Mobile first or workflow first?

Mobile first was suggested as a means to help an organization build both for mobile devices as well as the desktop application. The attempts at taking fully featured applications and wedging them into the mobile device did not work. Trying to take something with few constraints and simplifying to something with greater constraints seldom works. In this case the addition of unique features and abilities were missed on many developing mobile applications.

So mobile first arose as a way to build out applications considering the greater constraints of the mobile applications and then expanding to the desktop. This process all works well when the intent is to give the same features in both applications. However, when do you ever want the least common denominator between 2 technologies?

How does this work in real life? Are we designing to the workflows the users do? Or are we designing to the silos we build in the organization? We make the desktop apps in the desktop team and the mobile apps with the mobile team. This means that we hire UX designers for mobile or desktop applications but we are not hiring them to solve the user’s problems.

IDEO design for Bloomberg

IDEO design idea for Bloomberg integrating desktop and mobile devices for enhancing workflows -2007

When you are at work, are you using mobile devices? Do you use them in exactly the same way as the desktop application? Do they serve different purposes depending on the tasks you are working on?

By analyzing the user’s workflows and how they do work we can do a better job designing for them. Incorporating the tools they use in the context of the work and environment will drive differing designs for each device. The strengths of the device in the context of their work can be enhanced. For example, at the desktop, many users have large monitors or multiples. The real-estate available allows for a greater display of information in context of what they are trying to do. Using both monitors to do, track and monitor work is helpful and increases productivity. When at their desk, off loading messaging and alerts to the phone is helpful for when they get up and move away from their desk the message is in hand.

The coordination of the use of different mobile devices and the desktop can be used to make a person more effective at their job not just mobile. UX designers should be oriented around the workflows and fixing the problems not around the organizations implementation teams. The designer should focus on delivering designs that optimize the workflow for any combination of devices. We are not living in a world where it is one or the other. It is the phone, tablet, desktop at work, at home and someone else’s desk.

What is the right way to organize your teams to make optimal designs for your users? Why aren’t your designers organized around the user’s workflows?


Being honest with your designs

Where is the line drawn between being dishonest and trying to bridge the gap between the physical world and the digital world? Where is decoration useful? Where does decoration help the user understand how to interact with the application? When is “flat” too little and “skeuomorphic” too much for the user to figure out how to get his work done?

So, contrary to what the detractors say—there is a place for decoration, and a place for material honesty. These two exist on a continuum, with decoration at one end and material honesty at the other. There’s no precise point at which a design becomes honest or dishonest. The web designer has the messy job of sorting it out.

Material Honesty on the Web by Kevin Goldman

Portfolio Summary: Summarizing Non-Normal Data

We are designing the information displays for portfolio managers. In the process of understanding what information is needed we have identified from our resident portfolio managers and customers the need to get a quick overall status of the portfolios under management.

If we are looking at one portfolio there are some specific characteristics we would like to roll up and summarize. Let’s take the example in the fixed income world. If we have a portfolio of 100 securities, when we look at that portfolio summary we would like to get a sense of the spread, duration, convexity, and credit quality. When asked how they would roll this data up, the portfolio managers tell us to use a weighted average.

The problem is that the distribution of the data is non-normal most of the time so taking an average is useless. What would you do to express the overall distribution in non-normal data?

Some thoughts:

create a plot –  it is non-normal and the distribution is irregular so perhaps a distribution plot would be useful (a little sparkline of the distribution to give a general idea)
monitor control boundariesupper and lower bounds with counts below, in the middle and above would be helpful (this would allow the user to see the outliers quickly)
measure driftpositive and negative drift from a benchmark or model where you want to be at for each position and identify the drift (this may be normal but I am not sure)

It seems to me that we could come up with many much more useful and truthful representation of the underlying data than the weighted average.

Have you played around with this?
Is there an industry standard for expressing this data?
Do you have some ideas?

5 Questions to Ask for a Better Solution

Are you a business owner or product manager looking to improve the design of your product? Even if you do not have a designer on staff, you have design minded team members that can be guided with right questions. Here are some questions to ask to get your team to drive to the optimal solution.

Question 1: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

There is a tendency to jump immediately to solutions without first stating the problem. Stating and clarifying the problem itself will crystallize the issue for both the product manager and the team. Ask this question to have team members verbalize the problem.

For example, I had a project manager ask me to design an icon to put on the screen. This button was the solution he determined for the customer problem. I asked him a series of questions around the problem and it turned out the button was a band-aid that would resolve the specific customer request. The real problem was much larger. Users were not able to get their work done smoothly and they wanted to speed up a process they did frequently throughout the day.

Question 2: Who has this problem?

There is a tendency to focus solutions on the most recent set of user requests or complaints, rather than generalizing to the overall user population. This question is asking about the persona or the archetype of the user. Identifying the persona determines the persona’s needs, goals, activities, environment and how the company wants to interact with this type of user. 

For example, I had a project manager come to me for help with a specific product enhancement. One customer was asking for a specific feature. By having a conversation about the type of user this request came from, we were able to do a better job of generalizing the problem and solving this issue for a greater number of customers.

Question 3: What is the user trying to do?

Understanding the context of the interaction is the essence of user experience and product design. Everyone should be clear on the tasks and workflows that the user is doing when encountering this problem. Diagramming, story-boarding, or videotaping helps to communicate the workflows clearly to the team.

For example, I have been designing software for traders. Traders work in an information dense and noisy environment. Many traders attend to 3 to 6 monitors, multiple phones and a TV broadcast while in an open space with many people talking and shouting. The trader runs several applications with very different visuals. Each application has many moving parts: flashing data, programmed sounds and interdependent information. How do you design incoming information about a stock that is not visible on any screen without interrupting the traders current work? Knowing the context of the environment will ensure a design that meets the users needs.

Question 4: How are we going to design the product?

As the business owner you should expect many solution ideas for each problem. All possible solutions that impact the user should be sketched. Encouraging many different team members to sketch on their own will triangulate on a better design than one person designing.

For example, I worked on a project where not only did the internal team come up with sketches but so did the client. We presented and explored the sketches everyone put forth. We compared two designs to identify what worked and what did not work (do not allow personal opinions unless you are building the product for that individual). This was one of my most successful designs from the perspective of user acceptance and client and team buy-in.

Question 5: How are we going to figure out which design is going to work?

Identify the three best designs to prototype. Create and review a storyboard for each of the designs. Have the team prototype the designs on paper, in PPT, Balsamiq or whatever means that result in a quick turnaround.

For example, I use PPT to mockup and prototype the UIs. I have created PPT squares that illustrate the UI framework we are working with, which allows anyone to  prototype and edit the screens. Since interaction design requires small movements and transitions, I have found PPT very useful to illustrate small changes that the user can click through. The PPT click-through allows the user to move forward and backward at their own pace and replay the interaction over and over. I have found that some users will be able to provide feedback as to whether the design solves the problem or not. I look for trends to emerge.

The result of this process is that you will get quick, tangible feedback from users before coding has begun. Completing the process allows more members of the team to be able to accurately visualize the solution, resulting in team cohesion and better execution in the engineering stages. These steps provide a rapid means of investigating the solution space and throwing away poor ideas before time is spent coding. In hours or days, depending on the size of the problem, you come away with a more confidence in the design of the solution.

What is the ROI of design?

Design/Cost Influence Curve from

Design/Cost Influence Curve from

How much are you willing to pay for selecting the best design? How much are you willing to pay for making whatever design someone has in their head better over time? Do you take a focused approach to design? Or is the shotgun approach sufficient?

If you are driven by numbers, why would you ever avoid doing an appropriate design process? (I am not talking about engineering – I am talking about selecting the correct design concept.)

Let’s assume the quality of the design concept you come up with lies on a normal curve. What is the probability that the one design you come up with is the best one? How do you improve your odds? If it’s normal, the more times you do it the more likely it is that you will find one that is the best.

So as a business person why aren’t you demanding 100s of concepts for the new product or module or business idea? Prototype the best 3 and come up with the cost of creation/ delivery and maintenance of each. Know what your target users think of the concepts. Then make a decision.

How to become a great Interaction Designer?

How to become a great Interaction Designer? Practice, practice, practice. Or as your dad used to say “Practice makes perfect.”

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. I loved it. It is one of those books that made me think. That gets me pumped. Anyway, this book validated a lot of my observations I had about successful people and success in general.

There are 2 main things that are required to be successful at something:

  1. opportunity
  2. practice

Notice, this does not say anything about class or natural ability. Assuming an intelligent person, not a genius and not challenged you need to be provided the opportunity to work at your “thing” and then you need to work at it consistently for 10,000 hours.

Outliers have one more advantage: timing. When you are born makes a huge difference of whether or not you will have the opportunity before others do so that when you practice you will be uniquely the best (an outlier).

So what? If you want to become a great Interaction Designer or you want to hire one, aim for 10,000 ours. That would be about 10 years of work before you can start claiming yourself as an expert. My assumption is that half of your 2100 hours a year of work is actually doing design. And if that is the case it will take almost 10 years to become an expert.

So hire someone with 10 years of interaction design experience if you would like an expert. I would venture that this is true for any practice like product management, software development, QA.

Hiring an interaction designer?

Do you know what you are looking for? Do you know what to ask? Do you know what to look for? Do you know who they would work for? Why?

In the enterprise software world, what do you want to look for in an interaction designer? What is an interaction designer? Do they just drawing pretty pictures?

Interaction designers focus on how the user flows through the application. Their goal is to make the user’s life as easy as possible to get their task or job done. So what do they do? I like to describe the responsibility of the interaction designer is to understand the context of the business problem and the limitations of the technology to deliver the best design to be built. An interaction designer spends 80-90% of their time communicating. Working with business people, product managers and users to understand the context and the problem, translating that problem into design choices that is narrowed to the best solution and then representing the different stages of design to different people in the way they need to see it.

So here is what I did.

  1. I screened my candidates by having them send a resume with a portfolio. The portfolio is a visual resume. Very little of this can show interaction but it does show communication tools.
  2. If they pass I had a 45 min conversation with the designer. I wanted to find out how well they listened to me and then communicated their abilities. I also had them descibe their design process to see how they approach design to see if they can fit with the team. 
  3. If they passed, they had to call back the next day with 1/2 hour of questions. Every good interaction designer should know how to ask questions all the time. Here I was looking at how they asked their questions and whether I thought their was a fit for the team.
  4. If they passed we had them in for an in-person interview. Here they needed to take a couple of hours with the team explaining their work. Walk through examples and answer questions. Here is where we would bring up examples of challenges to see what the candidate would do. Would they ask more questions? Did they show examples? Did they just jump into the answer?

Interaction design is not about the answer. There are many answers to a problem. Interaction design is about the questions. The interaction designer needs to gather enough information to make reasoned choices in the design process. At each stage in the process he will need to work with users, business people, product managers, designers and technologists.

Are you hiring an interaction designer? Make sure they can fit culturally within your team since they will be spending so much time trying to influence and communicate.

iPhone is a bad example

How many times am I asked to just design it like the iPhone? How big is the iPhone? 3X2 inches? I think my problem is slightly different (sarcasm).


Picture found on HarveyW’s flickr account

I have to design an application that can cover an area of 6X4 feet. The users of my application like 3, 4,6, or 8 monitors. The challenges of the big and the small may have many similarities but in this case the size difference is significant in the interaction design.

  1. How do you easily manage 6 monitors full of applications? Do you use the Windows toolbar? Do you have a special app?
  2. How do you move from the bottom left to the top left with your mouse? Picture yourself wacking the mouse on the desk over and over again until he reaches the other side. How about your keyboard? Alt-tab?
  3. How do you get the users attention as something new comes in? How many applications is he paying attention to? How many are seeking his attention?
  4. With so many distractions, so much noise, and so many applications how does the person make effective decisions? Do more screens help? How many screens is optimal?

What do you think? Do you have it all solved? How am I going to make sure the best decision is being made with the quickest reaction time?