Tuesday Jan 29, 2008

Didn't get what you wanted for the holidays?
How about some new UI components?

Back in October, I talked with Chip Alexander and Karen Stanley about the Sun Web Application Guidelines going public. This move was to support the open source development of the Woodstock component set. Both the guidelines and the UI components had been under development for many years inside of Sun, and last year, they were made available to everyone else.

Then, in December, while everyone else was finishing up holiday shopping and attending parties, the team who creates the components and the most dedicated of the folks who write the guidelines were hard at work on their 4.1 release, which was quietly published on December 19th.

What's new in the Sun Web Application Guidelines, you ask? Quite a few components were added to the existing set, most of which include functionality using AJAX technology. Not all of these designs will be incorporated into the 4.1 Project Woodstock components. Some will be added later, while others will be phased in progressively.

So, as my Dad used to say ... especially after the holidays ... don't say we never gave you anything ;)

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.

Friday Nov 30, 2007

What's your best user experience?

Really, I want to know, so I'm taking a page out of Mary Mary's play book and offering you something in return. I want to hear what your best user experience has ever been with a product, service, or technology. You get to choose, just keep it rated "G". I will select my favorite submission, and in return, happily give you some of my prized Sun tchatchki ... I have a lot of it, because I've been here for nearly 12 years :) The picture below just has what I could grab in 30 seconds in my office.



Here's how it will work. You write to me (jenm at sun dot com), and briefly describe your best user experience with a consumer product, purchase, health care visit, or anything that describes an experience where you felt like, "Wow ... all [things like this] ought to be this fun or easy." I'll choose my favorite response, and in return I'll mail you an item from the picture above -- just tell me what you'd like the most. Here are the cool things up for grabs:

  • A Jini champagne flute
  • A real Java ring
  • Lapel pins, featuring one of: Duke & Java, Jini & the lamp, 100% pure Java, Sun World Cup 1994, Happy 10th Birthday Java.
  • A watch: either a ladies' Sun watch or a mens' java.rmi watch featuring Duke
  • AnAmazing Adventures of Duke comic book from 1996, 16 pages
  • A Duke for President poster
  • A Duke for President magnet (that looks like a bumper sticker)
  • A set of 3 (yes, 3!) Sun stickers with the tag lines, "When in doubt, share." "On the path less traveled, there are a lot fewer ruts." and "The road to innovation isn't paved at all."
  • A 100% Pure Java keychain

So, send me mail. Let me know what your best user experience has been, and with your permission, I'll share it next week. With the holiday season upon us (choose whichever holiday suits you :), I'll keep asking questions, and offering up up new stuff.

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.

Monday Oct 15, 2007

The Sun Web Application Guidelines go public!

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with my colleagues, Chip Alexander and Karen Stanley, about the Sun Web Application Guidelines.

Picture of ChipChip Alexander is the User Interface Architect for Sun's Web Applications and co-led the user interface design for the Java Look and Feel Design Guidelines: Advanced Topics.  He has 21 years of experience designing intuitive user interfaces and leading user interface design teams, 6 of them here at Sun.

Picture of KarenKaren Stanley is the former Project Manager of the Web Application Guidelines, and has been the lead for making the guidelines available externally. She has worked in the HCI field for 20 years, with experience designing software applications and user interface components, usability testing, and project management.


Jen:  Chip, Karen, how do you describe what the Sun Web Application Guidelines are?

Chip: They are a set of building blocks for web applications that have been designed by user interface specialists, thoroughly thought through and usability tested.  They can be used for developing full web applications, allowing designers and developers to focus on their application's particular needs rather than the design of all the controls and elements inside.

Jen: So how long have they been under development at Sun?

Chip: Over six years -- they were started by Robin Jeffries (now at Google) and Tom Spine (now at AutoDesk). The guidelines came first and then the User Interface Review Board (UIRB) was established to help ensure compliance with the guidelines.

Karen: Tom and Robin started seeing applications built for the web, but every group in Sun was designing them differently. Tom saw an opportunity to align the look and feel of web applications at Sun before things got too out of control, so Sun could show a single face to the world.

Jen: Over the years, who else has contributed to the guidelines?

Chip: I've been the architect for the team for the last 5 years or so, and the project management was done by myself, then by Karen Stanley, and now by Liz Clayton. We have the full list of contributors included in the guidelines.

Jen: I know that the guidelines have been Sun-internal all this time, so why are we releasing them now?

Karen: The project Woodstock components are available under an open source license, but there are no guidelines on how to use them. We wanted the open source community to benefit from the guidelines. We've had a close relationship with the Woodstock team during the development of the components — there's been a lot of give and take, back and forth.

Chip: The Woodstock web app components are based on the guidelines, which explain the specifics of how and when or where to use them. The benefit is that web app developers can draw on our design expertise and years of work, giving them more time to build their applications.

Karen: And to see how the designs were intended to be used. We're trying to share our internal work, so that anyone using the Woodstock components will have examples of the components being used in context. The guidelines provide numerous screen-shots showing the components used in the context of an application.

Jen: So why not publish the guidelines as a book, like Sun did with the Java Look and Feel Guidelines?

Karen: The environment is changing. Mary Lautman, the manager of the Woodstock team, has been asking for these guidelines to go public since the components went open source. The amount of work it would take to publish the guidelines as a book is prohibitive. It would take too long — they would be out of date as soon as they were published. This way, we can update them more quickly. The guidelines can be revised as the Woodstock components are revised. Not creating a book and instead releasing our work to the public allows more agility for Sun and ensures that web app developers always have the most up-to-date tools for building their applications.


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.

Monday Oct 08, 2007

User Research at Innovation@Sun

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.

Jen McGinn and I recently had the honor of giving a talk about user research at Innovation@Sun, a gathering of Sun's top engineering talent. This illustrious group count among their ranks people who are pioneers in Java (of course), but also in computer graphics, routing security, cryptography, and large-scale distributed computing. Many great technical brains, many patents in pockets. An intimidating group, by most measures.

Jen was presenting (I was back-up) about user research that we had done last year for an organization in Sun. The research findings themselves are terrific and already being applied within Sun. What we wanted to share with this audience was the innovative way in which we conducted the research, and to remind the audience of the importance of understanding the people who are ultimately often the end-users of technical innovations.

One might imagine that such an audience, gathered to exchange information about advances and challenges in the realm of engineering might be -- at best, apathetic -- to a presentation about users and user research. Or at least I had imagined such a response from the audience. Instead, I found that many of the people who stopped by during the poster session or who asked a question after the talk were not only receptive, but were even enthusiastic about user research. In the formal settings, as well as over meals and in hallways, these engineers asked questions about how we think about understanding users and, more often than not, wanted to know how they could utilize user research in their own work for Sun.

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.

Tuesday Sep 11, 2007

Jakob Nielsen talks about blogging, search, and documentation

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 is Human Factors in Information Design and works out of Sun's campus in Massachusetts.

Jakob Nielsen, formerly a Distinguished Engineer here at Sun, visited with some of the folks on our Menlo Park campus today, to give a brown bag talk on his July 9th AlertBox article "Write Articles, Not Blog Postings".

He started off the talk by saying that his analysis was based on Peter Pirolli's 1999 work with Stuart Card, Information Foraging.

He talks in what I know as terms from economics — the opportunity cost of pursuing a line of action; the diminishing returns (utility function) on each unit of information gained; and the cost of obtaining that information (cost function). He goes on to talk about an example of the two Australian scientists who discovered that ulcers were actually caused by a virus. When they won the Nobel prize for their work, it was reported in every newspaper around the world. After reading about the finding in a newspaper, a physician might want to read up on the authoritative source. What kind of information is your reader looking for? Authoritative sources or quick information?

He suggests that blogs are "stream of consciousness" where their authors are just talking about thoughts off the tops of their heads. He sees the value of blogs is to "pump out" new content. An audience member (Richard?) compares his own experiences with blogs and bloggers as being more similar to newspaper columns and columnists — not that they are necessarily providing authoritative info, but that bloggers can connect the reader to some content that the reader is interested in, providing both entertainment and the ability to navigate the web. The audience member also notes the collaborative nature of blogs — that people can easily communicate and participate in new and developing works — and that they have the timeliness that traditional authoritative documents can't have. Nielsen agrees, but says that the linear structure of blogs does not lend itself to good usability. Another audience member suggests using a table of contents, and another suggests tag clouds. Nielsen suggests that those are not conducive to problem solving, because they do not highlight what is most important or salient.

Nielsen asserts that search engines are trying to answer 2 questions: what is this about, and how important is it (page or relevance ranking). But what we really are looking for is a measure of usefulness — how will this search hit help me solve my problem.

He goes on to say that blogs lack editorial style and polish, but that there is a cost to that effort (back to utility and cost functions), and that extra cost and effort would not allow for blog content to be produced and released quickly. Compiling, summarizing, and concluding are three things that are not typically included in blog posts. But later, he says that blogs written by multiple people can be more valuable, because it's hard to create valuable content every day, but easier with multiple contributors.

Another listener suggests that different audiences and tasks are better suited to be answered by informal and formal communications. For example, when he wears his developer hat, he is interested in knowing what other people are doing, but when he's a system admin, he wants official documentation. Paul laughingly suggests that that's a tech writing 101 concept, to perform an audience analysis. Janice Gelb suggests that having both product docs and blogs means that we have two separate places for people to look for information. Nielsen suggests that the two types of content ought to be better integrated by referring to one another. This information sharing between silos also helps to educate the search engines.

Role-based personalization can be more helpful than customization, because the information is tailored for a person based on known categories of attributes, versus the user having to do something to customize their system. If only we could guess what people need and give them the three things that are the most useful, they would be ecstatic. His counter-example is an online book-seller, which makes lots of personal recommendations, but almost never recommends anything that anyone really wants. What does work well, though, is its cross-selling mechanism, letting you know about the books bought by other people who bought that book, because it's built on lots and lots of people's past behavior.

Hey, past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior :) That's a tenet of user research, which is why we are creating personas based on customers' behavior. But that's a topic for another day ...

Monday Jul 30, 2007

Blogging by Design

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.

Recently, I had a conversation with Anant Kartik Mithal, who is Director of xDesign (Software Experience Group) at Sun Microsystems, Inc. xDesign provides a wide range of design services for Sun's software products including visual and motion-graphic design, interaction design, usability reviews, user research, web development and assistance with accessibility compliance.

Nalini: Why launch Design@Sun, a blog by and about Sun's Software User Experience Group (xDesign)?

Kartik: xDesign does an incredible amount of absolutely fascinating design work. As I spend time talking to all kinds of people across Sun — designers, engineers, managers — I listen to the problems they're trying to solve, and the problems are simply fascinating. I think a lot of people inside and outside of Sun would be interested in them. It’s interesting to understand what problems people are solving and how everyone solves them differently. And it’s fascinating to see how people think through the solution process. Look at the design for Solaris’ start-up, for example. I would have done it differently. It’s wonderful to see an absolutely fantastic design that’s different than what I might have done. And the same goes for the work in the Tools space, in the Web Admin space.

Nalini: What kind of problems and solutions will Design@Sun cover?

Kartik: The designers in xDesign, for example, are looking at how we can turn Solaris into a modern operating system and what that means. How can we get the Solaris start-up experience to be fun? Something like start-up poses an interesting design issue. It’s something a user has to go through; it's not something the user necessarily wants to go through. This kind of design problem that’s a little different than those users encounter when executing tasks. If I’m using JavaFX to create an animation, I’m actually getting work done. But if I'm doing start-up and install, these are wasted steps. So how can you make them interesting for users? How can you give the user something back while they're happening? If you take our individual software products, they’re all very different. What we’re trying to do is be as similar as possible across our products. So if you learn to use one of them, you can learn to use all of them. That’s something we achieved in the productivity apps a long time ago, and we’re doing it in the admin apps now.

Nalini: What will people get from Design@Sun?

Kartik: We hope to share with our readers a bunch of interesting problems that Sun is trying to solve. A lot of our stuff is open source so people can follow along as it shows up and comment if interested. Sun is all about making our customers more successful and more productive. And design is all about supporting that.

Also, one of the things that some people have lost sight of is that Sun invests a great deal in its user experience. Whether it’s the hardware or the software. It’s very important to us. It’s very important to us that administrators are able to assemble and disassemble systems as easily as possible. That system administrators are productive with Solaris. That developers are productive with NetBeans. That everyone is productive with StarOffice. We want everyone to be productive.

We were at CHI this year, as we are most years. I was a little shocked when a few people came up to me and said that they didn’t know that Sun had HCI (human-computer interaction) professionals. Very prominent people in the field of HCI work at Sun. Sun has been very active in this field, and maybe this blog can provide people with a better idea of what Sun is doing in design and user experience.

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