Here's a little sneak peak of my latest post for the AtTask blog, to be posted soon. It's a look into contextual inquiry for the non-designer. Enjoy.
Solving the unseen problems
I’m a people watcher. I’m fascinated by the things people do and the not-so-obvious reasons why they do them. Even more so, I’m fascinated by the unseen problems you just might discover if you watch closely enough.
How many times, while preparing a scrumptious meal for your family, do you find yourself having to bend over to read measurements on the side of a measuring cup? Pour, bend over, measure. Pour some more, bend over, re-measure. It’s a bit of a hassle, but probably not something you ever thought to complain about, because it’s just, you know, “how it is.”
Well the good folks at one of my favorite companies, OXO, observed this problem while they watched people cook, and decided to fix it. They designed a measuring cup that allows you to read measurements from above, not just from the side. A simple solution to a problem no one ever thought to complain about — an unseen problem.
The AtTask user experience team does this sort of research often. It’s called Contextual Inquiry, and it is one of the major inputs into what we build and how we build it. Here’s some insight into how we do it.
We like to sit down with AtTask users (and non-users alike) in their natural work environments, right there in their cube. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn about someone just by looking around their workspace — from stickies on the monitor, calendars and workflows up on the wall, the disorganized stacks of papers everywhere, or the papers neatly tucked away just where they belong.
Something we’ll often say when we sit down with people is simply, “teach us how you do work.” Through that process, we can gain insights into the problems that people may not ever think to vocalize. While users walk us though how they work, we can take their behaviors and what they say, in combination with their environment, to get a fuller picture of some of the difficulties they have, and uncover some of those unseen problems.
Goals, not tasks
An overarching theme in our design method is that it’s all about goals, not tasks. Tasks are simply ways to reach ultimate goals. We care why you’re doing what you’re doing. We want to get deep to the core of why you did that, what you’re trying to accomplish. As Nacho might say, we want to get to the “nitty gritty.”
So if in the future you ever hear us asking to come sit down with you and your team to learn how you work, please, let us come by. And let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
At 4:31 am, nineteen years ago today, I was woken by the big bad Northridge earthquake. I was a mere 8 years old, living with my mom and older brother in Simi Valley, California. The earthquake registered a 6.7 on the Richter scale, with several aftershocks registering 6.0. It was the most terrifying experience of my young life, and one of just a few vivid memories I have of my childhood.
I recently came across some old papers I wrote for school as I was packing up for a move, and wouldn't you know it, one was about the 'quake. It tells the story of that dark morning through my 8-year-old eyes. I turned this puppy out in September of 2003, in my freshman year at UNLV. Enjoy.
I yelled at the earthquake
I awoke to a strange rumbling. My bed was moving. The delicate glow of the moon lit my room. I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I instinctively cried for my mother, my brother, anybody. The shaking was getting worse and I began to scream. A crescendo of devastation began to fill the air. I heard my brother’s voice pierce through and my heart leaped. Somehow through the darkness he found me and violently snatched my arm. I never thought such force could feel so good. I ran with him to the top of the stairs where we were joined by my mother, screaming at us to go down. We began our agile descent.
The noise was much worse now. As we approached the bottom step, I could hear my home, my life, being demolished. To my left, the mirror that hung above our fireplace—I used to practice my goofy faces in that mirror—it shattered on the brick below. To my right, the kitchen. Distinct individual shatters meant plates and glasses that made this my home were no more. Behind me, my family. My mother’s tears and screams punctured my pounding heart. Something must really be wrong. As I turned to look, I could see her eyes, wide open with fear in a flash of moonlight. I knew she was scared, I knew it was because of the earthquake. Of the millions of thoughts running through my mind, one of them was the burning realization that I simply hated the earthquake. It made me mad that it would hurt my mom. It had no right. Nobody asked it to be here. Why won’t it just go away?
The dining room table wasn’t where it was the night before. After a brief moment of confusion, I realized it had shifted—about four feet to the right, resting now against the wall. At the time, it made me upset that the earthquake had done that. If we had wanted it against the wall we would have put it against the wall. My hesitation was met with more cries from my mother to keep moving. Her cry was of a tone I had never heard. That tone, possibly more than the earthquake, scared me. I had seen her cry before, I had heard her yell. But this was different. This unfamiliar tone evoked tremendous anger, anguish, and fury in my core—more than I ever thought possible. Through my tears, I screamed for my mother. I realized that this was one thing that she wasn’t going to be able to make better. The earthquake was stronger than her.
I hated the earthquake.
We came together under the dining room table. My mother found me and hugged me as if that was the last time she would ever have the chance. I sat there in her arms, weeping. I could see a faint outline of my brother, frantically looking from side to side. We sat there together, waiting.
The moon cascaded its light into my living room. The chandelier swung on its tether slowly side to side. I wondered how it could be so calm in such chaos. Nothing was where it used to be. The earthquake had taken my home away. What it hadn’t broken, it moved. The familiarity and comfort one has in his home is what makes it just that—I had none. Disorientated and with blurry eyes, I turned to my brother. Tears sparkled on his cheek as he moved in and out of the moonlight. He recoiled as our television crashed to the floor. I blinked slowly and looked up at my mom. Like the glasses in the kitchen, my heart shattered. She was crying. She was bleeding. My home had been destroyed. There was nothing I, my brother, or my mom could do about it. We were overpowered in our own home, and wading in a sea of sheer devastation.
I yelled at the earthquake.
Easy to say when you have boatloads of billions in the bank, right? No. I don't think that's what it is. I genuinely believe it is ingrained in the DNA of what Apple is, and what it stands for. It's a tough concept for any MBA to swallow, I agree, but rarely do MBAs change the world.
From Tim Cook's interview with Bloomberg, 12/06/12.
I came across an explanation of UI design (from a former top Apple designer, no less) that I thought to be an incredibly apt description of exactly what UI design is. I've tried a bunch of analogies to try to get people to understand exactly what it is I do. Most people just don't get it.
UI design is like selling a restaurant, where you can’t just serve up good food in order to run a restaurant. You have to create an environment around the food that gets people in the mood to enjoy a really great meal: presenting the food really nicely, picking the right plates, the lighting on the table, the music that is playing. When you put all that together, it creates a much nicer experience than if you just were to serve up some good food.
I design the restaurant. The good food? Functional code.
From Fast Company's Co.Design: A Former iPhone UI Designer Defends Apple’s Fake-Leather Design Philosophy
Thinking today of my recent experience at the masterfully done World Trade Center Memorial. Pausing next to these gaping square-shaped holes to think about such a tremendous tragedy was a solemn and surreal experience. So many lives lost. So many lives forever changed.
If only the rebuilding hadn't been fraught with problems.
It’s an amazing thing.
It will leave you in one breathless moment desperate for more, and in the next desperate to escape it. It’s something you catch yourself brooding over for hours and hours on end, and something you never quite figure it out. It can hurt so, so bad, and be so incredibly euphoric at the same time. With it comes moments of such utter bliss, and such dark, clandestine moments of trial. Yes, Life truly is an amazing thing.
See what I did there.
Lately it’s left me a little bit puzzled, as it is often known to do. There’s been a few moments where I’ve felt just like I imagine Lloyd did when he brilliantly exclaimed, “Our pets’ heads are falling off!” (Yes, a movie I’ve seen probably 10 too many times. Google it. But if you’ve never heard of it you probably won’t get it. And not appreciate the reference. So maybe don’t worry about it. Ok sorry, back to the L word thing.).
It’s left my poor little Momento app bursting at the seams. Sometimes, for some reason, there comes a strange coalescence of events that kind of leave you thinking “huh?”, for reasons both good and bad. I’ve actually received some exceptionally good news over the last few weeks, while at the same time trying to sustain a battered faith in humanity.
But I’ve discovered something. And you will too if you pay attention. Life has a way, over time, of assuaging the grief it itself caused. Did you follow that? If you let it, and keep your heart in the right place, it will take care of itself. In your darkest times, someone will be there to illuminate your life. In your deepest trials, something will transpire that will ultimately bring you back to the surface. It’s like clockwork, but you have to watch for it (and remember that it can sometimes come from the most unlikely of places). I’ve become pretty good at that, and perhaps have never been so sure that life truly is an amazing thing.
Remember, “the grass is greener where it rains.”