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slime mold
Slime Mold

Kate Rutter gave a wonderfully passionate, informative, interactive, and engaging talk on what we can learn from slime mold. I loved her use of slime mold as a metaphor for our work environments, and also how she looked to nature to solve very human problems. I have always held the belief that many human breakthrough’s have occurred when we have turned to and learned from nature.

Throughout the talk, Kate recommended a few books:
Evocative Objects: Things We Think With by Sherry Turkle

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Stephen Johnson

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath, Dan Heath

Here are my notes from the amazing talk:

Kate started out the talk by first telling us that slime mold are amazing because they are in constant conversation with the environment. When the environment is nourishing, the slime mold are thriving as multiple separate organisms. If the environment looses its abundance and is only able to sustain the slime mold, then the slime mold begin to signal each other and cluster. If the environment reaches a critical stage and is starving, then the slime mold form into slugs and attempt to survive.

After explaining this concept, Kate had the audience reenact the slime mold life cycle. A few volunteers were wearing white hotel robes to represent the slime mold, while the rest of the audience was the forest floor. The “forest” floor help up our hand when we were nourishing and the “slime mold” flitted about the room (in a very hilarious way!!). Then the forest floor lowered their hands a bit when there isn’t as much nourishment, and the slime mold began to send out distress signals and find each other. When the forest floor began to starve, the slime mold hunkered down and attempted to survive. This was REALLY FUN.

After the fun demonstration, Kate went on to connect the dots. She mentioned Lewin’s equation B=f(p, e) which states that behavior is a function of the person and the environment. She extended that notion to say that E = f(p, b) that the environment is a function of people and behavior, and by that token B=E, our behavior is our environment.

Now think about your organization/work environment. If you are in tune with your environment, then you can change your behavior accordingly. We can even learn which behaviors are the most appropriate from slime mold:

Environment: Nourishing
Behavior: Exploring, Sensing

Environment: Tough
Behavior: Sensing, signaling, clustering

Environment: Hostile
Behaviors: Sluggish, significant clustering (slime mold form into slugs)
You need to know: what won’t you give up? what can you leave behind? how much will you participate in collective action?

This translates to:
1) Sensing the organizational environment
2) Signaling to others (co-workers) about your senses. You can signal in different ways: great signals are loud and sticky and lead to change. High Volume Signals are memorable, energetic, have a pattern, are reinforced
Visual Signals get ideas through faster, and are able to communicate more information.
Choose the appropriate method of communication (signal) to get your message across
3) Band together as a team to support each other and survive

How does one create a rich work environment?

  • Collective play
  • Simple rules of engagement
  • Shared Standards
  • Always Sensing
  • Always Signaling

Kate recommended the use of a TAZ: Temporary Autonomous Zone which is an area outside of social control, a temporary space outside formal structures of control where collective play and creativity can occur. This does not mean that people should not do work, but rather follow the motto of “we are having fun, but we’re not kidding”. Many of the most successful companies have R&D departments which are outside of the formal structure.

Moreover, team members can user multiple platforms to listen for, send, and reinforce signals:
Twitter, RSS, Google Alerts to sense industry, economic, web trends.
Keep all eyes open, use strategy documents and watch the market.
Work Out Loud = post work, notes, and info so that is visible in high-traffic areas. Open the doors to participating in design work. Hold open design sessions.

Happiness Checklist

  • Have satisfying work to do
  • Chance to be good at something
  • Connect with people we truly like
  • Opportunity to be part of something bigger

Kate concluded with 4 simple things – be more like slime mold:

  • Make places and spaces for collective play
  • Work out Loud
  • Sense with intent: signal back what you learn
  • Constantly tune behaviors
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Fred Beecher gave a really good, practical talk on how to integrate prototyping into the design process. There has been some chatter lately in the UX community about traditional deliverables being replaced by prototypes. As with prototypes, I think deliverables have their place based on what you are trying to accomplish, the time constraints, client/company culture. Personally, I hate documentation just for the sake of documentation. After my first job, I was interviewed at a firm that was astonished at how little documentation I had. I explained that my job consisted of communicating with 2 developers that I sat next to, I did not need to create elaborate documents for them as much of our communication was instantaneous. I also created a lot of prototypes, which was the extent of my documentation. Something that really hit home this year for me is this: All the artifacts that we create as designers are there to facilitate communication and further discussion, use what is appropriate for the situation, and do not go about creating things just because you feel that is your job. It is not your job, your job is converse, collaborate, generate ideas, and synthesize.

I will now step off my soap box and recap Fred’s presentation..

Fred mentioned that there are 2 dimensions to prototypes: visual fidelity (VF) and functional fidelity (FF). He then plotted them on an X-Y axis.

Sketches – low visual and functional fidelity
Paper wireframes – medium visual, low functional fidelity
Paper JPGS – high visual, low functional fidelity

Image Mapped Sketches – low visual, medium functional fidelity
Clickable wireframes – medium visual, medium functional
Image Mapped JPGS – high visual, medium functional

Proof of Concept – medium visual, medium-high functional
LVF Interactive Prototype – medium visual, high functional
HVF Interactive Prototype – medium-high visual, high functional
“Product Ready” – high visual and functional

Two additional dimensions:
Technical Fidelity – either “production ready” or not
Fidelity of Content – a prototype is NOT just interaction, content plays a large role in testing. Testing a prototype with crappy content will give you crappy data. Your prototype should have plausible content.

Given the many different types of prototypes, the trick is to know which one is most appropriate to use given the problem/question you wish to solve. The entire purpose of the prototype is to test/research. As with any research, we need to use the most appropriate method to solve the problem.

Here are some guidelines..

Low Visual Fidelity (LVF)/ Low Functional Fidelity (LFF) is good for:

  • discovering missing functionality
  • finding problems with workflow
  • separating good UX design concepts from less good ones
  • getting preliminary consensus from stakeholders

LVF/HFF

  • Enabling the use of user testing as a design tool
  • Proof of concept testing of isolated interactions
  • Enabling remote prototype testing
  • Validating design direction/implementation with stakeholders
  • Supplementing paper documents

HVF/LFF

  • Discovering any usability problems introduced by the design
  • Finding out problems with workflow when testing with non-savvy users
  • Iterating through multiple form factor concepts when working with physical devices

HVF/HFF

  • Integrating new designs into an existing system
  • User Testing with non-savvy user
  • Supplementing printed documentation for offshore development
  • Wowing stakeholders into submission

The best part of Fred’s talk was when he described how to incorporate prototyping in different process environments.

For Every Type of Business Process, first develop the detailed scenarios you want to test

Agile:
First develop the detailed scenarios you want to test
Sketch 2-3 design concepts and test to choose one
Build small interactive prototype for critical interactions and proof-of-concept test them
Work with the developer to get a production ready prototype and test it too

Waterfall:
First develop the detailed scenarios you want to test
Build an interactive prototype and walk through it with stakeholders
Simultaneously walk through prototype and documentation when handing it off to developers
Generate annotated prototype for developers reference

Donna Spencer led a really fun session about utilizing games for design work. She said that playing games stimulates different parts of our brains, and can help us be more creative. Here are some games that she went over, I am really excited to put them to use!

Also see this Boxes and Arrows article: http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/using-design-games

Books: Thinkertoys by Michalko and Innovation Games by Hohmann

Games to Play with Users

Design the homepage – using markers and paper, ask the user to design a homepage that would be perfect for them. The drawing itself does not have to look like a homepage, and can be much more free form. The drawing will enable you to understand what is important to the user.

Divide the dollar – start with a set a of features (either pre-defined or generated by the user). Give the users 100 fake dollars and ask them to diving the amount among the feature list. Ask the users to explain the reasoning behind their choices. This will help with feature prioritization.

Metadata – show users an object and ask them to tell you what they call that ‘thing’. This will you understand how people think about objects.

Freelisting – tell me as many of [fill in the blank] as you can think about. Pay attention to both the order in which people list items, as well as if they take any significant pauses. The pauses indicate cognitive chunking and perhaps different categories.

Card Sorting – write content ideas on cards and ask users to sort them. You can spice it up by having time pressures, competition, or prizes.

Games for Design Teams

Idea cards – you have three piles of cards that contain adjectives, verbs, and nouns. Pick one card from each pile and then try to design the experience that is provided on the cards. Might also want to use these professional cards: http://www.metamemes.com/
Also these are awesome grow a game cards that can also be used for design: http://www.valuesatplay.org/?page_id=6
Someone in the session also recommended these: Oblique Strategy Cards

Reversal – attack the problem from the reverse direction. For example: “Going through airport security is painful, how do you make it worse?” This is a really fun activity, but can also helps you discover concepts that are important but might be easy to miss.

Design the Box – individuals or teams creates a box as if the product was going to be sold like a software package at Best Buy. Each person should design for the front, back, and side of the box. Some things to consider: the product name, the tagline, the short hook on the front to entice a consumer to pick it up, perhaps a picture. Once the box is designed, ask everyone to “sell” their product to everyone else in the team. This helps figure out the vision statement.

Other games that were suggested by session participants:

Brainwriter – come up with ideas, write them on sticky notes and put them on the wall. If running out of ideas, look over the ones on the wall and see if it sparks more. Then do an affinity sort on the sticky notes for further insight.

Different hats – design from different perspectives. For example, if I was Steve Jobs, what would the product look lke?

Reverse position statement – ask the stakeholders to come up with a vision statement that is the opposite of what they want, this might help clarify/specify the vision.

I totally love the idea of game use for design, and want pointers to more games! If you know of some, please let me know :)

I am currently in Memphis enjoying the wonderful IA Summit for the second year in a row. My first order of business was taking Dan Brown’s workshop entitled “Managing Difficult Conversations”. My motivation for taking the workshop has been an increasing awareness that 10% of my job is IA/UX work and 90% is managing people and relationships, and in all honesty I am bad at 90% of my job. Although it was not immediately obvious to me, I was having trouble selling my ideas and facilitating collaboration. Also, at various jobs and from different people, I would constantly get comments about how I was coming off as too intense, too forceful, and too passionate. The situation came to a head when the boss at my latest company handed me “How to Win Friends & Influences People” by Dale Carnegie. It was pretty much a slap in the face of how 1) unaware I am of myself; 2) my inability to communicate properly; 3) my failure to facilitate open discussion. I have certainly done a lot of introspection since then, and I will continue to do so. The workshop really helped me jell a lot of things that were already floating around in my head, and also realize that it will take a few more years of work and practice to get truly good at this. I am however committed to working on improving myself. In hopes of helping others, and just spreading the EightShapes love, here are my notes from the session…

Part I

Best Practices

  • rephrase negative statements
    Example: “We don’t have the requirements so we can’t start” vs “Once you provide us with the requirements, we can get started”
  • rise above naysayers
  • always start with the good
  • openness over defensiveness
    Example: When someone is disagreeing with you, say “I think that’s a great idea. Perhaps we can talk about how it might work?”

Engage Your Audience

  • Personalize the message by saying someone’s name
    Example: “John, what do you think about this?”
  • Repeat the questions you’re asked
  • Position your questions for success
  • Use Humor

Empathize

  • Know the situations, not just the people.
    People are facing pressures from others in the company, might be having problems with their personal life, and are generally situated in many layers of situations beyond the current one.
  • Listen and seek to understand
    Sometimes people just need to get something off their chest, so its helpful just to listen to them and comfort them with understanding
  • Don’t be quick to dismiss (even if you disagree)*
  • Respond with acknowledgment of situation/emotion

Lighten Up

  • Humor can be a powerful communication tool. When using humor: make it relevant; be on the lookout for material; prep and plan for jokes (don’t assume it will just come to you); when in doubt, point to yourself.

    If you are in a bad mood, feeling rushed, and are headed for a meeting, take 15 minutes before the meeting to do something to put yourself in a more positive mindset. Search for recipes, twitter, text, deep breathing, grab a snack, anything that will get out of that “zone”. Both your mind and body language will be effected and will help the meeting/discussion go smoother.

Part II

Improving your communication skills is really about introspection. If you are feeling anxious, annoyed, angry, look within yourself for the cause. Do you feel unappreciated? Not valued? Unheard? Try to get at the root cause of your problems, and figure out ways to help yourself through better communication with others. This is also a good time to learn about your own habits and characteristics, so that you can be more self-aware about your own communication patterns.

For IA’s, it is also important to understand that the deliverables are not the end product, they are there to help facilitate conversations, which in turn help make the product better. So its important to take a step back from the deliverables and understand that they are just one part of a process. When discussing deliverables, don’t look at it as a personal attack, but rather that they are doing their job of facilitating conversation and further thought. In fact, be prepared for challenges when presenting deliverables, as that is the whole point!

It is also important to understand the components of a conversation: at least 2 people, the message that is being communicated, the tool that is used to communicate the message, each person’s objective/agenda, personal perspectives, each individual’s habits and the skills that everyone uses to overcome the habits, the situation in which the conversation is taking place as well as all the external situations encompassing each individual.

When speaking with another person, it is important to understand their agenda – what drives them? what is their objective? This will help you use correct words/messages to persuade the other person.

It is also important to understand their communication habits (as well as your own). Some people prefer to converse exclusively via email, or phone, or in person. Utilize the method of communication that is most comfortable for the other person, even if it not the most convenient for you. This will put them at ease.

Part III

Characteristics

Below are some characteristics that Dan and Chris have found exist in people/clients/stakeholders, and some techniques on how to deal with them.

  • No Direction – the person can’t tell you what’s wrong
    Techniques: Ask good specific questions, be mindful of the goals of the conversation, understand that these people might be motivated by fear/anxiety. Say things like “help me understand”, “I want to help you succeed,” act dumb and ask them to talk through the problem, point out how the design already accomplishes goals.
  • Misdirected Passion – they feel strongly about the strangest things
    Techniques: Try to understand their perspective/agenda/passion, pick your battles, let them have their say, set expectations and explain context, do not avoid the problem. Say things like “these are really important points….
    let’s see how we can build that into design
    let’s concentrate on the agenda and address it at the next meeting
    i’ve set some time aside to discuss that
  • Inconsistent Messaging – they talk out of both sides of their mouth
    Techniques: Bite your tongue (don’t call them out on it, well yesterday you said this), pick your battles, capture messages in writing, recap the decisions made in the meeting, and validate the captured decisions. Our job here is to help them find out what they want.
  • Unwilling to admit ignorance – they get stuff wrong
    Your colleague or employee does not fully understand the project and produces a work that is off-track. Technique: Ask them to explain their thinking/rational, deflect responsibility onto the boss/client, avoid distractions by taking other work off their plate.
  • Other characteristic types not discussed in detail: no vision, no strength, no structure, not available, tunnel vision, prioritize reputation, poor communication skills, poor use of communication tools

Part IV

Situations

This part describes some of the situations that we are faced with, and how to deal with them.

  • Too Many People Involved – the size of the ‘stakeholder’ list is unwieldy and dramatically inhibiting progress
    Techniques: Identify the influencers/gatekeepers and speak directly to them, don’t ask quesions of the group, ask specific individuals, provide channels for individual feedback but publish for broader consumption
  • Poor Team Member Performance – the performance of one or several team members is jeopardizing the project success
    Techniques: first identify all of the positive aspects of the performance, avoid explicit or implicit personal attacks, coach don’t point, use positive language, express confidence in abilities, negotiation.
  • Defending Decisions – clarifying and rationalizing design choices when challenged
    Techniques: establish ‘common IA practices’ before design exercise, pick your battles, if supporting data isn’t there, explain the hypothesis, know your why’s, make sure stakeholders are on the ride for the whole way, help prioritize problems, show implications, focus on agreements – “we are not so far apart on this ..”

Other Situations: losing momentum, planning design, design reviews, defending progress, project failure, resolving conflict (internal and stakeholder.

Part V

Tricks of the Trade

  • telling a good story and aligning it with your audience
  • seeing other perspectives/agendas
  • picking your battles: know when to turn on the passion. Getting a product that has most of your ideas is already an improvement to the product, even if you don’t get everything in.
  • setting expectations/context – where you are in the project
  • setting action items – the are of what do we do now?
  • avoiding distractions, even if timely and relevant
  • deflecting responsibility to a third party (common enemy)
  • asking good questions
  • letting others be right
  • letting others have their say
  • encouraging discussion
  • finding out what stifles people – ppls mental blocks
  • channeling other people – such as good critics

Alla Zollers

I design products and services that just. make. sense.

When products make sense, customers are happy.

If customer are happy, they sign-up, stay on site, engage, share, and buy your product or service.

Happy customers allow companies to profit in both senses of the word.

I provide the following services:

• Heuristic Evaluations
• Discovery Research
• Strategy and Vision Development
• Information Architecture
• User Experience Design
• Usability Testing

You can find me on:
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