A few weeks ago I spent a lazy Sunday at Mr Magpies letterpress emporium doing a little letterpress printing. With a nod to futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book ‘Future Shock’ I produced this two colour letterpress print: ‘FUTURE SHOCK TODAY!
We’ve had two releases out on phatic musk this past two months, which is amazing considering we’d previously done 1 a year!
Analog is a C40 release with the added bonus of receiving a vintage copy of Analog Sci-Fi zine to read whilst listening.
The Second release is in conjunction with a subscription service called dronestocodeby.com . This release was limited to 5 mp3 players custom skinned loaded with over 14 hours of drones created by apkallu of enmerkar – the subscription service will be offering over 4 hours of new drones per month for the price of £3. That’s a lot of drones for your pound!
Keep your ears peeled as there will be more releases coming up from phatic musk in the not so distant future!
I’m not one to generalise, but let me do some generalising. My career in design has has been unplanned and random at best, and my life as a designer has been varied – there have been some common themes but the biggest shift was a couple of years ago when I joined Semantico, and the world of digital publishing.
Before Semantico I had a stint for a small agency that mostly made games with the purpose of selling stuff, and before that I had a longer stint at a strategic comms agency which made all sorts of different kinds of stuff with the purpose of selling stuff (Back then I was the creative lead for our publishing clients – Faber & Faber, Hachette Livre and Dorling Kindersley, one of the reasons I’m enjoying working with publishers again now). And before that I spent quite a few years freelancing at various advertising agencies large and small, making stuff with the purpose of selling stuff (Mother London and Mccann Erickson being two of note). So that’s knocking on 17 years designing to push product, shift units or somehow facilitate ‘engagement’ (because engagement somehow means stuff will sell).
‘Clickthroughs’ used to be the currency, soon followed by the zeitgeist of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ – that was the ROI, the bottom line, how work was judged (I will avoid mentioning ‘awareness’ - unquantifiable but seemingly keeping the internet in banners).
So what’s changed? I still work for a paymaster, a business with clients to satisfy, clients that need to make a profit, have ‘brand values’ to communicate, who want a return of investment, and who need to sell product, shift units. But there is a difference.
In the main, the differences are in the product’s lifecycle, its longevity or life expectancy. Often (but not always) in the world of advertising the work is campaign work, and those campaigns can be short sharp affairs, designed to burn brightly but quickly, just like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. The emphasis is on the message, the comms, the impact.
Semantico make products that hang around for a while. They have to be robust. The product our users interact with isn’t just for a few three minute bursts but for hours and hours. They are not used for entertainment, distraction or sociality, but for work, for research and study.
And our clients don’t just sell stuff, they also have to do a ton of other stuff really well too. They need to add value around their content, find new relevant ways to get their content to new audiences. A student or researcher will use this product for years. A single purchase by one institution will serve a multitude of people. Not everyone has a bought the product they are using, or even directly paid for it.
In the world of advertising, knowing your demographic, your target audience is a huge part of the creative process. You need to speak the same language as your audience, communicate in the same way, resonate. Be their friend, part of the same pack, the same tribe.
Within publishing, understanding your audience is just as important, but there is a change of emphasis. I am now designing tools, and designing a service, for different wants and needs.
At Semantico we very user centric. Our whole design methodology and philosophy is based on user insight. So my design life has come a little circular in fashion – The agency where I learnt most of my game was, for the time, particularly user-centric. When I joined them in the early noughties it was standard process to produce wireframes and user journeys and use these as tools for insight and production. We actually had an information architect and producers who ‘got’ UX. And as I was reminded by my old strategy director the last time we hooked up in London, we often profiled archetypical users, and created stories and narratives around those archetypes – designed to get under our audiences skin and help us deliver effective solutions for our clients. We wanted to understand our users so we could offer them the aspirational experiences our clients expected us to deliver.
Now I have the need to understand our users so we can design a better service, better tools. User research is now a task absorbed into all our design activity and all our design choices are informed by real users and the user insight we gain from research.
I can’t say I miss working on stuff that just disappears into the internet abyss once a short term goal is reached (or not), but what I find most rewarding is that I am designing useful stuff – stuff to help people educate themselves, learn about new stuff and answer problems. And in the case of the online clinical procedures tool we launched earlier in the year, stuff that might help save lives too.
In my previous posts on User Experience (UX) methodology I have touched on sketching, wireframing and prototyping. I would be remiss not to discuss the most important factor in any user-centric design approach: user research.
Since the emergence of Participatory Design in the 60s and 70s design thinking has moved on from the physical to encompass the emotional and behavioural. Designers today create a context for experience* and user experience is an expertise that provides a user-centric and data driven approach, needed when designing appropriate and effective products in today’s digitally fragmented world.
UX is no new speciality, rather it is an umbrella term for processes and methodologies that have had their genesis in other specialities for a number of years. Human-computer interaction, behavioural and cognitive psychology, usability and user centered design: all influences on what we call UX, and all methodologies that have a focus on the user.
Ignore users at your peril
I generally work with publishers, and I often encounter a quite complex user ecology. To make a generalisation we usually design for a specific task – research. But our user base is complex. Domain expertise varies between the undergraduate, the postgraduate, the academic and the professional. Differences in subject area throw up variations in behaviour, down to the favouring of a tatty notepad over using the latest digital tools. There is a vast difference between an undergraduate accessing textbook content through a desktop computer situated at their university library to an architect accessing building regulations whilst onsite, through a tablet on a 3G connection.
We have to understand this complexity of our user base. The differences and commonalities between user types, mental models, motivations and triggers – all areas that as designers and UX practitioners we need to fully comprehend before we can design the appropriate collateral that combined, make up the overall experience and impression of a product. This can only be achieved by talking and listening to our users and UX methodology gives us the tools to do just that.
Crafting experiences for online research
One of the most important factors in our approach to UX is that we are involved with a projects lifecycle from start to finish. We have an integrated and embedded approach – our front end development team encompasses developers, UX architects and designers – this integrated approach ensures UX is a consideration in every decision no matter at what point a project is at.
At the preliminary stage of any project our work is predominantly requirement gathering. We do a raft of exercises and workshops with client stakeholders designed to sanity check business requirements, aspirations and priorities, making sure a project brief is created that all parties involved believe to be feasible. We facilitate workshops around our clients data, the earliest stage of producing a sites taxonomy: the information architecture and interaction model. The output of these collaborative exercises and workshops are the beginnings of the documentation that make up the ‘blueprints’ of a particular project.
Following on from these early requirement-gathering workshops we move onto user research.
Once we identify the appropriate testing and research techniques we recruit a user group that we test on throughout the whole production process of a site build. At the beginning of a project we use our user group to create personas defining common user mental models and user tasks. The insight we gain from our user testing can point to the relevance of tools and features, and how those tools are used. What motivates our users to use our product, how social activity differs between user types and an idea of device usage. This research gives a shared view on the typical user(s) of a product, a view we can share with all stakeholders. When decisions are made, they can be made within the context of understanding users’ needs and motivations.
During a project build we use our user group for comparative testing and prototyping, giving us feedback and direction on our interface design. We also carry on this activity post launch, checking benchmarks have been met and making sure a product is being used as intended, and if not, why and how? It is important at this post-live launch to be especially active – feedback forms and surveys, a look at analytics and a further round of user testing all make sure that the solution we have provided performs as expected and intended.
The image below is a snapshot of a few desks at the studio where I work – everyone works on a Mac, but as individuals we have different roles, we use these machines for different tasks. We bring our idiosyncrasies into our working habits. Our personal life bleeds into our work environment. All these desks are different, but we all use the same tool.
If we speak the same language we could have different accents, different traditions and inclinations. Localisms change the cultural meaning of symbols and signifiers with a short hop across a border. This is what makes people interesting, the differences, the ability to surprise and be surprised. And this is why we cannot make assumptions about our users.
User Experience challenges
There are challenges in the adoption of UX methodologies. One such consideration is cost. Research and development in any field is not cheap, and with UX research it is no different. Time and resource defines the extent and scope of our research. Analytics alone, although cheap to obtain, can only take us so far. We believe in a lean methodology – we keep our UX overhead as low as we can get it, but when it comes to user insight we want to do as much as we can, and we firmly believe that any quantitative data needs to be paired with more in-depth qualitative data that could be more costly to obtain.
Combating bias can often be the hardest challenge to overcome. I mentioned the importance of keeping an open mind – this was no throwaway comment. We all have bias, a favoured interface, a way of interacting we are familiar with. A prefered aesthetic, a cultural association … all these factors add bias. Overcoming them is a matter of self awareness and by having the experience of being surprised one too many times. We all have our prefered solutions and outcomes usually for seemingly rational reasons but seeing your own expectations confounded and discovering insights previously hidden from you is the best antidote to adhering a little too much to your own predilections.
Keeping it real
I have been undertaking some user research in conjunction with the University of Sussex. Initially we have been conducting in-depth interviews with a cross section of student and academics. This research will hopefully point to areas of interest which we can investigate more thoroughly. Andrea Fallas, our UXA, will be publishing some insight from our research activity with the University on the Semantico blog soon.
This post first appeared (with some slight edits) on the Semantico blog.
*Hummels, Djajadiningrat and Overbeeke (2001)
ID Situation is dedicated to the millions of unknown faces caught on hours of grainy CCTV images every day, to all the footage that will be stored away and never looked at again, the boxes full of old VHS tapes of empty streets and hard drives loaded up with hidden shop corners
Following on from the Uschi-No-Michi release there was a bit of a challenge from a packaging design point of view – so we’ve gone ultra minimal and opted for a matt black bubble envelop with a clear sticker.
In 1980 graphic designer and typographer Helmut Schmid produced packaging design for Otsuka Pharmaceutical. these examples, featuring Univers, are amazing exercises in typographic clarity and a beautiful example of graphic design boiled down to information and clear communication. Nice colours too.
There is a great book covering the design of Helmut Schmid, ‘Design Is Attitude’ not sure if it’s still in print, details here. You can check out more of his work in the archive section of his website.
My last post on user experience methodology was on wireframing. I described my preferred method of sketching, or ‘low–fidelity wireframing’ (or the ‘appropriate fidelity of wireframing’, depending on how you look at it). I wrote that wireframing should be quick, throwaway, collaborative and iterative: the first step in a process leading on to the much more serious business of prototyping.
I ended that post with the caveat that UX methodology should be flexible in its focus and scope. Beware of those who preach a unified prescriptive UX or design methodology. Product or service, client and end user: all change, however subtly, with every project. Understanding and adapting to this is vital. Although Bill Buxton was referring to his definition of ‘sketching interaction’ with the following quote, and Buxton makes a clear distinction between sketching and prototyping (“sketch to get the right design, prototype to get the design right”) this quote could also apply to most rapid or lean UX techniques:
“There may be as many approaches to sketching interaction as there are products to design.”*
How we approach prototyping at my current place of work, digital publishing solutions provider Semantico, is defined by the nature of our content platform. Our platform is set up to enable our front end developers to take a concept from our UX team and quickly implement it into a working prototype. These concepts could be expressed through sketches on post-it notes, high fidelity Photoshop mockups or simple interactive wireframes built in HTML. What is important is the speed in which they can be turned into a working prototype in context with all the other elements and features our platform provides, ready for testing, either by a group of users or our own QA department.
Another great advantage of prototyping on our platform is that we can easily load our clients data sets. By supporting standard markup definitions such as NLM (JATS), TEI and DocBook we can quickly load client data into our platform. By mapping each of these standard markups into a defined standard for metadata (Dublin Core) we have a solid basis on which to build features without having to worry about the original encoding of the data. This even comes in useful when loading data that is not in a supported standard, as we just have to perform a mapping from the supplied data into Dublin Core and it will then load into our platform.
Once loaded, we can perform quick data analysis using the Apache Solr search index. This enables us to pull out lists of values from the data and spot anomalous values. So as well as being able to quickly realise concepts from our UX team, we can also quickly see how our clients data is being displayed. From my point of view as a UX practitioner having access to client data early on in a projects lifecycle is invaluable. Our user testing activities – A/B or comparative testing, task based user testing and so on – all benefit by being able to put an accurate simulation of the end product in front of our testers.
It‘s not all about code and data and our prototyping activities are not restricted to our platform. We sometimes do a little paper prototyping, mainly around specific UI considerations. How an advanced search unit could work across different platforms with different data sets, for example. By moving and folding paper and making simple drawers, windows or sliders we can quickly get a feel of how an interactive element behaves. I have always been a fan of this ‘low fidelity’ approach (as you might be able to tell). I see paper prototyping like this as a simple extension of the sketchbook activity any decent interactive designer or UX professional undertakes.
I have also had the pleasure of working with a game designer (and Existential Psychotherapist) by the name of Ciaran O’Connor. Ciaran is a fan of paper prototyping for the testing of game mechanics – playing with Ciaran’s paper prototypes was always an insightful exercise. Issues in game mechanics that would previously only be evident on playing a build of the game could now be identified and ironed out at a much earlier stage. But what was really interesting to me was not the problem solving, but ideas for the addition of extra features that resulted from ‘playing’ the prototype. So the power of ‘playing’ a paper version of a digital game was twofold – a method of identifying and solving issues and as a creative tool for improvements and embellishments.
So at Semantico we are lucky to be able to rapidly prototype on an existing responsive platform with real client data, across a variety of devices. Without the usual fidelity issues and by using our clients content we can serve up a much more authentic experience for the user groups we test on.
We also see the value in simple interactive prototypes and paper prototyping for testing interface functionality. And with all our prototyping methods the aim is not only to detect and fix problems, but to see opportunities for the future development of our products and features.
A final comment – we also try not to get hung up on deliverables – we don’t fetishise the process. What is of real interest is the user insight we can gather and how quickly we can add that insight into our production processes.
A version of this post first appeared on the Semantico blog.
* Quoted from Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton.
Thoughts on the creative possibilities of the future textbook
There is a slightly tatty paperback on my bookshelf. It doesn’t often get to see the light of day but in its time it’s hung around various design studios and has been passed around any number of creative types. It is the 1975 paperback edition of Josef Albers’ teaching tool The Interaction of Color.
Originally published in 1963 The Interaction of Color presented Albers’ theory that colour was governed by an “internal and deceptive logic”. Alongside the texts and commentary in the original edition Albers included 150 silkscreened plates intended for use in the classroom.
However, it’s my tatty 1975 paperback (with its small number of illustrations) that many would best know: a limiting format that doesn’t do the work any justice. The Interaction of Color was never meant to be read in such a limited, linear fashion, divorced from its rich illustrations. As such it is a perfect work to be given the interactive treatment – and in July this year Yale University Press launched the The Interaction of Color iPad app.
As a designer working in digital publishing this is an exciting project. The impact of digital on the industry is obviously huge, and projects like The Interaction of Color iPad app are significant pointers to the capabilities of the future textbook.
Albers’ exercises are all included in the app. Users can create, compare, save and share their own colour experiments. And of course functions that enable linking, annotating and bookmarking are all included – as is video. This is an addition that Albers could have never anticipated and it is to the app designers’ credit that this video content sits seamlessly alongside the texts and interactive studies. The ability to create studies is the most powerful tool in the app. Studies can be saved, commented on and shared. Colour pallets can be created and saved and used across studies.
The app does not pander to the book metaphor. There are no page curls or skeuomorphic page turning animations and so on. Unlike much of the digital publishing industry, it does not wholly align itself to the physical and metaphorical. It is the kind of design project that rises above the hackneyed ‘flat vs skeuomorphic’ debate. This app has great visual design – with enough affordance and signposting to understand the interactive model without relying too heavily on metaphors.
The Interaction of Color feels like an appropriately designed experience. It does not simply pander to current design trends and is a fantastic example of the level of design excellence that can be achieved at the intersection of hardware and software.
It is obvious tablet usage is growing as the technology gets cheaper. Tesco has just launched a £119 tablet with the questionable name of Hudl (‘the whole family can huddle around the Hudl’). Tablets and smartphones are becoming ubiquitous and integrated into our lives in a way unimaginable just 10 years ago. There is a mass of evidence pointing to the rise of tablet and mobile devices in the realm of education.
I was lucky enough to catch postgraduate medical student Joshua Harding talk at UKSG 2013 back in April. His presentation described his transformation into a paperless student. He very succinctly summed up his issue with the printed textbook by showing a photo of the entire set of textbooks and ringbound notes from his first degree – a rather large pile.
His problem was obvious: how to quickly find information within that pile. So Joshua abandoned paper and went 100% digital. His iPad ‘study buddy’ was with him always, allowing him full access to all his texts wherever he might be. He could quickly find information through the search capabilities of his iPad. His notes and annotations were also made on his iPad – and could be linked and cross referenced with his textbook content.
Based on such experiences its easy to imagine the value of tablets in the classroom, and the opportunities digital brings to both instructors and students.
The networked device
There is a growing ‘standard’ feature set for digital texts. You can bookmark, highlight and annotate just like you could do with a paper textbook. But with digital you can also cite, track, organise, share, discuss and generally exploit the interconnectivities of the internet. No longer constrained by the linear format of the printed book, students can construct their own narratives individually and collectively and tailor the multitude of shared user generated narratives to their own needs.
The Kindle provides an excellent example of the usefulness of annotation tools within a networked environment. When a sentence gets highlighted everyone sees it – the more people that highlight the same sentence, the more affordance is given to the highlight that everyone sees. This functionality opens the door to user generated hierarchies just as link tracking helps generate user defined navigation.
To be able to align these sorts of social, utilitarian feature sets with the design consideration of texts such as The Interaction of Color and apply them to digital books that live online (and are therefore updatable, live, and delivered seamlessly across multiple devices) should be the utopian aim of today’s etextbook designers and developers.
In Future Shock (1970) Alvin Toffler argued that the accelerated rate of technological and social change caused people to be ‘Future Shocked’ or left in a state of “shattering stress and disorientation”. It was hard not to think about Future Shock when I attended the recent AGI Open panel discussion on the current state of editorial design. There seemed to be a little bit of Future Shock in the eyes of the venerable members of the AGI when digital was discussed.
But they were reassured by strong evidence that print is not dead, or even dying. Hyphen Press and Unit Editions provided perfect examples of publishers producing small runs of beautifully crafted books for a niche audience. A smaller run means more care over design and construction and has a parallel with music formats. Vinyl had been long pronounced dead but a new audience has now embraced this (apparently) anachronistic format. Sales are up and so is the quality: todays pressings all seem to be of the 180g variety – reassuringly thick and heavy. A little like my huge Unit Editions Herb Lubalin book:
So the book is not dead. It has a little life yet. It’s possibly going to be more specialised, more niche.
And with digital the opportunities and possibilities are there for all to see. The Interaction of Color app is an assured step into the future and hopefully a sign of things to come.
An edited (therefore probably less meandering) version of this post first appeared on the Semantico blog.
I recently (today) received the ZTE Open Firefox OS hand set. This is a £60 hand set running Firefox OS. I’ve been watching the development of FirefoxOS since it was called Boot2Gecko with great interest. As a advocate of open technology, the idea of using HTML5 (HTML,CSS,JS) as a platform for developing mobile apps really interested me, so I was keen to support an OS that is essentially a web-browser. Now this concept isn’t new. Palm did it, Google are doing it (With their Chrome OS). So I was incredibly interested when Mozilla decided to focus on what they do best (after all Firefox Web Browser is one of my favourite browsers).
I was suprised when opening the packaging. The shell of the phone does feel a little flimsy and plasticy – not sure it will handle too much of a hammering, but the actual feel of the phone in my hand was nice. The shocking Orange colour wasn’t too bad on the eye. It was a breeze to set up – with a very nice and slick wizard that holds your hand all the way. I havn’t found the interface at all clunky, or sluggish – which was a bit of a suprise as nearly all the articles I’ve read have indicated that it wasn’t a particularly nice experience. But then I’ve recently been using a terrible HTC wildfire with Android 2.2 which is a pig.
I’ve not spent a great deal of time with the phone, played with a few apps (FirefoxOS allows apps to be either hosted, or installed – hosted apps are essentially just short cuts to web-sites that run the app, installed are ones that you dl and keep on your phone). I’ve made a few calls and the sound quality was good, and the dialler app worked as expected. From my experience so far things seem to be quite nice actually!
Firefox OS main emphasis is to focus on the emerging markets (China, India), so they want an OS that will run on low end handsets – and to be honest so far so good. I fully anticipate some teething problems, after all this is an OS in its infancy (well the very foundations is GNU/Linux – so not too infant) – but at the moment I am pleased to be supporting Mozilla and their Firefox OS.
I’ll add some more posts as I continue to use this new handset – my main reason for getting it was to do some development work on Firefox OS and also to move away from Google / Apple products.