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Saturday, 30 June, 2007

Why Google should be careful...

"With great power, comes great responsibility"...this memorable Spiderman quote is getting relevant for Google now, as it was relevant for Microsoft until sometime ago.

I am sure the guys at Google are happy with their new found power, but they need to be careful about using it, as they go on to become the information superpower of the world.

In the next few years (if they have not done already) Google should be able to maintain an information catalog of not only what information people access, but how, where and more. They will also soon be able to map these data patterns to actual identities of people (via orkut for example) and create a virtual database of who, where, how and so on.

Now this might seem attractive to Google's scientists and business guys, but then there are issues. While ownership of patterns of user behavior and using that to provide services may be acceptable to users, ownership of people's identities may not be acceptable. The line between crossing this critical threshold is thin and Google needs to carefully formulate their vision in this context. Much loved Google can soon become much hated.

The internet has done something that world leaders and governments have never wanted to do - break boundaries and create a free world - a true democracy. It has provided people the power to "communicate" and "express" across barriers of geography and social boundaries. This experience of freedom has led to the opening up of minds and a realization of identities beyond the traditional ones of country, religion and local community.

People have now started to carve out both personal and multiple community based identities, that are based not on geography but on personal likes and dislikes. Google and others would be well advised to understand that this social phenomena provides a particular direction for the future - you need to give people ownership of their identities, expression and communication. The space Google and others should and can position themselves in, is that of providing the necessary interfaces and services to help people express and communicate their identities.

This above formulation of "identity networks", will of course, extend to personal identity and community-based identity and expression. However, it will not be a rigid formulation, but an amorphous one with the networks themselves becoming the data-centers interconnected by interfaces provided by service providers like Google and others.

This might well extend beyond the virtual into the real world, with our non-internet social transactions soon being formulated similarly. Large corporations might soon be called upon to give up ownership of material assets to "identity networks" while earn from offering services that facilitate the networks themselves. Employment should give way to shareholding and collaboration.

We are entering a more equal world - the powerful would do well to responsibly facilitate this process by anticipating this change and creating an "inclusive" vision of the world.

Tuesday, 26 June, 2007

Interaction Design and Web 2.0

A lot of my friends ask me about Web 2.0 and talk of it as if its the next big thing. But is it really? Or rather what is that makes it the next big thing?

IMHO, the most comprehensive understanding of it is available at:
http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html?page=1

A reading of the above tells me that the implications for a designer are large or small based on how she has been doing design. As a core discipline, in design, to question the existing and innovate is not a new concept. Hence, to re-invent the way the web is used is not a big thing. To make the interface or user experience richer is not a new thing.

What then is new?
1. Technology - Its a big shift for the techies to think that the web itself can be thought of as a platform. And then to use technologies based on this platform to design scalable, robust applications that handle loads of data is a big mind-shift. Once the techies "get the idea", the designer now has available to her the tools and the implementation inclination that will help her convert the designs into reality.

So now, the designer can try out the effects and transitions that rival a real life simulation and be positive that technologies exist that will help implement those interactions. The techie on the other hand is now willing to try out hyped up AJAX technologies and frameworks, besides a host of proprietary as well as open-source stuff like Flex and OpenLaszlo.

The only problem though is that in India some of the good programmers still consider these technologies as UI stuff as against "core" programming languages like Java and C++. The flip-side is that stuff like Flex and Laszlo require good programming skills and a highly creative problem solving mind.

2. User participation - This is a shift for all. The differentiation between a content provider and a content consumer is now blurred. The design now allows the user (the erstwhile "content consumer") to generate and use the content. The benefits are of transparency and a more realistic context. The disadvantage is that it requires a "long tail" to filter out junk that comes with open participation.

The concept of participatory design though is great news in terms of bringing user experience to a new level providing more engagement and greater transparency. This concept has the potential to alter the user engagement models in many a domain and make it more dynamic and realistic.

Infact the best way to beat Google in the search domain is to move away from algorithmic refinement of search to user refinement. And believe me there are a bunch of mavericks out there who are doing that already.

Frankly, besides these 2 points worth noting, I guess the other concepts are an endeavor that every designer would anyway be called me make. Hence, for the interaction designer, Web 2.0 should mean the technology that affords richer interactions, but more so, the motivation to provide direct and transparent user involvement in the application, by design.

There is one simple thing though - the next version of the web, Web 2.0 if you call it, will be driven by the designer and her imagination.

Tuesday, 19 June, 2007

Let me do Usability...

A common refrain I hear amongst usability practitioners is that they are not allowed to do usability but asked to design. What they mean is that they are not being allowed to meet users, understand user tasks and yet required to come up with the "screens".

Obviously the guys asking them to do this magic are "stupid" (and i shall not be polite). They are asking the designer to design in the blind. Its like asking a developer to write code without doing the requirements. But then you always meet "stupid" clients and you have to earn your bread from them. So what do you do?

As a usability professional you have to understand that you design your product both for your users and your clients. So you are basically a facilitator of the design. While its important for you to align yourself to user requirements, its equally important for you to align with your clients' business goals and needs. Once you can align with your clients' goals and needs, you will become a trusted friend and your advice will be followed.

In the beginning, you will not be using a lot of your usability expertise. You will mostly be designing in the blind doing probably a combination of the following:
1. Removing clutter
2. Organizing and grouping content and layout
3. Optimizing tasks
4. Suggesting incremental improvements
5. Reviewing and suggesting future direction

The above can actually improve the product a lot, and bring an almost "crappy" interface to a professionally designed level. It may not be the most usable yet - but it will add such tremendous value that it will help you gain trust.

Once the trust is gained, you have done 50% of your job. You now need to start getting the users perspective into it. Armed with knowledge about the product and the trust of your client, you will be in a position to now influence your client to do user research/testing and move the product to the next level.

However, this is easier said than done. This step needs a certain skill - the ability to move and shake and push things - if you are now going to give up and not push ahead, you will never be able to and soon you will lose the trust you have gained. Only a pro-active stance, a sharp mind and the ability to grasp situations and provide direction helps here - remember you are an expert and have been called for either as a usability or a design consultant. Sometimes this calls for you to raise your level to one of your client's level. Many projects my team and I work on require us to work with CEOs and VPs, many of them from ivy-league US Business schools with several years of experience and a razor sharp mind. We are mostly required to rise above our own capacities and perform. A few ideas on how this can be done are:

1. Read, read and read - not just about usability, but business, technology and everything that you can lay your hands on.
2. Connect the dots - reading is not enough unless you can assimilate what you read and build them into a model that helps you make sense of the world around you.
3. Apply the knowledge - once you have learnt things, put them into action. Don't be afraid of failure - you never know which idea of yours might just click.
4. Share what you learn - only the incapable are insecure. Once you have learnt, go ahead and share it, so that others can learn, comment and help you refine your ideas.
5. Communicate - as you refine your thoughts, try and articulate it. Soon it will become a habit and you will be able to communicate with the best, including your clients.

Doing usability or design is a tough job. Only if we do it responsibly, while building trust and providing value, will we be allowed to do it.

Friday, 15 June, 2007

On Product Innovation...

…from “How users use it” to “How users will use it”…

A generation of usability people seem to have got trained on usability methods that espouse mapping the user’s mental model and using that for design. Ideally whatever the intention is, practically, it stymies new idea generation. Mostly, it ends up generating an existing usage pattern and the resulting design is almost always cliche.

Traditional usability methods, because of their origins in psychology, concentrate on identifying present inefficiencies in user task performance and improving them assuming that the other influencing factors like systems, environment and technology are given as part of the brief. Convergence is the single-most important philosophy here.

Innovation differs. It questions the whole system and is based on foretelling the future. Therefore, it calls for explorative methods which are part of an artist or designer’s toolset. Divergence and convergence together form the bane of innovation.

One of the tools for innovation is scenario building. Scenario building, as in usability practice is focussed on mapping the current usage situation. However, for innovation its a tool to foretell the future. One needs to start by diverging and constructing scenarios for the future, say, 15 years, 10 years, 5 years from now. A mix of evaluation and intuition can help converge on the most promising idea. The next step then is to trace back the path to the present, identifying a reverse-track along the way that can be used to put in place all the systems and artifacts required to precede and therefore facilitate the future scenario. Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.com could not have been born had there not been in place the preceding ideas of a credit card, the required technology and the internet, all of them coming together on the track to create the reality of Amazon.com as we know it today.

Its been said that Google never needs to sell itself much - all it does is identify what is going to happen tomorrow and just be present there when the time arrives. However, its not so easy - it takes a careful amount of scenario building for the future to be there when it matters, while putting together all the parts of the jig-saw puzzle along the way.

Thursday, 14 June, 2007

Where from here...

How and where do I progress in my career as a usability professional?

I am sure this question pops-up in every usability practitioner's mind, especially in India.

I have noticed that as people move from being a new entrant in the field of usability to have spent a few years in it, a certain disillusionment sets in. People start having doubts with regard to what they are learning, and whether they are making fruitful use of their education and talent. Very soon, restlessness sets in and people hop jobs rewarded by the short term increase in salary and a change in environment.

From the organization's point of view, its difficult to get people with the ready combination of talent and ability in usability. After spending a lot of time, effort and money in training people, just when these people are ready to be on the job, they move on.

Over a period of time, experienced usability professionals, in their prime, move onto management and related fields, leaving a vacuum at the top. Not only does quality of work suffer, but the profession as a whole suffers, since the inexperienced ones don't get mentorship.

I have often wondered what causes this and the answer i think lies in the way our profession is structured. Ideally, this is a profession where a range of skills, both in breadth and depth matters. And then the added ability to draw upon experience and exposure to apply those skills in a business environment.

Given the above, if we look at a similar profession, for example in a law firm, a new entrant enters as a "junior", apprentices under experienced people, takes up individual responsibility as an "associate" and finally moves on to become a "partner". During this progression, which might roughly take some 15 to 20 years, a person becomes an expert, possibly in a particular field of law - and with this expertise comes prestige and money. At each point in time, the lawyer knows the next step forward and this helps him hone his skills and ability to perform in his profession. Alternatives to the profession in terms of working for a corporate do exist, but the benchmarks are all set in terms of expertise. Similar is the progression for a doctor.

However, for usability, we lack this graded progression. At no point in time is a usability person clear about how much expertise he has gained. This lack of understanding probably is a result of the peculiar nature of our profession. While lawyers have to stand upto the coded law of the land and doctors have to succeed in the cure, the success of the usability person cannot be measured as objectively. It is mostly subject to client expectations and a host of other factors and hence deliverables come in all sizes and shapes. A deliverable that works for a particular scenario, is unacceptable in another.

Then there is the peculiar scenario of each and every person from related fields wanting to jump into the high-demand opportunity of the job scenario of usability. To practice law you need a degree in law. To practice medicine you need a degree as well. But to practice usability you don't need any. Because the demand is high, people get hired with no formal degree at all - and those getting hired don't want to invest in a degree. Its like the huge gold rush - mint it as long as it lasts. The problem is - its not going to last long unless you have invested in it.

Given the peculiarities then, what and how can these practitioners know their way?

The answer lies in adopting some kind of a model that recognizes expertise, formal or informal. One way might be to accept that this profession calls for life-long learning and experience and only as one progresses can one perfect the use of tools, develop better skills and become a master in its application. This might be wishful thinking, but i wonder if we can adopt the ranking model that martial arts like karate or judo use. What we will need is some kind of standardization in terms of defining what would constitute a progression in terms of learning, as is the case with these martial arts.