links for 30 April 2008 – Mental Models Workshop

Client-Centred Research

Word on the street is that the benefit of User Centred Design is hard to prove… I’m a fan of UCD as a process and I think that it is difficult to measure where process has been central to outcome, but today that’s a tangent. Part of the argument that is made is that a good designer can do almost as much by applying their design experience and expertise as what can be achieved through a UCD approach. In many cases, I heartily agree. Sometimes the process is more about the client than it is about the end users.

A project I’ve been working on recently is a case in point. This project is a pretty big deal – a lot of time and effort and, of course, money, have been ploughed into it already and there is plenty more to follow. Stakeholders have already been working on this project for ages when I get the call to come in and do my thing.

From a quick look at the proposed designs it is clear that there are some fairly significant issues that need to be resolved – both at the proposition level and at a more tactical, executional level. I don’t need research to tell me that and, because of my experience, I have a pretty good idea of what we need to do to fix this.

There is no WAY that I am going to be able to persuade all of the stakeholders who have invested so much in their current approach that they need to make the changes I’m suggesting… after all – I’m just one voice. One subjective, lonely voice… with my opinion alone, I have a long, lonely and difficult path ahead to try to get my clients to make the right decisions. Chances are, I’ll not be successful.

Cue user research. By conducting a quick round of user research I develop astounding powers of persuasion, because it is no longer my subjective, individual opinion that I am asking people to trust. Through the access I have to data accumulated in the course of research, I am able to validate my opinion with something much more substantial – the voices of the end users, the stories of my interactions with those end users, anecdotes, examples, tangible stuff.

Is this just a waste of project resource? Should I spend more time on trying to be more persuasive and less time on research? I think not.

In my experience, by talking to and observing your end users, by looking for patterns and themes, there is always something interesting to learn – almost always something that is directly applicable to your project, and if not, then certainly something that will help you develop in your ability to understand and design good user experience. If you’re interested in social interactions online, then staying in touch with how people are talking about, thinking about, using different tools is something that you should regularly be doing. Take this opportunity to throw in a few questions related to ongoing areas of interest.

At the end of the day – our job is to try to make sure that good decisions are made about the user experience of projects we are working on. If it were up to us alone, perhaps we wouldn’t need research. For as long as persuasion (of our clients, stakeholders etc) is a critical part of our role, research is an incredibly useful tool.

Are you using it?

Ambient Exposure

It’s been more than a year now since I first wrote about Ambient Intimacy, and in that year it seems a whole lot has gone on. Twitter continues to be the predominant micro-blogging(?) platform although Google now owns Jaiku. Presence continues to be compelling, yet there hasn’t been the growth in ‘life streaming’ that perhaps we were expecting to occur. Everyone loved FaceBook, and now many of us love to hate it. And we’re all still talking about Portable Social Networks and better tools for managing our social networks across platforms, but we’re not really seeing very much of this in action yet.

On a personal level, I’m sure that many of us have had some pretty significant personal changes in the past year. For myself, the two highlights have been moving from working with a consultancy to going freelance, and starting a family.

All of these changes in the past year have gotten me to thinking about something that I’m going to call Ambient Exposure. Exposure in terms of disclosing information of course, but also exposure in the way that a trader might think of it – a vulnerability, a risk associated with taking a position that could, potentially, result in loss or harm.

There are two key attributes of social tools social tools such as Twitter, Jaiku, Facebook and others that means that Ambient Intimacy leads to Ambient Exposure being the content you are sharing and the contacts with whom you are sharing it.

Ambient Intimacy occurs as you share your presence information and other personal information with people in your contact list – that is simple enough, and on the surface the exposure is obvious. However, for very many of us, we have taken little care in managing and really understanding exactly *who* is on our contact list. As your friends or followers list becomes progressively larger, we are less able to remember exactly who is listening – employers? colleagues? people we want to impress professionally? clients we’re currently working for? people we’d like to work for later? (just to focus on the professional aspect – there are a million potential personal minefields).

Essentially, we may not *want* to have the same level of intimacy with some people as we do with others … but do our social tools support this in helping us either be more thoughtful about who we add to our networks and who we don’t (and allowing ‘not adding’ in a way that is polite), or in allowing us to maintain awareness of who we are talking to (what kinds of people) and to isolate groups of people for various types of communication.

My Twitter account, for example, is completely public and there are lots of people ‘listening’ to what I twitter who I don’t know. There are so many of them that I can’t remember who is there or not. As this list has gotten longer I find myself Twittering more cautiously and self consciously. I don’t want to be twittering about procrastinating on a project when the client for whom I am working is ‘listening’. My FaceBook friends list, on the other hand, is more private and has a much smaller collection of people who I actually know. I feel much more comfortable sharing personal information in this space now – so even as the rest of the world seems to be moving away from FaceBook, I actually enjoy it more than ever because my exposure is reduced and my ability to be authentic is increased. (Which raises a whole other question about what is authenticity in this space, and how much authenticity is required for proper ‘intimacy’ to be sustained. A whole other blog post, that is…).

In the same way that we are not necessarily good at or able to forecast the impact of choosing to add someone to our contact list, we are similarly perhaps not good at anticipating the impact of sharing particular types of information with others.

For some reason, I felt incredibly reticent about sharing in a social space anything about what felt like the incredibly personal experience of being pregnant and having a baby. I’m quite open about it in my relatively protected FaceBook environment, but in my highly exposed and less personal Twitter and blogging spaces I’ve been a lot more restrained.

Similarly I was intrigued to observe the almost brutal honesty of Tara Hunt‘s Twitter messages in the aftermath of her relationship breakup. As someone who is highly proficient in the social space, one could only assume that Tara had given some thought to the potential consequences of such honest tweeting. I believe that at some point around this time Tara did actually change her Twitter account from public to private, possibly as a reaction to others’ response to this openness. Nonetheless, Tara knowingly continues to take what I think is a very brave stance, only hours ago tweeting, on a totally unrelated topic – ‘Better yet, if I stumble, I do it openly and spectacularly on Twitter and YOU learn too! :)’

Tara and I and probably you take these risks or precautions in the social space because we are literate in this space. There has been a lot written about young people and the risks of openness, but the rest of us need education and potentially protection from this exposure. The benefits of ambient intimacy far outweigh the potential risks of exposure in my opinion, but awareness of this exposure is important. Education is probably the best way to help people manage exposure via content, but one of the key challenges for designers in social spaces is to design tools that support awareness and management of this exposure through unruly contact lists.

See also: Gardening Tools for Social Networks

links for 31 March 2008 – Twittery Goodness