TEDxCanberra 2010 afterthoughts

I tweeted earlier in the week that I would take it easy at work in the days leading up to TEDxCanberra and brace myself for the intellectual and emotional tsunami that was inevitable from listening to presentations from 20 smart and passionate people. I’m glad I did because TEDxCanberra was close to overwhelming. I’ll willingly admit that I got teary three times during the day and my mind is crammed with lunar landers, nanotechnology, social innovation projects and big new words like Anthropocene.

As part of the organising crew for TEDx in Canberra I did miss out on listening to a few talks on the day but I had caught most of them during rehearsal the day before and even got to listen to some of the presenters speak twice, which was special.

The main takeaway for me was the encouragement and drive, the empowerment. Knowing that there are challenges in this world that there aren’t enough professionals to go around for, so it’s up to ordinary people like us to get involved and make the world a better place. The importance of finding meaning and purpose in your life (Sunny Forsyth, Abundant Water) and following your dreams (Francis Owusu, Kulture Break). To not resign yourself to the inevitable but say ‘No, we can fix this’ (Will Steffen).

Pete Williams, CEO of Deloitte Digital speaking about community rebuilding in Flowerdale.Social innovation isn’t something new to me. Having coordinated Canberra Coworking, Free Australia Wireless, BarCampCanberra and other initiatives and events I feel vindicated but I still believe I haven’t yet found a way that I can use my skills, time and mind for something that actually matters.

I did have a bit of a self-deprecating breakdown during the day on Twitter whilst pondering William DeJeans’ talk on AVID and education. I was home-schooled during primary school, inserted into high school a year advanced at Year 8 and had enough points just 14 months into college to get my Year 12 certificate at the young age of 16 and start working full-time. I was only in public education for 4 years.

William’s talk on rigorous education and preparing students for university made me feel like I missed out on something in my youth. My primary years education was mostly autodidactic … but studying physics and microbiology, and pouring over Scientific American journals didn’t really give me the skills I needed for the workplace.

Ten years on I wonder if I would be more advanced in my career now if I’d studied longer and gone to university. I wonder if further education would have helped me use my brain better, be more articulate. I wonder how not going to university might have handicapped me. Then I realise at the age of 27 when many students would just be finishing up their university studies that I have 10 years of practical work experience behind me. That’s pretty valuable.

Pat McGorry and Ash Donaldson at post-rehearsal drinks.Another important thing that I got out of TEDxCanberra is that there are many causes out there already that need either funds, your brains or your hands. Not neccessarily the big charities but small teams. Not neccessarily ones overseas but organisations in your own town doing good work to help solve social problems like homelessness, suicide and mental health issues, education and even slavery. Don’t think you need to start from scratch. Find out who is out there doing good work and see where you can jump in and help.

Of course TEDx isn’t all about social innovation and solving the big world dilemmas. Marco Ostini’s talk on the Lunar Numbat and White Label Space organisation was fascinating. DIY space exploration and developing open source technologies and components for space travel is amazing, lowering the barrier to entry to space through sharing.

Kristin Alford’s talk on the future and making better, more compelling stories to engage people in predictions of the future was interesting too. It’s a topic that I’m getting really interested in as part of my work as a designer and the challenge of overturning usual processes of writing boring specification documents and dull ‘vision’ statements. Humans have used stories to pass on knowledge for thousands and thousands of years and we seem to have lost our way, thinking that progress in this field was to shun our roots and try and act more like computers. As Jodie Foster says in the film Contact “They should have sent a poet” (instead of scientist).

If you didn’t make it to TEDxCanberra then I’m sorry – you really missed out on an amazing experience. It was like a defibrillator for your mind, for your passion. Rekindle that fire within you. Pull your entrenched feet out of the status quo and do something that makes you feel awesome. Don’t let them kill your dreams.

Oh and check out my photos of TEDxCanberra too. Videos of the event will be up on the YouTube TEDx channel in a few months thanks to our sponsor SilverSun Pictures.

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Misty our border collie

So, I’ve been going a little crazy photographing our puppy lately and I’m liking what I’ve been getting.

This is an insanely sharp photo of her eye that I got this evening with Jenny’s Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro and wall-bounced flash:

Misty's eye

Front-on with her eyes shut:

Sleepy puppy

The cute head twist:

Say what?

Her waiting all cudged up for us to come to bed and give her a light show:

In my bed!

… and moments later she’s chasing the torch beam around the room:

Chasing the light

Sometimes she’ll let Toby share the bed when he comes over for a visit; he’s the border collie in the background, two years younger than Misty:

Dogs on bed

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Designing the iPhone User Experience

Published just a few months ago and with references to the iPhone4, Suzanne Ginsburg’s book Designing the iPhone User Experience: A User-Centered Approach to Sketching and Prototyping iPhone Apps is technically very relevant to current technology. Some sections of the book that discuss specific capabilities of the iPhone such as light, proximity and motion sensors, and the multi-touch gestural interface may date within 12-24 months as Apple enhances existing capabilities and introduces new ones that developers can take advantage of.

Some parts of the book will remain relevant for years, particularly around user research, persona modelling and requirements definition. Suzanne hasn’t just put generic UX information here but has made it all very relevant to how designers should approach iPhone or indeed any sort of mobile device project.

There is an extensive chapter on interface design for the iPhone Suzanne has not attempted to interpret or duplicate the iPhone Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) and strongly recommends you go and read the Guidelines for yourself.

Her approach to application types is based on the HIG in that she refers to Utility, Productivity and Immersive applications and mentions them throughout the book when making recommendations of how to categorise and approach the design of your iPhone application.

The case studies are great and there are lots of screen captures, photos and designs that will help you understand the strategies and techniques.

Designing the iPhone User Experience will be useful for anyone working in the mobile space including mobile websites for iPhone and even non-iPhone devices especially the section on research. As Suzanne says, accessibility isn’t required by Apple but she has included a good chapter on accessibility which you should take heed to as many of us will be required by law to make websites accessible regardless of whether delivered to desktop PCs or mobile devices.

I enjoyed reading Suzanne’s book – it’s very well written, nicely laid out and easy to read.

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Design with Intent toolkit

I stumbled onto Dan Lockton’s Design with Intent project thanks to Carl Myhill. The tagline for Design with Intent is “101 Patterns for Influencing Behaviour Through Design”.

You can download the entire deck of cards, order physical cards, download each section or a collation of each category of cards as an A3 poster. I opted for the latter option which you can see in the image above.

There are eight categories of cards; the four I was interested in and printed off (thanks to our A3 printer at work) were: Interaction, Perceptual, Cognitive and Ludic (PDF).

Each of the topics has a description and a photo that helps you understand the design principle. For example Personality in the Cognitive card set has a photo of six toys with different facial expressions and the description: “Can you give your system a personality or character that engages users, becoming a ’social actor’?”

There are a lot of references to ’systems’ and ‘users’ and seems to be largely pitched at web and software interface designers as confirmed by the author’s comments that much of these principles have been drawn from the domains of programming and human-computer interaction (HCI), particularly the work of Jenifer Tidwell and Christian Crumlish, and Erin Malone.

I’ve got the four A3 posters I downloaded pinned up at work – they make lovely colourful and useful partition decorations and can be helpful in coming up with new ideas and unconsidered aspects and angles in the course of designing products and services.

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South Coast

Jenny and I went down to the coast last long weekend for a few days by the sea. With spring having fully taken hold and blown away the iciness of winter it was great to get out in the sun and warm breeze on the beach at Batemans Bay and down in Broulee.


Whilst walking around and over Broulee Island I found a small baby ringtail possum just lying by the track. It didn’t look at all healthy – I immediately looked around for a snake but couldn’t see anything. The possum just lay there and reached towards me longingly whenever I got close like it wanted to be picked up. So I did. He was pretty groggy for a while and just wanted to be held, which Jenny was happy to do:


He got a little more animated later in the evening but showed no fear or interest in leaving us however we had to hand him over to WIRES. We assume he had simply been discarded by his mother for some reason and was suffering hypothermia.

I’ve walked around Broulee Island before but never over and it’s really quite beautiful up in the forest although it took me ages to figure out how to get off the island with the thick vegetation and dead-end trails.


On the way home from the coast we took a little detour and ended up in Buckenbowra State Forest which was quite pretty although probably teeming with ticks:

Buckenbowra State Forest

I quite like this photo of a camelia I took with my Lensbaby down at the coast house:


A thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing weekend!

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Interviewer personalities: What’s best?

First of all let’s get something clear. Introvert does not mean shy and extrovert does not mean loud. Got it? Good.

There are many factors that go into becoming a good research interviewer including being able to speak clearly and confidently, use body language well, applying good interviewing techniques and take useful notes. Does being an introvert or extrovert make it harder or easier to develop into being a competent interviewer?

Introverts are reflective and passive and they tend to take up less perceived space in a room whilst extroverts are outwards-facing with their energy and can be larger than life even if they’re not aggressive or boisterous.

Does it really come down to the personality of each interview participant and their compatibility with the interviewer? Introvert interviewees may feel intimidated by an extrovert interviewer or they could find it comforting being with an outgoing and visibly confident person (although of course not all extroverts are confident). Flip it the other way and an extrovert participant could get frustrated by the passive and seemingly timid personality of an introvert researcher.

If you conduct interviews with customers and users for research how do you find your personality type has assisted or impeded your ability to facilitate interviews, if at all?

If you’re a think-out-loud extrovert did you find it a struggle to maintain self-control and stop yourself leading the participant? If you’re an introvert do you find interviewing draining and if so how have you dealt with it?

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Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

Following on from my review of Warren Berger’s Glimmer I’m making available a printable version of the Manifesto so you can print it out, stick it up on your wall at work or have it handy to flip through.

Bruce’s Manifesto is thought-provoking and I think it very useful in helping designers move beyond the design-as-process mindset we can tend to get stuck in, especially in user experience where we have a fairly rigid process of research, conceptualisation, user testing, specification and implementation. I see too many designs that are confined to the most recent patterns or interaction paradigms of the latest hyped software.

Download Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth (PDF)

I’ve also designed an enhanced version of the Glimmer Principles wheel with callouts and notes.

Reproduction permission pending. Do first, ask later.

On the topic of manifestos, I found this great thought-provoking and inspirational manifesto the other day.

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Setting aside time to just think

There are an insane number of timeboxing techniques out there: Pomodoro, the anti-Pomodoro, Dash, (10+2)*5 and so on.

Basically the premise of all these techniques is to set an arbitrary start and end time around a task or set of tasks and focus unwaveringly on that task like you’re in a race until the timer goes off, releasing you to come up for air before plunging back into the fray like a frenzied berserker.

Whilst I can see the technique might be of benefit I have an aversion to anything arbitrary … but there is something to be said for having to resort to such techniques to overcome internal and external distractions to get the job done.

In my line of work in design and analysis I have a mix of idea-creation and domain exploration work, and the more process-like documentation and report-writing. When it comes to writing a user interface specification, research brief or test report there’s certainly a benefit in putting on the headphones with white noise, closing your email client and just crunching through the writing.

Have you considered taking the same intense time-critical approach and applying it to creative thinking? It seems like a paradox … focussing on being unfocused and letting your mind wander.

In Michael Michalko’s book Thinkertoys is a technique called “The Three B’s” method which stands for Bus, Bed and Bath – times during the day when challenges previously incubated through concentration may be solved by your subconscious. The problem is that you may not have time to wait till an idea comes to you during your next shower or while you lie in bed days or weeks later.

Banging your head against a wall is less effective than going to find the tools to do the job properly … but that’s how many of us work. We assume we can’t take time to think, to stop, take a step back and get creative. By working with that assumption we spend days doing what could have been accomplished in just a few hours.

Creative thinking does not need to be done on annual retreats or in your downtime. It’s not a privilege awarded only to visionaries and strategists. You can treat creative thinking just like you do your process work. Timebox it if you want. Put your headphones on, shut down your email client, get out your notepad and just start scrawling: what are you trying to solve, what do you know about the problem, what don’t you know, why are you trying to solve it, draw diagrams, who’s involved, what needs to be done etc.

Go read some books on creative thinking and assemble your own toolkit of favourite techniques. Last week I created an A3 poster with my favourite tools and prompts. It’s not about sitting there staring off into space waiting for ideas to come, however you still need to allow your mind to wander, to free-associate and escape the confines of your current thinking and set of assumptions.

Take the time to think. You can’t afford not to.

See a photo of the creative thinking poster I’ve put together

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The mobile experience is nothing like desktop

The term “mobile-optimised” implies optimising for the device whereas in my role as a user experience (UX) designer I’m primarily optimising for the user of the mobile device.

For my current project I’ve been churning out sketches and concepts in an effort to ideate and cast the net as wide as possible before market research fieldwork kicks off in a few weeks. I’ve also been sketching (with words, rather than pictures) the vision of the project and deliverable to capture the essence of what I’m designing and it’s relationship to what’s considered the parent deliverable, the main website which is being delivered by the rest of my project team although I prefer to thing of the two sites as siblings.

I’ve been getting questions about how the mobile website will integrate with the main website and I’ve been trying to figure out how I can easily show how dissimilar browsing the web on a desktop computer is to using the web on your mobile phone or mobile device.

I put together this list of typical differentiating attributes of the two experiences. In some cases the reverse will be true … for example people using desktop computers are often in a hurry and don’t have time to waste and sometimes people using mobile phones are sitting in a hospital with hours to spare. But it’s a reasonable guide that shows how polarised the experiences are. Ultimately my goal here is to show that it depends on the contexts of use for the specific mobile app – iPhone, Android etc – or mobile website you’re developing.

Desktop Mobile
Large screen Small screen
Desk-mounted monitor Screen jolting around (while walking)
Fast internet Slow internet
Have time to browse Don’t have time
Quiet environment Noisy, distracting environment
Have pen & paper to take notes Hard to take notes
Sitting down Standing or walking
Have separate phone Phone and web in same device
Focussed on task Multi-tasking
Artificially-lit environment May be in strong sunlight

Another important point is that most desktop computers will have a full 104-key (or more) tactile keyboard whereas tactile pads on mobile devices usually have 2 or 3 letters to a key. The full keyboards are typically on-screen such as on iPhones but are not tactile. This has a significant impact on typing speed and accuracy. The iPad is better when it comes to input because of the large screen size but when considering contexts of use it’s more like a laptop or desktop computer than a mobile device.

So developing a mobile alternative website is nothing like developing a standard website. Everything is different and you need to take all of these factors into account. Whacking on a mobile stylesheet just won’t cut it (but it’s better than nothing).

Have you got any suggestions for other big differences between using a desktop computer and a mobile phone or device to access information?

Check out Suzanne Ginsburg’s blog iPhone & iPad UX Reviews: User experience reviews of iPhone/iPad apps & tips on designing apps and Anders Rosenquist’s blog MobileUX.

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Holding the perfect workshop

I’ve blogged previously about the importance of creating the right environment and experience that allow people to participate in co-design activities. But what about when you’re just holding a workshop or brainstorming session with your own team or other professionals such as content strategists, front-end developers, accessibility experts etc. The “all hands on deck; let’s nut this out” sort of workshop where you cram a dozen people in a room for a full day?

Clearly every person brings a unique set of skills, knowledge and experience to the table so should you as a facilitator acknowledge this and seek to leverage everyone’s unique professional viewpoint or should everyone leave their identities at the door and all be treated as equal brains?

The problem I observe is that what happens is a combination of both where people wish to assert their professional expertise to add the most value to the process. Due to a lack of shared understanding about each others’ roles and capabilities that assertion typically fails because credibility and mutual respect hasn’t been established resulting in a mish-mash of unheeded contributions and stepping on toes.

The people in that room are there because they are professionals and have valuable specialist knowledge and experience they can contribute. It’s not like a co-design session where there are laypeople present or subject matter experts who are contributing value other than expertise in a technical or design field.

So to strip people of their unique expertise at the door seems counter-intuitive. Workshop and brainstorming participants should take turns at the start of the session to mention their role and background with the aim of establishing themselves as having specialist knowledge that should be leveraged by the process.

When the session delves into accessibility issues whilst everyone might have a perspective the group should defer to the accessibility expert in the room rather than giving undue heed to a taxonomist. If a point of contention arises around evidence-based user interface decisions then the group should defer to the person who conducted user testing and research rather than a copywriter.

Of course the group is entitled to question members as to the rigour and substance behind claims but this should be done in a non-confrontational manner and honestly if people aren’t confident in the professionalism of members then that’s a greater issue than the group can resolve; it’s a performance management issue and should be handled as such. Not by group lynching.

Should the group blindly trust everything the “expert” says? Absolutely not. But the group shouldn’t be interrogating people on how big a sample size they used for research or the controls they used to conduct user testing. If there are concerns about someone’s diligence and thoroughness then escalate it out of session. Not in front of everyone else. It’s disrespectful, even if it does turn out that person is a bad apple.

The problem that can arise is if the group goes around the room at the start of the session and asks everyone to introduce themselves then the opposite effect can be had where instead of building mutual respect you build mutual disrespect. You might have a situation where during the workshop someone turns to another and sarcastically spits “Well, you’re the usability expert. Let’s see what you think!”. Building that mutual respect at the outset is important and it’s vital that everyone participates in that exercise. Get everyone to contribute and state their role and skills. Once they’ve all outed themselves as experts then its hard to turn on the sarcasm later.

At the end of the day if people are prone to turn on each other and get hostile then there’s only so much you can do. People need to come primed to be respectful and positive. Sometimes the session will just turn sour because of the mix of people in the room and clash of personalities. Do what you can but don’t be afraid to pull the plug and reconvene later with a subset of participants later on.

Environment and room set up are also important. People should have easy access to the whiteboard and each other. You don’t want to set up a front-of-the-room and back-of-the-room dynamic where you isolate people at the rear of the room who then feel intentionally cut-off and will at best not participate and at worst just snipe and make negative remarks without contributing positively.

Having the right number and mix of people is also important. You don’t want people feeling intimidated by the experts in the room and don’t want them feeling lost in a sea of opinions. Even worse, you don’t want the entire process and outcome of the workshop undermined because someone wasn’t invited and later complains and invalidates everything that was decided.

Brainstorming sessions can be one of the most powerful ways of achieving results, resolving issues and bringing a team closer together. They can also be very damaging if not set up and facilitated well, so don’t be afraid to bring people into a room together but do so with care.

I recommend Robert Bolton’s book People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts for further reading on how to facilitate and mediate better especially in tricky, confronting situations.

Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys has some great ideas and techniques on group brainstorming and creativity.

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