Designing design: Solution spaces

solutionspace

[Part 11 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

The artificial intelligence community views a design space as something to explore as it if is a mountain or a wilderness. A space may be incomplete or the domain knowledge uncertain and this is reflected in the names of search techniques: hill climbing, branch-and-bound, hunter gatherer.

Fabulously nowadays we have massive computing power which can help us search through big data sets or solution spaces. However, in the broadest terms when we are looking at a solution space we are hoping to manage it by the following:

Constraints

With constraints, we introduce boundaries which may potentially the number of solutions. It is this tension which can cause wonderful solutions such as when artists obey the haiku rules of 17 syllables: three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, to give us pared back poetry.

We can also introduce constraints by fixation on one thing such as cost, or efficiency and then we can see what solutions are possible.

Otherwise, we can use a more exploitative exploitation approach of what-if. What if we place an excessive load on this bridge? What happens then? Does the solution still work? What will we need to change to get it work?

Transformation, combination and exploration

Inside the solution space we synthesise and analyse by using some of the ideas this series has explored. We map our types and schemas or our models of aesthetics and affordances and link our function to our behaviour and then structure. But, when all else fails we can remove the constraints or even remove the boundaries or the domain knowledge which can lead us to moving outside the context.

Thinking outside the box

Sometimes designers do this on purpose, other times like the post-it note, new ideas are serendipitously discovered. SMS texting was originally invented for engineers to communicate with each other whilst working on mobile technology. Who could have anticipated that a tool which made engineers’ lives easier would appeal to mobile phone users as a cheap and cheerful way of communicating instead? The same happened to post-it notes, once the context of inventing glue was removed, the user was free to think of it as a really cool book mark.

With a solution space we can define what we are looking at, and what we are looking for, and then should we decide we want to look at it differently, or look elsewhere then we have a map and a plan, which is what all humans like to have in this information overloading world of ours.

Web design (7): Evaluation

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A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

[Part 7 of 7 : 0) intro, 1) story, 2) pictures,  3) users, 4) content, 5) structure, 6) social media, 7) evaluation]

Even though evaluation is the final part of this series, it should not be left to the end of any software project. Ideally, evaluation should be used throughout the life cycle of a project in order to assess the design and user experience, and to test system functionality and whether it meets user requirements without creating unexpected results or confusion.

Expert analysis

Expert (or Theoretical) analysis uses a detailed description of the design, which doesn’t have to be implemented. This creates a model of the user’s activity and then analysis is performed on that model.

It is one way of assessing whether a design has good usability principles. It cannot guarantee anything but can hopefully flag up any design flaws before time and money gets spent on implementation.

Expert analysis is best used during the design phase and experts can assess systems using:

Heuristics which are rules of thumb and not true usability guidelines. Usability expert Jakob Nielson developed 10 usability heuristics in 1995 and they are still widely used and quoted today.  Design consultant, Ari Weissman says that heuristics are better than no testing at all, but to say that they can replace getting to know your users and understanding them just silly. Researchers at the University of Nebraska found that heuristic evaluation and user testing complement each other and are both needed.

Review-based evaluation uses principles from experimental psychology and human-computer interaction (HCI) literature to provide evaluation criteria such as menu design, command names, icons and memory attributes to support/refute design decisions. Reviews may even use style guidelines provided by big companies such as Microsoft and Apple.

Model-based evaluation uses a model to evaluate software. This model might be taken from HCI literature such as Stuart Card’s GOMS and Ben Shneiderman’s Eight golden rules of dialog design.

Cognitive walkthroughs are step-by-step inspections which concentrate on what the user is thinking whilst learning to use the system. Alas, it is the analysts who act as the user and try to imitate what the user is thinking. Walkthroughs can be used to help develop user personas.

However, the main criticism is that novice users are often forgotten about because analysts have lots of experience and their pretending to be users can introduce all sorts of bias into your system. The advantages of this approach is that areas which are unclear in the system design can be easily flagged up and fixed cheaply and earlier on in the life cycle.

Using your user: user testing

The most informative types of evaluation always take place with the user. This can happen in the laboratory or in the field. In the laboratory, usability consultants have a script, such as this one by usability expert Steve Krug. The usability consultant asks the user to either do whatever they are drawn to do, or to perform a specific task,such as buying a product on the site, whilst talking aloud. This thinking aloud protocol not only identifies what the problem is, but also why. The best thing about usability testing is that clients can hear a user saying something which may be obvious to the consultant but not to the client and which the client might not believe if the consultant just told them. Co-operative evaluation is a very similar technique to usability testing.

Outside the laboratory, you can follow the user about and shadow them in the workplace, to see how the user interacts with your software, or the current software that your new software will hopefully improve upon. This is ethnography and a way of learning about the context in which your users work. It can be very expensive and time consuming to hire ethnographers to go into users’ workplaces.

A cheap and cheerful way of reproducing this shadowing is to get the users to keep a diary or blog, known as a cultural probe.  They are quick and easy to put together using open-ended questions which encourage users to say all the things they might not say during a testing session.

Empirical evaluation

Another relatively cheap and cheerful method is to get your user group to fill out a questionnaire or a survey in order to get their feedback.

The questionnaire needs to be designed very carefully, following these instructions, otherwise you can end up with a lot of information, but nothing tangible. The main advantage is that you get your users opinions and you can measure user satisfaction quite easily.

The disadvantage is it that is hard to capture certain types of information in a questionnaire such as the frequency of a system error, or the time taken to complete a task.

Logging

Computers can collect statistics of use, to tackle the sorts of questions like time taken and frequency of system errors.  Web stats are a great way of seeing this sort of information as well as which pages are the most attractive and most useful to users.  Eye-tracking software and click captures are also useful ways of collecting data. However, care needs to be taken not to introduce any bias in the interpretation of this data.

Informal evaluation

Informal evaluation methods can be useful, in the design stage for example, but are better suited in the context of performing research as they do not always yield usable results which can be used to guide design.

Focus groups: This is when you get a group of users together and they discuss subjects led by a moderator. Focus groups can be useful. However, they can lead to users telling you what they think they want, rather than what they need. As this 2002 paper asks: Are focus groups a wealth of information or a waste of resources?

Controlled experiments test a hypothesis like this great example: College students (population) type (task) faster (measurement) using iPad’s keyboard (feature) than using Kindle’s keyboard, by identifying independent and dependent variables that you can collect data on after testing in a simulation of real world situations such as in a college where iPads and Kindles are used.

No matter how great your website or software system is, it can always be improved by some method of evaluation. There are many methods involving users and experts to make your system as good as it can be throughout the whole lifecycle of your website or your software. Evaluation is the only way to identify and correct those design flaws.

Ambivalent web design

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Lately, it seems that I have come full-circle and am designing websites for small organisations which is, in part, how I began thinking about HCI, nearly 20 years ago. So, with all that experience, I am astonished to find that I have been making the same mistakes I used to make way back when. This leads to what I call ambivalent web design.

Ambivalent web design is when you are excited about creating a cool website to showcase your clients’ products and services as well as your skills as a designer. However, because you are unfocused, you keep changing your mind and then because it’s not looking as good as it could, you promise to deliver more to get it up to resemble the beautiful thing you now have in your mind. This can lead to you feeling annoyed at yourself and then resentful because the whole project is taking longer than it should for less money than the effort you are putting in.

In order to avoid ambivalent web design it is important to remember the following:

Don’t let casual interactions influence your work

You may have picked up the contract incidentally. Perhaps, it began with a conversation on the school playground, or you got a vague email from someone, but that doesn’t mean that you should behave in a casual, vague manner. Be professional. Organise yourself a plan of action and set clear milestones.

If you are not ready, say so. Explain to your potential client that right now is not a good time, and begin at a later date. Give the client a list of everything you might need, and get them to pick out sites they like so that you both have a clear idea of what you are aiming for during the design process.

Be realistic about your clients’ input

In general, clients who want you to design a website are not interested in website design. They don’t care about WordPress, nor have they desire to tinker with colour schemes, graphics, html and css. That is your job. If they wanted to spend time tinkering then they would go to WordPress.org download the software and do it themselves.

Consequently, it is important to be realistic about what they will do to maintain the solution that you give them, once you have been through the design process together.
Some questions that you need to discuss with the client:

  • Who will maintain the site?
  • Will they be able to do the necessary updates?
  • Will they be able to add to the website?

Alternatively,

  • Will the website be static until the next time it gets an overhaul?

Know your limits

With a content management system or blogging tool, such as WordPress, all things are possible. And that is great. However, things take time, especially if you need to go away and learn new stuff in order to fulfill your clients’ desires.

It is ok to say that you don’t know how to do something, and that it will just take more time and money to find the right solution. Bear in mind though, this is a tricky route, and potentially one way to resentment and ambivalence. So, you have a choice:

      Don’t attempt to do the extras.

Or

      Deliver a first solution (Stage One). Do some research and then calculate how much time and money it will take to do the extras. Then go ahead (Stage Two).

Have a price structure

You may have promised mates-rates, but you still need to calculate exactly how long it will take you to deliver what you have promised. One way of doing this is to have a price/time structure which you can show to clients so that together you have a focused way of discussing the work to be done.

You can structure your pricing according to time e.g, £X per day, or by output, e.g., six pages= 6 x £Z. And so on: personalised graphics will be £X, and some stock photos discounted down to £Y. A bit of social media will cost this, a little seo will cost that. In this way, the client can see exactly what they are spending their money on.

Have fun

Creating websites is a great way to spend your days, but, if you find yourself gritting your teeth during every project and feeling ambivalent, then perhaps it’s time to dust off your guitar and get back to busking.

Codebreaking: Humans are the weakest link

People are the weakest link in all computer systems. We hear about the best cryptography money can buy: integrity checking, sender/receiver identity authentication, digital signatures, and then someone leaves a list of passwords on a post-it note stuck above a computer and in an instant renders all the algorithms pointless. Or the same someone automatically gives out his password over the telephone or by email when ‘technical support’ asks so that they can reset it – another victim of phishing. Continue reading “Codebreaking: Humans are the weakest link”

Human-computer interaction: Can you see what it is yet?

check out the video of this interface on ted.com

The recent furore over the 2012 Olympics Logo reminds me of how people react to the user interfaces they find on everything they interact with, from websites to washing machines. If an interface, like a logo, is well-designed, no one notices or mentions it. If it is difficult or unsightly, people complain loudly and when given a choice, won’t use an interface they don’t like. Interaction designers, like IT support staff, are never thanked when all is well and severely criticised when interfaces cause users problems. Continue reading “Human-computer interaction: Can you see what it is yet?”