Book review: “Undercover User Experience Design”

When a colleague first told me about “guerilla user experience design”, I immediately started visualising people wearing balaclavas working on websites whilst hiding in shady corners. I then read a book titled Undercover user experience design written by Cennydd Bowles and James Box. Lots of organisations still seem reluctant to embrace user-centric design, citing time and budget as the most common restraints. Bowles and Box have aimed to provide their readers with a “pragmatic guide” which provides practical suggestions and tools to ‘everyday‘ user experience (‘UX’) questions or problems.

The whole point of “undercover user experience design”, I learned, is that there are lots of cost- and time effective ways to ‘stealthily’ introduce user experience design into a company. For instance, where the authors elaborate on good interviewing techniques, they suggest an extra skill for ‘undercover interviewers‘ namely the ability to engage in small talk. This way, the interviewee doesn’t even have to be aware that you’re asking user experience related questions about a website.

Similarly, the book suggests simple methods to do a “content audit” of a website and it provides online tools that will help non-UX professionals to create simple but useful sitemaps. Overall, the main things I learned from reading “Undercover user experience design” are:

  1. There are three main design stages – The book distinguishes three main stages of UX design, “generating ideas”, “making it real” and “refining your solution”. Each stage contains a defined set of tools and approach to achieve your (UX) objectives.
  2. Undercover UX doesn’t have to be a permanent mindset – Bowles and Box only see undercover UX as the first step of the “UX adoption ladder”. This stage is meant to get other people in the organisation to understand and to get into UX, after which it will become much easer to move onto “emergent UX” and “maturing UX”.
  3. UX is a mindset not a process – As important as some UX deliverables are, Bowles and Box stress that it’s all about instilling a UX mindset and not about churning out sitemaps, personas, wireframes etc.

I feel the book does a really good job in explaining the wide range of user experience design tools that are available. However, it still seems to expect a relatively high threshold for people wanting to instill user centric design within their companies. Halfway through the book, I started wondering whether at least some of the non-UX professionals reading this book would worry about being able to put the various suggestions into practice. Bowles and Box nevertheless do a great job in providing a comprehensive overview of approaches, tools and reading tips but seem to assume a minimum amount of confidence (and time available) among its readers.

If you are the kind of person who likes a challenge and who isn’t daunted by learning new tools and techniques, then “Undercover user experience design” is the perfect book to get you (and your business) started into UX. However, if you feel like giving up after the chapter on techniques to describe digital interactions, please don’t worry because the book will at least help you to ‘talk the talk’ when you’re speaking to a UX professional or enthusiast.

Main learning point: user experience design doesn’t necessarily have to be very expensive or time intensive. “Undercover user experience design” is all about introducing UX from the ground up and demonstrates that’s it all about getting people to think through a user experience lens.

Related links for further learning:

What is HTML5 all about?

Last night I suddenly realised that I didn’t really know what “HTML5” was. I wasn’t devastated about it but I did feel it would be a good reason to learn a thing or two about HTML and HTML5.

The story starts with Tim Berners-Lee inventing the World Wide Web in the early 1990s and subsequently founding W3C, an organisation aimed at creating and maintaining uniform web standards. W3C launched the first version of HTML, followed by subsequent iterations, with HTML5 being the latest exponent.

HTML is essentially the mark-up language used for building and structuring web pages. The main things that the new HTML5 incorporates are features like video playback and drag-and-drop. Most of these features were previously dependent on 3rd party browsers such as Adobe Flash.

However, HTML doesn’t work in isolation: HTML, JavaScript and CSS are the three main components that make up a website. I’m not a developer but the way I understand it, you start by by creating your web pages using HTML (creating page structure and elements), then you apply JavaScript code to add interactivity and intelligence to the pages and, finally, you apply CSS to style the pages and to make them look good.

So this is what I’ve learnt about HTML and HTML5 so far:

  1. HTML is the standard mark-up language used by developers to build and structure web pages.
  2. If you were to compare a website to a house, then HTML acts as the foundation, JavaScript as the bricks and CSS as the paint
  3. What makes HTML5 different? It intends to facilitate the way in which we’re increasingly using the web; HTML5 supports video, audio and other rich applications that we’re previously dependent on 3rd party browsers.

Main learning point: as a non-technical head I like to try to keep technical things as simple as possible: HTML is the universal language used to build and structure web pages. HTML5 is its latest incarnation, currently ‘under construction’, which supports rich web applications and plug-ins.

Related links for further learning:

This is anti-social: Path limits the number of your (online) friends

For some of us, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are all about amassing as many ‘friends’ as possible. Having 25 Facebook friends or 10 Twitter followers is considered insignificant (perhaps you’re not as outgoing as some of your peers or you’re just being anti-social). However, the downside of having lots of  people in your network is that it increases the likelihood of ‘unfortunate‘ images or tweets finding their way across the Internet, despite you wishing you never shared that embarrassing picture or drunken thought …

Path intends to address this problem by restricting your personal network to ‘just’ 50 friends. “Because your personal network is limited to your 50 closest friends and family, you can always trust that you can post any moment, no matter how personal” the company explained in its launch blog post.

The key principle underpinning Path is that the user has full control over who to share personal content with. To this tune, Path provides a feature called “See” which enables users to see which of their 50 friends have seen the moment in real-time. This feature is based on the idea that this understanding enables trust and sharing between close friends and family.

Path chose the maximum number of 50 friends based on the research of Oxford Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar. Dunbar’s theory suggests that 150 is the maximum number of social relationships that the human brain can sustain at any given time. Based on his research, 50 friends is considered to be roughly the outer boundary of our personal networks. Dunbar’s theory suggests that these 50 friends are the people we trust and we consider to be the most important and valued people in our lives.

Taking into account that it has only just been launched, these are the things I’ve learned about Path:

  1. It’s anti-social! Path limits the number of friends you can have in your social network, based on the idea that 50 friends is the maximum number of people you can maintain personal, trusted relationships with.
  2. The user is in control – Path taps into the idea that users want to have full control over who they share their personal content with.
  3. Path doesn’t intend to replace Twitter or Facebook – It sets out to augment these social networks and focuses on the kind of content you only wish to share with your closest friends and family.

Main learning point: I guess Path will work particularly well for those instances where your content is highly sensitive or personal, and you want it to stay within a controlled, trusted environment.

Related links for further learning:

The cloud saga continues: IBM tries a different approach

This ‘storing data in clouds’ thing keeps fascinating me. Maybe because the cloud seems so intangible and yet so appealing to a growing number of providers and corporate clients alike. In a recent post I looked at the flexible nature of cloud based computing, making large scale and complex IT infrastructures redundant. However, particularly large business customers still seem reluctant to adopt cloud computing, fearing a complete loss of control over their data.

In a recent move, IBM decided to start selling its cloud computing products through its “Services” division. Rather than just providing a technical solution, IBM will now be able to offer bespoke services to its clients, helping them to overcome their initial fears with respect to cloud computing. The focus of Erich Clementi, who heads up IBM’s cloud computing operation, is on different customer use cases and needs (i.e. large corporates).

Part of IBM’s new ‘cloud proposition’ is to sell individual services from its data centres that could be integrated into a company’s existing IT systems. This will leave companies in control of their IT system and their data. Microsoft has recently implemented a similar change to its cloud strategy through an upgrade of its Azure platform.

The main things I took away from IBM’s revised approach to cloud computing are:

  1. Companies will retain control over their IT – Rather than trying to encourage companies to relinquish control over their data to IBM to be stored and processed, IBM now enables companies to retain (full) control.
  2. IBM introduces ‘two-way traffic’ – IBM will now sell bespoke services from its data centres which can be integrated into companies‘ IT systems.
  3. This move by IBM is mostly strategic – the ‘teething problems’ inherent in cloud computing such as security and data portability, have not yet been resolved by the various providers and this new approach by IBM does not seem to resolve any of these issues.

Main learning point: cloud computing represents a really big and important shift in the way companies and individuals treat data storage and data management. To overcome corporate reluctance to handing over data control, providers such as IBM and Windows have started integrating their cloud services with corporate IT systems, thus creating more of a ‘two-way‘ relationship.

Related links for further learning:

Financial Times – “IBM in cloud strategy revamp”

Why location-based technology is on the rise

In my post on 21 October I talked mostly about the principles behind location-based marketing and “geo-fencing”. Since then I’ve learned a bit more about the ‘back-end’ side of things, having looked at some providers of location services and platforms.

Platforms such as Sparkle and SimpleGeo provide developers with the tools and APIs to easily build location based applications for a range of handset devices. The key technology which underpins these services is around identifying and locating mobile phone users, irrespective of the operating system of the handset in question (i.e. Android, iPhone or BlackBerry).

This technology helps to automate processes such as sending messages to mobile users as and when they enter or exit certain areas. Good examples are apps like MayorMaker (automatically checking users in and out of Foursquare) and TweetMover (sending automatic tweets whenever users enter a new neighbourhood).

The main things I learned about location-based technology are:

  1. Companies like Location Labs and MixerLab specialise in doing all the hard (technological) work for apps that tap into a user’s specific whereabouts.
  2. This technology opens up a suite of possible services and applications, varying from private location sharing to finding cheap dining deals based on a user’s location.

Main learning point: I feel that it’s still relatively early days in terms of a widespread adoption of sophisticated location-based services. However, the number of providers and developers who have delved into geo-fencing and location-based applications is growing rapidly. The underlying technology and tools will not only enable targeted advertising but also facilitate a more secure way of knowing where your friends or relatives are.

Related links for further learning: