How to Make a Concept Model

Written by: Christina Wodtke

IMG_0048

I can draw.

I went to art school. I studied painting until I fell out with the abstract expressionists and switched to photography. But I can draw.

What I cannot do is diagram. I always wanted to. I have models in my head all the time of how things work. But when it comes time to make a visual model of those ideas, I can’t figure out to to represent them. I find myself resorting to pre-existing models like four-squares or the Sierpinski triangle (I dig fractals.) For example:

Social-Architecture-Diagram

Other than the oh-god-my-eyes color choices, my social architecture diagram has deeper problems. For example, the ideas in it are limited to threes within threes because that’s the form triangles take. The model served to communicate my ideas well enough for the sake of my workshop, but… shouldn’t form FOLLOW meaning? If I had more than four elements for any section, I’d have to either collapse two, or fudge it in some other way. I was sacrificing accuracy for consistency. But I didn’t know how to make to make it better.

A concept model is a visual representation of a set of ideas that clarifies the concept for both the thinker and the audience. It is a useful and powerful tool for user experience designers but also for business, engineering, and marketing… basically anyone who needs to communicate complexity. Which is most of us, these days.

The best known concept model in the user experience profession is probably Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience.” The best known in start-up circles is the lean startup process. Both of these models encapsulate the ideas they hold in such a memorable way that they launched movements.

Elements-User-Experience-Lean-Startup

If you wish to clearly present a set of ideas to an audience and represent how they fit together, a diagram is much more powerful than words alone. Dan Roam points this out in his latest book, Blah Blah Blah:

“The more we draw, the more our ideas become visible, and as they become visible they become clear, and as they become clear they become easier to discuss—which in the virtuous cycle of visual thinking prompts us to discuss even more.”

Concept models can serve many purposes. You can use concept models to show your teammates how a complex website is organized before the site is built…

Andrew Hinton’s model of a “virtual shared organizational ‘building’ where people spread all over the country were collaborating to run and participate in the org”.
Andrew Hinton’s model of a “virtual shared organizational ‘building’ where people spread all over the country were collaborating to run and participate in the org.”

… or to help teammates understand how the site currently works…

Bryce Glass’s concept model of Flickr use.
Bryce Glass’s concept model of Flickr use.

… or to show end users how a service works, to help sell it.

    Biblios uses a concept model to help users understand the power of social cataloging. What it lacks in elegance, it makes up in clarity.
Biblios uses a concept model to help users understand the power of social cataloging. What it lacks in elegance, it makes up in clarity.

I teach user experience design, and my syllabus always includes concept models. Students of mine who do a concept model before working on the interaction design and information architecture always make better and more coherent products. The act of ordering information forces them to think through how all the disparate elements of a product fit together.

Stephen’s handout from the workshop on representing types of visual relationships. Advanced and useful thinking.
Stephen’s handout from the workshop on representing types of visual relationships–advanced and useful thinking.

You can imagine how excited I was to take the Design for Understanding workshop at the 2014 IA Summit. Partly because I will go see anything Karl Fast or Stephen P Anderson talk about and having them together is Christmas come early. But mostly in hopes of learning a way to make a good concept model.

The workshop was brain-candy and eye-opening: They covered how the brain processes information and how ways of interacting with information can promote understanding. BUT I still couldn’t make a model to save my life. I didn’t know where to begin!

At lunch, Stephen was manning the room while Karl grabbed food for them. I had been struggling with a model for negotiation I wanted for a talk I was presenting later in the program. Seeing Stephen idle, I pounced and begged for help.

Stephan P. Anderson is author of Seductive Interfaces and the upcoming Design for Understanding. He’s also a patient soul who will put up with ham-handed diagramming and ridiculous requests. He started to sketch my model and tell me what he was thinking as he drew. Then I had my bingo moment: Stephen had forgotten what it was like not to know how to begin! This happens to all experts. After a while some knowledge is so deeply embedded in their psyche they forgot what it was like not to know. They then teach the nuances rather than the fundamentals.

I suggested we do a think aloud protocol while he made a concept diagram; he would draw, and I’d prompt him to talk about what was going through his mind. He was excited to have me reflect his thinking back to him so he could become a better teacher as well. We arranged to have a sketching session after the workshop.

 

    Stephen Anderson draws; I do a think aloud protocol to capture how he works.
Stephen Anderson draws; I do a think aloud protocol to capture how he works.

Later in the day, we met in the quiet hotel bar with wine and a sketchbook. I asked him what he wanted to draw. “Do you have something you are working on?” he asked. “That way I can focus on the model, rather than rethinking the ideas.”

Did I have a model I was struggling with? Always!  I shared my new theory of the nature of digital products. I’ll be writing that up in another article when it’s done, but for now, the short version is that one must iterate through the elements of digital design, which include the framework, interactions, information structure, and aesthetics. But a product doesn’t become an experience until a person interacts with it; your design cannot be known until you see what happens when a human shows up.

Stephen’s first step was to ask me about my goal for the model. I said it was for students and young practitioners to understand the interdependencies of the elements, so they have a more iterative approach. And for critics to be able to understand why things are different, both good and bad.

Next, he did what I’d call a idea inventory. He brainstormed more elements that might play into the model. He made sure no ideas were left out. He made notes of those he suspected might be important in the margins. He sketched as he thought, sometimes just making meaningless marks, as if warming up his hands.

He then carefully asked about each element in my theory, making sure he understood each. What was an information structure and what was a framework and were they different? I ended up telling a little story about a product to make sure he got what I was explaining. I began to draw too, encouraged by his easy scribbles.

Finally, Stephen noted the relationships of the items to each other. Were some things subsets of others? Were some overlapping, or resulting?

Playing with relationships (my drawing).
Playing with relationships (my drawing).

Once he knew what each item was, and how they were related to each other, he began to sketch in earnest. He said, “I always start with circles because edges mean something. They mean you have four items, or five. Circles leave room for play.” His circles quickly became blobs and then shapes.

I don’t know if he’d normally talk to himself out loud when not encouraged to do so, but it was fascinating to to hear him free associate concepts, then draw them out. A string of concepts became a string of beads; moving through an experience became moving through a tunnel; intertwined ideas were a braid. Any important idea got a drawing.

Here Stephen tries on various relationship metaphors, including moving through tunnels, holding something, string of ideas, braided together concepts.
Here, Stephen tries on various relationship metaphors, including moving through tunnels, holding something, string of ideas, and braided-together concepts.

Each time he completed a mini-model, he’d evaluate what was missing and what was working and take that insight to the next drawing. He made dozens of these little thumbnail drawings.

Stephen said, “one shape leads to another…a single word sparks a new representation—we’re always ‘pivoting’ from one thumbnail to the next…”

He pointed out what concepts were left out, or where they could be misinterpreted.

“You want to avoid 3-d, because it’s fraught with problems. You want to be able to sketch it on a napkin.” —Stephen Anderson, on keeping in mind the model’s goal

At one point, he became tapped out, and we spoke of other things. We stared out the window at the harbor, and I drank some of my wine, forgotten in the excitement of drawing and talking.

Then suddenly he started in again and produced a flurry of new drawings. I realized resting and mulling was important too. I was a bit annoyed with myself. An article doesn’t come out perfect in one writing session. Why should I expect a concept model to just materialize?

Finally he came to a stop, several pages filled with a jumble of images. We didn’t have a model, but we had many good directions. As we finished our drinks and headed toward the opening reception, Stephen told me, “You gotta get Dan Brown to do this, too.”

section-break

Dan M. Brown is best known in the user experience design community as author of Communicating Design and Designing Together. Both books benefit greatly by clear and succinct conceptual models, and the former even talks about how to use them in the design process:

Purpose—What are concept models for?
There really is only one reason to create a concept model: to understand the different kinds of information that the site needs to display. This structure can drive requirements for the page designs, helping you to determine how to link templates to each other. With the structure ironed out, you might also use the model to help scope your project—determining what parts of the site to build when.

Audience—Who uses them?
Use concept models for yourself. Ultimately, they are the most selfish, introspective, and self-indulgent artifact, a means for facilitating your own creative process.”

–Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning 2nd Edition, Dan Brown, 2010

Clearly, a guy I should be talking to!

The IA Summit was held in sunny San Diego in a hotel with not one but two swimming pools, so Dan had brought his family with him. When I asked him if I could watch him draw a concept model, he said, “I’m at the coffee shop with the boys around 6:30 every morning.”

You take what you can get.

The next morning Dan settled the boys in a corner with books, pastries, and an emergency iPad, and we got to work. We agreed he’d model the same concept, to control for variations. By now I had created a formula for the idea: (F+In+Is+Ae)+P=E. Framework, interactions, information structure, and aesthetics plus a person makes an experience. I was modeling in words as my friends were modeling in pictures.

I took Dan through the same story of an iterative product design process, since it had helped Stephen. I sketched it out. I felt like my hands were waking up from a long sleep, and they were eager to hold a pen now.

As I spoke, Dan wrote down key ideas and also began to scribble. He used the same process as Stephen: collecting the concepts then inspecting them for hidden complexity.

“A question I ask myself is ‘what needs unpacking?’ I can’t diagram an idea until it’s clear in my own brain.” —Dan Brown

He then took each concept and free associated all the sub-elements of the concept. He drew them out loosely, mind-map style.

Dan also started with the goal and wrote it out across the page.

Dan-Brown-Goal

He also asked explicitly who the model was for. To draw, he needed to visualize the audience. This reminded me of a recent presentation workshop at Duarte where we literally drew pictures of our audience. No work can be good unless you know who it’s for.

Duarte has you draw your audience before you design your presentation, so you remember who you are presenting to and how much attention they are (or aren’t) giving you.
Duarte has you draw your audience before you design your presentation, so you remember who you are presenting to and how much attention they are (or aren’t) giving you.

Dan made sure he didn’t carry anything in his head: All ideas were put on paper as a note or a sketch. When he had to turn a page, he ripped it out to lay it next to the other pages. I realized how critical it was to have plenty of room to see everything at once. I saw the same technique of storytelling and drawing of ideas.

Around now, Stephen joined us. He was excited to see what Dan came up with, enough to also climb out of bed at the crack of dawn. I listened as the two diagrammers discussed the poster session and the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas that had been presented.

Dan said, “You can look at people’s posters and see their process. They are so close to their own narrative…In one poster, the key framework was rendered in a very pale text. It was a good story, but there are things you want to jump off the page. For her, my guess is those steps were so self-evident she didn’t see need to highlight them.”

 You have to have a beginner’s mind to explain to beginners.

“Speaking of beginner’s mind, so much of my design process is to throw it all out start all over again.” —Dan Brown

Dan Brown draws it all.
Dan Brown draws it all.

Now Dan began to model the concept. He emphasized the importance of sticking with very simple geometry–circles, squares, triangles, lines–not fussing with trying to find a perfect model at the beginning, just exploring the ideas and their relationships.

He also mentioned he begins with any concept in the model and doesn’t worry about representing order at first. He starts with what catches his interest to get familiar with the ideas.

Dan then deviated from Stephen by seeking the focal point. What concept held all the others together? What was the most important or key idea? He tried out placing one idea, then the other, in the center to see if felt right.

After scrapping one bowtie model, he paused. “I sometimes retreat into common structures and see how these common structures might speak to me. For example, time is one of those fundamental aspects, so I ask myself: How much do I need to show time here?”

He demonstrated by drawing swimlanes and sketched the ideas and their relationships in time.

Swim lanes for moving across the elements.
Swimlanes for moving across the elements.

“Are there other elements you often look for, like time?” I asked

“People,” he replied. “People and time are familiar concepts, easy for an audience to relate to. By using them as a foundation for a model, I’ve already made it easier for people to ‘get on board.'”

He stared at the paper, deep in thought.

Stephen then pointed at the page. “What Dan did here,” he said, poking at where Dan wrote out goal and audience, “I did also but didn’t externalize. I was holding it in my memory, but I like having it on the paper better.”

Eventually Dan, too, was tapped out, and his sons began to play Let It Go on the iPad at higher and higher volumes. He separated his sons from the electronics and left to prepare for the swimming pool.

 

section-break

After Dan, I knew I wanted to try to get one more person to model. Since I was lucky enough to be at a conference full of diagrammers, I chased Joe Elmendorf of The Understanding Group. He had just given a talk on Modeling for Clarity that my friends were raving about. And, with my luck still holding, I got to have breakfast with him. Happily, at 8 am this time.

Joe Elmendorf brings pace layers into the discussion. My handwriting is the ballpoint; his, the nice black ink pen.
Joe Elmendorf brings pace layers into the discussion. My handwriting is the ballpoint; his, the nice black ink pen.

Again, I saw what were becoming familiar concepts (inventory, inspection, relationships, then talk-draw.) I then focused on how he differed from Stephen and Dan. He choose to use the title of the diagram as an element. He did not iterate as widely as Stephen. He was the first person to argue with me about the validity of my theory, which was a great way to understand it (and benefited me by making it better!).

As well, he reinforced something Stephen had mentioned in his workshop and that Dan was obviously doing: Joe had a large mental library of typical models to draw upon, which got him started. Stephen keeps a Pinterest board full of inspiration, if you want to start your own “lego box” of models.

Stephen’s Board http://www.pinterest.com/stephenpa/the-visual-display-of-information/
Stephen’s Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/stephenpa/the-visual-display-of-information/

Overall, there were so many familiar patterns I saw in his approach, the differences were more interesting than important. I had my answer. I knew how they did it.

section-break

On the last day of the conference in the afternoon, Stephen and I were scribbling further on the model, playing with petals for the elements, when Dan Willis joined us. Dan is also a master of models as well as an inveterate sketcher.

Stephen further refining ideas, always generating.
Stephen further refining ideas, always generating.

Although Dan declined to diagram for me, claiming brain fatigue (a reasonable claim at this year’s Summit) he pulled up a chair and sat sketching next to us. It was companionable, to sit and talk and draw ideas. We moved back and forth from discussing life to discussing the ideas, teasing, joking, drawing. As we chatted, I realized this was a part of the secret. You need a thinking partner. Sometimes it’s paper, sometimes it’s friends; but it’s best when it’s both. It doesn’t always matter what you draw, just that you draw.

Dan Willis drawing nearby makes me happy.

Dan Willis sketch from a tweet
A Dan Willis sketch from a tweet that day.

Our brains work better when our hands are busy.

section-break

Later, sitting in the back of a session, I lobbed a model at Stephen, and he shot back with his own.

Refining an idea, mine on left, Stephen’s on right.
Refining an idea; mine on left, Stephen’s on right.

Then I saw another step, one which Dan had alluded to when he mentioned the poster with the key point too pale to read: You have to refine the model to communicate effectively. Type, color, and labels are all a key part of the communication process. While the model did stand alone without the color and type, adding those–and most especially getting labels right–made the model more effective.

section-break

DaveGrayAfter getting home, I started sketching how concept models were made. I drafted this article and then asked my friend Dave Gray if he’d do a quick edit. Dave was the founder of Xplane, a company that used diagrams–concept and other–to transform companies. Dave has been a proponent of visual thinking and clear modeling for years, and I consider him the master of making ideas visible.

Life then intervened and this article sat. I was busy with several things, including Lou Rosenfeld’s 32 Awesome Practical UX Tips. Dave presented right before me, and watching him sketch, I realized I just had to get one more diagramming session in. It was not enough to have him comment, I needed to see him draw. I was grateful I did; otherwise, I would have missed a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Dave Gray draws on cards so he can rearrange, manipulate, and overlay the concepts.
Dave Gray draws on cards so he can rearrange, manipulate, and overlay the concepts.

We hopped on a Google Hangout and he also drew out that same darn design model for me. I saw familiar patterns in his approach: inventory, unpack, relationship exploration. But he added a critical step I hadn’t thought of before: Test the model.

He’s currently writing a book on Agile, and it shows. He said, first design the test, then design the thing. For the model, he suggested using his WhoDo Gamestorming tool as a way to design a test of the effectiveness of the model. He lists who the model is for and what they will do if they understand the model.

If Dave didn’t fully understand the audience for the model, he might do an empathy map for those people.
If Dave didn’t fully understand the audience for the model, he might do an empathy map for those people.

Designing a test of the model’s success radically clarified the goals for the model. Testing it would make sure it did what you wanted it to do.

section-break

So then I sat down to make a model of how to make models. And it came easily.

  • Determine the goal: How will the model be used, by whom? What is the job of the model? To change minds, explain a concept, simplify complexity?

  • Inventory the concepts: Brainstorm many parts of your concept. Keep adding more in the margins as you go.

  • Inspect the concepts: Are there many concepts hiding in one? Do you really understand each idea?

  • Determine the relationships: How do the concepts interact?

  • Decision point: Do I understand the ideas and what I’m trying to communicate? 
    Test: Ask yourself if the model “feels” right.
    If yes, then continue.

  • Iterate with words and pictures: Talk to yourself and draw it out!

  • Evaluate with yourself/the client: Keep making sure the drawings match the ideas you wish to communicate. Don’t punk out early! Rest if you need to!

  • Decision point: Does my audience understand the ideas and what I’m trying to communicate? 
    Test: Can my audience answer key questions with the model? 
    If yes, then continue.

  • Refine: Use color, type, line weight, and labels to make sure you are communicating clearly.

A model for making models.
A model for making models. It may not be beautiful, but it’s clear.

The concept model is invaluable. But like so many useful things, it takes time to make.

When my daughter first started drawing My Little Pony, she expected to start at the ears and draw it perfectly down to the hooves. She was angry when it didn’t work that way, and it took some convincing to get her to block out key shapes then refine the whole, and to use pencil before ink. When I sat down to make a concept model, I made the same mistake! I’d start in Powerpoint or Grafio, and expect perfection to flow from my mind.

No more! Stephen, Dan, Joe, and Dave taught me to play, explore, refine, test, and play some more until the result was right. Thank you all!

Now go make a model!

section-break

Postscript

If your hands do not obey your brain, and/or you need more ideas for shapes and relationship models, I recommend Dave Gray’s Visual Thinking School.

See my interview with Dave on how he’d make the experience model

Reorgs: Rocky or Righteous?

Written by: Rich Lee

As designers, we grapple every day with challenging projects. This of course is part of what keeps us coming back. Some challenges, although not directly related to project work, can still be looked at through a UX lens. In this case, I’m talking about a phenomenon you’re likely familiar with: company reorganization.

If you’ve been through a reorg (that’s ‘reorganization’ in water cooler parlance), you’ve probably experienced your share of the whispers, closed-door meetings, and mixed messages that seem to be par for the course when an organization goes through major changes in size, scope, staffing, or management.

I’ve been through a number of these shuffled decks myself, across several companies, and for a variety of reasons. It’s fair to claim that each one is different, but there’s enough overlap to identify patterns and form some baseline recommendations.

If you’re in a role with decision-making authority, then you’re ideally positioned to ensure that the reorg will be designed as an intentional experience with its actual user base in mind.

However, if you’re like the majority of us who aren’t in a position to make decisions about the reorg, you’re probably still reasonably close to the folks who are. Why not take the initiative and lay out some scenarios and recommendations for how the reorg can be designed for optimal reception and impact on your organization?

The users

Whether it’s planned or not, the scope of the reorg will have an audience far larger than the group of people seemingly affected on paper. The experience of these groups throughout the reorg should be purposefully designed by whomever is running the change management show.

Let’s take a look at who your users are.

  1. The folks who are officially part of the reorg. Their status is changing in some way, be it their actual role, reporting structure, or the like.
  2. Coworkers/teams who have direct or dotted-line dependencies with anyone or any team directly involved in the change.
  3. Coworkers/teams whose only connection is physical or cultural proximity or who ultimately report to the same upper management.
  4. Third party vendors who communicate with or provide services to reorg-affected parties.

Here’s what you need to realize: These groups will be getting bits and pieces of news about the reorg whether or not you craft that message explicitly.

With that in mind, you should ensure the messaging supports the business strategy, is accurate, and speaks to each party’s specific concerns.

This is the difference between an unplanned, unpredictable experience and an intentional, designed experience. It’s a golden opportunity to show your stakeholders they are a valued part of the organization, and you’ve got your arms firmly around managing the changes. If the right preparation goes into the reorg, you can nip in the bud any misinformation and unnecessary stress, building confidence in your team’s leadership and capability as a whole.

The alternative is to risk spending what trust currency you’ve accrued to date.

The message

Now that you know who you’re talking to, what do you say? It’s idealistic to think that you’ll know all the details when you begin planning the reorganization–but you do need to initiate your communications plan as close to the start of planning as you can.

Start by crafting general messaging that indicates the why–the logic being the necessity and desired benefits of the reorg. This should be high level until more details are known. If you know enough about the how to paint a low-res picture, do it.

A little bit of information that’s transparent and honest will go a long way–but take care not to make promises you can’t keep. Things can and will change, so own up to the reality that dates and other details are very much in flux to help you avoid having to take back your words when deadlines shift down the road.

As you approach major milestones in the reorg process and as the details solidify, provide appropriate communications to your audience groups–and do so again once the changes have been rolled out. This may seem like a lot of effort, but rest assured your people are asking questions. It’s up to you to address them proactively.

If a milestone date changes–and it will–the audience who’s been paying attention will still be looking to that date unless you update your wayfinding (in the form of project timeline communications). Without this careful attention to detail, you’re sharing bad information–perhaps more damaging than no information at all.

When the rubber meets the road

Inevitably, one question that will come up repeatedly throughout a reorg is “When does all this actually happen?” In other words, when do we start following the new processes, change how we route requests, start doing this and stop doing that?

For both logistical and psychological reasons, knowing how and when transitions will take place is vital. Often the difference between a stakeholder being stressed out (perhaps becoming a vocal opponent of the changes) versus being calm and confident is the company’s honest commitment to consciously bridging the transition with trained, capable support.

This could be as simple as a window of time during which existing persons or processes can continue to be called upon for support or as complex as an official schedule that shows specifically how and when both the responsibilities AND expectations of the audience segments will change.

Usability research

It’s not like you can do A:B testing with a reorg. You can, however, do some polling when the initial reorg information is shared, then midstream, and again after the reorg is complete.

Why do this research? As with any project, from your first person perspective, reorg elements might seem obvious–or you may have overlooked some pretty big pieces. Talking with your ‘users’ can be illuminating and also sends the message that their input is desired and valued.

While some reorgs are expressly designed to reduce overhead/staff, reorgs are not always about cutting heads. Often-times it’s a shuffle of resources (people), and if the right discussions happen you can guide that process to a win win.

Using a handy list written by a gentleman you may know of, here are some dimensions coopted for our use. Employ these as you see fit to generate interview material and discover how well your company reorg experience has been crafted.

Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?

We can ask our participants what they took away from the reorg communications they were sent. This includes actual group or 1:1 meetings, formal documents, emails, etc.

Find out if the materials conveyed the message so the transition was easy to understand. Did they grasp both the high-level view and the granular details? (In other words, overall strategy and the specific impact to them.)

Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?

If the folks you’re polling have been assigned specific assignments in the reorg, ask early on if they fully understand their instructions and if they could have added any insight that might have decreased task costs or durations. Midstream or late in the game you can follow up to see if those instructions turned out to be clear and accurate enough for the tasks to have been carried out efficiently.

Did task instructions have the most time-saving sequence? Were there steps left out of the tasking communications that had to be discovered and completed?

Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?

Remember the telephone game? Someone makes up a story and then each player passes the story on to the next by whispering. When the story makes it back to the author, the details have changed–it’s a different story.

When those involved in a reorg talk with others, they’ll pass along what they know. The simpler the story and the more they’ve understood it, the less you’ll lose in translation.

Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?

A successful reorg requires a lot of work and collaboration between groups. Mistakes tend to be costly and have a ripple effect, becoming harder to correct as time goes on. The critical path of these big projects is placed at risk due to missteps due in large part to (wait for it) learnability and memorability, or due to errors introduced by people who have been put off by the lack of efficiency of the reorg process and attempt to forge their own path.

Another source of error is in failing to communicate enough timely information about role changes to employees and contractors. Major change breeds anxiety, and in a job market where workers have the power and employers are constantly on the prowl for good (and hard to find) talent, it’s a mistake to risk wholesale attrition.

Avoid this error by honestly and accurately communicating dates and the likelihood of roles continuing as is or with changes. If roles are going away, be transparent about that too. Better to maintain trust and respect with clear messaging about terminations than to leave folks in doubt and unable to plan for their future.

Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

If the reorg does NOT leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and if the stated project goals have been met, you’re doing it right. Reorgs happen for a reason, typically because something’s suboptimal or simply broken. Ultimately, everyone should pull together and work towards a positive outcome resulting in better workflow, lowered cost of doing business, increased job satisfaction, and, of course, $$$.

Moving on

Regardless of your role in the company and the reorg, consider whether or not you can use your UX superpowers to make the entire process less painful, easier to understand, and more likely to succeed.

Good luck!

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 8

Written by: Sandy Greene

That old cliché isn’t true: all good things don’t have to come to an end. It’s possible to prepare your team for ongoing success and growth, but you have to be smart about how you do it.

In this series I’ve shared what’s worked for us at Intuitive Company. How we thought of our team as an organic garden and realized that once we had all of the right elements established, we didn’t need to mess with things too much. We prepared an open workplace, planted the right people, watered and added fertilizer to boost morale and growth, tilled and experimented to ensure we didn’t rest on our laurels, observed and protected our team when necessary, and then picked some of our best performers and work to celebrate and spotlight.

After all that, the final step is enjoyment—sitting back and appreciating the positive environment everyone has worked so hard to create. To us, success is the feeling of completion—of hard work yielding superior results for clients. We have to make time to soak it in, because there’s always more work to be done!

Enjoyment

The ways in which we have fun and enjoy what we’ve built and achieved at Intuitive Company often take the form of office events. Beer Swap, Happy Hour, Poker Night, and a having a team in the Broad Street Run have all been successful and bring our group even closer together.

And so I’ll end this series by asking you whether your team or company ever takes time out to just enjoy what you’ve accomplished together. If you’re at a larger organization, I’m not talking about holiday parties or other corporate-wide events that hundreds attend and everyone stays in their own clique. I mean more intimate celebrations or excursions where an individual team or all members of a small office can relax and have fun. It’s easy to add in a few activities throughout the year to show appreciation, encourage team bonding and just blow off steam.

I hope what I’ve shared about our experience growing Intuitive Company has given you ideas of ways your small business—or team within a large corporation—can create a more open and successful workplace environment.

If you’ve tried other tactics that led to the same positive results, I’d love to hear them, especially since I know we’ll need to keep honing our approach as we continue to grow.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Guerrilla Usability at Conferences

Written by: Nick Cawthon

Does your company have display booths at trade shows and conferences? Typically, these are marketing-dominated efforts, but if you make the case to travel, working the booth can be used for user research. Here’s how I’ve done it.

Positioning and justification

At times it can be a hard internal sell to justify the costs and diversions to take your one- or two-person show on the road, all the while piggybacking off of another department’s efforts. Yet, standing on your feet for 12 hours a day doubles as a high-intensity, ‘product booth-camp.’ Say what you will about sales folk, but they are well trained on knowing how to (or finding someone who can) answer any question that comes their way. As an in-house UX professional, the more I can technically understand about our SaaS product, the more context I can have about our user’s needs.

I’ve found that having prospective customers participate in a usability session is a great way to show that we were taking the time to invest in them and their opinions of the product. As a result, there have been specific features that have been rolled into our application during the next sprint, which were proposed as small sound bites of feedback during these sessions. It shows we were listening, and makes a great justification for a follow-up phone call.

Recruiting and screening

To recruit, I scan Twitter to find those who tweet that they are excited about attending the upcoming conference. I cross-reference the Twitter handles to the names in LinkedIn to see if, based on job title and industry, they would be good participants.

I reach out to them to see if they’d be willing to sign up for a slot, proposing times between presentation sessions or before/after lunch to not conflict with their conference attendance.

Because the expo halls are generally open the entire day, even if there is no one booked on the calendar in specific spots, I also grab people just milling about to keep the sessions going. If you do this, be sure to quickly do a visual scan of their badge, as you can get a good sense of what they do and what knowledge they might have by where they work.

Booking

For the time bookings, I find that Calendly.com is a flexible, free, user-friendly way to book time slots with random people, using just a URL with no account sign-ups needed. In addition to custom time buckets (18 minutes, anyone?), Calendly also provides the option of a buffer increment after every session, so I can take notes and regroup.

Screen shot of a calendar with appointments booked.
Pick a time, (most) anytime.

Calendly does a good job of reminding participants when to show up and how find me–all the important things, including integrating well with all the major calendaring applications.

Come conference time, I have a slate of appointments along with contact information and reminders when they were coming. Couldn’t be easier. If expo hall hours change, I can easily message participants to let them know of the reschedule.

Duration

In a normal, controlled setting, I would typically want to go a full hour with a participant to properly delve into the subject matter and go through a number of different tasks and scenarios. “Pick a few and grade on a curve,” as Neilsen once said.

However, with the participant’s attention scattered given the sensory overload of the conference floor, anything more than 20 minutes gets to feel too long. At conferences, you’re going for quantity over quality. An advantage to this staccato method is when you find a vein of usability that you want to continue to explore in further depth and detail, there’s likely another participant right around the corner (either scheduled or random) to confirm or refute that notion.

Script and tone

The main challenge of this technique is that you’re not supposed to ‘sell’ in the role of testing moderator but rather to guide and respond. I wear many hats when working a booth; when not conducting these sessions, I sell the product alongside marketing.

As a result, 90% of the conversations in the booth are indeed sales, and switching roles so quickly is sometimes hard. I try to check myself when the testing script bleeds into ‘did you know that there are these features…’, because after 3+ days and what feels like a thousand conversations, I tend to put my conversations on a programmed sales loop, letting my brain rest a bit by going off of a script.

A pre-written task list helps keep me on point as a moderator. However, with the variety in participant group, I use the script much more as a guide than a mandate.

As with any usability session, I let the participants veer into whatever area of the app interest them the most and try to bring them back to the main road ever so subtly. With so many participants in such a short period of time, sometimes these unintended diversions became part of the next participant’s testing script, as it is easy to quickly validate or refute any prior assumptions.

Tools

Following the ‘guerrilla gorilla’ theme of this article, I use Silverback for my recording sessions. Silverback is a lightweight UX research tool that is low cost and works very well.

At one event, without my Bluetooth remote to use Silverback’s built-in marker/highlights, I paired an iPhone with an app called HippoRemote. Meant initially to provide ‘layback’ DVR/TV functionality, Hippo can also be written with custom macros to allow you to develop third-party libraries.

In the case of integrating with Silverback, this meant Hippo marked the start of new tasks, highlights of sound bytes, and starting/stopping recording–all the things that the Apple Remote should have done natively.

Despite some of the challenges in peripherals, Silverback is absolutely the right tool for the job. It’s lightweight, organized, and marks tasks and highlights efficiently.

Screen grab of the Silverback UI
Silverback UI

I recommend a clip-on microphone or directional mic given the background noise from the conference floor. Any kind of isolation that you can do for the participant’s voice will save you time in the long run, because you won’t have to try to scrub the audio in post-processing. Moving the sessions to somewhere quiet is a hard proposition, as the center of activity is where the impromptu recruitment tends to occur.

Wi-Fi

As a data-intensive SaaS product, the biggest challenge comes when trying to use the conference wi-fi. With the attendees swamping access points, there is no guarantee that I can pair the testing laptop and the iPhone used for marking, because they both need to be on the same network router for integration with with Silverback.

An ad-hoc network for the Mac won’t work, because I still need web access to use the application. Using my mobile phone as an access point has bandwidth constraints, and choppy downloads are not a good reflection on the speed of our application.

Unfortunately, then, every session begins with an apology on how slow the application is performing due to the shared conference wi-fi. A high-speed, private access point or a hardline into your booth cures all of these issues and would be worth the temporary investment for sales demonstrations and usability sessions alike.

Summary

There are a few adaptations we, as usability professionals, have to make from a traditional sit-down, two-sided-glass setting. Conference booth testing is a much more informal process, with an emphasis on improvisation and repetition. Some of the tools and methods used in guerilla testing certainly are not as proven or stable, but the potential recruitment numbers outweighs the inconveniences of a non-controlled setting.

From an educational standpoint, being inside the booth for days at a time will raise your knowledge-level considerably. You’ll hear again and again the type of questions and responsive dialog that prospective customers have around the product, and you’ll start to recognize the pain points coming from the industry.

After a half-dozen conferences, you’ll start to understand the differences in the average participant. In the case of the technology-centric attendees, some conferences provide a recruitment base of high-level generalists, with others being much executionally closer to the ground and detail-oriented. I tend to tailor my scripts accordingly, focusing on principles and concepts with the generalists, and accomplishment of specific tasks with the more programmatic participant.

One good thing about working for Loggly o’er here in the startup world is the ability to create paths and practices where there were none before. Pairing with the marketing team, using a portion of the presentation table to recruit participants off the expo hall floor, and sitting them down for a quick walkthrough of the product is a great way to become inspired about what you do and who you’re working for. As someone who still gets excited to travel, meet new people, and play off crowds, these sessions are always a highlight for me to conduct guerilla usability in front of my customers, peers, and my co-workers.

Elements of Learning Experience Design

Written by: Andre Plaut

The process of designing any sort of human experience, regardless of purpose or platform, is centered around reaching a desired outcome, ideally with as little fuss and as much joy as possible.

The purpose of an experience and the platform on which the experience takes place will vary: purchasing a plane ticket on a tablet to vacation, enjoying a musical performance in a theater, or learning to code in a classroom. Although each of these experiences require their own unique methods and frameworks, the elements that should be taken into consideration during the design process remain mostly the same.

The best representation of those elements comes from Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience. While Garrett’s “elements” are most relevant to digital product design, I’ve been able to use them as a roadmap for developing learning experiences for adults.

Designing adult learning experiences that take place either online or in a classroom has always traditionally been about defining a curriculum. That process of curriculum creation is most commonly called instructional design. But, in the same way that user experience design requires much more than deciding what content should go on a website, true learning experience design requires much more than curriculum.

With that in mind, I took Garrett’s Elements as inspiration to create my own Elements of Learning Experience Design to formalize and communicate a design process I have struggled to explain to others.

Elements of learning experience design
Elements of learning experience design

Strategy plane

What are the needs and goals of your learners and your organization?

The goal of almost any learning experience is rooted in acquiring the new skills, knowledge, motivation, and/or confidence to change an existing behavior or create a new one. Those changes in behavior should have measurable impacts, allowing you to define key success metrics.

Before you start building anything, you should first get a better understanding of the needs you’re trying to solve for.

Ultimately, adult learners and their organizations expect learning experiences to establish behaviors that make their lives or work more efficient and effective.

This means identifying the learner’s needs1, which include the additional skills and knowledge required to do something differently, and their goals, which is what they hope to accomplish by doing things differently. Identifying your organization’s needs and goals are equally important. A successful learning experience must be able to address the objectives of both, regardless of how different they may be.

Ultimately, adult learners and their organizations expect learning experiences to establish behaviors that make their lives or work more efficient and effective.

As a learning experience designer, you should focus your time and attention during the strategy plane on identifying the gaps that exist between the learner and his/her desired outcome. Those gaps exist due to a lack of the following:

  • Knowledge: Do learners lack the proper information to complete a task?
  • Skill: Do they have all of the right information but lack the ability to translate that knowledge into action that could be applied to a given situation?
  • Confidence: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill, but do they hesitate or refuse to apply it?
  • Motivation: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill confidently but just don’t want to do it?
  • Access: Do they have all of the above but lack the proper tools or resources to complete a task?

Once you are able to properly identify the gaps that cause learners to struggle, you must design a solution that effectively addresses those gaps.

Requirements plane

What are the key topics, methods, activities, and logistics required to create a successful learning experience?

Once your objectives have reached a certain level of clarity, you can begin defining the content and functional requirements needed of the learning experience in order to reach those objectives.

Let’s break this down by using an example.

Start with your objectives. Let’s say your political campaign wants to decrease the amount of inaccurate voter data without decreasing the amount of data coming in.

What key metrics represent success to your organization and your learners? Based on the example’s objectives, the key metrics could be maintaining the amount of data being processed, and decreasing the number of “inaccurate information” reports.

Work backwards from there to figure out the core behaviors that support those metrics from being reached. In this example, volunteers must be able to ask accurate questions, know how to fill out data reports, and do it all pretty quickly.

Then, outline the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources needed to exhibit those behaviors. Asking effective questions is a skill built upon the knowledge of what makes certain questions effective, and what the campaign is interested in learning.

Knowing how to accurately fill out a form is a knowledge-based task requiring a limited amount of practice. Doing something quickly and accurately has a lot to do with practice, confidence, and motivation. Logistically, volunteers need to have access to data entry forms or terminals, and voters to speak to.

Next, map those components to topics and activities. By the end of the training session learners will be able to describe why accurate data is critical to the campaign, prioritize what data is most important to the campaign, identify the right questions to ask to gather that data, and practice inputting that data into different forms or terminals.

And that’s how you arrive at your content requirements.

It’s also important to think beyond what content is required of an experience. The content outlined in our example above may close our learners’ knowledge, skill, and confidence gap, but it will likely fail to achieve the actual objectives without functional requirements.

For offline learning experiences, these functional requirements include facilities, personnel, logistics (materials, A/V, and the like), and pre-/post-course support (including on-boarding and continued engagement and follow-up).

Online learning experiences have similar functional requirements, including platform (such as a custom site versus Articulate), designers and engineers to actually build the digital product, downloadable materials, and pre-/post-course support.

One of the worst mistakes you can make as a learning experience designer is to assume that functional requirements take care of themselves. When functional requirements are not built into the experience, you end up with disgruntled learners that will be much less likely to apply anything they’ve learned during the experience you’ve designed.

Structure plane

How will the topics, activities, logistics, and assessments be structured?

Imagine you’re learning how to drive.

First, your instructor teaches you about starting your car. Next, she goes over how to park your car. After that, she teaches you about the gas pedal, the brake pedal, and going in reverse. And finally, she shows you how to adjust your mirrors.

Does this sequence of events sound strange to you? That’s because the structure of the learning experience described above is not being taken into consideration.

Once you’ve outlined your requirements and objectives, you must think about how those requirements will be structured.

Both in user experience and learning experience design, this relates directly to the organizing of information in order to make it usable, otherwise known as information architecture.

For an adult learning experience to be successful, it must be designed and structured in the way that makes most logical and relevant sense to the learner. To do that, you must first understand how different topics relate to one another in the learner’s mind (example: A key unlocks a door), in what order they usually occur (example: A door must be unlocked before being opened), and what knowledge or skill builds upon another (example: Turning a key builds the skill to turn a doorknob).

If you were to create a sales training program, would you begin with a customer entering the store, or would you begin with the product arriving into inventory? Would the section on point-of-sale systems be near the beginning, middle, or end of the program?

Structure becomes even trickier when your program involves non-linear scenarios, like setting up a multi-channel marketing campaign. Should the learner know about Google Analytics before or after Facebook Paid Advertising? There are valid arguments to either option, but the real question is what makes most sense to the learner?

To answer that question, you’ll often have to look back at your objectives and learner needs. How much do you know about your learners, their daily responsibilities, and their environment? If you’re still finding it difficult to determine the structure of your learning experience, you should probably do more research.

Structure also applies to the functional requirements of your learning experience. When will learners need the most support? Which topics or skills present the largest challenge to your learners? You should also consider whether or not the learning environment is conducive to the type of experience you’re designing (online vs. offline, short-term vs. long-term, facilitated vs. self-led, and the like).

Interaction plane

What will learners actually be doing, hearing, and seeing during the learning experience?

The interaction plane deals directly with designing the materials, activities, lectures, and discussions that make up the learning experience. This is where instructional design lives. As an instructional designer, you will focus most of your efforts on defining exactly how learners are introduced to new skills and knowledge, and what practice and application look like those those skills.

When introducing new knowledge to learners, it helps tremendously to root it in existing knowledge. This can be done through the use of use analogies, previous experiences, and common cultural references. To use these methods effectively, you must have a strong grasp of your learners’ perspectives and experiences as they relate to the content.

Acquiring new skills demands a different approach. Learners must be able to actually apply new skills to both real and hypothetical problems within the learning experience in order to become proficient. Think of how many times you had to practice parking a car in both empty and full parking lots before you felt comfortable parking on a daily basis. You must create opportunities that allow learners to practice and apply their new skills in supportive environments.

This is also the time to think about how your learners’ progress will be tracked. Assessment criteria should first be defined within the requirements plane, and then built into the program in the structure plane. Exactly which tools and processes are used to evaluate a learner’s skill-level, and how progress is communicated back to learners should be defined here.

Sensory plane

What will the learning experience look and sound like?

The experience you design must be able to cater to your learners’ sense as well as align with your organization’s brand. The sensory plane applies to all materials and instructions designed for the program, including presentation decks, guides, web sites, lesson plans, worksheets, activity materials, and so on.

The sensory plane allows your materials to implicitly communicate information to your learners about the experience they are about to have. The tone of your written content, as well as the visual design of your materials, should represent your organization’s branding and communicate the mood of the experience, be it professional, fun, or quirky. In the same way that content should be strategically structured, the visual design of your materials should be cohesive and consistent.

The sensory plane is your opportunity to create a learning experience that is both functional and beautiful. Decks are designed as visual references to anchor learners, but if they’re filled with too much text and poorly chosen images, decks end up being frustrating and useless. A lack of verbal instructions will frustrate learners, but it’s still better than unclear or misleading instructions.

People, regardless of their preferences, are drawn to polished, well-designed materials and clear communication. The sensory layer creates a single, cohesive experience that allows learners to focus on gaining new skills and not deciphering their their learning environment.

Conclusion

Designing learning experiences must be treated in the same way as designing any sort of user experience. Learners, just like users, have needs that can only be solved through proper research, design, validation, and iteration.

Anyone involved in adult learning should step outside the limiting boundaries of curriculum design in order to account for the learner’s entire experience. By only focusing on content, we are missing out and what actually makes up a person’s reality, including the environment in which they’re learning in, and their lives before and after the learning experience.

By taking each of these elements into consideration, any teacher or instructional designer can start begin to think beyond those limitations, and look to create immersive and enriching experiences for their learners. This not only allows us to be more effective at teaching others, but it also establishes a higher level of quality that people should expect of a learning experiences.

References

1 The well known and accepted theory of learning styles (auditory, visual, and kinesthetic) has in the last few years been debunked and left behind by many learning designers. No scientific evidence has been found to support the theory that students will learn more effective if a topic is presented in their “prefered style.” Ultimately, students learn best by receiving information through all three styles.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/08/29/139973743/think-youre-an-auditory-or-visual-learner-scientists-say-its-unlikely