Compassionate user experience

Compassion is quite the eye-opener.

There is often bitterness in software development. It is not hard to see the tense relationships between developers and marketing, between users and customer support, between business and IT. When I entered the UX field nine years ago, I put myself in the interesting and strange position of being the intermediary, the emissary, in a protracted cold war.

By itself, UX is hard. There are many threads woven into the fabric of what we call User Experience. Information Architecture, derived from library sciences; Usability Engineering, which comes from the archetypal white-lab-coat scientific approach; Interaction Design, which borrows from anthropology; and Graphic Design, with its vibrant connection to culture and creativity. And the merging of these approaches brings with it some discomfort, as practitioners try to embrace tools and techniques from disciplines that have very different origins, and sometimes conflicting worldview.

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Mobile Pizza

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 9.19.53 AM

I did some agency work for a large national pizza chain, streamlining and optimizing their online ordering workflow, and wireframing the web app for same. It was a good opportunity to produce some formal mobile work, alongside the experimentation I’ve been doing.

Workflows and wireframes for an mobile pizza ordering web app.

Workflows and wireframes for an mobile pizza ordering web app.

For an e-commerce workflow, it was quite mature and complex, with the need to integrate location-based menus and coupons, customer loyalty systems, and sophisticated product configuration, while minimizing user input and cognitive friction.

One of the workflows for the mobile pizza web app.

One of the workflows for the mobile pizza web app.

The workflows and wireframes were completed in about two weeks.

iPad: Gutenberg 2.0?

Allright, I’m going to give in to the craziness and put out my own prediction for the Jesus Tablet that Steve Jobs is about to unleash. While everybody’s speculating about the hardware and price (as if this were PC-land, where such things matter), or about the deals with major publishers and the kindle-killing potential, I’m not hearing much about the software. And the software is what matters.

Let’s not forget that Apple makes great hardware because they’re passionate about software. Multitouch was a success on the iPhone for the never-discussed reason that Apple perfected the software layer, the one that converts the shaky, jerky motion of my fat fingers into smooth swipes and pinches. The software that ignores accidental taps, that leverages a rich language dictionary to decide which character I most probably wanted to type, when I mashed the side of my thumb over a large portion of the keyboard. These software interface layers are not trivial work. The fact that everybody took them immediately for granted is a credit to Apple’s user experience designers, as good UX should be invisible.

Apple gets the hardware/software melding right, because they care about creating the ideal experience. Apple wasn’t first to market with an MP3 player, or with an internet-connected smartphone… but once they entered the market, they reset the standard. Apple is not first to market with a tablet computer or an e-reader. But PC tablet and netbook manufacturers are waiting for the shoe to drop. Amazon’s Kindle and Wacom’s Cintiq’s days are most likely numbered. Apple is going to get it right, where everyone has gotten it wrong.

Among the rumors that are flying around, one caught my eye particularly. Apple is working on a multi-touch version of iWork, their office software. This is important. Apple is making deals with news and book publishers to provide them with a platform that enables high production values. Magazines will look good on the iPad. It will usher a new era of publishing, a new target format, that will rapidly take over the web and more. This is music to publisher’s ears, as high production values will again justify high margins.

But Apple will also raise the bar for everyone. Because the reason Apple is passionate about software, is because Apple is passionate about changing the world. They’ve raised the bar in the mobile app space, by providing a superior platform and toolkit, removing the need for developers to worry about the business of sales, and enforcing quality and user experience requirements. They’re going to raise the bar in publishing, but also in business documents, emails, and all forms of the printed word, and of multimedia publishing, by making some cloud-based, multi-touch version of iWork the superior platform and toolkit, as well as the sales and distribution channel… and a large segment of that will be free.

This won’t just be an e-book reader. This may also be the new printing press. EAVB_VFDMVVKEXU

Holiday Usability Tips

Holiday Usability Tips:
1. Use a “one-click” switch for all your holiday lights.
2. Gifts should be no more than two layers deep from the  wrapping paper.
3. • Make your greeting cards shorter, • highlight key words in bold, and • use bulleted lists.
4. If writing a long letter, don’t use a roll of parchment (Don’t make Santa scroll.)
5.  Label stockings clearly, and sort them by size. Provide a naughty/nice filter.
6. Remember to include a call to action in holiday cards, such as “Have a great holiday!”
7. Keep the menorah down to 5-7 candles, to fit the user’s short-term memory capacity.
8. Offer an automated mass-email of goodwill to all mankind.
9. Color-code fun things in red, happy things in green.
10. When in doubt, just copy Apple.

1. Use a “one-click” switch for all your holiday lights.

2. Gifts should be no more than two layers deep from the wrapping paper.

3. • Make your greeting cards shorter, • highlight key words in bold, and • use bulleted lists.

4. If writing a long letter, don’t use a roll of parchment (Don’t make Santa scroll.)

5.  Label stockings clearly, and sort them by size. Provide a naughty/nice filter.

6. Remember to include a call to action in holiday cards, such as “Have a great holiday!”

7. Keep the menorah down to 5-7 candles, to fit the user’s short-term memory capacity.

8. Offer an automated mass-email of goodwill to all mankind.

9. Color-code fun things in red, happy things in green.

10. When in doubt, just copy Apple.

Novus Biologicals is Live!

The Novus Biologicals website homepageRocket surgery has nothing on immunobiology and proteomics. With over 100,000 products, in a dozen categories, and the most complex set of product attributes and filters I’ve ever had the honor of untangling, the Novus Biological website was a textbook case of Information Architecture challenges. Working for SpireMedia, I took on the task of understanding the incredibly intricate world of antibodies.

It was a long and hard slog, yet we got through the information architecture and wireframes mostly on budget and on time. Beyond organizing and laying out the site, I also helped resolve some thorny data issues, such as how to apply cumulative filters on a dozen variables to a list of 50,000 items. I also helped evaluate, spec and implement the Novus Explorer, a Flash-based relationship browser, which for the first time gives researchers a visual, interactive way to explore the connections between antibodies, proteins, diseases and genes, clicking through to extensive scientific litterature. I dare say that, for a site with a tenth the budget of its main competitor, the new novusbio.com raises the bar.

On a personal note, I also had the pleasure of working again with Scott Osgood, an old friend, colleague and client from my Immedient/INS days, who took on the job of CTO for Novus on the same day that I took on the Information Architecture tasks for Spiremedia. A very happy coincidence indeed!

I’m more than a little proud of the work that went into this site, though of course the real credit goes to the amazing design and Drupal development teams at Spiremedia, who burned even more midnight oil than I did.

The tales are told.

Taking their bows: Jessamyn Geesaman, Marion H., Joni Pierce, Mike Thornwall, Willie LeJeune, Dan Hiester, Rick Bivens, Amy J. Lee, Josiah Lovato, Mariah Aguirre, Kenn Penn

Taking their bows, left to right: Jessamyn Geesaman, Marion H., Joni Pierce, Mike Thornwall, Willie LeJeune, Dan Hiester, Rick Bivens, Amy J. Lee, Josiah Lovato, Mariah Aguirre, Kenn Penn

This past sunday was the final performance of the Ten Buddhist Tales. The show was excellent, the audience reaction was excellent, and the spirits were high. I was transformed and elevated by the experience of assembling, leading, motivating and supporting a diverse team. What gives me the most pride however, is that I believe all of us came out of this with a feeling of personal success, and with some degree of personal growth.

We had set ourselves a tough target, a behemoth of a show: an enormous and complex set design, 27 scenes, 11 actors, 65 characters and costumes, over a hundred props, 80 sound and projection cues, all crammed into 90 minutes. 

It worked. The show was a riotous explosion of visceral energy. It ran through the gamut of emotions, actions, thoughts and bodily functions. It jumped every few seconds, from thoughtful buddhist teachings, to extreme violence, to buffoonery, to heartfelt pleas of unconditional love. You can see some pictures of it in the DRD’s flickr stream.

Turning twelve tales into one story.

Rick, Kenn and I had written the twelve tales (there are three tales numbered “Part 7”) using the exquisite cadaver technique: Write a few lines, then pass the laptop to the next guy. The scripts were therefore an obscure tangle of streams of consciousness, from which we had to tease apart characters, motivation, context, and action. Then we had to pick twelve of them, put them in some kind of order, and somehow connect them. To that end, we lifted some select pieces of buddhist teaching from web sources and put them in the mouth of a character called Guru. We also expanded the originally minor character of the Bearded Lady, as a western counterpart to Guru.

It was a delicate balancing act, to provide a through-line and plot for the audience to hang on to while not watering down the innate randomness of the tales. I think we pulled it off, and the story arc ended up coming through strongly: The underlying tension quickly turns into chaos, out of which the insane characters and the Guru reach epiphanies, as the control-freak bearded lady loses her marbles.

Time to get blown up... Are you ready?

Time to get blown up... Are you ready?

At the beginning of each show, the Bearded Lady enters onto a pristine circle of white light to deliver a rather formal and scripted introduction. By the end of the show, the stage is a giant mess, covered in discarded props, costumes, spent shell casings, cantaloupe seeds, cake crumbs and candy. And on that disaster of a stage, the Bearded Lady in tears and the triumphantly radiant Guru are blown to bits with TNT.

Making meaning without making sense

And so it goes with life: Craziness will happen, randomness is in control, and you better have some real, deep foundation of mindfulness if you want to enjoy it well, and still face the inevitable end with a smile. This was one of the strongest points I wanted to express, that one needs an inner core of unconditional compassion and childlike openness, because the world makes no sense. The world is an illusion created by misunderstanding and misperception, and while it’s an illusion we cannot escape, we can, with mindfulness and concentrated effort, approach it like the beautiful drama that it is. Whether it be as an audience member, as an actor or behind the scenes, we can relish in the absurd experience we share, and in the joy of being together.

I think that point came through to some. The Buddhist audience members I talked to were very excited by the show, and appreciated that it wasn’t a farce based on the common misconceptions about Buddhism. I also had non-buddhists ask a lot of questions about the philosophical underpinnings of the play. All audience members were dazed and confused, but for those who didn’t leave the theatre mid-show, the confusion seems to have been fruitful.

I slowly came to understand what our friend the late great Don Becker meant when he said we were on to something with this play. He was talking about the fact that absurdist comedy is becoming mainstream, but also how the buddhist connection makes it work. I take it to mean that where absurdism is the end of western thought, the philosophical brick wall against which existentialists beat their heads, and come up with nothing but various shades of despair, cruelty, resignation, or at best stoicism. Yet absurdity, the realization that the world is an senseless illusion, is where eastern philosophy starts. And since it has no need to concern itself with useless concepts such as “reality”, it instead focuses, in a very practical and personal way, on happiness.

So to Don’s point, and as an answer to the enthusiasm of our buddhist audience members, I think we will keep the Ten Buddhist Tales alive. We did some extensive three-camera coverage on the last week of performances, and we will assemble and release the tales as a serial podcast, and promote it to the buddhist communities out there. Maybe this show, with its high aspirations,earnest pleas, and complete lack of self-control, can be an instrument of buddhist practice for others, as it was for us.

And if not, well, it’s pretty funny.

Top ten things most likely to be said by a Buddhist programmer

  1. Coding is suffering.
  2. Suffering is embodied in the endless wheel of the product life-cycle.
  3. You cannot escape the wheel of the product life-cycle, because your mind is clouded by desire for a better framework.
  4. Users cannot escape the wheel of the product life-cycle, because their minds are clouded by desire for features.
  5. To be free of suffering, one must first understand boolean non-duality: The bit is not one, and the bit is not not-one. 
  6. The spec is forever like sand between your fingers. Yet each grain of it is a precious gift, inviting you to develop compassion for designers and managers.
  7. Debugging is negative, and unnecessary. Bugs are precious gifts, inviting the QA team and the users to develop compassion for programmers.
  8. It’s fun to set an array of flags, and let them flap like prayers in the wind. 
  9. If you comment your code, it will bring good karma to you in your next release.
  10. To reach enlightenment, pipe your mental I/O to /dev/null

Public eyes

Picture this: Mobile phones with cameras serving as the public eye.

Visualize free and abundant bandwidth and storage, allowing most camera phones to be constantly turned on, recording whatever surrounds them. Uploading it to a large scale distributed database of images. This database constantly churns the flow of images, matching their features, averaging out the momentary (people, cars) and retaining the permanent (structures). You can explore any place in the world where someone has carried a cell phone, and get a sense of the place.

These cell phones can also record audio, which can be processed to produce the basic “sound” of a place. By using judicious criteria to filter out some unique sounds and retain some more common ones, this “sound” can be more than white noise. Different sound signatures can also be achieved for different times of the day, different seasons of the year. So you can log in, and visit a mountain river, and see how it looked last winter, frozen under a quiet blanket of snow. Then look at it this spring, rushing and rumbling.

You’ll definitely be able to see the tower of Pisa in great detail, inside and out, at all times of the year. There will be no lack of pictures and sounds for that one. The soundtrack will probably retain a lot of crying babies, tour guides, and crowd noises, so I recommend pulling the clock back to the early morning.

Ten Buddhist Tales is open!

Ten Buddhist Tales posterBehold: Sausage!

Wow. We’ve done it. We’ve opened our show. What a rush!

After a hell week that went surprisingly well, we had energy aplenty for opening. The cast was on fire, lots of friends and family in the audience, and the show rocked! It’s 90 minutes of pure seat-of-your-pants craziness, both on-stage and off. I screwed up a couple of sound cues, but the actors kept right on going.

We’re all exhausted. It will take me a few days to process the feeling. This is a big achievement for me, and for all of us.