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We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the emptiness of the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
Nick Wingfield, Microsoft Overhauls, the Apple Way
Actually, Gasseé is wrong. The Microsoft reorg does ‘answer’ that question. As Windows OS sales go down, the Windows engineering team can shrink, and the company’s sales and marketing resources can be shifted toward enterprise products.
But that’s not really the issue. this reorg does not equal uniting many Microsofts into one Microsoft, as Ballmer claims. It has consolidated many fiefdoms into four independent engineering teams, and consolidated sales and marketing at the corporate level. What is unanswered is user experience. As I wrote the other day at GigaOM Research,
The new Microsoft has no place for a Jonny Ive controlling user experience.
Stowe Boyd via GigaOM Research
We’ve already see the push in Office 365 to make Yammer the default user experience in Sharepoint (see Yammer is becoming the social UX for Microsoft). They are going to enlarge what Yammer is, and make it the social stream for the passage of all sorts of newly socialized information.
The missing piece of the puzzle for me — along the lines of Sullivan’s comments about ads and social having no owner — is this question: Who owns the mobile experience at Microsoft, now? The new Microsoft has no place for a Jonny Ive controlling user experience.
The simple and wrong answer is Julie Larson-Green, who is building devices like tablets and smartphones. Another wrong answer is Terry Myerson, who is building the Windows software that runs on those devices. These are both wrong — and especially wrong in the enterprise area — because many Microsoft customers are having their primary interaction with Microsoft software through the browser, or on non-Microsoft devices. And if the trend lines are to be believed, in the near future those proportions will continue to rise. So, already today the most important user experience to consider is in the browser, and soon it is likely to also include mobile apps running on hardware not produced by Microsoft. And I don’t mean Internet Explorer, either.
Yes, I know that Ballmer, Qi LU, and anyone else in authority at Microsoft will have to publicly stick to the party line — “Windows will continue to be a dominant operating platform for decades to come, we are turning the corner with Microsoft smartphones and tablets, yada yada yada” — but the numbers say different. Ballmer’s memo only mentioned PC four times, and mostly in retrospect, phone only three, and Internet Explorer zero. (I noticed that Surface’s price was dropped today by around $100. Too little, too late?)
However, behind the scenes, Qi Lu and his colleagues must be planning for a transformation to a very different operating model: a leading enterprise software company, integrating a collection of tools necessary for the functioning of business in the past decade, right up to the business of today. But the battle now is to contrive the software platform for the emergent company of next year, and the decade that follows. Qi Lu, with the people at Yammer, Office 365, Sharepoint, Exchange, and Skype, will have to connect the dots in a way that transitions to a very different tomorrow while delivering value at every today along the way.
[Go read the whole thing, if you’d like.]
I know it’s satire, but still…
LinkedIn has done a dramatic facelift of the user experience on the popular site. Much more clean and modern. It will be rolling out to users over the next short while (I am still seeing the old UX, personally.)
I will have to spend some time there, though, to see if anything fundamental is being rejiggered. This reworking is likely to feature in a project of mine later this fall (announcement later this week).
(via Caroline Gaffney, Introducing a Simpler Homepage)
A great example of why thinking innovatively about products is really more like ethnographic research than engineering or marketing.
Sara L. Beckman and Michael Barry, Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedding Design Thinking, California Management Review, Fall 2007
At the core of doing good observational research, and unearthing important information from potential customers or users, is asking why. While basic use and usability needs are important to observe, more radical innovation comes from understanding meaning-based needs. “The main task of ethnography is not only to watch, but also to decode human experience—to move from unstructured observations to discover the underlying meanings behind behavior; to understand feelings and intentions in order to deduce logical implications for strategic decisions.” [Hy Mariampolski, “The Power of Ethnography,” Journal of the Market Research Society, 41/1 (January 1999)] Those meaning-based needs are only uncovered as the researcher continues to probe, deepening his or her understanding of the user’s thinking about the innovation and its use context.
A short example highlights the importance of understanding needs at
all three levels of use, usability, and meaning. A number of Native American tribes—and, in particular, the Mono Indian tribes in Fresno and Madera Counties in California—subsisted on acorn flour prepared by grinding the acorns. The grinding was done by the women in the tribe who all sat around a large, flat granite boulder with holes in it that served as mortars to do their work. In the early 1900s, the U.S. Government attempted to improve the efficiency and pro- ductivity of the acorn grinding process by providing iron grinders. The attempt failed. Why? The grinding activity served a variety of purposes beyond simply preparing flour for food. It was the place where women gathered to tell stories and pass along the traditions of their people. The grinding activity provided the backdrop or rhythm for the telling of the stories; the women viewed it as accom- paniment to the sharing of their heritage. The U.S. Government approached the problem to be solved as one of food processing, completely missing the much deeper meaning of the activity, and thus failed with its solution. Understanding the broader context might have enabled the development of something much more powerful, and something that would actually be adopted.
Understanding meaning is grounded in observing and understanding culture. Culture represents the agreed upon meanings and behaviors that groups of people develop and share over time. “Culture is shared as the conscious and subconscious blueprint for a group’s way of life. It defines the bound- aries of groups and articulates the distinctiveness they feel compared with others. Culture is the source of any group’s collective sense of self and their aspirations are rooted in cultural learning.”[Hy Mariampolski] It is the “constituting role of culture” that ultimately determines who we are as people and what we think. An understanding of why people do things must be “immersed in culture, it must be organized around those meaning-making and meaning-using processes that connect man to culture.”32 The material components of culture—the tools and trappings of everyday life, and the things we talk about innovating—have deep roots in culture. Culture, thus, has an important role in product choice, usage, and resistance.
Culture is communicated through stories, such as those told by the Native American women while grinding acorns. People take the events that they expe- rience and organize them together into stories. Every culture has some basic set of shared stories or frameworks that explain how the world works, and there- fore explains why people do what they do. It is those shared stories that observation seeks to elicit. Deciding, for example, what type of product one will purchase to clean one’s face depends upon culturally based norms and values about cleanliness and how and where cleaning oneself should take place.
Stories about the use of designed objects are the best way to get at innovative ideas, but the stories have to be based in the cultural context, nor just narrowed down to how a tool fits in the hand. All human tools are social, and the social stories — how people use the objects, share them, and the contexts where they are used — are the core of all great innovation.
Paul Adams — who worked at Google and now is at Facebook — wonders if the effort involved in managing and maintaining Google+ Circles is worth it:
Paul Adams, This Is Just The Beginning
Most user experience problems can be defined with the simple equation: Is the effort I need to go through worth the perceived benefit? Is the effort of creating circles, and managing them over time, worth the perceived benefit of sharing to those circles? Is the effort of figuring out who is in the audience of someone else’s circle worth the perceived benefit of the value derived from commenting?
I am not a fan of Twitter lists, for example, but others use them productively to subset their Twitter experience. So I suppose the same logic will hold with Circles: if you are trying to partition your social experience into separate fragments within a large general purpose tool, Circles may hold some promise for you.
But because the folks you add to your Circles are not in on the taxonomy you are using, there is no shared context: it’s not a little cocktail party where all the guests are aware they’ve been invited, and know who the others are. It’s a one-sided filter, and so no shared context or conversation can arise. Circles are like cutting out pieces of books by different authors, pasting them together, and pretending it happened at a salon.
I think Circles might be helpful on a different level. Imagine if I could use Circles as insta-context for other tools, though. If I could create a Hangout limited to Social Tools Maniacs, for example, or a Huddle involving Big Thinkers (as defined by me). Then the point of a Circle would become evident operationally to the circle of people invited, and the object and context of the discussion becomes shared.
Until tools can use Circles, I think they are just a filtering device: useful for some, but pedestrian.
Ryan Carson, the impresario behind The Future Of Web Apps and other web conferences, attacked the premise of ‘User Experience’ being a legitimate job title — or a discipline of its own — and asserted that UX is just a subset of what web designers and developers should be capable of doing:
Ryan Carson, ‘UX Professional’ isn’t a Real Job
A web site or app should be the product of a Web Designer and a Web Developer (who occasionally are the same person, as demonstrated by Shaun Inman). Anyone else who is added into this equation is a waste of money and time.
You cannot be a ‘UX Professional’ if you are not an experienced Web Designer and involved in the day-to-day process of designing, building, testing, marketing and updating a web project.
This sounds a lot like saying that anesthesia could be provided by the doctor performing surgery on your brain: why have a separate discipline for it, when most of what anesthesiologists know is learned by all other doctors?
Well, in that case, few would argue. So what is it about UX that arouses this contention? Trust me, Ryan Carson is not the only person out there who doesn’t buy UX as its own discipline.
My sense is that UX is perceived as too touchy-feely, too oriented toward people’s (user’s) inner states and motivations. Many folks want software design to be functional — gather requirements, come up with a design that meets those requirements, write code, test — and simply don’t believe that human beings deserve more consideration than that.
Of course, the same arguments could be made about preparing dinner, as Cennydd Bowles points out:
The post’s [Carson’s] misrepresentation of UX is easily refuted: everyone should know how to cook, so why have chefs? The generalist/specialist debate has been replayed in knowledge work for decades, and answered recently by folk smarter than I. But three days later, the rebuttal doesn’t particularly interest me. Nor do I bear Ryan any grudge. Instead, my mind lingers on the painful and disheartening truths behind his post and our discussion.
As I read his tweet, I immediately forsaw the reaction: a hundred angry replies, and a hundred crowing retweets. It confirmed what I have long feared: the UX industry faces a credibility crisis. Victims of our success, we’ve created a rush of interest that has indeed caused some appalling job title inflation. Thousands of mediocre web generalists are now calling themselves UX designers in an effort to gain cash and authority.
The UX industry is becoming polluted by dilettantism. It’s no surprise then that people are attacking the field. We can expect more of it, and there’s a real chance that the fury and division we see in the conversation surrounding Ryan’s post will soon drown out the cause we espouse—designing technology that helps people be productive, empowered, and happy. Our peers are divided, with thousands eager to denounce our work. We have been unable to convince an influential web figure of our value. And this is a real shame since, alongside the flash-in-the-pan opportunists, there are exceptional people in UX who have formed a community of intelligence, generosity and thoughtful action. To see their work and passion decried as quackery makes me tremendously sad.
Andy Budd of Clearleft responds with more personal vitriol, since Carson made his case while attending dConstruct, a conference about user experience and design organized by Clearleft:
I think the reason Ryan thinks that “‘UX professional’ is a bullshit job title” designed to “over-charge naive clients” is because he’s never actually been in the position to need one. If you look at Ryans’ background, he worked for agencies in the late nineties and early noughties when the field of user experience was still in it’s infancy. As such I suspect that he’s never worked with a team of dedicated UX people.
In more recent years Ryan has become a conference organiser and content publisher, producing relatively straightforward websites which really don’t need a dedicated UX person. He’s also dabbled as a start-up entrepreneur, although sadly none have been a huge commercial success as of yet. In fact, Ryan is very much embedded in the bootstrapped start-up culture where all you need is a smart designer and developer to see your ideas come to life. So in early stage start-ups where you’re designing for people like yourselves, you can definitely get away without a dedicated UX person if you’ve got a talented team with enough overlap. However once the project grows, you’ll probably benefit from the help of a dedicated UX professional.
10 years ago I thought much the same way as Ryan. I couldn’t understand how companies could spend millions on a website when a designer and developer could knock something together in a weekend. Similarly why would anybody need a pretentious title like Information Architect when I’m perfectly capable of putting together the site map for the brochureware site I was working on myself?
Sadly I do think Ryan has accidentally hit on something here, and it’s a trend I’m seeing more and more of; web designers with an interest in user experience re-branding themselves as UX professionals. So there are an increasing number of people out there who are calling themselves UX designers because they’ve sketched out some wireframes and sat in on a couple of usability tests.
By contrast a typical UX person will have a much deeper understanding of cognitive psychology, human computer interaction and design research than their graphically focused colleagues. They will have more experience running stake-holder interviews, usability evaluations and ethnographic studies. They will be more versed in the creation of personas, concept models, scenarios, user-flows and storyboards. They will be able to create wireframes and experience prototypes using a wide range of tools and to differing levels of fidelity depending on the questions being asked and the intended audience. In fact there are a whole host of skills that differentiate a UX designer from a more general web designer.
I argue that nearly every time a specialized discipline breaks free of a more general one, the generalists will generally (ha) complain that the speciality is unneeded. And in some cases that may be true, but often there is a shift of worldview involved, not just a deepening of skills possessed by the generalists.
That is certainly the case with user experience: it represents a distinctly different approach to considering the various factors that go into devising the territory where users interact with software. UX values factors differently that traditional software design, and brings some elements to design that traditional software design and development seldom examined, such as social context, user motivations, and cognitive science.
I expect we won’t hear the end of this argument in the near term, and that Cennyd’s concerns about the backlash against UX is realistic: there will be more voices calling ‘bullshit’, although it is unwarranted. Loud cat calls from lot of people who don’t really understand what is behind UX and won’t take the time to understand it.
A desire path (also known as a desire line or social trail) is a path developed by erosion caused by animal or human footfall. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. The width and amount of erosion of the line represents the amount of demand. The term was coined by Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space. Desire paths can usually be found as shortcuts where constructed pathways take a circuitous route.
They are manifested on the surface of the earth in certain cases, e.g., as dirt pathways created by people walking through a field, when the original movement by individuals helps clear a path, thereby encouraging more travel. Explorers may tread a path through foliage or grass, leaving a trail “of least resistance” for followers.
The lines may be seen along an unpaved road shoulder or some other unpaved natural surface. The paths take on an organically grown appearance by being unbiased toward existing constructed routes. These are almost always the most direct and the shortest routes between two points, and may later be surfaced. Many streets in older cities began as desire paths, which evolved over the decades or centuries into the modern streets of today.
People try to build social trails in software tools when possible, trying to find the shortest path to getting something done. We just can’t see them as easily.
Microsoft has gotten a lot of people excited with the radical break that Windows Phone 7 represents. Behind the user experience shift is the simple realization that phones aren’t really small computers. Especially computers from the ’90s, with folders, files, and a desktop. See my recent post, Why Closed Works: Moving Past Steampunk Thinking About The Future Of Computing, which suggests why iPad and other new OS approaches are potentially liberating for us, despite the yowling from techies.
Windows Phone 7 represents a similar departure — a break with the notions of what users should have in their heads when fooling with a phone.
- Peter Sayer, Microsoft CEO unveils Windows Phone 7
"Phones looked like PCs, but a phone is not a PC, it’s smaller, more personal," said Joe Belfiore, vice president for Windows Phone.
To make the interface more personal, Microsoft is counting on a checkerboard of customizable “live tiles” that can update automatically with information from the phone or the Internet.
Some of the tiles will update automatically to show frequent contacts or local information, while others can be customized manually. The tiles will be grouped into themed “hubs,” for example a page of contacts called “people” or a page of photos called “pictures”.
It seems that we are starting to see some commonalities in these new operating environments, like iPad, Windows Phone 7, and Litl, to name three interesting examples.
iPad will be based on the iPhone operating environment, which is extremely minimal: it offers up single applications, and not much else. These apps are generally fairly minimal: it seems that at least in the first release iPhone apps will generally be running in a ‘double pixels’ mode, although Apple has said it will provide tools to allow iPhone apps to be rejiggered to run natively.
The point is that users will not need a Mac OS X kind of experience to read a book, listen to music, or watch a movie. The user’s experience will be shaped by the sorts of media being accessed, rather than a general purpose programming world.
This is also what seems to be at work with Windows Phone 7: they have thrown away the general purpose file/folder/desktop environment so familiar to programmers, and moved ahead to an environment designed around information streaming to the device or to the user.
Here we see the adoption of ‘tiles’ — rectangular information objects that access streams or stores of information when touched. These ‘tiles’ will replace the notion of running apps, or opening files, or initiating a connection to the web through a browser, although it seems like we are going to be stuck with the browser metaphor for some time.
The deepest shift at work in these new environments is a transition to information flows away from information stores.
We will come to perceive what is going on as we touch these Windows 7 tiles, or open Litl channels, is that we are connecting to a stream of information, more like a TV channel than opening a file or browsing to a website.
And I believe that the streaming metaphor when coupled with the social dimension of tools like Facebook and Twitter, or new social elements of these new platforms themselves, will change how we think about them and how we use them.
My sense is that more designers — like the folks at Litl, the innovative ‘internet computer for the home’ — are looking to television and streaming media services as a starting point for redesign of user experience.
I recently got a loaner from Litl, and while I was impressed with much of the philosophy of the user experience, I was dissatisfied with the experience overall.
In particular, I had hoped that there would be a social experience tightly integrated into the radically different OS they had devised, something as innovative as the ‘ring’ controller they developed as part of the scrolling controls on the hardware. But that side of the equation was stuck back at email. If I see something cool in one of the channels on my Litl I would like to be able to simply pass it along to those following me in a hypothetical Litl network. Or else they could have tightly integrated to something like Twitter.
Yes, I can use Litl to look up a recipe, and position the device on the kitchen counter in it’s easel mode to make it a handy appliance. But it’s just a browser window to Epicurious, and not connecting me to a network of other cooks.
This is perhaps an example of a general rule: as innovators attempt to break out of the user experience ruts of today’s operating systems, they will get hung up on those irreducible elements of the existing world order that have to be connected. Like browsers, and email. These will hold us back, even in circumstances where radical changes are being attempted.
I beleive that Litl is a bellwether of things to come, as is Windows 7 Phone OS, and the iPad.
In all cases, the designers have drastically minimized what users are able to do for the sake of a simpler and more usable model of use.
But I think it is a mistake to not make these devices more obviously social, where streaming of information to and from other people becomes the primary mode of operation, and not something demoted to something in email, or in other applications. I expect to see someone release a social OS in the near term, where our connections to others are directly supported in the operating environment, not just within social applications.
Update on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 1:55PM by Stowe Boyd
From the Microsoft Windows 7 Phone press release:
Windows Phone 7 Series creates an unrivaled set of integrated experiences on a phone through Windows Phone hubs. Hubs bring together related content from the Web, applications and services into a single view to simplify common tasks. Windows Phone 7 Series includes six hubs built on specific themes reflecting activities that matter most to people:People. This hub delivers an engaging social experience by bringing together relevant content based on the person, including his or her live feeds from social networks and photos. It also provides a central place from which to post updates to Facebook and Windows Live in one step.
Sounds like the ‘people hub’ is a step in the direction I was alluding to.