Wednesday Dec 26, 2007

The Deployment Toolkit

Jindrich Dinga is an Interaction Designer at Sun Microsystems, and he currently designs developer and consumer software.

It has been a couple of months since we posted the blog entry about changes to the Java installer. Today I want to tell you a couple of things about another usability improvement in the deployment area -- the Deployment Toolkit (DT).

If you're responsible for a web site that provides Java content, like games, applets or other features, you probably struggle with these common concerns: What if people who come to the site don't have the latest Java? Will they come back to the site after they get the latest Java? Are they confused when they have to allow an ActiveX control to run? There are currently a whole set of related issues. Using the Deployment Toolkit, however, these issues will be gone.

The Deployment Toolkit consists of some Javascript code and a browser plug-in. It works with the majority of browsers on Windows. DT will be delivered as a part of the basic Java installation, and because it is signed by Microsoft, Windows users who have it on their machine will no longer see an ActiveX warning when they update Java.

So, assuming that users will have the DT plug-in already installed, how will the user experience improve? DT Javascript on your web site will detect if users have the required Java version, and if not, it will redirect them to the java.com web site to download and install the latest. When they're done, it will redirect users back to your web site. This means that users will no longer get lost or distracted, and they can continue with your provided Java content. And what if a browser restart is required by the update? No worries -- after the restart, your website will be loaded in the browser automatically.

Now, you may ask when this feature will be available to try? The beta is scheduled for the first quarter 2008 as part of Java release 6uN.

Continue to follow the Design@sun blog to learn about other usability improvements in the Java space.

Monday Dec 10, 2007

Sun's usability test labs in Menlo Park

Back in August, Jiri Mzourek told us about the building of Sun's usability test labs in Prague, Czech Republic. In October, Kristin Travis told us what it was like to have her engineering team view her usability tests remotely. And in November, I posted an interview with Kim Arrowood, who manages Sun's usability test labs in Menlo Park, California. Now in this post, Kim takes us for a virtual tour of the labs in Menlo Park.

Kim Arrowood has worked in xDesign for over a year managing Sun's usability test labs in the U.S. Before coming to xDesign, she worked at Sun for 6 years in market development engineering as a program manager. Kim is working to improve the visibility of the usability labs in the U.S.


Jen: So Kim, tell me about the usability labs in Menlo Park.

Kim: The labs have both digital and analog recording; we use Camtasia for digital recording, and DVDs for analog recording. We recently installed all new equipment in two of our three labs in Menlo Park, so the labs are really state of the art. We primarily use two of the three labs in Menlo Park and the third lab is used as a staging area for tours and other demo setups. One lab is set up like an office environment, with desks, chairs, and computer equipment. We typically use that for one-on-one (facilitator:participant) usability testing.

The other lab that we use a lot of the time, called the "playspace", is set up in a more creative and casual way. There is a table in the middle with chairs around it, couches, and it's decorated in a more artistic way. It's been built to look more like a design studio than a typical usability lab. For example, it has lamps off to the sides, instead of being lit from the ceiling, and we have toys scattered around the room. We only have one computer set up in the room, and it's off to the side.

Jen: So how do you use the playspace?

Kim: It's great for focus groups, and we record webinars (training) in there. It also has a ceiling-mounted camera that looks down on the table, so we can use it for testing consumer devices or for capturing drawings. Once a week, the playspace is used to host a "design cafe" for teams to strategize and brainstorm, or for people to review their current designs and get feedback on what they are working on.

All of our labs in Menlo Park have an attached control room, separated from the lab by a half-wall and a two-way mirror, but they vary in the lab size and the number or observers they can accommodate in the control room. The playspace can accommodate up to 20 observers, and the other labs can handle up to 10 observers. Each lab also has the ability to support remote observers, for people who can't observe a study in person. This is very useful when part of a team in somewhere else and they can see everything that is going on in our labs.

Jen: So what else should we know about the labs in Menlo Park?

Kim: We've given tours to several different organizations internal and external to Sun. We were part of the CHI 2007 lab tours, and we just gave a tour to the SEED mentoring participants.

Jen: When you give tours, what's the feedback like?

Kim: They think that the control rooms look like a newscast. And the most common question is, "How do you get anything done in the play space?" I tell them that it facilitates creative thinking and communication.


Jen McGinn is an interaction designer in xDesign who is working to improve the user experience with software installation and registration. She has an MS in Human Factors in Information Design and works out of Sun's campus in Massachusetts.

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.

Friday Nov 09, 2007

What is it like to work in a design group, when you're not a designer?

Kim Arrowood has worked in xDesign for over a year managing Sun's usability test labs in the U.S. Before coming to xDesign, she worked at Sun for 6 years in market development engineering as a program manager. Kim is working to improve the visibility of the usability labs in the U.S.


I recently spoke with Kim Arrowood about what it's like to join a design group, when you're not a designer.

Jen: So Kim, tell me a little about what it is that you do.

Kim: I manage our usability test labs. World-wide, we have 9 or 10 labs spread across Prague, Massachusetts, Colorado, and California, but I primarily manage the 3 labs we have in Menlo Park, California. I handle logistics, recruit usability test participants, and help out with technical equipment. I also manage some aspect of operations for our organization, like goals, budgets, and dashboards.

Jen: From your perspective, what's the most challenging or interesting part of coming into a design group?

Kim: The most challenging aspect is the terminology. In my former group, we used the terminology of the customer, but the design group uses both the terminology of the engineering teams as well as terms that are specific to design or usability. For example, I had to learn what it was an interaction designer does and how that is different from the work of a visual designer. And I didn't know what a usability test was until I got to see one, so there was a big learning curve.

One really interesting thing that I learned was how "hands on" design is. I never knew all the work that goes into creating designs before they go to engineering. And I was surprised at how collaborative the design process is. When I worked in engineering, a single person wold work to resolve a single customer problem. But here, there's a very supportive environment -- a lot of teamwork.

Jen: How do you see that manifested?

Kim: Well, when Kristin was working on some designs for the Identity Manager team she took them to the weekly Design Cafe, to get feedback and input on her ideas from other designers in the group. And we have those design cafes weekly, so anyone with an idea or a new mock-up can get feedback from their peers, in a supportive way. But I was surprised, too, at how small the group is, when design is so important to Sun.

Jen: So what is the most interesting part of your job?

Kim: I get to learn a lot more about the products we make; what they are and what they do. I'm reading as much as I can about design and usability testing, but I like to learn about our products by being the participant in our dry runs -- the practice round of a study, when the lab setup and script get tested.

I enjoy participant recruiting, but it's challenging. It's really hard to find good participants; ones that match the test goals for each study.

But the best part of my job is getting involved in the projects, and working on the teams. Everyone works together and communicates -- there are no funny looks and no stupid questions. I really enjoy the collaboration and the teamwork.

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.

http://www.giftsnaccessories.com/gifts-stationery/img2006/maped.jpg 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. gizmodo.com actually has some entries on sharpeners (and yes, I will be sending them a tip about this one).

Tuesday Oct 30, 2007

openInstaller User Interface Design

Jen McGinn is an interaction designer in xDesign who is working to improve the user experience with the Java Enterprise System installers. She has an MS in Human Factors in Information Design and works out of Sun's campus in Massachusetts.

Last year, one thing I did was to work with a team of Sun engineers and UI designers to create a set of branded interaction guidelines for desktop applications.

[aside] Two weeks ago, I posted an interview with the folks behind the web application guidelines — those are different, because they focus on UI components used in a browser, not a desktop application. [/aside]

The interaction guidelines that I worked on were not component-oriented, but task oriented. Another colleague led the effort on branded system startup, and I led the branded installation guidelines. We may see those guidelines go public at some point, but until then, you can see them in action in the New Solaris Installer (NSI) and the openInstaller framework — even the OpenDS Installer took on some of the guideline design, even though it's a web application.

The openInstaller project team describes the effort this way: openInstaller is an open source community project building a free and comprehensive next generation installer framework. Initial development of openInstaller was done by Sun Microsystems, but is now available under the open source Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL). What's really cool that's not in that statement is that the framework is all Java + XML. I've looked at their code, and if you know a little Java and XML, you can create an installation program quickly and easily. 

From an interaction standpoint, there are a few things that I'm particularly happy with. One is how software licenses are presented to the user. Another thing that you may notice is the placement of buttons. The most frequent interaction is placed bottom right, and then other buttons are organized by projected frequency of use from right-to-left. This organization supports the visual scan patterns of readers of most languages better than button placements that we often see, which are grouped in the bottom right-hand corner, but require the user to read all of the button labels from left to right, to find the most frequent interaction.

openInstaller screen

From a geeky coolness factor, the openInstaller is written in Java and XML that even I find understandable, and the output of that code is two-fold: not only does it render a GUI, but it renders a command-line CUI, that is comparable to what the user would see in GUI mode. As a result, installers written using the openInstaller framework are easier to develop, maintain, and use.

Thursday Sep 27, 2007

Improving the Java User Experience

Jeff Hoffman has been designing developer and consumer software at Sun since before the boom.

Pop Quiz: What is the application, delivered by Sun, that is most used by people around the globe?

Answer:

There are about 1 million successful installations of Java every day using the Java installer (the installer is just needed for the Windows platform, because Java is already included with Solaris and many Linux distributions, and Apple provides their own Java installer). With all those eyes on it, the installer design receives a lot of attention. The Java installation process may be the first experience that a customer has with Sun and we do our best to make this experience simple, fast, and aesthetically pleasing.

From the user's perspective, the installation process usually starts at a third-party website, which needs the latest Java version to run an applet. The applet could be a game (pogo.com), a map locator (map24.com), or the virtual view of a cruise ship cabin (princess.com). The Java installation experience presents a unique challenge for Sun -- we wanted to make this experience positive for the end user, while providing brand recognition for both Sun and the applet's provider.

Let's have a look at the old installation experience:

The user starts at a third-party website by clicking the "Get Java" graphic which leads to the download and enables them to install the latest version of the Java runtime environment. This download page is simple and straight forward, containing a single button to begin downloading the Java software. The default "automatic" installation process from Internet Explorer involves downloading a small application, which launches the Java installer UI and then continues to download the files that contain the Java runtime environment.

This installer design attempted to reduce the number of panels by putting more "decision points" on a panel -- for example, the initial panel had three purposes:

  1. confirm that Java was to be installed
  2. Display the license agreement and get the user to agree
  3. Provide typical and custom option radio buttons

The design placed too much information on a single installer panel making it appear complicated to the typical consumer. Other installer panels were not visually attractive due to spacing and alignment issues.

We had a couple goals for our redesign of the Java 5.0 installer. The first goal was to keep the number of steps to a minimum, making sure that each step had only one necessary decision point. While creating the current design, the challenge of incorporating the variability (when the user will see a third party offer, does the user have to restart their browser) meant that we had to spec out the various paths and ensure that they made sense. Also de-emphasizing the "custom" install options was necessary.

The second goal was to manage the changing nature of the steps. Our installer has the capability of offering third-party bundled software, such as the Google toolbar. This offer is only shown if the user does not currently have the offered software, or if they have an outdated version. The design of these optional panels needed to be modular so that they would not disrupt the flow of the installation process.

So now lets look at the new Java installer design:

The first panel of the Java installer UI confirms that the user is installing Java, and gives them pointers to important information like our privacy policy and license agreement.

It's still possible for a more advanced user to customize parameters of the install, but since this level of control is not necessary for most users, this feature is not checked by default and placed out of the main control flow. A single click on the first installer panel both accepts the license agreement and continues the installation of Java.

A second panel may appear, offering the user a bundled installation (for example, the Google toolbar).

The next panel (not shown here) shows the progress of the installation process and a message to reinforce the Java brand. When the installation completes, the user is shown the last panel of the installer, which confirms that the Java software was installed without incident. On this last panel, the user may see a checkbox to restart their web browser.

These improvements are already available in the latest release of Java 6. If you want to know about other improvements that have been made in the Java installation and deployment arena, keep a look out for a future blog entry.

Monday Sep 24, 2007

The New Solaris Installer (NSI):
Installation Made Easy

Jen McGinn is an interaction designer in xDesign who enjoys creating new things, and then writing about them.

Frank Ludolph is an interaction designer in xDesign with more than 30 years of experience in user interface design and development.

At the end of August, I spoke with Frank Ludolph, the Senior Interaction Designer responsible for greatly simplifying the user experience of installing and upgrading the Solaris operating system.

Jen: Frank, what was the impetus behind the new Solaris installer (NSI)?

Frank: A lot of people find Solaris hard to install. The installer asks a lot of questions that many users don't know how to answer. The first time I tried to install Solaris on my laptop, it took me four tries to successfully install. And the installer had the old 1990's Motif look. The underlying architecture of the software showed through too much as well. For example, system configuration was separate from the installer, so before the installer ran, it asked the user a large number of configuration questions and then threw away the answers when the user was upgrading rather than installing. With the release of Solaris on x86, which broadened the target audience to developers in addition to system administrators, installation needed to be better and easier.

We decided to replace the old installer. The UI team reviewed a number of current operating system installers, both proprietary (Mac OS X and Windows) and open source (SUSE, Fedora, Ubuntu). We decided the goal of the installer should be to do minimal configuration during install; just enough to get you up and running following reboot. During installation, you'd only be asked to choose the installation target, set the clock, assign a root password, set up a user account (so you don't have to log in as root), and specify the language support to be installed. Any specialized configurations, which relatively few users needed, could be done by after the reboot. A new Solaris feature, Network Auto-Magic (NWAM), allowed us to drop network configuration questions because it automatically configures the wired and wireless network connections when the newly installed system is booted.

We then created an interactive UI mock-up that targeted both desktop and enterprise users. This mock-up was used during early engineering discussions when the functionality and architecture were being developed. But we estimated that it would take at least a year to fully implement the new installer. Too long.

Then Solaris Express Developer Edition (SXDE), a fast-moving project targeted at developers, appeared. This project had fewer functional requirements than on the full installer and allowed for a phased implementation of the installer.

In the first phase, guided by our earlier studies, we just cut a lot of questions and screens out of the old installer by choosing defaults appropriate for our target users. The SXDE installer would install developer tools, Sun Studio and NetBeans, and add them to the Launch menu. When the system started up, it automatically configured network connections and greeted users with a web page with developer-specific help. The installer wasn't pretty -- the flow wasn't as smooth as it might be and the visuals were dated, but it was much easier for developers, the target audience of the product, to get a developer desktop up and running.

The second phase of the new Solaris installer, Dwarf, has a modern, branded graphical appearance and a user experience that is the equal to any of today's installers. It still has plumbing from the old installer underneath, but the team worked very hard so that the graphical user interface masks the old architectural underpinnings. The architecture itself will be addressed in the third phase of implementation, named Slim. Future phases will add the support needed by enterprises. When that is complete the old installer can be retired.

Jen: So a little over a year ago, you were working on writing the branded interaction guidelines for system startup, and I was leading the team to write the branded guidelines for install -- I love how I'm seeing convergence between the Solaris installer and the OpenDS installer and the OpenInstaller, as a result.

Frank: Also with respect to consistency in the user experience, the GNOME desktop is themed, and because the Sun theme, Nimbus, is the default on Solaris, the installer picks it up. As a result, the look and feel are consistent from installation through to the desktop experience.

Jen: So what's the coolest thing about the new Solaris installer?

Frank: It has a modern look-and-feel, new users are successful, and the short, six-month SXDE release cycle gives us the opportunity to get feedback quickly from our target audience and make it even better.

Friday Sep 14, 2007

A Sociologist in a Technologist's World: What's a CLI, again?

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

Years ago, shortly after I joined the Software User Experience Group (xDesign) at Sun, my manager asked me whether I would be willing and able to conduct a usability study of a new CLI for one of our software products, Sun Cluster. I, the ever eager new employee, promptly responded yes, that I'd be thrilled to do such a study. I then withdrew to my desk, and typed "CLI" in Google to figure out what it meant.

CLI stands, of course, for command line interface, which is a way to interact with software or an operating system. Once I met with the product team and had my first look at the CLI, I understood why my manger had wanted to feel out my reaction to this kind of study. By the time I joined Sun I was a veteran at usability studies, having led many a user through a graphic interface in paper prototypes or interactive mock-ups (usually web sites of now-failed dot.coms). Testing the intuitiveness of the content and structure of a CLI, initially seemed to be simultaneously a tedious bore (only a bunch of cryptic words, no images?) and a memory challenge (learning how to string those same words together to make software do something?).

However, the usability study of this CLI turned out to be one of the favorite usability studies that I've conducted in the past decade. The fact that those words come out of my mouth still makes people who know me, even a little bit, laugh. What was so great about this study?

What made the study great wasn't just the team's ability to follow through on the findings from the usability study; thankfully, that happens regularly, though to varying degrees. Nor was it the rich feedback that we did indeed receive from the usability participants themselves. What made this usability study great, for me as the researcher, was the commitment of the product team. It's the most dedicated team with which I've ever worked on a usability study.

The software engineers on the product team were committed to hearing what actual breathing users had to say about the proposed changes to the CLI, which is rare, particularly in the context of what was a politically charged project. They hadn't made the changes to the CLI lightly, and they were passionate about making sure that what they had come up with would work for their users. In addition, they were willing to participate fully in the preparation, execution and post-analysis of the usability study, which is a rare occurrence in a field in which usability studies are often used as after-the-fact rubber stamps to mollify potential internal critics rather than to improve products.

Most of the team had never seen a usability study, so we toured the usability labs in Menlo Park, California. After a discussion of various research methods, they accepted that questions about a statistically significant population of users had no place in what we were about to do. Their commitment also involved spending painstaking hours with me, preparing me for the potential questions of live participants, by explaining how the most popular commands were executed both in the original and the proposed CLI, and, most interesting, how it connected to the underlying software structure. They not only attended the usability sessions, but mandated that other engineers, doc writers, and marketing staff on the project attend as well. My manager, who dropped by one of the usability study sessions, said he couldn't enter the observation room (of our largest lab, nonetheless) because it was chock full of observers.

And all this for a usability study for a bunch of words. Just kidding.

Thursday Sep 06, 2007

Feature rich or easy to use? Yes.

Jen McGinn is an interaction designer in xDesign who is working to improve the user experience with the Java Enterprise System installers. She has an MS in Human Factors in Information Design and works out of Sun's campus in Massachusetts.

Over the last week, a usability email list that I belong to has been discussing Don Norman's article, "Simplicity Is Highly Overrated".

In this article, Don Norman talks about his experiences with consumer electronics in Korea, which illustrate something that he has seen time and time again during his 40-some years in the usability field: people choose products with more features at purchase time, because people interpret more features to mean that a product is more powerful and prestigious, and that the features give them more control. Likewise, people will pay more money for products with more features; even when the buyers understand that more features mean more complexity, and as a result, lower usability.

I wasn't as shocked by Don Norman's article as were some of the usability professionals on the email list, because I'd read the Harvard Business Review article, "Defeating Feature Fatigue" (February 2006), which discussed the trade-offs between features and usability, and the relationship between initial sales and customer satisfaction over time. It cites one study as finding that 85% of returned home networking products were returned because people couldn't get them to work.

Barry Schwartz, in Paradox of Choice, describes our anticipation of our experience with a thing as "expected utility" and the actual use of the thing as the "experienced utility". When our experience (experienced utility) is too far removed from what we expected it to be (expected utility), we are confused and uncomfortable (the technical term is "cognitive dissonance").

So while a product with more features appeals to us at purchase time, if our expectations of it conflict with our user experience of it, that tension can make us feel insecure about using the product, feel less satisfaction in owning it, or lead to returning it all together.

Wednesday Aug 29, 2007

Helping to Eliminate Mistakes in Medical Treatment: What We Found (Part 3)

Loren Mack is a design architect in xDesign who creates strategic and tactical designs for the Service Oriented Architecture/Business Integration group at Sun.

This is the third entry in a multi-part series (View Part 1) | (View Part 2). In this part, Loren describes the findings of the user research that was conducted.

To solve the problems that we found, we followed classic user-centered design methodology: we didn't start with design. Instead we started by learning about our users. We visited several health care facilities that were already using the current version of the system, and we observed. We learned that health care professionals are very careful and methodical in their work. When they create a "match" between records, they’re certain it is, in fact, a match. They are serious (serious as my Granddad's gun-locker).

It turns out that most of the records that the system can’t match are easily matched by a human. Some common sense, some knowledge of the history of the hospital or facility where they work, experience with mistakes of the past — all of these things make it easier for humans, rather than for computer systems, to match certain types of duplicates.

For the handful of records that aren’t easily matched, quite a bit of legwork is required to figure out what should be done. Researching files, making telephone calls, talking to people in their facility, all of these tasks may be necessary to ultimately resolve a single case. Sometimes the resolution can take days, so our users may have a stack of "pending" matches on their desk that require their attention.

To further complicate matters, there’s an important standard with which all healthcare facilities must comply regarding confidentiality. You may have heard about this standard: HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996). Most physicians require you to sign a paper stating you’ve read about and understand it before they’ll accept you as a patient. In the context of our project, we found out that each time someone looks at anyone’s medical information that "viewing" is recorded as a transaction to ensure complete confidentiality. So nobody’s flipping through medical files willy-nilly — they’re doing it because it's important (see previous "gun-locker" note).

After learning about our users, the problem was distilled into "How can we help them match multiple records quickly and easily, while allowing them some way of reversing a match if it turns out to be a mistake?" We started the process of brainstorming and kicking around design ideas. We mapped out the health care professionals' tasks and optimized the flows so that the most frequent and critical actions took the fewest number of steps.

This work resulted in a few key design requirements to make the complex matches easier to perform and track:

  • The ability to quickly see just enough information to determine if further research would be needed
  • The ability to see all the information across multiple systems (and to easily highlight the differences)
  • Having some way of putting a case in a "to be researched" or "pending" stack so that it could be retrieved quickly when new information became available
  • …and, of course…

  • Some easy way to reverse a match if it turns out to be an error

This kind of meaningful design work doesn’t happen that often, so when it does it’s really cool. Designing something that makes a difference to a lot of folks, not just the technical community — it's enough to make a guy proud. Sort of reminds me why I decided to do this kind of work in the first place.

Wednesday Aug 22, 2007

Building of Two Usability Labs in Prague, Czech Republic (Part 2 of 2)

Jiri Mzourek is a senior manager in xDesign, responsible for Sun Developer Products and SOA/BI. In his spare time, he evangelizes usability in the Czech Republic by organizing SIGCHI meetings, World Usability Day, and working closely with the Czech Technical University on usability and accessibility related projects.

When Sun's Prague office became too small, we all moved to a new building. So during the space planning, we made sure that we got a room there for a usability lab. Why build a second lab? The main reason was to have it in the same place as the engineering team so they could easily attend the test sessions.

This time, we decided to do everything on our own: one of our interaction designers, Rudolf Bock, selected the equipment. Based on our experience with the labs at CTU and at Sun in Silicon Valley, we created blueprints and made sure to have a big one-way mirror. From our experience, despite the fact that some participants feel less comfortable in this set-up, it makes a difference to observers -- they feel more connected to the participants.

We got the space with a one-way mirror in the Summer of 2006! Here are pictures of what we have now:

The lab is fully digital, again partially based on Morae. The equipment is:

  • 2x Dome camera Panasonic WV-CS570
  • 1x Panasonic WV-CU360CJ
  • 1x Data multiplex unit Panasonic WJ-MP204C
  • 1x Blackmagic Design DeckLink Multibridge Extreme PCIe
The first usability study was conducted in this lab in November 2006. Since then, we have used this new lab for the majority of our studies. We also plan to show it to the public as part of World Usability Day 2007. Stay tuned!

Monday Aug 20, 2007

My Book Review of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

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

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
224 pages (215 pages of comics) Black and White with 8-page color section. 6.7" x 10.2"

This book by Scott McCloud isn't just about understanding comics. The 215 pages of this 1993 book cover just about everything: time, creativity, psychology, quantum mechanics, and the whole of human endeavor. Seriously, folks, this book uses the comic book form to talk about the process of telling stories using comics. It talks about its own form. But I don't mean to make it seem like the book is either recursively academic or feverishly adolescent. The truth is that the content of this book is universally applicable to nearly any activity that seeks to communicate about the internal or external human experience. Because the comic book links language with images to tell stories, it's more effective than either words or pictures alone. What puzzles me is how this form got such a bad rap to begin with. I recommend this book first to anyone wanting to know something about art or design. Read it now. Ranking: 10 of 10

Wednesday Aug 15, 2007

Helping to Eliminate Mistakes in Medical Treatment: Our Challenges (Part 2)

Loren Mack is a design architect in xDesign who creates strategic and tactical designs for the Service Oriented Architecture/Business Integration group at Sun.

This is the second of a multi-part series (View Part 1)

For this project, our design task involves finding a way to help health care professionals match records that the existing automated system can't.

The system is made up of two parts. The behind-the-scenes part consolidates a patient's records from various data sources to produce a single, complete, and up-to-date record of a particular patient. The system is even smart enough to see that records match even when some of the data in the records don't match.

The second part of the system is a user interface that reports records that might match, but that can’t be matched automatically. In this situation, the system needs some help from a "live operator standing by." Working with non-technical end users and providing them with awesome tools is one of the fun parts of this project.

When the system can’t resolve a conflict, the user interface alerts the health care professional and provides decision support to resolve the conflict. For example, when a baby is born, the hospital uses the father’s social security number as the baby's social security number on the birth certificate. Once common, this practice is now quite a headache for health care professionals later on, because the father and baby appear to be the same person. It's also a hard problem for the system to fix since the records of the father and baby may share the same data in many fields (like social security number and address), but the data in key fields are different (like name and birth date).

While there’s already a tool that lets a live human review these potential matches, it has many usability problems. It’s hard to tell what portions of a record don’t match. It’s hard to see information across more than one duplicate record (such as three systems all having similar, but slightly different data that could all be part of one person’s medical history). And it’s just plain slow.

These issues make it much harder for people to quickly and effectively handle records that the system can’t, and, in many cases, it takes much longer than necessary. Today, the people who do this work full-time print out huge lists of duplicate records and then spend hours reviewing the hard copies to make sure they’re matching the right information. The existing user interface could resolve these issues, but it doesn’t support their tasks well enough to be useful.

To be continued...

Monday Aug 13, 2007

Building of two Usability Labs in Prague, Czech Republic (Part 1)

Jiri Mzourek is a senior manager in xDesign, responsible for Sun Developer Products and SOA/BI. In his spare time, he evangelizes usability in the Czech Republic by organizing SIGCHI meetings, World Usability Day, and working closely with the Czech Technical University on usability and accessibility related projects.

In 2004, our xDesign team in Prague was facing a problem: the number of usability studies we needed to do in Prague kept growing and growing. Since we had no usability lab, we did all of our testing in two meeting rooms that the rest of the company also used. One served as observation room and the second one as testing room. It worked ... but there were two main issues. We had to "build" the lab every time from scratch, and it took about a day to run wires, set up the computer and camera equipment, and move furniture. The second, even bigger, problem was not having enough space. Sun had started its expansion in Prague, so we were hiring a lot of new people, and the building was very crowded. It became harder and harder to find two meeting rooms that were next to each other and available for a couple of days. And it was impossible to build a lab in the building: there was no space for it!

So I started a discussion with the Department of Computer Science at Czech Technical University. Our history of cooperation had started earlier, in 2003, when I was networking with other interaction designers in the Czech Republic. I found out that the person in charge of Czech SIGCHI was my former professor, Prof. Pavel Slavik. So I contacted him, and we quickly found that both Sun and CTU were interested in cooperating in the field of usability. But that's a different story, which deserves its own post.

Then in 2004, we discussed usability labs, reached an agreement and made a deal: Sun would supply the equipment and know-how, and CTU would supply the space and construction. Both institutions would share the facility, and, after three years, CTU would keep all usage rights and equipment. To construct the lab, we worked closely with the manager of Sun's U.S. usability labs at the time, J.O. Bugental, and we outsourced the equipment and configuration work to a vendor.

The lab was designed and built to contain both standard analog technology (a scan converter and DVD burner) as well as fully digital technology, which is currently mostly running on Morae. There is no one-way mirror -- we observe the tests using monitors and video cameras.

The lab officially opened on November 15, 2004, and the Czech Minister of IT, Vladimir Mlynar, attended. It was the first usability lab in the Czech Republic and, most likely, in all of Eastern Europe!

After the lab opening, we also supplied the promised know-how in two ways. First, we arranged for an external company, Relevantive, to provide a four-day training for teachers and Ph.D. students, which covered usability basics including usability evaluation. Second, we cooperated on ongoing projects, coaching and mentoring students as well as teachers.

Since 2005, CTU added usability to its standard curriculum and became the Czech Republic's leading university in this field. Hundreds of students have access to the lab every year and use it to run their accessibility and mobile device projects.

So this is the story of the first lab. I will talk about the second lab in a later post.

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