Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mmm... Donuts

Amy Hoy has a great little blog called Slash7. I highly recommend it. She recently reposted an old article "The Ape and the Donut Eater" about interaction design and how good humans are at abstract learning about things like ordering donuts at a donut shop, or opening doors (there are a lot of different kinds of doors).

I started to write a short comment but to paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn't have time to write a short comment so I wrote a long one. One that I want to expand upon here...

The gist of her post is that there are all kinds of things that after we have learned to do them seems super simple. But if you're approaching them for the first time they seem confusing or complex. The techniques for dealing with these things are what get us through the day. Those learned techniques allow for a level of interaction with complex technology (like doors or computers , and if you don't believe me about doors just read her article).

This line of thought got me to thinking. For interaction design I wonder if things can't be split into two broad categories. I don't really know how to label them but let's try...

  1. Has cultural support desk
  2. Has no cultural support desk

Her donut shop example is a good one:

When you think about it, ordering doughnuts is a technique we all know, and if you didn't know, it might be kind of difficult to start. You have to know that doughnuts are generally sold in dozens and half-dozens (otherwise, you pay out the nose), and that when you say "I'd like a dozen doughnuts, please," the person working behind the counter will grab a box, some tissues, and then stand there, waiting for your instructions.

- Amy Hoy, Slash7

In North America there is a culture of how to order at a donut shop. You can watch other people placing their orders and at least attempt to infer what it is you're supposed to be doing. That's a case of there being a culture there to support the new "user".

Suppose that there was no culture of ordering at a donut shop. Then you couldn't even watch the actions of other customers because they don't know what to do either. There's no cultural support desk.

Software, particularly really new software has this problem in spades.

While designing the interface for LiquidPlanner (the product I'm currently working on) we ran into this problem. We needed to show uncertainty in the time it takes to complete a task. Like most problems we could break it down and most of the pieces had parallels that folks would just "get" (i.e. there is cultural support for them). But there wasn't anything out there doing this, so there isn't "some guy down the hall" who knows what the do-dads on the chart mean and can explain it to you when you get confused.

This is the point where I think real interaction designers shine. The good ones out there are worth their weight in proverbial gold because they make the user feel smart with designs that play to your preconceptions rather than fighting against them.

They are also good at dropping little nuggets of information along the way without getting all "RTFM" on you.

Speaking of which... have you noticed that when posting comments on blogs (or forums or...) that folks seldom tell you which markup language to use? Is HTML allowed? Which tags? RedCloth? LefthandedReversePolishPolyMarkDown?

I run into this all the time when commenting. A simple link to a reference and a preview would make me so much more likely to comment since I'd worry less about looking stupid (I still may sound stupid however). Blogger (the site this blog is hosted upon at the time of this writing) is a good example. They give a happy little "these tags are allowed" and a nifty preview button.

Anyway, time to get back to rehearsing my 6 minute DEMO demo. Did I mention that we're going to DEMO?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

We're going to DEMO!

So it is now somewhat public that LiquidPlanner has been chosen to debut at the DEMO conference! See, it says so right here on our home page. This is at once exciting and terrifying. I'm gonna have to give a five minute talk about what the heck our product does and try not to make an ass of myself, my CEO, or our product.

The biggest issue so far has been getting time to rehearse. We know we need to rehearse but there just doesn't seem to be any urgency around it. I mean, we all feel like it is urgent, but we never seem to actually rehearse.

In case you were wondering if you really need to rehearse a 5-6 minute talk that much, I'd like to point out that our company is spending thousands of dollars (as in "tens of") to send us down there to make a good impression. While the talk isn't the whole thing, it sure feels important.

And let me tell you, five minutes isn't very friggen long to describe a revolutionary new way to plan and manage projects.

That coupled with the fact that we're still putting the finishing touches on the product and just switched over to running on our shiny new production hardware (thanks to our god of operations, Brett) and running a beta program and are going to analysts briefings and are doing press interviews and are doing demos for investors (or potential investors) and you've got some very busy boys and girls.

So now we've just got to stay calm and... yeah... calm... right.

We'll see you at DEMO if you're there. I'll buy you beer if you meet me down in Palm Springs/Palm Desert anytime from January 27-30. Drop me a line if you have my email or find it on the LiquidPlanner site (hint... it's here). You can alternatively comment on this blog and I'll mock you... er... meet up with you down there.

See you in the desert!