Teaching user experience with Lego

Whenever I have to communicate what it is I do, or the benefits of UX, I feel a bit like a  salesmen, having to convince someone (almost against their will) why they should care about user experience as much as I do. Because of this I’m often on the lookout for different ways of educating people. Since moving ‘client-side’, after years of working in agencies, I’ve found myself in a position where more time can be dedicated to educating people without necessarily worrying about being on the clock. In this new environment, away from pitches and ‘honeymoon periods’, I get the opportunity to find more engaging ways to communicate the relevance, benefits and importance of experience design.

A few years ago at UX London Jared Spool shared his workshop technique, ‘Making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich’. In the workshop he asks a group to write down, step by step, how to make the sandwich. He then takes the raw ingredients and makes the sandwich by following the instructions to the letter. If the directions failed to tell him to remove the bread from the bag, he’d make the sandwich with the bread still in the bag, and so on. I thought this was an interesting way of getting across the need to understand your audience and not take anything for granted.

There are no original ideas

I liked the idea, but wanted to come up with an activity that would encourage greater group participation. I wanted to similarly educate people on the importance of good navigation and clear user assistance, but at the same time communicate some of the fundamentals of user-centered design. I came up with an idea I liked… and then discovered Jared had beaten me to it!

Testing Lego Construction’ was the sort of approach I wanted to take, but I thought it would be worth developing my idea further, to see how I could evolve it to better suit my own needs.

Lego-centered design

In contrast to Jared’s approach of two observers and one assembler I decided to take the role of observer myself and asked two volunteers to help me, one taking the role of ‘Instructor’, the other of ‘Maker’. I bought a basic Lego toy, gave the pieces to the Maker,and the manual to the Instructor, who sat with their back to the Maker. I made sure the latter wasn’t aware of what the end result was meant to look like or even be.

The Instructor was asked to follow the manual and guide the Maker through assembling the Lego model step by step. They could approach the activity in anyway they wished. At first I limited the number of questions the Maker could ask but it actually made it more interesting to allow them to ask questions of the Instructor and see how, inturn, they dealt with the queries.

Beta testing

It took my volunteers around 30-40 minutes to complete the build, which was longer than I thought it would take, but in the context of a half day or full day workshop it would probably be about right.

Neither of the volunteers were big fans of Lego, which made it all the more interesting to watch, and put them on a level playing field. Even though they had good instructions to follow, confusion and miscommunication started very early on. The main confusion was over the Lego pieces. Colour was used straight away as a descriptor, but even that proved problematic as the colours didn’t match exactly, for example black bricks within the instructions look grey. The terminology for describing size and shape was also an issue. The Instructor kept referring to the number of “nobbles”, but for the Maker what did that mean? 4 wide, 4×4, or 4 in total? Other words and phrases that caused problems were “prongs”, “pieces”, and describing something as going “away from” or “out from” something. All these small problems soon built up to the point where both volunteers were showing signs of frustration. Once mistakes started to creep in, the task became more difficult as the model no longer matched the instructions.

Losing perspective

One of the main issues was the inability to see the task from the other persons point of view. The Instructor described things from their perspective, giving instructions like “horizontally”, referring to the orientation of the page, which lead the Maker (working in 3 dimensions) to ask “what are you seeing as ‘horizontal’?” Similarly on another occasion the Maker asked “Would it be facing me or you?”, referring to the model in front of her, the Instructor, sat with her back to the Maker, responded “both!”, once again thinking only of the instructions she was reading.

Reviewing the activity

Afterwards I asked the participants for their feedback, and to discuss the activity with each other. It was great to see how frustration soon lead to empathy and the realisation that they weren’t the only one getting annoyed. A prime example was the Maker explaining how she saw the physical bricks (2 by 4, 1 by 6, thin, thick, etc.) which  lead to the immediate realisation by the other participant “why didn’t I explain it like that!”

The activity seemed to work well and with some tinkering could be useful. It helps communicate the importance of understanding your users, their ability levels, the terminology they’re familiar with, and their knowledge of your product, service or subject matter. It reinforces the  importance of clear instructions and navigational cues, use of language and the need for a user friendly interface. If the Observer role was taken by a third participant It could also help to highlight the benefits of watching people interact with your product or service, experiencing the highs and lows first-hand, educating them on the importance of user testing.

Evolving the activity

If I was to run this activity as part of a workshop in the future I’d split the group into 3 separate teams. It would probably work best if there were 9 attendees.

Each of the teams would ideally consist of a Maker, an Instructor and 1 or more Observers. The groups would be given the same Lego building task, and a 30 minute time limit. But there would be different restrictions applied to each.

  • Group A (closed) – The Instructor is given the plans, the Maker the Lego pieces. Neither is able to see what the other is doing. No time is given to prepare. Before and during the task only the Instructor is allowed to speak. This group represents a company or team that doesn’t involve any sort of research or customer feedback into their process.
  • Group B (open) – As with the first group, the Instructor and Maker have defined roles. However, this group is given 2-3 minutes beforehand to discuss the task. They can ask questions of each other, agree terminology, understand each others abilities, and discuss an approach. Once the 2-3 minutes are up only the Instructor can speak.
  • Group C: (collaborative) – The final group have the same set of tasks as group B, the difference being they can have open dialogue throughout the task, in order to ask and answer questions clarify approach and change things around if needed.

Ideally each team would have at least one Observer, asked to remain silent and neutral, their job is to note down how the activity went, along with positives and negatives throughout.

Once the 30 minutes are up, each Observer could then share their experience with the wider group allowing time for their other team members to contribute their experiences also. The workshop facilitator could then discuss the difference between the 3 approaches and highlight the level of majority of each from a UX perspective.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to refine the approach more over the coming months and start to think about including it within a workshop. I’d be interested to read what you think about this, if you’ve heard or been involved in something similar in the past, and how it went. Even if you don’t think it’s a good idea I’d be really interested to read your comments.

Internet black-out to protest against the Guilt Upon Accusation law

This morning I noticed several peoples avatars on Twitter and Facebook were blacked out. At first I thought this was just TweetDeck playing up but then, thanks to @jensview,  it became apparent that it was an ‘Internet black out’ as a protest against the proposed Guilt Upon Accusation law coming into effect in New Zealand later this month.

According to CreativeFreedom NZ its a…

protest against the Guilt Upon Accusation law ‘Section 92A‘ that calls for Internet disconnection based on accusations of copyright infringement without a trial and without any evidence held up to court scrutiny. This is due to come into effect on February 28th unless immediate action is taken by the National Party.

I totally agree in principle that this sounds like a ridiculous law and worthy of protest. However, I’m unsure about the form of protest.

Over the past decade or so the Internet has proved to be a very powerful tool in communicating unjust acts and assisting groups or individuals to fuel protest, but my feelings are mixed about the benefits of this Internet black out. What do they hope to achieve?

The fact that its growing on Twitter, getting celebrity endorsement and people like myself are blogging about it means the issue will start to gain momentum but is it really an effective form of protest?

In my mind this doesn’t achieve a huge amount. Changing my avatar is a simple act, I don’t have to think about it, so in that respect is it a throw away gesture, will people think about what (and why) they are doing it or will they simply jump on the bandwagon? Obviously it’ll get the message out to a wider audience but without a meaningful argument behind it many people may just see it as an error and not as a form of protest, or see it as a form of protest and give it no more thought.

I would have thought that different acts of protest would be assigned different levels of importance by governments or large corporate organisation, ranging from physical ‘crowd’ protests or sitdown protests through to submitted written petitions. Surely such an action like this would register relatively low on the scale. Although I’m sure it’ll gain global media coverage it has no measurable aspect to it. How can you quantify the number of profile pictures that are blacked-out?

Although there are links floating around directing people to the Creative Freedom website in my opinion its much like a viral or emarketing campaign that links through to a page with no clear call to action, in affect causing the user to enter a state of  ‘now what?’ Seeing the faces of people I respect and follow on Twitter turning blank definitely roused some interest and led me to look into it further but when I arrived on the Creative Freedom website I was met by instructions on how to change my photo to a black graphic and which websites I could do it on. There is a link to a petition on the website but this didn’t seem to be the main focus and I only found it after I dug deeper.

And finally what about location sensitive content? Even if I signed the petition will it count for anything as I’m not a resident (or ex-pat) of New Zealand? Does my signature go so far as to weaken it?

I don’t mean to belittle the protest in the slightest as it does seem a worthwhile cause, all I’m questioning is the merits of the approach. I’d be really interested to hear other peoples views on this so please feel free to leave a comment.

Google Tasks appears to help me get things done


The big G

I’m notoriously bad at time-management and constantly guilty of taking too much on. A great example of this was when an old colleague at Redweb subtly lent me a book on delegation and time management patronisingly called ‘The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey‘. I’d love to tell you about it but after 6 months they asked for the book back and wanted to know what I thought of it, I had to own up and explain that I’d been far too busy to actually find the time to read it!

Every know and again I find myself creating short to-do lists and now with the power of the iPhone looking around for suitable apps that can help me, but neither efforts have resulted in any level of success. I soon realised the problem is one of integration.

I used to even struggle to keep an up to date diary but once I signed up for a Gmail account things seemed that much easier as it also allowed me to start using Google calendar, which I could access from anywhere; home, studio or via mobile. By integrating a calendar with my email seamlessly and having the ability to share my calendars with others made my life so much easier.

So when looking for a decent option for a to-do list app I kept returning to the same problem that any solution would be alien to my current work flow.

Google introduces Tasks

Google introduces Tasks (click image)

Now the wonderful world of Google has solved this problem. When I opened up my email this morning I was instantly greeted by a small ‘tip’ highlighting the addition of ‘Tasks’ to my Gmail UI. I really liked the way Google dealt with this addition to the UI, no fanfare or drastic change simply a small overlay to the interface introducing the new feature and giving me the option to ignore it, start using it or learn more. Similarly earlier in the week when they modified the Gmail UI the change was subtle. Its a great way to improve a product; small, incremental updates that enhance the user experience and are easily adopted and integrated into an existing workflow rather than wide scale changes as illustrated by Facebook not so long ago.

Sufficed to say I haven’t yet started using my new Tasks app but I’ll definitely start doing so next week… if I can find the time, that is.

How EasyJet could help save the world with one sheet of paper

click image to enlarge

Easyjet confirmation print-out

OK so I’m exaggerating, but that’s what you’re supposed to do with headlines right? Anyway I thought it was about time I put together my first design vigilante post.

TrendWatching.com recently reported on ‘Generation G’. In it they introduced the concept of ‘eco-generosity’ which coincides nicely with my thoughts on green websites.

They used some great examples to illustrate this idea, but much like the examples used by Naomi Klein in her book ‘No Logo’ many of the schemes could probably be cynically seen as little more than PR stunts, initiatives designed to portray corporations in a more environmentally conscious light. My thoughts on producing a green website focus more on the idea that, as consumers, we’ll soon look past the hype and focus more on the detail, however small.

With the concept of making a difference a piece at a time fresh in my head I was reminded of my recent trip to Avoriaz. I booked our flights through Easyjet, a low cost ‘ticketless’ airline.

On completion of a booking you’re instructed to print out the ticket confirmation. Although I’m usually quite careful not to print unnecessarily (you’ve got to love long email signatures that tell you not to print them) on this occasion I printed the whole confirmation page. This ran to 4-5 pages.

The first of the pages confirmed our travel arrangements and ended with a paragraph about Easyjet’s environmental policy accompanied by a ‘carbon offsetting’ logo. The second was the usual T&Cs with the final two pages devoted to cross and up-selling, most of which focused on a call to action that only had relevance whilst on screen (a link to an offer). I was annoyed at the waste this had caused and from a professional point of view the opportunities missed.

  • Why did a supposedly environmentally conscious company cause me to waste so much paper?
  • Why didn’t the system replace linked calls to action with a free-phone no?
  • Was all the cross/up-sell really necessary on the print out when much of it loses context?
  • If it is all necessary why isn’t a print stylesheet displaying it more efficiently to help reduce length?

I thought it would be interesting to see what the potential implications of this process could be.

According to the Independent 1.49 million people used Easyjet in January. If every passenger printed out confirmation it would equate to 5.96m sheets of paper.

Based on the estimate by conservatree.com that 1 tree produces roughly 8,333 sheets of paper this would mean that 715 trees were used just by Easyjet passengers in the space of 1 month.

If the Independent’s figures represent an average month 8,580 trees would be used in a year.

If the confirmation was reduced to 3 sheets it would save approx. 178 trees worth of paper a month, 2,145 in a year.

If its reduced to just 1 sheet 6,436 trees (equal to 6 football pitches of rain forest) would be saved each year.

Of course there are so many holes in this, from the number of people flying to how the confirmation pages are printed, or what percentage actually print out confirmation.

But everyone knows you can prove anything with the facts. Easyjet could at the very least introduce a print stylesheet that controls the layout and optimise the copy more affectively thereby limiting the length of the print out. Even if 1 page was lost it would have an impact, especially if this level of detail was initiated across their other web channels.

How ever much paper is used it’ll be completely dwarfed by the impact the flights have on the environment but that’s a much larger issue, and one I can’t fix! For companies like Easyjet who trade in services that arguably don’t have an existing viable alternative it’s in their best interests to affect as many other areas of their business as possible.

The ideal solution would probably be to mobilize confirmation so that paper was completely redundant anyway!

Vaguely related links

Map your Twitter friends and followers with Yahoo! pipes

One of the annoying things about working in digital is that you regularly have, what you think is, a great and original idea only to have your bubble burst 5 seconds later thanks to a quick search on Google.

I was thinking this evening how I may go about designing a Feltronian (yeah that’s right I just made up a word) style annual report at the end of the year and it neatly crossed over with me wasting time, as I often do, on Twitter. It crossed my mind that it would be interesting to plot my Twitter friends and followers onto a global map to see what sort of pattern it makes, much like an analytics package (such as Google Analytics) does with site visitors.

Five annoying seconds later and I discover a neat Yahoo! Pipes mashup care of Andy Murdoch of Mmmeeja (3 “M”s, 2 “E”s, a “J” and an “A”) that does exactly that. The mashup allows you to visualise both your friends and followers, the example below highlights all the people I currently follow.

A snapshot of my twitter friends geodata

A snapshot of my twitter friends geodata

This is a really neat execution of a simple idea and another example of a ‘Pipes’ success. It currently limits the output to just 100 friends/followers and handily strips out anyone how doesn’t disclose they’re location. The map can be output as a badge for inclusion on your own website, unfortunately when trialing this I found it pretty unstable to opted for the snapshot above instead.

I personally don’t see much point in adding this sort of content to a website as it holds little benefit for a user and would more than likely have a negative impact on their experience. For example my ‘friends’ map shows that I’m pretty Anglo-centric when it comes to following people but in contrast my followers are far more diverse, but what benefit does this information hold for the visitors to this blog?

In my opinion the real benefit of this tool is to leave it where it is, Yahoo! Pipes, and periodically use it to get a snap shot of the internationalisation of my followers. In theory this could potentially lead me to alter the nature of my tweets to better accommodate my followers nationality, for example link to location specific news stories or even Americanise my spelling.

Realistically I’m not going to make these kinds of drastic changes anytime soon but its a possible consideration for the ever swelling number of corporate Twitterers out there. If you want to follow me on Twitter I’ll be more than happy to see you popup on my map sometime soon. Maybe we should call them Twaps, or perhaps not.

Creating a responsible website

I recently finished reading Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo‘, a book I should have read about 8 years ago when it was first published. Even though it was written almost a decade ago much of what Klein has to say is still relevant and still enlightening.

Much of the second half of the book revolves around the idea of legitimate corporate responsibilities, not just talking about it but actually doing it. Klein focuses on production techniques and the use of sweat shops and how corporations have to become more accountable for their actions as consumers are increasingly educated on such subjects thanks to the power of the Internet.

To a degree she touches on the environmental impact of corporations and this started me thinking. At what point will companies have to legitimise the ‘greenness’ of their corporate websites. When will consumers look beyond mere products and actually consider the impact of digital services. More to the point how could a website be completely responsible, both socially and environmentally? Effectively the idea of a carbon neutral or ‘green’ website.

What is a green website?

The idea of an environmentally conscious website would have to look beyond purely having ‘green’ content or feigning corporate responsibility through the often controversial topic of carbon offsetting. I’m sure there are plenty of carbon neutral schemes that are highly successful but I think it would be far too easy to simply calculate the carbon footprint of a website and then pay to have it off-set. Plus this blog post would end about here!

A green website would have to be supported in every way by ecologically responsible means from the server it sits on to the computer that made it.

At this stage honesty takes over as I have to admit I haven’t given this the greatest amount of thought yet, however I  hope to be able to give more time to it over the coming weeks. For now I’ve tried to outline the key areas that could combine to create a green website:

  1. Hosting – how do you host it? whats the most environmentally friendly server?
  2. Production – what technology (e.g. a ‘green’ computer) is used to create and maintain it?
  3. Users – what is the impact of visitors to the site? How can we reduce not only our footprint but the impact of our users?

Over the next few weeks I’m going to look into each issue in turn and see what the reality is, what is currently available, what are the possibilities for the future and if there’s not a zero impact option whats the next best thing?

Part 2 – Hosting a responsible website

I’ve begun researching each topic and will start by focusing on hosting. As I’m not the most technically minded geek in the world any help would be appreciated. If you have an opinion on this subject please feel free to get in touch or leave a comment.

If you want to read part 2 as soon as I get round to writing it either subscribe to the blog or follow me on Twitter to receive updates.

JPG Magazine says goodbye

JPG Magazine

JPG Magazine

I received an email today from JPG Magazine. for those of you who don’t know JPG is “…a community connected by a love of photography” it allows you to “share your pictures and stories and discover interesting photos by people like you! JPG is your view of the world around us”. On the face of it JPG has little that differentiates it from other photography based sites such as Flickr for example. But, it’s USP is that the best photos (and stories) uploaded by its community are published in a printed magazine 6 times a year.

I love websites that successfully marry on and offline in this way, I always feel the sense of community is heightened because of it. Whether its simply Facebook giving you the ability to arrange your own events, Moo connecting with Flickr to give your photos physicality (with the help of Little Moo of course) or even to a lesser extent flash mobbing, created to “poke fun at hipsters and to highlight the cultural atmosphere of conformity”.

Unfortunately the email I received this morning delivered bad news. After only 2 years JPG is having to shut up shop. The reason given sadly reflects most closures these days in that the team behind JPG, 8020 Media, “weren’t able to raise the money needed to keep JPG alive in these extraordinary economic times.”

I’m embarrassed to say that however much I loved the idea of JPG I never managed to submit any photos myself, this is partly down to me placing too many things in the ‘I must get round to that one day’ pile and partly due to the fact that I’m a truly rotten photographer!

I feel really sorry for all the people associated with JPG, and especially the 200,000 strong community of content providers/magazine subscribers. I also wonder what this means for 8020 when according to their website JPG represented 50% of their publications.

This mornings news, along with a conversation with a close friend on New Years Eve about the situation at Free Radical which saw 140 employees laid off the week before Christmas was a cold reminder of the unfortunate and sudden demise of Deepend back in 2001. At the time it represented a small part of the ‘dot com bubble‘ but on a more personal level a turning point in my life.

It also made me think about the relatively recent events at Carsonified which saw 3 members of the ‘family’ (representing 23% at the time) laid off and the subsequent debates that opened up around Ryan Carson openly blogging about it. Whatever your opinions maybe of those particular events unless you’ve been in the position of being made redundant you can’t fully appreciate the situation.

Although the news about JPG is simply a site closure and doesn’t, for the time being, represent any redundancies that I’m aware of I thought the way in which it was handled was good. The email was open and honest about the situation, explaining that all efforts were made to continue the service but that they were unsuccessful. It was short and to the point but most importantly put the emphasis on the community who are for the time being the ones losing out.

A lot can be learnt from the simplicity of this message in the current climate. With the power of multiple communication channels, such as Twitter, news can be spread instantly and to a large number of people but the content delivered needs to be considered, not only the content of the message, its focus and intended audience but the context of it in relation to other messages. The handling of the Carsonified redundancies is a perfect example of this, the comments that appeared on their blog, along with the conversations flying around the twitterverse showed how passionately everyone felt about it. Every aspect of the situation was under scrutiny, from the focus of the message to previous blog posts and even down to the financial implications of management/employee benefits.

Anyway, that’s enough rambling for now. Well done if you managed to read this far! If you have any comments on this post please feel free to contribute below. For those of you who might be interested here’s the JPG email:

“Today is a particularly sad day for all of us at JPG and 8020 Media.

We’ve spent the last few months trying to make the business behind JPG sustain itself, and we’ve reached the end of the line. We all deeply believe in everything JPG represents, but we just weren’t able to raise the money needed to keep JPG alive in these extraordinary economic times. We sought out buyers, spoke with numerous potential investors, and pitched several last-ditch creative efforts, all without success. As a result, jpgmag.com will shut down on Monday, January 5, 2009.

The one thing we’ve been the most proud of: your amazing talent. We feel honored and humbled to have been able to share jpgmag.com with such a dynamic, warm, and wonderful community of nearly 200,000 photographers. The photography on the website and in the magazine was adored by many, leaving no doubt that this community created work of the highest caliber. The kindness, generosity, and support shared among members made it a community in the truest sense of the word, and one that we have loved being a part of for these past two years.

We wish we could have found a way to leave the site running for the benefit of the amazing folks who have made JPG what it is, and we have spent sleepless nights trying to figure something out, all to no avail.

We’re soggy-eyed messes, but it is what it is. At that, JPGers, we bid you goodbye, and good luck in 2009 and the future.”


I just found this posted on the JPG blog too:
JPG Magazine says goodbye