Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stanford, Startups, and Meetups

A lot has happened since I started this blog!  I started taking a free Human-Computer Interaction class online through Stanford.  I am in Week 3 of the five week course and so far I think it's really great.  I'm learning a ton on many subjects: the history of HCI, research methods, prototyping (low fidelity vs. high fidelity), needfinding, and mental models.  My favorite subject that I've been learning about is paper prototyping.  Basically it's arts and crafts time.  You can get creative and use a wide array of materials like paper, cardboard, transparencies, poster board, tape, glue, sharpies, index cards, and so much more.  In my spare time, I do screen printing and cross-stitching, so this process really appeals to me.  In case anyone was wondering, the bicycle background of this blog is actually a cross-stitch pattern I am working on.  You can create a paper prototype of practically anything whether it be a website, iPhone app, console, etc.  Another fun thing is that you can cut out the widgets and during user testing, as participants "press the buttons," you can place the correct widget (like a pull-down menu) on the prototype.  Paper prototyping is a great way to invest a small amount of time and money and start getting feedback.  It's good to use early in the design process.  If your prototype is in paper format, it is still very easily changeable.  I'm excited to start paper prototyping the UI for an iPhone game I'm working on.  This is a great way for me to communicate ideas to the rest of the team and think out what needs to be included in the design.

I opted to do the "Apprentice Track" of the course where I do not turn in homework, but instead only take the quizzes.  The reason I don't want to do the homework is that I have some real-world projects I can apply what I'm learning to, so I don't want to spend the time on homework.  Which leads me into the real-world stuff I'm working on...

I have started working part-time at a startup called as a User Researcher.  Yay!  I plan on doing this over the Summer (at least) so that I can learn as much as I can and gain experience.  It's been about 2 weeks and I'm already learning so much.  I've worked on writing a script for a semi-structured interview and I've also helped design and implement a card sorting task.  Card sorting is basically what it sounds like.  It's a technique that's used to uncover how people organize information and how they categorize and relate concepts.  Card sorting tasks include giving a participant cards with information on them.  The participant is then given instructions to organize those cards.  This could be in a way the participant decides, or the participant could be given guidance to place the cards into existing groups.  Or it could be mixed.  This is really good for figuring out how people organize information and it informs how designers will then organize information on a website, for instance.

Last, but not least, I went to another User Research meeting.  This time it was in the South Bay, hosted by one of the members who works at Google.  It was nice to see the Google campus in Mountain View (and eat dinner!).  It was once again a great night filled with warm, friendly, and passionate people.  A research method that I had not yet heard of was discussed, participatory design.  It is an iterative design process that uses focus groups to outline needs, task analysis to inform specifications, and user advisory boards to maintain user input throughout the development process.  And it sort of relates to the paper prototyping method I was talking about earlier.  The group talked about experience using participatory design and a couple of people shared tips:

  • Use black and white, crafty looking sketches, like wireframes, to give to the groups.  
  • Give the participants sharpies; make sure they keep away from small details. 
  • Have small groups work together drawing, moving widgets/pieces of a menu, and discussing what is working for them. 
  • Small groups come together as a bigger group.  
  • Use icebreaker questions before having people show/share their ideas.  
Someone also brought up participatory critique.  This is another method where you give participants a simple wireframe mockup and red and green highlighters.  They then critique the mockup with their highlighters and talk about what is working and what isn't.

Well, that's all for now.  Turns out that I have a lot to blog about and it looks like that won't be stopping anytime soon.

Monday, June 4, 2012

User Researcher Meetup #1 - Tools of the Trade

As I mentioned in the previous post, Beth invited me to a User Researcher group, and the next meeting just happened to be at her house!  This was a few weeks ago (I'm already behind on posting).  I brought vegan cupcakes, a bottle of wine, and my notebook.  I had a really great time at the meetup.  It was such a warm and inviting group of people - mostly women and one guy.  I truly appreciated the supportive atmosphere.  The goal of the group is to get together in an informal environment and talk about issues raised while doing research and also to get advice from your fellow researchers.  The first thing we did (after settling down from small talk and grabbing snacks/drinks) was go around the room and introduce ourselves.  Some people were from large companies, some freelancers, some from consulting agencies, and some from small startups.  It really was a great mix of researchers and it was interesting to hear how people got into research.  Many "fell into it" in some way from other fields like Marketing, Design, and Customer Service.  When it was my turn to say who I was, I was so happy that I was received so well!  People found the industry I was coming from  (jury consulting) fascinating and wanted to know more about it.  Since I'm not technically a User Researcher, I was grateful that I was immediately accepted and told that I'm on the right track already.  I also went ahead and took that opportunity to throw out that I would love to get some work experience (magic word, for FREE) if anyone knew of an opportunity.  One hand immediately shot up - more on that later.

We spoke about many different subjects during the meeting, including how researchers synthesize data.  One researcher had attended a workshop put on by Dana Chisnell (Dana's blog) and she talked about the method she learned.  At the workshop they performed an "affinity diagramming exercise" where the group:

1) Brainstormed on post-it notes
2) Grouped similar post-its together (stacked in a column, order doesn't matter)
3) Labeled each group with a different colored post-it with the theme heading
4) Voted (votes written directly on the theme headings), tallied up votes, and then prioritized each group

Before brainstorming, they made sure to have a clear focus question, grounded in observation and real data, not opinions.  Another very interesting part of the exercise was that there was no talking!  Everyone silently went to the wall and paired post-its together, and then found pairs that go together, and so on.  Then everyone silently voted on the different themes, which is how the prioritization was decided.  I think that's a good idea because without the talking, I'm sure things moved along more quickly and there was less influencing going on.  It sounded like a great workshop.  I'd be interested to attend one myself.

We also talked a bit about the favorite tools used by the researchers for different tasks.  One that I thought was really cool was the Live Scribe.  It's a pen that also records audio.  It also sort of makes notes on the audio with what you write...if that makes sense.  You write in a special notebook and let's say you're listening to a specific talk at a conference.  You write down the subject of the talk when it starts.  Later, to hear that audio from that talk, you simply tap with your pen on the title of the talk, which you wrote down in your special notebook.  It's linked to the time signature of the audio and will start playing what you were listening to when you wrote down whatever it is you wrote down.  That all sounds confusing.  Maybe you should just visit the website linked above.  The user experience with the pen is pretty interesting as well.  If you want to e-mail yourself your notes, you write "email" on your paper and then tap your pen on each page you want to send.  Every function you want to perform, you write/draw.  I could see this being extremely useful when interviewing a user though!   I want one.

The group spoke about different methods for videotaping users and remote user testing.  Here are the different methods discussed:

  • One of the researchers just uses his iPhone and puts it on a tripod.  He researches usability of a mobile app.  He has the iPhone set up close to the user so that the image is of the user holding the mobile device from her own vantage point.  
  • Hugging a laptop is another method for seeing what's happening on a mobile device.  The user turns the laptop's camera away from herself and "hugs it."  She then holds the mobile device  out in front of her so that the laptop camera records what she's doing.  
  • There's an app out there called Reflection, which mirrors what is happening on the screen of your iPhone, iPad, or Mac.  It's, as you may have guessed, only for Apple products right now.  Also, you don't see the gestures, just what is happening on the screen.  And you must be hooked up to wifi for it.  
  • ScreenFlow can be used for recording what is happening on a screen.  
  • For remote user testing, GoToMeeting, is an online meeting tool that can be used.
  • Another site good for user testing is a meeting tool where you can share your screen, Join.Me
It was a great night and chock-full of useful information!  Oh, and I did end up making an amazing contact that night.  I spoke to Andrea after the meeting - she is the designer at - and we talked about me helping out at Shoefitr!  But that's a whole other post.

I'll leave you with a picture of me hugging a laptop.
And here's the laptop taking a picture of me holding my iPhone, which is also taking a picture of me hugging my laptop.  So meta!