The Story’s the Thing

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This is an excerpt from “UX Storytellers” : If you enjoy it, consider getting the kindle edition of UX Storytellers – Connecting the Dots with all the stories!

Here’s something I believe in: Stories are what make us human. Opposable thumbs? Other animals have those. Ability to use tools? Ditto. Even language is not exclusive to human beings.

From my amateur reading of science, the story behind our stories goes something like this: the human brain evolved with an uncanny knack to recognize and create patterns; and through some strange twist of natural selection, gradually over millions of years, our brains started turning the incredible power of that pattern-making machinery on ourselves, until we became self-aware.

Aware of ourselves—our own faces, bodies, journeys, homes, children, tools, and everything else around us. Over eons, we went from being creatures that lived in each moment as it came and went, to protagonists in our own myths. Everything in our midst became the material for making stories, strands of moments woven into tapestries that we call things like “nation”, “family,” “love” or “discovery.”

And “design.” Because design is, ultimately, a story we make. And designing is an act of weaving a new story into an existing fabric in such a way that it makes it stronger, better, or at least more interesting, and hopefully more delightful. Continue reading The Story’s the Thing

Personas and the Role of Design Documentation

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I’d seen hard work on personas delivered in documentation to others downstream, where they were discussed for a little while during a kick-off meeting, and then hardly ever heard from again.

In User Experience Design circles, personas have become part of our established orthodoxy. And, as with anything orthodox, some people disagree on what personas are and the value they bring to design, and some reject the doctrine entirely.

I have to admit, for a long time I wasn’t much of a believer. Of course I believed in understanding users as well as possible through rigorous observation and analysis; I just felt that going to the trouble of “creating a persona” was often wasted effort. Why? Because most of the personas I’d seen didn’t seem like real people as much as caricatured wishful thinking.

Even the personas that really tried to convey the richness of a real user were often assimilated into market-segment profiles — smiling, airbrushed customers that just happened to align with business goals. I’d see meeting-room walls and PowerPoint decks decorated with these fictive apparitions. I’m ashamed to say, even I often gave in to the illusion that these people — like the doe-eyed “live callers” on adult phone-chat commercials — just couldn’t wait for whatever we had to offer.

More often than not, though, I’d seen hard work on personas delivered in documentation to others downstream, where they were discussed for a little while during a kick-off meeting, and then hardly ever heard from again.

Whenever orthodoxy seems to be going awry, you can either reject it, or try to understand it in a new light. And one way to do the latter is to look into its history and understand where it came from to begin with — as is the case with so much dogma, there is often a great original idea that, over time, became codified into ritual, losing much of the original context. Continue reading Personas and the Role of Design Documentation

Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research

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“How do we go about learning who our users are and what they really need? And how do we do this in a way that helps us make a strong case for our design decisions to the people in charge?”

Design is disorienting. Especially when you are designing something in a collaborative environment, with multiple stakeholders, pressured deadlines, business objectives and budgetary constraints. We all go into design with the firm belief that the user is our pole star, but so often we lose that focus because of tossing waves, buffeting winds, and the crew screaming in our ears–never mind the dense cloud cover that always seems to obscure that trusty star just when a committee forms to gather requirements.

With all the attention to usability over the last five years or so and the wonderful swelling of information-architecture-related books just since 2001, you would think we would have enough methods and advice to keep our projects in perfect tack. But so many of these resources, excellent though they are, tend to be more about how to pilot the ship than how to find that all-important star and keep it in sight.

I promise not to drive this metaphor hard into the rocky shore, but think of the projects that could have been saved from being lost at sea if every team had a better grasp of user requirements through direct experience of users and their needs. Think also of how many projects could have stayed the course if only there had been an expert way to sell the findings from that experience to the stakeholders, who so easily forget the users for whom their project was intended.

For precisely these reasons Mike Kuniavsky’s Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research is a welcome addition to the half dozen essential books on my cubicle shelf. This book provides lucid, personable, experienced advice that could only come from a seasoned consultant who has seen the good, bad, and ugly of web and application design. Its purpose is to give a solid foundation to any design team in the crucial beginning stages of a project by answering the questions: How do we go about learning who our users are and what they really need? And how do we do this in a way that helps us make a strong case for our design decisions to the people in charge?

Kuniavsky begins Observing with a cautionary tale about a failed corporate web project, a situation he experienced firsthand (changing identifying information to protect the innocent, of course). This situation involved misguided good intentions from corporate management and developers, where something they thought would be just what their users wanted turned out to be a huge waste of time and money. This is just one of many real-life lessons used as background throughout the book.

Kuniavsky introduces us to web user research methodologies by showing us how they fit into an overall process and by defining various roles within a design team. These descriptions are clear and sensible, and they are more descriptive than prescriptive: he is not trying to tell us these are the roles you have to use and this is what you have to call them in guru-speak, but describing with conventional labels what tends to happen in a successful project.

The chapters are well-organized and consistent, and content is cross-referenced from chapter to chapter where appropriate. Unlike many design-related books, this one is actually fairly heavy on text and light on visuals. Where visuals are used, they are very helpful and serve to explicate the content. A good example is his spiral model of Iterative User Research,which cycles from Examination to Definition to Creation and, as it deepens, gets more granular through Contextual Inquiry, Focus Groups, Usability Tests, and so on. Kuniavsky wisely points out that many companies already have marketing research results that may be expected to yield the results necessary for web design, but explains how the tools used by conventional marketing approaches are only part of the solution for user-centered design. Focus groups and surveys can supply valuable information, but focusing on direct experience of user behavior using a combination of appropriate methods offers a stronger core for design.

Kuniavsky goes on to provide an excellent mixture of step-by-step direction and experienced advice on the practicalities of user research. Beginning with how to put together a research plan (invaluable instruction, since planning seems to be the Achilles heel of so many projects), he explains how to make sure business goals are being considered along with user goals. He admits these instructions present a somewhat idealized situation that starts as a blank slate as far as user experience product goals are concerned. However, Kuniavsky manages to keep his advice from being so lofty that no real-world team could actually follow it.

The chapter on recruiting and interviewing is especially thorough. It provides a sample phone screening script and boilerplate recruiting communication, as well as advice on how to handle no-shows, heavily biased users, and people who do not end up fitting your model. In fact, it may be the coverage of so many aberrations and anomalies that make this book so unusually valuable. This is advice one would normally only gain on the job or working side by side with a highly experienced researcher.

Kuniavsky devotes the bulk of the book to describing a series of proven techniques for researching user needs and behaviors, including user profiles, contextual inquiry (plus task analysis and card sorting), focus groups, usability tests, and surveys, as well as more secondary-research approaches such as diaries, log files, customer support, and competitive research. He presents each method in a separate chapter, describing when each one is most appropriate and various methods of execution. Throughout, Kuniavsky glosses his text with marginal notes, giving a reality check or bit of wisdom in each one, such as the reminder that Focus groups uncover people’s /perceptions/ about their needs and their values. This does not mean that they uncover what people /actually/ need or what really /is/ valuable to them-however-knowing perceptions of needs is as important as knowing the needs themselves.

In his descriptions of various methods, there is surprisingly little dogma. In an industry that has spawned a thousand do’s and don’ts lists for design, it is refreshing to find so many techniques described with equal value and rationale. I personally have long held a bias against focus groups, surveys, and marketing research as being especially valuable for fully understanding users, but this book has helped me see these resources in a more positive light.

It is also a relief to read this book’s conversational and low-jargon voice. There are a number of books I find essential in my work that I still have trouble actually comprehending during a busy workday. Somehow this one cuts through the fog of design-speak to present some very sophisticated concepts and methods in a way so that a relative novice could read it and hit the ground running. Take, for example, his lucid description of the role of information architect: It’s the information architect’s job to make the implicit architecture explicit so that it matches what the users need, expect, and understand. The architect makes it possible for the users to navigate through the information and comprehend what they see. I have never seen my job explained with such clarity anywhere else.

Another strength is Kuniavsky’s business-savvy approach to design. In the very first chapters he does an excellent job explaining the various tensions between different groups with their own agendas encountered in any collaborative design effort. He shows how having solid and documented user research can help to defuse these tensions and keep the user as the central focus of the work. In fact, Kuniavsky even has a chapter on Creating a User-Centered Corporate Culture, an ambitious but necessary topic for any corporation finding its business model being warped into a whole new shape by the powerful gravitational pull of the web.

So much of design involves a kind of tea-leaf reading voodoo that is hard to justify or describe to managers and stakeholders. When we do the typical routine–look at some users, have some conversations, and then come back with all these ideas on how to design an expensive project–aren’t the people paying for it fully justified in asking Why do you think you really know how we should build this thing? And how can one blame them for thinking their own ideas are just as valid as ours? Observing the User Experience provides solid techniques for knowing our users from a 360-degree perspective in a way that we can document, communicate, and even sell to other team members and project owners. Think of it as a combination navigational chart, captain’s log, and sextant for web endeavors–a one-stop shop for tools that help your team stay the user-centered course.

About the book:

  • Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research

  • Mike Kuniavsky
  • Morgan Kaufmann, 2003
  • ISBN 1-55860-923-7
  • List Price: $44.95
  • Chapters:
    • Part I: Why Research is Good and How It Fits Into Product Development
      1. Typhoon: A Fable
      2. Do A Usability Test Now!
      3. Balancing Needs Through Iterative Development
      4. The User Experience
    • Part II: User Experience Research Techniques
      1. The Research Plan
      2. Universal Tools: Recruiting and Interviewing
      3. User Profiles
      4. Contextual Inquiry, Task Analysis, Card Sorting
      5. Focus Groups
      6. Usability Tests
      7. Surveys
      8. Ongoing Relationship
      9. Log Files and Customer Support
      10. Competitive Research
      11. Others’ Hard Work: Published Information and Consultants
      12. Emerging Techniques
    • Part III: Communicating Results
      1. Reports and Presentations
      2. Creating a User-Centered Corporate Culture

Andrew Hinton is a Senior Information Architect at The Vanguard Group in Valley Forge, PA. His personal website is

Small Pieces, Big Thoughts

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Dave Weinberger brings new focus to how we see the Internet in “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”

Small Pieces Loosely Joined” is touted on the cover as “A Unified Theory of the Web.”“The Web couldn’t have been built if everyone had to ask permission first.”
—David Weinberger
But its author, David Weinberger, knows better. And he says as much in the book. It’s a unified theory, but not the kind you sum up in a tidy little equation. It’s unified in its single-mindedness to see the Internet with a certain lens, and to understand how the paradigms are shifting under our feet like tectonic plates, imperceptibly perhaps, but enough to change the fabric of the world we live in.

Dave Weinberger gets around. His earlier careers have included being a philosophy professor, a consultant, and a marketing executive. He has a regular commentary broadcast on NPR; he co-wrote the hugely popular book The Cluetrain Manifesto, and he has articles and speaking engagements all over the place. His surreptitiously published ‘zine known as JOHO (the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization) is widely read and quoted by loads of neterati. And he recently joined the denizens of Blogistan with his own weblog at JOHO the Blog. (For the nitty gritty on DW’s life and times, check his Bio page.)

If you’ve read Cluetrain (and if you haven’t, shame on you!), you’re familiar with Weinberger’s sardonic wit and talent for boiling challenging ideas down into pithy metaphors. There’s plenty of that on display here. But as a departure from Cluetrain, the book is less focused on the practicalities of business, and is more a treatise on how the Internet and all massively shared internetworked environments (for the book, conflated to the common term “the Web”) are changing us as social beings.

As for whether or not to read Small Pieces, I’ll cut to the chase: if you think you’re an architect of anything vaguely Internet-related, you should read this book.

There are a number of reasons why “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” is significant for information architects and experience designers of all stripes: it helps us understand how the Web is about more than just information retrieval and ecommerce. It reminds us why most of us got excited about the Web in the first place and tries to renew hope about its value in our lives.

Along the way, the book draws from influences as diverse as Heidegger, theology, and quantum physics to make convincing arguments about the nature of reality on the Web, as well as the nature of knowledge, time, and community. Of course, nobody could expect an encyclopedic treatment of these issues in just under 200 pages. And although Small Pieces makes a valiant effort, its purpose isn’t to bring all these ideas full circle. It’s a spark to reignite a long dormant conversation about what’s really important about the Web.

+ + +

Weinberger starts out by acknowledging the current malaise we seem to feel about the Internet, but he assures us that “the hype about the Web hasn’t been unwarranted, only misdirected.” (p. xii) He wants us to reposition ourselves, clear our heads of preconceptions, and take a new look at the Web, saying “Suppose—just suppose—that the Web is a new world that we’re just beginning to inhabit.” (p. 8)

But trying to describe the Web in accurate language turns out to be quite a challenge. For one thing, it throws all our metaphors out of whack. For another, it is chock full of paradoxes that confuse everything we’ve learned about the world since we emerged as a species.

For example, the Web is perceived as having space, yet it doesn’t have any. It allows people to interact as massive groups, yet each participant retains a fine degree of control over their individuality. It is perhaps the greatest engineering marvel on a massive scale the world has seen, but it has happened with no centralized management or control.

Weinberger explains how the metaphors of “document” and “building” become conflated (or even mutated) into a single concept on the Web, saying “with normal documents, we read them, file them, throw them out, or send them to someone else. We do not go to them. We don’t visit them. Web documents are different. They’re places on the Web. … They’re there. With this phrase, space—or something like it—has entered the picture.” (p. 39) But this space isn’t measured by inches or miles. “On the Web, nearness is created by interest.” (p. 49) In this place, the closest distance between two points is measured by relevance.

Weinberger promotes the idea that the Web’s value doesn’t come so much from being a huge database of facts and figures as from being an unprecedented environment of collective human experience. The distinction is between conversation and reference: what compels us to really sink ourselves into the Web isn’t the data but the “sound of voices.” (p. 143)

In a very fundamental way, “the Web is a social place” (p. 166) where we can be “part of the largest public ever assembled and still maintain our individual faces.” (p. 177) This environment has written language as its DNA, and its pages are “social acts, written with others in mind.” (p. 165)

The words we find on the Web are the fabric of a new kind of world. While language has always been the stuff of world-making, from Gilgamesh to Tolkien, what’s different this time is that the Web is so massively and simultaneously experienced—by 300 million people and climbing.

And it is the peculiar, flawed, rough-hewn authenticity of human voices that make this new place so palpable. Weinberger has a whole chapter on Perfection for this reason. “Imperfection is our shibboleth on the Web, the sign by which we know we’re talking with another human being.” (p. 94) It is organized out of chaos, and splendidly unmanaged. Weinberger cheekily points out, “The Web couldn’t have been built if everyone had to ask permission first.” (p. 53) The imperfection of the Web is its great merit, a symptom of its authenticity and humanity.

Another paradox arises from the kind of humanity we experience on the Web. It is both massively public and highly individualized. It teaches what it might mean to “replace the faceless masses with face-ful masses.” (p. 100) The Web has begun to change how we think of being public and having fame.

Being public has changed in part because of the new way people experience one another online, and because that experience is tied so closely with words and conversations. “Although elements of real-world conversations appear in threaded discussions, there is nothing quite like threaded discussions in the real world.” (p. 110) Because the Web allows for the persistence of conversation threads beyond the moment of their utterance, and because it allows for people to transcend the limitations of their physical social surroundings, one person can have a loyal following as an expert or particularly brilliant and witty commentator on a remote, esoteric topic. Forever twisting Warhol’s quip beyond all recognition, Weinberger says, “On the Web, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” (p. 104)

For that matter, someone with a rare disease can have meaningful community with others who share their ailment, no matter how geographically distant. Ethnic minorities in distant countries (who are lucky enough to have Web access) can commiserate and communicate about their lives. Families can feel more immediately connected than the occasional paper letter allows. These are all things that didn’t exist before this global network arrived, and they have become so taken for granted that we miss the phenomenal changes that have resulted. One change, Weinberger argues, is that the Web has actually returned us to a more community-based way of relating to one another.

Weinberger isn’t much on rugged individualism. His point: It is in its ability to connect us to and with others (both connections between people and hyperlinks between information, one being essentially an outward manifestation of the other) that the Web is valuable to us. Individuals are of course necessary for this to happen, but “Groups are the heart of the Web.” (p. 105) Weinberger blames everyone from Descartes to Sartre for getting us into our solipsistic funk (“To a solipsist, the Web is the most irrelevant contraption ever invented.” (p. 182)), and credits the Web with being a source of hope for getting us out again. He believes we are “at our best when we acknowledge our deep attachment to the others of our world.” (p. 182)

In our jobs as designers of shared information environments, should we keep in mind that the Web has a moral dimension? After all, what we are designing and creating are places for people to live, work, and play together. Even the most mundane standalone business application can have resounding implications for how an organization’s employees interact with one another and their customers. Think of how much more powerful its effects can be when it’s a networked application that connects those people’s ideas, decisions, and daily work so profoundly.

True, some of Weinberger’s statements of sweeping optimism seem, at first glance, naïve. But Weinberger grounds his sentiment in some fairly rigorous rationale. To be honest, the book isn’t a hard-core philosophical dissertation, but that’s a good thing. Small Pieces isn’t for tweed-encrusted academics—it’s for the somewhat educated masses. This book is like its subject, the Web. It’s an amalgam of ideas and obsessions, observations and perceptions that the author is releasing upon the public, hoping others will take these ideas and run with them. Whether Weinberger is right or wrong is beside the point (and I’d guess he would agree). The point is that these ideas not be ignored, and that we consider them in our lives and work; that we continue the conversation.

About the book:

For more information:

Andrew Hinton an Internet obsessive since 1989, is a senior information architect at The Vanguard Group in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.