Strategies for early-stage design: Observations of a design guinea pig

Where do you start when you’re approaching a complex software design problem? If you work on a large development team, you know that software engineers and UX designers will often approach the same design problem from radically different perspectives. The term “software design” itself can mean very different things to software architects, system programmers, and user experience designers. Software engineers typically focus on the architectural patterns and programmatic algorithms required to get the system working, while UX designers often start from the goals and needs of the users.

In the spring of 2009, I participated in a research study that looked at the ways in which professional software designers approach complex design problems. The research study, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, was led by researchers from the Department of Infomatics at the University of California, Irvine. The researchers traveled to multiple software companies, trying to better understand how professional software designers collaborate on complex problems. At each company, they asked to observe two software designers in a design session. At my company, AmberPoint, where I worked at the time as an interaction designer, I was paired with my colleague Ania Dilmaghani, the programming lead of the UI development team. In a conference room with a whiteboard, the researchers set up a video camera, and handed us a design prompt describing the requirements for a traffic control simulation system for undergraduate civil engineering students. We were allotted two hours to design both the user interaction and the code structure for the system.

Jim-and-Ania-at-the-whiteboard.jpgJim Dibble and Ania Dilmaghani at the whiteboard in their research design session

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The sCoop: January 1-13, 2012

At the start of the new year, we’re looking to discover how we can grow and improve as designers. .net Magazine proposes some interesting new year’s resolutions for designers. To this list, we’ve add a few of our own:

Inspired by the Dieter Rams exhibit at SF MOMA, Kim Appelquist resolves to foster relevant design and a heightened awareness of symbiotic coordination.
less_more_rams_SK4.jpgDieter Rams, Braun phonosuper (SK 4), 1956; design: Hans Gugelot and Dieter Rams, photo: Koichi Okuwaki

Chris Noessel resolves to empathize even more with users, such as trying out a tool for better understanding the needs of the elderly by wearing a suit that makes you feel 75 years old.

Peter Duyan resolves to look beyond standard interface paradigms, to possibilities such as multitouch on any surface with a contact microphone.

And we all resolve to extend our impact as designers, whether it’s through conveying the value of designers who code, or being the new secret weapon for start-ups.

And as January gets underway, we’re happy to share the release of our most recent work with Thomson Reuters on their new mobile newsreader app for the iPad. Thomson Reuters provides real-time news and information to financial professionals around the world. Cooper designed an iPad app that facilitates the creation of a list of news topics, companies, trends, people, or ideas that interest them, and then populates these with relevant market data and up-to-the-minute analysis. The first version of this app is now available in the iTunes store for Thomson Reuters subscribers.

Here’s to great design in 2012!

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We The People 2.0

Have you ever used a public service that understood your needs? We all have horror stories of waiting in seemingly endless lines at the DMV or hunting forever to find the information we need on poorly designed city websites. Who is making sure that government uses effective design and technology to meet the needs of citizens in the 21st century?

Introducing Code for America

Code for America is a brand new non-profit that is taking on this challenge. And part of the challenge is understanding the target users of the technology. To help in that effort, Suzy Thompson and I taught a day-long workshop on Research for UX Design to the fellows at Code for America.

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Code for America signage at their offices in San Francisco, autographed by the 2011 fellows

Code for America helps local city governments leverage the power of the web to become more efficient, transparent, and participatory. Built on a model similar to Teach for America, CfA encourages developers and designers to apply for a year-long fellowship, during which they will create open-source technology solutions for city governments. Out of over 300 applicants, CfA chose 20 fellows for their inaugural year, from a wide variety of backgrounds including Web 2.0 startup entrepreneurs, developers for local city governments and school districts, open source contributors, a researcher for the New York Times, a digital journalist, an intellectual property lawyer/programmer, and a museum exhibit designer.

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Code for America 2011 fellows (image used by permission from Code for America)

Code for America Institute

The fellows are spending the month of January in San Francisco at the Code for America Institute, learning from guest speakers about a wide variety of topics, including treating government as a platform (Tim O’Reilly), building local communities (Danielle Morrill), being a change agent and nurturing social network communities (Caterina Fake), and taking an entrepreneurial view of their city projects (Eric Ries).

Host City Projects

Each of the fellows is assigned to one of four city teams, each with a target project:

Boston An educational services platform that allows the city to track the effectiveness of academic and after-school programs, and allows developers to create apps for student learning outside of school.
Philadelphia A platform for using social network media to help citizens organize, and to connect government leaders with neighborhood civic leaders.
Seattle A platform for using social network media to help citizens network and contribute to public safety programs. Also helps city leaders to quickly locate and organize neighborhood leaders.
Washington, DC Civic Commons: a platform for municipalities to share custom-built technology solutions, so cities can leverage their development investments and avoid reinventing the wheel.

The fellows will spend the month of February in their host cities, learning about the IT infrastructure and interviewing city stakeholders and users of their system. They will return to San Francisco in March to design and develop the open-source applications. They will present and hand-off the applications to their host cities in the fall.

Cooper Training

Because Cooper has extensive experience connecting user research to product design, Code for America asked us to come in and present a one-day workshop. From our courses on interaction design and design communication, we carved out a day’s worth of materials on finding stakeholders and users, preparing an interview instrument, conducting interviews, debriefing interviews, and synthesizing and presenting research findings. We also gave them a look-ahead to personas, scenarios, and framework design.

The fellows got a chance to plan an interview instrument and conduct a 45-minute interview with members of the CfA staff. Conducting good ethnographic interviews takes practice — I think the fellows came out of our workshop with a sense of confidence in talking to their city stakeholders and application users in February. I look forward to hearing about what they learn about their users, and to helping them create personas and scenarios from their findings. And I can’t wait to see the amazing applications that result from their work.

Great Government Research and Design

A question to our readers: Where have you seen user experience design principles applied to government applications or services, to achieve an amazing outcome? At Cooper, we’re currently working on a project with CalSTRS (California State Teachers’ Retirement System), and in the past have done pro bono work with the SF Department of Health. I have also read about fellow Cooperista Renna Al-Yassini’s service design work for the Roudha Center in Qatar. What user experience design work in the government or social service sectors has impressed or inspired you?

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