How to Win Friends and Influence People Remotely

Living in Australia and working with team members based in the US and India, discovering ways of being more effective in my job, has become a bit of a hobby. However my situation is not unique. Knowledge workers are increasingly required to work in a distributed manner – in some cases this is working specific weekdays from home, in other cases it involves close interaction with team members spread across continents. Please note this is a rapidly changing area, even in the time between writing this article and its appearance on B&A many things have changed.

Outsourcing (mainly to India and China) and reductions in travel spending due to the recession has lead to more and more distributed teaming. Add to this the reduction in cost and increased availability of broadband, working from home, or moving to Hawaii is increasingly an option both requested by employees and agreed to by employers (in my case Surfers Paradise).

Once remotely located a designers ability to interact with other team members and effect change are funneled through the telecommunication mediums that the team uses to communicate. This article lists the available mediums and analyzes their respective strengths and weaknesses and provides suggestions for their effective use.

Real Time Voice

We have three main types of telephone service: landline telephone service, mobile, and VOIP. Working out which to use, when is not as straight forward as you would think.

Landline phone

A landline telephone in concert with a conference calling system forms the backbone of a distributed workers ability to communicate with team members in real time.

While many thought the introduction of mobile and VOIP would reduce the importance of landlines, in many ways the opposite has been true. Mobile disappoints as a medium for clear communication, and wide adoption of asymmetric broadband systems has in many cases hamstringed VOIP to be as a complete replacement for landlines.

A mobile phone connection has less audio fidelity than a landline, and it has a habit of dropping out or breaking up at the most inopportune moments. In one case in India, mobile providers limit conversations to 60 minutes – requiring tedious re-login to calls that spill over the hour. Added to this, the temptation for calls to be taken in inappropriate places – bars, restaurants, the shopping mall etc. – is too much to resist.

VOIP

VOIP services on the other hand are a mixed bag. Sometimes the audio fidelity can be of almost CD quality. On the other hand intermittent breaking up of the audio stream and the occasional dropped line can make them more unreliable even than mobile connections.

In my experience, current standard residential DSL and Cable IP services (at least in Australia) do not provide enough upstream bandwidth to allow both a VOIP and web conference sessions to run concurrently without some congestion issues. Of course if you are on the receiving end of a presentation it is not so much of an issue. However when you are the presenter (when it is critical that you communicate clearly), the bandwidth associated with your presentation and your voice stream invariably results in your voice breaking up giving others on the call a bad experience.

Conference Calling Tips

  • Make it a rule not to use your mobile for conference calls unless it is unavoidable, and then make sure you pick an appropriate place to take the call. Defer your turn to present – if at all possible – to when you are close to a landline.
  • Stay off your VOIP line when your presenting unless you have wide (1 megabit or greater) upstream bandwidth
  • Before the call – be sure to provide a agenda for all conference calls
  • Web conferencing – if a web conference is going to be part of the call include the connection details along with the agenda
  • After the call – be sure to send out minutes by email to provide a written reference of call results.
  • It makes sense to invite all call attendees to a group chat session. This can add significant value to the conference call by:
    • providing transparency as to who is currently on the call
    • cueing upcoming presenters
    • managing questions

Asynchronous text

The value of offline text communication is unquestioned. To date this type of communication has occurred primarily using email services, but a relatively new kind of service called “groups” is becoming more popular among distributed teams – for good reason.

Email

Pros

  • Ubiquitous – everybody has and knows how to use it
  • Mature – email clients both desktop and web based are feature rich

Cons

  • Overuse – important messages get lost amongst the less important
  • Spam – filtering sometimes removes important messages
  • Attached Files – not a good storage solution and file sizes are limited
  • Address book – requires send to, cc and bcc to be managed manually

Groups

Pros

  • Membership – access to content and automated notifications is limited to group members
  • Suite of service scoped by project– depending on the provider a group offers an array of useful services:
  • threaded messaging, polling, calendar, file archive and link manager
  • One place to go – by centralizing all offline communications a single repository is now available for members to access all recorded data associated with a project
  • Updates – Users can decide what areas of the group they wish to receive notification of updates on and how they are delivered (each update, once a day, once a week etc.)

Cons

  • Relatively unknown – groups of all the mediums discussed in this paper have the smallest user base
  • Member management overhead – this is not required if email is used as the primary offline communication tool
  • Usage enforcement overhead- for a group to be effective its usage needs to be enforced

Email while a very useful tool for general communication, is increasingly less effective for teams working closely. Important messages are being overlooked in increasingly large inbox or in some cases removed by aggressive filtering.

Groups can add value to project teams by centralizing all offline communications and automating the notification of updates. Well known implementations include: Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, Basecamp, and Microsoft SharePoint. It must be said that while groups are great for distributed teams they are only effective if strictly enforced as the primary offline communication medium. In situations where members are mixing communications up between email and the project group their value is significantly reduced.

Offline Text Tips

  • Assign a group master at the beginning of each project who’s tasks will be to:
    • create and name the group
    • create and manage team member enrollments
    • create and manage file archive and link folder structures
    • enforce group usage
    • moderate message threads
  • Use standard email subject schema (Project Name : Message Context : Action Description). This allows your team members to more efficiently pick which of your communications they should read.
  • Write conclusions and actions at the top of the message. Don’t bury important content deep inside or at the end of a long message.
  • Keep the airways clear. Email chains on frivolous topics clog inboxes – do not contribute to them if you can resist it.

Real Time Text

Real time text — or chat —is becoming more recognized as a useful business tool. However with the good comes the bad.

Pros

  • Less intrusive – more immediate than sending email but less intrusive than a telephone call. Chat is an excellent way to informally communicate with an individual team member.
  • Ubiquitous – almost everybody is familiar with one or more of the popular chat clients
  • Team status – if everybody in the team is on the same chat client it can provide a single place to view the “online” status of your team

Cons

  • Distracting – overuse by individuals can detract from work focus
  • Service dependence – while consolidation is occurring, there are still a number of firewalled chat services.

When not over used chat represents an excellent medium to promote informal communication between team members. Chat has been described as the virtual equivalent of the water cooler conversation. This kind of communication can promote innovation as well as go a long way to improve bonds between distributed team members.

Real Time Text Tips

  • Stay logged in – make it a point to log into to your chat client when working
  • Status indicator – always keep your status indicator current, giving your team immediate transparency to your current accessibility
  • Manage your contacts – be sure to create logical folder groupings for all of your chat contacts. This will give context when contacts you don’t often converse with reach out to you.
  • Don’t use file transfer – stay away from chat based file transfers they are slow and unreliable. Use the project group or email instead.

Web Conferencing

Web conferencing, has gone from a nice to have, to a must have for many organizations. In fact in the case of usability research it is the now the norm for user testing of product prototypes. It is not long ago when web conferences were special events organized for clients. Nowadays most calls that involve design issues have a web conferencing session. This is true even with only two parties on the call.

Pros

  • Visual stimulus – when integrated with a conference call, a web conference can show presentations, mockups, and other documents.
  • Other services – Commonly bundled services include: polling, white board, agenda, meeting minutes, chat, and meeting audio/screen recording.

Cons

  • Single sign-on – as is often the case separate authentication is required to enter the web conferencing system. Very few systems integrate phone, web and group functionality, current systems often require users to login multiple times.
  • Browser dependencies – many web conferencing systems require specific platforms and browsers
  • Bandwidth intensive – presentations rich in graphic/photographic material can over tax bandwidth resources causing audio and visual lag between presenter and viewers.
  • No standard interface – it seems every web conferencing system takes a unique approach to its user interface, making it difficult for users to transition between different systems
  • Screen size dependencies – some systems do not cater well to different screen resolutions between conference presenter and viewers.
  • Expensive – web conferencing systems are expensive to subscribe to, buy, and maintain for individuals.
  • However this is changing rapidly with Powerpoint to flash conversion tools and built-in screen share facilities such as those found in Skype and iChat.

Web conferencing is a major boon to distributed teams. As the market for these services matures we will see big improvements such as integrated video cam capture, audio recording, speech to text by current vendors as well as the emergence of new extensions to chat and VOIP clients which traditionally have been free.

Video Conferencing

In the past, video conferencing required expensive dedicated systems. Web based video streaming and integration with popular chat and VOIP services has started to change this. However to date the use of real time video as a business communication tool has been low.

Pros

  • Visual cues – in a one to many situation a head and shoulder video stream of the presenter can provide viewers visual cues missed in conference calls
  • Relationship building –in a one to one situation being able to see the person you are interacting with increases you’re ability to communicate and bond faster

Cons

  • Bandwidth dependencies – video streams are bandwidth intensive
  • Client dependencies – many of these services are tied to chat/VOIP providers that require specific platforms and browsers
  • Small user base/Low take-up – the value add of person to person video in a design context is still tenuous. This however may change when functionality arrives to enable three or more video streams to be viewed concurrently.
  • Immature culture – the fledgling nature of this type of communication means there is very little culture in acceptable behavior.

Video Conferencing Tips

  • How you look influences peoples perception. As such how you light your face, what you wear, and the background behind you are all factors that should be considered when using real time video for business purposes.

Real time video brings marginal value to distributed teams. At this time it could be described as a nice to have, especially in situations where bandwidth is scarce. In the future it may become more important especially if integrated into web conferencing systems where the presenter’s video stream is included in the web conference stream.

UI Pattern Documentation Review

Introduction

User interface (UI) patterns have the potential to make software development more efficient. The prospect of such efficiency gains has led to interest in user interface (UI) patterns by individuals and organizations looking for ways to increase quality while at the same time reducing the costs associated with software development.

The very nature of UI patterns requires that they be familiar to end-users. An individual UI pattern is a discrete, repeatable unit of user experience. I refer to collection of patterns as a library.

In many cases, less proprietary patterns are more useful in solving a design problem as they can be implemented more uniformly across platforms. This characteristic and the efficiency gains make patterns an excellent opportunity for software companies to come together and promote UI patterns to the wider development community.

Producing a common pattern library, however, implies that the patterns presented are at the very least, consistently documented and most probably presented in the same single classification system. Currently though, patterns are classified and documented in various manners across publishers with no clear standard evident.

The problem

To date, the most common approach to propagating a single user experience standard is the development of UI guidelines and principles documentation within an organization. Development teams  — usually incorporating a user experience specialist — then reference this documentation during implementation and upgrade processes.

However, as the numbers of systems grow within an organization, so does the effort needed to maintain the quality and consistency of the user experience. For many organizations, it is now impossible to assign much, if any, time of a user experience specialist to all implementation efforts, and experience has shown that the UI guidelines and principles approach to propagating a single user experience standard does not scale well.

There are two common issues, both major.

The first issue is ensuring developers are familiar with all the principles and guidelines.

Documentation to fully describe a UI standard is, by its nature, extremely detailed and complex. Getting developers to know all this information intimately is an ongoing and often un-winnable battle.

The second major issue is that the application of guidelines and principles can be open to wide interpretation.

Requiring developers to combine guidelines and apply principles together to create a complete UI can be inefficient. This synthesis process can result in widely-varying solutions to a single design problem across teams — especially when working with widely distributed and possibly culturally diverse groups. Removing these variances to create a more consistent user experience requires rework.

The solution

UI patterns to a great extent mitigate the problems of weight and interpretation experienced with the principles and guidelines documentation approach of the past. In essence, patterns can be seen as prepackaged solutions based on guidelines and principles.
Patterns and pattern libraries are more convenient for developers because they solve common higher-level design problems without the need for deep knowledge of often-complex guidelines and principles documentation. Also, they implement best practices, so developers don’t synthesize what are often “slightly original” solutions that would need to be reworked later.

Much of the value of a pattern to the developer is its less granular and more physical nature. Principles of good UI design dressed up as UI patterns add little value over traditional guidelines and principles documentation, as seen in many of the UI patterns as described in the Design of Sites; examples such as “Low Number of Files” — while an important design principle or guideline — do not deliver up a usable UI component.

Also important is creating the patterns to begin with. The guidelines and principles that form the foundation of patterns still need to be developed before any patterns themselves are developed.

Integrating UI patterns

Integrating UI patterns into the culture of software development is to a large extent still beginning. Next-generation development tools such as those proprietary ones being developed by enterprise software companies that implement patterns natively are now or will be soon in the hands of developers around the world.

Embedded drag and drop UI patterns hold the promise to empower developers to create better user interfaces, faster — unsupervised by user experience specialists. While this may strike fear in the hearts of many a user experience specialist, issues of scale dictate such a pragmatic approach. Be aware though, that they also can perpetuate problems if the UI patterns implemented are out of sync with end-user expectations.

Why standardize UI patterns?

Currently, there is no recognized standard for the classification or documentation of UI patterns, as seen by browsing through pattern libraries from:

  1. Martin Welie’s UI patterns
  2. Jennifer Tidwell’s UI Design Patterns
  3. Sari Laakso User Interface Design Patterns
  4. The Design of Sites: Patterns, Principles and Processes for Crafting a Customer-Centered Web Experience by van Duyne, Landay and Hong.
  5. Yahoo Design Pattern Library

The variety isn’t surprising, since applying the pattern concept to user experience design is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, the successful introduction of a single classification and documentation standard could significantly increase the value of a UI pattern library to developers by…

  • Reducing confusion among pattern versions across collections. Not surprisingly, many of the same patterns exist across collections. A standard classification system (discussed below) can help developers make sense of both these patterns and their different versions in collections across the web and in paper publications.
  • Promoting development of net new UI patterns. A clear classification taxonomy is likely to make the “holes” in the current crop of pattern libraries more apparent, which in turn hopefully will increase the pace of development of new UI patterns.
  • Providing a standard UI pattern interface. As the number of patterns increases, pattern search tools will become more important. A standard classification and documentation approach will enable developers to quickly display their UI options.
  • Promoting UI pattern adoption. A clear classification taxonomy is likely to have the effect of making patterns easier to find and in turn increase their use.

Problems with the solution: UI pattern Classification Approaches

The following is a high-level analysis and discussion on classification approaches of the previously mentioned UI pattern collections. Each collection is mapped and discussed from a classification and documentation perspective.

Martin Welie’s patterns

Classification Analysis

Patterns in Interaction Design

Cropped version of Welie's patterns

Figure 1. Classification Map (click image to enlarge)

Welie divides the patterns into three delivery methods: Web design patterns, GUI design patterns, and mobile design patterns. Within the web design patterns channel (the focus of this document), the patterns are categorized into ten groups based on a mix of content and functional subjects.

Documentation Approach

Cropped version of Welie's approach

Figure 2. Documentation Map (click image to enlarge)

Welie’s documentation approach is simple, with a focus on visual elements to explain the function of the pattern. It can be broken into three main parts:

  • Description: This area of the documentation provides the name and image to describe the pattern.
  • Rationale: This area provides a description of the problem that is solved by the pattern, how it works, and the scope of its use.
  • Associations: This area provides links to other patterns related to the current pattern.

Jennifer Tidwell’s patterns

The following is a map of Jennifer Tidwell’s UI Design Patterns. (Click image to enlarge.)

Cropped version of Tidwell's patterns

Unlike Welie, Tidwell does not take into account different delivery methods. The eight categories she does specify look to be based on functional subject areas only.

Sari Laakso’s patterns

The following is a map of Sari Laakso’s UI patterns. (Click image to enlarge.)

Cropped version of SL's patterns

Like Tidwell, Laakso does not differentiate between delivery methods; he bases all seven of his categories on functional subject areas.

The Design of Sites’ patterns

The following is a map the patterns presented in “The Design of Sites.” (Click image to enlarge.)

Cropped version of Design of Sites' patterns

The most extensive pattern collection of the four sampled, Design of Sites does not specify delivery methods, and, in some cases, the items presented could be regarded as design guidelines or principals rather than patterns. Twelve categories are presented with a mix of content and functional subjects.

Summarizing the classification types

From this analysis three main types of classification are present — content subject, functional subject, and delivery platform.

Content subject classifications normally specify an application genre (for example, ecommerce and supply chain management). Examples of content subject based classifications can be found in the Design of Sites collection under “Site Genres” and in Welie’s collection under “Site Types.”

Functional subject classifications are based on logical breakup of functionality (for example, shopping cart and two-panel selector). This is the most common prevalent classification type and is found in all the collections sampled.

Delivery method is used to describe the platform on which a pattern has been designed to operate. This classification type opens up the possibility for unique patterns to be developed for the same subject classifications across platforms. This classification type has the potential to provide more resolution for developers looking to offtake a pattern within a specific UI delivery platform such as mobile, desktop, or web.

Based on the publicly available pattern libraries available today, there is no clear indication as to whether “delivery method” is a valid classification type. An argument could be made that the process of binding a pattern to a specific technology is will reduce the life of the pattern as platforms develop. However, the timelessness of a pattern is of little consequence to developers whose primary goal is product delivery rather than pattern lifecycle.

Another Classification type – Level

This author would like to include an additional classification type: Level.

The level classification would further divide patterns into the following areas of concern:

  1. Navigation architecture: Patterns relating to the navigation of content within an application
  2. Screen architecture: Patterns which position functionality and content within a screen
  3. Site furniture: Patterns for formatting functionality and content

In the case of the collections previously reviewed, the great majority of patterns would be classified as falling under the “site furniture” level type. However, it is this author’s view that considerable potential remains to develop patterns within the proposed navigation architecture and screen architecture level types.

A proposed classification system

Cropped version of the classification system

The above diagram (click image to enlarge) describes a potential pattern library classification hierarchy. In this case, client classification nodes are presented at the top of the tree similar to that of the Welie collection; the proposed new level classification nodes are added above subject.

Content and functional subjects would be implemented as tags because these classifications would occur across levels.

Why have a classification hierarchy — aren’t filters or tags more useful?

In many cases, being able to filter by classification node as required is more flexible than drilling down through a preset hierarchy. However, a present classification tree is also useful to:

  • Automate the generation URLs to enable cross linkages within the UI pattern library.
  • Provide a simple drill experience for end users who have no specific problem to solve but rather just wish to browse to learn and or generate ideas.

UI pattern Documentation Proposal

The value of a standardized UI pattern documentation to developers is a single interface for search tools. Such tools hold the potential to streamline the off take of UI patterns by developers with specific problems to solve in a world with hundreds and potentially thousands of UI patterns to choose from.

UI patterns are by their nature visual. It must be noted that strong support for pictorial content would seem obvious and reduce the necessity for long verbal descriptions that add little value next to their visual equivalents.