Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Internet, or the internet

It was to much consternation that an email went around the office on Friday informing us that for the purpose of all future communications we should align ourselves with the Macquarie dictionary usage of no initial caps for “internet”.

“Surely not!”, many screamed. One UX luminary I’m working with practically fell off his chair. “Why align ourselves to Mickey Mouse Macquarie when everyone else uses initial caps for proper nouns?”, he squwarked.

Funny old thing the evolution of the English language. Personally I’ll be sticking to the Internet, but I always write “websites”, rather than “Websites’ as a colleague I’m collaborating with does.

On such matters I generally resign myself to attempts at consistency rather than get into grammatical jousting – which I’m not really up for the fight for.

Strunk and White must be turning in their graves.

All of which puts me in mind of Stephen Fry‘s excellent podcast on the subject of Language. Well worth a listen.


Prototypes don’t need to be “finished”

Catching up on some old copies of the Harvard Business Review I was struck by this quote about prototyping in an article by IDEO’s Tim Brown, Design Thinking.

“Prototypes should command only as much time, effort, and investment as are needed to generate useful feedback and evolve an idea. The more “finished” a prototype seems, the less likely its creator will be to pay attention to and profit from feedback. The goal of prototyping isn’t to finish. It is to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the idea and to identify new directions that further prototypes might take.”

I couldn’t agree with Tim more. As a user experience practitioner, prototyping is just about the most important technique I have up my sleeve. I am amazed when I hear people come up with excuses not to prototype:

  • It will take too much time
  • I need more time to finish the prototype
  • We can’t learn anything from anything that isn’t finished or more representative of the actual product.

What rubbish. All of these are excuses of people stuck in their old ways of doing things. The truth is that you can obtain valuable insights from very low-fidelity prototypes, and also that even when dealing with higher-fidelity prototypes you can get away with a lot of smoke and mirrors to minimise the amount of effort that goes into the creation of something that appears finished.

Tim’s point about “finished” prototypes being of less value is particularly insightful. The amount of time we invest in creating a prototype should be directly proportional to the amount of confidence we have in what we are designing. The less clarity we have about the direction the design will take, the less time we should invest in prototyping.

If we invest too much time in a prototype too early in the process we run the risk of investing too much in its success that we won’t be prepared to listen to, or have time to respond to, the constructive feedback we receive.

This is particularly troublesome if you are working on a project with fixed timescales. The more time invested in “finishing” each design, the less time there is to explore alternate designs, and the less time there is to respond to any insights obtained from user research.

When prototyping we should resist the temptation to cement our thinking around one particular design paradigm for as long as possible. Short prototyping sprints (to use the Agile vernacular) are far more preferable to the prototyping marathon many engage in. By remaining open to radically different concepts deep into the design activity, we remain nimble enough to realign our thinking as insights are revealed from user research.

It is of public convenience that I share this with you

Apologies for the terrible pun, and please don’t ask how I stumbled across this, but I found this absolute pearl of a website today, The Australian National Public Toilet Map.

I notice that the page that lists the details of specific toilets has an email a friend feature. Is this really a case of federally endorsed cottaging, or simply a generic feature being misunderstood?

National Public Toilet Map - East Esplanade (20090616)

The Add to My Toilets feature also has me in juvenile hysteria. Is this a personalisation too far?

Apologies. It has been a long week!

Research suggests that using personas leads to superior products

A research study conducted by Frontend, Real or Imaginary: The effectiveness of using personas in product design, suggests that using personas lead to designs with superior usability characteristics.

The debate about whether personas work or not has been one of faith versus scepticism; claim versus counter-claim. This study demonstrates the effectiveness of using personas in the product design process and while more research is needed, this is now some objective evidence that using personas does work.

The study is far from the definite work that puts this debate to bed once and for all, but it is good enjoyable fuel for the fire and certainly confirms my own belief that, if nothing else, personas provide teams with a way of remembering key audience needs. Well worth a read.

Another day, another 30 sites

Glenquarry Public School | Home (20090611) Laurieton Public School | Home (20090611)

Having worked as a consultant for most of my career, I haven’t been on the ground in an organisation to see products/services launch very often. Obviously this can be a good and bad thing – and is one of the benefits/frustrations of the consulting life. But that’s not the subject of today’s post, so I’ll leave that for another day.

But fortune has it that I’m back working at the NSW Department of Education and Training just in time to see the project that took up all of my 2008 launch.

The School Website Service launched a couple of weeks ago and is available to all public schools in NSW. The service enables schools to create and maintain their own school website using an easy-to-use editing and management environment that is more ATM than the usual content management system cockpit.

It is an optional service and so far over 200 schools have gone live using the service, at a rate of around 30 sites per day. Of which Laurieton Public School and Glenquarry Public School are my personal favourites.

What’s most satisfying is that two weeks into the project zero issues have been reported to do with the usability of the service. A testament to the project’s user centred design process and extensive efforts and dedication of those involved in the project.

It is great to seewhat the schools are using the service for. Seeing schools quickly and easily publishing fairly inane features on things such as volcano sculptures even brought a tear to this cynical farts eyes!

The service is only available under limited release at the moment, but once the schools have access to the full range of tools we’ve designed, these sites are going to go off in all sorts of wonderful and crazy directions. I am looking forward to keeping an eye on these sites.

When conducting analysis, don’t jump to conclusions too quickly

The following diagrams, copied from De Bono’s Lateral Thinking, provides a great example of why we should avoid jumping to decisions too early when analysing research findings. If we jump to conclusions too early, we run the serious risk of not getting to the most elegant solution.

De Bono’s puzzle involves adding together a number of objects. With each new object the challenge is to create a regular shaped object.

Step 1 is to put the following objects together…


Having successfully turned these into a square, we then have another object to add…


Turning this into a rectangle is fairly straightforward for anyone, but then it gets a bit trickier…


Having scratched out heads a bit, you’ll end at the final challenge…


Now this is a bit tricky and for most people there will be no obvious way of turning this collection of objects into a regular shape.

How often have you brushed a research finding under the carpet because it didn’t fit with the mental model of the findings you were developing?

The trick is to deconstruct the objects each time a new object is added.

The solution is as follows…


Light-touch centralisation: creating glue for a disparate web presence

Work I’m conducting at the New South Wales Department of Education and Training has given me cause to reflect upon a series of projects conducted by the BBC since 2001 around improving the holistic user experience of the organisations websites, i.e. creating some ‘glue’ to hold the experience together both navigationally, visually and contextually.

Some history

Pre-2001 the BBC’s web presence was frequently referred to a loose collection of GeoCities, i.e. a very loosely bound collection of disparate looking websites.
The major problems affecting the site at this time were:

  • Lots of individual websites each with their own look and feel, but no brand or navigational consistency between sites
  • Little or no referencing between related content owned by different areas of the organisation (information silos)
  • Incomplete content, duplication of content and/or partial duplication of content resulting in lack of clarity around any individual site as being a definitive source on any topic
  • Limited collaboration between areas of the business
  • Ineffective search

In short, a highly decentralised approach to commissioning, designing and maintaining their web presence. And all this in the early 21st Century from an organisation generally heralded for their innovative approach to the adoption of new technologies. What hope for the rest of us?

These issues are far from unique to the BBC. In fact, nearly every organisation employing more than 100 staff suffers from these problems on their intranet, but commercial imperatives often force companies to mend organisational fractures where their public-facing internet site is concerned.

Why I’m blogging about the BBC is that, rather uniquely, they were actually affective at addressing the problems, and what’s more there are lots of great morsels around the internet about the projects they undertook.

Decentralisation or centralisation

Many organisations when presented with the same set of problems oscillate wildly between the polar extremes of a highly decentralised or highly centralised web presence.

A common response is to:

  • Chastise those that own the sites and take ownership away from them
  • Mandate that all sites must use a consistent set of templates/designs
  • Put in place an approval workflow process that involves sign-off by some Machiavellian Mr (or Ms. or Mrs) Big figure who knows what is right and wrong

This centralised approach chugs along for a few months or years until:

  • People realise that many of the rogue sites have reappeared
  • Content owners are so disenfranchised by the rigours of the mandated processes that they no longer care about the content and are watching is get out of date
  • Content owners lose touch with the flourishes that can only really be applied when you have direct control over the presentation of information
  • The central resources who are entrusted as guardians of the site become a bottle-neck to the timely delivery of content

After a few more months or years the organisation, almost certainly under new internet leadership, asks itself why on earth did we impose central control? And they actively work to break down the central controls, liberate the sub-sites and the whole sorry saga starts over again.

Light-touch centralisation

The BBC took a very different approach. Through a series of projects they created a small core set of centrally created and maintained resources, they mandated a small number of “thou shalt” diktats, and generated a far larger number of recommendations and principles.

Some of the projects the BBC embarked on were:

  • The redesign of the BBC homepage. This project is commonly referred to as The Glass Wall project.  The PDF tells the story around the redesign project.
  • An overhaul of the search engine to enhance findability around the entire network of sites, i.e. federated search. Matt Jones’ excellent presentation on the project, BBCi Search: Why search is not a technology problem, is a great source of information on the project and the problems it was designed to resolve.
  • The development of a topic-based A-Z to replace the previous categorisation structure based on the structure of the organisation. Helen Lippell’s article on Boxes and Arrows, The ABCs of the BBC provides a case study  of this project
  • The creation of a consistent masthead and footer to be applied on every BBC site.
  • The definition of a set of design and other guidelines for all BBC sites. The most up-to-date incarnations of these can be found at the BBC’s website.

General overviews of the projects can be found in a couple of papers from Martin Belam, Managing ‘glue’ at the BBC and Gaining online advantage: Building an effective web presence in a large organisation.

As well as these specific projects, they also defined a series of principles, as detailed by Tom Loosemore on his Tomski blog, The BBC’s Fifteen web principles.

The result of these projects and initiatives is what I’ll refer to as light-touch centralisation. By this I mean a series of common, centrally created elements that appear across all websites. They provide an environment in which the local sites can be visually diverse, and yet have enough consistent and commonality that end-users don’t have to re-learn each and every site.

Many elements have evolved since their initial inception, but the lineage of these projects can still be seen across all current BBC sites. For example, sites as diverse as Top Gear, BBC Learning and BBC News have a brand and navigational consistency, yet maintain a visual freedom that enables them to look consistent, but radically different.

BBC - Learning (20090611)

Any organisation looking to break free from the decentralised | centralised yo-yo would be fools not to at least explore these projects in more detail.

I consulted to the BBC on user research and user centred design during some of the period while these projects were conducted. Certain of my observations are based on my memory and hearsay. I thank Anthony Colfelt  (who worked for the BBC at the time) and Phil Barrett (who consulted alongside me during this period while we were both at Flow Interactive) for pointing me in the direction of many of the materials referenced here.