Inserting the UX into an existing Agile Project.

It is a Wednesday afternoon in Sydney North Ryde, humidity is quite hot and I am walking up a fairly steep hill panting and cursing to myself about getting to the gym sooner rather than later. I glance over to my left and I see this person riding a unicycle up a hill whilst listening to music and moving at a pace that is faster than my walking (yes that is how unfit I am).

I simply stopped in my tracks and first chuckled at how amazingly insightful that was to witness as I immediately thought “that basically was the visual for my role as a UX Architect” – which was to say, “Poor me, how hard is my job as only an idiot would ride a unicycle up a hill”.

Sometimes life is like riding a unicycle up a hill.

Sometimes life is like riding a unicycle up a hill.

As I continued to walk, I started to think about how much effort that person is putting into attacking the hill before him. Firstly he has to balance whilst at the same time maintain a steady forward momentum (too fast he falls, too slow he falls). Secondly, he is listening to music while he attacks the hill that I can only assumes helps him focus on the mission ahead by blocking out distraction(s).

That encounter inspired me, it gave me a renewed sense of energy at facing down the biggest problem I have today – “how do you integrate UX into existing Agile projects cleanly”. I mean to say the task before me is not easy, it is filled with many uphill battles such as balancing between function and form, whilst at the same time not spooking stakeholders into cost blow out panic attacks. I also am required to have a concentration level that simply at times feels inhuman given the unchartered territory ahead.

The difference between that role and the actual guy on the unicycle is well at least he gets to see what’s ahead of him whereas a UX in Agile world is typically doing the same thing blind folded.

Discovery vs Delivery.

I spent over three years travelling around Australia in every capital city visiting “developer” teams for all types of companies (enterprise, startups, government etc.). I have seen the same thing happen over and over, whereby each company swears by their agile manifesto and how important it is to maintain “agile” discipline. I also notice they cherry pick agile each time to make sure it fits in with their culture and more importantly to not take it as an absolute but more a relative approach to designing software.

The part that often sticks in my craw is not the sprint cycle(s) or the sprint backlog creation. Nope, the part that I immediately notice as being the fatal flaw to why User Experience is often the sacrificial lamb in the development process is well the discovery of the said feature(s).

For instance, a team will often sit down in a room with a whiteboard and then begin coming up with some stories around what they are hoping to achieve with the software. They then will likely document these stories with the usual “As a User I want the ability to do X so that I can do Y” style sentences. After that process they, would likely then unpack these at a later time into developer task(s) along with success/fail criteria (tests, definition of done blah blah)?

I would guestimate that 90% of the hundreds of developer teams I have visited do pretty much the above. Furthermore, I would often be invited into some of these teams at around the last few sprints to help “make it look UXy” as if there was some way I could just “Integrate” into the team(s) development process, fix the UX problems, low impact to the code and do the aforementioned in a timely manner (Usually I say: “You don’t need a UX Architect, you need a priest as this thing is dead and all you’re after is a lot of prayers to reanimate the corpse”).

Let me simply say this, as a contractor I would love nothing more than to have you do the above, especially if I am charging you per hour. I could simply tread water and extract large amount of free useless work hours knowing either outcome still does not result in a successful delivery.

Ethics 101 aside, today, I am not that contractor, I am a UX Architect and I have a queue of other products waiting in line for my same attention. I do not have time to drag the timelines out so I have to instead get the above optimized.

The flaw in this aforementioned process of white boarding features is the part that you first make your biggest and ultimately largest mistakes when it comes to making a software product (which is a general argument to make, but hear me out). As when you sat down to the feature, you did not document whom you are making the product for. In addition, how much time did you spend on refining the process other than the first bunch of fragmented ideas? Lastly, how do various stories influence one another?

Agile is not an excuse to just deliver a project without planning and planning doesn’t mean you have to spend the bulk of your time in “waterfall” delivery purgatory either.

Great quote from Jeff

It is probably a good point to say that if you are focused on delivery and you spent little time on discovery, well you are basically in for a lot of turbulence and “UX Tetris” in the coming sprint cycles.

Unpacking the Discovery phase.

Take an existing project you are on today, now look at the User Stories you have (ignore your tasks). Now grab these stories whilst grabbing some pens & notepads. Now take some of these stories (does not matter where you start) and begin drawing a comic book of your product, that is “how would you draw an activity from the moment the user clicks on an icon to the splash screen and then to what they see first”.

Example – If I was building Outlook I’d say scene(1) is user clicks on icon, scene(2) splash screen loads, scene(3) outlook opens in default folder view, scene(4) user creates new email etc.

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The objective behind this in the first part of the discovery phase is to illustrate that your story whilst at first sounds perfectly fine is not really “done”.  How many UX Personas did you draw in the comic? I would wager maybe one? Moreover, how many times did you redraw this process before you exhausted the steps into what you would consider “simplicity”.

  • How much influence did iPhone, iPad, Microsoft Office, Outlook, Windows 8, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Visual Studio etc. all play in the mental model you had for the software(s) design?
  • How many DataGrids and Tree controls did you “assume” existing in the UI as you drew the comic story?
  • Did you draw the UI as a wireframe or just abstract shapes? (If you did wireframe, stop, rub it out and keep it abstract).

A Definition of a Story is “An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment” – the key words from that definition are “An account”. That is to say, it is your own personal bias coming through on how you foresee the event taking place based on existing ideas or experiences from the past.

Now, to bake your noodle, grab three or four of your colleagues and get them to do the same process on the said story but be very careful not to lead them on the same path you just took (e.g.: “draw a comic book for how our customer can create a new email. STOP. No more information”).

I have done this a few times and usually what happens if done correctly (i.e. everyone is in isolation) is the story typically has similar patterns but the ordering and approach taken often has mixed result(s) (especially if its domain specific to your companies problems and not generic like email checking).

First lesson learnt here is that we all approach the design with a bias in mind and yes, we feel that if we all share the same pattern in design it will in turn invoke less agitation on the end user(s). Agitation such as this is still good and most of the time the behavior of the said end-users will likely follow the approach defined.

Problem is you are not in the business of “good enough” anymore. Software today is expected to rise above mediocrity and everyone is under pressure to deliver products as “simpler” and less “dense” in terms of feature(s) and/or layout design(s).

With that, it is your job to put this entire story design on a very strict diet that should take more time than you probably anticipated. Typically you will want to time box this process as it can drag out and I highly recommend you grab a healthy mix of developers, customers (trusted), sales, marketing and if possible receptionists (i.e. people who aren’t your target user) in the creation process. The more diverse the background the more likely you can feed of each other’s ideas of “simplicity” without having blinders on. Lastly make sure it’s in a room where everyone can draw their ideas and do not break these sessions into hourly mini meetings – make them days, in that spend five days in a room fighting, crying, swearing, hugging and so on (as you will take two days to get everyone in a relaxed mode whereby failure won’t be seen as embarrassing – humans are funny like that).

ProTip: Simplicity can be measured.

A Comic style slice of all your user stories can feel like a complete time waste, especially if you have pressure to deliver. In order to do this you have to justify how this can improve cost of delivery whilst at the same time it looks dangerously close to “Waterfall”.

Truth be told, in under a week or maybe two you could potentially visualize your entire current story catalog in a way that would likely reduce countless hours of communication issue(s) around design which in turn would without a doubt reduce communication costs. That being said, that is a very loose “return on investment” pitch to make.

  1. For giggles, take the existing slice you have designed and then unpack that into tasks with forecasts attached. Record that number and cost it out in terms of effort.
  2. Now, for giggles again, take your team and tell them “make it simpler” that is refine the story further, squeeze it to the point where you automatically feel it is not as “Powerful” in terms of feature design.
  3. Once that occurs, run your costs against that.

If done in a way that I am assuming you should see a fluctuation between the two cost(s) and it can be either higher or lower in terms of cost.

You have the first measurement to add to the “simpler” cost center, in that if it’s lesser in terms of cost – awesome, see we just reduced a lot of excess coding time!.

If it is higher then well how badly do you want a better user experience for the product you are making? (Sneaking this past people usually ends badly, so be honest and if executives do not subscribe then you have an answer on how they feel regarding “experience matters”).

Often when I do it, the cost initially increases (i.e. short term loss, long term repeatable win) because as I am refining the stories I am looking to make the behavior of the user less effort for them. That is to say I am thinking how the software’s job is to make their life easier and that it should do 90% of the work for them and that means at times decluttering the task from the usual user interface design and being context specific (i.e. isolate the user to carry out a task that’s reduced of distractions).

An example.

If you mapped out Outlook comic story you would probably have imagined outlook as it is today, whereby you have the tree of folders, you click “new” and prompted the same way it does today. 

I think of it differently, I think that whatever behavior I invoke that triggers “new” is initiated, the entire user interface goes into “new mail mode” that is the existing chrome/HUD is screened back and all the specific requirements I have for “new email” is in front of me. To my left there is a smart way to access my contacts, especially given I’m in a large enterprise and often have issues between first/lastnames and aliases”. To my right I have a different way to create an email in that am I creating just a text email or am I creating something that I want to insert media into for all to visualize my point?.

My point here is I could easily increase the development cost in order to assemble the user interface in a way that for me puts all the necessary pieces the end user will need in order to carry out the said task. Simpler doesn’t mean minimal (as that can often be misleading) it means how does one make the life of the persona simple in carrying out the task – given software is made to make our lives easier right?

UX Personas are not what you may think they are.

Having redesigned the new email some may declare “..hang on, you didn’t specify the feature criteria fairly..” which is true, I did not. The next thing one needs to learn is my idea of a user and your ideas of a user are highly likely two different types.

Example of Useless "UX Persona"

Example of Useless “UX Persona”

A UX Persona discovery will fix the assumption failure(s), whereby if you sit down and you unpack the word “user” to the point you exhaust your collective knowledge of that means. A UX Persona is not a story about “Jim who is 22, likes fishing and blah blah” as bottom line who gives a shit who he is or what he likes. A Persona designed like that is used for marketing purposes to help sales teams position the messaging & roles the said product will likely excite.

A UX Persona typically needs to focus on two simple areas, that is what behaviors they are currently exhibiting (AS-IS) and what behaviors they should be exhibiting (TO-BE). The word “User” needs to absorb the fact that sure, a user is doing xyz today but you are in the business of innovation so you in turn need to move them to a new set of behaviors!

Eg: When Apple sat down to design the iPod touch they were not pandering to existing behaviors user(s) were exhibiting on mp3 players. They moved us all over to the touch interface and it was initially confusing but today I see five year olds queuing music & playing games.

Defining a UX Persona for me is mainly about breaking their behaviors into four categories

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  • Influence (low to very high). Take training, mentoring, buying power, optimization etc. as categories you can help shape the low to very high score. Basically how much influence does this persona have over the adoption of your new product, the training burden required in order to use your new product and lastly the output of the product (i.e. are they the end customer for your customers customer).
  • Usage  (low to high). Similar to influence but now how much of the actual product are they going to be using? Specifically which modes of the product are they using (e.g. Visual Studio – Build time, Debug & Runtime). If you are writing software for both an executive assistant and their boss, then basically it is likely the assistant is going to have a higher rating then the boss depending on the scenario (vice versa).
  • Form Factor. What are they using to access the product? Given tablets, smartphones, laptops etc. are all evolving technology what is the likely input of choice. Do not just isolate this to device/platforms but also are they using stylus pens, are they using modified keyboards etc.
  • Environment. What is type of environment are they using the product in? Is it inside a coal mine where it is dark (i.e. white vs. black colors are a safety issue), is there many hazardous issues nearby? Is it noisy (distraction and cannot hear sounds), is it inside an office? Is it inside an operator building where your product is one of sixteen screens? 

    Environment is really an important amount of information that gets lost in the “Story” creation. As we really need to pay attention to how much duress, the user is under in order to make their life simpler.

Notice I never discussed usability issues such as their age, sight quality, gloves vs no gloves, color blind vs non color blind and so on? Well, if you did not now you have. Usability is a completely new chapter on its own, suffice to say I typically design for extreme in mind that is I assume the worst and hope for the best, make the process accessible and it in theory should put you in a position to refine for specific usability & accessibility scenarios (ie design garden sheers for people with arthritous and in theory you will design for both people with and without in mind).

Keep breaking the UX Personas you design down until you simply cannot come up with new ones. Then go grab some customers you have today or want to have tomorrow and play a game of “Guess Who” with the existing ones you have defined. If you cannot line them up with what you have or you end up with orphan UX Persona(s) then consider how to merge or separate until you reach a “best guess” group of personas to attack with your new product.

The trick here is also to focus more on “TO-BE” not “AS-IS” as the moment you release your product to market you are changing the rules of usage. You are invoking change in an area where existing mental models are either hard wired into the users or have no concept of said feature(s) even existing.

Once you have the list of Persona(s) grouped in a way you feel make sense (make tribes if it helps with the grouping) then I want you to divide into two piles – first being 80% and second being 20%.  Dividing these personas into the 80% and 20% piles gives you two options going forward.

The 20% pile could be the first target users, these are the ones you want to launch version (1) of your new product with. It means you have a much simpler feature set to attack but it also means you can iron out the kinks in this new process whilst illustrating the value of “simplicity”.

The 80% pile could be the same as the 20% or it can be the persona(s) that are distracting you from simplicity, which is they aren’t as important for the first round of delivery? Either way you choose to approach this just settle on one of these piles as your “target” user base.

The truth is you will never hit 100% of your persona(s) needs in your ongoing deliveries, and once you make peace with that, the pressure of being everything to everyone will be reduced. It means that over time, you will have to work harder to regain the lost personas back but that is fine, provided you stick to that mission and remain calm.

Example – When Silverlight was being built, the first version pretty much took the 20% path with a focus on video persona(s). As more and more versions of the product where released it then would take the missing 80% pile and subdivide that into 80/20 and again, take that 20% and chip away at those personas that wanted more than video.

ProTip: Consider putting these personas into a deck of “Cards” and hand them out to all members in your team. As when you are discussing problems in your day to day development get into the habbit of keeping them in view when you say the words “Customer” or “Users”.

You are in the patterns business.

Do not fool yourself into thinking the software you are working on is unique and never been done. There are elements to the software you are making that is fresh in terms of features here and there but ultimately you are highly likely re-using existing UI patterns found in software today.

The question is what UI patterns are you using and why have you changed them? That is to say which Color Modal are you going to use and why don’t you like existing patterns out there should it be different?

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It’s at this micro level you isolate your users actual behavior and can be majority of the time field tested with customer(s) to establish what is “usable” and which isn’t. It is also at this point you can attach “who” the UI pattern is designed for.

If  you catalog these UI patterns you can also begin the “visual” treatment process before any code is even written (in parallel) as its really about which assets are missing, which you already own and when they can be queued for delivery.

Lastly and the most important point of all is that you can identify which Patterns are “Fresh” and begin your patent application(s) for retaining your intellectual property rights whilst at the same time ensuring that you’re not infringing on other existing patents out there.

 (i.e. have you read the terms & conditions of Office Ribbon, Adobe vs. Microsoft legal case around panel snapping etc.?)

Discovery integrates with delivery.

To recap, you have taken the simple “user stories” and you have mapped them into visual stories that help illustrate the “before” and “after” in terms of refining them down into “simplicity”. You have also identified whom the actors or “user” actually are finite detail that even talks to what, where and how.

So, discovery phase is done right?

No. This is the easy part as now you have information and you have a sense of possibilities. What comes next is the part where you often will lose the executive owners of your team. It’s the prototyping phase of discovery, that is take your ideas and come up with some wireframes or small time boxed interactive prototypes of how the comic stories can be achieved.

I say you lose them as if you do not handle this carefully you will position this phase as being “wasteful” or “not as important – function vs. form”. The trick is to factor this phase as being part of your “delivery” but knowing it is actually more to do with “discovery”, (it is as if you Jedi mind tricked the project management & executive fears).

Prototypes, Wireframes and Comic Stories are deliverable that works the same as actually writing the code itself in a normal agile scenario (i.e. they too can follow sprint cycles). You can do it parallel (if you are in v2 of this process) or you can do it sequential but the key is to deliver something that shows the investment is not wasted. You also iron out the unknown and can often deliver drops to candidates for the software(s) release to get a sense of what success/fail will look like had you spent months coding it for real.

Remember Windows Longhorn? Yeah most of that was Macromedia Director. Remember Silverlight on the Nokia N9 back in MIX keynotes? Yeah that was kind of a mini PowerPoint style animation! Point is when you demo something, nobody 99% of the time asks to see how many lines of code it took to make.

This approach builds confidence that your development has balanced the feature(s) required with market readiness/attractiveness whilst at the same time maintains a disciplined delivery schedule. It also allows  you to really validate your UX personas against the features that they are attached to, as then you can start to formulate a fairly accurate understanding of what feature(s) are going to make the release and who they are being targeted for. Having just this alone can improve your “feature” cutting when the time for reducing scope occurs; again, you know more about the impact than a general “user” statement.

It also helps to know this when forecasting costs for a new products development, which is how much this will cost to produce and who the first, second, third round of releases will likely excite. It also helps training / documentation teams begin preparing their work streams on how to manage change management issues. This also helps testing teams understand how to attack their tests to ensure the said quality gates are kept intact and aren’t being approached from “generic” scenarios (i.e. play the role of the UX persona not the roles like “let’s see how much of this I can break”).

Finally, it helps Marketing/Sales teams get actually ready for the “launch” in a way that hits your target market squarely in the places it should.  I.e. they know who to avoid making eye contact with during launch time should that UX Persona group not make the cut).

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Before I close out this poorly written tomb, let me say that no matter what choices you decide to make, ensure you keep it all open and transparent. There is nothing worse than having all the discovery and delivery processes being locked up in the hands of a select few or worse making it available but displayed in such an abstract format that it simply holds no clarity around what just happened.

The combination of UX and Code delivery needs to happen clearly, there needs to be KPI’s set and lastly you need to ensure everyone in the room has a visual simple display as to what is being worked on.

uxkpi

An executive does not care about your “Done” board in agile and they do not care about how many stories you have to write code against either. They also do not care you have unpacked a generic User persona into five sub personas and lastly they do not care about how you have improved the “AS-IS” comic style user stories into the “TO-BE”. The assume you do this normally, so don’t expect an “Adda boy/girl” pat on the back as well it’s like being asked for a high five for knowing how to check email?

The mostly care about progress reports – where is their money being spent and why. They will care at times when visiting peers or their power brokers come by for a visit, in which case bring all the above out for a full show & tell (factory visits is what I call them).

If you can justify the costs in a meaningful way that does not involve reading text then you are miles ahead of other teams who assume that just because a Story is written down that everyone “gets” where they are heading. Visualization of your products early often gives everyone in the room clear communication around what the vision will end up looking like. There is less pressure for demos to be at a fairly high standard given comic stories, prototypes & wireframes will paint that end point in a much more cleanly digestible way (which ultimately will mean memory recall – which is what you all want).

Lastly, before I close out, can I just say aloud – everybody relax. The agile movement is simply about taking a lot of big lumpy problems and breaking them down into really small bite sized pieces that are easier to manage. This is a strategy that is not unique and exclusive to software development; other industries do this daily and without as many issues as we often create.

An Example of this process is grab 3-4 unique small “beads” and drop them into a bucket of sand. Mix the sand up, then using just a small scoop, plastic bags and a scale come up with a strategy on how you can sample the said mix evenly.

Solve that problem and you can have a future in geology but at the same time, you will also be in a better position to understand how Agile + Forecasting actually work.

 

 

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Digital Skeuomorphism decoded.

There seems to be an undercurrent of contempt towards Digital Skeuomorphism – the art of taking real world subject material and dragging it kicking & screaming into your current UI design(s) (if you’re an iPad designer mostly).

I’ve personally sat on the fence with regards to this subject as I do see merit in both sides of the argument in terms of those who believe it’s gotten out of hand vs those who swear it’s the right mix to helping people navigate UX complexity.

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Here’s what I know.

I know personally that the human mind is much faster at decoding patterns that involve depth and mixed amounts of color (to a degree). I know that while sight is one of our sensory radars working 24/7 it is also one that often scans ahead for known pattern(s) to then decode at sub-millisecond speeds.

I know we often think in terms of analogies when we are trying to convey a message or point. I know designers scour the internet and use a variety of mediums (real life subject matter and other people(s) designs) to help them organize their thoughts / mojo onto a blank canvas.

Finally I know that with design propositions like the monochrome like existence of Metro it has created an area of conflict around like vs dislike in comparison to the rest of the web that opts to ignore these laid out principles by Microsoft design team(s).

Here’s what I think.

I think Apple design community has taken the idea of theming applications to take on a more unrealistic but realistic concepts and apply them to their UI designs are more helpful then hurtful. I say this as it seems to not only work but solves a need – despite the hordes mocking its existence.

I know I have personally gone my entire life without grabbing an envelope, photo, and a paperclip and attached them together – prior – to writing a letter to a friend.

Yet, there is a User Interface out there in the iPad AppStore that is probably using this exact concept to help coach the user that they are in fact writing a digital letter to someone with a visual attachment paper clipped to the fake envelope it will get sent in.

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Why is this a bad idea?

For one it’s not realistic and it easily can turn a concept into a fisher price existence quite fast. Secondly it taps into the same ridiculous faux UI existence commonly found in a lot of movies today (you know the ones, where a hacker worms his way into the banks mainframe with lots of 3D visuals to illustrate how he/she is able to overcome complex security protocols).

It’s bad simply for those two reasons.

It’s also good for those two reasons. Let’s face it the more friction and confidence we can build in end-users around attaching real-life analogies or metaphors to a variety of software problems the less they are preoccupied with building large amounts of unnecessary muscle in their ability to decode patterns via spatial cognition.

Here’s who I think is right.

Apple and Microsoft are both on this different voyage of discovery and both are likely to create havoc on the end user base around which is better option of the two – digitally authentic or digitally unauthentic.

It doesn’t matter in the end who wins as given both have created this path it’s fair to say that an average user out there is now going to be tuned into both creative output(s). As such there is no such thing as a virgin user when it comes to these design models.

I would however say out loud that I think when it comes to down cognitive load on the end user around which Application(s) out there that opt for a Metro vs. Apple iPad like solution, the iPad should by rights win that argument.

The reason being is our ability to scan the associated pattern with the faux design model works to the end user favor much the same way it does when you 30sec of a hacker busting their way into the mainframe.

The faux design approach will work for depth engagement but here’s the funny and wonderful thought that I think will fester beyond this post for many.

Ever notice the UI designs in movies opt for a flat “metro” like monochrome existence that at first you go “oh my that’s amazing CG!”. Yet if you then play with it for long period of time their wow factor begins to taper off fast.

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I don’t have the answers on either sides here and it’s all based of my own opinion and second-hand research. I can tell you though sex sells, we do judge a book by its cover, and I think what makes the iPad apps appeal too many is simply – attractive bias in full flight.

Before I leave with that last thought, I will say that over time I’ve seen quite a lot of iPad applications use Wood textures throughout their designs. I’d love to explore the phycology of why that reoccurs more as I wonder if it has to do with some primitive design DNA of some sort.

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Here’s some research that hints at this space [Click here].

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Decoding Windows 8 UX Principles– Let Context breathe instead of the UI!

Last night I was sitting in a child psychologist office watching my son undergo a whole heap of cognitive testing (given he has a rare condition called Trisomy 8 Mosaicism) and in that moment I had what others would call a “flash” or “epiphany” (i.e. theory is we get ideas based on a network of ideas that pre-existed).

The flash came about from watching my son do a few Perceptional Reasoning Index tests. The idea in these tests is to have a group of imagery (grid form) and they have to basically assign semantic similarities between the images (ball, bat, fridge, dog, plane would translate to ball and bat being the semantic similarities).

This for me was one of those ahah! Moments. You see, for me when I first saw the Windows 8 opening screen of boxes / tiles being shown with a mixed message around letting the User Interface “breathe” combined with ensuring a uniform grid / golden ratio style rant … I just didn’t like it.

There was something about this approach that for me I just instantly took a dislike. Was it because I was jaded? Was it because I wanted more? ..there was something I didn’t get about it.

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Over the past few days I’ve thought more about what I don’t like about it and the most obvious reaction I had was around the fact that we’re going to rely on imagery to process which apps to load and not load. Think about that, you are now going to have images some static whilst others animated to help you guage which one of these elements you need to touch/mouse click in order to load?

re-imagining or re-engineering the problem?

This isn’t re-imagining the problem, its simply taken a broken concept form Apple and made it bigger so instead of Icons we now have bigger imagery to process.

Just like my son, your now being attacked at Perceptional Reasoning level on which of these “items are the same or similar” and given we also have full control over how these boxes are to be clustered, we in turn will put our own internal taxonomy into play here as well…. Arrghh…

Now I’m starting to formulate an opinion that the grid box layout approach is not only not solving the problem but its actually probably a usability issue lurking (more testing needs to be had and proven here I think).

Ok, I’ve arrived at a conscious opinion on why I don’t like the front screen, now what? The more I thought about it the more I kept coming back to the question – “Why do we have apps and why do we cluster them on screens like this”

The answer isn’t just a Perspective Memory rationale, the answer really lies in the context in which we as humans lean on software for our daily activities. Context is the thread we need to explore on this screen, not “Look I can move apps around and dock them” that’s part of the equation but in reality all you are doing is mucking around with grouping information or data once you’ve isolated the context to an area of comfort – that or you’re still hunting / exploring for the said data and aren’t quite ready to release (in short, you’re accessing information in working memory and processing the results real-time).

As the idea is beginning to brew, I think about to sources of inspiration – the user interfaces I have loved and continue to love that get my design mojo happening. User interfaces such as the one that I think captures the concept of Metro better than what Microsoft has produced today – the Microsoft Health / Productivity Video(s).

 

Back to the Fantasy UI for Inspiration

If you analyze the attractive elements within these videos what do you notice the most? For me it’s a number of things.

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I notice the fact that the UI is simple and in a sense “metro –paint-by-numbers” which despite their basic composition is actually quite well done.

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I notice the User Interface is never just one composition that the UI appears to react to the context of usage for the person and not the other way around. Each User Interface has a role or approach that carries out a very simplistic approach to a problem but done so in a way that feels a lot more organic.

In short, I notice context over and over.

I then think back to a User Interface design I saw years ago at Adobe MAX. It’s one of my favorites, in this UI Adobe were showing off what they think could be the future of entertainment UI, in that they simply have a search box on screen up top. The default user interface is somewhat blank providing a passive “forcing function” on the end user to provide some clues as to what they want.

The user types the word “spid” as their intent is Spiderman. The User Interface reacts to this word and its entire screen changes to the theme of Spiderman whilst spitting out movies, books, games etc – basically you are overwhelmed with context.

Crazy huh?

I look at Zune, I type the word “the Fray” and hit search, again, contextual relevance plays a role and the user interface is now reacting to my clues.

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I look back now at the Microsoft Health videos and then back to the Windows 8 Screens. The videos are one in the same with Windows 8 in a lot of ways but the huge difference is one doesn’t have context it has apps.

The reality is, most of the Apps you have has semantic data behind (except games?) so in short why are we fishing around for “apps” or “hubs” when we should all be reimagineering the concept of how an operating system of tomorrow like Windows 8 accommodates a personal level of both taxonomy and contextual driven usage that also respects each of our own cognitive processing capabilities?

Now I know why I dislike Windows 8 User Interface, as the more I explore this thread the more I look past the design elements and “WoW” effects and the more I start coming to the realization that in short, this isn’t a work of innovation, it simply a case of taking existing broken models on the market today and declaring victory on them because it’s now either bigger or easier to approach from a NUI perspective.

There isn’t much reimagination going on here, it’s more reengineering instead. There is a lot of potential here for smarter, more innovative and relevant improvements on the way in which we interact with software of tomorrow.

I gave a talk similar to this at local Seattle Design User Group once. Here’s the slides but I still think it holds water today especially in a Windows 8 futures discussion.

Related Posts:

THELAB: User Story Management – think beyond cards.

As a Hybrid I want the ability to create user stories into clusters so that I can isolate ideas into more finite pieces.

The Problem.

Seeing that most are probably likely to ask what the heck I mean?  A User Story by SCRUM standards is just a small two-sentence tid bit that gives one clues as to what one should develop in software vNext? The problem with this line of thinking is that it goes against the nature of human phycology in that to isolate streams of thought into abstract finite forms does not work.

Want proof?

Ever sat in a Story planning session and as the stories begin to flow you immediately start to cluster these in your mind into groups? You visualize them into clusters when you see them that are because we as humans are massive fans of chunking information so that we can process them in more digestive formats. Is this a problem? No, it is just a natural primitive instinct to encourage you, as an entity that has grown opposable thumbs into ensuring the thing in front of you is both learnable and adaptable to suit what happens next.

Today, if you were to look around on the inter-web you would see a bunch of SCRUM friendly software and most of them try their best – and fail – to re-create the experience of User Story capturing.  The approach they often take is to create a rounded rectangle and display them onto the user’s screen as:

"this is a card and therefore it’s like the one you have in your cubicle in paper form. Please use this the same way in which you would that..”
Signed Software Designer.

Recently I learnt a very important snack of UX goldenness and that is we do not use software, we work with it. Software should reflect who I am and what is contextual relevant or albeit synchronized to suite my needs vs. having to ask me to adapt to its needs. Handing someone a virtual card on screen does not offer anything of value, all it does is remind me the constraints put forward – I need to cram an idea in under two sentences in abstract form so that I can break it down further into sub-forms in order to generate software feature(s).

The Flash of Genius.

I sat down today to tackle what I call the "Opening Act" in my UX magic show for an upcoming application I am making in WPF debut titled: IWANT – Weaponizing Agile.  As I sat staring the blank canvas, I began to panic a little, as I did not want to just re-create a grid of cards and declare victor to do that is to admit I have not thought about who the end user is.  Instead, I went for a walk and asked myself a simple question – Why does it have to be card and what else could it be? The more I thought about the form of media given to every SCRUM disciple out there the more I started to question its sanity – more to the point, who the freaking hell said a card was the best solution to this problem? A group of people who conjured up this religion we actively calls SCRUM today?

The SCRUM founding fathers if you will have some brilliance, but I’m not sure user experience or human phycology was at the forefront of their minds when producing this thing we call User Story management via card sorting.  I would however put forward the theory that they were thinking of ways to force we humans into the existence of tearing down our natural instincts to cluster / chunk information in forms that are more isolated / streamlined.

Armed with this moment of brilliance, I sat down and began grinding pixels. I began to think about the problem in the fashion of idea clouds, just like as if we were about to read these stories in comic book form.  Yes, comic book form – as name any child today that doesn’t find reading more enjoyable in such format and I put it to you that we adults need to recapture our lost youth as much as we can.

The Objectives.

Like all good experimenters, I need to assign some objectives to this newfound awareness. They are along these lines:

  • I want the ability to visualize clusters of user stories in ways that respect my primitive instincts but at the same time respect the existence of SCRUM.
  • I want the ability engage the experience with a sense of depth that is not flat, lifeless and typical response to visual grid ways.
  • I want the ability to get in and get out when I need to resurrect a User Story of a specific type.
  • I want the ability to just create in a fast responsive manner and I want the said creation to have dependency links throughout that are of contextual relevance.

The solution.

Armed with this tall order, I bring you thine creation.

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The Terminology

Story Clusters. A Story cluster is a group of user stories that fall under a theme / category. The idea is to allow teams to partition their ideas into taxonomy of their choosing but more so to ensure they can feed the idea threads around a particular concept – Security? Customer Management? File Storage etc as but examples of "theming".

User Story vs System Story. They are one in the same the difference however is to give developers or engineering minded people a free pass in terms of allocating some ideas to either a person(a) or a technical agent of their choosing. An example of this is

"As a User I want the ability to save my blog posts so that I can share it with others!" – User Story.
"As a UI Client I want the ability to CRUD a blog post so that I can allow users to manage blog posts" – System Story.

Some SCRUM masters may have a mental seizure at the sight of this – deal with it you jackasses.  The reality is when someone sits down to write a User Story majority of the time the  person is trying to force themselves out of a cycle of developer eyes and into something, they are not. The purpose in my opinion of this exercise is to tease out the idea; we can break it down further later but get the idea captured!

The UI Teardown.

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View Finder. It’s here you will find the User Story cluster(s). The clusters are grouped into a cloud like existence and the more stories found within the cluster the larger it becomes. I choose to enlarge these to enforce dominance for one and secondly to attack the end user in a subliminal manner by encouraging those to break it down into a separate cluster if it is getting to large. This is exactly like a container of any kind, if you keep cramming it with stuff it gets bigger and eventually you start to think about the problem again but now are already looking at ways to fork its contents.

Notice also, how the clusters are blurred and have a sense of depth.  This is to ensure the end user does not take what is in front of them for granted, I want them to focus and I want them to explore the data. I do not want "at a glance" viewing; I want interaction and comprehension around what is in front of them. Explore, interact and adapt.

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Search Box.  Given the end user for this product is someone who’s stuck in the mental model of "As a blah I want.." style thinking, it’s important for me to not interrupt that conscious thought.  If they are looking to find a specific task, user story or note of any kind then it’s here I expect them to take a leap of faith and search.  Important thing to note here is I am not relying on this massive data grid or tree control to allow my users access to the data.  Why not? It is important to not give them a crutch to lean on; I want them to think about what they are asking and how they ask it. Providing a DataGrid or Tree Control is encouraging them to embrace perspective memory way to much (i.e. they will next want the ability to pin that area of navigation, taking up valuable real estate simply because at the heart of it they don’t want to have to collapse / scroll to that sweet spot again). Instead get them into UX Rehab, ask them to treat the software as if they were turning to a co-worker and asking "hey, where did you put that file.." – behold the power of search!

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Create Only. Notice I do not give much in the way other than "Create" options at first.  I do this deliberately as I want the end user to build first tear down / fix next. Find the thing you want to do other stuff to but here, all I am interested in is giving you ways to add to the web of data.
Some of you may notice I used a Skull as the icon to represent the User Story.  The reason I choose that icon instead of a typical silhouette head of a human is simple – we are creating digital Shakespeare.  You are telling a story, so it is fitting – that and this is the spot where good ideas may go to die.

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Stats.  I am a sucker for fun facts or a sense of proportion but more importantly, it is about keeping a score of what is going on. Too many times software hides data to the point where you either underestimate or overestimate the complexities of a given problem because of such things as software hiding key pieces of information.  I choose to keep a cycle of statistics around Story telling within iWANT so that as users are working on the feature catalogs of tomorrow they are also getting some fun facts so that they may turn to one another with stuff like

"oh shi.. We have like 300 stories added this month..man, we are never going to get this done in time.." (Invoking maybe a rethink in customer expectations?) etc.

The Conclusion.

My concept is unproven and untested. It may very well fail or it could succeed but right now any feedback or questions around this approach is simply "I think" and not "I know".  What I am confident about is that it will spark a different round of thinking in terms of how one approaches user story telling. My objectives are clear enough to outline the overall intent that is to provide a safe haven for undisciplined and disciplined thinking around what goes into software of tomorrow.  SCRUM is a little too religious in tis procedures and I find at times it goes against the grain of human psychology thus forcing a practice into place that at times is unnatural.

iWANT is a solution I am to challenge this thinking but at the same time allow development teams of all sizes the ability to get the administrative overheads out of the way fast, cleanly and smoothly so that they can focus on writing code, grinding pixels and marketing their product(s).

Related Posts:

5 Things you ought to know when designing metro screens.

Having recently, gone full METRO lately, I have in turn created what I’d call my 5 things you ought to know going full metro list.  Here are five (5) things you probably might want to know if you head down this path like me?

1. Color choice is critical.

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The thing that stands out about most "metro" inspired designs is they pretty much settle on around 2-3 primary colors of choice. They also then rely heavily on either black or white (maybe a shade of gray) for their canvas as well.

It’s probably good thing to start by choosing your canvas to paint on upfront. White is great, it gives you more room to play around with and does not come across as obvious in terms of empty space. Black is also great, but keep in mind your empty space may become more obvious if you do not plan your designs as carefully.

Once you have outlined your canvas now comes the choice of a base color, any other accent you choose feeds off this color. Selection of your base color needs to keep one thing in mind; it will haunt you throughout your design.

The base color defines the "chrome" boundaries will give the user the pattern they have made a choice on something. Having often used the base color as both the partial chrome and when it comes to a selection. The reason I do this is in my own warped mind, the selection is part of the chrome, it’s essentially a choice an active one at that so why does it need to be constantly visible in terms of difference? In that I’ve made my choice, I’ve noted the choice is visibly in place, let’s move on please and focus on the parts I haven’t made a choice on, am about to make a choice on and/or need to figure out whether a choice needs to be made?

After you have defined your base color, head on over to Adobe’s Kuler site (that or use the Kuler extension found within Photoshop CS4+).  Inject your base colors into the "create" area, and then decide how your color compliments by selecting an alternative/complimentary color. Kuler is pretty spot on in terms of helping you decide this, as if you choose a bright green; you have many colors to choose.

iWantUsrMgmt

Example, one of the designs shown uses a bright blue, at first it seemed quite bright – but then after while of using it (own opinion), becomes a welcome relief from the green.

This alternative or secondary accent in your color, should become the color in which you decorate your buttons or inputs into.

Example, if you look under the hood of a new car, you will see areas colored yellow whereas the rest is the same color of the engine etc. Car manufacturers do this on purpose, they want you to touch yellow yourself but if it is not yellow and you are not mechanically minded – leave alone.

Having liked this principle and having fused it into designs constantly and personally used the secondary accent color to draw people’s attention to the fact "I’m ok if you touch this, you won’t break anything if you do" thinking. Personally, not entirely sure how popular it is amongst the UX/UI fraternity.  So far, no users have made obvious complaints from this approach.

I have not seen data that contradicts my theory here, but ultimately the data I do see is if the end users are given a breadcrumb trail in terms of pattern recognition, you have won them over – complexity and efficiency formula’s aside.

image One digresses; finally keep your color palette to around four (4) shades in total. It forces you to keep your selection pretty consistent and close to the base as possible.  Having liked this approach, as it prevents color conflicts occurring and again. It also maintains a pattern that is consistent – almost expected.

That is the interpretation of metro and colors so far – personal opinion based off current design style (which is slowly evolving – personal UI journey here).

2. Typography consistency is good, focus on that.

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Designs shown are an example of how they do not keep typography settings consistent, as they will often fluctuate between 8pt to 30pt text depending on design purpose. These choices made only during the testing out layout composition from wireframes phase. The idea here is to see how it all stacks together inside Photoshop before you take the concept over into Expression Blend.

Once inside Expression Blend – much like HTML/CSS – I settle on a consistent and semantically named theme sizes.  An example would be H1FontSize would be around 30pt, H2FontSize would be around 24pt and so on. The key here is to keep the approach in which you attack your UI consistent in your font size settings – goes without saying.

FontSizes are not the only issue, UpperCase, Camel Case, Lowercase etc. are all equally important.  Do try to keep these consistent to their relative function, in that navigation kept lowercase but headings etc. all uppercase.

Zune team does this with the Zune Desktop, the actual navigation, and nav-headings and maybe category headings are all lowercase. The rest of the text fluctuates between all Uppercase and normal case

Not entirely convinced of a killer formula here as its one of those areas where more experimentation could be done around what can work vs. what cannot.  Typography experts will definitely have an opinion here. Have yet to see one that outlines this. (Ping me if you have any bookmarks in this area of expertise).

Color choice per heading is also something that seems to have a bit of a formula around when it comes to my designs. I’ll often use the base color on labels that I think are important enough to capture the users attention but then use opposite to the canvas colors in order to retain a normal state.

I typically think about this as a case of highs and lows in vocal tones. In that if describing a current screen to someone, one might say, "this is the USER MANAGEMENT screen within the security management area". This is personally, done naturally via voice emphasis the "User Management" vs. "Security Management". As who cares where it lives, it is not the end is it.

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Welcome feedback on this approach, but the point is color selection helps carry that forward.

3. Text Chrome vs. Text Content balance it out.

This is one of those pet hates I have with the current implementation on Windows Phone 7 – in one way the team decided to abandon chrome artifacts in favor of text, the problem I personally have is switching gears between "Chrome" text and "Content" text.  I find myself at times pausing and thinking, "ok, can I touch that..nope..ok what’s touchable here..".

imageOvertime, personally, will develop some muscle memory in this space and will soon learn what the differences are but in given the current metro virginity I have, I just noticed this as a pattern which was not obvious (again, let users notice the scent for pattern recognition).
Would one put heading labels etc. as being the "Chrome" text category? Striking a balance here of too much text is important and again color choice can help you out here. I rely heavily on monochrome filled shapes and text in my current metro style, so for me it’s a demon I’m always trying to wrestle to the ground – keep my text minimal and restrain from too much on the screen, especially if there is allot of data to view.

4. Element minimizations are ok, but add some life please.

Over lunch today, a colleague and I were discussing the metro way of life really does not allow too much in the way of gradients or watermark elements – most of the designs I have seen in this space are clean / white.
Is purity in no element additions bad or good?

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I for one cannot honestly answer that as I am the type of guy who often just does not know to back off on the decals, I love a busy UI and it has nothing to do with the user experience it is more of an artistic habit.

Agreed, less is more, but sprinkle in some energy into the user interface. Think about what the end user is supposed to feel or relate to the said User Interface. One screen rather has a lot of fun with the idea that a boring concept like task tracking can take on more of a Bourne Identity / CIA feel.  I then throw in a world map, as hey, all Fantasy User Interface(s) within Movies always have the map of the world behind them when hacking a large mainframe or accessing global data of some kind (it works, I love it, back off).

Point is, don’t be a lemming and follow each other over the pure white cliff, sprinkle in some decals to take the edge of the seriousness of the UI and allow the end user to feel a small connection with the work you’ve put in front of them.

5. Fantasy User Interfaces in movies are your best friend.

Having found it difficult to get inspiration sources for metro and instead turning to local train stations etc., but they also have a much-prescribed look and feel throughout Australia.  Often one use Google/Bing images and searches other transit signs etc. to get a pick out of what is out there in the wild – metro style.

The main source however for inspiration, is to watch movies that have kickass user interfaces in them and then pick them apart frame by frame. I analyze them and try to force myself to think outside the box more and how these concepts could relate to real-life user interfaces.

I like what Fantasy UI brings to the table, it creates this nice illusion within a TV Show or Movie that convinces you in under 30seconds that the actor is doing something high tech.  It is obviously not real software, but you forgive it and go "yeah, suppose, I could buy what you’re selling here" for that brief moment.

I think it’s important to call that out, as it’s at the core of probably our reaction to software and it gives off this pure signal of "that works" moment.

Metro can lend itself to simplistic Fantasy UI’s, as often the user interfaces are very basic in their structure. Take the work of Mark Coleran (current geek UI hero); looking at his work, he has kept the UI basic in terms of color choice, composition and decals.  The actual magic comes to live when there is animations etc. on it, but in the end, it is relatively simple in composition. – It works!

This is the only reason I am remotely convinced metro as a style so far (the one I am working towards anyway) might have some legs. It is not entirely rainbows and kisses, but at the same time, it is.

Also, look at HTML/CSS sites within csselite.com galleries for inspiration as well. As these sites typically rely quite heavily on CSS for their design governance – so in a way the metro concept really hails from this if you ask me…

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Going full Metro.

I uploaded one single Metro inspired design that I once did for Microsoft India/Asia and the next thing I know I’m being asked to do more for other clients. I shouldn’t complain, money is money and I’m the type of guy who will unzip if the price is right – there’s a lasting image.

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It seems that when you show someone large monochrome simple shaped designs, folks often gravitate towards them over some of my other usual gradient filled drop shadow filled designs. At first, I am shocked if not appalled at how they could dismiss one design which takes me much longer for a design that essentially looks like a colored in Wireframe mockup.

Metro simply put feels like I am shoplifting design. It’s not a lot of work and the main focus I have is controlling myself from adding too many elements to the screen or keeping the typography unbalanced. Color selection is also important as you have to keep that tightly controlled otherwise it ends up being a rainbow pixel barfing.

Metro is Developer art friendly.

One such client I have at the moment has expressed an interest in getting me to come in – as per usual – at the tail end of a sprint season of coding and well make it look “pretty”. They have also asked if I could weaponise the approach so that other teams within the company could leverage the same work within their projects.

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What to do.. I need to make my design(s) for WPF/Silverlight engaging, useable and lastly repeatable. Metro like a super hero from the 1950’s, makes its way to the top of the conscious thought pile. Turns out those crazy beige loving engineering culture filled geeks in Redmond may actually be onto something here. Metro’s secret is that it creates a way in which designers and developers can finally reach a compromise on design.

Using large blocky shapes and minimalist approach to screen while peppering large amounts of typography whilst also not saying the words “Wireframes colored in” – boom, you have a design revolution within the .NET community its name – METRO.

Metro isn’t all monochrome rainbows and puppies…

There is a catch though with Metro, one that as a designer is starting to ride my last nerve. They all look the freaking same. I can’t help it, I get into a pattern and before I know it I’m knocking out a mutated design that I did 5x metro designs ago. I feel like I am cheating now, it feels bad that I am in what I call a design rutt and It’s hard to break out of given most inspirational sites like TheFWA.com have no metro goodness.

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There are only so many times I can look at the Microsoft Health / Futures videos before I also end up copying their designs without realizing it. I simply crave others like me who are injecting large enough doses of Metro to stop a gradient filled elephant in its tracks. I need to get off this crack or I’ll end up living in a typecast world filled with basic shapes and colors.

Metro’s concept isn’t isolated to Microsoft.

I am also starting to see the world in glyphs, typography and bold colors. I pass a highway sign and I go “ooh, that color could be used in a design of mi…stop it!…stop..”. I pass elevator filled corridors and I can’t but help notice Helvetica is the weapon of choice most of the time in commercial metro filled buildings. I’m going full metro!

Metro is the future of glass.

This morning, watching my usual twitter feeds I come across a re-tweet from one of my design demi-god like heroes – Mark Coleran. In this link filled with the future(s) nectar I so willingly crave, is a video projecting what the world would be like if we had more glass and multi-touch screens. At first I am absorbing this eye candy like a fantasy user interface addict that I am – only, boom..there it is, metro.

I’m Scott Barnes, and I am now addicted to metro. If you or a family member are suffering from Metro affixation, please contact me together we can find a way out of this disease / addiction.

If you want to see more of my designs, you can do so here:

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The principles of Microsoft Metro UI decoded

The phrase “authentically digital” makes me want to barf rainbow pixels. This was a quote pulled from a Windows Phone 7 reviewer when he first got a hold of the said phone. At first you could arguably rail against the concept of what Authentically Digital means and simply lock it into the yet another marketing fluff to jazz a situation in an unnecessary way.

I did, until I sat back and thought about it more.

Issues Presented.

Metro in itself has its own design language attached, they cite a bunch of commandments that the overall experience is to respect and adhere that is to say, someone has actually sat down and thought the concept through (rare inside Microsoft UX). I like what the story is pitching and I agree in most parts with the laws of Metro that is to say, I am partially onboard but not completely.

I’m on board with what Metro could be, but am not excited about where it’s at right now. I state this as I think the future around software is going through what the fashion industry has done for generations – a cultural rebirth / reboot.

Looking back at Retro not metro.

Looking at the past, back in the late 90’s the world was filled with bold flat looking user interfaces that made use of a limited color palette given the said video capabilities back then wasn’t exactly the greatest on earth. EGA was all the rage and we were seeing hints of VGA whilst hating the idea that CGA was our first real cut at graphics.

EGA eventually faded out and we found ourselves in the VGA world (color TV vs. black n white if you will), life was grand and with 32bit color vs. 16bit color wars coming to a conclusion the worlds creative space moved forward leaps and bounds. Photoshop users found themselves creating some seriously wicked UI, stuff that made you at the time thank the UI gods for plug-ins like alien ware etc as they gave birth to what I now call the glow/bevel revolution in user interface design.

Chrome inside software started to take on an interesting approach, I actually think you could probably trace its origins of birth in terms of creative new waves back to products like Winamp & Windows Media player skins. The idea that you could take a few assets and feed them into mainstream products like this and in turn create this experience on the desktop that wasn’t a typical application was interesting (not to mention Macromedia Director’s influence here either).

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I think we all simply got on a user interface sugar induced high, we effectively went through our awkward 80’s fashion stage, where crazy weird looking outfits / music etc was pretty much served up to the world to gorge on. This feast of weird UI has probably started to wind down to thanks to the evolution of web applications, more importantly what they in turn taught us slowly.

Web taught the desktop how to design.

The first lesson we have learnt about design in user interface from the web is simple – less is more. Apple knocks this out of the park extremely well and I’d argue Apple wasn’t its creator, the Web 2.0 crowd as they use to be know was. The Web 2.0 crowd found ways to simply keep the UI basic to the point and yet visually engaging but with minimalist views in mind. It worked, and continues to work to this day – even on Apple.com

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Companies like Microsoft have seen this approach to designing user interface and came to a fairly swift rationale that if one were to create a platform for developers & designers to work in a fashion much like the web, well desktop applications themselves could take on an entirely new approach.

History lesson is over.

I now look at Metro thinking back on the past evolution and can’t but help think that we’re going back to a reboot of EGA world, in that we are looking for an alternative to design in order to attract / differentiate from the past. Innovation is a scarce commodity in today’s software business, so we in turn are looking at ways to re-energize our thinking around software design but in a way that doesn’t create a cognitive overload – be radical, be daring but don’t be disruptive to process/task.

Inside Microsoft what I can presume, the ECG group found a way to hijack existing patterns in terms of user recognition and make use of modern signage found inside bus station, railways, elevator marshal areas etc and declared this to be the way out of the excess UI scourge.

I like it, I like this source of inspiration but my first instinct was simple – I hope your main source of success isn’t the reliance on typography, especially in this 7second attention economy of today. Sure enough, there it is, the reliance in Windows phone 7. Large typography taking over areas of where chrome used to live in order to fix what chrome once did. The removal of color / boundary textures in order to create large empty space filled with 70px+ Typography with half-seen half-hidden typography is what Microsoft’s vision of tomorrow looks like.

Metro isn’t Wp7, Metro is Microsoft Future Vision.

My immediate reaction to seeing the phone (before the public did) back inside Microsoft was "are you guys high, this is not what we should be doing, we are close but keep at it, you’re nearly there! don’t rush this!". This reaction was the equivalent of me looking at a Category 5 Tornado, demanding it turn around and seek another town to smash to bits – brave, forward thinking but foolish.

This phone has to ship, its already had two code resets, get it done, fix it later is pretty much the realistic vision behind Windows Phone 7 – NOT – Metro.

Disbelief?

Take a look at what the Industry Innovation Group has produced via a company called Oh, Hello. In this vision of tomorrow’s software (2019 to be exact) you’ll see a strong reliance on the metro laws of design.

The Principles of Metro vs. Microsoft Future Vision.

In order to start a conversation around Metro in the near future, one has to identify with the level of thinking associated with its creation. Below is the principles of metro – more to the point, these are the design objectives and creative brief if you will on what one should approach metro with.

Clean, Light, Open, Fast

  • Feels Fast and Responsive
  • Focus on Primary Tasks
  • Do a Lot with Very Little
  • Fierce Reduction of Unnecessary Elements
  • Delightful Use of Whitespace
  • Full Bleed Canvas

You could essentially distill these points down to one word – minimalist. Take a minimalist approach to your user interface and the rewards are simple – sense of responsiveness in user interface, reliance on less information (which in turn increases decision response in the end user) and a reduction in creative noise (distracting elements that add no value other than it was cool at the time).

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In Figure 1, we I’d strongly argue you could adhere to these principles. This image is from the Microsoft Sustainability video, but inside it you’ve got a situation which respects the concept of Metro as after all given the wide open brief here under one principle you could argue either side of this.

Personally, I find the UI in question approachable. It makes use of a minimalist approach, provides the end user with a central point of focus. Chrome is in place, but its not intrusive and isn’t over bearing. Reliance on typography is there, but at the same time it approaches in a manner that befits the task at hand.

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Microsoft’s vision of this principle comes out via the phone user interface above (Figure 2). I’m not convinced here that this I the right approach to minimalism. I state this, as the iconography within the UI is inconsistent – some are contained others are just glyphs indicating state?. The containment within the actual message isn’t as clear in terms of spacing – it feels as if the user interface is willing to sacrifice content in order to project who the message is from (Frank Miller). The subject itself has a lower visual priority along with the attachment within – more to the point, the attachment has no apparent containment line in place to highlight the message has an attachment?

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Microsoft’s original vision of device’s future has a different look to where Windows Phone 7 today. Yet I’d state that the original vision is more in line with the principles than actual Windows Phone 7. It initially has struck a balance between the objectives provided.

The iconography is consistent and contained, typography is balanced and invites the users attention on important specifics – What happened, where and oh by the way more below… and lastly it makes use of visuals such as the photo of the said person. The UI also leverages the power of peripheral vision to give the user a sense of spatial awareness in that, its subtle but takes on the look and feel of an “airport” scenario.

Is this the best UI for a device today? No, but it’s approach is more in tune with the first principle then arguably the current Windows Phone 7’s approach which is reliance of fierce amounts of whitespace, reduction in iconography to the point where they clearly have a secondary reliance and lastly emphasis on parts of the UI which I’d argue as having the lowest importance (i.e. the screen before would of indicated who the message is from, now I’m more focused on what the message is about!).

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Celebrate Typography

  • Type is Beautiful, Not Just Legible
  • Clear, Straightforward Information Design
  • Uncompromising Sensitivity to Weight, Balance and Scale

I love a good font as the next designer. I hoard these like my icons, in fact It’s a disease and if you’re a font lover a must see video is Helvetica. That being said, there is a balance between text and imagery, this balance is one struck often daily in a variety of mediums – mainly advertising.

Imagery will grab your attention first as it taps into a primitive component within your brain, the part that works without your realizing its working. The reason being is your brain often is in auto-pilot, constantly scanning for patterns in your every day environment. It’s programmed to identify with three primative checks, fear, food and sex. Imagery can tap into these striaght away, as if you have an image of an attractive person looking down at a beverage you can’t but help first think “that’ person’s cute (attractive bias) and what are they looking at? oh its food!…” All this happens despite there being text on the said image prior to your brain actually taking time to analyse the said image. To put it bluntly, we do judge a book by its cover with extrem amount of prejudice. We are shallow, we do prefer to view attractive people over ugly unless we are conveying a fear focused point “If you smoke, your teeth will turn into this guys – eewwww” (Notice why anti-cigarette companies don’t use attractive people?)

Back to the point at hand, celebrating typography. The flaw in this beast despite my passion for fonts, is that given we are living in a 7 second attention economy (we scan faster than we have before) reliance on typography can be a slippery slope.

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In Figure 6, a typical futuristic newspaper that has multi-touch (oh but I dream), you’ll notice the various levels of usage of typography (no secret to news papers today). The headings on purpose approach the user with both different font types, font weight, uppercase vs lowercase and for those of you out there really paying attention, at times different kerning / spacing.

The point being, the objective is that typography is in actuality processed first via your brain as a glyph, a pattern to decode. You’ve all seen that link online somewhere where the wrod is jumbled in a way that you first are able to read but then straight away identify the spelling / order of the siad words. The fact I just did it then along with poor grammar / spelling within this blog, indicates you agree to that point. You are forgiving majority of the time towards this as given you’ve established a base understanding of the english language and combine that with your attention span being so fast paced – you are more focused on absorbing the information than picking apart how it got to you.

Typography can work in favor of this, but it comes at a price between balancing imagery / glyphs with words.

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The above image (Figure 7) is an example of Metro in the wild. Typography here is in not to bad of a shape, except for a few things. The first being the “Pictures” text is making use of a large amount of the canvas, to the point where the background image and heading are probably duking it out for your attention. The second part of this is the part that irritates me the most, in that the size of the secondary heading with the list items is quite close in terms of scale. Aside from the font weight being a little bolder, there is no real sense of separation here compared to what it should or could be if one was to respect the principle of celebrating typography.

Is Segoe UI the vision of the only font allowed? I hope not. Is the font weight “light” and “regular” the only two weights attached to the UI? what relevance does the background hold to the area – pictures? ok, flimsy at best contextual relevance but in comparison to the Figure 3 above a subtle usage of watermarks etc. to tap into your peripheral vision would provide you more basis to grapple onto – pattern wise that is. Take these opinions and combine the reality that there is no sense of containment and I’m just not convinced this is in tune with the principle. It’s like the designers of metro on windows phone 7 took 5% of the objectives and just ran with it.

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Comparisons between Figure7 and Figure8, the contrast in usage of typography is different but yet both using the same one and only font – Segoe UI. The introduction of color helps you separate the elements within the user interface, the difference in scale is obvious along with weight and transforms (uppercase / lowercase). Almost 80% of this User Interface is typography driven yet the difference in both is what I hope to be obvious.

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Don’t despair, it’s not all dark and gloom for the Windows Phone 7 future. Figure 9 (Above) is probably one of the strongest hints of “yes!” moment for the siad phone I could find. Typography is used but add visual elements and approach the design of typography slightly differently and you may just have a stake in this principle. The downside is the choice of color, orange and light gray on white is ok for situations that have increased scale, but on a device where lighting can be hit/miss, probably need to approach this with more bolder colors. The picture in the background also creeps into your field of view over the text, especially in the far right panel.

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Alive in motion

  • Feels Responsive and Alive
  • Creates a System
  • Gives Context to Improve Usability
  • Transition Between UI is as Important as the Design of the UI
  • Adds Dimension and Depth

I can’t really talk to these principles via  text on a blog, but what I would say is that the Windows Phone attacks this relatively ok. I still think the FlipToBack transition is to tacky and the reality between how the screens transition in and out at times isn’t as attractive as for example the iPhone (ie I really dig how the iphone zooms the UI back and to the front?). The usage of kinetic scrolling is also one that gives you the sense of control, like there are some really well oiled ball bearings under the UI’s plane that if you flick it up, down, right or left the sense of velocity and friction is there.

If you zoom in and out of the UI, the sense that the UI will expand and contract in a fluid nature also gives you the element of discovery  (Progressive disclosure) but can also give you a sense of less work attached.

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Taking Figure 11 & Figure 12 (start and end) one could imagine a lot of possibilities here in terms of the transition were to work. The reality that Reptile Node expands out to give way to types of reptiles is hopefully obvious whilst at the same time the focus is on reptile is also in place (via a simple gradient / drop shadow to illustrate depth). Everything could snap together in under a second or maybe two but it’s something you approach with a degree of purpose driven direction. The direction is “keep your eye on what I’m about to change, but make note of these other areas I’m now introducing” – you have to move with the right speed, right transition effect and at the same time don’t distract to heavily in areas that aren’t important.

Content, Not Chrome

  • Delight through Content Instead of Decoration
  • Reduce Visuals that are Not Content
  • Content is the UI
  • Direct interaction with the Content

Chrome is important as content. I dare anyone to provide any hint of scientific data to highlight the negative effects of grouping in user interface design. Chrome can be over used, but at the same time it can be a life saver especially when the content becomes over bearing (most line of business applications today suffer from this).

Having chrome serves a purpose, that is to provide the end user a boundary of content within a larger canvas. An example is below

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I could list more examples but because I’m taking advantage of Microsoft Sustainability video, I figure this would be sufficient examples of how chrome is able to breakup the user interface into contextual relevance. Chrome provides a boundary, the areas of control if you will in order to separate content into piles of semantic action(s). Specifically in Figure 15, the brown chrome is much like your dashboard on the car ie you’re main focus is the road ahead, that’s your content of focus but at the same time having access to other pieces of information can be vital to your successful outcome. Chrome also provides you access to actions in which you can carry out other principles of human interaction – e.g., adjustment of window placement and separation from within other areas offers the end user a chance of tucking the UI into an area for later resurrection (perspective memory).

Windows Phone 7 for example prefers to levearge the power of Typography and background imagery as its “chrome” of choice. I’m in stern disagreement with this as the phone itself projects what I can only describe as uncontained vast piles of emptiness and less on actual content. The biggest culprit of all for me is the actual Outlook client within the said phone.

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The Outlook UI for me is like this itch I have to scratch, I want the messages to have subtle separation and lastly I want the typography to have a balance between “chrome” and “whitespace”.

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Chrome can also not just be about the outer regions of a window/UI, it has to do with the internal components of the user interface – especially in the input areas. The above (Figure 17) is an example of Windows Phone 7 / Metro keyboard(s). At first glance they are simple, clean and open, but the part that captures my attention the most is the lack of chrome or more to the point separation. I say lack, as the purpose of chrome here would be to simulate tactile touch without actually giving you tactile touch. The keyboard to the right has ok height, but the width feels cramped and when I type on the said device It feels like I’m going to accidently hit the other keys (so I’m now more cautious as a result).

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The above (Figure 18) offers the same concept but now with “chrome” if you will. Nice even spacing, solid use of principles of the Typography and clear defined separation in terms of actions below.

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iPhone has found a way to also strike a balance between chrome and the previous stated principles. The thing that struck me the most about the two keyboards is not which is better, but more how the same problem was thought about differently.  Firstly as you type an enlarged character shows – indicating you hit that character (reward), secondly the actual keys have a similar scale in terms of height/width proportions yet the key itself having a drop shadow (indicates depth) to me is more inviting to touch then a flat – (its like which do you prefer? a holographic keyboard or one with tactile touch, physical embodiment?). If you were to also combine both sound and vibration as the user types it can also help trick the end users sense into a comfortable input.

I digress from Chrome, but the point I’m making is chrome serves a purpose and don’t be quick to declare the principles of Metro as being the “yes!” moment as I’d argue the jury is still not able to formulate a definitive answer either way.

Authentically Digital

  • Design for the Form Factor
  • Don’t Try to be What It’s NOT
  • Be Direct

I can’t talk to this to much other than to say this isn’t a principle its more marketing fluff (the only one with a tenuous at best attachment to design principles would be “design for the form factor” meaning don’t try and scale down a desktop user interface into a device. Make the user interface react to the device not the other way around.

Summary

Metro is a concept, Microsoft has had a number of goes at this concept and I for one am not on board with its current incarnation inside the Windows Phone 7 device. I think the team have lost sight of the principles they themselves have put forward and given the Industry Innovation Group have painted the above picture as to what’s possible, it’s not like the company itself hasn’t a clue. There is a balance to be struck here between what Metro could be and is today. There are parts of Windows Phone 7 that are attractive and then there are parts where I feel it’s either been rushed or engineering overtook design in terms of reasons for what is going on the way it is (maybe the design team couldn’t be bothered arguing to have more time/money spent on propping up areas where it falls short).

People around the world will have mixed opinions about what metro is or isn’t and lastly what makes a good design vs what doesn’t. We each pass our own judgement on what is attractive and what isn’t that’s nothing new to you. What is new to you is the rationale that software design is taking a step back into the past in order to propel itself into the future. That is, the industry is rebooting itself again but this time the focus is on simplicity and by approaching metro with the Microsoft Future’s vision vs the Windows Phone 7 today, I have high hopes for this proposed design language.

If the future is taking Zune Desktop + Windows Phone 7 today and simply rinse / repeating, then all this will become is a design fad, one that really doesn’t offer much depth other than limited respite from the typical desktop / device UI we’ve become used to. If this is enough, then in reality all it takes is a newer design methodology to hit our computer screens and we’re off chasing the next evolution without consistency in our approach (we simply are just chasing shiny objects).

I’ve got a limited time on this earth and I’d like to live in a world where the future is about breaking down large amounts of unreadable / unattractive information into parts that propel our race forward and not stifle it into bureaucratic filled celebrations of mediocrity.

Apple as a company has kick started a design evolution, and say what you will about the brand but the iphone has dared everyone to simply approach things differently. Windows Phone team were paralyzed at times with a sense of “not good enough” when it came to releasing the vnext phone, it went through a number of UI and code resets to get it to the point it’s at now. It had everything to do with the iPhone, it had to dominate its market share again and it had to attract consumers in a more direct fashion. It may not have the entire world locked to the device, but it’s made a strong amount of interruption into what’s possible. It did not do this via the Metro design language, they simply made up their own internally (who knows what that really looks like under the covers).

Microsoft has responded and declared metro design as its alternative to the Apple culture, the question really now is can the company maintain the right amount of discipline required in order to respect the proposed principles.

I’d argue so far, they haven’t but I am hopeful of Windows 8.

Lead with design, engineer second.

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Future UX showreels.

image There is something important you must do, in that if you are a regular reader of my blog and often read my rants about how UX this and UX that, then you need to get to the core of why I exist in this space.

Grab a beer, wine, Red Bull whatever your liquid of choice that kind of breaks you out of your mundane existence and sit down and watch the following videos. I guarantee you that if you’re not excited enough to crack open Flash, Silverlight, AfterEffects, Photoshop or whatever your software poison of choice is, then well, this space is simply something you’re not going to be great at – maybe good, but never great.

Warning: Do not sit too close to your monitor as drooling has been known to occur

(1) First

. Let’s do a lap around Mark Coleran’s private collection, I despise this guy’s talent and the constant opportunities he got to work on these projects and never once did he Skype me before hand asking for a chance to do them. *waves fist at Mark, damn you..daaaamn you!*..

Coleran Reel 2008.06 HD from Mark Coleran on Vimeo.

(2) Second

Microsoft has been slammed recently for lack of creative innovation. Look, its mostly true, the company does fumble a lot around this space but every now and then, they outsource to the right agency who manages to tell a story that exceeds peoples expectations of what the company is capable of. Microsoft Sustainability video by Oh, Hello in Seattle, is an example of this. If you suddenly don’t get all excited about Silverlight/WPF after this, then you’re just not into Microsoft.

(3) Third

This ones a local vision, but its from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA). It’s there vision on how the future will look via the CBA. The comedian in me chuckles a little at the notion that if I ring the hotline i get an immediate answer from a bank manager, but, it’s not about that its about painting a vision and for that, I’ll bank with CBA. Would love to know which agency did this? (Anyone know?)

(4) Fourth

Back to Mr Coleran, he’s done it again that talented so and so  (UPDATE: Not Mark Coleran, its from Peter Menich and 27Forty Studios for Alcatel). I like this one as I look at the concepts used and I see a lot of commonality in patterns used in either today’s UI’s as well as some of the future UI’s that others have through-up as well. My thinking is that if its a common collective vision it stands a greater chance of becoming reality.

(5) Fifth

I love this concept of how mainstream media like magazine can be turned into more of a interactive experience – in that no longer just static pieces of information. Kindle, iPad, Courier etc are all hinting in this space so its not that far removed from fantasy vs reality.

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

 

(6) Sixth

This one is kind of weird, I kind of feel like Homer Simpson in that episode he finds his facial features in a Japanese Video and getting freaked out but excited at the same time. I don’t mind this one as it kind of goes to the extreme end on how Augmented Reality could occur should the right eyewear or face shield be built (think IRONMAN). (Thanks to: infocycde for the link)

(7) Seventh

This is the minority report come to life, and its exactly how a concept that Mark Coleran worked on in a movie suddenly appears in real life, again, FUI meets reality. Thanks Mark for the heads up on this one!

oblong’s tamper system 1801011309 from john underkoffler on Vimeo.

(8) Eighth.

Cynergy Systems have put together a brilliant presentation of how a portable device meets a surface table, whilst allowing a buying style concept to occur. It makes me think that whilst everything these days is pushing to be online that with this concept a store owner can still exist, but the physical component to a store doesn’t have to exist. In that you go into a store, speak with the store owner etc and simply drag the book into your device for purchase etc. I like this concept and what’s cool also about it is the fact its already done, it’s not so much a Fantasy User Interface for the future.

(9) Ninth

.<insert your find here> If you know of other showreels like this, please send me an email or drop a comment below with the URL, as I want to build out this page to include them all. I want them like a crack addict needs a new fix.

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FUI – Igniting the Fantasy User Interface spark.

 

Introduction

Every single time I’ve been given a brief to design something, I often will browse the internet for inspiration, in that I just need something to help nudge me into the direction of an idea. I also constantly keep mug shot’s of user interfaces that I often enjoy interacting with or spot parts of that simply are well designed.

In the past probably 3 years, Industrial Design has also gotten a hold of me, as the more and more I see how devices are emerging onto the world technology landscape the more and more I get excited about the software that drives them – hence my love for Flash/Silverlight over the years. These devices are starting to take into consideration the end to end experience, not just from the physical touch but also through to the emotive touch provided by the device once it’s given life.

At times however, these fake devices are simply a fantasy concept, illusion and/or to be continued. The would be inventors throw their idea out into the wild and soon it becomes a feeding frenzy in that it’s almost a glimpse to all as to what the future holds.

I myself, get excited by the idea of being the designer for such devices. In that, what if I got a job tomorrow and it was to design the next graphical interface for x new invention. That’s where the true fun is in software design in my opinion, its the ability to shape a culture through hardware and software at the same time. iPhone, Zune, XBOX etc are all doing this now, and its a no brainer at the success they are having.

In light of this core passion of mine, I had an idea today, what if I dared all to do just that, design the UI for the next generation invention. What would you all come up with? and how would you explain what it is you did?

Getting Started

I constantly am being asked every time I meet with developers etc in the Microsoft community – “How do I get started with UX”, I’ve attempted to answer this but I’m still not happy with that answer. Today, it hit me, and my answer is “design something you think is going to be the vNext”. I say this as I think it will first throw you into the deep end fast, secondly it will make you think about something that has not yet been invented and thirdly it exposes your level of passion in a raw format.

Carbon Motors E7

Today, there is a car called the Carbon Motors E7 it’s basically a futurist police car that has been designed and developed to help law enforcement world wide do their jobs more effectively. You can read more about the car at their website or below, but the thing that struck me about this car when I first read about in a magazine, was the level of detail the designers went to in terms of designing it. It’s a car begging for some CSI fake UI to help sell it’s idea to the world, in that take the car’s physical designs into place, what else could it use to help officers do their job?

This is where FUI (Fake User Interface(s) – term coined by Mark Coleran) comes into place, what if I dared you all to make the software for the car, you have unlimited budget and unlimited use of any technology, what would you implement into the car and what should it look like?

Let’s start with the middle console of the car. This is the nerve center of a cop, its his/her office and super computer in one. This area’s job is to provide officers an understanding of events and information not only within his/her patrol zone but also live situations outside the car itself (speeding cars, number plates etc).

What should this UI look like?

The HUD

Let’s Design.

The assumption for the car is this:

  • There is NextG broadband built into the car’s computer console.
  • The car is fitted with internal and external cameras (HD display) on the car (Fact: the car is actually fitted with an internal camera so police can monitor criminals in the back and it can also record 1500 number plates per minute of cars all around it).
  • The car can detect biological and nuclear readings.
  • The car can detect stolen cars both around it live as well as has the ability to recall a days worth of number plates that the car has seen during its patrol (Fact: It can do this, its not b.s)
  • The car’s cameras can also conduct facial recognition of suspects both in front, back and side views.
  • The car can provide live tracking of its self and other police cars within the area (GPS etc)
  • The cars screens are all fitted with touch panel capabilities.
  • The cars have voice and webcam capabilities (vide conferencing etc)
  • etc… use your imagination

The car today is actually pretty much fitted out with some of the above, but the possibilities of this concept are endless. The thing that gets my design propeller’s going is what would the HUD of the car look like, what would the console in the middle show when the officer first gets in.

I’m going to play around with this fantasy, and come up with some design mockups of how I would approach the GUI if i were given the task of being the interactive director for it. I’m going to ask various people I know around me for ideas on what they would put into and why etc. As this for me is a great case study for how user experience can empower a concept car like this further than its physical brilliance that’s out there today.

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My Slides: Microsoft UX: What Just Happened

I’ve been travelling around Australia in the past few weeks talking about Microsoft UX and essentially “What Just Happened”. I’ve uploaded my slides to slideshare.com (though they don’t animate, booo hiss..) but none the less they are there for those who may have attended my presos to look at.

The “What Just Happened” title came from an internal discussion list inside Microsoft, where I would decode movements on Adobe for all of Microsoft to get a better understanding of the PR spin coming from those guys. I’d essentially break it down into less b.s and more to the point information. Given I had a lot of success with this inside Microsoft I thought it would be a great idea to do the same, only not with Adobe but for those in the public regarding Microsoft.

It’s a theme I plan on continueing with in the near future.

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