Sunday, December 30, 2007

Southwest Gets Design

I just booked a flight on Southwest, and had a wonderful experience. Skipping past the booking part, I got a nice email receipt, which was easy to read. It's nice to get something that's easy to read. I especially liked their large friendly confirmation codes that are actually visible, colorful, short, and at the top!

On the receipt was also a very visible (above the fold) link: "Where Will I Sit?" I clicked on it, and got a popup window with a very cute hand-drawn progess bar, so cute that I had no problem waiting through it just to watch it drawing itself. And then this even cuter notebook appeared:

I actually read the whole thing, because it continued to be so cute and even funny, with hand-drawn pictures throughout: There was a sweet little animation of people getting on a plane, and a diploma for people who finish the notebook (I filled in my name, yes). At the end, I looked at the page source, hoping to find something suggesting who created it, and discovered that they had even tailored the error message for people with the wrong browser support:

I was thrilled, but also a bit sad. Apart from TiVo, I have never worked for a company that cared this much about the details; was willing to take such creative risks with how they differentiate themselves; who understand that even the error messages tell people something about them and need consideration. That's design and branding done right, together!

ETA: If you would like to play with the notebook, it lives at Southwest's BoardingSchool.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club

I find from Steve at tingilinde that the Journal of Improbable Research is now online!

I see they also sponsor a Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club of Scientists with Said Hair. I find this very interesting. Not because I am a scientist with hair of this type, but because I would like to meet scientists with hair that flows (and is luxurious). Perhaps I should found a Fans of Scientists with Luxurious Flowing Hair Club. Here are some sample locks, a kind of hair porn shot, if you ask me:

hair shot from jir site
Thoughtful of them to post their members' info!

Focusing for Self-Portraits

Consultants need to provide photos of themselves that look professional for speaking events and publications from time to time. Blogs and social networking sites also benefit from author photos; and if you're in the online dating game, you need to make your self-portrait a serious piece of work.

Here's a nice list of techniques for getting your portraits focused, if you're the one taking it on timer or otherwise: I'm Ready for My Closeup. I will admit that I hadn't thought of half of these!

As a bonus, if you aren't using your DSLR in manual or advanced modes yet and don't understand some of the terms above, you might read this article from Lifehacker: Master Your DSLR Camera, Manual Mode and More.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Designing Your Home Page

Kicking this one off, here's a good article by Joel Spolsky about the design of the product home page for FogBugz, which nicely spotlights the badness of committee decision-making in design. They tried to achieve too many things with too much input, the results frayed, and finally they [he] had to make the tough decision to start over and stick to a single unified vision with fewer "votes" on the matter. You can track this in the mockup screenshots.

Joel also makes a good point about the difference between the company page and the product page in terms of their goals. Nice willingness to go with entirely different styles, as a result. A brave decision!

I've been involved in a few home page design discussions the past year of consulting. They tend to be wicked problems (i.e., ill-defined, messy, and circular). Some of the reasons for this:

  • There may be a difference between who you are and what you do, which may be important and hard to describe. Or hard to recognize.
  • There may be a difference between who you WANT to be and who you are. This is hard to design for, because when you stray from what you are, you tend to confuse people.
  • Conveying who you WANT to be in a clear fashion can only happen if you have a clear idea of who you want to be, and test your methods of conveyance on people to see if it flies. This is different from usability testing as usually understood.
  • A bunch of company stakeholders who disagree on these things (who we are, who we want to be) can't communicate this to a designer very successfully. Design will then take a longer time, with more iterations, and may turn into a committee consensus nightmare.
  • Design directions can be contradictory -- sometimes you can't say two or more complicated things, and you can't do both well enough to succeed at either. Let alone 10!
  • If your business is confusing or going through a change of some kind, it's almost inevitable that the design reflects this, without a very strict control on it. No designer will succeed in clarifying confused input when the underlying problem is actual confusion. The designer may see this going on and be able to point it out, but that won't get it solved. The problems may be too high, too deep, and too wicked themselves. Solving them is much harder than the simple design problem at hand.

One client was working on a new project that was barely outlined in a development spec. He asked me "What do we do for our home page? We're really worried about that." It was premature for this, because most of the business plan didn't exist yet. The design input they REALLY needed was "Your business idea is a little too complicated right now. Can you simplify it first? Here are a bunch of others in your space with successful 3 bullet explanations on their home page. Can you meet that level of simplicity?"

Sadly, most designers aren't in a position to spur you to clean up your entire business plan. Or to make it clear that this might be needed because it's hard to make it sound simple when it's not. (At least, without lying.)

I think design is a strategic activity - requiring hard, brave, high level decisions in order to direct the minds and hearts of customers; and a creating a good business plan is therefore partly a design activity. To create a business that is clear and attractive to prospects, and therefore portrayable as such, requires high-level decision making inside a company. If more business leaders thought like designers, or more designers were in business roles, the execution of the home page would be a lot simpler.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Food for Brains

It's been a tough week - minor road accidents in snow, encounters with consultants that earn $2500 for a few hours of phone time [I don't earn this!] - so here's venty post on something that bugs me: People with bad memories. I don't mean bad in the sense of "I lost my keys again," more in the sense of "Weren't you going to schedule that meeting?" No, you were, you said you would! Why do I suddenly feel so defensive, when I did nothing wrong??

Any number of excellent books have been written about project management and scheduling, but few of them confront this phenomenon head on, and I've now seen it at a bunch of companies. Someone important, or even just useful, can cause a lot of damage by having a bad memory. If they're a manager, it might become their employee's second job to stockpile email in case they need to "prove" who's mistaken at review time. If it's a peer, they don't pull their share of the work because they conveniently forgot to do most of it and someone else has to, or some schedule slips. This might be passive aggressive (if they're not a psychopath or an asshole), but since it's the holidays, let's consider that it might be a medical problem. Maybe they're eating badly?

A few suggestions for coping: Start ordering in veggie platters. Take them out for sushi whether they like it or not. Leave them Secret Santa Ginkgo Biloba supplements by their monitor. And finally here's a list of some nice articles from Psychology Today on food for your brain, which I rather enjoyed:

Happy holidays, and eat better! [Edited to add: Consider hiring a chimp instead if your team mate or manager can't remember things after eating better.]

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fan Videos, Redux or Three

There's been a sudden spurt of press about fan video creators recently, specifically New York Magazine's profiling of Luminosity, in Online Videos 2007. Henry Jenkins has a short writeup here, suggesting he nominated her work. And here's a coincidentally timed article in the Japan Times on anime fan music video, pointed to by a vidder friend of mine.

While I'm at it, here's a link to my older post about a talk I gave at IBM on fan video creators. LiveJournal is one of the main places they are hanging out now, and in that post and talk I showed some network relations among "vidder" groups on LJ. The anime vid crowd is very distinct from the other TV show vidding crowds. They have an aesthetic and interests that evolved very independently. (As a former fan vidder myself, I don't love LiveJournal and what it's done for and to fandom's communication, but it has certainly been a nice central point for many folks to find each other and also avoid each other if wanted. LiveJournal's prominence in online media fandom is also mentioned frequently in Henry Jenkin's Gender and Fan Culture discussion.)

And speaking of gender and academic studies, I have a minor peeve about the discussion of vidding and Lum's work in that New York mag article, and in Henry's writeup. I suppose this is also one reason I got disillusioned by the academic studies of fandom while I was on their fringes as a fan vidder and grad student. There's a bit too much focus on stuff like "feminist critique" of TV shows and other big concepts that seem to "legitimize" something that to outsiders probably looks goofy and crazy. (Unless they're active in sports fandoms, and even then, that's okay in a way that TV fandom isn't!) The very vids that were picked of Lum's to host on NY mag's site in a postage-stamp-sized, stopmotion playback fashion are kind of off-topic, to me. They aren't the emotional ones about plot and story and character, they're commentary with gorgeous images and effects. I don't mean this in any way to criticize her work, which is excellent as always; but they aren't the ones of hers that are best-loved by the fan consumers. She herself says she goes for the emotional punch; so to me this makes these vids odd choices for the story, perhaps ones that were thought to hold up better to outsiders?

And a few comments on the online video THING that bugs most of the purist vidders. It may mean greater access and easier distrubition being on YouTube or Imeem, but the playback still sucks. Big screen quality of experience, caliber of edits, timing, etc. are all important to fan vidders. These online sites don't support it, and that means a lot of vidders just aren't happy with them as a means of distribution. If you watch vids on YouTube, you aren't seeing the real thing. I'm just saying. It started long before the Internet, and still lives in parallel, despite what people having conferences about online video might say. To illustrate, here is a long list of vids made about the Professionals (a UK tv show), with dates and authors. Look at the dates lower in the list. Those were made on VCRs, the way many of us started.

Relevant other links: DIY video conferenece, covering fan video in part, in February 2008. (They have reviewed submissions for the ones they think are best, by their criteria, not community criteria, again? I know a fan or two is involved, but still, their conference site worries me.) Some friends of mine whom I used to vid with posted a sampler of vids, including one of my co-authored ones, announced here. If you want to see all of Luminosity's fan works in non-postage-stamp jerky playback, her list is here.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Compelling Travel Slide Shows

A link for my family, and anyone else in this situation: You've come back from the vacation of your life, and you want to share. Your vacation photos should leave them wanting more, not less, and definitely not caffeine. Read "The Ultimate Guide to Memorable Travel Slideshows."

Some tips: Choose one or two evocative pics, not 8 of the same thing. Mix up people with landscape, for variety. Insert movie clips occasionally, to spice it up.

Software to make this easy: Surprisingly difficult to make a simple animated slideshow, it turned out. I tried a few programs that were on my computer and finally got results from Photoshop Elements, which will export a nice slideshow movie to Premiere Elements for creation of the DVD itself. On the Mac, the settings and process was a little hidden and didn't offer the same control over the zoom/pan effect, but you can achieve the same results with iPhoto and iDVD. It seems that Picasa will do it (haven't tried). Some DVD authoring apps will, and any movie-making app, but you really want some tools built for slideshows to make it easier for yourself.

Disclaimer: I've definitely violated these rules too, so this was a good reminder to me, too.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cayman Island Critters

I went to Grand Cayman for snorkeling, and while it was excellent, I saw a lot of unexpectedly interesting animals.

The Blue Iguana is indigenous and endangered, but there are lots of other green iguanas and little brown lizards running around. The retired ones sun themselves on rich people's personal boat docks and pose for you. The blue iguanas roaming at the botanic gardens sport blue bling, a sample shown here: cayman blue iguana

The sting rays at Sting Ray City were amazingly interested in people. I guess they know a good food thing when they see it. You are swamped by them when you drop anchor in the shallow waters. The story is that fishermen cleaned their catch out there to avoid mosquitoes on land, and one smart guy turned it into a tourist attraction, undetered by Steve Irwin's sad demise at the tail of one. (Here is an article on "sting ray injuries survived.") They feel mushroomy on their underside, and sandpapery on the top side.

Here's a romantic shot of them in the water, but for up close and personal, you need to go see my critter picture collection here. (There is only one underwater shot there, to show off their smile, and one of the sting ray kiss you get wrestled into when you visit them on the tourist boats.) cayman sting rays

Finally, turtles are farmed for food and tourists there. I found the crowding conditions a mite disturbing, but it's undeniably an aesthetic experience to see all those shells and mottled skin up close. Also, undeniably expensive to get in. I did it for the photo opp, and the chance to snorkel in a private lagoon with turtles in training. Training for people like me touching them while swimming, I guess. In said turtle park were also pretty birds from the Caribbean, which you can see in the critter photos. cayman turtle

When I got home, I discovered a newly arrived National Geographic Traveler mag had an article reviewing destination islands, scoring them in part by how much tourism is affecting them. [I discovered I'd been in a few of their top 20 already, and added more to my destinations desired list.] They were pretty much on target about Grand Cayman: "Exceptional diving and snorkeling but banking defines the island. Tourism is heavily weighted to cruise ships." I'd add: with huge resorts, and retirement McMansions as seen in Florida. But it was the best walk-off-shore-snorkeling I've found yet.

Cayman photos here: turtles, lizards, birds, rays, beaches.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Adventure Travel

I've been delinquent in blogging, due to travel (Cayman Islands for water, pics coming) and a whole lot of work. Speaking of travel, National Geographic's Adventure Travel magazine site has a tool that offers reviews of adventure travel companies. Pretty cool. I'd spend all my time on these trips if it weren't for the money, of course.

For a more eclectic and perhaps affordable set of options, use the site a friend recommended, from which I found my trip to Morocco: Adventurecenter. They aggregate trips from many companies, and have reasonable search options including price. Airfare is usually not included, and you'll find that it's the biggest issue with most of the more interesting destinations (read: off-the-beaten track). If you're afraid of traveling to "exciting" places alone (as a woman, I am), this type of group travel can be really fun.

For other resources on cheap travel, I recommend this site: Worldscheapestdestinations. It's not pretty, but the info is good.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Fast Company: ebay, and Business in Siberia

I caught up on the latest print version of Fast Company on a flight, and I have to admit I'm loving it via print. I read almost ever word, while on the site I just browse occasionally. And now I can point to fun stuff, since the mag is all online.

First, some slightly irksome "news": ebay is trying to revamp itself in the face of flattening numbers. Like a lot of business press, this makes a hero-to-be out of a new exec hire, Matt Carey, CTO. He learns in paragraph one during a focus group that the site is hard to use. He determines to "make the buying process efficient and fun again."

Having heard the industry gossip for years about the company -- mostly from designers who've left in droves -- the people who knew it was hard to use and knew it needed usability and design work weren't listened to when it might have prevented flattening numbers in the first place. Too risky to change what was seen as successful! Till the big picture numbers start to look scary, and the competition spreads, I guess. That's when it might already be too late. A reminder that design and usability are strategic competencies not handled well by most executive boards at most companies.

On to more fun: Nightmare in Boomtown, a story you could not make up. With all the twisted personalities at work, it would make a good movie. It's the saga of a fallen rabbi gone to Kazakhstan to do business, and getting eaten alive by the corrupt system and an angry gangster rival who wanted a $5 million dollar discount he didn't get. It probably cost a few hundred thousand, but the ex-rabbi gets locked up in a Siberian jail for a year and virtually abandonned by any officials who should care.

In October 2006, after 11 months in Siberia, Seidenfeld was loaded aboard a prison train to be extradited from Russia to Kazakhstan. For 32 days, he was stuffed into a 3½-foot-by-7-foot cell in a boxcar with one toilet for 60 convicts. His fiancĂ©e, Natiya, doggedly followed the train on its 3,000-mile journey, intercepting it as it stopped at detention centers. Word of the presence of a wealthy Western businessman had traveled fast among the prisoners, and Seidenfeld learned early on the importance of isolating himself as much as possible. Natiya secured lawyers wherever the train stopped, bribed officials, and did whatever she could to make sure Seidenfeld traveled in his own cell. He kept his head down while shuffling to and from different prison stops to avoid the batons of the more-sadistic guards. "If I had been kept with the rest of the population, I might not be around today," he says.
Really a fascinating read....

Saturday, October 20, 2007

October Roundup: Owls, UFOs, Ghosts

I've been busy on non-work related activities, for once!

Owls: Saw-whet migration is upon us. The local birders with Mass Audubon were caught off-guard by how many of the little owls are on the move south from Canada this year. Record numbers on some nights, and earlier than usual. These are tiny, adorable owls, who seem to like people and hang out for a bit. They even like being petted, which makes them a great ambassador for birdkind.

I put up a gallery of their extreme cuteness: Saw Whet Owl Banding in MA. I will be posting some video later. But for now, I require you to be amazed (this is not a baby bird):

Here's another set of photos (with a better macro lens) featuring yours truly holding one of these cutie pies.

And just to be slightly scientific, the site with the most data on the migration patterns and how to track these guys lives at Project Owlnet.


Last weekend I also went to a local UFO conference, hosted by Mass Mufon. There were two very interesting talks, one on crop circles and the other on the Shag Harbor Incident in Nova Scotia.

The crop circle presentation started quite strong, with a lot of data and images that can also be found on the website at BLT Research. My data analysis interest was piqued but then dismayed by claims of correlations as "proof." The speaker got less scientific and more, well, peculiar towards the end when she announced a bunch of other phenomena including the ghost of her dead brother caught on film at recent circles. I don't quite understand why the folks interested in paranormal end up mixing it all together so readily; one phenomenon probably has nothing to do with another!

The Shag Harbor UFO Crash Incident from 1967 was entertainingly recounted by Chris Styles, a good storyteller who had collected a lot of documents from the Canadian government (who are much happier to send things out on request than the US government). The most interesting sidebar was that a character named Maurice "Mace" Coffey was working as a parapsychologist investigating mysterious phenomena in the Canadian Air Force at the time of the "crash." He was the Fox Mulder of Canada. He's also editor of a collection of Maritime poetry and was later an important figure in the Northwest Territories (once helping find a downed plane, in which the survivor had lived only by cannibalism). I personally wanted to hear more about Mace, and maybe less about the RCMP.

Ghosts: I've received a few more stories about Windhouse, the haunted house in Scotland that I keep track of here. The essay is updated at the bottom with more photos from contributor Phil Mortimer (scary Photoshop work as shown below) and from another relative of a former inhabitant, Kate Bainbridge.

Phil Mortimer pics of Windhouse

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Search Engine Poetry Generator

I've always liked random poetry generators (I could dig up some of my favorites, but I'll save it for another day) -- so I wrote one based on an idea I saw on someone else's blog. (I admit their idea is more interesting, but I had a simple goal to start with: practice with SQL and PHP on my hosting server.)

My generator builds random "poetry" by stringing together keywords and keyphrases that hit my site from searches in the last month. (I'm afraid it's not a real-time feed from my logs, it's canned from the last month.)

Popular searches on my site: ghosts, Canada, and disorganized organizations. It makes for peculiar poetry, not good, but kind of fun. Victoria's Secret is definitely showing up more and more, too.

One of them:

alice in wonderland porn
  i need
  tivo patents

for me, illusion
   -- erin
Give it a try, or ten...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Randy Pausch and Collaboration

I thought I had blogged about Randy Pausch's opening plenary talk at CHI in 2005, but apparently I didn't, and now I can't find his handout on teamwork. I know it's floating somewhere. But there are a couple of sites with notes: Usability News and the CHI 2005 conference website (the Conference on Human Computer Interaction, spelled CHI so it's pronouncable, hah).

I thought of his talk last week when I was giving a talk about design, stressing the difficulty and value in cross-disciplinary collaboration to an engineering company. (I've also been lurking on the Alice site wondering when the next version would come out, so this was timely!)

In his plenary, Randy had a bunch of great points about how hard teamwork between artists and developers is, particularly in our technocentric culture. Some of the points from the CHI summary:

  • Neither side can be in service of the other
  • A goal "above" either discipline really helps
  • Different disciplines have different values, moral and otherwise

It's a form of prejudice to assume that people who aren't technical aren't valuable during the design process. Despite being quite technical myself by design standards, I run into this pretty frequently at the places I work. Randy himself is an arrogant geek SOB (as he'd admit) but he has some ability to recognize and verbalize these issues, which means there's hope for others too -- if they're as smart as he is and capable of self-reflection. His students will probably do some great good in the world, after they get tired of the game industry.

Speaking of hope, Randy's dying of pancreatic cancer at 46; and his last lecture was televised here. He's surprisingly young and healthy, but he doesn't expect to live beyond a few months more. That's the world we've got, but it's still fun and funny, if you listen to Randy talk about being a kid and growing up to do the things he always wanted to do.

Recommended, especially the part on mentors. (Thanks for the link, Xiaoyu.)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Visual Personality Tests

Random personality tests of recent discovery: tests that rely only on visuals. Or, kind of.

This first one is "psychogeometrics." Go here and pick the shape you are most drawn to. If you want to really test the test, before you click on it to read about yourself (!), take a short questionnaire (not visual) here and see if the shape it picks for you matches what you chose by look alone. (Mine: "You appear to be a complex personality. Or perhaps you didn't take the questions seriously.")

Then, for a really visual one, take the Dewey color test. This one is entirely based on response to colors, and comes with an interesting color chart for the month, kind of like biorhythms in flavor but all in hues.

I found out about the latter because another former colleague of mine dropped out of interface design management to become a color and interior design consultant, and she uses the Dewey system. She says she got sick of fighting for good software. That makes 4 colleagues (2 junior, 2 exec level) who have quit the UI design fight in mid-career. Who's next? Are other software professions like this?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Stats on Remote Viewing Tests

There are lots of bogus stats studies on parapsychology tests, but this looks more promising: UC Davis statistician analyzes validity of paranormal predictions. Pity it's in something called "The California Aggie."
In 1995, Utts was hired by the American Institutes of Research, an independent research firm, along with psychologist Ray Hyman from the University of Oregon to analyze data from a 20-year research program sponsored by the U.S. government to investigate paranormal activity.

After doing initial research, Hyman and Utts found statistical support, she said.

"The two of us did this review and we both concluded that there were really strong statistical results there, but [Hyman] still didn't believe that it could be explained by something psychic - he thought there would be some explanation [that he] can't provide," Utts said.

The research program involved remote viewing, in which test subjects were asked to describe or draw an unknown target. The target could be anything and could be located anywhere. According to Utts' meta-analysis of the 966 studies performed at Stanford Research Institute, subjects could identify the target correctly 34 percent of the time. The probability of these results occurring by chance is .000000000043.

In contrast, statistical support for the effect of aspirin on heart attacks: "The results demonstrated that aspirin reduced the number of heart attacks in people likely to have heart disease by 25 percent, with a probability of it occurring by chance equaling .0003."

Hyman's concern is valid, of course; the stats don't tell us causation, just that there's a pattern in the data that's unlikely to be due to chance. All sorts of biases could have been introduced during the experiments to produce the results.

But it's still provocative!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

BostonCHI Panel: User Experience Organizations

There was a good cross-company discussion of organizational models for User Experience (UX) teams at Boston CHI on Sept 11 (check that link for full bios on the speakers). Companies represented by managers, directors, and VPs of UX: EMC, Oracle, Symantec, and Fidelity (with Sun and others in the audience).

Some themes that emerged:

  • Need to maintaining standards and cross-company guidelines requires having high level management or at least view that spans the organization — with creative org charts and management across sites often happening as well;
  • Difficulty getting enough staff to meet demand (settle instead on doing fewer things well rather than over-extending, and making the case for more people that way);
  • Organizations have more interaction designers than usability, by 2-to-1 or more (again, a separation of design from testing roles);
  • Assumption that "good user experience" is no longer something that has to be argued for, it's seen as an obvious competitive advantage (the only mild disagreement from Fred at Fidelity);
  • Engineering pay scale for their UX staff (common except for Fidelity, where pay didn't come up — since Fidelity hires a lot of low-paid contractors, I suspect they don't pay their internal folks by engineering scales ).
  • Get the design right up front, or pay for it later. Very broadly assumed to be understood here!
Less obvious themes that resonated from my past few years in the field as manager and individual:
  • UX people can get bored working on the same thing, or the thing with too small a scope. Being able to move across projects will help with this issue.
  • Not having to be accountable for all your project time means being able to do cross-product things and user studies that will improve design work downstream (it doesn't mean goofing off on long lunch breaks!).
  • Long-distance management working remarkably well with the right management attitude.
  • From Oracle, being responsible for good products, not just good specs (teamwork in an organization). [Adobe, while I was there, was terribly concerned with the checkoff that UI had delivered a spec on time and were not "blockers" on the product schedule; this was an ill of centralized UI management that wasn't very flexible in the development process or in terms of their deliverables on each team.]
  • Value of being managed and reviewed by people who know what you do, not being dependent on managers who don't understand your process, contributions, and work products.
  • Investment in prototyping and development.

Relevant past post on my blog: my study of the job postings for UX folks on the BayCHI mailing list for 3 years. Oracle, Symantec, and EMC are on the graphs, but not very high in terms of number advertised for relative to overall size of the company. Fidelity doesn't appear at all, but it hires mainly in MA, I believe.

I have a full report (albeit sketchy) from the panel and the questions posted here. Scroll down to get past this recap on the top!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Infovis at Yahoo

Apparently infovis is the new design black -- except design always had black, so that's not quite right. In any case, the new Yahoo Design Innovation Team site features more infovis displays than actual design work. By this I mean it features projects that display nice visuals of data, usually over time, in the form of movies. There is a lot of rhetoric in the intros about "unexpected patterns," but I must admit to finding a lot of them a little opaque. Only one of the projects is interactive, a cute but not very compelling "design a plant" flash application.

There seems to be an explosion of information visualization artwork suddenly, I suppose because the tools to create it are ripe and available. (Data is available as well, especially if you work inside a Yahoo or Google, but that's not even necessary.) But, curmudgeonly, I'm irritable at it, because so few of them feel polished into usefulness or offer useful interactivity. Infovis needs usability (and evaluation), too, like other design artifacts.

Other observations on infovis displays of recent months: time series data is the current black of infovis -- showing changes over time, usually in animation format. Perhaps it was last season's black, because it's everywhere in the current crop of visualizations, including those on Yahoo's design site (traffic issues in LA, trips -- similar to the beautiful one in processing of airline flight patterns). This makes tremendous sense -- as humans we live in 4 dimensions and it's nice to get information about that 4th one. However, just because it's visible, doesn't make the story it's telling useful. Sometimes you want to take an insight from the time progression you watched and flatten it back into 2 or 3 dimensions to get the story summarized in a form that's useful without it disappearing in time. I don't see this option to convert easily from "playback" to flat summary of a time window in most time series animations, and would often like it. (Bar charts that move over time aren't what I'm talking about, because those are still moving!) Notice that this request asks for not just visualization, but actual interactive tools to play with the data and explore it!

The other thing many folks are exploring, and I think less successfully, is text data. Unstructured text offers a few obvious and old hooks: context around specific words and word or phrase frequencies. Beyond that, things get hard fast, because you have to think about parsers or other complex data mining models. Text vis is the ultra-violet of infovis. There are a couple projects on Yahoo's page that inspect word use at the basic level: the pronoun context display, and the answer cloud frequency display (why are piercings and hysterectomies showing up so often? Is this an artifact of the time window she looked at or something about the user populations issues?).

Regardless of the curmudgeony post, it's nice to know where Joy Mountford is these days.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pavel's Puzzles

Thank goodness, just when I was dreading starting my post about strategy and tactics, Pavel Curtis gave me a good excuse to avoid it: he's launched an online puzzle shop! Since I'm currently reading the slightly evil yet fascinating The 4 Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich which describes many such businesses, I'll be fascinated to watch his progress. (Updated to add: Here's his announcement post about it, on his regular blog.)

Pavel is not only a Lisp hacker with mathematical talents, ex-PARC denizen, and founder of famous online community LambdaMOO, he's a gentleman who co-hosts an annual games party on New Year's that attracts an interesting crowd. I went once attached to one of his invitees, and it was more fun than I would have expected, being your typical uncompetitive, non-gamer who freezes under public performance pressure. His and other puzzles dotted the house, I recall. That was back in the hills of Palo Alto, before the more recent Seattle move! We are all getting old and moving too often.

If you like puzzles with interesting stories, go help Pavel retire from the Evil Seattle Empire and become the new rich!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Classic Software Mistakes: Steve McConnell

Steve McConnell's blog is advertising a survey on the prevalence and severity of software management mistakes. It's worth taking it, just to see the long list of possible disasters. I don't think it's a wonderful survey as surveys go (they are very hard to do well), but it might make you feel slightly better about your current development environment when you see all the things that can go wrong. Or, not.

Some examples:

  • Insufficient planning
  • Abandonment of planning under pressure
  • Subcontractor mismanagement
  • Lack of effective sponsorship (at executive level)
  • Outsourcing to reduce costs
  • Unclear project vision
  • Switching development tools in the middle of a project
  • Lack of automated source code control
They're all defined during the survey, so it may feel a little long to take (plan on 20 minutes). My biggest difficulty was that a lot of them overlap, and it's hard to tell which one to "vote" for! I also wondered what he meant by "catastrophic" results -- I decided it meant people quitting, rather than projects getting killed, since it's often hard to consider the latter a catastrophe instead of a mercy killing.

I admit to mixed feelings about McConnell and this survey doesn't help reduce them -- he and his books are written as if no one but developers are involved in building software, which alienates me as a designer. His discussions of requirements, planning, and design don't seem to allow for the involvement of user researchers or even product managers, let alone interface designers who may have to write the specs. One "classic mistake" I see is to leave all the interaction design, visual design, requirements collection, and user testing to developers who also need to be writing code; may not know how to do the non-coding work well; and may not want to do it "all" themselves.

Software is and has been a multi-disciplinary effort for a long time now. McConnell has a huge readership, but hasn't helped spread that word, which set us all back a bit, I think.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Create the Future Design Contest: My Press Release

I am very pleased to be able to make my own press release for a project I've worked on the last few months, the NASA Tech Briefs Create the Future Design Contest website. The contest this year is co-sponsored by SolidWorks, a great company and my current client. The contest is open to all inventors regardless of their software choice, however!
Design Contest Graphic

Grand Prize is $20,000, and there are significant other prizes in the prize list, too. Plus, a great t-shirt if you enter with a qualified entry. (The contest image was acquired--legally--from the patently absurd inventions archive.)

The Create the Future design contest has been running for at least 5 years now. They regularly receive around 1000 entries. In previous years, the folks at NASA Tech Briefs handled this contest entirely on paper, which was a lot of work for them. There was no website featuring the entries, so the entrants had no idea what their competition was, and the public didn't get to play at all.

SolidWorks (and I) wanted to make the fun more visible and reduce the work for the NTB editorial team. So we've dragged the contest into, okay, about the year 2004 -- the site is pretty basic, was done on a shoestring dime, and next year will be a lot fancier and more dynamic. But I'm still very pleased at what we've done.

We wanted to help people who enter have a better shot at winning, too -- I emailed all the past year's judges and asked them what advice they had for entrants, and we got excellent responses. Anyone considering entering should definitely read the Tips page.

I was particularly struck by how important clear communication is in creating a good entry. Some example quotes:

  • One judge recommends: “Write at least 4 drafts of your presentation and have 2 or 3 people of various levels of understanding review it. This will provide for a presentation suited for the diverse backgrounds of the judges.”
  • "I look for a concise description of the design and ask, ‘Have I seen this before?’ and ‘Do I think this is useful?’ If it passes those tests, it makes it to the ‘for further review’ pile. “Then, I’ll look again at the entries I initially discarded and ask if they are trying to take something similar and existing to a new level. If the answer is ‘yes’ and the idea is useful, it goes on the final’ pile.”
  • “For models of good technical presentations, check out Science, Nature and other well-known technical periodicals. You’ll see a good cross-section of abstracts and structured papers. The contest emphasizes content, not structure—but in a professional setting, structure is important."
The CAD world has a tendency to think it's all about the beautiful image, but the text is enormously important in this contest.

Although the main prizes are awarded by the NASA Tech Briefs' invited judges panel, there are 10 prizes for the entries that most captured the public eye. You can help by coming to view them yourself, and posting links to the entries you particularly like. While you're looking around, try finding the guy who has a real beef with NASA (whoa), the personal cooling system, the strangely redundant (IMO) salt and pepper shaker. You may not be surprised by the entry with the current top page views -- apart from being a very cool idea, it's extremely well-written, too.

Help us advertise the contest and the best entries! And consider entering yourself. There's still plenty of time: the contest closes for entries in October. Even if you're afraid you're not up to NASA Tech Brief's judging panel, you might capture the public eye and get blogged and get famous (and get $250 too).

(After the next round of contest entry validations, when we've got more visible on the site, I'll post some links to my own favorite entries to help them out on their page views.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dream Jobs and the Test Drive

I had a brief exchange with someone about creative burnout recently, moving this post topic to the top (under bras). The fact is, sometimes burnout is more serious than just a temporary task malaise and means you should think hard about what you're doing for a living, not just the current task or current boss.

BUT: Sometimes the current job is just the current job, so don't over-react, either. I've seen 3 people have a bad time from either overwork (dotcom era) or bad roles (at a good company) and change careers very dramatically. One opened a record store in Seattle, and 2 became chefs. I'm not saying they were bad decisions, except maybe the record store; but sometimes you need to try out another company first.

Or, you need to try out the job you think you want, and see if it's really better. That's the service provided by this interesting company, Vocation Vacation. That bookmark goes to the photographers' page, which I occasionally stare at.

The idea is that you go on a vacation where you work with someone in the career who acts as a mentor and shows you the ropes. It's like an internship, only shorter, and probably for older folks like me. If you saw the movie "In Her Shoes," there's a great career switch in there, from high-powered stressed lawyer to something much more fun, along these lines:

Dog Day Care Owner.Do you sit in your office and wonder what Rover is doing at home? If you dream of your life going to the dogs, then this VocationVacations® holiday is for you! Dog Daycare owner Heather Stass would love to share her passion as Top Dog at K9 Capers Doggy Daycare.

Heather has extensive experience working with animals. She has a Bachelor’s degree in animal behavior and multiple years of kennel management experience. As a Dog Daycare owner she belongs to the North American Dog Daycare Association and the American Kennel Association’s Dog Daycare Division. She has owned K9 Capers for four years. more...

Before you completely ditch your job and current career, try out a new one and see if it's really that much more fun. Or, in another bold move, do two at once for a while. That's how one of my friends did it -- she sleep walked through her old bad job (remember, virtually no one gets fired for not doing much) and started up her new career after hours and on weekends, till she was ready to quit the first one.

If you're self-employed, having two jobs at once, either two clients, or two different professions, is another way to stay energized. You always have a backup and an escape from what you have to do Right Now.

Finally, if you're thinking about changing jobs, here's another kick-in-the-pants if you still need it: The Right Career is Yours for the Taking.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Victoria's Secret Market Research? Or not.

From my huge backlog of things to post, today I choose Victoria's Secret's online survey -- because I'll be tickled by the effect on my web logs.

Yes, in the past I have bought from VS, and do still buy their bras from time to time, despite the price tag. So I got sent an online survey. I always take these market research surveys for professional reasons, since I write them myself for clients from time to time. This one was, well, just strange.

It's hard to judge it as bad or good without knowing what branching logic they have built in. Branching means: If a respondent picks option (a), show them a different followup set of questions than if they had picked option (b). So I may not have seen the whole thing, and may have ended up in a strange cul-de-sac for people who buy bras because they're sexy. I hope not.

When I got to this checklist of "how does your bra makes you feel" (or somesuch), I was genuinely surprised. There are no negatives in here, and the word "supported" doesn't appear. I wonder what they can learn from this, apart from what they want to hear? The only way to avoid their positive bias is to check nothing, which I suspect will be tough for that helpfully-minded customer set that like to fill out surveys.

Previous to this question, they asked about other retailers you buy from. Now, if they had the usual sort of market research plan, I would expect to see an attempt at a basic SWOT analysis on the results: analysis of their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

How do you do that? Well, the logic is roughly this:

  1. Ask:Where do you buy your bras?
  2. Ask:What's important to you about your bra?
  3. Ask:What's your feeling about the bra you bought?
  4. Data analysis: For people who bought from us in (1), what's the difference between (2) and (3). If there's a big gap, that's our opportunity, going forward. (And roughly, strengths and weaknesses, when you compare against people who bought from Sears and Macy's and Frederick's of Hollywood on the same dimensions.)
If they're going after pure brand image and evaluation of their own success at achieving it, I think they still screwed up. Or at least they lost a serious opportunity in their data collection. They know where I shop (or where I said I shop, where I remembered I shopped), and they didn't have any adjectives that don't seem to be their personal target brand image in the list.

With the right vocabulary choices, including negatives and neutrals, they could have done some interesting segmentation based on where their own customers fall in "feeling" versus the other retailers' customers. Something like this:

They can always conclude from their data that some of their customers aren't that interesting to them from a marketing perspective (e.g., the people who shop at Sears, like their stuff a lot, and only occasionally go into a VS store -- because they'll be hard to capture if they're not dissatisfied enough with Sears).

In any case, some other common mistakes I see in market research via survey:

  • You try to collect too much in one survey, and can't do the analysis (plus you irritate the people who filled it out). You can always get more data later in other forms.
  • You don't know what you're trying to get out of it, so you can't construct the instrument well to get anything at all.
  • You set it up to learn what you want to hear (which is what I think was going on with VS -- I won't even tell you about the underwear questions), so you learn nothing and waste time, money, and your customers' patience.
  • You collect the data, then don't know what to do with it. You either don't do much, because of lack of skills in data analysis (clustering, mining, etc), or worse, you do nothing. You have it, but didn't take advantage of it. (This makes me quite uptight when I run into it. Good data is gold. My consulting tagline is "data-driven" for a reason.)
  • You solicit data from the wrong people, but don't even know it, because your survey didn't check on their credentials for answering and providing input. So you can't toss out any of the responses to clean the rest of the data.
End data rant of the week... I think I'm going to Sears now.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Waterfire Photos

On Saturday, I visited Providence's town-wide art installation, Waterfire. Picture a huge number of bonfires in the middle of the river and a large crowd of fire watchers, some lucky gondola riders with glasses of wine in hand, fire volunteers in black boats with logs, and eerie music. Very pagan. You can smell the smoke and wood from the river banks.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Asshole-Driven Development on Berkun

Time for my weekly post on assholes in corporations, I guess; this is a few weeks behind, but I needed to space out the AH stuff, and I was busy.

Berkun posted an idle conversation starter on what he called "asshole-driven development" and the responses brought down his server. Then Lost Cog did some content analysis of the styles of development described by the comment thread. It seems to be going on and on. Some of the original categories identified:

  • Asshole Driven development (ADD) - Any team where the biggest jerk makes all the big decisions is asshole driven development.
  • Cognitive Dissonance development (CDD) - In any organization where there are two or more divergent beliefs on how software should be made.
  • Cover Your Ass Engineering (CYAE) - The driving force behind most individual efforts is to make sure than when the shit hits the fan, they are not to blame.
  • Development By Denial (DBD) - Everybody pretends there is a method for what’s being done, and that things are going ok, when in reality, things are a mess and the process is on the floor.
  • Get Me Promoted Methodology (GMPM) - People write code and design things to increase their visibility, satisfy their boss’s whims, and accelerate their path to a raise or the corner office no matter how far outside of stated goals their efforts go.

As some posters and Scott noted, bad development management may be subtypes of general Management Antipatterns, like "Death by Planning."

And I'd note that these techniques aren't limited to management of technical problems, but also exist in any other project context, in slightly different forms.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Zen Error Dialog and Flash Victim

I especially like the title bar on this guy: And a friend sent a link to a great animation of a flash victim getting destroyed by the app. Lots of in-jokes for designers who use Flash, and hilarious anyway. You definitely want sound on for it.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

User Experience 2007 Survey Report

The Usability and User Experience Report 2007 from e-consultancy costs money, but the sample data are interesting enough to post about. There were 756 respondents to the survey that fed this report. (Hopefully it represents more than just the UK, where the consultancy that did the survey is based.)

Some highlights:

  • On average, organisations are investing 11.5% of their overall website design and build budgets in usability, and 13.2% of their design budgets. [If you're spending none, or you don't even know what you're spending, this may be an Issue for you.]
  • A quarter of agency / consultancy correspondents say their clients are typically indifferent whereas only 9% say their clients are extremely committed. [I admit I find this surprising -- if you've been hired as a consultant, doesn't that suggest they care? Or is the evaluation of caring based on more complex factors, such as "are you listening to my advice," "is there anyone else in your organization advocating for this," "is it likely anything will change after I leave."]
  • Top benefits/ROI for commitment to user experience and usability included as number one and two, improved perception of brand, and increased conversion rates. [Since brand is now being defined as what a customer thinks of you and what and how you do it, rather than your logo and graphic design [see, e.g., the Brand Gap], this makes a lot of sense to see here.]
  • Two thirds of the respondents say their agencies plan to increase their spending on usability in the next year.
  • The activities that are being "done" in organizations are, in order of frequency, user testing, expert evaluation, information architecture; and lagging behind, "full user-centered design" [a rigorous process that incorporates testing and design during the definition and development cycle].
  • The largest barriers are time pressure to get things done and lack of resources. [We still have a ways to go to educate businesses about the risk factors in not being more rigorous about the processes for good design up front, it seems.]
  • Project management is either not done, or being done "ad hoc." [Coincidentally, I've just written an article for interactions, a professional journal for designers, on the ways in which designers get lured away from doing design and into project management, in order to be sure that things get done. Timely!]

The full report costs $179.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sutton's Weird Ideas

I've been reading Robert Sutton's Weird Ideas That Work, which is Yet Another Book on Innovation. I like his Assholes bookand Evidence-Based Management, and this one is entertaining and provoking too. Here is the summary of the weird ideas, which he counts as 11.5, but this is hard to do automatically in html so for me it's 12:
  1. Hire "Slow Learners" (of the Organizational Code)
  2. Hire People Who Make You Uncomfortable, Even Those You Dislike
  3. Hire People You (Probably) Don't Need
  4. Use Job Interviews to Get Ideas, Not to Screen Candidates
  5. Encourage People to Ignore and Defy Superiors and Peers
  6. Find Some Happy People and Get Them to Fight
  7. Reward Success and Failure, Punish Inaction
  8. Decide to Do Something That Will Probably Fail, Then Convince Yourself and Everyone Else That Success Is Certain
  9. Think of Some Ridiculous or Impractical Things to Do, Then Plan to Do Them
  10. Avoid, Distract, and Ignore Customers, Critics, and Anyone Who Just Wants to Talk about Money
  11. Don't Try to Learn Anything from People Who Seem to Have Solved the Problems You Face
  12. Forget the Past, Especially Your Company's Successes
He says executive audiences responded to him with an "all very amusing, Bob, but we need to get things done here." I admit I'm a little bit with them on this -- it's great for consultants to come in and be creative at you, but end of the day, most of us need to ship code/product, which means teamwork of some variety, goals and means mapped out, achievable successes. But an innovation factory is a different thing, perhaps.

This said, I have seen the teamwork and normative workplace culture taken to extremes of unhealthiness, usually to the detriment of new hires with different ideas from other places. It's possible to be both infused with creative new ideas that threaten your status quo AND ship products, in my opinion. It's a challenge for mature management! To test your own culture: Check carefully how many managers, especially senior ones, were promoted from within versus hired externally. Then look at how experienced the people being hired are (sometimes, very). It might tell you something interesting about status quo thinking versus desire for fresh input.

Another test of your culture: In interviews, does the corporate "fit" come across as paramount, or the resume and evidence of work product elsewhere? I once watched a very senior statistician get turned down in favor of a more junior candidate who was just like everyone else in her skillset. I didn't fight hard enough myself on that one, I was part of the problem.

Defying authority certainly doesn't go over well in most corporate cultures I've worked in. Hierarchy is very much part of the American firm (Larry Prusack pointed this out recently at a great Boston CHI talk)-- the larger and more established the company, the more ingrained it is. I think there's a function related to size, corporate age, hierarchical position, and a person's tenure at a company that will predict how resistant she/he is to new ideas about doing things differently. Because large, successful companies are most reluctant to change what they do now (which is making money), for some sensible reasons: shareholders, golden handcuffs, employees to retain and feed, etc.

For designers, this often cashes out in how much change to an old shipping product you can make... a lesson it took me many jobs to really understand. (Note to designers hunting for jobs: Don't believe them when they say you're going to redesign it, especially if it's selling! The inertia will be strong and may become an actual undertow.) Historical success limits how much change you can make to processes that produced a selling product, even if they were flawed or painful in various ways for the people who worked on it. People are always more comfortable the way things are, regardless of what could be better.

Edited to add: It's a cultural failure mode to assume that everything is great or okay as is, but it's another one to fail to critically understand your successes, too. You can do root cause analysis for the good things too, and it might even teach you more than the failures do. If you aren't good at understanding success, you can't duplicate it, and you might make the critical morale error of celebrating the wrong factors.

Of all the weird ideas, the sensible-sounding "punish inaction" is particularly hard to see really happening in most offices. Few people are ever fired for not rocking the boat. People who aren't often noticed usually have a job for life, as long as their company keeps doing the same old expected thing.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Travel Need: Can someone help?

I'm a frustrated impulse traveler. It takes way too long to search through even existing ajax-rich travel websites for deals that meet my criteria. I'm on travel deal mailing lists (BookingBuddy, for one) but haven't found what I need. I know it's possible today, and it's a business that might already exist:

I want a search agent that's heavily customizable to send me updates when certain things happen. What I specifically want is the ability to watch for fares of certain types to specific places FROM MY LOCAL AIRPORTS, or fares for vacation deals, again, FROM MY LOCAL AIRPORTS.

Sample criteria I want to have an agent look for:

  • Boston to Greece, unusually low, no more than 1 stopover (and it can't be a 12 hour stopover)
  • Long weekend vacation packages to certain Caribbean islands, from Boston, flights no longer than 4 hours (including any stopovers). Under a certain price threshold.
  • Extraordinary low prices on fares to certain continents, again from Boston or local airports here.
  • Alerts for fares from Boston to key cities I care about (e.g., Paris, London, Cleveland, San Jose).
  • Unusual travel packages like volunteer work, adventure (er, not athletic, but cultural), educational. I get to rate these as they come in and get more like them or less like them, till it learns what I like.
  • A home page where I can tune and browse, and easily set up new email alerts; something like Amazon's Recommendations system. I want it to know me and learn about me.
Again, all this is possible. Am I missing someone's service somewhere? The cheap travel browsing sites are all very similar, too much work, and too manual for me.

PS. If someone wants to start this business, I'd be very motivated to help design it and to collect more requirements. Drop me a note.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Declassified Defense Research and Archaeological Mysteries

Wired online has had a couple recent pieces on defense research on ESP, paranormal, remote viewing, homing pigeons, etc. -- there are a bunch of abstracts now visible in the Scientific and Technical Information Network (a .mil site). Note: It is, in fact, extremely hard to use. Good luck.

I get challenged occasionally as to why a seemingly well-educated, presumably rational person would be interested in the paranormal. I'm always a little surprised by this question: Why not? Do we know everything? Isn't it rational and intelligent to assume we don't yet? Remember, a UFO is just unidentified, it's not necessarily from another planet. It's interesting to me that there are so many worth talking about, and the stories people tell about them are interesting in themselves. I'm certainly open to believing in many things, while being a strong skeptic about what counts as good data and strong argument.

Another really entertaining collection, equally amateur web-design but much easier to use: The Photo Galleries of Mystery from the MMMGroup. Truly, if you like archaeological mysteries, this is the place to browse. Make sure you hit page two, too. It might make you wonder about time travel... The phenomenon of OOPARTS, or Out of Place Artifacts, is a strong feature of the pictures of rock carvings (people with lightbulbs, space suits...) and fossilized items. Here's a blog post about this type of find with particular reference to a find in 19th century Massachusetts, a metal fossil apparently blasted out of solid rock.

On the other hand, sometimes these things are explicit funny fakes; here's a guy who briefly got away with rock art depicting a caveman pushing a shopping cart in a British Museum Exhibit (2005).

Banksy also hung a sign saying the cave art showed "early man venturing towards the out-of-town hunting grounds". It read: "This finely preserved example of primitive art dates from the Post-Catatonic era. The artist responsible is known to have created a substantial body of work across South East of England under the moniker Banksymus Maximus but little else is known about him. Most art of this type has unfortunately not survived. The majority is destroyed by zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of daubing on walls."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

CEOs Who Work Too Much

A great article in the Huffington Post on CEOs who neglect their families but get written up in Fortune for it. Low-income fathers who work too much get critizied, but Fortune blithely praises it in executives. Towards the end there's a nice bit on the long hours phenomenon more generally:
Fortunately, respect for this sort of parenting outside the board room is dwindling as baby boomers disappear from the parenting picture and Gen-Xers take their place. Sylvia Hewlett presents research to show that while baby boomers are willing to work extreme hours, younger people scoff at the idea of doing that for more than a year. And recent polls (via Hole in the Fence) show that men are sick of the long hours and want more time with their kids: Almost 40 percent of working dads would take a pay cut to spend more time with their kids. It'll be a great day when CEOs are dismissed for neglecting their kids. Meanwhile, employees, beware: CEOs like Stringer and Immelt have a negative effect on your own ability to keep your personal life intact, because work-life policy starts at the top and trickles down.

Amen. Some ways to figure out what the real corporate values around work-life balance are: Do people regularly have email exchanges on weekends or at strange hours of the night? (When you start a contract, do the execs welcome you via email sent on the weekend? :-) Who's still working at 7pm in the office?

Another point I'd add: How effective are they if they have that much to do, even at the office where they spend all their time? Executives at one of my past companies-- who praised it as an "aggressive" company with no ability to promise new hires good work-life balance and reasonable hours during their growth plans-- were themselves too busy to pay attention to many of the critical management issues that cross their desks! They're way past the tipping point on being good parents at the office, or good peers-- blowing off visiting VPs, even-- never mind what their wife and kids think of them for neglecting them! (This is, of course, my own opinion on them as seen from the middle management trenches, and may not be their own or their peers' opinions.)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Dutch Near Death Experiences

A fascinating Lancet article (pdf) on a study of NDEs (near death experiences):
  • No relationship to any pre-existing medical conditions found, although young people may be more likely to experience them
  • Corroborated evidence of out-of-body experiences, despite flat EEG and coma states which should indicate impossibility of observation or recall during "death"
  • Long-term excellent recall, from interviews at 2 year and 8 year periods, of the phenomena experienced
  • Life-changing effects, even for non-religios etc. who experience them

Angry Bluebird, Happy Bunny

Both of these fellows were seen at Drumlin Farm, an Audubon site in Lincoln, MA.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

UX Boston -- I'm Speaking June 26

The newly created UX Boston group is having their first meeting. I've been asked to give my talk on designing online community; I'll be updating it with a few more concrete examples of interaction design for community and sample metrics.


UX Boston Kick-Off Meeting AND presentation: "Design for Online Communities: Past the Hype!" by Lynn Cherny, PH.D. (User Experience Consultant & Author)

WHEN? 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 26th

  • 7 p.m. 7:45: Conversation, networking, refreshments.
  • 7:45 to 9:00 p.m.: Presentation and discussion.

RVSP by Friday, June 22nd required: please send an e-mail to: [redacted due to spam] with your name and your company information.

One to One Interactive
Schraft Center | Suite 209 (2nd Floor)
529 Main Street
Charlestown, MA 02129
There is a free public parking lot at the Schraft Center.


Successful online community creation requires an understanding of both social and technical design challenges, as well as skills you may not realize you need in your organization. Face-to-face study of community predates the Internet by at least two centuries, and has been done within sociology, anthropology, and linguistics. I will review some academic background on what makes a "community," whether online or offline, and then show how these notions apply online in the form of useful design principles. I'll wrap up with some metrics for evaluation based on your choice of definitions, taking you beyond simple page views and number of members.

Bio: Lynn Cherny's books Conversation and Community (1999) and Wired_Women (1996) were classic web 1.0 studies of online community that were used in many graduate classes. Since her research days, she has been a designer and manager at, TiVo, Adobe, Mathworks, and Autodesk.


UX Boston is a new local branch of the User Experience Network, ( Our goal is to foster cross- disciplinary conversations and create connections across UX-related disciplines in the Boston area, including design, information architecture, usability, and technology development. We also serve as a bridge between other local and national UX-related groups. Membership is free and open to Boston-area UX professionals. For more information, and to help influence our meeting content, please visit:

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Stephen King on Writing -- And Design

I like this no-nonsense essay by Stephen King, Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully - in Ten Minutes. I think it applies to doing good design as well.

Here's my remapping to design:

  • "Be talented" should go without saying. Design is an art, too, even if it's data-driven. There is still creativity involved in knowing how to ask the right questions and take insight from the data.
  • "Be neat" may be my own weakest point -- I'm a sketchy ideas person, and struggle for the pixel perfect after the big insights. But I keep trying and see it as a self-improvement challenge.
  • "Be self-critical." If you haven't thrown away a bunch of ideas, and can't show that you have, you're probably not talented. The same goes for photography or any other art that takes practice to do well. Idea generation is easy, choosing the right ones for the right reasons is the skill part.
  • "Remove every extraneous feaure." That's my redoing of King's "extraneous word." It's about clean design -- it's harder to get to the core than it is to throw in everything you thought of. It's also braver, faced with the "featuritis-sells" mentality that even some (most?) customers have in saturated markets.
  • "Never look at a reference while doing the first design." Hmmm... In the spirit of letting creativity run free, I like this. But I need to think some more about its applicability here.
  • "Know the market." Know the users, know the competition, know the business. Don't work in a creative, monk-like vacuum. Your work won't be very smart and your clients/company will stare at you funny when you present it.
  • "Design to improve someone's life." King had "write to entertain," and I lean towards keeping it at the same sentiment even for a professional product -- but instead I think this is about more, like elegance, and beauty, and that "wow" moment that people get from using something that works well and does exactly what they didn't know they wanted it to do!
  • "Don't design if you've stopped having fun." If you've turned into one of those hurt, tired people who feels like no one gets it and you're wasted there, you can't be Jonathan Ive at Apple. (I don't know if he's tired, but he did stick it out and it eventually paid off.)
  • "Take usability input and use the design or start fresh." King's point is about how to weigh feedback: if you hear different things from everyone, you can probably ignore it safely; otherwise, take it seriously even if you don't like it.
  • "If it's bad, kill it." Too few companies can do this; designers themselves need to be able to do it with authority to their own ideas. You're a hack if you don't know how to filter your own ideas. Remember, ideas are cheap! You are paid to be creative, right?
Successful people are generally also practical, and King really brought that home to me. In fewer words than I would have done, to be sure! His introduction story makes a few other good points: Even people who are talented need critique and input from more experienced people to get better at what they do. They need to be receptive to that. And not everything they design will be for a domain they know something about. It's part of the talent of a good designer to get into the heads of potential users, to do the research to understand them as input to the design process.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Berkun on Innovation Myths

Another book recommendation: Scott Berkun's new Myths of Innovation. I'm a big fan of Scott's earlier book, Art of Project Management, and his new one does not disappoint. I think it stands apart from other books by consultants and design agencies on building innovative organizations. (They're now a dime a dozen.) It's short but still condenses a huge amount of material from both business lit and historical research in a way that even someone who once wrote a dissertation can be amazed at. (Note: I was not as successful as Scott was at this trick.)

One of my favorite parts is on the myth that "good ideas are hard to find." Why, no, they're not, but execution is hard. Which segues nicely to his other book; in my experience, a lot of organizations have grand product plans and grand business goals, but execute very, very poorly. The customer only ever sees a fraction of it, and often the worst fraction.

Some of the sentiments that kill good ideas before they even get to fail by execution include: "We don't have time," "That never works," "We don't do that here," "We tried that already," "That won't make enough money." A longer list lives here on Scott's Blog. I'd add the question: "Who are you, again?" Or the related, "You're here to listen, not talk" (which I've actually heard).

The issue of time is the biggie, from what I've seen in my past few companies. The execs may be reading books about innovation (for whatever reason), but at the operational level, everyone is signed up for way too much work. They can't succeed at what they've agreed to do, but they're trying anyway. Why would anyone want to sign up for more, regardless of how cool the idea is?

I have the same feeling about brainstorming; as a concept it's all warm fuzzies, considered obviously valuable, although it's often poorly or incorrectly executed (as Scott points out). In practice, though, not everyone's ideas ARE considered equivalent, precisely because of this economy of time available to the participants; given a small, finite amount of time to think and make decisions, why pay attention to the crazy sounding new kid's idea, instead of the seasoned manager who deserves to get his say because he's proved himself, right? In a more applied, problem-solution context, the more seasoned people are assumed to "know the code" or "know the users" better and therefore their opinions are worth more. It's been said out loud. It's basic human sense, right? And the less time people have, the less they're willing to extend themselves to be open.

Successful innovation might require fewer over-ambitious projects, acceptable risk and play (meaning: someone isn't working on your critical shipping "normal" work and that's okay, and not overtime work for them), plus a commitment to try to listen to all voices differently, no matter what the problem is: new product, new feature, or old ordinary problem you have to solve on an ordinary project. I'll come down strongly in favor of that last -- I think innovation can happen on "old" projects, too, and it should, to keep them viable and interesting to developers and customers.

But good project management is always needed to help you actually plan and then ship something! It's still innovation once it's in the development phase, even if it feels like just "work" then. The team needs to be supported, rather than having their work taken for granted as "a done deal" while managers go off looking for the next big idea.

I can't find it now, but one of my favorite lines from Myths of Innovation goes something like, "Successful ideas, like happy pets, are shared among many people who care about them deeply." Pet them, sometimes.

Hiring the Smart and Effective: Joel

Joel Spolsky has just published a short, concise book on his hiring principles, summarized by the excellent "Hire Smart People Who Get Things Done." His book is Smart and Gets Things Done. I've blogged about his hiring guidelines and other interviewing issues: My 20 Observations on Coporate Design touches on this, as does the post about "Joel on Interviewing, Me on Performance" and the one about "Past and Current Employees and Your Reputation."

As a consultant now, and a survivor of (too) many companies, I do and have done a lot of interviewing. As a manager, I interviewed a lot of people while hiring (especially at TiVo and Autodesk). Joel is a good guy to follow on this subject, and I find his points can be extended to interviewing for designers and good employees in general. Failure to hire well (or take the right job!) is sometimes your fault!

Some things to consider when interviewing people to hire or interviewing for a possible job yourself:

  1. A bad interview usually means "you don't want them and they don't want you." It's okay if it's not a mutual fit. Use that time wisely on both sides.
  2. Some reasons for bad interviews (that suggest bad jobs in the background): They have junior people doing the interview, because they don't take it seriously; they have unqualified people doing the interview, who don't know what's good or bad; they have the wrong expectations, because they've never hired for this type of position before or are confused about the market and the job.
  3. If you're the interviewer, and you do a bad job, that person is now possibly pissed off; freaked out; depressed; going to tell other people about your and your company. Mostly about your company because they may not distinguish between you and the company since they probably don't know you personally and you act as a representative of the company when you bring in a candidate. They may want to tell their friends, who are possible great fits, or tell their friends' friends, that you are a scary place to interview. This can do you damage and make it hard to get good candidates, needless to say (right?). I've heard more frank stories from former "rejected" candidates of the places I've worked since I left them than you can imagine. Bad word-of-mouth is not something you need in a competitive climate.
  4. Sometimes you hire badly not because the person is bad, but because your job description or belief about what's needed are inaccurate. I've also heard plenty of stories along the lines of "this is not what I thought I was hired to do." (See post on "Invisible Work," for some examples.)
  5. Someone who does a really superficial interview for a high-level position is a warning sign: either they hire other people badly so your peers will be poor colleagues, they have had a really hard time retaining and are desperate, or... something worse. Be wary of people who don't do a rigorous interview. I had a great one recently, or mostly great: the hiring manager walked me through scenarios, questions about the resume (detailed), adjectives people would use to describe me (I tried for positive and negative), past performance review feedback, etc. Her one failure was that she didn't ask why and what I was looking for up front, and in truth, I wasn't really looking! I was hoping for an informational discussion, as a consultant, first! But at worst, this wasted some of our time, and I ended up thinking she was a good manager and a possible contact for future work.

Ways you can avoid bad interviewing, as an interviewer, apart from having design/code tests and the other things Joel talks about:

  • Treat each candidate very seriously -- it requires energy, but don't convey disinterest. Intuit once sent me home with a design test, rather than doing their usual and more effective whiteboard version, which pissed me off on several fronts; and I would not interview again with them despite them having many large product groups that need good designers, and see, I'm now blogging about this; see points 1 and 3 above.
  • Get back to them in a reasonable amount of time with frank but polite response -- yes you're busy, indecisive, disorganized and unable to get everyone's input or reach a decision as a committee, but still. This is important. They're forming conclusions about you too.
  • Don't assume you're their only job option and they're not being picky and making a decision too -- you're not in as much control as you think you are here.
  • Don't let disorganized, rude, or confused HR people get involved and ruin the mood for them.
  • Have senior people involved, to show you care, and to help make the right call outside of the comfort zone of junior folks on the interview schedule. Sometimes a hire can be strategic as well as tactical.
  • Hire for potential and growth, not because of someone's current age (yes, it has happened), what they look like (yes, again), because you had budget to spend (someone still has to manage them), or because of domain knowledge that they will lose in a year off that former job. Yes, it's harder to evaluate this, but if you can't do it, maybe you're not the right person to hire or manage them?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Followup on Assholes at Work

Following up on my previous post on this... On Sutton's blog, he has a No Asshole Rule Roundup of comments he's gotten. One is quite well-taken: the subtle asshole is just as bad or worse than the flamingly obvious asshole, in their effect on morale. Sutton agrees: "Indeed, these more subtle assholes actually can often get away with doing more damage than their more 'over the top' and less politically skilled counterparts."

While googling around, I ran into this well-observed book review: Disorganized, Incompetent and Dangerous: Workers Dislike Manager Incompetence Even More Than Abuse, Study Suggests. The review is for a book I have since ordered but not yet read, Dignity at Work, by Randy Hodson. Some points from the article about it:

He found that abuse by managers was significantly connected to negative employee actions such as absenteeism and withholding effort on the job. However, the research found an even greater connection between mismanagement and these same negative employee actions.

"Nobody likes abuse, but employees can find ways to work around abusive managers. But employees don't want to be involved with chaotic, mismanaged workplaces where nothing gets done well and people feel like they can't be effective," said Randy Hodson, professor of sociology at Ohio State.

"The thing that undermines dignity more than anything is incompetence and mismanagement."

I spoke with someone recently who told me how much he'd learned from someone competent who had managed with a big stick approach, arguably an asshole by Sutton's criteria. But he had respected the guy anyway. It seemed to me in listening that he had tolerated it while he was learning, and then moved on to a more humane work environment. You decide the moral, if there is one.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

LiveJournal in the Blogosphere

Work by Matthew Hurst on mapping the blogosphere has been blogged around recently, particularly because of his cool hyperbolic graphs of the huge data set of linkages, one shown above. I post here because I've got friends reading on LiveJournal -- I know LJ folks occasionally wonder why the press about social networking sites rarely mentions LJ, favoring MySpace and others. One reason may be that LiveJournal is a fairly close-knit and separate community site, with a lot of internal links via friends lists, and not a lot of other blogging post cross-over or linkage in. (I don't know how he handled syndication on LJ friends lists, if at all.)

LiveJournal's small network cluster is shown in the image as cluster #3. The others are (1) DailyKOS, (2) BoingBoing, (4) other political bloggers, (5) porn, and (6) sports fans. LiveJournal is further out than the porn fans, but bigger! Smaller than sports fans, though.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Goat Mockery

From a nice day at Drumlin Farm, in Lincoln, MA:

Monday, May 28, 2007

Design for Online Community: Past the Hype

I've posted my slides (PDF) from a recent "mini" Usability Professionals Conference talk about online community design. The talk was well-attended! Thank you if you came.

If you didn't, the gist is this:

  • In Web. 1.0 we talked about community off the web as well as on it, in IRC, USENET, MUDS, BBSes, etc. (My dissertation and books are from that era.)
  • There are a lot of sociology, anthropology, and linguistic studies of "community" that predate the internet. What can we learn from their definitions?
  • Designing community requires special skills and ongoing commitment to the group.
  • Good definitions help you understand "when you got it." This can influence your metrics.
Virtually every slide here could be a separate full talk, especially the metrics part. Let me know if you want any more references or help on the subject. This is my first in-depth look at this topic since 15 years ago, and like then, there was a lot to digest!