Q&A Newsletter – 4/17

Alright everyone! These questions are awesome, and there were enough of them that I figured I would give you a little newsletter-styled message to respond to them. I can’t promise that I will always be able to write up this much, but we’ll experiment with it and see how it goes. Feel free to send me additions, comments, correction, or other content.

Question: Can I get another example of a mental model?

Of course! In fact, why don’t I give you a 2 page summary from the Universal Principals of Design. In this write-up, they use the example of antilock breaks, which require a radically different kind of user-interaction than normal breaks do. The next time you see a car smashed up on the 405, it might have been the result of bad interaction design.

Question: … Can I bother you more about your work at Microsoft Research?

Of course! I have actually done three internships at Microsoft Research (which is probably a bit overboard), and spent each one studying very different topics. You’ve already heard a little about my summer studying cloud services. During my other internships I studied how users use video communication differently in their personal and professional lives, and then how people adopt mobile “hook-up” apps (yes, you read that right), and why they leave.

Feel free to write me with any other questions on this front.

Question: Are we going to do any interactive design in class?

We will as we move further along in the course. Right now we are in the “investigate”/”user research” phase of the design process. Stay tuned for the “ideation” and “prototyping” phases!

Question: How do people create new mental models without being influenced by their knowledge of artifacts they are already familiar with? (Slightly reworded)

We approach our artifacts with expectations,  and develop our mental models progressively based on our interactions.

People understand and interact with systems and environments by comparing the outcomes of their mental models with the real-world systems and environments. When the outcomes correspond, a mental model is accurate and complete. When the outcomes do not correspond, the mental model is inaccurate or incomplete.

It is very rare that people would start interacting with an artifact with no expectations about that artifact. So rather than focus on if people are developing a mental model in isolation, as designers we try to anticipate when that pre-existing knowledge is present, if it is going to be a problem, and if/how we can leverage it.

A good example can be seen in Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone in 2007. He stood up on that stage, sporting that black turtleneck and declared that the device in his hand was “not a phone!” Even though it has the word “phone” right in its name, Jobs asserted that it was more. This device combined three key features — a phone, an iPod, and a browser. This assertion cleverly reframed the iPhone in two ways:

  1. It challenged people’s expectations of the iPhone as just being a phone, and arguable prepared them to be open to re-evaluating their expectations and mental models for this device. This would weaken the “remediation” effect of the old-not-smart-not-iPhone on users adopting the iPhone.
  2. It primed individuals to transfer mental models and expectations from other technology onto the iPhone — in this case, portable music and the web browser.

I do want to point out that mental models are not always identical to “expectations.” Take the example of the Henry Ford quote: People first learning about the automobile might have developed expectations about it based on their understanding of horses. “Oh, I use it to get to the city!” While the expectations of horses and cars might have been similar (although I am not a historian), I suspect there was a pretty large gap between mental models about a horse’s reigns and saddle and the models around a steering wheel and peddles.

I would also recommend a read of the  2 page summary from the Universal Principals of Design.

Question: How does an aspiring designer get his/her designs “out there”?

Hmm. This is a hard one. I mean, we have the internet, right? So getting them “out there” is not hard anymore. In this class, we are specficially focusing on getting designs “out there” where “out there” means out of your head and into reality.

Guessing here, but I think in your question you meant “out there and into people’s hands (or eyeballs).” This really depends on the kind of design. In my professional and industry experience, I have had major success in two ways:

  1. By creating a design/product/service that people really really want. Back in the day I ran a startup that ran a service that competed with Netflix (kind of, but for the sake of this answer, Netflix is good enough). People LOVE Netflix because people HATE going to Blockbuster. (Win!)
  2. By being part of a monopoly. Back in the day I was the head of user experience designer for the MCAT — yes, that test that your pre-med friends are stressing out about. My designs got out there, but mostly because if you didn’t use my system, you couldn’t take the MCAT and couldn’t go to medical school. (Win!)

These are extreems, of course.

For aspiring designers in this class, I would strongly encourage you to:

  1. Maintain an online portfolio
  2. Keep a record of EVERYTHING even if you don’t post it online
  3. Work with teams — it is rare these days that a single person can deploy something that has large impact — and learn from those teams. AppJams are great on this front.

Does anyone else have some recommendations? We can add them to the list.

Question: How do you like teaching this class this quarter?

I love it! Kinda cheesy, but I love teaching you guys about the things I am passionate about, and it is so interesting to me to see what you all are interested in, and what you find exciting. For example, I totally thought we were going to spend 2 seconds on mental models. Boy, was I wrong. Looks like you guys freaking love mental models.

It is important to me that you get experiences in this class that are extreemly theoretical and extreemly practical, but striking a balance between the two can be tricky. This is why the feedback on the cards is so important. I want to make things are not too cold, not too hot, but that are just right!

Question: What’s a good range of “methods” to employ during research?

This is a great question! Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer — it really depends. You could spend all your time doing user research, such that you never move on to ideation and prototyping. Likewise, you could spend all your time developing code, such that you never do any user research. Neither of these are ideal. For the scope of this course, you need to use three complimentary methods in your user research phase (see P1). In the real world, it is common to start with 2-3 methods at the beginning of your design cycle, but add additional methods as needed based on the result/barriers you encounter in subsequent ideation, prototyping and evaluation stages.

Question: For people talking about how they are currently feeling [self-report methods], several (distinctively) recent philosophers concluded or agree with the notions that a person’s mental state cannot be objectively judged. Therefore, can we really conclude that those results [that we get from self-report methods like “interviews”] are accurate and reliable? (Especially since their emotional state can be influenced by something other then what is tested.)

This is an awesome question if for no other reason than that PhD students in my lab have been making bets on which philosophers you are implicitly referencing here.

Warning, philosophy nerd speak: I am a pretty strict social constructivist, and tend to approach HCI as a network (Deluze, Galloway) of actors (Latour) in which all information is dependent on the subject position of the actor in the network. This perspective can be a little less sensitive to philosophical critiques around subject-object relationships, because objects are just another subject in the network. (Deep breath…)

Okay everyone, you can come back: In my work, “objectivity” as it is discussed in scientific terms is not achievable or even always desirable. Instead, what is important is to understand relationships between actors. For example, between a user and their answer, between me as a designer and my user, etc., etc.

In summary: Yes, self-reports on feelings are not objective. That doesn’t mean that they are not accurate. As for reliable, that depends. For example, I am somewhat involved in a mobile app project for young adults with depression. During visits with a psychiatrist, these patients are asked for how their medication has been working for them over the last X-months. The problem is that the medication changes how they perceive the world. Not very accurate. To address this, we have deployed a “self-report” tool that asks them to assess their mood every day or so. Perfectly accurate? Not really. Better than relying on memory and reflecting on the previous month? Absolutely.

Question: Generally, what is a good amount of time to participate in ethnographic observation?

Anthropologist typically move to a foriegn country and spend a year living there when conducting their ethnographic data collection. You don’t have to do that. So for this course? Less than 10 weeks.

Seriously, it depends. With any method, you will have to strike a balance between the time you have, and the information you need. . All methods “lose resolution” at some point. If you do a survey and get a million responses, does one more really matter?

With qualitative methods, we often talk about “data saturation.” This is the point at which you don’t feel like you are witnessing anything new. This is a good time to stop, review your data, and see if you are done collecting for the moment, or need to change how you are collecting data. More about this in the days ahead!

Question: Which is more important: Quantity or quality of observations?

As always, it is a balance and it depends. We will go into more detail about how to conduct observations next week. See the answer to the previous question for more details (and snark).

Question: Is “bias” related to the reason why positive deviancy often works?

For those who are unfamiliar, you can learn about positive deviancy here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_Deviance

I have invented a number of ways to connect these two things, but they are pretty crazy. When I was talking about bias in class I was probably talking about scientific bias, either in the collection or evaluation of your bias. “Bias” in this sense generally refers to contaminating your data or results.

Question: Who is “Paul” that you keep referencing during lecture?

LOL!! Sorry about that. Paul Dourish is here. He is a professor in the Informatics department, and arguably the world’s expert on ethnographic methods in HCI. He is very smart, sometimes a bit intimidating, but really a nice guy. He has a bit of a reputation for writing critiques of HCI that can sometimes be hard to hear. The most famous one is probably “Implications for Design.” I debated having you guys read a chapter he wrote in a not-yet-published book that gives a nice overview of ethnography and HCI, but it was more theoretical than practical, so I went with something else. Feel free to ask me for a copy though if you want it.

Question: Does an artifact view[/perspective] have to deal with software, or can it be about hardware as well?

Yes, absolutely! It can (and should!) be about both.

Question: (Related to A2) What is the difference between a novice and a beginner?

No difference.

Question: Can you go more in-depth about the “generalization” topic?

Yup, but let’s do this in class. Great question.

Question/Comment: The method diagram was really interesting, but I don’t really understand how ethnographies are on the statistical side.

Nice catch! We’ll see that slide again tomorrow. It was actually “video ethnography” that was on the statistical side, which is a specific type of ethnographic work. You can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_ethnography

It was up in that corner because they were thinking of things a bit more akin to what Grinter was doing in the museum piece we’ll be discussing tomorrow. For the moment, think of it as “video-based observations.”

Question/Comment: I liked the reference to ethnography as an anthropological process/technique, but you could have emphasized that ethnography (at least these days) stresses participant observation — learning about the reasons behind and experiences within doing a task. It’s a difficult but rewarding trechnique for people trying to study a group that’s either opaque or very “foreign.” Obviously a lot more to say about this, but [note card].

Wow! You are so right. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Everybody — what he said. As we step into ethnography, please take me to task if I don’t emphasize this sufficiently. This is a really important point.


Oh, and Pablo wins the “best design” award for his attendance card today. (I’ll post if he gives me permission.)