Staying motivated

Beautiful article on how to stay motivated in the creative field:

Whether your chosen medium is pictures or language, food or formulas, everyone has the capacity to be creative in their work. But we can often lose our motivation to create, making it difficult to stay focused and excited on a project. So how does one keep their creative well from drying up?

Read more in Kevin Cornell's article on A List Apart.

HCII 2007 – July 22-27, Beijing, China

I've just returned from my trip to the HCII 2007 conference in Beijing, China – a huge event with some 2,300 participants, ten sub-conferences ranging from ergonomics in the workplace to augmented cognition, and literally a hundred paper sessions. Three days of tutorials preceded the actual conference and offered beginners and participants with intermediate knowledge lots of first-hand insights into topics such as Social Network Analysis, Fieldwork for Designers, and Task Analysis, all of which I attended (unfortunately, some tutorials, I heard, have been quite disappointing though – which is tough considering the cost and that you cannot switch tutorials if you find it not to meet your expectations).

Paper Session

The paper sessions were … well, some were really good (e.g., User Experience Modeling on Wed, 4 to 6pm), while many more were not quite as good as I had expected (e.g., Meta-Design, Wed, 10:30-12:30am, which was rather disappointing, or Developing On-Line Communities, Fri, 10:30-12:30am). I kept wondering whether the review process had just been too soft or whether I was expecting too much … anyway, I met a number of interesting people and learned about some fascinating research that's going on. Plus, the keynote by Prof. Takeo Kanade was inspiring if a bit convoluted 🙂

In addition, we quite enjoyed syncing up with our colleagues in the Beijing and, later, the Shanghai offices. As people in Asia use products differently, new (different) approaches to product design have to be found. It was good to get a feel for some of these issues.

 HCII 2007

“Designing Web Navigation” by James Kalbach

James Kalbach: Designing Web Navigation.Get it while it's hot: Jim Kalbach's book "Designing Web Navigation" (O'Reilley) has just been released. In Jim's own words (from his new blog, Experiencing Information):

Since web navigation design touches most other aspects of web site development in some way, the book necessarily paints a broad picture touching on many areas, including things like user research and visual design. But as much as possible the focus throughout remains clearly on creating an effective navigation system. I always try to bring it back home to web navigation whenever the conversation touches other areas.

I can wholeheartedly recommend it (I read some chapters in advance :-)).

Microsoft’s version of Multitouch: “Surface”

Now that everyone's waiting for the iPhone and its innovative user interface – have you seen Microsoft's product / vision video on "Surface"? It's well worthwhile … The system has been announced for public availability at the end of the year.

[youtube IqVNAnuQQyg]

Search for more videos on Surface on YouTube

But wait – there are quite a number of similarities to Jeff Han's impressive work; watch the video:

[youtube QKh1Rv0PlOQ]

Search for more videos on Jeff Han on YouTube

For those who – like me, intially 🙂 – thought Surface was a nice copy of what Jeff Han had done, you can find a very nice overview of multitouch and related projects on Bill Buxton's website. Bill tracks back the history of multitouch interfaces until 1982.

Still, the question remains: What are the use cases for such a system? With a price tag of $5.000-10.000, this will not be a PC replacement any time soon. It might also be a bit expensive for a digital photo organizer. I find the kiosk examples in the marketing videos more convincing. Still, this could be a Product Management challenge – how to position this device with its cool technology, how to identify the latent user needs that will make this an irresistible device (apart from "it demoes well", which it sure does).

Update: The Register has, as always, a biting comment on Microsoft Surface, saying

for Microsoft it's just another attempt at getting its software out from the beige boxes under our desks to somewhere, anywhere, else.

But read for yourself

Steve Wozniak: How I invented the Personal Computer … and more

Today, I watched the video of Steve Wozniak, the hardware engineer of the Apple I and II and one of the founders of Apple (Computers) Inc., giving a speech at Google HQ in Mountain View. It was an eye-opening experience – the enthusiasm, fascination, and dedication "Woz" brought across. But see for yourself …

[youtube ctGch5ejjT4] 

BTW: Woz will be in Zürich at this year's Tweakfest – he'll speak on Thursday (May 24).

A Country-Wide Exercise in Marketing

Switzerland is very beautiful. You've got the tremendous landscape – the distant Alps, the blue lakes, green meadows. And Switzerland is very prosperous. I've stopped counting the number of extremely expensive cars I've seen these last weeks (Aston-Martins, Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Lamborghinis). Zürich especially "breathes" money and stability. The quality of service is impressive – people are very conscientious, and especially the civil servants so far have struck me as very friendly. Plus, the quality of the edibles and ingredients you can buy even in the supermarkets is so far from everything we were used to in Germany that we regularly end up buying much too much because we want to sample everything. This, together with Switzerland's well-known neutrality, is expressed best through one symbol: the famous white-on-red Swiss Cross ("Schweizerkreuz"). The Swiss are (rightfully) proud of their country, and they show their pride everywhere. You cannot walk through the city without seeing at least a dozen Swiss Crosses.

There are some stores (like the "Schweizer Heimatwerk" on Bahnhofstrasse) that seem to offer only those articles that show the Swiss Cross. And there's quite a bit of them. Likewise, you seem to be able to get about every article where at least one brand has chosen to use the Swiss Cross as part of their design and packaging. The omnipresence of the symbol and its re-affirmation through all the high-quality experiences strikes me as one of the best-concerted exercises in marketing I've come across so far. The Swiss Cross symbolizes outstanding quality. Those employing it profit from it, but it also feels as if everyone using it it has subscribed to a certain voluntary self-commitment as well.

New Job, new City, new Country

Swiss FlagStarting today, I've got a new job. I'll be working as User Experience Designer in Google's European Engineering Center in Zürich, Switzerland[GP:GoogleZRH]. Quite a change: a new job, a new city, a new country – with a somewhat similar, but also rather different language. Germans can easily be fooled into believing that things in Switzerland work just like they work in Germany because of a common cultural heritage and the language. Switzerland is not a member of the EU, for example, which means that we had to get stay and work permits etc. Lots of things had to be organized (and some still have not been dealt with properly): relocation, stay permit, health insurance, all the other insurances. Google was very supportive with these things. I'm very much looking forward to all the challenging projects that lie ahead Smile, and I sincerely hope we'll manage to "arrive" and settle down in Zürich easily.

Design of the organization and design quality

In an interview with Jeffrey Veen of Adaptive Path, Irene Au, Director of User Experience at Google, talks about her background, the way Google as a company works and innovates, and what she thinks is important to be able to ship great products:

I think it?s really important to be very pragmatic about what you?re building, and how quickly you?re building [it]. There?s a balance [that must be struck when pursuing] something that?s really perfect. When you?re innovating very rapidly, sometimes you just don?t even know how things will be used and what [they?ll] be used for. So sometimes it?s just important to get it out there. Being able to adapt to the conditions and the environment?that was kind of a survival skill that I had to learn.

[…]

There are so many things that are so fascinating about Google. The way this company is designed, the whole organization is completely inverted. There?s incredible empowerment in all levels of the company. A lot of start-ups, they start out flat, but then as they grow as companies, they become more hierarchical and more silo-ed. Google has done an amazing job of avoiding that. So the company still operates in a very flat way. People are very much empowered, and there?s a lot of freedom and flexibility to explore and pursue your passions. If you really believe in something, you can absolutely go make things happen. That [makes it] very easy to build things.

I think a company’s setup and design process are vital for the resulting design quality.When companies start giving engineers and designers freedom and power to innovate, trusting them rather than controlling their every move, and handing over responsibility for complete tasks, people will be motivated to create truly great products.

Designing the (AOL Phone) Box

AOL Phone Box (small image)In August 2006, AOL Germany launched the AOL Phone Box, an AOL-branded ADSL 2+ modem / router with integrated 4-port Ethernet switch and VoIP telephony functionality. When we started working on the AOL Phone Box project more than a year ago, the AOL Germany world looked quite a bit different: AOL was one of Germany's biggest ISPs, providing a huge number of customers with fast DSL Internet access (and a big number with slower narrow-band dial-up access); the web-based products like the portal, e-mail, instant messenger offered functionality on top. Now, the access business has been sold to Telecom Italia, and AOL is turning itself into a portal player, offering free e-mail, news, and other web-based services and content. Time flies …

The project had a number of goals, apart from just creating the Box:

  • Create an Internet Access Device that is simple and straightforward to set up – in order to reduce the number of support calls (setting up the access device is a major call driver).
  • Create a compelling, appealing user experience make people want to possess the box.
  • Build up in-house expertise on how to create hardware products for future projects.

After quite a bit of research, the project team decided on working with a German manufacturer, Bautzen-based Sphairon Access Systems. Sphairon had a hardware and software platform that looked very promising, and they had lots of experience working with various telecoms – they build DSL splitters, Internet Access Devices, ISDN NTBAs and other devices needed for telephony and Internet access. We started out from an existing product, but had it completely revamped to fit our ideas of what an AOL-branded device should look like. Nuremberg-based industrial design firm B/F Design supported us here – they created innovative rough designs, did fantastic renderings and great prototypes.

The Interactive Design sub-project had a couple of tasks:

  • Revamp the existing user interface to make it fit into AOL Germany's visual design language.
  • Check and improve the user flow to achieve a higher level of usability.
  • Control and manage external development and design efforts.
  • Innovate on new features and parts of the offering.

Where we were coming from

The closest relatives to our AOL Phone Box are the members of Sphairon's line of Turbolink devices. They feature quite a versatile, extendable hardware platform, but come in a rather plain, matter-of-fact shell. The IAD shown below was presented by Sphairon at the 2005 CeBIT.

Sphairon Turbolink

Likewise, the design of the configuration web interface was a bit plain, and we felt it could be improved a bit – it had to be adapted to our visual standards anyway. We therefore adopted a visual style that mirrored our AOL Germany portal design.

How we got there

First, a new shell was developed by B/F Design. It needed to reflect AOL's brand values – Human Individuality, Top Quality, Elegant Simplicity, and Inspiring Enjoyment – and look high-class. I think they did a tremendous job.

AOL Phone Box

Reversed-engineered Information Architecture for Web FrontendIn parallel, we reversed-engineered the existing browser-based configuration front-end – we created a site map containing all the places and functionality. We then compared this site map to our list of desired features and started moving functionality around, restructuring the configuration tool's organization. After deciding which functionality should be experts-only and which should be available to all users, the IA for the web configuration was finalized and wire frames for a number of screens were created to illustrate the arrangement of elements on the UI. To get the web configuration tool to sport our visual style, we developed a visual design style guide especially for this product and delivered all the necessary assets to Sphairon, together with a couple example screens. We then moved on to defining two new parts of the AOL Phone Box experience: the "Einrichtungsassistent" (setup assistant) and the "CD-Intro" (CD-based introduction to the product). The customers should use the CD-based introduction to get the cabling right; once everything had been connected properly, the setup assistant (resident on the hardware) should take over and lead the user through the basic configuration of the product. To the user, this two-platforms approach should feel like one seamless process. During the interaction design process, we especially focused on possible error conditions: We analyzed them and either tried to circumvent them, or we used them to help users identify what might have been the cause of their issues and to help them out (again, a way to reduce Call Center volume and thus cost).Extremely close collaboration in the team and with our development partner Sphairon helped us make great progress, and we took great pride in seeing our ideas get realized and the designs getting closer and closer to what we had envisioned.

Design and Usability Evaluation

After some time of working on a project, you lose the ability to actually assess a solution's quality. So, at two points in the development cycle, we conducted usability evaluation measures with our partner HCiconsult. Early on (with a rough version of the UI in place), a heuristic evaluation was done. Later, when the development was 2/3 complete, we had a usability test conducted with seven test participants. Both measures showed we were on the right track, but of course there was still room for improvement. The findings were discussed and incorporated into the design iterations.

When we started to think about packaging and printed material, we realized that it would be highly desirable to provide a consistent wording throughout all materials – be them on the configuration UI of the box, on the CD, on the packaging or on leaflets. So we provided the necessary wording and operated as wording QA for the electronic manual. While this was quite an extra work package, it nicely followed the philosophy of an end-to-end design responsibility.

AOL Phone Box packaging

A challenging and rewarding project

In the end, the Interactive Design team had contributed in the following domains: For Interaction Design, we had contributed Information Architecture, user flows, and screen layouts. As for Graphics Design, we had created Visual design standards and provided the graphics assets for the development partner. Wording of all customer-facing texts including Web Interface, packaging, and manual had been provided by us. We had had our say in the design of the packaging, and of course there had been the final sign-off of all materials by the Director Interactive Design.

The AOL Phone Box has proved to be quite a success. The expected benefits were realized, the customers love it, and we have not only delivered a fantastic product, but also learned a lot – and had quite a bit of fun.