Monday, December 19, 2011

Making Representations Matter - thesis published

The final version of my doctoral thesis has now been published online in the Open Research Online repository: Making Representations Matter: Understanding Practitioner Experience in Participatory Sensemaking.

Comments welcome here.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

R. I. P. Steve Jobs

The first 'PC' I had any real exposure to was a Mac in 1984. I was a film and video person with little computing background (one intro to programming class, in Pascal). The Mac made perfect sense to me -- moving pictures of documents and folders around on a desktop, drawing things, painting things. When I later saw what most computers were used for, and what their UIs were like (this is the mid-1980s), I was dumbstruck. Text and numbers on black or green backgrounds, arcane text commands, etc.

I started working in IT not much later and pushed every project I worked on (even terminal-based applications for beverage manufacturing and the like) in the direction of the "right" paradigm -- what I learned about what computing could and should be, from the Mac. Even today, when we've moved from the Iron Age to the Iphone Age, I still find myself thinking about UIs with the 1984 Mac OS as my reference point.

R.I.P. Steve.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Transparency in design

I want user interfaces, and for that matter all representational artifacts intended to help people do or make sense of something, to be clear and transparent. When it comes to design, this is the ethic that possesses me. One should not need pre-existing specialist (arcane) knowledge to make sense of a UI, or at least the need for such knowledge should be minimal, and not require knowledge of arcane aspects of the UI itself.

This is an endemic problem for enterprise UIs since they are so often built on previous legacy systems. Veterans of the older systems know the terms, functions, and acronyms so well that they become "natural" -- but they're not. The effects of these kinds of preconceptions are something I constantly work to alleviate when designing new or replacement systems. Knowing what the business purpose itself is (for example, selling and servicing telecommunications products for residential and small business customers), and understanding the business itself, and the customers, should be the only prerequisite knowledge for using the new system, rather than “just having to know” how things have been done and what things have been called and abbreviated and acronymed in the previous generations of systems.

Having said that, achieving effective transparency, like all design in the real world, is a balancing act. You don't want to clutter up the UI with too much explanation and exposition, and you want to enable experienced and expert users to move rapidly though their tasks. It comes back to practitioner skill: knowing the right trade-offs to make.

When I glance at position descriptions for user experience professionals, they often seem to miss the point (which is probably inevitable when you are throwing descriptions out to the masses). They list discrete skills (personas, wireframes, HTML 5, Flex, etc.) as if having such skills are what add up to an effective UX designer. But what really matters most is having the ability to understand user needs as well as business or organizational imperatives and technical capacities and constraints, among other factors, all of which require both listening and "speaking" skills in addition to “design” skills.

You need to understand what people (including developers, clients, executives, as well as end users) need and can do, and you need to be able to synthesize these, come up with design approaches, and advocate (sometimes passionately) for the integrity and value of your design given those needs, capacities, and constraints. Any specific skill or technical ability is secondary to these constraints (and a good UX professional should be able to quickly learn any new technique or tool in any case).

Often a first design proposal will not be the perfect solution (however perfect it may be in your own mind, or in the abstract), but it helps shake loose the thinking and creativity of the people you're working with and for, and the dialogue that follows from considering a well-crafted design gives the best clues for how to evolve the design in the best possible direction given all the constraints and sometimes conflicting needs and desires. Listening, making, and speaking are the lather, rinse, and repeat of user experience design. You have to be able to do them all.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Slides and video from the 8 June KMI webcast

I gave a talk at KMi on 8 June, summarizing the research that led to the thesis (I had passed the defense a day earlier; watch this space for updates on thesis revisions).

Here is a link to the video from the webcast. The slides are below.

View more presentations from alselvin

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thesis title, abstract, and cover art

Update 23 April
Submitted versions: thesis, abstract.
Final version after 7 Jun w/corrections & acknowledgements.

I've recently completed a draft of my PhD thesis, which I'll be revising over the next few weeks for final submission. Here are the working title, cover art*, and abstract.

Making Representations Matter: Practitioner Experience in Participatory Sensemaking
Albert M. Selvin
Knowledge Media Institute, Open University

This thesis develops and applies a method to analyze, characterize, and compare instances of participatory representational practice in such a way as to highlight experiential aspects such as aesthetics, narrative, improvisation, sensemaking, and ethics. It extends taxonomies of such practices found in related research, and contributes to a critique of functionalist or techno-rationalist approaches to studying professional practice. Appropriating new technologies in order to foster collaboration and participatory engagement is a focus for many fields, but there is relatively little research on the experience of practitioners who do so. The role of technology-use mediators is to help make such technologies amenable and of value to the people who interact with them and each other. When the nature of the technology is to provide textual and visual representations of ideas and discussions, issues of form and shaping arise. This thesis examines how practitioners make participatory visual representations (pictures, diagrams, knowledge maps) coherent, engaging and useful. It studies how fourteen practitioners using a visual hypermedia tool engaged participants with the hypermedia representations, and the ways they made the representations matter to the participants. It focuses on the sensemaking challenges that the practitioners encountered in their sessions, and on the ways that the form they gave the visual representations (aesthetics) related to the service they were trying to provide to their participants. Qualitative research methods such as grounded theory are employed to analyze video recordings of the participatory representational sessions. Through three iterative cycles, analytical tools were developed to provide a multi-perspective view on each session, followed by comparative analysis that also incorporates responses to an informant questionnaire. Conceptual and normative frameworks for understanding the practitioner experience in participatory representational practice in context, especially in terms of aesthetics, ethics, narrative, sensemaking, and improvisation, are proposed. The thesis places these concerns in context of other kinds of facilitative and mediation practices as well as research on reflective practice, aesthetic experience, critical HCI, and participatory design. The thesis concludes by describing areas for future work with special attention to adapting the dimensions and framework for practitioner self- and peer assessment, including discussion of two preliminary proof of concept such sessions held with practitioners and researchers.

* Thanks to Harriett Cornish at the Knowledge Media Institute for the artwork.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Using Compendium for research (video)

This video contains a brief overview of how I've used Compendium as both an analysis and a presentation tool as I've worked through the latter stages of my phd research.

Click here to play the video

(Note: Your browser window may need to be maximized to see all of the video. If the sides are cut off, please enlarge the window).

For more details and examples on the comparative analysis portion, see my Analysis Artifacts page.