Wednesday Dec 05, 2007

Brand and Software User Experience

Nalini Kotamraju is a user researcher in xDesign, and holds a Ph.D. in Sociology. She has a penchant for research methods and telling it exactly like it is

I recently spoke to Soraya Younossi, xDesign’s Art Director and Brand Liaison.

Nalini: Tell me about the role of the Brand Experience Group and its relationship to xDesign.

Soraya: As it applies to our software applications, the overall objective of our brand is to ensure that there is an integrated user experience throughout our product offerings. Our objective is to set UI standards that not only meet but exceed our customers' expectations. We must convey a unified and coherent design system that embodies our values and vision.

In order to achieve a seamless user experience across products and platforms, we take on an inclusive approach to design with an emphasis on communication and sharing. We collaborate with teams throughout Sun in an effort to integrate and bridge brand and design standards.

The consumer experiences our brand on a subjective visual plane first and foremost. It is the gateway that sets all the users' expectations that follow. It is therefore critical that the brand expressions and interaction designs are aligned to ensure that we meet our customers’ expectations.

We have taken on a tremendous challenge in setting standards that express our values and culture. These values are captured on many levels of the interaction experience. The look-and-feel is a powerful signifier of real change. The brand promise and reputation rely on how these standards transcend into the deeper levels of the interaction design and user experience.

Nalini: Can you tell me a bit about Nimbus?

Nimbus embodies the design system that defines our software and desktop applications' look-and-feel. It captures our unique values and differentiates us from our competitors. It is a design system that is inclusive and complementary to Sun's overall strategic goals.

It is a system that has been informed by all of Sun’s product offerings. We have examined all of the related touch points--from the web to software to desktop and hardware designs--to ensure a coherent brand expression that transcends domains and reflects one unified message that is aligned with Sun’s strategic goals.

This message has been captured in the choice of the color palette to the stylistic design elements that define and make our interface designs unique. We were conscientious in considering cross-platform constraints to ensure that we would complement the user experience in a consistent manner.

Nalini: What aspects of Nimbus stand out for you?

Soraya: Nimbus is a sophisticated and contemporary design system that is relevant to our times. It reflects a refinement that opens possibilities for designers such as myself. The framework is sound and provides the flexibility for growth and evolution.

My main concern is to ensure that we stay consistent in the implementation of the Nimbus design system and that the design does not stagnate and continues to evolve. It is critical to continue the evolution of the design principles in order to stay competitive in the marketplace.

There is so much that is captured in the framework that still needs to be expressed and showcased in our product offerings. One particular aspect that is of great interest to me is the dimension that falls between the visual design system and the interaction design. It falls into the subjective realm of the brand experience that reflects the detail of care and informs the quality of the user experience.

It is an aspect of the Nimbus framework that we have not addressed to the degree that is needed. It is the element that bridges and satisfies both right and left brain activity. In its simplest expression it ties back to an user experience that not only supports but enhances a particular interaction. We need to move forward and think dynamically, not just statically, about an interface design. I believe that this is part of the challenge that we, as designers, need to address.

Nalini: I’ve often heard the complaint that branding adds complexity to product design, and I’ve heard you say that branding brings simplicity. Can you speak to that?

Soraya: A successful brand translation is about providing a unified message and the guidelines that support it. I would argue that interaction designers focus on the core design features and then provide the standards that help set user expectations.

In order to do that, we simplify the product design by providing guidelines to standards that help enable users to fulfill their tasks. These standards ensure that our customers can rely on a framework that has been implemented consistently throughout our product offerings. These are the building blocks that guide and inform the designers. The manner in which they are combined and structured is up to the individual teams, which shape the creative thinking, individual expression and brand evolution

Nalini: What would you say if I suggested that Sun’s core audience–developers and system administrators–have less of a need than do average consumers to respond emotionally to our products?

Soraya: As I mentioned earlier, everyone is subject to an emotional response to any interaction. It’s a question of weather you choose to validate that or not.

Our goal is to enhance the interaction and user experience of our product offerings. Now, if that improvement is experienced on a subjective as well as an objective plane, then I don’t see a conflict. My personal belief is that a successful product has to capture and take into consideration both the objective as well as the subjective user experience. What is critical is that we meet users' expectations of our product features and help enhance users' ability to do their work in a seamless and supportive framework.

Tuesday Nov 13, 2007

Designing a Color Scheme for Netbeans 6.0

Stepan Doubrava is an interaction designer located in Prague, Czech Republic. He is currently working on improving the user experience for SunStudio and other developer tools at Sun.

As NetBeans began to be a multi-language IDE, we realized it was necessary to make all the syntax highlighting in different editors visually consistent. While creating this new color scheme, I came across several different, and sometimes contradictory, requirements:

  • Lots of colors were needed for different tokens, but not so much as to make the editors look like a crazy fruit salad.
  • The colors needed to be bright and contrast enough so one could recognize the colors on various monitors, but not so bright as to irritate developers who stare at it the whole day.
  • A balance was needed between highlighting everything for expert users, or only the most important tokens for less experienced users, so that everyone could remember the meanings of all the colors.
  • The amount of bold text needed to be reduced due to it's poor readability while keeping the visual structure of the code.

As expected, I came across numerous arguments, where everyone had their own opinion on proposed colors and was eager to share it. In the end, though, we were able to agree on several points.

Here are some of those points and concepts that made it into the current design:

  1. All the spots requiring user intervention are wavy underlined. Errors (red underline), Warnings (yellow underline), Unused fields (gray underline), Deprecated (should have been brown underlined but I had to use the old syntax (black stroked) for deprecated as a trade off for the developers to accept the gray underline for unused fields. I am hoping to bring it up again in the near future.)
  2. Embedded or inactive content has a different background color. For example in HTML, code snippets in JavaScript or CSS Styles are in a sense embedded, therefore highlighted with a different background color as well as guarded blocks in Java.
  3. The selection has a light blue background but the selected text doesn't change its color.

Unfortunately, items (2) and (3) in some sense clash in the current implementation, because when embedded content is selected it has a blue background, which was different from the original intent of showing the original background + blue ... Hopefully we can improve this for the next release.

In the longer term, I believe the concepts used for these design decisions should be reviewed to address the points where we compromised, which would further fine-tune the implementation.


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