How Do You Gauge the Success of a VR Experience?

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Stepping into an artificial world is an exceptional experience, but just how do you gauge the success of a virtual reality (VR) experience?

Well, there are many different methods to gauge success, and each method gives different results. VR is used in a variety of industries—primarily in gaming—but it has been used for informative 360-degree videos and tours of buildings. Despite the different purposes, the success of these experiences can be gauged using the same methods.

Within this article, we will go through the different ways the gaming industry gauges the success of a VR experience.

A cartoon image of a woman wearing VR headset, yelling "OMG!"
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Five Strategies for Infusing VR Design with Empathy

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The desert was frigid and the sun was just peeking over the mountains when we arrived at the Mojave Air & Space Port. A full-scale rocket prototype at the end of a long driveway marked the spaceport’s entrance. I was just a walk away from realizing a small part of a big dream: being part of space exploration.img-6566

Space travel and participation in the space economy are pretty much impossible for all but the most elite scientists, astronauts, and billionaires. XCOR, an aerospace company with unique methane-based rockets and a reusable space plane, enlisted my firm to design a completely immersive experience and bring the exhilaration of space travel alive for students, pilots, and investors.

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User Experience Go Away

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There is no UX for us

That’s right! I said it. For us (designers, information architects, interaction designers, usability professionals, HCI researchers, visual designers, architects, content strategists, writers, industrial designers, interactive designers, etc.) the term user experience design (UX) is useless. It is such an over generalized term that you can never tell if someone is using it to mean something specific, as in UX = IxD/IA/UI#, or to mean something overarching all design efforts. In current usage, unfortunately, it’s used both ways. Which means when we think we’re communicating, we aren’t.

Of course there is UX for us

If I was going to define my expertise, I couldn’t give a short answer. Even when UX is narrowly defined, it includes interaction design (my area of deep expertise), information architecture (a past life occupation), and some interface design. To do it well, one needs to know about research, programming, business, and traditional design such as graphic design as well. Once, to do web design you had to be a T-shaped person. This is defined as a person who knows a little bit about many things and a lot about one thing. Imagine a programmer who also understands a bit about business models and some interface design. But as our product complexity grows, we need P and M shaped people–people with multiple deep specialties. To design great user expereinces, you need to specialize in a combination of brand management, interaction design, human-computer factors and business model design. Or you could be part of a team. The term UX was welcomed because we finally had an umbrella of related practices.

Of course, we don’t all belong to the same version of that umbrella. We all bring different focuses under the umbrella, different experiences, mindsets, and practices. While we can all learn from each other, we can’t always be each other.

But trouble started when our clients didn’t realize it was an umbrella, and thought it was a person. And they tried to hire them.

It isn’t about us

If there is any group for whom UX exists now more than ever it is non-UXers. Until 2007, the concept of UX had been hard to explain. We didn’t have a poster child we could point to and say, “Here! That’s what I mean when I say UX.” But in June 2007, Steve Jobs gave us that poster child in the form of the first generation iPhone. And the conversation was forever changed. No matter whether you loved, hated, or could care less about Apple, if you were a designer interested in designing solutions that meet the needs of human beings, you couldn’t help but be delighted when the client held up his iPhone and said, “Make my X like an iPhone.”

It was an example of “getting user experience right.” We as designers were then able to demonstrate to our clients why the iPhone was great and, if we were good, apply those principles in a way that let our clients understand what it took to make such a product and its services happen. You had to admit that the iPhone was one of the first complete packages of UX we have ever had. And it was everywhere.

Now five years later, our customers aren’t saying they want an iPhone any more. They are saying that they want a great “experience” or “user experience.” They don’t know how to describe it, or who they need to achieve it. They have no clue what it takes to get a great one, but they want it. And they’ll know it when they see it, feel it, touch it, smell it.

And they think there must be a person called a “user experience designer” who does what other designers “who we’ve tried before and who failed” can’t do. The title “user experience designer” is the target they are sniffing for when they hire. They follow the trail of user experience sprinkled in our past titles and previous degrees. They sniff us out, and “user experience” is the primary scent that flares their metaphorical nostrils.

It is only when they enter our world that the scent goes from beautiful to rank. They see and smell our dirty laundry: the DTDT (Defining The Damn Thing) debates, the lack of continuity of positions across job contexts, the various job titles, the non-existent and simultaneously pervasive education credentials, etc. There is actually no credential out there that says “UX.” Non! Nada! Anywhere. There are courses for IxD, IA, LIS, HCI, etc. But in my research of design programs in the US and abroad, no one stands behind the term UX. It is amorphous, phase-changing, and too intangible to put a credential around. There are too many different job descriptions all with the same title but each with different requirements (visual design, coding, research being added or removed at will). Arguably it is also a phrase that an academic can’t get behind. There aren’t any academic associations for User Experience, so it’s not possible to be published under that title.

Without a shared definition and without credentialed benchmarks, user experience is snakeoil. What’s made things even worse is the creation of credentialed/accredited programs in “service design” which take all the same micro-disciplines of user experience and add to it the very well academically formed “service management” which gives it academic legitimacy. This well defined term is the final nail in the coffin, and shows UX to be an embattled, tarnished, shifty, and confusing term that serves no master in its attempt to serve all.

“User experience design” has to go

Given this experience our collaborators, managers, clients and other stakeholders have had with UX; how can we not empathize with their confused feelings about us and the phrase we use to describe our work.

And for this reason UX has to go. It just can’t handle the complexity of the reality we are both designing for and of who is doing the designing. Perhaps the term “good user experience” can remain to describe our outcomes, but user experience designer can’t exist to describe the people who do the job of achieving it.

Abby Covert said recently that the term UX is muddy and confusing. Well, I don’t think the term “user experience” is confusing so much as it’s a term used to describe something that is very broad, but is used as if it were very narrow. There is a classic design mistake of oversimplifying something complex instead of expressing the complexity clearly. UX was our linguistic oversimplification mistake. We tried to make what we do easy to understand. We made it seem too simple. And now our clients don’t want to put up with the complexity required to achieve it.

Now that the term has been ruined (for a few generations anyway), we need to hone our vocabulary. It means we can’t be afraid of acknowledging the tremendous complexity in what we do, how we do it, and how we organize ourselves. It means that we focus on skill sets instead of focusing on people. It means understanding our complex interrelationships with all the disciplines formerly in the term UX. And we must understand that they are equally entwined with traditional design, engineering and business disciplines, communities, and practices as they are to each other.

So I would offer that instead of holding up that iPhone and declaring it great UX, you can still use it as an example of great design, but take the simple but longer path of patiently deconstructing why it is great.

When I used to give tours at the Industrial Design department at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) I would take out my iPhone and use it to explain why it was important that we taught industrial design, interaction design, and service design (among other things). I’d point to it off and explain how the lines materials, and colors all combined to create a form designed to fit in my hand, look beautiful on my restaurant table, and be recognizable anywhere. Then I would show the various ways to “turn it on” and how the placement of the buttons and the gesture of the swipe to unlock were just the beginning of how it was designed to map the customer’s perception and cognition, social behaviors, and the personal narrative against how the device signalled its state, what it was processing, and what was possible with the device. And I explained that this was interaction design. Finally, I’d explain how all of this presentation and interaction were wonderful, but the phone also needed to attach a service to it that allows you to make calls, where you can buy music and applications and that the relationships between content creators, license owners, and customers.

At no time do I use the term “user experience.” By the time I’m done I have taught a class on user experience design and never uttered the term. The people have a genuine respect for all 3 disciplines explored in this example and see them as collaborative unique practices that have to work intimately together.There is no hope left in them for a false unicorn who can singularly make it all happen.

Whither “User Experience Design”?

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Like a lot of folks, I find the term “user experience design” awkward and unsatisfying, at once vague and grandiose, and not accurately descriptive of what I do. Too often it seems like a term untethered, in search of something — anything — we might use it to name. And yet I often call myself a UX designer, and have done for the last few years, because at the moment it seems to communicate what I do more effectively to more people than any other term I can find.

Obviously I don’t stand alone in finding the term useful, or at least useful enough. Yet we find ourselves endlessly discussing this and and other terms for what we do … trying to describe what we do … disagreeing vigorously … and at the same time complaining about getting mired in an argument about semantics. Can’t we just get on with the work? Continue reading Whither “User Experience Design”?

Storyboarding iPad Transitions

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If your clients are not yet asking you to design transitions, they will likely do that on your next project. Transitions are hot, and not just because they entertain the eye. In confined mobile computing interfaces, on tablet devices or in complex virtual environments, transitions are an authentic, minimalist way of enabling way-finding, displaying system state and exposing crucial functionality – in short, they are key in creating a superior user experience.

Transitions as design elements

Since the 1980s, designers have been drawing wireframes to represent web pages and device interfaces.1 In the beginning, wireframes were static schematics that showed a single state of the page. With the emergence of dHTML in the 1990s, it became necessary to draw different states of specific dynamic page elements, so the designers adapted the wireframe methodology to document the beginning and end states of the dynamic elements. Still, designers and engineers had little or no control over what happened in between the beginning and end states — the browser or the operating system handled all transitions.

More recently, sophisticated mobile touch frameworks like iPhone, Android, Palm and Windows Mobile allowed unprecedented control over the speed and structure of the transitions, giving designers more tools with which to create a better experience in a confined mobile space.2 Simultaneously, on the web, dynamic platforms like Flash and Flex gained tremendous ground, making it possible for designers to think about and document transitions because those were now part of the customer experience.

With the release of the Apple iPad, the Age of Transition has come to its full potential. On the iPad, Apple takes full advantage of some of the principles and ideas the company previously explored and perfected using the iPhone. On the bigger iPad screen, transitions achieve a new level of detail and sophistication, making the device come alive, and become a powerful, integral part of the experience.

Transitions Require Thinking Differently

As Jonathan Follett writes in his article “Interfaces That Flow: Transitions as Design Elements”:http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2007/04/interfaces-that-flow-transitions-as-design-elements.php, 3 many UX designers approach projects from a combination of information architecture and interaction design. These disciplines involve thinking that is quite different from constructing the continuous linear narratives required to design and document transitions. Nevertheless, by borrowing freely from the lessons of early animators, it is quite possible to adopt the existing wireframes methodology to convey the structure and rhythm of a user interface transition.

The task consists of wireframing each of the important changes (or “key frames”) that occur during the transition and stringing a bunch of wireframes together in a storyboard. By documenting the key aspects of the transition, it is possible to share them with the larger team and try out different transitions designs. Documenting the transitions also allows us to step back and consider them in a larger context of a specific use case or overall goal of progressive engagement and immersion.

Understanding iPad Transitions

In order to be able to design and document transitions using storyboards, we have to first understand design principles that designers of transitions use to convey the desired meaning. Let’s take a look at the Apple, Inc. video in Figure 1 showing selected transitions from what is arguably the most popular iPad application today: iTunes. Although many different transitions are shown in the video, we will be specifically looking at the two of them: “opening the iTunes application” (0:17-0:20 min) and “opening album details” (0:30 -0:36 min).



Figure 1: Video of iTunes transitions on the iPad [“View larger version on YouTube”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z03PR_4Ln90]

Borrowing from Chet and Guy’s excellent Devoxx presentation “Animation Rules!”:http://www.parleys.com/#st=5&sl=1&id=1578,4 we can identify seven key principles that specifically apply to the animated transitions on the iPad:
# Component Relationship (background-foreground)
# Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)
# Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)
# Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)
# Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)
# Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)
# Simplicity (avoiding noise)

To understand how the seven principles above apply combine to make the transition work its magic, let’s do a step-by-step breakdown of the “opening the iTunes application” transition, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Step-by-step breakdown of the “opening the iTunes application” transition.

Figure 2: Opening iTunes Application Step-by-Step

Using our seven key principles:
Component Relationship (background-foreground)

This transition is essentially the process by which the iTunes application comes into the foreground, while the rest of the apps recede into the background. In the first row, the transition starts out with the home screen and apps icons firmly in the foreground. By the end of the row, we can see that the home screen recedes and darkens, while the iTunes app (represented by a white square) slowly comes into the foreground. By the second row, the background-foreground transition is essentially complete – we can see only the loading iTunes app against the black background.

Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)

This transition creates its magic via an illusion of “flying into” the device, and eventually meeting the white square that represents the iTunes app. To accomplish this, the animation shows us “flying” through the layer of the apps icons on the home screen. The other app icons begin to “fly” to the sides of the screen in a circular pattern, as shown in row 1. The most interesting part of the illusion is the kind of “bait-and-switch”. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the app icons never make it off screen. Just before we “pass through the icons layer” and “witness” the icons “flying off screen”, the background goes completely black, and our attention is focused on the white rectangle. The illusion is complete.

Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)
In this transition, the lighting effects are used to exaggerate the switch between the background and foreground. In the second row, the background goes completely black, to highlight the change in state. Exaggeration can also be used to warp the shape of an object to emphasize movement, as in is used more in the “genie” effects and transitions.

Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)

Subtle but powerful lighting is used throughout the transition as the primary means for focusing our attention on the foreground of the opening window of the iTunes app through subtle darkening of the background (principle 1). Lighting is also used to accomplish the bait-and-switch in the Illusion principle.

Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)

Our brains know from experience that objects do not start running at top speed or “stop on the dime”. To make the movement more life-like, the animation accelerates into the movement very slowly, picking up pace in later screenshots, as evidenced by the increasing “smudginess” of the icons in the first row. Not surprisingly, the bait-and-switch happens in the fastest moment of the transition to pull of the illusion that the homepage icons actually “fly off screen”. The transition then slows down again in the last row to smoothly fade in the iTunes content elements, deliberately giving the auxiliary page elements and pictures time to “catch up” and making the page load appear smoother.

Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)

The most effective transitions use real-life elements to provide a frame of reference which makes the animation more realistic. In this case, the icons on the home screen are moving to the sides, creating an overall illusion of moving through space, or deeper “into” the device itself to convey a digital event of opening an application inside the device.

Simplicity (avoiding noise)
The overriding theme of this transition is its apparent simplicity. During the transition, iTunes is not doing anything particularly complicated or earth-shattering. The magic comes not from one particular element, but through carefully blending and combining the lighting and movement to create a smooth cohesive digital dance, perfectly orchestrated from beginning to the end.

Storyboarding iPad Transitions

The key to successfully designing and storyboarding the transitions is understanding and applying the seven animation principles we discussed above. To demonstrate how this can be done, let’s use a slightly more complex transition: the iTunes “opening album details”, shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Opening iTunes Album Details Step-by-Step

Figure 3: Opening iTunes Album Details Step-by-Step

Here again, we see the seven principles at work:
Component Relationship (background-foreground)

This entire transition can be viewed as bringing the selected album cover into the foreground, while the rest of the iTunes application recedes slightly into the background.

Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)

The animation shows us the illusion of the album flying forward on the screen while flipping 180 degrees. The most interesting part of the illusion is the switch from darker gray “back” of the album to a while loading screen (midway through the second row). This sleigh of hand changes the focus to the white cover to make the transition believable.

Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)

In this transition again, the lighting effects are used to exaggerate the switch between the background and foreground. Midway through the second row the album turns completely white against the slightly darker background.

Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)

In the beginning the iTunes application darkens gradually, and reaches its full saturation about half-way through the second row to create the background against which the album will be staged. The album, on the other hand, switches first from color to darker gray, then to solid white to jump to the foreground.

Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)

The animation starts slowly, and achieves top speed half-way through the second row to quickly switch from the dark gray flipping rectangle to a solid white loading page. Just as in the previously discussed “opening iTunes” transition, this transition also slows down in the last row to smoothly fade in the iTunes album cover content elements.

Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)

This transition invokes the magical feeling of opening picking the old LP album off the shelf and flipping it over to see the back cover by creating the illusion of the album jumping off the page and flipping 180 degrees horizontally around the middle.

Simplicity (avoiding noise)

While a bit more complex than the “opening iTunes application”, this transition can nevertheless be adequately described by looking at only 12 screenshots.

Once the transition design principles are understood, the process of drawing the storyboard becomes fairly straightforward. I use the same method that Galileo Galilei used four centuries ago when he first diagrammed the step-by-step movement of the sun spots in 1613.5 The basic transition storyboard for the “Opening iTunes Details” transition is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Storyboarding iPad Transitions Using Post-it Notes

Figure 4: Storyboarding iPad Transitions Using Post-it Notes [“See larger version”:/files/banda/storyboarding-ipad/figure4_ipadtransitions_postitnotes_large.png]

Now Start Making Your Own Transitions

As you try your own hand in transition storyboarding, here are a few points to keep in mind:

Use appropriate materials


To diagram transitions, I prefer to use medium-size post-it notes that measure 3-inch square. I draw each of the steps in the transition using a soft retractable pencil with a good eraser. This allows me to quickly diagram portrait and landscape transitions, and everything in between. Because the iPad is a rectangle, not a square, I leave the extra space left on the right of the post-it note (on the bottom for landscape) to write the additional explanation for each step or simply leave it blank.

Simplify shading


As I said above, on the iPad the lighting is foundation to expressing Component Relationship, Exaggeration, and Staging principles, so it makes sense to take a disciplined approach to drawing various shades of light and dark in your storyboard. I find that the easiest approach is to draw shading on top of the picture as light lines at a 45 degree angle. As you can see in the last three post-its, I use tighter line spacing to indicate progressively darker shading.

Get the basics down first


When I first approach the transition design, I make only the post-its necessary to convey the overall movement of the various elements and basic component relationship. I sketch quickly using very rough strokes, and use a ruler and templates whenever possible to make my job easier.

Stick to 6-8 post-its


As you can see in Figure 4, it is not necessary to draw all 12 original key frames we saw in figure 3. To convey the basic structure of a transition, I typically try to use only 6-8 post-it notes. Using fewer steps keeps me focused on the principle of simplicity: if it takes me more than 8 post-it notes to describe the transition, it is probably too complex and I immediately look for unnecessary elements or animation that needs to be eliminated or scaled back.

Ignore Acceleration and Deceleration


Above we spoke at length about the Acceleration and Deceleration principle. This idea is essential to creating effective, believable transitions. However, when drawing a rough storyboard of 6-8 post-its, this is the one principle that I found can be safely ignored. Once people understand this principle, most folks can extrapolate from your rough drawings to imagine the complete smooth transition “in their mind’s eye”. As long as you make it clear to your team that this is only a rough storyboard that the end result will in fact follow the principle, you can safely ignore the subject and concentrate on the relationship, movement and shading of screen elements.

Draw the complete story


Transitions do not happen in isolation – they are an integral part of the overall customer experience. Thus, when I storyboard transitions, I typically do it in the context of the entire use case. This helps me make sure that the particular transition makes sense in the complete context and in combination with other transitions. For example, when I use the “flip” transition to show the search results on the map, and then use the “slide back” transition to go back to the list of search results, the storyboard will quickly reveal the inconsistency in the mental model of the interface I am trying to create and the problem transition will feel awkward when walking through the use entire storyboard.

Sketch a few different transition designs


When I approach a given transition, I usually try out 3-4 different design approaches to see which transition creates the effect I am seeking. Sometimes I find that I need to create 10 or more sets of ideas for more complex and critical interactions. The point of this initial sketching is not to create the complete and final blueprint, but to help you visualize how a given transition design option would feel with the rest of the app interactions. Doing the transition with post-it notes allows me to quickly add a new transition or re-position the existing post-its to create and try out several different scenarios, often while engaging in the active team discussion. I recommend you make copies or take photos of your boards periodically to preserve promising design directions before repositioning the post-it notes and changing the transition layout again.

Obtain Initial Stakeholder Approval


In addition to helping you find the best design approach, a rough storyboard is also a fantastic tool for conveying various design options to your team for joint discussion and brainstorming as well as for obtaining initial stakeholder buy-in. It’s a lot easier to discuss the merits of a particular transition movement and information architecture when everyone is quite literally on the same page looking at your complete use case storyboard.

Creating the Final Transition Blueprint

When you obtain the initial stakeholder approval using your rough storyboard drawing, you will need to document the final storyboard design that the engineers to actually create. Here you have a couple of options.

One approach is to use Flash to create the transition with the final high-fidelity look and feel. This is certainly a valid option. However, I found Flash to be more useful for higher-fidelity usability testing and final stakeholder approval than for describing transitions to engineers. Here is why: most developers do not read Flash code and most transitions are simply too fast for the eye to understand in detail the subtleties of acceleration and shading simply by looking at a running a Flash file. I have had several instances of getting not exactly what I specified or else getting something completely different, only to have the engineers claim that “this is exactly what the Flash looked like”. This is especially a big problem with distributed multi-lingual teams where communication is an issue.

The method that I found to work well is to specify (e.g. create a wireframe for) each of the frames at regular intervals of every 50-100 milliseconds for the entire duration of the transition. Most transitions are between 0.5 – 1.2 seconds, so you will need to create anywhere between 5-24 wireframes in your favorite wireframing tool such as Fireworks, OmniGraffle or Visio. Stringing these frames together in document pages will create a short movie that will comprise the complete blueprint that will describe the position, shading, and movement of each element that will communicate clearly and exactly so the engineers can create the exact transition you envisioned.

While this seems at first like a lot of work, after a bit of practice the wireframing goes fairly quickly, as the difference between the each new page and the one before it is only a slight change in position and shading. As long as we firmly keep in mind the principles by which iPad transitions work, we can easily diagram relevant steps for rich, expressive transitions.

To continue this conversation, add a comment below or reach out to Greg at “@designcaffeine”:http://twitter.com/designcaffeine or through his website, “DesignCaffeine.com”:http://www.DesignCaffeine.com.

Interested in more UX sketching techniques? Join us Saturday, May 28th, 2011 at UX SketchCamp [“SketchCamp.com”:http://www.sketchcamp.com or “@sketchcamp”:http://twitter.com/sketchcamp on Twitter] in San Francisco for a chance to learn from the experts, practice UX sketching and share what you know with others.

References

1. “Wireframing Marathon Starts”:http://ciohappyhour.com/wireframing-marathon-starts/; CIO Happy Hour, September 2010

2. See my article “Designing Mobile Search: Turning Limitations into Opportunities”:http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2010/03/designing-mobile-search-turning-limitations-into-opportunities.php; UX Matters, March 2010.

3. Jonathan Follett; “Interfaces That Flow: Transitions as Design Elements”:http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2007/04/interfaces-that-flow-transitions-as-design-elements.php; UX Matters, July 2007

4. Chet Haase and Romain Guy; “Animation Rules!”:http://www.parleys.com/#st=5&sl=1&id=1578; Devoxx ’09

5. Galileo documented the movement of the sun spots in his triumphant “Istoria e Dimostrazioni Intorno Alle Macchie Solari e Loro Accidenti Rome”:http://physics.ship.edu/~mrc/pfs/110/inside_out/vu1/Galileo/Things/g_sunspots.html (History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and their Properties); 1613.

5 Steps to Building Social Experiences

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Nowadays everyone wants social in their sites and applications. It’s become a basic requirement in consumer web software and is slowly infiltrating the enterprise as well. So what’s a designer to do when confronted with the requirements to “add social”? Designing social interfaces is more than just slapping on Twitter-like or Facebook-like features onto your site. Not all features are created equal and sometimes a little bit can go a long way. It’s important to consider your audience, your product—what your users will be rallying around and why they would want to become engaged with it and each other, and that you can approach this in a systematic way, a little bit at a time.

These concepts derive from a book I wrote recently with Christian Crumlish, “Designing Social Interfaces“. They are quick and easy things to remember when infusing social into your site. Each points offers some simple suggestions and points to consider when designing. Potential design patterns are recommended (and linked to) as examples for what could be done in your interface as you design and grow your service. Keep in mind that your context will dictate different specific solutions but the questions and concepts to think about will still be applicable.

Step 1 – What’s your social object? Make sure there is a “there” there. Give users a reason to rally. Why would someone come to your site?

Most people are drawn to a site based on their particular interests, in hopes of learning more or meeting others like themselves. They may be looking for information or they may have information to share. They have a passion—such as making handcrafted jewelry or taking landscape photographs—and at some point, they will want to share that with other people. That passion, that thing that people rally around is often referred to as the social object. It’s the object around which conversations emerge and thrive.

Remember that sometimes, the social object is a person – or the conversations between people. But don’t forget history (remember Friendster? or SixDegrees?), if the only thing to do is build a profile, people will eventually go somewhere else to have conversations or to do things around objects of interest.

Step 2 – Give people a way to identify themselves and to be identified.

This can be as simple as an “attribution” line when contributing and signing content.

Attribution of a comment on flickr
Attribution of a comment on flickr

It could be an “identity card” that shows a little bit about the person and is attached to every thing they do or can be as robust and complex as a “full profile” that is linked from all their contributions. The method can start out simple and grow over time.

Identity or Contact card as seen on FriendFeed
Identity or Contact card as seen on FriendFeed

It’s important to give people credit for their words and contributions. It helps others recognize their friends and disambiguate them from other people with the same name and builds a “reputation of quality” or lack thereof for their participation on your service.

Public display of relationships allows viewers to find others they might know by allowing them to browse contacts for the person whose info they are viewing.

Public display of relationships allows viewers to find others they might know by allowing them to browse contacts for the person whose info they are viewing. Module shown from MyBlogLog
Relationship module shown from MyBlogLog

Once you have given people the ability to identify themselves, allow them to “find each other” and claim their tribe. “Relationships” make the world go round and online it’s no different.

Step 3 – Give people something to do.

Provide a path for participation so lurkers as well as early adopters can be engaged at the level of effort that is appropriate for them. Things like ratings (“1-5” or “thumbs up“) are easy ways to get low participation people involved by letting them quickly register their opinion with little effort.

Thumbs up and down ratings for restaurants on GoodRec let people quickly register their opinion with little effort
Thumbs up and down ratings for restaurants on GoodRec

Allow them to “share items” they find interesting with their friends or family and “curate and collect their favorites“. The latter requires a little bit more effort, but lets your users have ownership over what they find meaningful.

Flickr allows users to “favorite” images they like and collect them for display to others.
Flickr allows users to “favorite” images they like and collect them for display to others.

At the other end of the spectrum is full authorship of content with “reviews“, “comments“, “blog postings“, and “wiki entries” all the way through to participation as a moderator or guide in your service.

Wikimedia allows collaborative editing of content on sites built with the software.
Wikimedia allows collaborative editing of content on sites built with the software.

Start simple, with light features, and gradually add more complexity if it is really needed. Keep the structure flexible enough for your users to mold and adapt to their needs. In the book, we discuss several principles related to this including “Deliberately Leave Things Incomplete“, which reminds designers to allow features to emerge from the community behavior rather than forcing behavior to fit the UI and “Strict vs. Fluid Taxonomies” which merges a strict taxonomy like your site navigation with user generated groupings and organization with features like Groups, Message Boards, Tagging, etc.

Allowing behavior to guide your features and giving your users ownership of the structure make the site much more personal for them which in turn encourages repeat and longer term usage.

Step 4 – Enable a bridge to real life (groups, mobile, meetings, face-to-face).

Don’t be afraid to build in tools that allow your users to bring their community into the real world. In many online groups, a majority of people know each other personally.

Upcoming shows local events and allows people to add events to their calendar and view events their friends are interested in.
Upcoming shows local events and allows people to add events to their calendar and view events their friends are interested in.

Providing tools to help plan face-to-face meetings and then archive those happenings will strengthen your site and the community. Consider incorporating “geo” features like “GeoMapping“, and “GeoMashups“.

Additional features might entail creating “subspaces (groups)” and coordinating real time “face-to-face meetings” and gatherings among users of your service.
Meetup lets people affiliate with groups of interest and the site helps coordinate real life - in person meetings and gatherings between members.
Meetup lets people affiliate with groups of interest and the site helps coordinate real life – in person meetings and gatherings between members.

Step 5 – Gently Moderate. Let the community elevate people and content they value.

This can be through simple things like ratings or “reputation labels“.

Reputation labels on the intranet at Yahoo!.
Reputation labels on the intranet at Yahoo!

The community can help you surface contributions of quality which in turn should help attract future participants and will help keep the interactions lively. This process also helps push bad quality content down and out of sight.

Keep an eye on the community, participate yourself, welcome people as they join, set yourself up as a role model.

Hunch founder, Catarina Fake, acts as a role model for the community being built on the site.
Hunch founder, Catarina Fake, acts as a role model for the community being built on the site.

Notice who is passionate and who is potentially causing trouble. Conversations should run their course. Let the “community moderate itself” and provide tools to allow them to do that, like allowing them to mark content as spam or block trolls or “report abuse“. Step in only when necessary.

Report Abuse is available on every comment in Yahoo! Answers and allows users to moderate the content quality.
Report Abuse is available on every comment in Yahoo! Answers and allows users to moderate the content quality.

Make sure people are aware of the “terms of service” and “license” implications of content they create – both as it relates to your site as well as what they can permit others to do with their content.

Go out and get started

These are a few of the things to consider when building a social application or when adding social features to an existing site. There are a lot more features and concepts available within the social ecosystem but these should get you started and will build a good foundation from which more robust and complex features can be added to.

It is important to remember that you don’t have to do it all at once. You can apply features sparingly and let the community tell you when you need to expand. Consider the bare minimum while fleshing out your infrastructure. Add complexity as your community grows and scales. Remember that you are building a container for activity and conversation and that you don’t have to have everything figured out. The people will create their own paths of interaction making their own meaning and experience.

Integrating Prototyping Into Your Design Process

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Just like with any other UX research or design tool, context plays a critical role in determining how effective prototyping will be for you.

Prototyping is a big deal right now. We get wrapped up in mailing list threads, new tools are released at an astonishing pace, books are being published, and articles show up on Boxes & Arrows. Clients are even asking for prototypes. But here’s the thing… prototyping is not a silver bullet.

There is no one right way to do it.

However, prototyping is a high silver content bullet. When aimed well, a prototype can answer design questions and communicate design ideas. In this article, I talk about the dimensions of prototype fidelity and how you can use them to choose the most effective prototyping method for the questions you need answered.

The dimensions of fidelity

A prototype’s fidelity has the most influence over its effectiveness. Fidelity simply refers to how realistic the prototype is. Most of the time when we talk about a “high-fidelity” prototype we are referring to a prototype that has some visual or industrial design applied to it. But that leaves out what’s most important to UX designers, what it’s like to actually work with the prototype!

Fidelity is multidimensional.

Not only can you have a prototype that looks like a realistic product, but you can also have a prototype that works like a realistic product. I call these dimensions of fidelity “visual fidelity” and “functional fidelity.” By varying your prototyping methodology along these two dimensions you can ensure that your prototyping effort is successful given your particular context. Let’s take a look at some examples.

version w/ arrows

A prototype can be as simple as a series of hand-sketched wireframes that flow together. This is a good example of a low visual fidelity prototype. These wireframes show layout and functionality but have no visual design. Take the same wireframes, integrate a visual design, and your prototype has a high visual fidelity. While you might think of them as being similar, these two prototypes are most effective in two different situations.

That same series of sketches is also a low functional fidelity prototype. Moving through screens drawn on paper is much different than working with the developed system. But if you render those sketches in HTML, JavaScript, & CSS, they have a high functional fidelity. Working with an interactive prototype is very similar to working with the developed system. Again, high- and low-fidelity prototypes are most effective in two completely different situations.

After spending all this time talking about fidelity, I want to share one of my favorite quotes on prototyping. Bill Buxton said this in his Interaction08 keynote:

There is no such thing as high or low fidelity, only appropriate fidelity.

Appropriate Fidelity

“Appropriate fidelity” refers to a level of prototype fidelity that allows you to achieve the goals you’ve set for doing a prototype in the first place. By varying the fidelity of your prototype along the dimensions of visual design and functionality, you make your prototype more effective at achieving some goals and less effective for others.

bottom left Low Visual and Low Functional Fidelity

Very low fidelity prototypes are extremely useful to UX designers. Why? They can be made swiftly, changed without repercussion, and still help visualize a concept. Low visual & functional fidelity prototypes are helpful at answering large structural questions. Here are some examples:

  • Does the system have all the features required to support the user’s goals?
  • Does the workflow make sense at a high level?
  • Which UX concept works best?
  • Coming to consensus on a UX concept with stakeholders, e.g.“Is this what you meant?”

bottom right Low Visual and High Functional Fidelity

In my own practice, this is the type of prototyping I do most often. What I make are interactive, HTML interactive wireframes. Everything is black, white, and gray, but the interactions are extremely close to what they’d be in the developed system. These types of prototypes are effective in many situations:

  • Evaluating the usability of proposed designs for new systems
  • Exploring isolated interactions as a proof-of-concept
  • Validating UX design direction with stakeholders
  • Validating the implementation of requirements with stakeholders
  • Supplementing printed documentation for development teams
  • Performing remote testing

Remote testing has become more and more important over the last several years. At Evantage, we do approximately 75% of our user testing remotely. It would be difficult for us to get good data about our designs for modern, highly interactive sites if we were limited to representing those designs using low-to-medium functional fidelity prototyping techniques such as clickable PDFs or interactive PowerPoint presentations.

By prototyping isolated interactions at a high functional fidelity and testing them with users, I can get really good data about whether that interaction works before I base an application around it…. If those ideas are actually pretty slick, I can release the design with confidence instead of with gritted teeth.

I also want to expand on proof-of-concept testing. This technique supports creativity and innovation. By prototyping isolated interactions at a high functional fidelity and testing them with users, I can get really good data about whether that interaction works before I base an entire application around it. This allows me to explore my crazy ideas and find out if they are, in fact, crazy. But if it turns out that those ideas are actually pretty slick, I’ll know that and can release the design with confidence instead of with gritted teeth.

top left High Visual and Low Functional Fidelity

At first thought, these prototypes may not make much sense. Why bother making something look nice if it doesn’t work? Well, because how something looks can have a huge impact on how easy it is to use. A high visual and low functional fidelity prototype allows you to test that with users. You can print out screen images and do a paper prototype test with them, or you can image map some JPGs and do what I’ve heard termed a “slap and map” test from within a browser.

top right High Visual and High Functional Fidelity

High visual and functional fidelity prototypes are the Rolls-Royce of prototypes. They take more time and effort to build than a lower fidelity prototype and are correspondingly more complicated to manage. Most of the time, this extra cost isn’t worth it. But there are a few situations where it is:

  • Evaluating the usability of proposed UX designs for an existing system
  • Performing usability tests with non-savvy user groups
  • Supplementing printed documentation for offshore development teams

Prototype testing is all about data, right? In the first two situations above, the prototype’s high visual fidelity reduces the confounding factors a wireframey prototype can introduce into test results, thus maintaining the quality of your data. In the third situation, the high visual fidelity helps minimize the design communication and interpretation problems inherent in offshore development.

Integrating Prototyping Into Your Design Process

What I’ve talked about so far has focused on the tactical, on how to prototype effectively to achieve specific goals. What I want to talk about now is more strategic. How can you integrate prototyping effectively into your design process?

First off, do what you’d do to begin any organizational change. Start small. Find a small project, express the value of prototyping and your interest in doing it, and do it. It would be best to start with something richly interactive though, as prototyping is more crucial the more interactive a system is. Of course, make sure you use a prototype of the right visual and functional fidelity for your purpose.

People like shiny things that move. The cool factor of prototyping will be difficult to resist.

As you near completion of the prototype, make sure you walk through the prototype with the project’s stakeholders. Ask them if something like this was what they had in mind. This will impress them on two levels. First, people like to feel important, and you’re soliciting their opinions. Second, people like shiny things that move. The cool factor of prototyping will be difficult to resist. When these stakeholders are involved in future projects, it’s very likely they will actually request a prototype as a result of their first experience with you.

Once you get buy-in, you can start integrating prototyping into your process. But just like different methods of prototyping are more effective for answering certain questions, different business contexts call for different ways to integrate prototyping.

Corporate, Agile, Mature UX Practice

This situation is fast-paced and iterative, but as an employee (as opposed to a contractor or consultant) you have the opportunity to own the UX of your company’s products. In this situation, there are three points in the design process that prototyping can be of benefit.

  • Low visual and functional fidelity prototypes can help select good UX concepts from several that you develop at the beginning of a project.
  • High functional fidelity proof-of-concept prototypes can help develop those concepts into usable designs.

You can work with a dedicated prototyper to build a separate prototype using code that can be reused in the production system to build efficiencies into an Agile process.

Corporate, Waterfall, New UX Practice

In this situation, the organization might not be comfortable enough with UX design to support the development of multiple UX concepts. You might just have to begin developing the wireframes and prototypes to meet the organization’s need for documentation and measurable signs of progress. This situation relies heavily on the prototype for communicating and validating direction with project stakeholders, with user testing often not yet being a real possibility. Here’s how prototyping can help:

  • High functional fidelity prototypes can help you communicate better with stakeholders and get their input on your direction
  • These prototypes should also be used for user testing, if at all possible.
  • Walk through the interactive prototype at the same time you walk through the printed documentation for the developers during handoff.

Consulting/Agency

When doing UX design for an external client, a lot of the magic is worked behind the scenes. The result is a process that is relatively unencumbered by internal politics. The challenge is to convey the importance of iterative prototyping to clients who sometimes feel like they’re paying for the same thing twice.

  • Sketch two or three of your design concepts into simple, low visual and functional fidelity prototypes and test them to decide which to go with. At this stage, testing can be very informal and done with anyone capable of putting themselves in the user’s shoes (e.g., other UX designers, customer service staff, or product managers who used to be users).
  • Build a small interactive prototype that shows the critical interactions, walk through it with stakeholders to validate your direction, then test with users.
  • Revise the prototype based on the test results, flesh it out to support more holistic tasks, and test again.
  • Revise the prototype and use it to supplement the paper documentation as you walk through both with the development team.

Just like with any other UX research or design tool, context plays a critical role in determining how effective prototyping will be for you. If you follow the simple guidelines above and prototype to an appropriate level of fidelity for your context, you will achieve your goals and improve your design. No firearms required.

UI Pattern Documentation Review

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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.