ux

The First Year in Review

I have not been keeping up with this at all, have I? Then again, I can't believe it's June. So much has happened in the past few months that it's hard to believe the year is halfway over; with that was also my one year anniversary as a UX designer in title. Time flies when you're having fun.

That's the thing that hasn't changed for me at all in the past year. I love what I do still; I walked into work one day to find a set of wireframes on my desk with the ask for UX feedback, and I woke up fairly quickly after that. Though I consider myself an interaction designer, but in the past six months alone I've switched hats so often that I didn't realize exactly how vague the role of being a designer actually was.

So if I had to do a recap of the lessons learned in that year, my list would look like this:

  1. Tools are just tools - I have gotten pretty speedy with Illustrator (a good portion of my time just goes into making sure my file is organized because it makes me a little crazy and because I don't want to subject someone else to an unorganized file if they need it), but Photoshop? Totally different ballpark. The thing is, I don't really need Photoshop per se. There's so many excellent tools out there for design and prototyping: UXPin is one I'm fond of, and the intern on my team turned me onto Indigo Studio for building click through prototyping. But above all, nothing beats a whiteboard or the wonderful duo that is Post It notes and Sharpies (leftover habits from Palm).
  2. Try something new - Some of my projects this year took me all over the country to study users out in the field, and it was my first time in a research position. I came back feeling much more educated about our tools and how the users see them. Granted, the tools they were using were ones I was unfamiliar with, so it was an incredible learning experience for me. We had a short offsite to analyze the findings and came away with some powerful findings that I think will really help build a great product than if we hadn't done the research ourselves. I learned a lot about how to conduct research in the field, and in the end I was leading research sessions myself - the senior designers presented on two of my trips and then I took the lead on it. It was also a fun exercise in practicing what I preached; if we were asking people to do things on the iPad, why shouldn't we do it ourselves? Taking endless notes on the device during my research sessions helped me to see what the pain points of using a tablet could be for an extensive period of time. Though... I think there are some large difference between what I was doing and what the users would do on their applications, but the lesson is still there
  3. Immerse yourself in your field - I'm a mobile designer. Okay, so that means I should probably soak in all things mobile, and I do. I take a special interest in changes in mobile not just from the platforms, but also what people are doing in applications. It feels like just yesterday that the basement level nav panel (see Facebook's app on all devices where you can tap the icon on the left to open the panel) was created, and that wasn't truly established on any platform (correct me if I'm wrong, but I certainly don't remember it being native on iOS or Android). That keeps me up to date and able to try new things in my designs.
  4. Do or do not, there is no assuming - I know, that's not the exact quote and I wish I could have made it work in its original form but alas! The point here is that if an idea strikes you, try it. Don't kill it before you've let it bake for a bit. I had a bunch of personal things I wanted to try - my Android Music Player design, for example - and even though I knew the service layer may not exist and the aggregation would probably not be feasible, I still wanted to make the concept real to see what it would look like. I actually plan on going back on iterating on it since I haven't looked at it in a while, but I wonder what I'll see differently this time around. Had I not gone through with it, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to actually play with Android's design guidelines and also indulge in a creative exercise that was great practice for me. 

I'm probably missing a great deal of other lessons, but I also have things that I have to get done for tomorrow. This list will continue to grow, but having crossed that benchmark has taught me a lot about how I want to develop professionally and how much further I have to go.

But it's nice to have also learned that even all this time later, I absolutely made the right choice in being a designer.

I'm a... well, I don't know: Part II

When I started writing this, I was back home and had gotten the chance to play with the Microsoft Surface the weekend before. My dad, a fellow tech nerd in arms, was game for driving to the new Microsoft store nearby and we dashed through the cold to indulge our inner nerds. Keep in mind that I was an early adopter of Windows Phone 7 and have just switched back to Android with hope for the platform and design language. I wrote the first part of this piece when I had just purchased my 13'' early 2011 Macbook Pro. In the time that has passed since then, I've upgraded to Mountain Lion and also set up Boot Camp to Windows 7 for some things that were PC only. At the end of the piece, I was left straddling the fence. Since then, my Dell has been retired completely. I rarely look at and will probably recycle it in the next few months; this was made inevitable when I installed Windows 7 on my Mac. The Dell hardware was and is sluggish and starting to really show its age. My Mac, on the other hand, is approaching on its first year and I am still constantly amazed by how snappy it is. I can draw a better comparison now between Windows 7 and OS X using my MBP as the hardware baseline.
Windows 7 on the MBP is a dream. It's snappy every time I use it, like I've just installed it for the first time. That aging problem that I've had with every PC in my life hasn't happened yet (the installation is still considerably new, so I may have to reanalyze a few months later). But having spent the better part of a year learning the interaction patterns of the Mac's multi-gesture trackpad has really done a number on my mapping of the keyboard. I remember the keyboard shortcuts that were drilled for years, but the location of the Command Key on the MBP is where the Ctrl key was on my Dell. Needless to say, I've slowed down a lot on Windows since I use it for maybe fifteen minutes if at all I need it. There are certain features I miss like automatic window resizing for having two windows pulled up while completing a task, but from a high level perspective there's nothing from a user experience perspective that gives Windows an advantage over Mountain Lion.
Does this mean I've picked Macs over PCs? Yes, but not a resounding yes. I will probably never buy another PC unless there's a very compelling reason, but both are experiences that become very simple once you've spent time with either of them. Had I grown up with a Mac, I'm sure I would have struggled to transition to PC the same way I struggled with learning the ins and outs of OS X. For the majority of my general desktop tasks, I can live on either operating system - the only task I have not tested is the use of the Adobe Creative Suite on a PC. But I pick Macs for that snappy feeling I get every time I use it, which was a huge experience frustration I've had with every PC I have ever worked with.
There's also the complication of tablets in the equation now. I love my Touchpad a lot, but when I first got my Mac, I was using my personal Touchpad infrequently. At my current job I have a new iPad to test our products with, but I find that except for very few things, I can do everything I want on the iPad. There are a few websites that are not mobile optimized or look better on a bigger screen, but the majority of the computing based things I do in my personal life are a great experience on the tablet. Tablet apps sometimes aren't as robust as their desktop counterparts, but that's a whole different tale; the point is that when it comes to picking a Mac or a PC the answer isn't very clear cut simply because there's a lot of different factors I consider in this throwdown, and for a lot of those factors the answer is Choice C - None of the above; smartphone or tablet
So am I a Mac or PC? I have to say I'm more Mac, but overall I'm very much a tablet/smartphone person (I'll spare you the cheesy version of this answer).

I Love My Car. For Now.

I keep forgetting my goal to write here more often. Oops. It's especially hard when there are so many things in the world to talk about (this of course is what makes design so necessary and incredible, but I've lost track of so many little things I've observed. I really need to start writing this down).

My car is a beautiful Toyota RAV4. I'm very fond of my car, it's sentimental to me because of all the trips I've taken in it with my parents and the little things that remind me of home. But I've found myself guiltily checking out other cars in the past year or so. It's not that I'm particularly a car person, but it's the fact that cars have been evolving much like all sectors of technology. When I saw first saw pictures of the Ford Focus and then recently the Santa Fe, I got the sudden itch to find a Ford dealer.

Touch interfaces in cars. Who knew that would happen a decade ago?

My car is very much not tappable. I have knobs, buttons, and toggles all over to navigate my heating and sound systems - they're eve on the steering wheel so I can adjust the volume and change the radio without taking my eyes off the road. Coming back to my car to fiddle with the cords and buttons of the physical world is strange.

I'm pretty okay with that though. I haven't really experienced touch screens as a driver much, but my mom's car has a pretty rudimentary touch screen. I've tried manipulating it (safely) and the fact is that whether or not your controls are manual or touchscreen, there's a whole realm of interface design left for cars.

Being in healthcare has taught me one fundamental thing: Do everything you can to not kill people. Follow good design, yes, but an okay design that doesn't cause potentially life threatening mistakes is far preferred to a great design that could go south (best case scenario is that we design something excellent that also avoid endangering patients). Car designers have this same problem I think; whether the car has touch capability or not, that primary goal of keeping people out of danger is still there. Looking away to fiddle with a part of the car is still a distraction.

There is voice recognition, yes, but the way that my car's voice navigation is designed is a rudimentary long list of commands that the user has to sort through to get to where they want to go. From an interaction perspective, it should be simple to say "Play on repeat". There is headway being made in that direction with iOS's Siri and the voice recognition capability on Android. I wouldn't be surprised if there was exploration into being able to plug your phone directly into a car system and have it power most (if not all) of the entertainment system. My One X has a car mode, but I currently stick it into a cupholder while I'm driving, so it's a little lost on me. That said, it's a pretty small set of tap targets while driving. I'm better off scrambling for the dials of my car.

People pictured flying cars in the future long ago. Me, I picture cars pretty much as they are today, but with the chance to really innovate in interaction beyond touch. A little strange for someone who works in mobile which is all about touch interaction, but I think it's an amazing challenge. So when I think about that moment far in the future where I'm trading in my RAV4 for some shiny new car, I hope that it's something that doesn't even involve touch - what if I could wave my hand to skip to my other favorite radio station? Could gesture based interaction work as a viable alternative to manual/touch? Pairing it with voice could be interesting. I saw some really amazing prototypes done by some of the designers I've worked with previously, and while testing it would be a little precarious, it opens a new door for designing interfaces in cars.

For now? I'm good with fiddling with 3D dials and buttons if at all I'm messing with my system. Tapping on a screen has probably evolved from what it was when my mother bought her car, but at the end of the day after breaking mobile applications, it's nice to feel the physical feedback of a pushed button. Call it a crazy personal preference.

Ask me about it again when I buy another car.

Two Months with a One X

I was an early adopter of Windows Phone 7 with the Samsung Focus (I would have gotten an HTC device if I could have, but I wasn't impressed with the HTC Surround, AT&T's only HTC device running WP7), and by the time I was done with it the poor device had been dropped and thrown around and put through the paces of a power user adjusting to the growing pains of a fresh product. I like Metro quite a lot; as annoyed as I was with it as time went on, it is a beautiful visual style and I think that once Microsoft has taken the next two or three product cycles to refine it that it will definitely attract enough users away from the aged feel of iOS and developers to build a robust enough app store to seal the deal. Needless to say, I was very happy to go back to Android - ICS is much more appealing  visually than Froyo, and it was time to try something new. I say new only because the last time I was on Android was on the developer G1 waaaay back in 2009 when Android was first released. Being a big fan of HTC, I was so glad that AT&T finally announced the One X and got it when my upgrade was available. I call my beauty Trinity.
My overall verdict? I'm pretty happy, but not as happy as I wish I was.
Here's what I really use my phone for:
  • Music: I use Spotify, Last.FM, and Google Play daily. Whether I'm at the gym or driving to work, I'm relying on Trinity to blast my tunes.
  • Email: Work and personal get pushed to Trinity so I can keep up with the latest bug fixes and keep an eye on my personal account for any messages from my dad and other important people.
  • Browsing: I was surprised to find that this is the thing I do most on the phone. During the work day, I find articles that I want to read, so I push it to Trinity using the Chrome to Phone extension to read it later. Makes waiting go much slower. 
  • Gaming: Temple Run and Fruit Ninja are my games of choice when I'm bored, but this is more like a secondary task.
I can do everything I want, but I'm not happy with my phone. In terms of the hardware, my only complaint is the lack of a dedicated hardware camera button - it takes several steps to actually take a picture on Trinity (unlock phone, tap on camera app, take the picture), and if there's a better way, I have yet to discover it. Admittedly, I do like the fact that my camera doesn't sometimes get activated in my pocket the way my Samsung Focus used to do.
But the software...
WebOS has forever ruined all notification systems for me. Jellybean's notifications might come close to it (I'll have to confirm this since Trinity is still on ICS), but the simplicity of webOS notifications in the lock screen and while the phone is in use is just beautiful. Windows Phone's lock screen notifications weren't as useful since they were icons, but displaying my next meeting and the music player are above and beyond Sense's implementation.
I like Android overall. Any apps I have found on the Apple App Store have mostly been available on Google Play. But I am still left feeling dissatisfied with my phone, something I chalk up to HTC's skinning of Android. Were I a braver person I'd root the device and push stock Android on there, but I seem to be very good at screwing up things like that. So for now, I'll keep using Trinity while secretly lusting after the Galaxy Nexus and its pure Jellybean experience. 

The Awkward Record Scratch

I love music. I can't go a day without it - my current addiction is Tron: Legacy from Daft Punk. Much like my music evolved, my music programs have changed. Here's a history of what I use*:

Kinda complicated, huh?

When I was in high school, I started off with iTunes and YouTube, and it's evolved over the years. Part of that is the evolution in the technology I use - iTunes became pretty entrenched in my music system due to syncing with my iPods. YouTube was the way I discovered new music, but now, there are many ways to discover it.

With this, my library of music has become extremely fragmented. It lives locally and in the cloud, but there's no way to access all of it at once.

A lot of it has to do with the basic positioning of each program:

  • Last.FM - It's a radio station with social underpinnings - a good portion of programs out there allow you to scrobble to Last.FM, thus building your library there. Unfortunately, it's luck of the draw on your radio - you can't access a song directly. 
  • Grooveshark - Store your music online via the cloud - you could potentially recreate your entire library onto Grooveshark and access it via the web, your desktop, and your smartphone. The cons here is that Android and iOS do not have *sanctioned* Grooveshark applications and Grooveshark doesn't have every song . 
  • Spotify - Spotify allows you to supplement your library with licensed offerings and provides an alternative music management system 
  • YouTube - it's a video service. Yes, this includes music videos, but YouTube's focus is on social sharing. Plus... I'm not entirely sure these videos are legal....

The focus that each program accomplishes is fairly different from each other - at the core, a user can listen to music, but each program is now focused on answering 'what else can you do with music players?'. 

I started this post a while ago, so while this was percolating, Google Music came out of beta. Like iTunes, Google Music will lock you (more) into Google's ecosystem, which fits into the company's strategy. This is why it will be hard to make a unified experience for your music - in creating this experience, you create an escape from using the music services directly. 

Of the services that I use, Spotify comes the closest to what I want - it's a free cross-platform service and I can import almost all my music to varying degrees of difficulty (easy from iTunes, headache inducing from Grooveshark). I don't have to spend money on a Zune Pass, more space from Google Music, or music from iTunes, but that means I'm dealing with Spotify's UI, which is not perfect. But the question of music 'synergy', to borrow a term from webOS, still remains as a pretty interesting design question, and I hope that I can help solve it some day. There's a lot left to be said, from the possible effect on the music industry to playing nicely with competing companies, but I'll stop here.

*This graphic was created right before I discovered MOG - it should be under the category of 'Not Used Yet'