IxDA Launches New Website

The Interaction Design Association updated their website yesterday with a new design and a few great new features.

Members using discussion threads on the previous incarnation of the site will have their profiles connected to all their posts once they create a password, which is new feature and replaces the kludgy authentication-by-email scheme the site had been using.

The site still features the highly popular discussions plus a new Job Board and Resources page. Both are great additions. Another great addition is the Related Threads on the right side of the discussions page that lists related threads based on the thread title.

Local IxDA chapters also have been creating their own websites recently to manage local events and share resources. You’ll have to join your local chapter on the main website even if you are already a local member as the membership rolls of the various sites do not appear to be connected. Not a big deal, and membership in the main organization and the local chapters is free.

Design Pattern Resources

Looking for some new design pattern resources? Here’s a few I’ve been using lately:

Since design patterns first arrived in application development to provide proven and repeatable solutions to common programming tasks they’ve evolved into a great way to standardize design and IA solutions for common interface elements used across a variety of websites. Let me know if there are any helpful new pattern libraries you’re using.

Convert: Great Mobile App Using Iterative Design

If you ever needed an example of the power of iterative design you need look no further than what the designers of the Convert app for iPhone did with their amazing mobile app.

The tap tap tap team posted a video a while back that plays like a time lapse video of all the iterations the design team went through. It’s amazing to see all the choices they team went through, discarding many and making others integral to the app (see the video below from YouTube).


The recognition by the design team that iteration is a key part of the design process is a testament to the value of the UCD process. This app, which is well worth the 99 cents just for the exposure to the interface, is useful, elegant, and, perhaps most importantly, fun to use. But it should be, it’s the product of continual refinement of a great idea.

Cultural Context in Design

Would you buy a toilet with a sink on top of the tank? One that lets you wash your hands with the same water that would then be used to flush the bowl? Probably not if you’re like many Americans, who most likely would be grossed out by the idea, but in another part of the world that might be a normal thing to do.

That was just one of the product design examples offered at a recent discussion on considering cultural context in design projects led by Steve Portigal of Portigal Consulting for IxDA Chicago.

Steve’s talk included many examples of industrial design choices that would surprise many Americans but were quite acceptable in other cultures, such as the sink-toilet and an AIDS clinic in India that looked like a body shop on the south side of Chicago but in fact was a welcomed resource when viewed in its cultural context. The sink-toilet apparently is common in Japan, but also is gaining popularity among environmentally concerned consumers in the United States. But if you were an industrial designer creating this seemingly sensible and environmentally friendly product for an American mass market audience you’d have a real market flop because you failed to consider American cultural attitudes. You can see one here at the Pure Energy Systems Wiki.

When designing for diverse audiences, which includes the increasingly diverse American audience, you need to consider the cultural meaning of things beyond language, including colors, shapes, symbols, and tone, that can influence the adoption of new software products. Patrick Hofmann, a designer with Google Australia, provided a great example in a follow-up to one of Jared Spool’s seminars last year:

There’s this common misconception that localization is only about words, and it’s about translating something into another language… But for visuals, it’s actually fundamentally the same. The same image or the same visual doesn’t mean the same thing across the entire planet. One perfect example is the entire use of red and green to denote in your stock listings or market results in your local business paper. If the market goes up, it’s a big green arrow in North America. In actual fact, in Far East Asia, it’s the exact opposite. It’s an arrow going upwards, but it’s a red arrow. Red denotes success and positivity, whereas green generally means, particularly in the Far East, it means the market is down, there’s something negative happening.

Is your product in tune with the different cultures of people who may be using it? You may think so, because you “know” it’s a great product, but the best approach is to start with a design team that is informed about the cultures that may be part of your target market. And, of course, you’ll need to follow up the initial designs with rounds of iterative testing that include people from the various cultures you will be targeting. You’ll also want to consider topics like the working hours of the target audience so you can plan site or application maintenance outages at appropriate times, because not everyone leaves the office at 6 PM.

Nielsen Norman has a set of recommendations for ecommerce design for international users available for $45. This is a small sum well spent if your product has to succeed outside the U.S.

Molly Holzschlag wrote a short but excellent article on internationalization for A List Apart a few years back that is worth a read as well.

And Jared has another SpoolCast with Patrick Hofmann that is worth a listen.

If you have access to the EBSCOhost databases, those are another great source for research into internationalization and cultural considerations for design projects.

There are a lot of resources to help you in these efforts. The key is to recognize the designing for a multi-cultured audience is about more than translating written content and making superficial customizations.

Newspaper Website Redesigns

After spending some time looking at the recent redesign of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times websites I have to give the Tribune a slightly better grade for usability and learnability than the Times, mostly based on some simple design choices and the treatment of links, while the Times easily wins for sharp visual design.

The key area where the Times lacks is in how it handles navigation. In the new design almost all text is black, strongly mimicking the look of a print newspaper. From a visual design perspective this is just flat. The Tribune in contrast makes its headlines blue. The headlines of both sites are links, are not underlined, and give rollover feedback. The blue text on the Tribune site just seems to stand out more and makes it easier to scan the page. The different color also hints at clickability and invites exploration. Blue is one of the Tribune’s brand colors, so this also makes sense from a marketing perspective. There is no reason for the Times to mimic print design to such an extreme.

Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune

While most news website users will expect that headlines are links, the all black text treatment of the Times makes it harder to scan for relevant content and triggers. The Tribune, while using the same template, makes it easier to scan down the page and find links. Blue is clickable, black is not.

Both papers use the same template, not surprising since both are owned by the Tribune Company, but the way the Chicago paper executes the design makes it is a little easier to learn how to use the site. The key differences are:

— On the Tribune homepage, the tabs in the global navigation are visible no matter what the user does. On the Times homepage, the user has to roll over the global navigation before a tab background image appears. While the Times global navigation is pretty clear, the Tribune makes it a little more obvious that it is navigation. Once you go beyond the Times homepage, section tabs are revealed.

— On the Tribune homepage a global navigation item for “home” is selected, giving the reader a clear sense of where they are in the site hierarchy. As you navigate away from the homepage, the “home” tab provides a nice target to get back to a starting point. The Times homepage in contrast shows nothing as selected, thereby losing a chance to educate users about the navigation. After you navigate away from the homepage you have to click the logo to get get back. That’s hardly a fatal flaw, as most web users have figured out that a site’s logo links back to the homepage, but the Tribune’s design again just makes the navigation choices a little more obvious.

— Another difference is how the sites handle weather in their header. To the right of the Tribune logo is the temperature and an icon indicating whether it’s cloudy, sunny, raining, etc. The Times uses that real estate for date and time, but no weather. Weather is more volatile in Chicago, so maybe this makes sense. But to replace it with date and time doesn’t seem to offer the user anything. Usage metrics may show that Times users don’t spend much time on the weather page, but how about a highway gridlock meter icon that links to a real-time expressway traffic page or something else useful.

When it comes to typography and general visual design, the Times wins hands down. It has settled on a nice serif font — Georgia — that is consistently applied and easier to read than the Tribune’s Arial, especially for the articles. If the designers were looking to mimic the typographic sense of style of the New York Times or A List Apart, they hit their mark. It just looks classy. If they add some color to the headlines, they’ll have a real winner.

The Times also handles the homepage areas that feature content from other sections of the site in a more stylish and cleaner way than the Tribune, which has bulky colored headers for features like Sports and Entertainment. Aside from the lack of color in some of the fonts, the Times overall has more appealing visual design. And the faux ink splatter at the footer of the page is a fun design element.

The other papers in the Tribune portfolio (Baltimore, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, Hartford, Allentown, and Newport News) also are using the same new template, but the Chicago and LA papers have the best executions. The others lack personality and could easily be mistaken for any other news website.

If the Tribune Co. had mixed the visual style of the Times with the usability advantages of the Tribune, they’d have had a truly stunning design.

Pragmatic Marketing Framework

I just finished a great three-day seminar on the Pragmatic Marketing Product Management Framework. The framework focuses on starting any product design by looking at market problems and the people in the market, instead of the technology that is being developed. Although the framework is geared toward the building of technology products, the idea of focusing on users, markets, and their problems at the start of a development effort can be applied to many industries. How many ecommerce, travel, or financial services websites have features that are there because the engineers could build them instead of a consumer saying they needed them? The framework includes many methodologies found in user centered design, including contextual inquiry, interviews, personas, usage scenarios, and focusing on user tasks and goals. The framework also provides solid boundaries between product management and development activities. Learn more at http://pragmaticmarketing.com.

Designing in Excel

I’ll admit Microsoft Office is not my favorite place to spend time, but while working on a design project last week I discovered the ease of prototyping and wireframing using Excel. It won’t get me to stop using Visio any time soon but there may be occasions when Excel is a faster tool for certain projects.

I was working on a set of screens for a business-facing reporting application for a B2C site and had to work with a lot of charts. To make the screens more realistic, I was creating charts with dummy data in Excel and then moving them to Visio for the wireframes. After talking to a friend I decided to create the wireframes right in Excel.

Here’s how it works. First, use the Formatting Palette to turn off gridlines and get yourself a blank page. I used a screen grab of a long form to create all the input widgets I needed for the interface and put those off on a tab by themselves for quick access. Airline websites are a good place for this since some have nice calendar widgets.

I then used another tab as my data tab, which made cranking out the charts pretty easy.

Finally, for each page or screen of the reporting tool, I used a different tab. Giving each tab a unique name (which Excel requires) makes it possible to link to it from other tabs. Using background shading, borders, and links, I was able to create a serviceable set of tabs for the main navigation. Individual cells can be given a border and background color to create buttons. And adding the links means the wireframes could be the start of a prototype when I move to the testing phase. Excel even allows you to save as HTML, much like Visio, to create a set of HTML pages with your designs embedded as images.

The main drawback I encountered was the rigid grid layout imposed by the rows and columns. I had to scrap a few things until I got it right, but think I saved time overall from the Visio+Excel approach.

I’m not sure I’ll use this technique again unless I’m designing a chart and data heavy site. In those cases the time saved may make it worthwhile. If nothing else, I got to explore a different design approach when the favored tool had limitations.

While Googling around on the topic before writing this I came across this book at Amazon – http://tinyurl.com/dfvtb2. I may pick it up to see what more you can do with Excel.

Paper is Your Friend

Today I learned (relearned unfortunately) the value of digging into a design effort with nothing more than an engaged end user and a blank piece of paper. I’ve been working on a product management reporting dashboard the last few weeks and found myself yesterday morning sitting with a detailed set of requirements and a looming deadline. Not always what you want to see at 8 AM but I thought I could rise to the occasion with a bit hard work and a phone on mute.

I plowed straight into Visio designing what I thought were going to be a useful set of screens detailing the various performance and usage metrics of a new site I’m working on. After a good 15 hours invested in the effort over two days, I looked at my work and had the sinking feeling I had wasted two days designing an absolutely useless set of convoluted screens on par with a federal tax form. So I spent a few more hours rearranging the proverbial Titanic deck chairs before seeing that I was working too hard but not too smart. Not my best days.

So my next move was to scrap the whole effort and start from scratch. I grabbed a few end users and asked them a series of questions about how they wanted to consume the information and how they would be using it. The key point I took from our talk was not so much details of the exact data points as much as their need to consume the information quickly. They was looking for an easy-to-digest set of information that they could process in a few minutes and determine if there was an emerging problem that needed immediate attention. We quickly sketched out some very crude designs and within 30 minutes had a whole new direction. The project is now back on track and some of the users have given preliminary approval to much of what they’ve seen.

This is hardly a new insight but one we sometimes lose sight of on projects with tight deadlines because we are too focused on making progress on the actual deliverables. There are some good resources at A List Apart, UseIt.com, and at the website for Carolyn Snyder’s book Paper Prototyping.


Welcome to UXploration.

This is where I write about things that interest me in my professional life as a user experience architect and as a graduate HCI student.

I’m currently enrolled in the graduate HCI program at DePaul University in Chicago and will try to post details of school projects and research as well.

Having to produce something fresh on a regular basis forces me to look at my work and studies more critically and to find things that may be of interest to others. I’m looking forward to learning a lot as I go. I hope others do too.