interesting presentation of IA/UE concerns
Lee Anne Kowalski, user assistance architect for DB2, IBM California
- DB2 has 'launchpads' that combine task assistance, contextual information, and a wizard-like sequence
- From the perspective of software design, there are particular circumstances, e.g. a help system, that unquestionably benefit from an information architecture approach
Ken Godfrey had a case study of information architecture as applied to the ibm.com/linux web site.
Day 1: 'A comparison of UI design methodologies'
This workshop consisted of three teams spending two hours demonstrating a condensed version of their design methodologies. Main points:
- One method was a combination of Bridge (Bellcore) and participatory design. It began with task analysis, mapped tasks to task objects, then mapped those to GUI objects (!) using style rules.
- In this context, the more prescriptive methods arrived at similar results as the descriptive (less formal) methods. I think the prescriptive methods are more appropriate to large projects, projects involving a significant technology element, or projects with lots of team members that need to stay coordinated.
- While the old-fashioned role of the art director may not apply, there is (at IBM and Razorfish at least) a need for someone to coordinate all the UI activities, e.g. an 'experience lead'. How is this role integrated into these processes? Perhaps she is the facilitator and the Maker of Executive Decisions.
Day 2: 'Visual design meets industrial design'
Richard Branham had a great presentation. A couple key points:
- Too many methods separate thinking and doing, they must always be done together, e.g. posing ideas and creating low-fidelity prototypes.
- "Design is design is design" - although the Internet has added more specialties, it's not very different from how human factors work was done in the past.
- Design is not just form, design is communication."
The timing of the switch from low- to high-fidelity prototypes is important. Essentially, the switch should be made depending on how much time you have and when your level of confidence is sufficient too justify the expense of the high-fidelity prototype.
Day 2: 'Using stories to design compelling user experiences'
A workshop designed to teach us how to create stories, it was quite similar to a writer's workshop. Stories are probably the best medium to communicate the user experiences our products will facilitate.
Kevin Russel's presentation on information for visually impaired users was particularly enlightening since he himself is blind. Watching a blind person using speech reading software to access documentation was an incredible experience.
- Of course, anything in hard copy is utterly useless to this audience.
- Used software app called "Window Eyes" from GW Micro. It reads whatever is under the cursor plus meta information like if a folder is open or closed.
- Made me realize how superfluous copy that is merely stupid to me is an obstacle to the visually impaired.
- Use of CSS and proper table coding goes a long way to helping.
- Adobe introduced some new accessibility features with Acrobat 5
Tony Temple made the excellent point that we shouldn't be exclusively doing iterative design, which results in an endless loop of designing to user requirements. It's like driving while only looking in the rear view mirror. Good product design also thinks about the 'quantum leap', the innovation that will contribute several iterations down the road.
Carolyn Bjerke's presentation on redesign the IBM Thinkpad advisor in 8 weeks was a good case study. Some points:
- They started by creating a benchmark of current customomer satisfaction on a 100 point scale. They then set their goal of increasing this mark by 6 points.
- Similar to Razorfish, they have a position called the 'User Experience Lead'
- Used the OVID methodology and centralized all documentation in Rational Rose.
- They performed user studies every other week to get the product done right and on time. Required frantic design decisions.
Terry Winograd presented some work being done by students at Stanford. Points:
- He referred to controls in the user interface as 'decoration' and is working to get rid of it; 'user content is what counts'. But he admitted there is presently a trade off between quality and efficiency, and is not sure how to integrate the equivilent of keyboard shortcuts in his clean interfaces.
- Win XP and Mac OS X are definitely moving in this cleaner direction, ridding the interface of menus
Gerry Lohse's presentation was very good, tracking user behavior over time using several terrabytes of data collected by Media Metrix. Points:
- We thought the Internet would make comparison shopping the norm because information is so easily accessed, but that hasn't happened. There's a cognitive cost in shopping around, and it's easier to go to the site you know well and use it.
- He shows the progression of use over time to learning rate to buying rate.
- His redesign frequency citings are from a Jupiter/Media Metrix survey
- 'Rapid redesign is bad, refinement is good.' It's much less expensive to retain existing customers than to attract new ones.
As expected, David Liddle's keynote speech was very good. Points:
- When addressing a big research project, he suggests you start with some kind of taxonomy to categorize the material, test the taxonomy, and use it to present structured findings. For example, in thinking about the 'digital living room' he used meaning (a personal decorating touch), theme (e.g. Southwestern), and boundaries (is purpose contained within specific areas?).
- His venture capital activities divide ideas into two types: FBC - faster better cheaper, or BNW - brave new world.
- He described three stages that all technology goes through: Enthusiast, Business, and Consumer, and supplied criteria for each.
- He used this clever presentation trick where he showed the title slide when he wanted the audience to refocus on him so he could make an important point verbally. It worked.
- He shocked everyone by saying 'Ease of use is not really THAT important', just trying to remind us that decisions on whether to use a product are often made with other factors in mind (e.g. price) and that we need to remember that.