A template for intensive design

I was recently speaking with a potential client about a project that I very much wanted to work on. Due to scheduling issues (theirs and mine) we ended up with one week in which we could both be available to work on the project. At first, it seemed like the logical thing to do was to walk away and hopefully refer them to someone else with more time on their hands… but we really wanted to work together. We started thinking… could it be possible?

And so it was that we ended up working on one of the most intensive design and research projects I can remember working on. It was hard work, but good work and – in the end, we got the job done. I thought it might be useful to share the format we used so you can consider potentially this approach if you find yourself in a similarly time challenged situation some day!

Important note: this is not a sustainable way of working. You can do this for a week, you can’t do this week in, week out for a year.

The challenge:

We started the week with lot of data/content in a database, a target audience (digitally excluded), a content management system (SharePoint 2010), an accessibility goal (triple A) and a logo.

We needed to end the week with a high fidelity prototype that could be taken into production the following week.

We wanted to do this taking a user centric approach, ensuring that our concepts were evaluated by members of our target audience throughout the design process.

The team:

It was evident from the get-go that this was going to take more than me. I’m a freelancer, so this mean that I had the pleasure of hand picking a team to work with me on this.

I asked Mark Boulton to help bring our prototypes up to high fidelity. Mark & I have worked together a bit in the past and he is really comfortable in that grey area between wireframes and finished design – this is an area where designers can butt heads a little, so avoiding that was going to be very important in this project.

I also asked Andrew Travers to be the second UX designer on the project – I knew we’d need two pure UX people on this project as we were aiming to both design and research in the week. Andrew brought some brilliant subject matter expertise and accessibility know how to the project, but more importantly, he was brave enough and flexible enough to contemplate such an ambitious/slightly mad project plan. (Andrew has also written up his thoughts on this project).

We pretty quickly realised this was a great opportunity to invite an intern to work with us. Not only could we really use an extra set of hands, it was a rare opportunity to see pretty much a full UCD project in the space of a week. We were thrilled when Lisa Drake took a week of holidays from her job to join us. It was a great decision – both to invite a mentor and to choose Lisa, who was fantastic.

In addition to this we also had four members of our client team on site for the entire week including decision-making-enabled representatives from marketing, content, technical and their project manager.

Finally, we had a daily call scheduled with the Shaw Trust who were going to review our work each day and make sure we were on top of any accessibility issues that emerged as our prototypes developed.

The venue:

We needed a space that would allow for our team to be onsite, to do workshops, design work and to conduct research. We booked some space at the London User Research Centre: a research lab and observation room and another workshop room with day light. This gave us the research facilities we needed and enough flexibility in the space to be able to accommodate the range of activities and people that we needed to house in the space of that week.

On the final day, we de-camped back to the client’s offices to wrap up our work and prepare for a presentation to the larger client team.

The format:

The general shape of the project was this:

  • 1 day of UX ‘foundations’ and initial concept development
  • 3 days of prototyping, researching, iterating
  • 1 day of completing templates, annotating and preparing presentation
  • a day or two in the following weeks to finalise any outstanding work.
  • 3x UX resources for all 5 days, 1x ‘visual’ design for the last 4 days (+ several extra days in following weeks)

The general shape of the day tended to be:

  • project team ‘kick off’ meeting in nearby cafe around 8am
  • full team kick off in labs around 9am
  • work, work, work, work, work,
  • full team debrief at end of day
  • project team continue work/debrief at pub/over dinner that evening.

Preparation:

There was limited time for preparation, and this largely consisted of agreeing a recruit brief for research, briefing recruiters, reviewing existing materials that the client had (mostly from an aborted previous attempt at this project), and project planning – working out a rough idea of what we were going to do on each day and a fairly specific plan for day one.

Day one: UX Fundamentals

This day had to provide the grounding for the rest of the weeks work – we needed to:

  • clearly articulate the value proposition
  • clearly identify and describe the priority audience(s)
  • understand the primary scenarios of use  that we wanted to support
  • come up with some concepts for how we might present the our content to this audience to support these scenarios in a way that clearly expressed and supported the value proposition.

Our approach to the first three items entailed extensive use of post it notes, individual brainstorming, collaborative affinity sorting and prioritisation. Our approach to the final item involved a lot of group sketching (including our client team, of course), discussion and ranking.

As we left the lab at the end of the first day we did have a couple of concepts we were going to move forward with but we weren’t feeling particularly inspired by them. Upon decamping to a local pub that evening (in preparation for meeting and briefing Mark who was joining the team that evening) it became clear that we had quite a bit of affection for one of the concepts that we’d dropped while in conversation with the client – it was perceived as a little too risky. Over a pint, we did a little more work on this concept and got it into a sufficiently good shape to include as an option to present in research the following day. We then went to get pizza and bring Mark up to speed.

Day two:

After our morning kick off, Mark took the client team off to start work on the ‘look and feel’ of the site, starting with a mood board exercise. Meanwhile, in the observation room, the UX team were frantically building prototypes of 3 concepts (using Flairbuilder, mostly for speed) and preparing a discussion guide in time for the first research session at midday – the first of 14 interviews scheduled in this next three days.

By midday, three very rough prototypes and one very unrehearsed discussion guide in place – the research began. We saw six people in the rest of that day – tag teaming research between Andrew & myself, clients watching every moment of the interviews, and design happening on the fly meaning that no two participants saw exactly the same prototypes.

By the end of that day, we had learned a lot. We’d abandoned one concept entirely, introduced another, were pretty sure two concepts were not right and that the concept we’d rescued in the pub the night previous – the risky one – was going to be the right way forward – but it still felt a little scary. We needed more evidence it was right. We didn’t have much to show the Shaw Trust for them to advise on.

That night, we were all pretty nervous.

Day three:

Four more research participants today. At some point it becomes evident that the ‘risky’ version is definitely the way forward. A whole range of participants have now managed to identify personally with it (beyond our expectations) when our initial fear was that it would be alienating. We leave Mark to grapple with increasing the fidelity of the design and move onto tackling the more content rich templates and, as it turns out, the content itself.

We uncover a range of information architecture issues, particularly around terminology/labelling on a freshly ‘redesigned’ content model, we completely reshape the way the content is presented and in the process get very excited about a fancy faceted navigation system.

The Shaw Trust remind us that people with cognitive disability will struggle to make sense of our fancy faceted interface. We realise we’ve gotten excited about an idea and forgotten about our audience (who are not necessarily cognitively disabled, but who are the least experienced web users). We prepare to kill our darlings.

Day four:

Another four participants today. Having sketched all the way home yesterday and back again this morning, over coffee before our kick off meeting I have a feeling I may have replaced yesterdays darling facets with a much simpler solution that properly matches the needs we’re hearing coming out of research.

Our clients are more energised and excited about this project than they were at kick off and this is in no small part due to them having the chance to actually witness the people they work to help every day, actually using the system we’re designing for them. These people are stepping out from behind stereotypes and suddenly feeling a lot like us – but with the specific needs they have more clearly articulated than ever.

We test the newly simplified data-rich interface and struggle to keep a straight face when the participants describe the hard to make sense of page they’re expecting to see, then react with visible delight when they see our stripped down page, designed to focus specifically on the content they are seeking. (You don’t get those proper delight moments often, we cherish those).

We copy and paste ‘high fidelity’ designs into our prototypes as parts of them are ‘ready’. Headers and footers first, then bits of content as it starts to feel like it’s working.

We’re having all kinds of difficult discussions with the client about corporate colours and logos, but we’re also able to test our variations as we go – to understand which fights are really worth having and which are less so.

Even now, we rarely show the same prototype twice. Constantly refining.

We leave the lab on day four feeling pretty amazed at how confident we feel that we’ve actually, really cracked this. That it’s actually going to work.

Day five:

We’ve got a meeting room at the client’s offices. We make a window full of post it notes of outstanding tasks, we prioritise and allocate the tasks. We make tea. Lisa, miraculously, produces a packet of chocolate biscuits.

We work as fast as we possibly can to work through the details of the templates, to make sure we can map the database to our templates, that we can make any ‘massaging’ that needs to happen to the content relatively painless, that we’ve thought through various states and orders in the flows.

We put together a presentation of the work we’ve done over the past week, our rationale and our designs. We do this so quickly it takes less time to make the presentation than it does to give it.

We kick off our presentation by showing some of the profiles of participants we’d met that week – young single mothers, people suffering from mental illness, people who are now or were recently homeless, or in prison. People who really need us to help make access to services easier to find – especially as more and more of those services go online.

Our client is happy with the work we’ve done, but we’re not really surprised because they’ve been there, with us, helping make decisions and seeing how and why decisions were being made the entire time.

Wrapping up and next steps:

Not everything happens in a week. The following week we put the wireframes into a more formal document with annotations and some notes to capture the general principles of the design approach and content strategy.

Mark has more work to ‘design’ all the wireframes into developer-ready templates. We’re still struggling with the homepage … we know the components that need to be there but getting them to work visually is tricky.

We do a handover meeting with the client to talk through everything including any questions they have outstanding. There’s a bit of work required to properly map the database to the templates. We agree there is a whole other project required to look at the information architecture and bring it into alignment with our new findings and approach.

What we learned:

  • your team is everything – you need a good, flexible, friendly, committed team to work this way
  • having the client on site is invaluable. This approach would probably not have worked (or at least, worked so well) if they hadn’t been there participate, observe, field our questions, respond to our challenges.
  • you don’t need to sacrifice research just because your timeframes are short. You will have to be flexible and not get hung up on process, but you will learn what you need to make good, informed, decisions. Also, you give your client the opportunity to see their ‘customers’ in real life. Both of these are invaluable.
  • although you’re in a hurry, you need to take time to communicate.
  • if you want to work like this you need to be brave and confident, you can’t be a perfectionist, you have to be careful with your client seeing you making mistakes and being wrong (all part of the process)
  • not only does an approach like this work but it works well. As a team, we were inspired and energised and felt we’d probably done some of our best work because of the way we were working not in spite of it. I think we’d all be keen to work this way again. (As soon as we get leave from our families who we saw very little of that week).

Photos by Lisa Drake. Thanks to Start Here for being brave enough to work with us this way!

Dear UKUPA, pls UXify yourself.

Seeking feedback on how to get more members to vote in #ukupaelections - 300+ members and only ~30 voted so far.
There are 8 ukupa committee members, 11 ppl standing for election, 281 other ukupa members, only 30 in total have voted have voted? That's crazy!

Having been a relatively vocal critic of the UK-UPA and some of their current activities, I would hate for it to be said that all I do is snipe from the sidelines. I do have some suggestions as to how the UPA can address this issue, but it will take significantly more than 140 characters.

I think that focussing on the lack of members voting in these committee elections might be totally missing the point. Here is a classis situation where we’re focussing on tactical problems when, actually the issue is strategic.

What does the UKUPA do? A quick scan of their current website tells you this

UKUPA brings together UK professionals from the design, technology and research communities who share a vision of creating compelling technology that meets users’ needs and abilities.’

UKUPA website

Blah blah blah – what on earth does that actually mean? According to the predominant content on their current website it seems to mean they do job listings. And very little design.

But wait – the UKUPA are in the process of (very slowly) launching a new website. Perhaps it will give us more information about what they do?

Why, yes it does – it tells us that they have a committee, and they vote.

And, yes they certainly do vote. A lot.

UKUPA 'Beta' website

A quick scan of the discussion on twitter involving UKUPA will show you that pretty much all they’ve been talking about for the past few months is voting for committee positions.

Now, clearly *some* people are interested in the committee and who is on it but I think the (surprisingly small) membership may be sending a big message – shut up about your committee already. For every one person that’s on the committee there are dozens who are not. Making such a big deal of your committee is not really a particularly inclusive strategy. It certainly doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy about the UPA. It makes me feel like Not A Committee Member.

The very fact that it *has* a committee, to my mind at least, makes the UKUPA seem dated – many of the great things happening on the UX scene at the moment are grass roots initiatives that are so busy getting stuff done that the idea of a committee is ludicrous. Let alone a committee of 8 people!

That, combined with the fact that the name of the organisation centres on the term ‘usability’ I think is indicative of the problem you’re facing – relevance. What are you offering the UX profession that is worth handing over a membership fee? Do you really need a committee? If so, what are they actually doing?

You may well have good answers to all of these questions but these are not being well communicated. Spend time answering these questions and less time dreaming up prizes to coerce people to vote for a committee they probably don’t really want.

As I write this I am conscious of four things:

  1. the committee is very much a part of the UPA’s culture
  2. The UK UPA is part of a global UPA machine
  3. the UK UPA does provide valuable services to the UX community in the UK – in particular, the events they run each month are generally very relevant and well attended and provide a great service to the community.
  4. the UK UPA currently has 300+ members.

If we were running the UKUPA, what could we do with this information?

Here’s what I’d be doing.

Firstly, look at your member data, talk to your members. Find out from people:

  • how long have they been members? Are lots of new people joining up or are most people long term members?
  • why are people joining? are they looking to validate themselves in the profession by showing they are ‘members of the Usability Professionals Association’ or do they want discounts at events?
  • why are people not leaving? Can they not be bothered cancelling the standing order or do they feel that they are getting value from their membership? if so, what do they value?
  • why are people leaving? what are you not delivering that they want?
  • what do the members think the UPA could be doing better? What do they want the UPA to do for them?

Do NOT do this in a survey.

Secondly, look at your value proposition, branding and positioning

  • find out what image the UK UPA is projecting and ask whether it’s the right one. Talk to people who aren’t in the UPA, let them be critical (stop being so defensive)
  • think seriously about changing your name. ‘Usability’ isn’t helping you now and it’s not going to get any better as time goes on. (Yes, of course I know you’re part of the global UPA – that’s a whole other issue)
  • think about what value you’re providing to the UX profession and communicate that clearly. Talk much more about that on your website/twitter etc. and much less about the committee
  • re-think the whole committee thing – why do you have so many committee positions? really – why? who is it really serving?
  • spend less time organising elections and more time organising mentoring (not that I want to pre-suppose what you might find out when you’re doing your customer research)

Finally, deliver content and communications that match with an updated value proposition and update the website design so that it communicates those values effectively- both in content and quality of design.

As a general rule, the events that the UKUPA runs are excellent examples of content that is desired by the UX profession – that’s why the people vote with their feet and attend these events. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels the disconnect between the success and relevance of these events and the rest of the UK UPA machine?

As friends and colleagues of mine have put themselves up for committee positions in the UPA I’ve been tempted to become a member and support them with a vote but every time I consider it, I opt out.

From where I’m sitting, there’s no value to me professionally to align myself with an organisation that feels generally out of touch with the UX profession as a whole.

As a fellow event organiser, I know that UXers are crying out for more opportunities to come together and learn from each other – there are UX events every other week and every event seems to go to a waiting list – the need is there and the community is there.

I hope the UPA is willing to firstly admit there’s a problem and then be brave enough to UXify themselves. Then perhaps we ‘ll all become proud and active members. And then, when appropriate, respond to your calls to vote.

Until then, I’m out.

UK UX Freelancer Rate Review 2010

If you do UX as part of your job, you’re based in the UK and you’re a freelancer, this survey is for you.

The background:

The UK UPA recently released a salary survey for 2010 (warning: PDF) which included a tiny overview of freelancers day rates and ‘salary satisfaction’.

These rates, which could now be considered a reference point for both current and potential freelancers and clients, were drawn from a base of 44 responses (up from 39 last year). This is a pitifully small sample and no where near the sample size needed to provide any confidence that this data is indicative of the current situation in the field.

Given that I reckon I personally know about 30 UX freelancers in the UK, and there are many I don’t know – I reckon we can do better than that.

So, rather than whinge at the UPA anymore, I’ve drafted a survey and I would love it if we can find all the UX Freelancers we know in the UK and get them to complete it.

It’s totally anonymous, so if you want to find out what the results are you’ll need to check back here (add a comment below if you want notification), or follow me on Twitter.

The survey will close on 10 December, and I’m hoping we can get at least 150 responses between now and then.

So, if you’re a UX Freelancer in the UK, please come and complete the survey now.

If you know a UX Freelancer, please point them to this survey and encourage them to complete it.

Let’s create an accurate view of the UK UX Freelancing marketplace that can help guide all of us as we set our rates and that can help our clients make good decisions about the appropriate rate of pay for people in our industry.

Designing at speed – DesignJam1

I had the pleasure of mentoring at the first Design Jam in London today.  The event brought together about 50 UX designers from student to seasoned professional to form teams of about 4-5 to design a solution in response to a design challenge.

The challenge for today was:

What is the ideal interface to keep track of previously viewed online content, across multiple devices and locations?

You can see what the teams came up with by checking out each of the team wiki pages.

It was a lot of fun running around from one team to the next seeing what they were working on and, hopefully, helping to guide them towards a solution to present at the end of the day. It was really interesting to be able to observe  nine teams approaching the same design question, and to see where the common challenges emerged. Some observations and advice:

  • Spend less time choosing your idea and more time defining it. Specifically, what problem are you solving?

    Peter Drucker, a business management guru said ‘Ideas are cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.’ Nowhere is this truer than at DesignJam. If you want to have something interesting to present at the end of the day, you need to quickly identify a specific problem that you can solve, and then you need to be able to describe that problem in a concrete story. Keeping track of previously viewed online content, across multiple devices and locations‘ is so broad as to be meaningless from a designer’s perspective. But, being able to re-find a hotel website I saw a week ago when considering a holiday, or the location of the event I’m going to tomorrow, or finding the link to that funny website my friend emailed me about the other day – those a real, concrete, solvable problems.

    It doesn’t really matter which one of these you choose, what matters is that you quickly identify a relatively small, concrete problem that you can solve and that you can describe the problem clearly and believe that the problem is real, and describe how life will be better for people with this problem resolved.

    The elevator pitch technique is one method you might want to consider to help get yourself to a stage where you *really* *clearly* understand what you’re working on and why.

    I really can’t stress how important this part of the project is – this is the foundation on which all the rest of your work is built on, and the most important thing is not *which* idea you choose, it’s about how clearly you’ve defined the problem you’re going to solve and the value you’re going to deliver – your value proposition.

  • Define your audience by understanding the important behavioural characteristics.

    Ah, the vexed issue of personas.I saw a lot of personas at DesignJam today and very little evidence of them being used as part of either the problem or solution definition. Personas *can* be very valuable but only if they’re used in the right way and that is as a tool to help you understand what are the behavioural differences that are significant to your design problem, preferably informed by real data points (your mum, husband, grandfather do count as data points in a DesignJam scenario!).

    Time is precious in a DesignJam environment (as it is on all the project we work on, right?) – we need to make sure our time is being spent in the best possible way. I witnessed too much time being spent making personas because it felt like the next logical step in the design process. In most cases, I would have preferred to have seen groups spend time defining usage stories or tasks and then, if it became clear that there were divergent behaviours and we needed to choose to support one kind of behaviour or another, then capture that somehow – and perhaps a persona is a good way to make that behaviour more understandable.

    Having said that, one of my favourite designs today emerged in response to an ‘extreme’/edge case persona – so persona’s can be a starting point – but what drove this design was not the persona as such but the behaviours we were able to identify that were specific to that persona (and very different from our own) – in this instance, the use of links in email as a primary trigger point for viewing websites, also getting relatively few emails from relatively few senders.

    If you must do personas, then do as few as possible. If you’ve got more than three personas, I want to know why.
    If you’re going to spend time making personas, then I want to see you actually using them in your design process.

  • Get sketching! Generate and evaluate lots of design solutions before you start wireframing

    So, all that time you probably spent trying to come up with A Good Idea, spend it here instead. Quickly generate as many ideas as you possibly can. I reckon it was at least 2pm before I saw people starting to sketch out ideas at DesignJam today (teams started tackling the design problem at 10am and were supposed to present at 4pm).

    A really popular approach to generating lots of ideas at the moment is to do 6-up wireframes another technique I quite like is Design Consequences. However you do it, the key is to get as many ideas as you can onto paper. And then – once you’re out of ideas – to use your clearly defined design problem and whatever user behaviours or personas you have defined to evaluate which aspects of which ideas are strongest.

    Once you’ve evaluated the first round of ideas and you’ve got fresh ideas in your head – do another round of visual brainstorming. Rinse, repeat until the answer becomes obvious. Eventually, it will. Then everything will start falling into place.

  • A group is a resource and a liability (user your numbers, appoint a facilitator)

    When you’re designing with a bunch of other designers (or actually, with any group at all), there are two key things to remembers – firstly – use all the people in your team, get them all actively designing, make sure everyone is sketching and contributing ideas, remember to do things quietly and individually sometimes and to do things collaboratively and together at other times.

    Secondly – make sure that someone is driving the team – keeping you on a schedule, working out how you’re going to get from here to the end of the project, making sure that you’re staying true to the project problem you’ve defined, making use of the personas you’ve defined, keeping everyone focussed, on track, and working productively. Have this discussion at the beginning of the project rather than waiting for a ‘natural leader’ to emerge (especially if you’re working somewhere where politeness is at a premium and potential leaders might be nervous of treading on other team members toes)

  • Pitch clearly and persuasivelyThe day wraps up with each team presenting their design to the larger group –  for me, this is as important as all the design work you’ve done throughout the day. A clear, focussed and compelling presentation enables you to convey to the group what you’ve been working on, what problem you’re solving, who you’re solving it for, and finally, to show the design solution you’ve come up with.That clear value proposition and the user stories or tasks that you’ve defined come in handy yet again and show be key to framing your work in a way that is understandable and compelling to your audience.

    Don’t think of this as ‘just the presentation’ – as much as any of the design work you’ve done throughout the day is great experience and practice for your day to day design work, the same couldn’t be truer for this part of the process. As designers, we’re only ever as good as the design we can convince our client/team to implement and this means that we’re constantly presenting our work – explaining what the problem is, why we’ve done what we’ve done. This is something that, as designers, we should be able to do at the drop of a hat because of the preparatory work we’ve done earlier in the design process.

While these thoughts are specifically in response to the DesignJam day, I think they’re pretty much universally true to any design project and very common issues that come up on projects I’m involved with. The hothouse environment of DesignJam brought it home, yet again, how difficult it can be to facilitate a team around designing a solution – it’s tough work but very rewarding.

Well done to Johanna Kollmann, Joe Lanman, Franco Papeschi and Desigan Chinniah for organising the day and to everyone who participated for putting in such a great effort. See you next time!

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