ideas ixd web

Idols / Khoi Vinh of

I've fol­lowed Khoi Vinh's excel­lent blog, Sub­trac­tion, for a long time. A cou­ple of years ago, he became the Design Direc­tor of the New York Times web­site, and in the mean­time the site has real­ly changed, for the bet­ter, most­ly, I'd say. This week he's doing a Q&A about his work, the NYT, design, and all of that.As I've always been curi­ous about what he does in his role, and the struc­ture of the UX depart­ment, I was glad to see that some­one went there right off the bat:

As the design direc­tor, my respon­si­bil­i­ty is to over­see the cre­ative aspects of these con­tin­u­al improve­ments. Each one is a project of its own with some range in scope, from very short and dis­crete to long and drawn out over many months. And each project requires one or more of the mem­bers on my team: infor­ma­tion archi­tects (who are charged with orga­niz­ing the fea­tures and the flow of infor­ma­tion so that peo­ple can make use of them most intu­itive­ly), design tech­nol­o­gists (who do the actu­al cod­ing of many of these sites, using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Flash, etc.) and/or visu­al design­ers (who han­dle the over­all look and feel, includ­ing lay­out, typog­ra­phy, col­or, pro­por­tion, etc.).You could say that all put togeth­er, the final prod­uct of our efforts is the user expe­ri­ence, or the sum total of the con­tent and the frame­work as it's used by vis­i­tors to the site. Of course, it's not true that my design group is the only team respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing this expe­ri­ence; it's real­ly the result of con­tri­bu­tions across the board, from edi­tors and reporters to project man­agers and soft­ware engi­neers and many more.

More here.

ixd mobile urban

UX / Cellphones & world poverty

Jan Chipchase seems to be the "it" guy1 of user expe­ri­ence these days. He lives in Tokyo, works at Nokia, and plays this kind of swash­buck­ling, Indi­ana-Jones-ish role in research­ing mobile tech­nolo­gies in devel­op­ing cul­tures. He keeps an intrigu­ing blog called Future Per­fect, where he doc­u­ments UX-relat­ed nuggets from the shan­ty­towns of Lagos, the mar­kets of Accra, the Sin­ga­pore air­port, and so on. This week's NYT Sun­day mag has an arti­cle about him — "Can the Cell­phone End World Pover­ty" — which, aside from hav­ing a some­what puz­zling title, pro­vides an inter­est­ing per­spec­tive on the field of UX in general.

Indian bike ride
My own per­son Jan Chipchase expe­ri­ence: Walk­ing through a back alley in Bom­bay, from my trip there to deliv­er design train­ing to GE engineers.

First, what's the title all about?

It's called "Can the Cell­phone End World Pover­ty," but it's real­ly a pro­file of a researcher rather than an eco­nom­ic analy­sis of the effect of mobile tech­nolo­gies. And Jan's research — if his blog and con­fer­ence keynotes are any indi­ca­tion — focus­es on the ways in which peo­ple in devel­op­ing cul­tures *use* and *adapt* the tech­nol­o­gy, not about the ways in mobile tech­nol­o­gy can effect macro­eco­nom­ic change. It's a quib­ble, real­ly, but it seems strange to describe mar­ket research as an effort to "end world pover­ty," and to cast Nokia in an altru­is­tic light when what they're doing is real­ly iden­ti­fy­ing and under­stand­ing a unserved mar­ket and poten­tial customers:

… No com­pa­ny churns out phones like Nokia, which man­u­fac­tures 1.3 mil­lion prod­ucts dai­ly. Forty per­cent of the mobile phones sold last year were made by Nokia, and the company's $8.4 bil­lion prof­it in 2007 reflects as much. Chipchase seems dis­tinct­ly uncom­fort­able talk­ing about his part as a cor­po­rate rain­mak­er, pre­fer­ring to see him­self as a most­ly dis­pas­sion­ate ethnographer …

I also sym­pa­thize with Jan. It would be impos­si­ble to do the kind of research he does with­out a high­er pur­pose, and I know I've spent a lot of time ratio­nal­iz­ing some our client work (which is always about the ben­jamins) with what I imag­ine the greater good to be. It's easy to say that Nokia's stock will ben­e­fit from tap­ping the bil­lions of peo­ple below the pover­ty line, but it also seems pos­si­ble that mobile tech­nolo­gies and con­nect­ed­ness in gen­er­al could effect pos­i­tive change. Nev­er­the­less, I real­ly think that the arti­cle should be called some­thing like, "How the devel­op­ing world sees tech­nol­o­gy," or "What the devel­op­ing world tells us about tech­nol­o­gy," or some­thing way less catchy than end­ing world poverty.

What methods are used to gather input from folks in developing nations?

I was most curi­ous to hear anec­dotes of what exact­ly he was ask­ing peo­ple, how exact­ly he was gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, whether he was sim­ply observ­ing or con­duct­ing sur­veys, or what. (He has a num­ber of inter­est­ing entries on "field research" on his blog, but none that give much insight into his meth­ods). The arti­cle has an inter­est­ing descrip­tion of the out­come of an exer­cise in which peo­ple around the world were asked to draw their ide­al mobile phone:

[Jan's research­ing cohorts] said they'd found … [that] the phone rep­re­sents what peo­ple are aspir­ing to. "It's an easy way to see what's impor­tant to them, what their chal­lenges are," [a cohort] said. One Liber­ian refugee want­ed to out­fit a phone with a land-mine detec­tor so that he could more safe­ly return to his home vil­lage. In the Dhar­avi slum of Mum­bai, peo­ple sketched phones that could fore­cast the weath­er since they had no access to TV or radio. Mus­lims want­ed G.P.S. devices to ori­ent their prayers toward Mec­ca. Some­one else drew a phone shaped like a water bot­tle, explain­ing that it could store pre­cious drink­ing water and also float on the mon­soon waters. In Jacarèzinho, a bustling favela in Rio, one design­er drew a phone with an air-qual­i­ty mon­i­tor. Sev­er­al women sketched phones that would mon­i­tor cheat­ing boyfriends and hus­bands. Anoth­er designed a "peace but­ton" that would halt gun­fire in the neigh­bor­hood with a sin­gle touch.

Hmm. I can see how some of this stuff could be help­ful in aggre­gate. Peo­ple see the phone as a plat­form — and per­haps there's a sense that it's some­what mag­i­cal — a "peace" but­ton, a land­mine detec­tor, a cheat­ing boyfriend mon­i­tor, etc. (Maybe?) But does the per­son in Liberia real­ly want a phone, or does he want a land-mine detec­tor? I won­der about this.1 Not I.T. guy. It guy, like it girl. It's sort of amus­ing to me that it's total­ly clear what is meant by the words "it girl" but that the words "it guy" just seem to relate to the guy who fix­es your internets.

ixd tech web

Adaptive Path UX Week / One of ux, one of ux1

I attend­ed (and spoke at) my first UX Week last week in Wash­ing­ton DC, and it lived up to its billing as a good ol' time. I met many amaz­ing peo­ple, stayed out too late, and yet was still moti­vat­ed to get up ear­ly every morn­ing to see the keynotes. That's say­ing some­thing. Most con­fer­ences can be con­sid­ered suc­cess­es if just one of those things happens.

UX Week 2007 ProgramThe UX Week pro­gram with my lucky cat.

Breaking it down

The ses­sions came in three vari­eties: (1) prod­ucts and inter­face imple­men­ta­tions; (2) design tools and process­es; and (3) ideas and inspi­ra­tions. Sarah Nel­son at Adap­tive Path orga­nized the con­fer­ence, and she recruit­ed speak­ers who were not the usu­al talk­ing heads.2 The mix of back­grounds, expe­ri­ence, and sub­ject mat­ter kept things live­ly. I espe­cial­ly appre­ci­at­ed the dis­cus­sions of process by AP folks like Indi Young, Kate Rut­ter, and Jesse James Gar­rett dur­ing the pan­el dis­cus­sion of All of these opened my eyes to new design tools and tech­niques, and exposed the fact that there is a lot of inno­va­tion going on out there. In terms of the flashy prod­ucts on dis­play, I'm inher­ent­ly too inquis­i­tive and skep­ti­cal to believe what peo­ple tell me dur­ing prod­uct demoes — I need to get immersed in them myself, and ask: How did you get there? Where did that come from? What need is that address­ing? How did the design evolve? Because I'm a nerd.3

Design is story-telling

As Leisa Reichelt point­ed out dur­ing our pan­el, a lot of speak­ers addressed the top­ic of sto­ry-telling in one way or anoth­er. Kevin Brooks of Motoro­la Labs led a work­shop on sto­ry­telling tech­niques; the folks behind the recent redesign of described the way in which they craft­ed the sto­ry that they told their inter­nal stake­hold­ers; peo­ple from and Sachs dis­cussed the use of video­taped cus­tomer sto­ries to make a case for a redesign. Of course, sto­ry-telling and design are inti­mate­ly inter­twined — two strands of a busi­nessy dou­ble-helix. I was inspired by the vari­ety of ways in which design­ers are telling sto­ries about the prob­lems to be solved, and the tech­niques and nuances involved in their approaches. 

UX is real

I go to few­er con­fer­ences than I should (so I may be a bit shel­tered), but I'll say this any­way: at the con­fer­ence, I got the feel­ing that UX was much fur­ther along to becom­ing an actu­al pro­fes­sion. UX prac­tices are no longer out­posts in the Wild West of dig­i­tal prod­ucts; our work is now iden­ti­fi­able ter­ri­to­ry in the busi­ness land­scape. Not long ago, there were very few things that wouldn't be con­sid­ered with­in the purview of user expe­ri­ence; now, the bound­aries of our prob­lems are a lit­tle more clear, and our expe­ri­ences as prac­ti­tion­ers have more com­mon­al­i­ties than dif­fer­ences. I feel like Tom Han­ks in Big. Now, if only I could explain what I do to my par­ents … 1 From one of my favorite movies of all-time, Freaks, i.e., one of us, one of us, we accept you, one of ux.2 Okay, except Jared Spool, but it's always good to hear what he's think­ing. 3 I admit: The inter­face for One Lap­top Per Child is ele­gant and intrigu­ing, but I'm polit­i­cal­ly ambiva­lent about the project itself. I'm fas­ci­nat­ed by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of cre­at­ing an infor­ma­tion pipeline the devel­op­ing world, but I guess I'm not enough of a tech evan­ge­list to believe in the idea that dis­trib­ut­ing lap­tops is bet­ter than dis­trib­ut­ing more imme­di­ate aid. Maybe I'm not think­ing big enough.