Thursday May 21, 2009

Participate in Design at JavaOne 2009

Jeff Hoffman

Jeff Hoffman is the lead user experience designer for Java Standard Edition.

Hey There! JavaOne 2009 is almost here... The center of amazing developer activity will be the Moscone Center in San Francisco from June 2nd to 5th. Most of the exhibits and sessions highlight technology and the tools-of-the-trade for the Java developer set, however there is definitely content that is of interest to user experience designers.

I've made a list below of those sessions that are hosted by folks I know and respect. I heartily recommend checking them out. Make sure to add the ones you want to attend to your Schedule Builder since I expect that it may be hard to get in at the last minute.

I'm Speaking At JavaOne

Of course, there are the BOFs that I and my designer cohorts are hosting. We want to engage developers in an open discussion on user experience issues, help answer questions and provide pointers to useful resources.

I'm looking forward to seeing you at JavaOne 2009! Stop by the Designing the User Experience pod in the Pavilion to say hello, and come to one or both of the BOFs listed above.

Monday Dec 17, 2007

Design and the Installer

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.

Anant Kartik Mithal, Ph.D. is the Director of xDesign (Software User Experience Design Group) at Sun Microsystems.

I recently spoke with Kartik Mithal, Director of xDesign about the reasons behind the success of the New Solaris Installer.

Nalini: The redesign of the Solaris installer has received wildly positive reviews, both from within Sun and, most important, from our customers. Can you tell me what made the redesign such a success?

Kartik: What was so important in this instance was looking at the complexity of the existing Solaris installation and:

1) Figuring out how to get the team to understand that the designers understand the complexity; and

2) Breaking up the design process into pieces that the engineering team could handle and get on board with.

In other words, you need to earn credibility with the team. The team needs to understand that you know where they’re coming from and the challenges in what they’re currently working with. And you need to figure out the path of least resistance. At the same time, you need to make it something that fits together. The user doesn’t and shouldn’t see the challenge in installation. There’s a lot of planning to make it that way for the user, to plan around the "gotchas."

Nalini: Can you say more about how designers, such as Frank, can get teams to believe that they understand the complexity?

Kartik: So if you sit down and design an installer, often the engineering team looks at the proposal and says "Yeah, we can’t do that. You’re so completely unfamiliar with what we’re grappling with that it’s not useful for us to talk to you." What designers like Frank do is go into the installation process and understand — it does this, it does that, you can do this at this point. You basically build a flowchart and say this is what’s happening now and this is what it’s doing. For example, suppose you want to have a GUI-based install, but you need to have a window manager running in order to get the GUI install to work. The designer needs to know as the installer is chugging along that this is the capacity of an installer at any given point. My understanding is that Frank put together a flowchart that helped him understand the process, and the installation team could look at it and say "He really understands what we’re doing." And that’s the really important part — gaining credibility with the team.

Nalini: You also mentioned the importance of creating a design that can be broken down into pieces that the engineering team can get behind.

Kartik: Yes, for me, the other big thing that Frank did is chunk the project in a meaningful way, working with the team to break it down for implementation and in meaningful chunks.

Nalini: You’ve talked about the importance of the designer’s credibility with the engineering team. What about the engineering team’s role in making this redesign such a success?

Kartik: The biggest thing the team needs is to want to make the usability improvement, and, in this case, the team really wanted to fix it. They could see similar installers – Linux, Windows, Mac – that were much smoother than ours. Frank did a lot of comparative analysis of what’s out there, and he presented it to the team. The team’s role was in accepting the design early on, giving Frank feedback and working with his prototype like bats out of hell and basically implementing in a really short amount of time.

Shortly after Frank had done the prototype, he could point and say this is running code. The team also split things up so that the GUI part was built separately from the infrastructure part. There was a point that Frank would run the GUI, it would say something like "install on this disk," and it would pretend to install. It freed up both pieces so that the people focusing on the GUI could move as fast as they needed and the people working on infrastructure could move as fast as they needed. And they came together when they needed to connect.

Nalini: So xDesign does redesigns quite often. What makes this instance exceptional?

Kartik: What's unique about this situation is the Solaris installer itself; getting Solaris to have a nice graphic bootable boot-up. There are systems that haven't been reviewed for a long time. You make some decisions about what the software can do, and then you layer on more decisions, and then you end up with this gnarly piece of code that is doing a whole bunch of things you want it to and some you don’t, but fixing it means fixing a whole bunch of code. And people don’t want to do that.

We put designers like Frank on this so that they can go and work with the team to pull the whole thing apart and redesign it in a way that solves both the code/architectural problems, as well as the user experience/design problem.

In this instance, the correct answer for the user is really obvious: should I install or not? But we ended up before with an installer that asked lots of questions. It’s easy to conceptualize the answer, but it’s hard to figure out how to get to the answer, figuring out how get from here to there.

That's the thing that I value most in this design. Not the actual design – it’s excellent, of course – but it's getting to the pieces that then fit together that is the rocket science.

Nalini: What would need to be in place to replicate this kind of design success?

Kartik: First, you need a problem with the original amount of gnarliness. We know we have the same problem in some of our software. We were in a situation that we had a bunch of gnarly code, and it would scare people. Everyone knew what the right answer was, but how do we get there? Everyone needs to agree that the problem needs to be solved.

When designers go into work with teams that are not familiar with them, they have to establish credibility at two levels. First, that the designers can design. Frank established this through his prototype. Second, that the designer can understand the problem. In this instance, understanding how the installer worked, documenting, doing competitive analysis and being able to say that other products handle something a different way. Designers go into teams that have been doing that job for many years, and designers need to establish, as quickly as possible, that you have the design chops and the credibility as people who can understand their problem space. Frank was able to do that.

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 Oct 23, 2007

A designer's take on the myths of innovation

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. There seems to be a tight coupling between each phase of the internet era and a set of buzz words. The omnipresent and overused buzz word for the web 2.0 era is "Innovation".

My garden supply site , a respected business journal, and everyone in between wants to tell me about their innovations, how to innovate, who is innovating, why we are not innovating enough, and many, many more innovative things.

Given all of this attention to the topic of innovation, I found it hard to resist buying and reading Scott Berkun's latest book The Myths of Innovation. After reading his first book , The Art of Project Management, I expected this book to be pragmatic, realistic, entertaining and informative. I was not disappointed.

The earlier book, The Art of Project Management, is about the effective management of the environment in which designers work. But this book is about the everyday work of designers and the way their work is perceived. While I learned a lot of new facts reading "The Art...", I found a lot of supporting evidence for existing beliefs when I read "The Myths...".

The book is organized into ten chapters, each chapter focusing on debunking one myth. I have taken the liberty to translate the list into design parlance:

  • Myth 1: Good Design is the Result of a Single Moment of Inspiration or Epiphany
  • Myth 2: Winning Designs Are Immediately Obvious
  • Myth 3: There is One Single Method to Get to Good Design
  • Myth 4: People Love New Designs
  • Myth 5: The Designer Works Alone
  • Myth 6: Good Design Ideas Are Hard to Find
  • Myth 7: Your Boss Knows More About Design Than You Do.
    (probably not, but he can create an environment where it is safe for you to innovate)
  • Myth 8: Problem Statements Do Not Matter
    (they do, phrasing the problem correctly can give you half the solution)
  • Myth 9: The Best Design Always Wins
    (no, the design that is optimum for a given situation and time - wins)
  • Myth 10: New Designs are Always Good

I can see myself reaching for this book when I want to use a quote or anecdote to make a point, but I can also see myself using this book to analyze the "innovation trajectory" of projects that I'm involved with. My favorite quote from the book is, "An idea is not an innovation 'till it reaches people."

Entertaining and informative, I would highly recommend this book to anyone involved in, or nearby, a design project.

Wednesday Oct 10, 2007

Book Review, Geography of Home by Akiko Busch

Bruce Lee is a brand strategist, who works closely with xDesign to define the branded look and interactions of Software user interfaces.

Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live by Akiko Busch

I paused for more than a moment before starting to review and recommend yet another book for designers that isn't a design book per se. I mean, how can a five-by-seven-inch book that runs 163 pages (including the epilogue) and which content is a collections of essays about rooms in a home be so important to design? 

When I arrived at an answer it was in my usual oblique way. This book isn't really about the design of things as much as it is the design of a designer's mind. It has more effect on the designer who creates the design. I believe that in order to design anything effectively—from medical equipment to juicers—a designer must understand how we live. Akiko Busch gets this. She used to write the essay on the back pages of Metropolis Magazine. Metropolis understands that how we live is the central question for architecture, and Akiko Busch understands it as a central question in creating a life worth living.

The essays in this book are atmospheric and evocative, and reveal a mind finely tuned to the the subtleties of space. And it's spiced with a generous helping of wry humor:

"The Shakers have always irritated me. Not that I don't love the benches, candle stands, wheelbarrows, and chests made by members of this now all-but-extinct American sect. But to my mind, the simplicity of line and the sense of industry expressed in these objects aren't enough. It's no big revelation that beautiful objects can come out of limited circumstances; that's one of life's ordinary truths. But exclude sex and books, as the Shakers did, and you begin to define a starved life.

This is what really bothers me most about the Shakers—they didn't believe much in books."

She's such a good writer, I wish she was more prolific. She's also written and edited some stellar design books, notably The Photography of Architecture, and the awesome collection from Metropolis: Design Is...Words, Things, People, Buildings, and Places at Metropolis.

My recommendation: get everything Akiko Busch has written, and read it... twice. And, I'll confess that I've even purchased books for which she only wrote the preface.

Happy reading!


xDesign is a software user experience design group at Sun.
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