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Putting People First

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August 2008
24 August 2008

Digital designers rediscover their hands

Adobe designers
The New York Times reports on how software designers get hands-on with real world objects to learn to think more creatively and intuitively, featuring examples from Adobe and Mike Kuniavsky’s Sketching in Hardware gatherings.

Using computers to model the physical world has become increasingly common; products as diverse as cars and planes, pharmaceuticals and cellphones are almost entirely conceived, specified and designed on a computer screen. Typically, only when these creations are nearly ready for mass manufacturing are prototypes made — and often not by the people who designed them.

Creative designers and engineers are rebelling against their alienation from the physical world.

The article concludes: “Bringing human hands back into the world of digital designers may have profound long-term consequences. Designs could become safer, more user-friendly and even more durable. At the very least, the process of creating things could become a happier one.”

Read full story

24 August 2008

How cell phones hurt communities

Hiker
Benjamin Dangl of AlterNet reflects on how cell phone use has crept into every aspect of daily life, ironically weakening the basic human communication that is the fabric of any community.

As Slate commented in his Adbusters essay, “It seems the more ‘connected’ we are, the more detached we become.”

Back on the hiking trail in Spain I saw this play out in a myriad of ways. Though I was experiencing cell-freedom, throughout the trip, I found myself surrounded by people, mainly Europeans, on their cell phones, texting and talking with concerned family members and friends throughout the day. People were torn between developing friendships with strangers and calling up or texting old friends and family they already knew. Similarly, back in the U.S., I often found myself checking my messages or making a phone call rather than striking up a conversation with a stranger at the post office or bus stop. In this way, I was cutting off potentially eye-opening conversations and new friendships. I also walked around, talking on my cell phone, ignoring my surroundings and neighborhood the same way that Italian hiker did that morning in the mountains. If we can’t talk to face to face with our neighbors, or notice the world we’re walking through now, where will cell phone use take our communities and families five years down the road?

Read full story

24 August 2008

Data as design material

Cholera map
Jonathan Follett writes on how as UX designers or researchers — we’ll be on the forefront of the movement to handle the coming flood of data — and make it not only available, but easy for people to use and understand.

One of our jobs as UX professionals is to provide context for all this data, making it easy for users to understand and interact with it. However, it’s rarely in our mandate to determine the types of data we’re delivering to our audience. This is usually the responsibility of the business side of the product development equation.

However, if we begin to consider data not as something that flows through our designs and even dictates their form, but instead as yet another design material, we can bring value in the sphere of content as well. As more and more data becomes digital–so rapidly, in fact, that we cannot possibly be aware of it all–and there are fewer technical hurdles to making it publicly available, creativity and insights that help UX professionals find the right data to incorporate and feature in their user experiences will become increasingly important.

Read full story

23 August 2008

Italian virtual cemetery judged too cold

Turin cemetery
More Italian news on how communications technologies are penetrating people’s daily lives, and sometimes create frictions:

The Italian newspaper La Stampa reports on plans for a virtual cemetery in Turin to commemorate those cremated, apparently developed without public consultation (my condensed translation):

The project is not yet implemented, but is already subject of debate. The high-tech cemetery is not liked. Virtual tombstones and monitors with the names of the deceased seem to be in contradiction with the wishes of those who chose for cremation and not leave their traces in the earth. So, technology and prayer still seem incompatible concepts.

The Turin municipality plans to provide family members with a place where they can gather to commemorate the deceased. As of 1 November, there will be three displays at the entrance of Turin’s main cemetery. Two of them contain the names of the over 4000 deceased, those who do not even have a small box that contains the urn with the ashes. The third monitor is reserved to the virtual tombstones: each visitor can access, with a personal code, the page with a photo of their dear one, their date of birth and death, and an epigraph. A tombstone in other words. Or better, an image of a tombstone.

The idea made some people smile, others however cringed at the thought.

Ines Poletto approaches one of the four (stone) cenotaphs, makes the sign of the cross, and says: “Who has chosen to be in here doesn’t want a photo or an epigraph. It may be difficult to accept for those who remain behind, but we need to respect the wishes of those who are no longer with us.” Carla Costa, 52, whose father also preferred the cremation, is of the same idea: “Those who made this decision did not want visibility. Why put their name and photo on a screen? It is not right to put them in a box now, even though it is a virtual one.”

Margherita Bertin reacts ironically: “I understand the importance of the computer, try to stay up-to-date, and know how to send emails, but this thing about the dead on the internet…” The use of new technologies in this context doesn’t even convince the younger generation. Claudia Cicirelli, 28, thinks the idea of the municipality is “crazy”, because “connecting the memory of the deceased with technology cancels the emotional side of the loss.” A clear no also from Laura Garolla: “This is buffoonery. They are now also making a business out of the dead. If I want to see a photo of my father, I can always do so in a family photo album. I don’t like the idea of seeing his photo on a screen at the cemetery.”

23 August 2008

Italian drug dealers as early adapters of innovative communications technology

Dealers
It has been pointed out before [The EconomistSan Francisco Chronicle] that immigrant workers are often the most advanced users of communications technology.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica today provided an unusual example of this phenomenon: drug dealers (which in Italy tend to be of immigrant origin).

Here is my condensed translation:

Drugs now come via the internet – dealers use Skype to get in touch with customers
by Lorenza Pleuteri

They fear and know that their calls are being intercepted, so they change their habits and use the latest technologies. Cellphones are out, much better the internet to transmit voice and text and to speak without risk of being listened in on. Skype is the latest challenge for the police investigators who are after those who import and deal in illegal drugs.

The drug dealers have turned out to be quite clever. They order, confirm and approve deliveries and payments, with the certainty that the security protocol is impenetrable. Conversations between computers do not go through a central server, so even if the police where to get access to the conversation data, they would not be able to understand them.

The reason is that each conversation is encrypted to guarantee people’s privacy. So Skype has become a problem. But also video calls, emails and chat conversations. Even “push to talk”, which allows people to use their mobile phone as a two-way radio receiver, without distance limitations and outside of any network that can be intercepted.

It has therefore become increasingly difficult for the police to confiscate substantial quantities of drugs. Those that have happened are generally in rural areas, where 3G networks are not available.

13 August 2008

Dell’s Digital Nomads

Digital Nomads
Coinciding with the introduction of Dell’s new laptops, the company launched a new community site called Digital Nomads (with not much Dell branding to be seen).

According to a Dell press release, the site “is designed for individuals who are not defined by the four walls in their office or home, but by a desire to always be connected for work and play no matter their location.

“Community members can come together to read about other digital nomads and share ideas, tips, tricks and best practices.”

There are even Digital Nomad communities on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and delicious.

According to a BBC report, Dell predicts that the demands of the digital nomad are expected to drive laptop sales to over one billion in the next five years:

There is no business as usual in the connected era,” said Andy Lark, Dell’s vice president of global marketing.

“Boundaries for businesses are virtual. This is a new class of worker who maybe doesn’t have an office and who maybe visits 10 offices in a day and visits several different customers.” […]

“If you look at India, about 67% or more of their workforce is going to be entirely mobile and that is driving the demand for new features in the laptop like all day connectivity, long battery life, high-level security and uncompromising design and durability.”

I would be curious to hear more about the research that went into this all, but the site seems to have no information on that.

13 August 2008

Alan Cooper on the wisdom of experience

Wisdom of Experience
Alan Cooper was asked by the leadership of the Agile 2008 Conference to give the closing keynote address at their annual conference in Toronto.

Since the audience at Agile08 consisted of about 1500 programmers, engineers, product managers, and others involved in the creation and deployment of software primarily using Agile methods, Cooper saw it as an opportunity to set the record straight about his ideas on agile programming and interaction design.

“My belief in the value of detailed written design has often led enthusiasts of Agile to assume that I am an adherent of the obsolete, and justly maligned, waterfall method of software construction. I was pleased to have this opportunity to state my position with clarity and precision, not to mention making the case for effective collaboration between interaction designers and Agile programmers.”

Slides and speaker’s notes

13 August 2008

AP’s ethnography of news consumption

Rethinking news
A few months ago I wrote on an ethnographic research project undertaken by AP (Associated Press) and how it is influencing their reporting style.

Now Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher on the impact of information technology in developing nations, has written a long reflection on the topic for his blog My Heart’s in Accra, republished by Worldchanging.

“One of the difficulties with ethnography as a method for social science research is that it’s hard to get from a small set of anecdotes to supportable conclusions about a whole set of people,” says Zuckerman and in this article he describes why this might be a problem for AP.

Read full story (Worldchanging reprint)

13 August 2008

Putting our hot heads together

Hotheads
Carolyn Wood contemplates in another article on A List Apart how we can transform discussion sections on major sites and online magazines from shooting ranges into arenas of collaboration.

“The real challenge is to move beyond basics to something much more fruitful, communal and, at times, visionary. The best brainstorms require a sense of being on the same side—and of the freedom to go to the very edge and even topple over it without fear of losing the respect of our peers. Let’s give each other that freedom—and let’s use it, and not hold back. If we were sitting with friends at a conference (or barroom) table, what exciting places could we take the discussion? What could we achieve? How can we inspire each other?”

Read full story

13 August 2008

Deafness and the user experience

Dartboard
Because of limited awareness around Deafness and accessibility in the web community, it seems plausible to many of us that good captioning will fix it all. Lisa Herrod argues on A List Apart that it won’t.

“How many times have you been asked this question: if you had to choose, which would you prefer to be: deaf or blind? The question illustrates the misconception that deafness is in some way the opposite of blindness—as though there’s some sort of binary representation of disability. When we look at accessible design for the deaf, it’s not surprising to see it addressed in a similar fashion: audio captioning is pretty much the equivalent of alt text on images for most designers.

Captioning by itself oversimplifies the matter and fails many Deaf people. To provide better user experiences for the Deaf, we need to stop thinking of deafness as simply the inverse of hearing—we need to understand deafness from both a cultural and linguistic perspective. Moreover, to enhance the online user experience for the deaf, we must understand how deafness influences web accessibility.”

Read full story

11 August 2008

Africans get upwardly mobile in cell phone boom

Upwardly mobile
CNN reports on the cell phone boom in Africa:

“In less than a decade, cellphones, once the preserve of the very rich, are now ubiquitous in Africa and parts of Asia.

A device that’s sometimes used as a fashion accessory in the West has become a lifeline for millions of people in the developing world.” […]

“In the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population of 60 million, there are just 10,000 fixed telephones but more than a million cellphone subscribers. While in Chad, the fifth-least developed country in Africa, cellphone usage jumped from 10,000 to 200,000 in three years.”

Read full story

10 August 2008

The importance of the user experience in sustainable product design

Password
A 25-year veteran of the design and technology industries, Terry Swack hopped on the Internet bus a little earlier that most of us. As founder, in 1994, of web strategy firm TSDesign, and later Green Building Blocks and BlueEgg, she has witnessed firsthand consumers’ enthusiasm for (and resistance to) adopting new green products and technologies.

She now heads up Clean Culture, a customer experience research and strategy consultancy focused on making clean tech and sustainable products more understandable and desirable.

Sustainable Life Media asked Terry how the concept of user experience has helped shape her approach to product design.

Read full story

(via Usability in the News)

10 August 2008

Goodbye, passwords. You aren’t a good defense.

Password
Randal Stross of the New York Times explains why many experts propose dropping website passwords entirely for a security system based on cryptography.

The best password is a long, nonsensical string of letters and numbers and punctuation marks, a combination never put together before. Some admirable people actually do memorize random strings of characters for their passwords — and replace them with other random strings every couple of months.

Then there’s the rest of us, selecting the short, the familiar and the easiest to remember. And holding onto it forever.

I once felt ashamed about failing to follow best practices for password selection — but no more. Computer security experts say that choosing hard-to-guess passwords ultimately brings little security protection. Passwords won’t keep us safe from identity theft, no matter how clever we are in choosing them.

Read full story

9 August 2008

Experience design is the active pursuit of customer-inspired products/services

Agnes b Cafe
A view on experience design by Idris Mootee, a business and innovation strategist:

The word “Experience Design” is often taken over by advertising and CRM people as design of touch points. They see experience design focus is around moments of engagement between people and brands, and the memories these moments create. They seem to use the word “brand” loosely covering products, people, services and other intangibles. Experience design should not be solely brand focused; instead it should not be too branded focused. It is about designing delivery of customer needs, so naturally it should start with the customers. It should form the core of a go-to-market strategy of any brand. It is the experience first, then the messages.

Read full story

9 August 2008

Social networking’s next frontier: the mobile phone

MXit users in South Africa
Because today’s social networking rarely function or perform well on a mobile device, Oz Communications CEO Jim Knapik argues that carriers must find a simple way to bring the best social networking communities to the mobile masses.

A complete mobile social networking experience is composed of three specific elements:

  • Sharing and storing personal information and profiles, including browsing for friends and contacts, reading status messages, commenting on photos and blogs, uploading photos to a personal profile and updating personal status messages.
  • Asynchronous messaging, including e-mailing and sending messages. These types of messages are generally stored and are available in offline mode.
  • Real-time messaging, including instant messaging and the ability to chat synchronously with friends. This type of communication is online, interactive and collaborative in nature.

[…] None of the solutions currently covers all three components in one seamless application. Without providing all of these elements, we believe that the mobile operators will be unable to deliver the social networking experience that consumers expect on their mobile handset.

Read full story

(via Usability News)

9 August 2008

HP Labs ponders grabbing attention in the age of social computing

HP Labs
According to the Register, HP Labs is hard at work figuring how to harvest the collective intelligence of groups arising from “web 2.0″ and turn it into a profit.

In a short article, the Register reports on an update that Bernardo Huberman, a senior fellow and director of the Social Computing Lab at HP Labs, gave to a room of journalists yesterday on what the group has been doing.

One of the topics of research was on how a web site can more effectively present its content.

“After studying about 1,000 digg.com news stories, HP said the team was able to make a mathematical model to predict how long it takes for the popularity and novelty of an article to die off and disappear from the front page. […]

Huberman said their model suggests that arranging a web site so that new and novel items are most prominently displayed is generally more effective at attracting clicks than prioritizing based on its popularity.

HP said it tried the process on its own web site to select which items are recommended to customers. Preliminary results, according to HP researchers, showed a 30 per cent increase in the attach rate of sales.”

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “user recommendations generally yield surprisingly unimpressive results”.

“As people become increasingly resistant to traditional forms of marketing, viral advertisements and recommendations are being used more often as an alternative strategy.

But the lab found that while the likelihood of someone buying a product does increase with the number of recommendations at first — it soon plateaus to a constant, but relatively low probability of purchase.”

Read full story

9 August 2008

Patricia Mechael: Millennium Villages, women and mobile health

Patricia Mechael
As part of its coverage on the Bellagio conference on mobile health, MobileActive interviewed Patricia Mechael who is coordinating the mobile strategy for the Millennium Village Project.

She talks about mobile adoption, user-centric design, women and mobiles, how Millennium Villages is using mobiles to improve health outcomes, and what she sees as the next big projects in mobile health.

I think some of the best developments are when you have your endusers involved in the design process. We have a computer science doctoral student working on the development of CommCare in the Millennium village in Uganda. So he’s just spent the last few works following community health workers around the village, watching what they do in the household; watching what they do in the facilities, and how long it takes that individual to get from one place to another. […]

I think you have a much better chance of developing an application that will be meaningful for the end user. […]

What was nice about the study in Egypt, I just looked at “how are people using mobile phones in general without any external support.” Often times you can find patterns of use that you can just standardize or strengthen. Or develop the access to the information that they would need; the automated systems for some of the things they were already doing.

There are different ways of approaching it strategically, so that you’re not starting from scratch. There are a lot of really good projects out there. They are small, and they are pilots. But it’s a good starting point to look at what already exists before coming out and starting something new.

Read full interview

5 August 2008

A tiny communication problem in Beijing

Beijing 2008
So what is the weather forecast in Beijing for the next few days? At what time is the opening ceremony going to take place? And what is the competition schedule like when viewing the Olympics from Europe?

Don’t expect to find answers to these “strange” questions on the Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Meteorological information is absent. I couldn’t find any information about the opening ceremony. And the schedule is very much a non-interactive Excel-like table (don’t ask me why some cells have blue text, others not, because nothing at all is clickable).

But worst of all: even the actual sports information is missing. When you click, let’s say, on artistic gymnastics, and you want to find out the times or events, nothing like that actually shows up. And what does show up doesn’t even contain the main site navigation anymore.

In short, some user-centred design wouldn’t have harmed the Beijing Olympics. A pity, because there are some seriously strong Chinese companies delivering these types of services.

Maybe I overlooked something. But a good site is built in such a way that people like me shouldn’t have to overlook something.

Oops.

5 August 2008

A choice for language as a key to understanding cultural context

globe
Today we made a little survey of the languages spoken at our office and we came to a quite remarkable seventeen: Arabic, Armenian, Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Kashmiri, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Urdu.

This is not just a trivial statistic about our office. It is a choice.

When we founded Experientia three years ago, we wanted to be an international agency with a global awareness and a Mediterranean sensitivity (after all, we are based in Italy).

We didn’t want to be literally copying the American approach to people-centred design (although all four of the founding partners have lived in the US at some point in their lives), nor did we want to be identified as just an Italian consultancy.

We believe that people-centred design implies and requires a deep understanding of cultural context. Since people’s experiences are both defined and expressed through culture and language, we put a lot of emphasis on the linguistic and cultural skills of our staff.

Therefore seventeen languages spoken is equivalent to seventeen in-depth viewpoints onto rich, local cultural contexts.

We are therefore quite pleased that the upcoming UPA Europe conference (Turin, 4-6 December) carries the subtitle “Usability and Design: Cultivating Diversity”, a byline which came about thanks to the very active involvement of our partner Michele Visciola.

5 August 2008

User centric design session at b.TWEEN conference

b.TWEEN
The various sessions of the June 2008 b.TWEEN conference, “a unique cross media gathering where interactive ideas are seeded, shared and sold”, are now online. One of them dealt with user centric design:

Products designed without clear insight into end-user behaviour often end in failure.

The marketplace has changed. Buyers will no longer be told what to buy or how to act, they have little interest in the recommendation of advertisers and will openly share dissatisfaction with their peers.

Organisations that try to force old business models into this new marketplace are destined to fade away. Businesses and products have to be people-shaped or they will not survive this changing media scape.

This panel explored the relationship between the user and successful innovation. The conversation looked at the same coin from client side and supply side outlining the dangers and opportunities shared by small and large companies.

It explored case studies of interactive products and business models that have flourished or withered due to their understanding of the end user and the processes that led to them.

Speakers were Alex Morrison (managing director, Cogapp), Ann Longley (digital strategy director, Mediaedge:cia) and Brendan Dawes (creative director, magneticNorth).

(via Regine)