Much ado about phone numbers

Four approaches to styling phone numbers.

Here are four approaches to styling phone numbers. Which looks best to you?

Lately I’ve been thinking about formatting phone numbers. Of course, there are plenty of options in addition to the ones above, but these are some common ones, although the thin spaces option is perhaps not too common. I added it because I’ve been wondering about the value of the separator characters, and if we can just not use them in favor of a little white space.

Here is some of the thinking.

  1. The conventional formatting of (123) 456-7890 will obviously be a phone number to most Americans.
  2. I’m no fan of the dashes.
  3. I’m okay with the periods. However, are they needed?
  4. Which led me to try the version with thin spaces between each set of digits.

I like the thin spaces, but I don’t dislike the conventional version. So, for obviousness, I lean towards the convention. For aesthetic, I lean towards the thin spaces.

But part of the decision of which approach to go with will depend upon the context. For instance, is the phone number labeled with an obvious word like Telephone or Phone? If so, I might opt for the thin spaces version.

However, if the context is unclear, say in the absence of clear cues about what that number is, the conventional approach would be best. Otherwise, the number could be misinterpreted as some other number, or it might simply take the reader too much mental effort to recognize it as a phone number. No need for that sort of rudeness.

Clearly, this is all just my opinion. Do you have a preference for how phone numbers ought to be styled?

IxDA-Lansing Design Reviews workshop

A model for UX design reviews

Design reviews are so important for our work as user experience designers, but they too often fail us. Here is a model for design reviews that overcomes the problems of ego, emotion, and communication that so often get in the way of helpful feedback.

Alaina Kraus, Caitlin Potts, and I presented this process for the Jan 27, 2011 IxDA Lansing meeting.

Roles in the design review process

  1. Designer
  2. Facilitator (may also be a reviewer)
  3. Reviewers (you’ll need at least 2, but 6 may be too many)

Step 1: Designer explains the project and design concerns

At this step the designer shows the design (on paper, on screen, a prototype, etc.) and explains to the reviewers the context of this design. The designer should also point out specific areas that she wants feedback on.

Step 2: Reviewers discuss the design

This is the part that’s going to go against your habits.

The designer steps back and withdraws from the discussion. She should use body language to exclude herself to make it harder for the reviewers to address her. She should instead focus on her listening and note-taking.

Meanwhile, the reviewers are discussing the design amongst themselves. Instead of referring to the designer, they should refer to the design. Instead of talking to the designer, they should talk to each other.

Of course, the reviewers should point out good aspects of the design as well as discuss areas that they’d like to see improved.

By intentionally excluding the designer from this conversation, the dialogue can cover more ground and the feedback can be more honest. Otherwise, the dialogue has a good chance of focusing on a single point or so as the designer begins to explain or defend her decisions. That will derail good feedback, and everyone loses out on good information. People’s feelings are also at risk.

Step 3: The designer rejoins the conversation.

Finally, once the facilitator has determined the design has been discussed enough, he will invite the designer back into the discussion.

The designer can now summarize the notes she has taken in order to give the reviewers the opportunity to catch any misinterpretations. She can also ask follow up questions to clarify feedback she may not have fully understood.

The designer will probably want to defend the work or explain it, but really doesn’t have to. The goal is feedback for her, and at this point, she has it.

Why this method works

This method works because it makes it okay for the designer to simply listen in without feeling a need to defend her work. Likewise, it frees up the reviewers to not have to worry about hurting the designer’s feelings or fear the reaction of feedback taken poorly. While the method may feel a little awkward at first, after a few times it becomes easier.

What kinds of feedback make sense?

The reviewers should provide feedback that matches the fidelity of the design. This is to say, if it’s a rough sketch or task flow diagram, talking about pixel-perfect alignment of the layout is inappropriate. This should be obvious to most of us.

Also, instead of simply presenting your opinion about a design, discuss it in terms of usability heuristics (Nielsen’s list of 10, Tognazzini’s 1st principles document), accessibility concerns, visual design principles (e.g., proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast), and your observations from usability tests.

Where did this method come from?

In the mid-90s I worked at the Michigan State University Writing Center, and we used a similar process that we called the “fishbowl” to teach people to do peer-review writing workshops. In many ways, writing and designing are similar. When I started doing more design work, I recalled this process and adapted it to design reviews. It seems to work great. I credit learning this method from Dr. Sharon Thomas and Dr. Laura Julier of Michigan State University.

Update Feb 26, 2011: Wordcast live on Design Critique

Tim Keirnan over at the Design Critique podcast posted an interview we did on this process. Check it out! And thanks, Tim, for inviting me.

Update July 14, 2011: Michigan UPA workshop

This evening Alaina, Caitlin and I ran this workshop for a Michigan UPA event in Lansing. We had fun and it sounded like the attendees enjoyed themselves while learning this model. Thanks again Second Gear Coworking for letting us use your excellent venue!

Addendum to “Getting More From Analysis” by Lewandoswki and Dilworth

UX Magazine published Getting More From Analysis by Jared Lewandowski and John Dilworth on Dec 16, 2010. The authors provide a  summary of analysis as part of three design activities:

  1. Analysis
  2. Synthesis
  3. Evaluation

Diagramming these activities

They also provide some models for conceiving of these three activities, from linear to finally advising on a traditional equally-weighted 3-circle Venn diagram.

I like the thinking, and the clear reclassifying of design as including all of these activities, as opposed to only synthesis. However, their Venn diagram leaves direction out of the picture. I like this approach better.

Design as Venn diagram of Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation, with clockwise arrows.

This model simply adds the arrows to what Lewandowski and Dilworth provided. It’s simple, but serves to organize the concepts.

Working together isn’t always simple

In addition, the authors recommend involving analysts in synthesis activities, and designers and developers in analysis activities. This, I agree, is good advice, but they didn’t provide any techniques to help you actually pull this off.

Analysis, synthesis, and evaluation each require different types of thinking, and a person specialized in, say, analysis may end up stepping on the toes of the people specialized in synthesis. The result may be a stunted synthesis activity, shut down because an analyst broke down the problem again before a designer or developer had a real chance to synthesize the ideas into various solutions.

To avoid these types of problems, creating intentional design (be they analysis, synthesis, or evaluation) sessions is important.

Setting up design facilitation sessions

I’ve been listening lately to some lectures by Professor Michael Roberto, and in them he’s advised what he calls the 4-Cs of encouraging real ideas in a debate. Roberto is focused on strategic decision making, but I think we can learn from this advice and apply similar thinking to how to set up design facilitation sessions.

  1. Composition – of group, who should be invited
  2. Context – Atmosphere, shared norms, ground rules, location
  3. Communication – How will we discuss and exchange views? E.g., subgroups, devil’s advocates.
  4. Control the process – Will I as leader be in the room? Do I ask for a packaged solution or do I ask to see a debate.

You might think this is over-thinking it all. Just put the people in the same room and have them discuss the design, and good things should happen right? Maybe. But why gamble? Even 10 minutes of planning a design session based on these 4-Cs could turn a waste of time into a breakthrough design session.