Sketching is an essential tool for innovation. If you don’t explore new ideas effectively and cheaply at the start of a project, you risk expensive failures. At the fifth SA|UX forum Cape Town meet-up, we had some great presentations about the subject.
We had a talk from Microsoft’s, Kath Roderick about Blend3 Sketchflow. I have to say – the tool really looks like it has merit.
It’s primarily focussed on making fairly robust, clickable prototypes, so it may, be a bit more fiddly than a very early stage skecthing tool like Balsamiq. But it seems to make it easy to do a lot of the things that usually take ages during UX design.
You can do data binding – to import sample data quickly into scrolly boxes.
And you can make re-usable elements, like, say a universal navbar, and put them onto each page with ease.
It also shows you your prototype pages as a network diagram rather than as a list (like say Fireworks or Dreamweaver does), which I think will make pages easier to find, organise and remember.
Sketchflow lets you package up your prototype so you can put it on a website, and not worry about how to share the prototype. And the packaging mechanism includes a feedback tool so stakeholders can annotate and comment on it in their own time. Very clever.
Finally, we had a brilliant talk from Dennis Williams about how to make and use sketches even though you “can’t draw.”
Cape Town’s UX community is growing well. We had a turnout of more than 50 people.
Signing up with Vodacom for an iPhone: it worked, but only just. Next to Apple’s amazing user experience design, Vodacom’s service design looks distinctly shabby. Sorting it out would benefit customers and shareholders.
A “dancing bear” is Alan Cooper’s term for a piece of technology that gets accepted because it does something valuable – not because it does something well. The miracle is that the bear dances. But if you needed a dancer, you wouldn’t hire a bear.
A classic example. The Diamond Rio: dancing bear. iPod: Prima ballerina.
Service design is another form of experience design. And it can have dancing bears too.
See the bear dance
So low are our expectations of South African mobile service providers, that we applaud when they manage the absolute basics of their business: connecting new customers to their service so they can make money out of them. A service provider that actually tried to provide a real customer experience? We can bearly imagine it.
“Awesomeness” was one of the project goals. User-centred design helped to deliver it.
As we use wi-fi networks, satellite TV, mobile phones, we don’t give a thought to the antennas that makes them work. But designing antennas is hard. It’s almost as much an art as a science, takes lots of knowledge, dedication and experience… and months.
Antenna Magus is a new piece of software which cuts weeks off the antenna design process. It represents a revolution in antenna design. (If you want to know what it actually does, your best bet is to watch their chuckle-provoking video).
The Magus team wanted the software to be useful and quick to use. They wanted it to be “awesome” (with tongues slightly in cheeks). Most of all, they wanted it to be exportable globally and generate significant revenue, in a shortish time frame. So they asked me to help get them there.
“South Africans would always rather jump in the car to go an buy something than buy it over the internet,” says Andrew Smith, director of YuppieChef. He’s right. And it means that if you can design an e-commerce site that sells in South Africa, you can do it anywhere.
At the end of May, there was a free one day conference about South African, digital entrepreneurship: Net Prophet. Andrew Smith, a director of South Africa’s most delightful e-commerce site, YuppieChef, gave a great talk about e-commerce in South Africa. It was called E-commerce is not a technology problem.
Andrew covered user experience and customer experience in a completely jargon-free way. And he offered a great summary of the themes that an e-commerce operations needs to consider.
Of course e-commerce is not primarily a technology problem. But when you meet organisations starting e-commerce operations, you still need to spell it out every time. A great example from Andrew:Â Pick and Pay’s website is high on technology and short on selling. The search engine returns results, sure, but if you search for milk, you get milk stout and milky bar buttons coming up first. Surely cartons of milk would make better sense.
(My limited experience of talking to the Sainsbury’s and Occado teams in the UK tells me that getting supermarket IA right takes about 2 years, or four iterations. So don’t give up, Pick and Pay).
Andrew also offers some great checklists for what it takes to run a successful e-commerce operation.
Product: Hard to find, trusted brands, easy to deliver
Marketing: Offline credibility, word of mouth, community
Customer service: Real people, in touch, full time
It’s a great introduction.Â But what’s really intriguing is that online trust-building and persuasion tactics don’t seem to be enough. Andrew is convinced that in South Africa, you have to establish trust via telephone calls and offline marketing. Like I said: if you can build a successful e-commerce business in South Africa, you can do it anywhere.
Rapid interface sketching tool Balsamiq allows anyone to throw simple clickable interfaces together quickly. But if decides to become a professional tool for interaction designers, it still has a way to go.
Balsamiq has found a great niche. A growing group of folk in the web and software business understand that they should be sketching interfaces before implementation, but feel they “can’t draw”. So making a dedicated piece of software for them is a good idea. Integration with various enterprise collaboration tools makes another nice USP.
Sketch really fast
Balsamiq genuinely allows you to produce sketch interfaces faster then any other tool I’ve seen.Â You can add a window, say, then instantly customize the thickness of the status bar, and title bar, and add or remove the maximize, minimize and close buttons. You can chuck in a tree control and quickly customize exactly how many folders it is showing and what each one is called.Â Everything lines up automatically so it looks fairly neat.
You can also make scrolling pages and string them together into clickable demos. That means you can mock up a simple website clickthough in a few minutes. Balsamiq also captures some of the fun and creativity that makes sketching such a joy.Â Clever!
But then what?
There are at least three good reasons to create interface sketches and prototypes:
To get new ideas and quickly explore and enhance them in design sessions with colleagues. Balsamiq is right at home here.
To usability test ideas with target users. Balsamiq is close to being very useful here.
To explain, persuade and demonstrate to other project stakeholders. Balsamiq needs quite a lot of work here.
As an interaction designer, I also need a tool to help me when interaction design projects get big and complex. Balsamiq isn’t yet great at handling large, complex mockups and helping you to keep all the pages consistent and up to date.
The principle of Occam’s Razor offers interaction designers three ways to keep complexity under control.
Occam’s razor has been really useful to me on several projects recently. It’s nothing new. Occam was around in the 14th Century. And it wasn’t even his idea: it might well have been Aristotle’s. Perhaps that long history proves that it’s a great tool to have in your arsenal when designing user experiences.
The basic idea is something like:
“If you have two equivalent theories or explanations for observed facts, all other things being equal, use the simpler one.”
The user-centred design version might be:
“If you have two interfaces that both address user needs, go with the simpler one.”
But there are three different ways the idea gets expressed, and each form has something to offer interaction designers. Here they are:
Whitney Hess has written a really good post on Mashable which summarises ten major misconceptions that organisations often have about user experience.
I don’t usually post straight pointers to other people’s work, but this one is a beauty.
The 10 things user experience design is NOTâ€¦
1. â€¦user interface design
2. â€¦a step in the process
3. â€¦about technology
4. â€¦just about usability
5. â€¦just about the user
8. â€¦the role of one person or department
9. â€¦a single discipline
10. â€¦a choice
Organisations and teams that understand this will stand a much better chance of generating a good user experience, happy customers, and a profit. Here’s the full post…
But what really struck me is that I seemed to spend a lot of time shuffling windows around to get the applications I wanted displayed next to each other. If anything, I felt less productive.
A tidy desktop, organised with Winsplit Revolution
I found a piece of software called Winsplit Revolution, courtesy of LifeHacker. It lets you get windows into predefined sizes and positions quickly. Configuring the positions is still a confusing and manual process but it’s worth it.Â With intuitive key combinations I can now snap windows to top, bottom, right or left, and toggle through 66%, 50% or 25% sizes.Â This means I can get practical window layouts easily.