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.

Monday Oct 01, 2007

The Orca Project: Accessibility
through open source empowerment

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.

Will Walker is a senior staff engineer in the Accessibility Program Office. He has worked on software for people with disabilities for almost two decades and currently leads the Orca screen reader project.

At the end of August, I had a chance to sit down with Will Walker, and learn more about the Orca project. To quote their GNOME project page, Orca is a flexible, extensible, and powerful assistive technology for people with visual impairments. Using various combinations of speech synthesis, braille, and magnification, Orca helps provide access to applications and toolkits that support the AT-SPI. AT-SPI stands for "assistive technology service provider interface" and the GNOME desktop implements this API.

Will has had a long history working with assistive technologies. First, at Digital Equipment Corporation, he worked on making the X Window System accessible to people with disabilities, which included work on RAP, one of the first service-based approaches to accessibility. Then, at Sun, he helped author the Java Accessibility API. Next, he joined Sun Labs to work on speech synthesis and recognition, before moving back into the Accessibility Program Office (APO) to lead Orca.

Jen: Will, tell me about your involvement in the Orca project.

Will: The first thing we did was to hire Mike Pedersen, a usability expert in screen reading who also happens to be an end user. I was really tired of people without disabilities defining the user experience for people with disabilities. It was important to have a person with a disability in a leadership role to define the user experience. I put Mike in that role. We then formed the Orca advisory board. This was a small group of friends and family who had visual impairments and different use patterns: some people used braille, some people used speech, some people with low-vision used magnification and then we had combinations of all of those.

We asked them, "What do you want a screen reader to do?" "What's your typical day like?". We developed some form of personas and adopted the mantra of the User Experience will drive the architecture, not the other way around. This focus created wins across the board:

  • Any decision we made was based on direct user experience
  • We avoided over-generalization, but instead solved specific user problems
  • We did rapid prototyping all the way

Every so often, we'd stop and refactor as necessary to support new user experience patterns as they emerged. From a modularity standpoint, we used the rule that "we will generalize when the use case exceeds 1".

We also asked ourselves questions to help us make some simplifying assumptions. Did we want Orca to be all things to all people? Did we want to cover more than one platform? We decided to focus Orca on providing access to the GNOME desktop for the professional. This allowed us to simplify by keeping the problem space limited to office productivity applications such as email, web browsing and content management; we didn't have to worry about CD players or games. While this may seem limiting, it is still a huge task with a wide spectrum of problems. As such, we felt like we could generalize to other areas once we better understood the office productivity problem space.

A couple years later, Orca is the official screen reader for GNOME and we are getting a lot of positive feedback from around the world. Mike continues to play a pivotal role -- anything to do with user interaction involves consultation with Mike and our new public list,, which has over 200 members.

Jen: What's happening with the Orca community?

Will: A big portion of the project involves building "the community." In our sense of the word, "community" isn't restricted to developers. More importantly, it is mostly users. As part of building the community, we wanted to let users know the team members are accessible, they listen, and they "get it." This was done by making a concerted effort to establish effective communication channels for the community.

The primary communication channels we use are the list and the #orca IRC channel on The team monitors these and regularly engages users in productive conversations. More recently, we have also seen users frequently help other users, which is a great sign of a community that is growing and thriving. I often try to remind myself not to jump into a conversation, but to instead let it happen. Letting people have the freedom to talk can help them emerge as experts.

We have some ground rules for communicating: problems have to come with a constructive suggestion; new members will be treated with respect; and abusive people get private warnings. By keeping a positive atmosphere, we can have an open dialog. We can ask users what they want and why they want it. We can ask what tasks they are trying to accomplish, and then explore different interaction models to arrive at the best solution.

Finally, I need to say that the other team members employed by Sun are also part of this big community. Rich Burridge, for example, is a very valuable member of the team and is well respected in the Orca community. It's just great to be surrounded by such a good crew of folks.

Jen: So what do you think the biggest benefits are or were of having that kind of direct access to your users?

Will: That direct contact has paid off in many ways: users began to have direct personal relationships with the developers and with each other. As a result, the users felt empowered that their requirements were valued and that their voices were being heard.

Direct access also helped the development team understand the domain better. While we all have been involved in accessibility for some time, there is still always a lot to learn, and what better way to learn than to talk directly with end users.

Direct access to our users also helped grow our virtual team. We have an early adopter in Spain, Francisco Javier Dorado Martínez, who helped push Orca adoption throughout Spain. He gives us patches and is thrilled to see his name in the change log. We had worked for months via e-mail, and I finally met him in person at Software Libre 2007. One of the first things he told me was that he was amazed he could mention a bug or feature request and see it in a build later that day.

The respect and thrill is also a two way street. The reason I was at Software Libre was to give a talk on Orca. Based upon the circumstances at the time -- the conference was in Spanish! -- and my familiarity with Javier, I made a last-minute decision to have Javier join me on stage. He was very effective. I've heard reports that he was the hit of the show. I would not have made the same decision had I not had direct communication with Javier in the months prior to the conference.

Finally, from my perspective, the emails that we get that say "thank you" are what keep me going.

Jen: Will, we've talked about what Orca is, and the involvement of the users, but now I want to know: what's the value of open source?

Will: One value to our users is that they can get updates the second we check in a change; not in six months or a year. The open source nature of the project is also very empowering for our users. All of the bugs and the decision-making processes are public. User requests and bug reports are managed in our public database, so there's a written record that they can follow; they see the discussion and the fix.

From a development perspective, we also get new functionality and bug fixes from the community. There are a lot of contributors to thank, but I'd like to highlight a person on our virtual team: Joanmarie Diggs. Joanmarie produces in her spare time the equivalent of a full-time developer and is responsible for significant portions of Orca. Wow! It's just amazing to get that kind of contribution.

We also have other contributors who are being funded by the Mozilla Foundation. Eitan Isaacson is helping us out a lot with migrating to unified bindings for AT-SPI as well as helping with our regression testing framework. In the coming months, I'm going to be relying upon Eitan to help refactor the speech support and roll in support for contracted braille. Scott Haeger has been focusing on providing access to emerging web technologies such as ARIA. I'm very thrilled that the Mozilla Foundation is involved in Orca -- Aaron Leventhal, if you read this, thanks for your support!

Last, Ubuntu has been instrumental in the success of Orca. Like Sun, Ubuntu has embraced accessibility. For example it has accessible install, which is the ability to install an application without assistance from a sighted person. More and more people migrated to Ubuntu as a result of accessible install. The fact that accessible install was such a huge differentiator was an eye-opener for me; I plan to pursue it aggressively for OpenSolaris.

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.


xDesign is a software user experience design group at Sun.
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