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Attack of the killer Assumptions (and how to overcome them)

assume the position

Assumptions are something we battle in kinds of ways. I know when I was doing more project management, trying to get a handle on project assumptions and documenting them was a necessary challenge. Understanding and documenting assumptions was critical to managing my client’s expectations, and making sure that it was actually possible for me to deliver a project on time and on budget.

These days, I’m more likely to make assumptions about the way that people will understand an interface and what they’ll find easy to use. Even though I continually try to train myself NOT to bring assumptions to the table when I’m designing or testing designs – or at least, to position my assumptions more as hypotheses than as a personal truth.

I often learn as much about my own inbuilt assumptions as I do about how people interact with particular interfaces… even now when we are all conscious of the new challenges created by different kinds of novel interface element, it’s a constant challenge to keep assumptions under control (which is – in my opinion – to make them conscious assumptions).

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a few years now and have asked lots of people along the way about their experiences so it was reassuring to see Kathy Sierra sum up my quandary so succinctly in her recent post on Assumptions (and their use by dates):

The really big problem is the assumptions which are so ingrained that we don’t even know they’re assumptions. They become an accepted Law of Physics, as good as gravity.

For me, assumptions are something that you usually become aware of after they’ve bitten you in the butt. Once they’re known, conscious and documented they’re not so scary… in fact, they’re not scary at all.

It’s kind of like being afraid of the dark… when you can’t see what’s under the bed, you imagine all kinds of hideous things. Once the light is on, you wonder how on earth you let your imagination run away with you so crazily.

Kathy is right – once you’ve recognised your assumptions, you can’t just leave them sitting there. You need to pull them out and re-examine them every now and then and make sure that they’re still as they should be, or update them if you need to. (Or, potentially throw them away as irrelevant).

But here’s my question – what do *you* do to try to expose these really dangerous assumptions? The ones you don’t even know that you have? How do you bring them to light and make them known and not dangerous?

Come on. Help me take out some of these killer assumptions.

:)

Image Credit: Kayaness @ Flickr

how do you analyse your user research data?

Affinity diagram?

Of course I’ve just finished a week of asking users lots of interesting questions and getting a vast amount of even more interesting information in response. On this particular project we asked quite a few people (15) lots of questions over quite a broad spread of topics. So, now I’m trying to work out what I’ve learned.Over the years, I’ve used a range of different methods for analysing data. The ‘simplest’ yet least able to be reproduced/backed up is a combination of memory and gut feel (not recommended), then there are a range of more or less physical tools from Excel Spreadsheets, to Post It Notes (which seem to be in vogue at the moment), to Mind Mapping (my current pet approach).

I like Mind Mapping because I think it’s a fairly efficient way to push the data around into sensible groups and to also keep the ‘authentic’ user voice in the mix for as long as possible. I tend to type quite a bit (especially the really interesting parts) verbatim, and I like that even though the users have started to meld together in my analysis, their voices are still there – it is quite powerful in taking me back to the conversation we were having and the context in which their statement was made… something that I think can get lost in other methods.

Mind Mapping is also a lot more space efficient! Where I’m working now (more about that soon), Affinity Diagrams using vast quantities of all different coloured PostIt Notes are very popular… to the extent that wall space is at an absolute premium :)

This is a method that I’ve really enjoyed using in the past. In particular, I think it’s a strong method to use when you are working as part of a team doing the data analysis (whether that ‘team’ is you + colleagues or you + client… both useful). Mind Maps do tend to fall down in a screaming heap where you’ve got more than one person doing the analysis.

Interestingly, the IA Wiki (where I liked to for a definition of Affinity Diagrams above), includes both Post It notes and a Team as pre-requisites for doing an Affinity Diagram… I’m not expert in terminology, but that’s not my interpretation. Anyways, that’s a tangent. (I think!)

I wouldn’t call myself a MindManagerPro power user, but I can see that there are opportunities to further streamline my process (perhaps) through integration with Excel (where I capture my raw user data) and Visio (where the design solutions are ultimately outputted). I need to explore this integration with MS Office some more (unless someone out there has and can tell me what’s worth exploring and what’s not!)

Another thing that I really like about MindMaps is that they allow you to spend quite a bit of time ‘working on’ the data and starting to make some meaningful and interesting conclusions, which you can then bring to your client, and you’re then able to really focus their minds on what problems need to be worked through, workshopped and resolved – but with all the data to hand, and organised, and illustrating/illuminating the points that you’re discussing in your workshop.

Of course, my choice of tools is also heavily influenced by the fact that I tend to do a lot more qualitative style research then quantitative (I’ve never been one for maths) – so statistical applications and graphs I approach with caution and generally a fair amount of resistance… :)

I’d be really interested to hear about what techniques you like to use for data analysis and why you use them. Or others that you’d like to try that you haven’t yet…

Come on then, share with the people :)

PhotoCredit: RR and Camera @ Flickr

To content inventory or not to content inventory? (continuing conversations)

Late night at work

Recently I suggested that starting a project with a content audit was not necessarily the best approach.

There’s been a bit of discussion around that since then, most notably over at Donna Maurer’s blog, and also as a Question of the Week at the IA Institute.

The overview of responses from the IA Institute probably give the best idea of current concensus:

The responses to this question gave a nice blend of ideas, mainly that the initial runthrough of the content at the start of a project can be thorough, but likely should not be the final, detailed audit.

Also, there is a desire to clarify the terms at work here. One person’s “content survey” is another’s “content inventory.” Or, one person’s “content inventory” is another’s “content audit.”

The responses to this question suggest the following continuum for the level of detail:

(Least detail) Content survey > content inventory > content audit (More detail)

I have to say – I think that there are plenty of projects where a content audit/inventory *is* probably a good place (or sometimes the ONLY place to start a project). The reason for my post was to make the point that this should become a de facto ‘standard’ approach to all IA projects.

As it happens (and possibly via karmatic consequences from posting what I did) I’ve had to do two content inventories since I wrote that post. In one project I did it because the client specifically requested one at the outset of the project, and in the second case it was because the content was so extensive and so poorly structured that there was no way to get a good idea of what content was involved by taking a top level survey.

I hope to not see an excel spreadsheet for at least a few weeks….

Image credit: WorkIsPlayIsWork @ Flickr

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Why you shouldn’t start IA with a Content Inventory

Student Papers by Idiolector on Flickr
I get the feeling that there are some people out there who think that one of the first things you want to do, when starting an Information Architecture project, is a detailed Content Inventory. (Want to get into a discussion about what terms to use and what they mean, go to the IA Wiki – I’d give you a link to the exact page, but the site seems to be down at the minute).
Personally, I am of the opinion that starting your project with an inventory of this kind is probably one of the *worst* ways to go about developing a good IA.
Not only is it the fastest way to lose enthusiasm for a project (hey, you don’t do a Content Inventory for fun… they’re really the most tedious work that an IA has to do). It is also the best way to ensure that you’re *not* taking a fresh approach to how the content might be structured and related.
When you’re doing a content inventory, you’re unavoidably indoctrinating yourself into the way that things are currently done. The IA approach (or lack thereof) currently in use, the way things are named and grouped. The stuff you’re trying to fix. It is very hard, once you’ve been through that process, to divorce yourself from ‘the way it is’ in order to be able to work out ‘ways that it could be’ and ultimately ‘the best way forward’.
And, in the early design stages, you don’t *need* to know every single bit of content and where to find it. You just need to know, broadly, what the really important content is (speaking from a content perspective – there are lots of other things you need to know about your client, your users etc.)
So, rather than doing a content inventory, do a content survey. Have a run through the existing content. Work out what’s there, and find out what’s important. Learn about how much exists, how the content will grow (or not), what content is high priority, what are the different types of content.
Then, while you’re still excited and energised about the project, start designing. Pull out your paper and a pencil and get creative. Imagine all the different ways that you could possibly approach this content.
Design when you’re still fresh, then go do your content inventory and make sure your designs still hold.
I guarantee, not only will you enjoy your work much more, but your work will be more enjoyable for users.
And both of those things, I think, are what it’s all about.
What do you think?
Image Credit: Idiolector @ Flickr
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