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Where’s the Gantt gone?

Gant Chart

Having been a project manager in a past life, and still working day to day on projects, I watch with interest the deployment of a range of web based project management tools. In a lot of ways it’s like a dream come true. For most of us, Microsoft Project – the only real project management tool available beforehand – is possibly the most over featured piece of software in the world.

I’ve heard it said that most people only use about 5% of Microsoft Word’s functionality… I can’t imagine what a miniscule proportion of functionality most people use in Microsoft Project. And like MS Word but worse, often times that unused functionality would rear up and cause problems for users who didn’t understand it or weren’t aware of it.

Not only that, but it’s also prohibitively expensive. So unless you’re working in a company where they’ve got the finance and inclination to pay for your license fee – you’re unlikely to get access to it.

Then along comes 37 Signals with Basecamp, BackPack and TaDa Lists . Project managers everywhere were ecstatic (not to mention all those David Allen Getting Things Done disciples). With the ability to create and assign tasks, to post messages, to do simple scheduling and starting at the bargain price of free – 37 Signals and their products soon had a lot of evangelists wondering aloud how they ever managed without these web based project management tools.

Just last night I got my invitation to check out GoPlan. It’s been developed by the team at WeBreakStuff, so I had pretty high expectations. These guys think a lot about usability and user experience, so their work should be top notch. And, I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

GoPlan is a spunky looking piece of web application, and it has lots of great functionality.

GoPlan Screenshot

You can create multiple projects with multiple users (users with varied permission to access content and functionality), there’s notes, a project blog, a calendar, a file upload.

GoPlan also has two similar but different sections called Tasks and Tickets. Tasks, I assume, are things you have to do in the course of the project. You can assign it to a category but not a person, and you can assign a deadline to it (although, strangely that doesn’t make it show up in the calendar). Tickets, I assume, are for bugs and variations. You can assign a priority, a severity (is it just me, or are these two *very* similar criteria… when is a critical severity ever a low priority? I guess there are exceptions… nevermind, tangent).

Oh, and there’s a cool inbuilt ‘chat’ so you can have your rapid fire online discussions AND keep a record of what you actually decided!

All good. All a lot like the 37 Signals offering. But all slightly disappointing to someone who’s managed some reasonably complex projects in her time.

I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the Gantt Chart.

I think it’s quite interesting that both 37 Signals and WeBreakStuff have not used any visualisation tools as a part of their project management offerings. (Well, ok GoPlan has a calendar… do we count that? I might if their task deadlines integrated with the calendar, so for now.. no).

One of the most recognisable features of Microsoft Project is the Gantt chart it generates. Back when I used to make lots of big MS Project files, I thought that I was really just making those charts for my clients (they’re pretty, they look seriously impressive – wow! that’s one complicated project!… this was before Getting Real, ok!)

Interestingly, if you take a look at 37 Sig’s Manifesto for BaseCamp, this is one of the first things you’ll read:

Projects don’t fail from of a lack of charts, graphs, reports, or statistics, they fail from a lack of communication.

Ah yes. But what I’ve come to notice is that charts, graphs, reports and statistics do more than just impress clients. And they can play an important role in communication, and motivation.

What is a Gantt Chart? Well, GanttChart.com (yeah, who knew!) says:

A Gantt chart is a graphical representation of the duration of tasks against the progression of time.

You can see why that might come in handy.

At a simplistic level – nothing focusses attention like a Gantt Chart with lots of red on it – indicating that you’re way behind schedule.

On a more practical level – when constructing project plans, I’ve come to realise how much I did actually rely on the Gantt Chart to help eliminate errors in my scheduling, and to quickly see the implications of alternate scheduling, risks and delays.

When reviewing a complex project plan to see if I’d made errors in scheduling, or understanding project relationships, or if I’d just missed lots of stuff out – it was the Gantt Chart that would most quickly let me know if I’d stuffed up. Breaks in the flow, a critical path that just stops (before the end of the project), tasks that just look too long or too short compared to the tasks around them – all rapid visual indicators that something’s not right.

It get’s really hard and boring to read through a long list of tasks, and even more difficult to understand the relationships between tasks in this format. This is where the Gantt Chart comes into it’s own. Relationships between tasks and groups of tasks are immediately apparent. Tasks that are on the critical path are obvious.

Gant Chart

In retrospect, I’d have to say that Gantt Charts were really important in eliminating errors in project planning for me, back in the day.

So, the Gantt Chart is much more than just client eye candy. It also plays a real role in faciliating the detailed planning phase of the project. It also helps with rapid comprehension of project progress and task relationships as the project continues.

Gantt Charts allow you to understand how long your project is going to take, in what order tasks need to be undertaken (no, it’s not always self evident!), and what tasks are dependent on other tasks. This means that if you move tasks around, or some tasks get delayed, you can see what’s going to happen to your project as a result.

This is all really handy stuff to know if you’re managing a team and have a deadline. It helps you communicate within the team, and to your client, early and accurately. It helps everyone make decisions.

In both the 37 Signals products as in GoPlan, there seems to be no notion of a critical path, or dependencies between tasks. To me, that means that I either have to work a lot harder to keep my projects under control or to impose a structure of my own, or that these products are only intended for reasonably simple projects where, perhaps, the deadline is not such a big deal.

I’ve been using BackPack and BaseCamp for almost as long as they’ve been available, and I have to say that they’ve certainly been valuable to me. Particularly when I was freelancing and had to manage my own tasks on several projects. In these cases though, when I was working on big projects, I was a resource (information architect) and someone else was a project manager who had the biggest Gantt Chart you’ve ever seen in your life! (I needed a separate tool just to manage my tasks!)

I find it intriguing that both 37 Sigs and GoPlan seem to have taken such an anti-chart approach to their tools (and there’s much more than just the Gantt chart that they could have included). I suspect it’s to do with the lack of the critical path. Or perhaps, they’re not actually *project* management tools, but ‘sets of tasks’ tools.

Either way – if any one’s planning a web based PM tool that *does* include a critical path and some pretty pictures… I’d really love to see it!

What about you? Do you miss the Gantt chart? or are Critical Paths soooo 1.0?
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Help Me Crazy Egg!

There’s a kind of grim irony in exploring Crazy Egg, only to discover that the very thing that would make their website and service useful for me would never be able to be detected using the tools that they provide.

Crazy Egg is designed to help you continually test and improve your site.

They do this by capturing where on your site people are clicking and providing you this information in a range of formats, from a simple list, to an overlay (which we’ve seen a fair bit of now, and is even included in Google Analytics these days), to a ‘heat map’ that looks a lot like something you’d generate from eyetracking, but is of course based on the volume of clicks in various parts of the page.

There’s obviously a lot of interesting information you can gather from this kind of data, and it’s particularly digestible thanks to the visualisations. It is only one of very many ways that you can establish what people are doing or not doing on your website, and it is far from telling you what is working and what is not. Crazy Egg says their data can help you:

  • Test different versions of a page to see which works better
  • Discover which ad placement gives the best results
  • Find out which design encourages visitors to click deeper
  • Learn which content leads to improved sales

I don’t have a huge problem with most of these claims… except for the first one – how on earth do you define what ‘works better’ based on clicks?

What Crazy Egg doesn’t tell you, though, is why something that you’re *not* doing is making people unable to use your service.

Case in point – me!

I got an email from Crazy Egg this morning to tell me that they’re up and running and inviting me to register and have a play with their service. It’s a particularly interesting service for someone in my line of work – might be another quick, cheap tool to add to the research kit. I’d love to use their services if only they’d make it a little easier for me!

I couldn’t find a word of ‘support’ or ‘help’ content on their site, nor did their blog appear to have a search facility so that I could see if they’d address the issue I was looking for help with.

My problem is that I want to try Crazy Egg, and I want to use my WordPress Blog as a test. I’m guessing that I won’t be the only person they’ve emailed today with this question. I’m guessing they’ve emailed a lot of people who blog today.

At the moment, I’m at the point of abandonment with Crazy Egg because of their lack of support. Surely an FAQ or a discussion board or a Wiki could be in order? OK, so they’re new and they don’t necessarily know what people need to know… let us all help each other. OK, so they do have a ‘Contact Us’ form… eh, at a pinch, perhaps, but I’m still disappointed.

Is lack of help content a bug? (They want us to report bugs… what do you think?)

For now, I’m hoping that someone out in blog-land can help me?!

I have my Crazy Egg Code and I was thinking of putting it on my blog homepage. Anyone got any idea where in the template code I should be putting this code? I had a quick look at places that seemed logical and couldn’t see anything that matched Crazy Egg’s instructions.

Seriously… not even an FAQ on their website. Who do they think their customers are?!

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FlickrMaps a failure?

FlickrMaps
It’s been interesting to see the mixed reaction that FlickrMaps has received since it’s recent launch. After all, it’s such a cool idea, to be able to show on a map where you took your photo, and see what the rest of the world looks like through other people’s eyes. It’s like Google Earth with a few hundred thousand personalities. Beautiful.
Oh and, of course, it’s a mashup, so it must be cool!
This is what Flickr told us to expect from FlickrMaps:
FlickrMaps
See, there’s your local park, and that’s about where the statue is that’s in your photo. Drag your photo there. Very cool.
Here’s what it’s like in London.
London on FlickrMaps
Yes, you know London, in the UK. That city with a population of population 7.3 million, inhabiting an area of 174 sq km. Here’s the map that Flickr/Yahoo give me to position my photos on. Forget about the park, I can’t even find my suburb.
And, as you can imagine, it’s not much more fun in Sydney.
Sydney Map on Flickr
Yes, at a stretch, there are satellite maps that you can use in these locations that give you more granularity… but nowhere near the precision of streetmaps. And not what Flickr promised.How have the people of London responded?
London FlickrMaps photos

Pretty underwhelming really, isn’t it.

There is more to this than just the US-Centric product focus. There are also some pretty significant (in my opinion) flaws with the way that the Map service has been designed.

Let me start by saying that once you *find* the map section, then adding your photos to the map (assuming there is a decent map of the where you took your photo) is a real pleasure.

But here’s the problem – when are you *most* likely to add locations to your image?

I’d hazard a guess (and it is only a guess, perhaps Flickr have user research to show differently), but I’d guess that it would be at the point that you’re uploading your photos. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty much the only time that I add things like tags to my photos. And it’s when I’m uploading a bunch of photos that I might think about putting them into a set.

(Again, this is dangerous business, looking at your own behaviour and theorising that everyone else’s behaviour is the same… so I’d be interested to hear how/when you add tags or make sets… and at what points you think you’d add geotagging to your photos).

Alas, while you’re uploading your photos, and even once you’ve uploaded them, there’s no hint of the map.

When I went to explore FlickrMaps this morning, I literally felt as though I was hunting for them. Where was the first place that I went? Well, to the detail page of one of my photos, of course. I was sure I’d find a call to action asking me to put my un-mapped photo on the map. Nope.

Eventually I got to – ‘oooh, the organiser’. Perhaps it’s there.
And there it was.

So, I find the Maps either because I’m hunting for it, or because I happen upon it. This means that I’m unlikely to geo-tag very many photos.

And, as demonstrated by the map of London and number of uploads, it seems that not so many people *are* geo-tagging their photos.

BUT – things may not be as they seem. Did you notice that strange paging device on the map? This one:

Map Pages

Do you get it? I sure don’t. Maps and pages… what is this? An atlas? (See it in context in the image at the top of this post)

After playing with it a while I learned that if I clicked on the arrows to the left or right I got to see the map refresh and show me different numbers of photos uploaded in different locations. Apparently this is a page.

Now, am I just being thick, or does the concept of ‘pages’ just make no sense at all on a map like this? I don’t know about you, I’m basing my expectations on the other Yahoo and Google Map mashups with all the masses of pins poking out all over the place. And no pages.

I can’t even begin to get my head around what a page might mean in this context… what goes on one page and not another? And playing with the pages didn’t clear things up for me either.

I can’t think that these pages are helping the situation any though, because according to this widget there are 3.5 million images that have been geo-tagged. That’s a pretty impressive number.

Go play with the map though, and tell me where all these images are… I sure can’t find anywhere near that many. I’ve played around with England, NSW (Australia) and East Coast USA and I don’t reckon I’ve seen more than three thousand photos on the map (and that’s erring on the generous side).

So, has FlickrMaps been a failure so far? Well, if you define success by uptake, then I’d say the jury is out.
If there have been 3.5 million photos geo-tagged in the last couple of weeks, then you’d be a hard judge to call that a failure.
But, if that is the case… then I’ve never seen something successful look so much like a failure.
Come on Flickr. Don’t be hiding your light under a bushel.
Let’s see those 3.5 million geo-tagged photos and where they’re at. Let’s see the FlickrMap phenomenon come to life. And let’s get more people geo-tagging by thinking about how we can seduce them into geo-tagging at the moments when they’re most likely to participate.
Oh, and to everyone in ‘the Valley’. Please don’t forget about us, your loyal customers, from *all over the world*!
Update: Dave (Heller) Malouf has an interesting post with his evaluation of  FlickrMaps here. Check it out.

ethnography is everywhere

Man on Tube with Time Out

Customer research too expensive? Unless you’re working for an university with stringent ethical requirements to meet – you’re making your job too hard. Ethnography* is everywhere.

Last night, after Girly Geeks, I was on the tube on the way home and beside me sat a man performing a task that I *wish* I could have designed for user testing… except I would never have thought of it. Oh, and I don’t have budget.

I watched him a while. Then I asked him if I could take a photo of what he was doing, and explained why I was interested.

Unfortunately we got to Oxford Circus and I had to get off the tube, otherwise I would probably still be in conversation with this guy about why he sits on the tube at 10.30pm on Tuesday evening circling TV listings in TimeOut.

Once he started talking, he had a big story to tell and a rationale for why he was doing this. Of course, it was all premised on the idea that he was ‘killing time’, but then he got into detailed explanations about the way that his personal video recorder worked and how many programs he could record or watch at the same time, and how he treated programs that he knew he like, to those he was still testing out, to those that were ‘experimental’ (his words).

Research is brilliant at helping us work out what the design problems are and how we might try to solve them. But not all projects have the budget or resources for a formal user research phase. Don’t let that put you off.

Ask the people you work with. Ask the people you live with. Ask people you know to ask people they know. Try to get some of their time and ask them some questions. You’ll be amazed how many are willing to help out for free.

People care about design – even if they don’t know it. And they love to be involved and to make a difference. And they have lots of stories to tell and they love that you’re interested in hearing them, and that you think those stories are important.

And, of course, they are important. And they’re everywhere.

Ethnography is everywhere. If you’re looking for it.

Image: man marking Time Out TV schedule on the Central Line tube last night. Larger image here.

*note: I use the term ‘ethnography’ in that kind of loose way that lots of us in HCI use it. Apologies to *real* ethnographers :)

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