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Ms Dewey – Lessons in how NOT to design a search engine, brought to you by Microsoft

Ms Dewey

If you’re going to design a product with a smart ass attitude, then you really need to make an extra effort to make sure you get it right. Ms Dewey, a recent entrant to Search Engine Land, has all the attitude, but none of the smarts required to pull it off.

So, here’s the idea in general. You put a hot chick on a screen with a search field. So, you figure you’re going to get the edge on the male 18-35 market, yeah? Fair enough. What about the other 52% of the searching population.

Well, if Ms Dewey had not just the looks but also the intelligence to deliver a good search experience, they hey – she’s got potential to become the poster girl for information architects and interaction designers the world over.

Sadly. She’s just a pretty face. Ms Dewey doesn’t just fail to deliver a good search experience. It’s downright annoying. It’s not that I’d prefer a different interface, it’s that I can’t stand using this one!

The concept is a little fuzzy to start off with. After all, most people would agree that people who are performing the task of searching are really looking for it to be a rapid transaction. Enabling people to get their search done quickly and to give them fast and accurate results are the keystones to good search experience. How does the Ms Dewey character add value to this? Well, frankly. It doesn’t.

Not only does it take a LONG time to return search results (around 10 seconds when I was playing with the site this evening), but you have to go through an annoying and repetitive inanity from the character before you get your results. (Something about a girl always being prepared). This adds no value to the user experience. All it does is make me wait. And wait.

I can’t tell you what the results are like, because for some reason or other, there were no search results available for anything. When it is working, apparently, you’re given results from the Microsoft Live search engine – with some special Ms Dewey Easter Eggs for searches on terms such as beer and boobs. Lovely.

So, in terms of passing the first test – letting me achieve the task that is my key reason for being at this site – Ms Dewey fails abysmally.

There are other things that really bother me about this site though.

  • The call to action for the search is all wrong. Now, I was there knowing that this was some kind of search engine, but also with experience of things like Ask Jeeves and Subserviant Chicken. The call to action reads ‘Ms Dewey, Just Tell Me’ followed by a text field and a button that says ‘search’. So, this is a different kind of search engine… am I supposed to structure my search query differently? The woman on the screen is ‘conversing’ with me… am I supposed to write my query as a question?Of course, with a few experiments (assuming the search is working) I’d quickly learn that standard search queries are what’s required here…. but Ms Dewey isn’t exactly the most friendly gal. I don’t think she’d be too nice to me if I did something dumb here. The call to action makes the action required from my ambiguous. And it makes me, as a user, uncomfortable.If you’re going to screw around with a convention as strong as this one, you’ve got to think about the outcomes.

    I’d be interested to see the search terms that are being entered and whether or not people ARE actually taking a much more conversational tone in their query structures.

  • The feedback whilst I’m waiting for my results is all wrong. Sure, the text changes to tell me that Ms Dewey is now thinking, but Ms Dewey looks to me as though she’s doing anything but thinking. Thankfully, she does stop the pouting and carrying on, and maybe even cracks a smile, but she doesn’t really do anything different to indicate that she’s actually carrying out the task I’ve asked her to perform. She looks as though she’s about to start filing her nails.If you’re going to make me wait that long for search results, then at least give me the impression that you’re taking seriously the work that you’re doing for me. Especially when you have such a big stage and an actress to do so.
  • Can you be mean to your users and deliver a good experience? One of the nice things about some of the apps that have come out in the web 2.0 era is that many of them have an injection of personality – hooray! I can’t think of any, though, that take an bored and impatient attitude with their users. Rather, they tend to be more friendly and playful.Ms Dewey has much better things to do than wait around for you to make a search. Funnily enough, that’s where all of the work seems to have gone in this project… a series of different sequences of Ms Dewey being bored, or huffy or pouty, or entertaining herself with a magazine or mobile phone whilst waiting for you to search. Personally, I could do without the attitude. Especially that, in reality, it’s me that spends time waiting for Ms Dewey to do her work… all I want to do is make a search.

    Personally, I get enough of this attitude in shops and restaurants around London, and I certainly don’t need it in a search engine.

    And that sequence about Ms Dewey learning more as we search more so she can rule the world…. all the more disturbing when you realise that this is actually a Microsoft project.

Yep, that’s right. Microsoft are responsible for Ms Dewey. Although, you won’t find any mention of them on the site. Microsoft says:

“Who says search can’t be fun? At Windows Live we are constantly exploring new and creative ways to promote our search offering and deliver relevant information in an interesting and engaging way. The Ms. Dewey website is just one example of these efforts.

This is not an advertising campaign. This really just an experiment for exploring different ways to introduce people to search and Live Search specifically. We are not promoting the site but simply putting it out on the Web for discovery.”

Well. I’m dead keen to explore new and fun ways to search, but for me Ms Dewey is a half baked idea that could potentially be interesting, but that needs to be a whole lot smarter and a whole lot nicer before it becomes a valuable addition to the suite of possibilities for search.

What’d you think?

less is not enough

Less is Less - How Cover

OK. So I’m finally almost brave enough to send you in the direction of my very first ever podcast that I did for the Office 2.0 Podcast Jam. (Assuming you haven’t wandered over there and had a listen already.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this ‘cult of less‘ that 37 Signals seems to be leading and whether, in fact, it has an evil side. Well… ok, not an evil side. But is it all as good as it seems?

I started thinking this when I was listening to Peter Morville give the keynote at EuroIA the other weekend. He was pondering the ever increasing abundance of information that we have around us now, and wondering if it was helping us to learn, to make good decisions.

I wondered the same about information architecture and interaction design.

So, I’ve been thinking a bit about these web based project management solutions such as BaseCamp and GoPlan and thinking about what they *don’t* do when compared to more complex software such as Microsoft Project.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that there aren’t some *serious* problems with Microsoft Project but it was, for better or worse, instrumental in teaching me how to be a project manager. This is something that neither BaseCamp nor Go Plan could do.

Similarly, we’ve seen some interesting user testing lately that has shown users asking for more complexity to help enable their decision making.

So our natural response as designers, to simplify the interface, may in fact, be reducing the ability of the people using our software or websites to be able to learn, and to make good decisions.

So, that’s the crux of what I’m thinking of. What do we lose with ‘less’? And is it (always) worth it?

If you want to hear the full blow raving version, you can find it here.

I think I sound a bit less like Judith Lucy in this one :)

Image credit: 37 Signals being featured in HOW magazine

pair design pays dividends

In agile development methodologies, pair programming is considered a key practice. Pair programming involves two programmers (in any combination of novice and/or expert) working together to write code. Advocates of agile methodologies outline a range of advantages of pair programming, and I’ve always thought that, in theory and as a relative outsider to the code writing process, it would be a great approach to development. I’ve never worked on a project where there was budget or resource available for pair programming though.

In the past 12 months or so, practitioners of the various design disciplines that I’m interested in have been talking more and more about agile methodologies and how they might apply to design processes. There’s been a lot of talk of collaborative design and rapid iteration, but I’ve not seen anyone talking much about ‘pair designing’.

In my experience, designing can often be a rather lonely activity. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to integrate real users into your design methodology then that can break it up a little. If you’re working within a team of other designers, perhaps you’ll be able to get them to review your work from time to time and give you some feedback. Working in a ‘pair design’ environment is, however, quite rare.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a few projects where we’ve taken a ‘pair design’ approach (in fact, I’m working on one right now), and I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the benefits that the agile advocates outline for pair programming largely hold true for pair design.

Using the list of benefits set out by Wikipedia, here’s a run down of what I’ve found.

  • Increased discipline. Pairing partners are more likely to “do the right thing” and are less likely to take long breaks. Whilst I like to think that I ‘do the right thing’ when I’m designing solo, I have certainly found that working with another designer does heighten your focus on the task at hand and, even more importantly, lengthens the time that this level of focus can be maintained.I’ve also found that in pair design, you tend to design more away from the computer, instead using flip charts and pencil and paper, and post it notes stuck all over walls and drawings and user flows that you’ve mapped out on paper.This is good design practice but, even better, keeps you away from the distraction of email, and bloglines, and all the other kinds of distractions that you find on your computer. It keeps you focussed on the design process.This makes you design better, and makes you more efficient.
  • Better code. Pairing partners are less likely to go down ratholes and tend to come up with higher quality designs. I don’t know about ratholes… But I do know that when designing in pairs there tends to be a more rigorous approach taken to design decisions. This is because you have to be able to explain each decision you’re making, or design approach you’re taking AS you make it, not in retrospect. Each decision needs to be justifiable. And, because you have someone there designing with you, you get to actually discuss the benefits of each approach rather than just doing what you think is best (or worse… what you can do most easily in Visio because you have a template already set up that way…. Oh, come on. You know you’ve done it.)On the ‘going down ratholes’ issue though, if you happen to be designing with your client, then you are able to check really quickly whether the approach you’re taking has a hope in hell of being adopted by the client. This means that you don’t waste time designing something that will never be implemented, and that what you do design has a much better chance of adoption.On that note – designing with your client means that they understand the rationale behind every design decision. So, if you’re just a temporary resource on the project, you leave behind an evangelist for your design – again, making it more likely that what you’ve designed will actually survive the development phase.
  • Resilient flow. Pairing leads to a different kind of flow than programming alone, but it does lead to flow. Pairing flow happens more quickly: one programmer asks the other, “What were we working on?” Pairing flow is also more resilient to interruptions: one programmer deals with the interruption while the other keeps working. For me, getting stuck into designing IS flow. But see above re: increased discipline and below re: less interruption. Both of those definitely mean you get lots more flow time, which is all good.
  • Improved morale. Pair programming can be more enjoyable for some engineers than programming alone.As I mentioned before, designing solo can be a lonely business. When you crack a really curly design problem, there’s no one to celebrate with… well, no one who really gets it. With pair design, you have a celebration partner. This is good :)
  • Collective code ownership. When everyone on a project is pair programming, and pairs rotate frequently, everybody gains a working knowledge of the entire codebase.OK. This has been a little less relevant to me, as a consultant, but see above re: designing with your client and gaining and evangelist.
  • Mentoring. Everyone, even junior programmers, possess knowledge that others don’t. Pair programming is a painless way of spreading that knowledge. This is almost certainly true when you have an expert/novice pairing, but even when you have two designers with similar experience there is a lot to be learned.How often do you get to actually watch the process that other designers go through and how they approach their work? Not often, I’d guess. This is a great opportunity to say, ‘so hey, here’s how I do it… how would you do this?’ and pick up some handy new ideas or approaches or Visio tricks. (Hey, none of us know everything, do we!)
  • Team cohesion. People get to know each other more quickly when pair programming. Pair programming may encourage team gelling. Yep. Pair designing is definitely a great icebreaker :)
  • Fewer interruptions. People are more reluctant to interrupt a pair than they are to interrupt someone working alone.Now, this one is DEFINITELY true, and don’t underestimate how important this is. You can get an awful lot of design done in a couple of hours if that’s ALL that you’re doing. But how often do you actually get this much time to do nothing but the design you’re working on? In my case, not that often. Two people in a room makes you MUCH less interruptable!
  • One fewer workstation required. Since two people use one workstation, one fewer workstation is required, and therefore the extra workstation can be used for other purposes. Well, in our case we abandoned workstations all together and took over a small office/war room. So, I guess there have been a couple of free workstations!

Choosing the right co-designer is pretty important. I’d be loathe to pair design with someone who knew nothing about interaction design… it would be way too much mentoring and not enough designing, which isn’t practical or appropriate on a ‘project’ based design. i would however suggest that if you find a client who has people with the right skills, you do what you can to try to get them involved. This is much more likely if you’re applying other agile methods that involve rapid designing and iterating.Now, it would be unrealistic to suggest that pair design be adopted for all design projects, it’s never going to happen, and in many situations would be unnecessary.

But, if you do have the chance to work this kind of methodology into your project, then I’d encourage you to go for it. I think you’ll find it a very rewarding experience.

Have you experienced pair design? I’d be really interested to hear if you’ve had similarly good experiences, or if there are some horror stories out there!

what’s it like being a designer at Flickr?

I’ve wondered this myself… so I thought I’d use the PodCastJam as a great excuse to get in touch with George Oates, an Australian (ex Adelaide) gal who’s been working with Flickr since before they were Flickr (remember Ludicorp?).

So, in my podcast interviewing debut (and… yes, I need more practice. Want to be interviewed?), I’ve posted an interview with George on the PodCastJam site.

I feel very nervous suggesting this, but I can’t hide such a great opportunity to chat with someone who designs in such an interesting spaces…. so, go check it out!

(Does anyone else think I sound remarkably like Judith Lucy?! Surely I don’t talk like that all the time…. must be my special podcast interviewing voice. A cousin of my phone answering voice).

Personally, I’ve found it really interesting that despite all the different perspectives that people have been coming at Office 2.0 at the conference and the jam, two really loud recurrent themes keep coming out – community and collaboration.

I like that.

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