Hot air balloon

For a while I’ve been buzzing about Luke Hohmann’s innovation games and am looking forward to his new book coming out. Using games, stories and pictures is a great way to get people engaged in workshops and get to the crux of problems. One problem you often get with people sitting around a table is a small number of vocal people contribute loudly, leaving timid bystanders with good stuff to contribute afraid to get involved. Obviously a good facilitator will look to overcome this, but get people in pairs, give them blank cardboard boxes and coloured pens and ask them to produce the packaging for the product they want to develop and you’ve got a great levelller.

These exercises do take time and can really only be done one at a time. In an attempt to fuse together the “product in a box” identifying customer needs and “speedboat” which identifes the anchors that are holding the project back, I’ve used the analogy of a hot air ballon a couple of times to some success. You draw a huge hot air balloon on the wall with ropes teathering it to the ground. You then get participants to put the features that they’d like to see advertised on the balloon. Participants write these down on post-it notes and they are stuck on the balloon. Clearly if all these features were all written across the balloon they would not all fit if sized so they could be read when the balloon flies in the sky. So just like in Formula One where a logo on side of the car will be larger (and more valuable) than the advertisment on the back of the drivers helmet, you then identify those features that must be visible from the ground (high priority) and those that may only be seen on the ground (low priority). That’s the first part of the exercise. The second part is to get participants (again using the post-it notes) to imagine the ropes are project constraints that will stop the baloon flying. In the space of 40 minutes if all goes well you will have driven out the top-of-mind features the participants want the project to deliver (and priortised them) and identifed the top-of-mind risks and issues that particiapants have. And most importantly you should have everybody engaged; with any luck a bit of laughter will be heard on the way. And that can’t be a bad thing in a corporate meeting room.

I could’ve told you that…

Sometimes you have to wonder about academics in their ivory towers of research.  At the Ergonomics Society Conference a paper was presented on a usability evaluation of MP3 players and virtual jukeboxes.  The researchers used “reparatory grid analysis”, a pretty cool technique that got subjects to create their own “constructs” by which evaluations were made.  I’m not knocking their work – it was a good peice of research,  what I do question is it’s worth.  The research took several months and signficant effort to complete.  And thier conclusions?  Of the dozen or so products evaluated the iPod and iTunes were top of the class in usability.  I could’ve told you that after a couple of hours playing with all the devices (backed up by “heursitcs” if you want a veil of research rigor behind the results).  But accademics don’t do the pragmatic.  They need validity and relaibility.  Business needs results fast that sometimes only pragmatism and a healthy disregard of scientific method gives.

Forget accessibility, think inclusivity

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Ergonomics Society Annual Conference where I presented a paper on Agile User Centred development. One of the themes of the conference was inclusive design. I think this is a concept that should gain greater prominence in software / web design.

We talk a lot about “accessibility”, and this to most organisations generally means adhering to W3C guidelines. It is driven from a fear of the Disability Discrimination Act. Yet from a business perspective there is not much of a business case for this stuff. And from a design perspective it can be a pain in the proverbial. -Being told that you can’t do all that 2.0 stuff because it relies on JavaScript (and therefore isn’t DDA compliant) stifles creativity and is guaranteed to annoy fired up developers.-

So here is where inclusive design makes things exciting. Forget about accessibility and think inclusivity and suddenly your perspective changes. You stop thinking solely about “disabled” users and broaden your horizons to a much wider audience of users. From the age of 40 the functional capability of the eye rapidly decreases; 25% of over 55s have reduced overall sensory / motor / cognitive capability which includes a declining memory. (Check out the work of Roger Coleman at The Helen Hamlyn Research Centre for more on this and inclusive design as a whole). Assumptions of what the younger population find easy in usability tests may not be valid for the over 60s.

Include the aging population into your design considerations and suddenly “accessibility” becomes “inclusivity”, a more compelling business case grows and new design decisions can be made. The “silver surfers” are generally considered to be time rich and cash rich. They are a segment unto themselves. So rather than trying to shoehorn “accessibility” into the design with the final design being compromised, isn’t it better to be inclusive and design for the needs of this different segment.

When a supermarket rolls out its in-town “metro” store format, they are not trying to shoehorn the “superstore” format into it. They design according to the needs of the task, customer and environment. Good interaction design considers these three things, but how often to we overlay “constraints” onto this holy trinity? We create personas, but how often to we create a 65 year old persona with myopia and reduced dextrous ability?

Talking of supermarkets, Tesco do inclusivity well with their website. Their retail website may not be DDA compliant, but they have an accessible alternative; a web format for the different segment. They offer a lightweight version of their site that is inclusive. And by the way, it is also muli-device compliant.

So let’s forget about making DDA compliant web sites, let’s forget about accessibility compromising the design. Let us offer compelling alternatives to the commonly excluded population, let us be inclusive rather than trying to satisfying everybody and delighting nobody.

There’s a leak in our pipework

Grrrrrr.  Drip drip drip.  Water dripping through the kitchen ceiling.  So I rush upstairs, pull back the carpet, rip up the floorboards and hunt the leaking pipe.  …to no avail.  I locate a stream of warm water, trouble is it’s not coming from a pipe, it’s pouring down the inside of a partition wall and there’s not a pipe around.  So the only way to find it will be to knock out the wall and hope there’s a pipe somewhere behind.  Quick call to the insurance company – I’m covered for the search and find, but not the plumbing.  Grrrr.  If this house was software it would be a pizza house.  Everything is so tightly connected, you can’t just pull something out – it’ll pull allsorts out with it.  Better start again.   But in software you don’t have insurance for the mistakes that some  foolish previous owner made.

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