UX STRAT conference, day 2

I just wrapped up the day by having dinner with Simon of Bristol (okay, Simon Norris of Nomensa) and Bob Royce and Dan Klyn of The Understanding Group. A relaxed conversation with three brilliant gentlemen—an excellent end to the day.

So, the conference. First, I was glad to have met Josh Seiden in person so that I could apologize for my choice words about Lean UX in the preceding blog post. Josh is legit.

As for the topics, again, too many for me to itemize, so I’ll first do a top-of-mind review and then think about themes.

Top-of-mind reflections

First, Aarron Walter of MailChimp blew me away with the approach he shared about using Evernote with e-mail as basically an API to take a very real step at solving the data silos problem. Sure, this may not have been pure strategy, but as a tactic, wow. Thank you Aarron.

Doodles about Aarron of MailChimp's talk on using Evernote to connect silos of data
Sharing these notes in case they help someone else remember the talk better. Click on the photo to view it larger.

Heads-up to my team, we’re going to give this a whirl.

Second, Ronnie Battista had the whole room laughing repeatedly. Awesome presentation style, and great ideas on “The Ten Commandments of UX Strategy.” (Where is our Hippocratic Oath?)

Okay, there you go for top-of-mind.

What was missing?

So, back in the late 1990s I thought of information architecture as something akin to strategy, and we didn’t have the label “user experience.” (At least if we did, I was still too ignorant.) Then IA lost its way amidst all the insane growth of the web, related technologies, and professions. (Yep, I’m over-simplifying history.) I stopped thinking of myself as an information architect and eventually replaced my self-identity with user experience.

Then a few years ago a new generation of information architects began to speak, and among them is Dan Klyn. Dan and his cohort have knelt around the dying embers of information architecture and breathed life back into it, adding tinder, twigs, wood.

IA is starting to throw off heat and light again, and thank goodness for that.

And you know what? This new framing of information architecture looks even more like strategy to me. Now, it isn’t strategy any more than design is strategy—but they overlap in meaningful ways.

Let me put it this way, if I had a performance continuum describing information architecture with one end called strategy and the other tactics, I’d probably describe IA by putting a mark halfway to strategy. (Is that “strategy yet tactics?”) If I used the same continuum to describe UX, I would regretfully right now put the mark on the half towards tactics.

Performance continuum, isn't IA more strategic, UX more tactical?
This is just my gut talking, and isn’t based on any deeper study or rationale. When I’m doing more strategy-level work, I find myself frequently reaching for IA methods and frameworks, not more generalized UX facets of the work. Curious about others’ thoughts.

So, whether IA and UX are cooperative siblings or one contains the other (or they overlap, but not fully), UX strategy seems to me like it ought to sit down and listen hard to what today’s information architects are doing.

Or, hey, maybe we as a UX strategy tribe think that “good” is tactical, yet strategic, not the other way around. Seriously.

(End of that editorial.)

Themes from Day 2

We need data. We need to get it and use it. It is part of the language of business.

Stories and data together can be compelling.

We need to continually adapt UX strategy to corporate strategy in order to stay relevant to the business.

We need to be ambassadors, reaching out to our partners within our businesses. Seek to understand them, even serve them, and build those connections.

Learning is part of culture. We need to continually learn. Be bold in being okay with change (think of Dick Fosbury and how he changed how the high jump is done).

The DIKW pyramid, getting to Wisdom is hard!

UX strategy includes shaping our teams capabilities in ways that will best serve the business.

Customer Experience is often populated with marketing professionals. Are they a group to compete with or a group to align with? Should we just admit we’re all doing the same thing, only that we’ve been doing it longer? Or is there really a difference?

UX strategy does include organizational change (overlapping with changes to an organization’s culture). Think the Vistaprint center for excellence, the innovation program at Citrix, and the leadership changes at Sage over a few years.

Done

And, I’m spent. It’s been said, but can be said again: UX STRAT team, fantastic job. Thank you for all your time and effort. It was worth it.

UX STRAT conference, day 1

The first day of the UX STRAT firehose of talks is over. At the Barrelhouse, a nearby bar, there no doubt are still a few gathered after happy hour. I think Paul Bryan, the organizer, can count this first UX STRAT a success already.

I’m not a huge fan of crowds, so instead of happy hour with attendees, I spent the evening after the conference catching up on a little work, and then I walked down to a lovely restaurant called Empire State South to pass the time enjoying good food and reading a book I brought along. I had the Painted Hills Ribeye, a glass of pinot noir, and a cup of decaf for the walk back: All of it brilliantly done.

So, there were too many talks for me to hit each independently. Instead, let me describe some themes that I think are important.

What do we mean when we say “UX Strategy?”

UX strategy as talked about today could be at any of these levels: corporate strategy, service design strategy, product strategy, and something like the tactical, single-channel work that lean UX tends to do (sorry Lean UXers, just calling it like I see it).

We’re going to have to get clear on the meaning of this phrase.

Honestly, I wonder if there is no such thing as “UX strategy,” but there is instead bringing what UX knows to each of the various kinds of strategy. So, we already do strategy, but now we need to reshape it with user experience-driven insights.

Quantitative vs Qualitative (or is that Left Brain vs Right Brain?)

Amidst all the talk of what design can teach business, what business can teach design, politics, and silos, the basic notion is that we in UX have some awesome methodologies that map directly over to strategy level work.

The idea that Nathan Shedroff shared about doing a SWOT analysis not based on the opinions of the stakeholders, but instead based on research with customers is a spot-on example of this. That is, incidentally, brilliant, and makes me want to get a do-over on the past two weeks of work during which we did some strategic planning for next year.

Leah Buley from Intuit illustrated practically utopian example of a strategy project in which a corporate strategy team did what they are strong at and a UX strategy team did what they are strong at and together ended up making good organizational and strategic change happen at Intuit. So what were the UX people good at? Customer insights, ideation (yes I used that non-word), creating visuals to show what the future could be, and facilitating the bejeezus out of people. Hats off to you Leah, and congratulations on an epic win.

In general, this is obvious stuff, right? Maybe not, but it should be. I’ve heard today that design is strategy, in some ways.

Well, my experience says that design is also decision making. What do you need to make good decisions? Real understanding of context, perspective from customers and others, posing possible solutions, prototyping ideas so we can get our heads around them better and so we can see the pros and cons of them, getting teams on board, getting traction, getting action, delivering value, and it all takes facilitation skills.

Okay, so that stuff is thick in design work, right? That is also what good decision making activities should look like, and making decisions is a big part of what business leaders have to do. (Nobody talked about that today though.)

Lean UX

Lean UX has come up many times. I’m still trying to figure out why this comes up in a strategy conference, as Lean UX is a methodology that describes HOW to do the work, not what to do.

Now, of course Lean UX people will say something like, “No way! Our hypotheses and tests are how we know what to do!” Baloney, unless you are talking about UX strategy at the product design level. In that case, sure. Knock yourself out, Lean UXers.

Also, while you could evaluate a business model in Lean UX terms, that works way better with a non-existent product than one that already exists. The amount of work it would take me to get us to really take on a Lean Startup mentality with an already existing product just isn’t worth it.

Further, Lean needs small batch changes and easy hypotheses. I actually love that idea. However, I’m concerned from a service-level design with touchpoints that exist across many, many channels, and I don’t have the buy-in (or resources?) at the moment to orchestrate service-wide changes, even though real holistic improvements to the services will require that kind of work. So, we have situations where we could have a hypothesis about an improvement to one channel, but because the other channels that are also used in the overall experience wouldn’t change, the hypothesis will prove false, but not necessarily because it was a bad idea; it just didn’t account for adjacent touch points.

Basically, if all you’re working on are the trees, Lean UX is probably awesome. But we have a forest to deal with.

Wow, I didn’t intend to rant. I really didn’t have that much wine…and maybe I’m totally off-base about Lean. That’s possible, because the example of Paypal using Lean UX surely must account for multi-channel design, even though I don’t recall it being mentioned.

The power of story, the power of shared work

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” was a line passed on by Tim Loo today. Yep.

To change culture, do you change thinking? No, you change behaviors, which then lead to new thinking. Think BJ Fogg’s notion of designing behavior. How? Workshops. Teaching design facilitation and thinking skills to product managers. Getting whole teams to observe usability tests not just for insight, but to build empathy and perspective for customers. We know this stuff already, right? This is about doing it.

The seat at the table

Shedroff used the phrase a couple times that UX thinks it deserves a seat at the table (think boardroom/strategy/decision-making table). Well, I get the notion, but I don’t like the idea that we deserve it. First off, we do need to be there because the insights and the methods we bring are strangely lacking there, but we also need to earn that seat.

Good design work cannot help but back its way into strategic thinking. It’s inherent in having to understand the context and pragmatic value of the design itself. If there is a strategy ladder, of course user experience will be in a position to see it and desire to climb it. And it isn’t a self-serving desire, it is in service to the business and to the end-users. There will be moments in design when we look at the whole situation and realize that the problem is with the business model or the corporate strategy, not with the design of the offering.

What, oh dear conscientious UXers, are we to do then? This is, I think, behind so much of the “seat at the table” idea.

Looking forward to day 2!

So we have tomorrow’s proceedings, then I’ll spend a final night in Atlanta and fly back to Michigan on Thursday morning.

UX STRAT conference, workshops

Lake in Piedmont Park
I went for a walk when I got into Atlanta, really looking for a cup of coffee and I also found a park. There was a foot race, people biking, and families strolling amidst the trees. Lovely.

I’m at the UX STRAT conference in Atlanta, Georgia, having just finished a couple of half-day workshops. Here are a few observations.

  • From what I overheard, attendees mostly have job titles including “manager,” “director,” “lead,” and “senior.” Oh, and owners of agencies/consulting firms.
  • In spite of that (cough), like most UX people, they are interesting to talk with and open about sharing their own knowledge.
  • Numerous people handed me business cards, expecting me to reciprocate. I had to explain that I didn’t like the ones I had so I threw them away, but the newly designed cards haven’t arrived yet. (I am not odd about this, dang it!)
  • More attendees than I expected are from overseas. So far I’ve heard Netherlands, UK, Finland, and Mexico.
  • Nice lunch and service. For instance, just as the woman sitting to my left realized she sat down without a fork for her dessert plate, a server was at her side with a new napkin and a fork. It was as though he was watching out for her. That’s better service than I expect at a conference luncheon.
  • Lovely options for meals around here.

Morning Workshop: Beyond Business Basics with Nathan Shedroff

Well, I have more copious notes, but I’ll hit a few ideas here. First, Nathan did a wonderful job with this information-packed session. I honestly felt at the end of this session that I had enough value to make the whole conference fee ($949) worth it. That’s saying something.

I think part of why it was so valuable to me is that I am actually able to apply a whole lot of what he shared, given the position I’m in. Also, much of it I’ve already done or experienced, but his perspective helped me think about my experiences as an executive, a researcher, and a designer.

So, Nathan roughly had a couple major areas of the presentation:What design can teach business and what business can teach design. Along the way he shared a number of tools for getting design research insights baked into strategic planning. As he explained the tools and frameworks, some were work I’ve already done, and others made me want to slap my forehead and wish for some do-overs over the past few weeks. That’s good.

So, in regard to what design can teach business, some of the key items he listed were being okay with ambiguity, reframing, and prototyping, and the idea that some of the greatest things about experience are hard to describe and measure, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

He took some pot shots at the MVP (minimum viable product) suggesting that consumers don’t live in a world populated by MVP services, so releasing one isn’t going to help you be competitive. A generality of course, but I agree. The problem with MVP is that it is actually so rarely truly viable. And when you release an MVP, you then have the work of convincing the people you work with to go back and change (that’s really hard and often fails, in case you haven’t yet experienced that).

Shedroff didn’t really provide any answers to that problem, although the next speaker did. But that’s for later.

In regard to what can business teach design, here are some notes.

  • Numbers are important, not scary. You can prototype a business proposition using an Excel spreadsheet. Numbers are a design tool.
  • Data informs creativity, but doesn’t drive it. It isn’t the whole story, and it can’t tell you what to do.
  • He mentioned three levels of strategy: Corporate Strategy, Market Strategy, Product Strategy.

A quote from Charles Eames: “Design is a plan for action.” Doesn’t that sound like strategy too? Is design also strategy?

He provided an interesting example of corporate strategy from, who else, Apple. Apple had already produced the iPod and was making bank. Then they make an observation: people like to have only three things in their pockets: keys, wallet, and other. The market already had numerous options for “other,” including iPods and mobile phones, and other business indicators were showing that phones were going to win. This then predicted that the iPod was going to drop in popularity. So what did Apple do? They partnered with Motorola and produced the co-branded RockR mobile phone which had iTunes on it. Epic fail. So lacking a better solution Apple decided they had to get into the phone business, and now we (and they) have the iPhone.

Shedroff did a great job of showing that most corporate strategy is done without perspective gleaned from design research, and, you know what, I have to say that I have failed at this area, and I honestly have no good excuse for it. (This is one of those slap my forehead moments.) It isn’t to say that design research has been completely absent, because of course it hasn’t. I’m a UX person after all. But it really hasn’t shaped strategy like it ought to.

Nathan provided a model for how to do this using frameworks that are pretty familiar to business people. At the core of it is the notion of getting to the psychographics of the market considering environmental issues of:

  • customers needs and desires
  • political/legal
  • technology
  • economic
  • industry-specific

In the user experience methods for design research, we already have the know-how to find actual real answers to these issues.

Another interesting point, total value is composed of five values:

  1. Functional
  2. Financial
  3. Emotional
  4. Identity
  5. Meaningful

The first two are largely quantitative and the other three are largely qualitative. Since business models typically include the notion of “value proposition,” and UX ought to already have a decent handle on items 1, 3, 4, and 5, we sure ought to provide some insight to the business model.

Incidentally, some of these ideas reminded me of “Emotional Design” by Donald Norman as he describes layers of visceral, behavioral, and reflective design.

Nathan spoke of a set of 15 meanings (e.g., trust, security, accomplishment) and demonstrated a neat interview technique (I think he called it “laddering”) to uncover a sense of what someone’s more important meanings are. As he did this, I realized that I have instinctively done this with people before in interviews, although not as quickly as he did, and without having a list of meanings to compare against.

Nathan suggested that a technique for this would be to uncover the most important aspects of meaning for customers, company, team, and competition as a way to audit the business and inform strategy.

Redesigning Business Culture and Thinking Around the Customer with Tim Loo

Now that I’ve written more than I anticipated about Nathan’s session, I’ll try to write less about Tim’s. (Sorry Tim! Or maybe that’s good…)

Tim is a wonderful presenter, engaging and promoting good discussions while making his points. He changed his plan for the workshop in light of how the interactions with the group were going, and I think he probably made the right call.

So, his definition for UX Strategy? This: Long term vision, roadmap, and KPIs to align every customer touch-point with your brand position and business strategy.

Now, that sounds incredibly boring, right? Well, it wasn’t. He demonstrated numerous examples of how to communicate design strategy and align stakeholders to them.

Some notes I took on this cover tactics like:

  • video of a customer story, written, storyboarded, and produced based on insights from design research
  • holistic experience maps (service design blueprint or perhaps customer journey map)
  • research insights report
  • workshopping to process results and get stakeholders working together

I asked myself, do we have experience design principles for our offerings, and concluded that we do not, but ought to. In here and in the future customer stories (next paragraph) are a bit of the key to defining what “good” means for a product, as opposed to the MVP notion. (This concept of “good” made me think of performance continuums as explained by Dan Klyn from The Understanding Group.)

Tim also shared examples of future customer stories as a way of selling the design principles and as a way of helping to create and drive a product roadmap. This is basically just a storyboard of key experience points and outcomes.

Generally, a lot of his talk was around the notion of using stories and collaboration to get stakeholders to share customer perspectives, which will then shape their thinking when it comes to strategy.

Thank you Tim for a wonderful, rich talk!

Looking forward to the rest of the conference

Really, this is shaping up to be a conference that will be well worth the time. And Atlanta is great. I’m looking forward to connecting with Dan Klyn sometime in the next couple of days, which is funny since we’re both from Michigan and somehow it takes a conference in Atlanta for that to happen. Clearly I need to adjust my priorities!

Twitter Feed of #uxstrat


LinkedIn UX groups, data and questions

Doesn’t it seem like there are a lot of user experience groups on LinkedIn? I’ve joined a few of them in hopes of staying up-to-date on topics, but after joining a couple groups, I quickly realized there were many more possible groups, and they all started looking pretty similar to me.

Why would I join this group versus that one?

Some are tied to specific organizations, like the Information Architecture Institute, the Interaction Design Association, or the Usability Professionals Association. Or like the Boxes and Arrows group, related to a specific industry publication. If you are a member of such an organization, joining the matching LinkedIn group probably makes sense in some way.

Some are focused on narrower subjects, like the Agile Experience group or mobileUX. If you have a narrower interest and find a group that fits, perfect.

Some differentiate by being localized. The UPA Israel, for instance, or London User Experience Professionals. Cadius is a group for UX people who speak Spanish. I think that’s fantastic.

But then we have all those other groups that ooze together, subject-wise. I’ll bet each has its own creation story, but at this point, the differentiation is slim.

Don’t these top 5 UX LinkedIn groups sound similar?

  1. User Experience
  2. Interaction Design Association
  3. UX Professionals
  4. UX Professionals Network
  5. User Experience Group

The second item is the group for members of IxDA, but the rest are simply professional groups for UX people. I’ll bet if you mixed together all the content and members of those groups you would first see a lot of repetition in members and topics, and second, I’ll bet you couldn’t separate them back into their original groups without a key. What does that say about these groups?

Some data on these groups

For what it’s worth, I’ll post some data I harvested while trawling LinkedIn this afternoon. (Why did I do this? Am I mad? No, but I’ve been sick all weekend, and in my addled state, cataloging some LinkedIn groups was the most obvious thing to do.)

The following data is merely what I found this afternoon. It is not comprehensive.

Chart showing membership rates of about 40 user experience groups on LinkedIn.
Chart showing membership rates of about 40 user experience groups on LinkedIn as of March 11, 2012.

Want a little more information? You can download an Excel spreadsheet I used while gathering this information. The worksheet includes columns for ID, Title, Membership, Parent Group, Created date, Type (e.g., Professional Group), Owner, Coverage (e.g., Earth, Greater London, UK, etc.), Language (didn’t fill that in), and Organization (e.g., IxDA).

Here’s the Excel file: User Experience (UX) groups on LinkedIn, March 2012 (.xslx)

Too many groups!

In closing, I think it would be easier and less time consuming to stay up-to-date in the field if there weren’t so many overlapping groups. What if some of these groups merged? Would people get too upset about that?

(Now for more tea and expectorants.)

UX and Project Mangement cross-over article from Interactions magazine

A Taxonomy of Models Used in the Design Process by Joanne Mendel in the Jan + Feb 2012 edition of Interactions magazine is pretty interesting.

At Covenant Eyes we’re continually in the churn of Agile development, and integrating user experience work can be challenging. We’re figuring it out, and have definitely made some breakthroughs, but this article has provided another perspective that is helping me think about timing of user experience work within the loose phases of work that a typical project runs through.

It isn’t a stretch to layer the phases of Discovery, Reframe, Envision, and Create over a project’s lifecycle, and so tying different models for design work in each phase provides an opportunity to reflect on how we’re doing with matching up appropriate design work.

I’m asking my team and our project managers to read through it, and perhaps we’ll get a chance to discuss it together and consider if we can use some of the ideas to do better work.

IxDA Lansing kickoff featured speaker Dan Klyn

Last night was the inaugural event for IxDA (Interaction Design Association) Lansing, and information architect Dan Klyn presented “The Nature of Information Architecture.”

Presentation overview

Dan’s presentation was both informative and controversial. He provided some nice background on the naming of the field of information architecture, citing Richard Saul Wurman phrasings at the 1976 AIA convention in Philadelphia and then Wurman’s book “Information Architects.”

Dan also proposed a way of considering what information architecture is through a target diagram, from core to outside as:

  1. Ontology (the study of being)
  2. Taxonomy (the science of order or arrangement)
  3. Choreography (writing/describing circular dance)

I like this description of IA. I do feel it gets to the heart of the work, and I can immediately consider certain areas of my own job in this light. Of course there are plenty of other descriptions of IA from Wurman, Rosenfeld, Morville, and others, but as I bring them to mind, they seem to be more focused on describing IA to outsiders whereas this one speaks to those of us already  in the field.

I wouldn’t, for instance, walk up to a client and say, “I’m concerned with the ontology of your system.” But I can talk with other information architects about questions of ontology, and they will likely bring their own experiences to bear.

After discussing this model for IA and how it circles the concept of understanding, Dan shared two ways to answer the question “How do we know when IA is good?”

  • performance (need to measure change in performance from a benchmark)
  • propriety (how appropriate to the context is the IA solution)

When discussing this question of quality of IA, the point was made that a functional, adequate solution is artless. It is insufficient. We’ve all used a website or service that we end up getting irritated with, and could comment afterward “Well at least it worked.” Good IA goes beyond sheer performance to fulfill propriety as well.

Isn’t naming always controversial?

The controversial part of Dan’s presentation is in the naming of things. The gist of my issue is that I felt Dan was saying that strategic-level IA work—the work that involves not just end-users but is concerned with larger business concerns—is beyond the scope of user experience work. (I really hope I’m not misrepresenting Dan’s meaning.)

My experience as a UX professional (note that I used to refer to myself as an information architect) says that UX begins with understanding both user and business needs, and is best done when exploring the strategic-level in order to frame the tactical work.

That said, I will say that with all the work demanded of UX in my job, I regret that I haven’t had the time to devote to a more traditional strategic IA-based analysis of our systems.

Dan made the point that this strategic work, though done by a smaller group, has greater leverage than choosing which style of form field to use. He is right, of course. I just think that that work is still to be done under the UX umbrella.

Thanks Dan for the talk, and Chris Bachelder for bringing it together

All-in-all, I’m really glad I had this opportunity to take part in Dan Klyn’s presentation. It was well-done and thought-provoking. Dan has shared his slides for “The Nature of Information Architecture.”

IxDA Lansing is the first Michigan group of the Interaction Design Association, and was initiated by Chris Bachelder of Techsmith Corp. I, for one, am grateful to have a Lansing-based group to advance UX events. Thanks Chris!

Stop the stopwatch, UXers!

Stopwatch graphic from Casey Marshall
Stopwatch graphic by Casey Marshall

Recently, I watched a series of people observe informal usability tests.

Two of the observers have recently graduated with Masters degrees in HCI or an adjacent field.

Both recent graduates used a watch to record time-on-task and completion of the task. One actually broke out a stopwatch while the other referred to his wristwatch.

While these stopwatch fixations livened my day, I do wonder about graduate education in the usability field.

I recall that for the first half-dozen website usability tests that I moderated, I also recorded time. Then I realized that timing tasks obscured more important observations, and I haven’t bothered with timing since then. Besides, we can get times off the recordings.

Is the working world really that far off from graduate studies?

So why did these two graduates pull out timers?

Well, I think they were parroting “proper” methods they were taught without understanding when it is useful. If, in grad school, they only practice for ideal research situations, they’re missing out on the realities of the work world.

I’ve worked in an Agile development environment for the last couple years, and for the decade prior to that I worked on fast-moving projects that used whatever SDL I applied to them. The mission: Deliver value, ASAP.

With that charge, decisions are made that don’t allow for insight from in-depth, long-term studies with huge numbers of participants. I’m grateful for even the small, quick sessions of user and design research.

Regardless, I got a chuckle out of seeing these two bring out timers for a completely informal, one-off usability test. As expected, they both missed seeing key interactions because they were watching the clock.

When to be concerned about time, usability-wise

Okay, I’d hate to give the impression that time doesn’t matter. I just find that a long time to complete a task on a website is rarely the issue, instead it may be a symptom of other issues which become apparent during research.

However, I do find response times of a system to a user’s actions to be very important because too much delay in a system’s response can really hurt the user’s experience and even distract people from completing whatever they set out to complete. Still, this class of problem is often noticeable during observation. (Unless you missed it while you were fiddling with your stopwatch.)

With that in mind, I’ll gesture towards Nielsen’s take on response times.

My 2.5 days in San Francisco: MX 2010

Red stone church near green trees, surrounded by skyscrapers.
View from top of Yerbe Buena Gardens, San Francisco, March 2010.

Saturday PM: Sunshine!

I actually began to sweat under my blazer from the warm sun shining brightly through the window.

I had arrived in San Francisco a little early on Saturday, dropped my suitcase off at the Intercontinental Hotel, and walked around the corner to a sandwich shop for a bite to eat and to get online. As I draped my coat over the back of the chair, I decided I really like San Francisco. It’s the sun, I admit it. Oh, and I had already noted that the two billboards I noticed on the taxi from the airport were pure tech: one for an enterprise search system and another for PGP. Billboards talking to me? Amazing.

After settling in at the hotel, I had dinner with my old colleague Chris Burley and his girfriend at a nice Italian restaurant. Chris is awesome. I love talking with him because he has such passion for what he does, which currently is to help lead efforts like urban farming in the Bay area.

Sunday AM: 3 good things

The next morning I woke early due to the time zone difference, and I had three excellent experiences:

  1. In the aching fog of caffeine deprivation, had the best cup of coffee of my life, thanks to the Blue Bottle Café. (I admit, I ordered a second cup to go.)
  2. Paused in the Yerbe Buena Gardens where some elderly practiced tai chi and parents snapped photos as their little children hid behind a waterfall. I stood on a bridge and watched the morning sun ripple on the glass of San Francisco skyscrapers.
  3. Crashed a church service at a music venue called Mezzanine put on by a group that calls itself IKON. I was the oldest person there, amidst a crowd of art school students. We sang, we listened to a teaching from the Word, we had communion. It was good.

Sunday PM: MX day 1

Sunday afternoon saw the start of the 2010 MX Conference.

MX2010 is largely focused on managing user experience and less on the tactical end of UX practice, and there were some thought-provoking presentations from people who have been managing user experience for a number of years, in a number of different types of companies. Off the top of my head, presenters represented firms in financial industries (Vanguard), publishing (Harvard Business Review), retail sporting goods, and online media (Youtube).

The series of talks was fantastic, and was kicked off with a keynote by Jared Spool in which he shared insights like that Gallup’s Customer Engagement (CE11) metric has high correlation to the quality of user experience. Spool’s keynote actually turned out to predict some themes that carried throughout the many presentations. Among them were the importance of establishing a vision for user experience and that experience ultimately must be addressed well across multiple channels (web, mobile, physical space, etc.).

Spool talked about three core attributes necessary for great user experience: Vision, Feedback, and Culture. He posed three questions that UX managers should ask.

  1. VISION: Can everyone on the team describe the experience of using your design 5 years from now?
  2. FEEDBACK: In the last six weeks have you spent more than two hours watching someone use your design or a competitor’s design?
  3. CULTURE: In the last six weeks have you rewarded a team member for creating a major design failure?

After the conference reception, I wound down the evening by taking a walk around a few blocks and ending at a nearby bar. I ate a burger and watched the Academy Awards for a while. Back at the hotel I watched the end of a Clint Eastwood Western flick and fell asleep.

Monday AM+PM: MX day 2

I woke at 4 in the morning. I checked analytics, email, and my usual RSS feeds. I stretched, washed, dressed, and still had time to kill. I read a few chapters in The Shack, a book Adam gave me last week.

I chatted throughout the day with Haakon, a usability specialist attending from the design company Tarantell in Norway, and as he sipped his coffee, I decided to not mention my mere three hour time difference.

The rest of the day was another series of excellent presentations. Themes: customer (more than user) experience, vision that guides the business, new models for working in the network, UX leadership stories from Youtube, customer experience in renovation of thinking at Harvard Business Review Online, understanding the holistic customer, data-driven design decisions (and when not to rely on data for design decisions), experience design as business strategy, and operating as a chief experience officer in your company.

It was great to hear first-hand the stories from these user experience leaders. Now, for what to do with it all when returning to the office.

Tomorrow and then

Tomorrow morning I fly back to Michigan, and need to get my head back into product owner and user experience work. But I also need to hold onto the ideas from this conference, and shift into actively leading user (or is that customer) experience work at Covenant Eyes.

How WordPress falters as a CMS: Multiple content fields

WordPress is amazing and keeps getting better, but I want to be clear about an inherent limitation that WordPress has as a content management system (CMS). That limitation is that WordPress doesn’t handle multiple content regions on web pages.

Too strong? With WordPress, you can try to use custom fields or innovative hacks like Bill Erickson’s approach to multiple content areas using H4 elements in his excellent theme “Thesis”. Unfortunately, neither of those approaches really deals with the depth of the design problem that often requires multiple content areas for pages.

As an information architect/user experience designer, I’ve been involved in many projects that required more types of content on any single screen than WordPress is designed to handle.

Let me draw out what I’m talking about here.

Exhibit A: Page content that WordPress is designed to handle

In a standard WordPress page or post, you’ll see these author-controlled pieces of content.

  • Post/page Title
  • Body
  • Excerpt (often not-used)
Standard WordPress content fields include the title, excerpt, and body.
Standard WordPress content fields include the title, excerpt, and body.

There are other sets of data for a page or post that an author can control, too, but these are meta-data such as tags, categories, slug (shows up in the URL), and possibly search engine optimization information like title, description, and keywords.

For a normal blog, many online trade journals, and a lot of basic websites, this really covers the bases. The body contains the bulk of the content including images, video, and audio that can be intermingled with the text itself. This model is very flexible, and it has definitely proven itself.

Exhibit B: Page content that pushes WordPress too far

In 2009, there was a small project at work to develop the website Covenant Musicians, and because the person who would keep the site updated was already using WordPress, we made the decision to build this site with WordPress too.

Well, if you look at one of the destination pages for this site, the musician profile page (here’s one for example), you’ll notice some different pieces of content which may or may not be present on any particular musician profile page. When they are present, they need to be in certain places and sometimes with certain content.

This custom WordPress page uses fields in addition to the standard options: Musician Image, URL, and Video.
This custom WordPress page uses fields in addition to the standard options: Musician Image, URL, and Video.

The problem is, to control those extra pieces of content: the video, the band image, the link to the band’s website, the site owner needs to use WordPress’s custom fields in very precise ways, without the benefit of WordPress’s content editing tools. What a drag!

To make life easier for the site owner, we ended up recording screencast instructions on how to use these fields and delivered those help files with the site itself. (We used Jing by Techsmith, by the way.)

It would’ve been better had the interface been clear enough so that we didn’t feel the need to document the process of updating these destination pages, but that’s the trouble with stretching WordPress beyond its default content fields.

Ask too much of WordPress and ease-of-use is the casualty

Do you see the difference? When an effective design solution requires multiple types of content per page, using WordPress will actually make your website difficult to manage. WordPress is usually so easy to use that when you hit this wall, it is very apparent.

When you’re at that point, WordPress is probably not the right CMS to choose.

Should WordPress improve in this area?

Whether through the core application or through an excellent plug-in (is there one already that I missed?), if WordPress is going to grow in the content management systems field, this shortfall will need to be addressed.

However, WordPress is really excellent at what it does already, and the better course might be to decide to keep the features in check and let other systems compete in the mid-to-enterprise scale CMS arena. Scope creep never stops, and a good application strategy knows when to say “no.”

Am I wrong?

Am I off-base here? This is just one aspect of WordPress that should limit its use. Another that should cause designers to think twice is when dealing with faceted-navigation which requires more than one dimension (tags can probably handle one dimension). But, again, those are more complex design requirements.

I’m not a WordPress consultant, and I’ll bet some of you would like to point to the errors in my thinking. Let’s hear it.

Experience theme for Covenant Eyes

Cindy Chastain’s article, “Experience Themes,” at Boxes and Arrows outlines a neat way to package the concepts that help user experience designers put creative work into context.

When I was leading many design/development projects at a time, I’d write a creative brief for each—it helped me and the team stay clearheaded about each project. An experience theme seems like an alternative to a creative brief.

The following thoughts apply Chastain’s article to my work at Covenant Eyes.

Covenant Eyes is rich with stories

At Covenant Eyes, Inc., we have a full-time blogger, Luke. As I see it, Luke’s job is to draw out the stories surrounding Covenant Eyes and to share them using the Internet. He’s our storyteller.

What are the roles? There are so many stories, from people in so many places in life.

  • husbands, fathers
  • wives, mothers
  • children
  • pastors, rabbis
  • counselors
  • porn addicts, recovering porn addicts, people who have beaten the addiction
  • and the list continues

What are some theme concepts?

  • For people fighting a problem with pornography: Learn to be honest again (These words come from Michael Leahy’s mouth while he was visiting our offices.)
  • For mothers with children who use the Internet: Protect my family
  • For fathers with a teenage son: Teach him to be responsible for his actions

Experience transcends our services

What work do we do at our company? Although others I work with may claim we deliver software, I think we deliver information. Our software allows us to provide information-rich reports on Internet usage that can be used within relationships. I think of these as “accountability relationships.”

The theme concepts listed above have little to do with software or even our service. The real value we provide is that we can provide the sense for people that what could be their little secret is not actually hidden. That little bit of knowledge has proven its ability to change lives, and relationships, for the better.

The hard part is carrying the experience theme across our touch points with users

I recently helped put together a spreadsheet to inventory the automated emails we send to users at various points. There were over 60 emails, and they fulfill needs ranging from billing concerns to helpful reminders after a few weeks of being a customer. Many of these messages should be revised, and keeping the theme in mind will help create a coherent experience for our users.

Covenant Eyes has multiple touch points with its users.
Covenant Eyes has multiple touch points with its users.

Beyond these emails is a myriad of other touch points:

  • sign up form
  • help documents
  • filter settings controls
  • accountability reports
  • tech support phone calls
  • blog posts
  • and so on

Taken all together, these communications can benefit from an experience theme.

I suspect the key to pulling this off is to have all those involved with crafting these touch points understand the experience theme and leave it to them to carry it through. As the company’s user experience lead, my job may be to facilitate the definition and adoption of an experience theme, and motivate and lead by example so others will carry the vision.