Sunday November 22, 2015

Go to the Field

A harvested corn field in Villa Grove, Illinois
A harvested corn field in Villa Grove, Illinois

I just got back from spending 2 days in the field (literally), observing and talking to farmers about how they interact with software. We’re spending the first few weeks of this new project excavating the truth by observing with our own eyes.

Before we go out to observe users, we talk to people inside the client’s organization. They frame up the problem, often paint a pretty confident picture of the way things are, and explain what should happen next. It’s not unusual for this picture to appear fairly narrow in scope — something to the effect of, “We feel like we’ve got a lot of this figured out, and now we just need help with the user experience (i.e. user interface).” The picture also asserts a certain view of the user, and supposes to portray them fairly well.

And it’s great that the client has recognized that there’s a need for UX help. It’s why they called in a User Experience design company. No matter what off-kilter perception there may be of what is needed in the way of UX, it’s usually possible to effectively refocus those expectations.

But what you can’t do is design successful software based on faulty personas. It still amazes me what a different story we can encounter when we go observe people doing their work or talking through their challenges. When clients tell me that they know their customers, and are in contact with them regularly, I don’t doubt their sincerity. But relationships are complicated, and it’s only natural that the client/customer relationship may not be entirely open. Both sides can unwittingly tuck away important feelings and facts.

Research in the software design space is nothing new, though it is enjoying a steep rise in popularity — and for good reason. There is so much that users don’t articulate through plain conversation. Going to the place where they work and observing their environment allows designers to discover not only how the user works in the context of their workplace, but also the environment itself and all those ancillary and atmospheric details that the user would never think to mention.

Go to the field. There is so much more you can discover.

Tuesday November 10, 2015

30 Days with Sketch

So. I tried Sketch.

Though Sketch has been around for a while, it didn’t really catch on in my social circle until recently. That’s likely because my circle has used Photoshop for many moons and the motivation to move to some other tool could end up being more of a bother than a benefit. Still, where there’s smoke there’s fire, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So I decided to use it on my last project. Here’s what I found.

The Good

There’s a lot to like about Sketch. It is fast, vector-based, and clearly built for UI work. Like Illustrator, one of its most powerful attributes is artboards. The ability to lay out multiple screens on a single canvas is not a feature that I would have previously describes as “must have”, but after experiencing this as Sketch’s default way of working I’m not sure I could go back to having a file (or layer group) for each screen. Photoshop has recently added artboard support, so Adobe also clearly sees this as a necessary (or at least desirable) component of the modern design process.

Artboards, as nice as they are, is not the feature that seems to really set Sketch apart from other design tools. That distinction belongs to Symbols and Styles. Between these two workhorses, it is really easy to define a UI element in such a way that editing it in one place instantly propagates across all of its instances. I found that this removed the hesitation to get an idea on screen quickly because the effort of going back and adjusting the idea later is greatly reduced. This also allows style or fidelity to build over time. On my project, the client was not sure what kind of style direction to provide. No problem; I worked in grayscale and later adjusted shapes and colors within Symbols and Styles to push final visual design across dozens of elements and artboards. Easy peasy.

Exporting is also pretty great. For any element, Sketch lets you define the resolutions and filetypes of the export. Granted, Sketch makes you set up the parameters for every single element you want to export — which can be pretty tedious — but the setup is still arguably quicker than manually exporting all resolutions and formats, and you get multiple files formats exported all at once.

The Bad

As Khoi Vinh recently pointed out, the text situation is pretty tragic. Don’t even attempt to create a bulleted list inside a text block unless you intend for all the text to be included in the list. And inline indenting? Forget about it. If you are used to the bevy of typographic controls provided in Adobe tools, Sketch will leave you very disappointed. You can’t indent text within in a text block. You can’t insert a list in the middle of a block of text. There are no superscript or subscript type controls. And on and on it goes.

And then there are the crashes. Personally, I never experienced any random crashes. Mine started happening after I had about a 25MB file size. Then the “out of memory” warnings began, caused by Sketch’s failure to play nice with OS X’s autosave feature. It halts all work. The only thing worse than this is losing your work entirely. And sometimes, despite all attempts to release memory, the app crashed anyway. On the bright side, I hear this issue is fixable with a newer release of Sketch.

And The Ugly

Bugs, missing features, and frustrating results are one thing, but dishonest UI is quite another. One of the first things I became excited about upon first exploring Sketch’s feature set were the arrows. They looked so great! And then I tried making an arrow, with appalling results. There is a time and place for UI to display abstract representations of its functions, but this is not one of those places. Those arrow UI icons are liars.

I also had a poor first-run experience due to all of the shapes being tucked up under an “Insert” dropdown menu. Hiding these toolbar icons by default certainly maintains a clean UI, but it makes learning more challenging.

So will I keep using Sketch?

Probably. It’s the speed, styles, and symbols that draw me back in. That’s a potent combination. I have issues with Sketch, but I also have issues with Photoshop. Tools are never perfect, and oh boy is Sketch no exception. But I do feel like it has more going for it than against it, and that’s something.

There is one thing that nags me as I consider moving away from Photoshop that does not really qualify as Good, Bad, or Ugly. It’s the same issue that I have with designing in the browser: that the design tool will constrain the design style. Sketch caters to the design trends du jour — flat & minimalist — and that is fine under many circumstances. But that style is not appropriate for every UI. As bloated and complex as Photoshop may have become, it does facilitate many more stylistic possibilities. That’s important.

Keep on truckin’, little indie app.

Addendum; List of Grievances

  1. Sketch tries to keep the list of artboards in sync with their arrangement on the canvas. Moving an artboard typically results in the order of the artboards changing in the list. I realize this is more of a personal quibble, as others may not care, but for me it’s infuriating to have a carefully organized list of artboards blown up just because I decide to move one of them on the canvas.
  2. Having to set export parameters for every single element. My kingdom for bulk Export settings! (To be fair, it is possible to select multiple elements when setting Export parameters and the settings will apply to all selected. But this can be difficult when elements are scattered across dozens of artboards.)
  3. There are no toolbar buttons for “Back/Front” arrangement actions, but there are for “Backwards/Forwards”. This seems like a wholly arbitrary decision.
  4. Setting user-defined guides was not very discoverable. Does Adobe have a patent on the “drag guide out from ruler” method?
  5. When using the color picker you cannot move the document to get to the element that you want to color pick. If it’s not on screen, you’re just out of luck.
  6. Artboards can only be collapsed one at a time. This results is a lot of clicking when all you want to do is clean up your list.
  7. Styles don’t have much control. For example, I found myself having to create 3 different styles for text that was identical in every way except for its orientation. Since Styles saves orientation by default, I had to have separate Styles for left, center, and right aligned text. Would be nice to untick the “orientation” box on the style attributes for that test style.
  8. Lots of UI I commonly use is hidden away under popup panes. I dislike that you cannot customize the panes to show those options all the time by default instead of having to click to access. I have plenty of space on my monitor. Lemme use it!
  9. I just personally find the color picker controls to be clumsy and lacking good control. I’ve gotten used to this, though 20 years of using Photoshop will always make this a bit too basic for me.
  10. Vertex points do not snap to each other. WHAT.

Monday October 12, 2015

Minimum Viable Perspective

Browsing Netflix a few weekends ago, I happened upon Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’ve been re-watching a number of TV shows from my kid/teenager years, so I watched the first two episodes.

Man, they do not hold up. The special effects were embarrassing, the characters cartoonish, and the stories painfully silly.

But, as may also be the case with you, I remember these episodes being pretty amazing at the time. And over the course of seven seasons the show improved its special effects, developed interesting and nuanced characters, and produced (mostly non-silly) great stories. The whole show’s universe matured and deepened. Not to mention the entire audience.

For me, this is the best corollary I have found to the software concept of Minimum Viable Product (or initial release). These initial episodes weren’t really missing anything—they had actors, a story, lighting, a director, etc.—they were just less formed than each episode that followed. Although now—decades later—I can pick out low production values and other shortcomings, most of these issues were arguably not evident in 1987. They were the norm, if not above the norm. Most of the faults that I find with these episodes today only come from comparing them to later, more polished episodes and a perspective gained from decades’ worth of overall growth in how TV shows can now be produced.

An MVP has to be a whole thing. To the user, it cannot appear to be incomplete in any way. It has to be awesome. And that can be a hard thing to judge since we software-makers have a different perspective than our users. We have access to roadmaps, knowledge of unimplemented features, and a sense of what we’ll need to adjust to as the future unfolds before us. We often have the curse of being able to see 1987 through today’s eyes, and today through eyes that are never satisfied, always looking to the future.

I’ll try to remember those first few episodes of ST:TNG when I’m thinking about whether software is ready to launch or not. It may be incomplete and flawed from my perspective, but it must be whole and amazing from the user’s perspective. Keep those production values high.

Monday January 3, 2011

2010: The Year in Tweets

Nice. I still remember the password to my blog.

Jon Tan’s year’s-end retrospective was a fun read, as was that of my dotcomrade Travis Isaacs, so I figured I’d give it a shot as well. The problem with following in these two fine gents’ footsteps is that I suck at photography, both the “taking the picture” part and the “recognizing that this would be a good time to take a picture” part.

But one thing I apparently don’t suck at is blathering all over Twitter. A quick review of my tweets from 2010 confirmed that I predictably chirped about pretty much all the important (and sooo many unimportant) events of the year.

So, without further ado: my year in tweets, with commentary.

The year started out with a frantic race to the finish line with our You+Dallas project, the ongoing redesign of Blinksale and at least 2 other incubating projects. I shipped my best stuff in 2010, and it sure feels swell.

Heh. And here’s what I tweeted 3 months later:

Mmmm, tasty crow! My skepticism turned to curiosity as I started seeing some of the real-world applications of the device. Now, after getting an iPad for Christmas this year, it has already taken up near-permanent residence on my coffee table, serving as a stellar substitute for my laptop or iPhone for many activities. It’s a lot of fun, and holds a lot of possibilities. I can’t wait to see how it will evolve.

In late 2009, we tore out a massive, ugly (and massively ugly) 20×30-foot deck left in our backyard by previous owners to make way for something less… hillbilly-ish. This year, we succeeded in putting in a smaller but nicer stone patio, flower & gardening boxes, 4 trees and 6 bushes. These days, there’s nothing more relaxing than sitting outside on a warm day, enjoying the sights, smells and sounds. Time and money well spent.

Bright Corner is the little company that brought me to the Dallas area almost six years ago, and I credit my co-workers there for most of my subsequent successes. They are not only my friends, but my mentors. It was great to get most of the old crew back together to reflect on the past, discuss the present and get excited about the future.

Wait for it…

I’ve lived in Texas almost my entire life. We get the occasional dusting of snow. Sometimes it even sticks for a few hours. But this? This was pretty extraordinary, especially for March. Unfortunately, I don’t think I could live anywhere that it snows on a regular basis, because after a while I was kind of coming unhinged by the sight of snow. Not a fan, as it turns out.

By April, the design for the new Blinksale had been chosen and I was working my way through all the various pages. Having incredible respect for the Firewheel/Alamofire crew (who originally built the app), it was a bit unnerving to be putting my fingerprints all over Blinksale.

I’d been gaming from Windows via Boot Camp for years, but as great as Boot Camp is, it’s a real inconvenience to have to load up a different OS just for gaming. Though Steam for Mac has its issues (and a limited Mac games catalog), it is still so great to be able to play most of my games on OS X. Look me up. I’ll give you one guess as to what my Steam handle is.

I can’t tell you why I never tried a music subscription service before, but for 5 bucks a month, it’s tough to beat Rdio. 2010 was a fantastic year of music for me, and it has much to do with this great music service. I discovered a boatload of both new and old music in what was a sort of mid-year musical renaissance.

I don’t get out to many shows these days, so I choose wisely. You can’t really go wrong with Imogen Heap. Her charming stage banter is only surpassed by the great music. This show was especially great, as she had a full band along for the ride!

You+Dallas launches! It was a rough and tough road, but ultimately an incredibly rewarding experience. I learned so much about managing complexity, design patterns, working with developers, documentation and much, much more. EPIC PROJECT. What a relief it was to ship it.

Whew! A month after You+Dallas launches, Blinksale’s redesign rolls out! Clearly, I’ve been busy. Though this redesign was mostly a reskinning of the app, there was a bit of new visual design thrown in. And, a couple weeks later, Blinksale added brand new functionality the the workflow in the form of estimates.

Um, did I even sleep this summer? Between our You+Dallas client work, and work on Blinksale, our scrappy little studio had been developing a cool new way to buy & sell videos online. Monetizer, as it is called, was beta-launched at the end of July and has been enjoying a steady stream of signups and tire-kickers every since.

iPhone 4: best birthday present ever. It may be the finest piece of industrial and software design I’ve ever seen. Even now, I hold it and feel like I truly am living in the future.

Though there had been other apps with the same or similar functionality, Instagram was the first to craft an experience that felt natural and fun. I had just purchased Hipstamatic and was bemoaning its complexity and rigidity. Instagram was a breath of fresh air, and a great social experience to boot.

Though only released in private beta at this time, Blinksale gets a huge upgrade feature: Blinkpay. A $10 add-on to Blinksale, Blinkpay will initially allow clients to pay invoices with a credit card. The option to pay with electronic check + other related features are rolling out in the next few months.

This has been a huge undertaking. The feature itself touches many parts of Blinksale, and had to be carefully integrated. Working with payment processors was also a huge challenge. The feature seems fairly simple, but you would not believe the plethora of paperwork and minutiae required to make it work. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

Though Viewzi was no longer being developed and had been essentially left to drift on the internet seas almost 2 years ago, the site was still available to those who liked using it. But the time came when it no longer made sense to continue supporting the non-trivial costs of keeping the service online, and we pulled the plug. Viewzi was a great idea, and I’ll always remember the time I worked on it fondly.

And so ended my last day of full-time employment at Doublewide Labs/Blinksale. It was a fantastic run, and I’m so glad I was able to be a part of such great opportunities. I will still be involved with design and product development to some extent, but not as my full-time gig. Thusly, I am currently looking for work in the Dallas area (or via telecommute). I’m excited for the possibilities!

Thursday September 24, 2009

Loving: Metric, Imogen Heap, Lovelikefire, The Big Pink and good grief man this is ridiculous you need to blog more often.

I haven’t blogged for a while. That’s because I’ve been field-testing the following jams for listenability. For you. Because I got your back like that. I’m like the USDA, but for music. Or something.

Metric – Fantasies

I’m not crazy about the album title (it makes me think of Mariah Carey for some reason, and friends: that’s not right), but holy woah do Metric bring the rock on this, their 4th album. These kids know how to write the hooks, you know? “Sick Muse” may be my favorite Metric song evar, and the video for said song is pretty great, too. It’s amazing to me that much of this album was written during a time when singer Emily Haines was wondering if she wanted to keep making music. Geez, she even sounds awesome when she feels like quitting.

Imogen Heap – Ellipse

Genius. No, really. This album is fantastic, but you might have to work for it.

I would describe Ellipse as more vulnerable and cinematic than Speak For Yourself, Imogen’s last album. That record seemed to have one foot in Frou Frou (Heap’s collaborative effort with Guy Sigworth) and one foot in Imogen’s own eccentric, experimental compositions. Ellipse, by my ear, has now stepped almost completely away from the sweeter pop sensibilities of Frou Frou and planted both feet in a soundscape that I suspect is the closest we’ve come to hearing what goes on in her uninfluenced musical mind. This album is full of homemade samples, delicate melodies and sweeping strings, all tempered by Heap’s commanding precision. Totally delightful.

Lovelikefire – Tear Ourselves Away

Lovelikefire ain’t no slouches. I know this because of the 11 tracks on their debut album only one is a re-recorded version of a song released on one of their two (also excellent) EPs. That’s 10 new songs, kids. They could have phoned it in with, like, 3 to 5 re-recorded songs, and it still would have been an excellent album. But no. LLF aren’t like that. And there ain’t no filler here. These are great songs powered by fantastic vocals and a tight tight band. These are hard-working rockers, and super-nice human beings to boot. Check out the video for “Stand In Your Shoes”:

The Big Pink – A Brief History of Love

This album is a serious time-warp. Maybe it’s just the classic Vaughn Oliver design-fu, but this band makes me feel like I’m in the mid-90s again with their wall of sound guitars and knob-twiddling tendencies. So tasty. And I’m nuts about this “Dominos” song. I may need to join a support group.

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