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User Experience Track at MIX08 Conference

Monday, 24 Mar 2008 | by Mark Tucker

Although not specific to genealogy, these video presentations on User Experience (UX) from the recent MIX08 conference should be of interest to the Genealogy Software Community:

 From the MIX site, here is a description of what the conference is all about:

On the frontiers of the Web, boundaries are blurring—developers and designers, advertisers and publishers, software and services, media and technology, TV and PCs, PCs and mobile devices, producers and consumers. The old order is getting a little MIXed up.

MIX is an ongoing conversation between web designers, developers, and business decision makers. We showcase topics and solutions that bridge Microsoft and non-Microsoft perspectives, and emphasize the inclusive and participatory nature of the next web.

The topic of User Experience needs to be better understood not only by those who create genealogy software (designers, developers, managers), but also by those who use the software (genealogists, family historians).  These two groups together form the Genealogy Software Community.  In an effort to raise awareness and encourage dialog, I will continue to post any UX-related content that I find.

Sketching Quickly Communicates Ideas

Monday, 21 Jan 2008 | by Mark Tucker

When I think of “sketching” (or the process of communicating design ideas), I think of Leonardo da Vinci and his invention drawings. Although not the first known examples, they might be the most well know.

 Leonardo da Vinci sketch

The British Library contains a digital representation of a Leonardo notebook in its online gallery called Turning the Pages. An interesting note is that the only major scientific work of Leonardo’s in private hands, the Codex Leicester, is owned by Bill Gates.

In Bill Buxton’s book “Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design,” he defines the following attributes of sketches (pages 111-112):

  • Quick – A sketch is quick to make, or at least gives that impression.
  • Timely – A sketch can be provided when needed.
  • Inexpensive – A sketch is cheap. Cost must not inhibit the ability to explore a concept, especially early in the design process.
  • Disposable – If you can’t afford to throw it away when done, it is probably not a sketch. The investment with a sketch is in the concept, not the execution. By the way, this doesn’t mean that they have no value, or that you always dispose of them. Rather, their value largely depends on their disposability.
  • Plentiful – Sketches tend not to exist in isolation. Their meaning or relevance is generally in the context of a collection or series, not as an isolated rendering.
  • Clear vocabulary – The style in which a sketch is rendered follows certain conventions that distinguish it from other types of renderings. The style, or form, signals that it is a sketch. The way that lines extend through endpoints is an example of such a convention or, or style.
  • Distinct gesture – There is fluidity to sketches that gives them a sense of openness and freedom. They are not tight and precise, in the sense that an engineering drawing would be, for example.
  • Minimal detail – Include only what is required to render the intended purpose or concept. Superfluous detail is almost always distracting, at best, no matter how attractive or well rendered. Going beyond “good enough” is a negative, not a positive.
  • Appropriate degree of refinement – By its resolution or style, a sketch should not suggest a level of refinement beyond that of the project being depicted.
  • Suggest and explore rather than confirm – Sketches don’t “tell,” they “suggest.” Their value lies not in the artifact of the sketch itself, but in its ability to provide a catalyst to the desired and appropriate behaviors, conversations, and interactions.
  • Ambiguity – Sketches are intentionally ambiguous, and much of their value derives from their being able to be interpreted in different ways, and new relationships seen within them, even by the person who drew them.

To summarize, a sketch is a quick way to generate and share many ideas in such a way that the ideas can generate more ideas. Often a sketch is in the form of a drawing, but the purpose more than the medium determines if it is a sketch.

The Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) group at Stanford University tackled the issue of speeding automobiles with a project that shows sketching to communicate ideas as well computer prototypes to show design.

In another post, we will apply the technique of sketching to a specific genealogy problem.

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

The Future of Genealogy Software is not “Hard to See”

Thursday, 29 Nov 2007 | by Mark Tucker

Many years ago I was (incorrectly) singing the words to the song, “Que, Sera, Sera” and my wife pointed out my humorous mistake.

Instead of singing:

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see

I sang:

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not hard to see

This personal joke has been used many times since then and has never failed to deliver a cheerful effect.

I think that the author and design leader, Bill Buxton, would agree that the “future’s not hard to see.” In his book, “Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design,” Bill stresses the importance of looking at least 5 years down the road when designing user experiences and adds:

Now most people say that you cannot predict the future, much less five years out. They use this as an excuse for not making the effort, or even contemplating it. I believe that this reflects a lack of training, technique, or responsibility on the part of design or management. (page 209)

He then goes on to quote William Gibson from an NPR interview on 30 November 1999:

… the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.

Buxton gives two examples. The first computer mouse was built in 1964 but didn’t reach widespread use until about 1995 – 30 years later. The idea for the CD came around 1965 but it wasn’t until 25 years later in 1990 that the industry reached $1 billion. From idea, to design, to prototype, to first production, to ubiquity takes time.

Bill then makes this statement that I would like us to consider:

If history is any indication, we should assume that any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already 10 years old. (page 215)

Innovation Future Timeline

 This made me wonder if this could be applied to genealogy software. What has happened over the last 10 years that could affect the design and innovation of genealogy software over the next 10 years?

At first nothing came to mind, but then I thought of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book, “Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian” which was published in 1997. In 2007, the much expanded “Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace” was released. We are now beginning to see specific examples of Elizabeth’s work showing up in genealogy software. In a podcast interview by Dick Eastman, Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens indicated that the software Clooz version 2.x was influenced by handouts she received from Elizabeth Shown Mills. Another example is from a podcast by DearMYRTLE where she interviews Geoff Rasmussen about Legacy version 7. In this interview, Geoff gives a sneak peek of one of the major new features which is source citation following the standard set by Elizabeth Shown Mills. There is still much work that needs to be done in this area such as online databases providing better source citations. I talk about this in my previous post about Jumping Curves. So you see, the future is not so hard to see.

Another area that I want to point out is the Genealogical Proof Standard which was also created in 1997 by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Other than its use in the certification process, you don’t hear much about it. But this standard is useful to researchers of all levels to help them get as close to the truth as possible. At some point genealogy software designers and developers will realize this and incorporate it into future genealogy software.

There are probably many more examples of ideas, technology, and methodology that exists today that will help us better see the future of genealogy software.

What things should be added to this list?

As a genealogy community, I hope we aren’t thinking:

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see

Share your thoughts as the future is ours to see.  I hope that is not hard to see.

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