Sunday Nov 16, 2008

Software Design and Entertainment Value

Jeff HoffmanJeff Hoffman is the lead user experience designer working on Java Standard Edition and JavaFX. He's been designing both consumer and developer oriented products since before the boom.

Last night I went to the movies with some friends.  We saw Changeling, a powerful piece set in late 1920's Los Angeles about a woman whose little boy disappears.  Afterwards I started thinking about the parallels between movie making and software design.  I feel that software applications can be designed so that the user enjoys the experience, even if they are performing work-related tasks. 

movie tixGoing to see a movie in a theater is an experience that you expect to enjoy.  Your choice of movie will definitely affect the result,  but in general, it's a time that you are socializing with friends, eating junk food and kicking back to watch a story unfold on the screen.  No matter what kind of story (suspense, horror, comedy, drama), you are going to the movie to gain entertainment value. Similarly, starting up computer software is an action that you perform to gain value. It could be starting up your browser to check online e-mail, or bringing up a spreadsheet program to analyze your financials.

Certainly there are detractors to seeing a movie in a theater (and hence the popularity of home theater systems, which have their own issues as well).  There are the expected issues such as finding the theater, securing a parking space and waiting in line to buy tickets.  Then there are the unexpected problems like denial of your credit card, the movie you wanted to see has sold out and the person in front of you with the annoyingly bright mobile device. On the software side, there are lots of things that interfere with the achievement of the your desired goal and enjoyment of it's use. Examples include poor performance, confusing instructions, unexpected errors and inaccurate results. How often do you select an action that you think will do what you want, only to find out that it doesn't, and it takes minutes (or longer) for you to return to productivity? 

clapperAfter we've gotten past all the expectations and disappointments, we consider how the movie is crafted.  Since it's telling a story, the movie needs a beginning, a middle and an end.  The beginning sets up the characters, time and location.  It gives you just enough context to understand what comes next (usually, though there are exceptions like Memento).  The middle of the movie is where all the really interesting stuff happens.  And the end of the movie is where everything is neatly tied together (though explicit loose ends are kept around for possible sequels).  This way you can go home with the whole story, and you feel complete.

You can think about software in a similar way.  When you start a piece of software, it should provide you with the appropriate context to begin performing tasks that will achieve your goal.  This can be an obvious "Start Here" action, or a workspace that contains items of interest.  For example, if you're creating a home movie to share with folks, you might want a timeline, a way to get at your video clips and a place to see your interim results.  Once the context is set, you can begin the real creative work, for example arranging clips, adding transitions and titles and adjusting the sound levels.  At the end of this process, you're ready to share your work, so you package it up neatly and post it on your website.  You now feel as though you've completed your goal, and you are happy.

Save the Date
As we're in the final throws toward releasing JavaFX, I have realized that the entertainment value of this platform is going to be a key to its success.  An effort that my team and I have been spending a lot of time on has been designing sample applications to show off the capabilities of JavaFX 1.0 (along with the unbelievably productive Josh Marinacci).   Each of these samples needs to tell a story and must have an easy to understand beginning, middle and end.  Developers rely on the samples to get started, and to help them reach their goal of creating a compelling application.

So keep on the lookout for the launch of JavaFX 1.0, and check out the gallery of sample applications.  We hope that they will educate, as well as provide some entertainment value!

Friday Oct 24, 2008

Inspiration for Today and Tomorrow

today and tomorrow is a cool blog that provides design, art and technology inspiration. Thanks Pieter, I love it.

Matthias Müller-Prove is a User Experience Architect for Desktop Virtualization at Sun. Sometimes he blogs here – sometimes at Acetylcholinesterase.

Monday May 19, 2008

When there are too many cooks in the kitchen

Designing the main and other primary pages for a site can be quite a challenge. Goals, priorities, and constraints all have to come together to develop a visual design concept for a project. Although you often hear designers complain when there isn't enough input from the sponsors to do their work, it can be just as bad when there's too much input from potentially the wrong stakeholders.

The content and visual design of the site's main page is critical. Within a few seconds of arriving at your site, users will develop a perception and mental model of what they can do and what they can't.

The interaction and visual designer's role in all cases is to gather, assimilate, and put forth a design that meets the desired goals and conveys the desired emotion to the user. Seems straightforward? In a perfect world, stakeholders from marketing, business, and management contribute into the goals and constraints that become the basis for site design. However, what if someone in a role of authority, but the wrong role to provide the information, overrides the information you have already received? This type of situation can be a reset for the designer, and can produce unsatisfactory results. A typical symptom is what I call "design thrashing", where the designer produces wireframe after wireframe, but nothing seems to click.

So how do you fix this situation? The first decision to make is do you continue to engage with the project? Is the situation fixable? If not, it may be best to move on, if possible. If so, it is critical for the designer to get back to basics and provide the leadership needed to nudge the team in the right direction. This is when the designer must open their trusty tool chest.

The first step is to get back to basics. Basics include a complete set of prioritized project and business goals, a profile of typical users (including their goals for coming to your site), and personnas for key user profiles that help bring the user to life. I've also found it useful to not only define what the project "is", but what it "isn't". Where are the boundaries? This should be a group exercise, not the designer going off on his/her own. Be sure that the most appropriate stakeholder(s) lead this effort. The designer's role is to facilitate and produce the artifacts. This shifts ownership of the artifacts to the responsible stakeholder, and makes it more difficult for another stakeholder to redirect the results. Everyone provides input, but at the end of the day, the appropriate stakeholder makes the decision and the team moves on.

Next, it can be useful to identify objects, color palettes, and examples of other sites that help express the "mood" or "emotion" that the site is to portray. Some designers use "mood boards" to narrow down what the team wants. You should obtain the same team buy-in, involvement, and acceptance as in the previous step.

Once you have these artifacts in place, get all the key stakeholders to buy off. This should be a formality. If not, the designer either really didn't have buy-in for the previous steps, or one of the cooks is trying the change the recipe. At this point, you must stop and work this out. If you attempt to proceed, "design thrashing" is in your future. Go back to the appropriate stakeholders. This may be marketing, business unit management, etc., but be sure that the best stakeholder leads the resolution, not you.

Once you have buy-in to the basics, the designer can get back to producing wireframes, visual concepts, etc., and the stakeholders can provide the necessary content. Although it doesn't end here, you are back on your way to a successful engagement.

Thursday Nov 01, 2007

Sharp Design

Maya Venkatraman is an Interaction Designer at Sun Microsystems. She started working in the area of Human Computer Interaction in graduate school, where she earned her Ph.D, and has been working in the industry for almost a decade, designing software that is easy to use. I love stationery. If Stacey and Clinton ever appear at my door step and give me a credit card loaded with $5,000.00, I would try to ditch them at the earliest, and duck into the nearby Staples or Office Depot and splurge on notebooks, pencils, pens, sharpeners, and the like. It goes without saying that "back-to-school" is turning into my favorite season ...

One of the nicest finds this year is the stop-signal pencil sharpener. It has a small button on the top, which you press down before you start sharpening. When the pencil is sharp and the point touches the end of the blade, the button pops up to let you know. And you are saved from over sharpening and, thus, breaking the lead. Kids using the sharpener now have a cue that tells them when to stop. :)

During my online journey to discover more about this sharpener I found a blog devoted to pencils, etc.! Maped, the company that manufactures these sharpeners, is in France and has a nice web2.0, flash-filled website, complete with a carousel widget and pop-up bubble. actually has some entries on sharpeners (and yes, I will be sending them a tip about this one).


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