What it’s like to work at Flow

Flow Interactive is hiring. I thought maybe some insights into life at Flow might be interesting for everyone – and might persuade some of you to come work with us. If you’ve got a talent for user-centred design, you’ll love it here.

Here are some quick snapshots.

Cakes, books and table football

Here are some Flow consultants eating cake. This happens every Friday. It’s a great opportunity to exchange tips and ideas, as well as to wind down for the weekend. We also have a quarterly internal mini-conference called Holy Flowday, and weekly lunchtime sessions called Flowlite. It’s a great way to learn.

Also note:

  • Football table: Esential kit for every Clerkenwell office.
  • Large shelf of UX books in the background: Not so often seen in Clerkenwell offices. We really value knowledge, innovation and best practice – not just cake and football.

Usability lab with testing underway

Here’s a usability lab. We have three of them in various configurations and with good quality microphones and cameras, plus Morae or DVD recording. You can also see the magic mirror behind which observers can lurk. There is no better way to prove the value of user-centred design to a product team than letting them watch real target users trying out the design ideas. Project politics tends to evaporate.

We also use these rooms for conducting “experience labs” – sessions where we use all sorts of techniques and games to help target users show us the reality of their needs and behaviours. The very best way to work out what people need is often go and hang out with them. Contextual enquiry and ethnography are all about getting out of the lab – a very popular activity with Flowsters.

Sticky notes and a thinker

And finally, here’s a project war-room. Research and design generate a lot of facts and ideas that need to be marshalled, soaked up and communicated. Flowsters are obsessed with using sticky notes for this purpose. So we do have a lot of project war rooms where individuals and groups can surround themselves with their work. We’re convinced that this technique leads to better quality results.

So, fancy working at Flow? It’s a chance to work on a real diversity of projects for top-grade clients, and do design the way it should be done. With a team who are passionate about UCD. In a great space. For a good salary. UCD heaven.

Trouble with email: this might help (marginally)

As mentioned in a previous post, many inboxes are overflowing and the situation looks set to get worse.

What’s the answer:

  • Better discipline?
  • Email bankruptcy?
  • Choosing to use a different medium (like IM) for some conversations?
  • Better email clients?

Probably all of the above.

Xobni have had a go at improving outlook – by making attachments and emails easier to find, and by making conversations easier to refer back to.

XOBNI's mail add-on for outlook

Yet more information to process: xobni’s coloured bar chart shows data about your email frequency.

It’s nothing radical (just adding functionality that outlook needed to stay competitive with other email software), but the philosophy is that every little bit helps, I suppose. Reducing the time it takes to file things, and retrieve things makes emailing more efficient. You can process more information faster.

Trouble is, I don’t think I can handle much more information. I appear to have reached my maximum rate of decision making. To to answer more queries and solve more problems in a day might well finish me off altogether. The bottleneck isn’t in the mechanism of sending and receiving mail. The bottleneck is my brain’s capacity to come up with worthwhile answers fast enough.

Anybody else feel like this?

Designing online conversations

The gag: take the interaction that you have with friends via facebook, and transpose it into a real life conversation. It’s hilarious and cringe-provoking.

An old contact comes knocking on your door wanting to be your “friend” and brandishing compromising photos of you that he will share with everyone.

He's got compromising photos of you and he's going to share themConsternation as a friend comes round asking annoying questions

Watch the video on YouTube.

It highlights a couple of interesting points about designing online interactions.

When a new communications medium appears, it takes people a while to understand good etiquette. There are stories of people shouting at each other in the corridors when e-mail started to become widespread in companies in the early nineties. People said things to colleagues in emails and didn’t think of the real-world consequences. Similarly, I heard a recent tale of people being fired for posting defamatory comments on an internal corporate blog without thinking that everyone would actually read the comments.

Designing an interactive product like a website is designing communication. And understanding the rules of etiquette is important. A few years back, e-commerce websites had a tendency to engage you in dialogues like this…

Customer: I’d like to buy these shoes.

Salesman: Certainly. Where did you hear about this shop? And when is your birthday? And would you like me to send you some email every week?

Not appropriate in real life, and interestingly, not appropriate online either.

Site designers are becoming much better at understanding the rules. It’s now easy to unsubscribe from just about any email newsletter that’s plaguing you. Most marketers have realised that even though email is a huge driver of traffic (driving 48 dollars of business for every dollar spent), unwanted emails drive no traffic, waste marketing time and resources and have a negative impact on a customers perception of their brands. In the UK, it’s also illegal to send unsolicited email.

Gaining permission from your target customers is the trick. And that takes a long dialogue between customer and website, probably over several visits. Creating a dialogue that builds trust and engagement is one definition of good user experience design.

Thanks to Karl Sabino for the link.

Can’t communicate – too busy with email

Choose a better tool than email for some of your communication jobs.

Mark Hurst has been blogging about email bankruptcy a fair amount recently – the idea that overwhelmed executives sometimes feel there’s no option but to delete their inboxes and start again. With estimates saying that the average knowledge worker will send/receive 199 corporate emails per day by 2010, it’s clear that something is very wrong.

Mark lambastes a number of people for asking for a technological solution to the problem. He also advocates a change in behaviour – his “bit literacy” approach. All sensible enough – but then I noted that there already is a technological solution the problem. Sort of.

But first you have to reframe the question. Intead of “how can I get through email with less pain?” try this one: “How can I optimise the way I communicate overall?”

My colleague Kelsey Smith has been working on a project for a global organisation that makes it money handing information. His experience there showed him an organisation thriving by using a range of different communications media:

“Email is a blunt knife. So they use multiple channels, each with different properties and used in different scenarios. Email is a data flow – a continuous stream of low-urgency background conversations happening on various lists. Blogs and Twitter fulfil a similar purpose: context. Instant messaging is used for near-synchronous conversations without being as intrusive as a phone call. And face-to-face conversation is used for urgent and complex subjects that require focus and nuance.”

So – the best solution to email overload comes from selecting the right medium for each conversation you want to have.

Google interface: Move some fo the load from email to chat

Try an experiment. Find a contact or colleague who is already a happy to use IM. Next time you want to sort something out with them, force yourself to use IM instead of email. See if you get better results with less effort. It worked for me.

I could be way off, of course. Jakob Nielsen classified IM as “information pollution” back in 2004. And Linda Stone reminds us that monitoring too many information channels at once can be very stressful.

On the other hand, Facebook has just introduced chat, and GMail has had built-in chat for several years. And plenty of younger users dismiss email as too much bother. (If you are going to use email, here as some good tips from a 19-year-old).

We have a landscape of communication tools – including blogs, wikis, twitter IM and email. Using them right, can help stave off email bankruptcy.

Tapping on my desk

This diagram shows a patent application recently filed by Apple for an OS X gesturing control panel.

Apple gesture interface control panel patent

Thanks to macRumours.com

Apple are leading the pack in gestural interface design at the moment, with iPhone, iPod and Macbook Air. (But synaptics, who make most of the the worlds touchpads, are in hot pursuit. They say they expect that “80 to 90 percent of consumer notebooks will have these new multigestures by the end of the year.”)

Sme of Apple MacBook Air's trackpad gesture

I’ve found myself sitting at my desk “trying out” these gestures. Would the three-finger paste gesture, above, be easier than the gesture I already use for pasting – Ctrl-V? Note that typing Ctrl-V is a gesture in itself. And when you’re well trained using a QWERTY keyboard it’s pretty easy to remember and perform.

Try it yourself. Tap on the desk. What do you think?

I wasn’t sure at first, but on balance, I think Apple’s gesture for paste is better than Ctrl-V.

Designing the right gesture

What makes touchpad gestures better than key combinations?

  • The most valuable gestures seem to encompass “degree” – not just “zoom in” but “zoom in this much”.
  • But even for a binary operation like paste or cut, a gesture can be simpler, more comfortable and slightly more memorable than a keyboard shortcut, if it’s chosen to match an analogous real-world action. It will be easier to use if it’s closer to what our caveman brains evolved to cope with.
  • The position of the touchpad itself might also play an important role. I find myself wanting to throw out my mouse but keep a modified the mouse mat – a multitouch version connected to my computer. With my left hand on the keyboard and my right hand on the mat, I could mix keystrokes and gestures very comfortably.

New book on gestures

Dan Saffer of Adaptive Path is working on a book called “Interactive gestures: Designing gestural interfaces.” He points out the importance of well-designed gestures. They must be comfortable to perform once or several times. And they mustn’t embarrass the gesturer, or inconvenience people nearby.

The first chapter is available for free and is a good read. There’s also a blog and a wiki.

How grandma sees the remote

As remote controls and mobile phones become increasingly baroque in their complexity, more and more of us find ourselves pressing the wrong buttons at the wrong times. I press the wrong button three times a day on my K800i.

But Grandma has an extra problem: she worries that by pressing the wrong button she will break things or hurt herself.

How grandma sees the remote: a New Yorker Cartoon.

Big picture here at Book of Joe. And you can buy the cartoon from the New Yorker.

Designing to overcome that is a major challenge. But if you can do it, the magic part is that millions of other people who thought they were more sophisticated than grandma will suddenly love your product too. Because it’s simple and supportive.

Don’t (just) design what your users want

There was an interesting online tussle recently between 37 Signals, creators of online collaboration applications, and Donald Norman, revered usability expert. Is designing products to suit yourself a good idea or not?

In a recent Wired article, David Heinemeier Hansson of 37 Signals said,

I’m not designing software for other people, I’m designing it for me.

In response, Norman said,

If you want a hobby, fine, indulge yourself. If you are running a business, then the needs of your customers come first. This means understanding them, understanding the activities they do, designing for them. […] To say ‘I’m not designing .. for other people,’ is an attitude that will not only lead to failure, it is one that deserves to fail.

It’s great when your users are just like you

This can’t be disputed: to design a successful interactive product you have to understand your users’ needs, behaviours and motivations. But getting right to the bottom of what people need and want can be time-consuming and difficult. In the dot.com world, time scales and budgets can be tight and launching your product often changes the very user behaviour you’re designing for.

But sometimes, just sometimes, you get lucky: You find you’re designing for people who are just like you.

Some great inventions have occurred when designers just designed for themselves. Scott Berkun, quotes two in “the Myths of Innovation”: Craigslist.com and the MacDonalds’ fast food production system.

I think Hansson is talking about just that. He designs apps for intelligent, pro-technology users just like himself, who need to collaborate on projects fairly similar to the kind of project he works on. And, because he’s got a nice tight design brief, 100% in-depth access to the psyche of his user and a very large marketplace he delivers a very popular and successful product.

Basecamp, 37 Signals' flagship product

Designer expertise counts

Both Norman and Hansson agree on one thing: user involvement alone is not enough. Designer vision, expertise and discipline is a vital part of successful innovation.


It does not mean throwing features together haphazardly. It does not mean doing everything customers request. It still means being disciplined, having a clear conceptual model of the product, and sticking to that model.

37 Signals:

If some customers tell us to add bananas to our lasagna, we’re not going to make them happy at the expense of ruining the dish for everyone else. […] That’s why it’s our job to be editors. […] To pick out the ideas that will benefit the most people and disappoint the least people. And sometimes that means doing nothing at all.

Homer Simpson's dream car: utter confusion

Designing exactly what customers ask for is usually disastrous.

And while we’re at it, Steve Jobs:

We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.

A designer’s vision, often informed by personal beliefs or needs, has got everything to do with the design process. Market-beating results don’t usually come from just listening to users. As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

Lessons in successful design

Every time we have this debate at Flow, we conclude pretty much the same thing…

  • Understand user needs, abilities and motivations.
  • Follow a disciplined design process, inspired by user research.
  • But don’t just do what the users tell you. You need personal inspiration and vision as well as skill and hard work.
  • So for best results, design something you believe in.

Haptic interaction: feel the buzz

When using a mobile phone, we take for granted the fact that we can feel the shape of the keypad. It lets (some of) us touch-type, or select certain applications without looking. Touch feedback, like the click of a key, also backs up the visual cues we get from the display and makes the phone easier to use. But those touch-based tricks aren’t possible on a device which is “all screen”, like the iPhone.

A team from the University of Glasgow has come up with a “haptic” keyboard for the iPhone (the word haptic describes all things to do with touch). When you press an on-screen key, the iPhone’s built-in buzzer (its actuator) gives a little buzz. They call the buzz a “tacton” – a tactile icon. Apparently, the haptic feedback does make a useful difference.

iPhone haptickeyboard
The team are also working on a haptic application launcher for the iPhone.

Providing a broader range of tactons will mean that devices can communicate more through touch. Adding actuators at several different places in the device can create different sensations, as they buzz in different patterns. There’s also research into creating a “laterotactile display” that can create richer tactile interactions with the tip of your thumb!

The THMB vibrotactile device

There are also other ways you can interact with a phone without looking: tilting and twisting it. Accelerometers can tell a device how it is being waved around. Nintendo Wii is already using this kind of interaction for games, but could it work as an everyday interaction mechanism for mobile devices too? NTT DoCoMo have tried it on their Foma904i handset. Shake the phone twice to start an email…

NTT DoCoMo Foma904i gesture phone

All this proves yet again that making new technology really match what humans need and want is a rarely straightforward. We want multi-touch displays. But we also want haptic feedback, one-handed use and use-without looking – depening on the situation. We want gestures. But we need them to be practical gestures that are not disruptive to our environment and don’t cause discomfort.

Looks like there’s plenty to keep haptic and gesture-based designers busy for years to come.

Thanks to Aziz Hendricks And Bertus Kock for the pointers.

DIS 2008 day 3: A new frontier for interaction

The pieces came together today at the DIS 2008 conference – or at least closer together. So far, human-computer interaction has focussed on things like cognition, efficiency and matching existing work practice. But maybe we’ve got that pretty much that stuff sorted out – at least from a researcher’s point of view. Our curiosity is leading us towards a new frontier: how interactive technology can address the social and emotional aspects of our lives.

Matt Jones from Swansea University talked about the StoryBank project. The team has placed a digital screen in the centre of a rural Indian village to help people share knowledge in the form of stories. Participants can create a simple story on their mobile phones, made of still photos and audio, then “gift” it to the StoryBank screen. They can apply simple tags to the story using icons: “kids”, “farming”, “health” humour”… Other villagers can discover stories floating past on the screen, and view them or download them onto their own phones. The villagers have limited literacy, an extroverted culture and a strong tradition of sharing knowledge through storytelling. They have taken to the screen enthusiastically.

Stories drift past in the StoryBank screen
Eric Paulos, from Intel Research, talked about “Objects of wonderment”. He asked us to consider how technology can create a sense of wonder, rather than just being a practical problem solving tool. He also asked us to rethink our understanding of mobiles phones and consider them as “public urban processors” – cheap, ubiquitous, connectible modules of computing power attached to humans that move them around the city. This situation allows amazing phenomena to emerge – when it can be harnessed.

The objects of wonderment project has provided a tool kit to enable people to re-use old mobile phones and extend them to do new things. The example: the Hullabaloo – a phone in a box, attached to a loudspeaker. Whenever it detects a new bluetooth ID drifting past (another phone and its owner) it assigns a new bird call sound clip to that person and plays the bird call. Regular passers-by start to be able to identify their own bird call – and that of other regulars.

People gather around the Hullabaloo to listen to their bird calls

John Williamson from the University of Glasgow, demonstrated a fun way to browse and explore a large digital photo collection. You literally shake the screen of his hand-held Flutter interface to bring up a new selection of photos, then grab a pleasing photo with the stylus and shake that to release other similar photos.

Flutter device - shake it for photo fun

Factors for designing social and emotional experiences

The conversation after a number of talks touched on questions like “Who would want this?”, “Where would this be worth doing?” And compiling ideas from many talks, I ended up with this short list of factors to consider when designing social and emotional experiences. For social experiences:

  • Culture: Are you designing for a culture which values the group or individuality more highly? Consider, also, attitudes to family – so different between say, Singapore and the UK.
  • Individual differences: Different people have different tastes and behaviours. A given emotional experience is unlikely to appeal to everyone (and why should it?)
  • Physical proximity: Is the experience designed to work over a wide distance, or to help people communicate and collaborate better when they are standing right next to one another? If people are together – why? Are they there to collaborate or join in community or entertainment activities, or are they forced together by circumstance? On a crowded train, people use inteactive devices like ipods to separate themselves from the crowd and create much-needed personal space. But at a festival or market, people have deliberately come along to interact with each other.

For emotional experiences:

  • Physicality: Physical movement, be it whole-body or just smaller movements, is often playful and can make an experience joyful.
  • Where the emotion is: Should the system seek to identify the users emotion, and do something with that “knowledge”? Or should it simply act as a medium for gathering, storing and sending new kinds of material that will produce an emotional responses in the users (yesterday’s sensecam story is a great example of this second approach).

Identifying all the variables involved in creating social and emotional experiences is going to take plenty more effort and experimentation. But everyone at the conference accepted that the user-centred design approach, involving users throughout the design process, is the only way to learn. For these cutting edge designers and researchers, UCD is a given.

The third wave

Bill Gaver, from Goldsmith’s in London, summed up what’s happening. A third paradigm for HCI is emerging (though I’m not yet clear what the first two were). This new paradigm defines interaction design as “situated meaning making” – not only improving efficiency, or matching user needs better, but also adding the emotional and social ingredients to make an experience worthwhile.

Some of Bill’s tips:

  • Design situations and resources, not tools. In other words, challenge people to think in new ways and give them what they need to make progress.
  • Make the world interesting, not the system.
  • Interaction can be in the mind. There’s not always a need for bells, buttons and sliders if the interface can make you think about the world in a new way.
  • Welcome ambiguity and a variety of interpretations, don’t view them as error or risk. People have always interpreted and appropriated systems – however rigorously they are designed. This new wave of HCI acknowledges and welcomes it.

To see what he means, take a look at this video (6 mins) of Bill’s latest project being evaluated by its users. It’s great fun, and fascinating.

And is this approach commercially applicable? Sometimes.

  • Interesting interaction can be used to attract attention.
  • Devices that create emotion or promote reflection might be desirable. I’d buy a SenseCam.
  • We know that emotional connections create brand loyalty. Many Apple users have a strong emotional connection to their computers and the Apple brand. A little of that comes from playful user experience.

But is it art?

It all seems perilously close to art. And surely there are serious limits for this new kind of HCI. Would you prefer to know that the pilot has full control of the plane, or that he has emotional relationship with it, and can interpret its signals to him in a range of ways? Bill points to some intriguing examples:

  • The Shared Space project has found that removing road markings and street furniture, to make an intersection ambiguous actually makes people think differently and take more care there.
  • And maybe an engaged pilot, who finds his aeroplane eternally interesting is safer than a bored one, or one who has little interaction with his plane until the autopilot suddenly fails.

And how will the new HCI be branded? HCI 3.0? Situational HCI? Now that’s the really hard part…

DIS 2008 day 2: Sensecam triggers emotions

Some great presentations at DIS 2008 carried on the themes of social and emotional interaction.

Maria HÃ¥kansson and Lalya Gaye from the Viktoria Institute in Goteborg, Sweden talked about their “context camera.” It’s a digital stills camera that applies effects to the pictures based on sound and motion that occured as the photo was taken.

Context camera pictures - Zoom, colour shadow, pixel and wave effects

Marcus Foth from Queensland University presented Cityflocks – a social navigation tool with a difference. The mobile-phone based system to allow people to write and read restaurant reviews, but it also allowed people wanting information to actually contact a local Cityflocks user and ask for restaurant advice directly – via text message or even a voice call. The designers compare it to asking someone in the street for directions. To me it sounds like a mixture of Zagat and real-time Yahoo answers.

The results: people didn’t like the voice call mechanism – too synchronous and intrusive. The text message approach worked well, but it took a couple of days to get answers so it was better for people who were planning ahead.

Microsoft Sensecam research

But my favourite talk of the day was about some recent research undertaken by Manchester Metropolitain university and the BBC using the Microsoft Sensecam.

Microsoft research invented the Sensecam in 1999. It’s a light-weight digital camera that you wear around your neck. It takes pictures automatically, when it senses changes in light, heat or motion.You can also set it to just take photos on a regular clock. The photos are 640×480 resolution – and each one is just a rough-and-ready snapshot, taken automatically. You end up with a with a huge mass of photos which you can play back as a timelapse film of your day.

Microsoft sensecam

This sounds odd and pointless. And when the researchers gave five sensecams to regular folk, they weren’t sure they were going to see anything very exciting.

But the results they got back amazed them. People really connected with medium. They selected unexpected favourite photos. One wrote dialogue to represent the conversation that had been happening at the time of the picture. Another set his timelapse to music – to make an absolutely entrancing 3-minute film. One participant was overjoyed to capture one of those moments when you just wish you had a camera – he caught his girlfriend feeding a dog biscuit to the dog, and eating a dog biscuit herself!
A serendipetous sensecam picture of someone's first day at nursery school

Here are some of the reasons why having a Sensecam could be amazing…

  • Imagine seeing all the things in your day you didn’t notice, and getting a chance to take a fresh look at how you spend your time.
  • Imagine seeing a friend’s or partner’s day played back to you in a couple of minutes
  • Imagine seeing a timelapse film of what your child did all day
  • Imagine putting a sensecam on your dog – or attaching it to a kite
  • Imagine running your own timelapse day alongside your partner’s so you can see what each of you was doing at each moment as the day progressed
  • Imagine reviewing days in the life of a deceased loved one

Nokia’s lifeblog, and other life-blogging approaches, have already hinted at some of these experiences. But Sensecam makes the whole process close to automatic, and provides a perspective which is close to your own, but not your own. The result is remarkable.

Microsoft don’t appear to have plans to manufacture the Sensecam for consumer use yet. I’m looking forward to the day when they do.

Last day of DIS 2008 tomorrow. But I’ve seen more stuff already than I can blog about!