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Genealogists Can Share Ideas and Innovate

Thursday, 27 Dec 2007 | by Mark Tucker

The more we understand the design process, the better we can design genealogy software. In a previous post titled “More Design in the Genealogy Community”, we discussed the development process. In this post, we will look specifically at the Design Process that was represented as Phase 0. 

Development Process - Phase 0

Design is represented by a funnel showing that more ideas exist at the beginning of the phase than at the end. Much of this information can be found in “Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design” by Bill Buxton.

Genealogists as well as designers and developers must work together as part of the design process. In the early part of this process, it is important to generate as many ideas as possible. No idea should be held back as it might be a stepping stone to a much better idea. Ideas tend to generate more ideas. As the two-time Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, once said:

The best way to a good idea is to have lots of ideas.

The diagram indicates that no matter how many great ideas enter the funnel, there will be less at the end. Not all ideas survive.

On page 144 of “Sketching User Experiences”, a slightly different visualization by Paul Laseau is presented which shows two opposing funnels: one for idea generation and the other for idea reduction. My modification of the diagram is as follows:

Design Process Timeline

The process begins with a single idea or a few ideas. This leads to more ideas. Ideas are explored quickly and cheaply and can be discarded just as fast – easy come, easy go.

At some point choices need to be made and ideas need to be refined. After all, idea generation cannot carry on indefinitely. We must create something to ship. If we do this correctly, we won’t just have something we will have the right thing. Ideas are refined roughly at first and then with more granularity. More ideas might still surface but they are more fine tuning of existing ideas than radical new ones. More choices are made as we approach the final design. If you think of these two funnels superimposed, it’s not too difficult to visualize the single Design funnel represented as Phase 0.

To make this point a second time, designers, developers, and users (genealogists in our case) are involved in this process. Everyone’s ideas are important. Designers share their ideas and also guide the others through the process.

The subtitle of “Sketching User Experiences” is “getting the design right and the right design.” This process of working together to generate ideas and refine them into a final design is part of getting the “right design.” When this process is not followed or those who use the software are not involved, a design will result but quite possibly not one that will provide an effective, usable, and enjoyable experience.

This blog is a place where we can have a conversation about design and go through the process together.  I want to listen to your ideas.  All ideas are welcome as we are at the starting point of design.  We can change the world of genealogy software.  Innovation can happen.

In a future post, we will explore the technique of sketching and how it can be used to quickly capture and share ideas.

More Design in the Genealogy Community

Friday, 21 Dec 2007 | by Mark Tucker

… Continued from this previous post.

The previous post ended by asking a few questions.  One of these was: Do we really need designers anyway?

Bill Buxton would answer that we need designers. Just because we are able to add up our grocery bill doesn’t make us all mathematicians. There are principles and practices of design that must be learned and honed. I know that Carnegie Mellon University has an acclaimed Human-Computer Interaction Institute whose mission is to create effective, usable, enjoyable experiences with technology. Are graduates in this area finding their way into genealogy software development?

Both authors (Bill Buxton and Alan Cooper introduced in the previous post) share a similar view about design’s place before development with users contributing significantly to the process. Typically the development process is Design, Engineering, and then Sales. Design is shaped like a funnel to indicate that the number of ideas or concepts at the beginning of the phase is greater than those at the end. The arrows indicate involvement from the other teams in the design process. Bill also accounts for the need sometimes to do engineering (or in the case of software: programming) before design as an input into the design process:

Product Development Process

Let’s discuss the advanced Research and Development team for a minute.  What is it purpose?  Sometimes there are enough unknowns that you must do something first to determine what you do and don’t know.  The question might be if something is technically feasible. Or maybe we want to try out a concept some people who will actually use the product.  There are three main places that I have seen this:  Google Labs, Microsoft Research, and FamilySearch Labs. What is the purpose of all those free applications that Google develops?  One reason it to try out concepts and explore possibilities?  The same goes for Microsoft and I would propose it is the same for FamilySearch Labs.  Some projects that started in Phase -1 have later passed through the other phases to become a real product.

Take the recent example from FamilySearch Labs.  The Pedigree Viewer prototype has recently been incorporated into Genetree (which I wrote about in this post). This same viewer in combination with the Life Browser is now part of another FamilySearch Labs project, called Family Tree that can be used with the new FamilySearch.

It appears that some organizations in the genealogy software field understand the importance of design and are taking advantage of current principles and practices.  I hope many others will see it too.  It is my desire to encourage innovation in genealogy software.  We need better experiences with the software.  It needs to help us more.  These types of experiences must be designed.  Working together as genealogists and family historians, software developers, user experience designers, and management is the way to improvement.  We need to better connect as a community.  We must share ideas and knowledge.  We need to care.

Ideas. Design. Experience. Innovation.  Are these words also buzzing around in your head?

 

How Does the Genealogy Community View Design?

Friday, 21 Dec 2007 | by Mark Tucker

Ideas. Design. Experience. Innovation. It seems that those words are continually bouncing around in my head. I am fascinated by them. They motivate me. Sometimes they frustrate me.

Two books that I have been reading lately help bring order to the words swarming in my mind. These books are “Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design” by Bill Buxton and “About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design” by Alan Cooper, et al.

The first diagram in Chapter 1 of “About Face 3” shows the four evolutionary levels of the software development process:

 

Level 1

Software Development Process - Level 1

This first level is how many software companies start out. It’s the “two guys in the garage” scenario. The programmers see an opportunity or have an idea that is within their real of knowledge. They spend hours developing it and do some testing as they go along. When it is “good enough”, they ship it.

Level 2

Software Development Process - Level 2

The next level adds one or more managers that likely have knowledge of a particular market. It is their job to understand the opportunities and define software requirements which the programmers then build.

Level 3

Software Development Process - Level 3

As things progress, a more formalized Quality Assurance process is defined. When bugs are found, they are sent back to development to fix. When the application passes QA, then a Graphic Designer gives feedback on UI elements, icons, colors. But this design approach is more of an afterthought.

Level 4

Software Development Process - Level 4

The final level shows user input early in the process before development begins. Interaction Designers or User Experience Designers work with users to understand needs and goals. Programmers provide feedback to Designers as to technical feasibility. The design is provided to the programmers to build the software. Part of passing QA is meeting these design specs. Users play a key role at both ends of the development process.

In my career, I have seen these four levels. In thinking about the organizations that ship genealogy software, I wonder which level most closely matches where they are. I would be very interested in surveying all these organizations (even anonymously) to better understand the current state of genealogy software.

Over the last year, I have come across at least two organizations that have advertised job openings for Interaction Designers: MyFamily.com (part of The Generations Network) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If they are seeking Interaction Designers, does that mean they are practicing at level 4?

How are other genealogy software organizations doing? What are they doing about design? Do we really need designers anyway?

Continued on next post

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