Episode #6 What Has Brown Done For You? (Part 1)
Recorded August 23, 2006, this inaugural podcast discusses innovative design, the definition of usability, and the role of knowledge. In other words, simple topics to pass the time.
Present for this recording were DeWayne Purdy, Kyle Pero, Lyle Kantrovich, Rashmi Sinha, and Nate Bolt.
In our first podcast, the SpoolCast Crew convenes (virtually) to discuss a variety of topics:
- What can we learn from the new Brown University web site?
- What does it mean to be usable?
- Why is MySpace so successful?
- Which is better designed, the new Brown Web Site or Craigslist?
- How important is the design of a home page? (I think not so much. Everyone else disagrees.)
- The value of social networking
- The UPA Body of Knowledge project
- The design experience, as it applies to conference design
You can meet the crew here.
Lyle does a magnificent job, considering he was suffering from a multi-week installation of laryngitis. Apparently, these are the first words he's uttered to anyone in almost a month. (His wife still doesn't know he's gotten his voice back. Please don't tell her.)
Josh Porter couldn't join us for this inaugural episode, as he was in a secret government hospital having alien implants removed from a recent abduction.
[Editor’s Note: This is a transcript of the SpoolCast #1 recording. It has only been “mildly edited” at this point.]
Jared Spool: So, welcome to the first, and possibly only recording of SpoolCast, and I want to thank Nate for that excellent suggestion for a name.
Nate Bolt: It was Mike’s, yeah, it was Mike’s idea.
Jared: Oh cool. Who do we have here? We have DeWayne Purdy.
DeWayne Purdy: Hey.
Jared: Kyle Pero.
Kyle Pero: Hello.
Jared: Lyle Kantrovich.
Lyle Kantrovich: Hi everyone.
Jared: And Nate Bolt.
Jared: And Rashmi Sinha.
Rashmi Sinha: Hi everyone.
Jared: And Josh Porter was going to join us, but, apparently he is close to death, according to his wife, on, with some sort of feverish dementia that he’s suffering from.
DeWayne: He hasn’t been brewing his own beer again, has he?
DeWayne: Usually that can’t be fatal, just make you sick.
Jared: Yeah. I don’t know what he’s been up to. He went to Water Country last week. I’m wondering if he stepped into the wrong pool there or something. Apparently, his new little one has been under the weather too, I believe. So, apparently, it’s a family trait, to have this problem. Why don’t we go around the room, and have everybody briefly introduce themselves, and talk about what’s interesting to them, and we’ll find something to talk about. DeWayne, why don’t you go first.
DeWayne: Ok, for those that aren’t aware, I work at the University of Iowa. I work in marketing and PR here, but my main job is electronic communications, taking care of the university’s main website. Electronic communications, like e-newsletters. We use the Lyris email system to do newsletters. Do a number of web developments for a number of the departments on campus, as well as the main site. Although we are typically University in it, we have a lot of different web developers, doing a lot of different looking sites, although it’s getting better. One of the things, a couple of the things that interest me are, kind of, the different aspects of social networking on University sites. We keep an eye on Facebook, but by our observations and discussions with students, there’s not much inclination on our part to try and create our own Facebook community, because they’re so heavily invested in already in Facebook itself, that I don’t know how we would pry them away. Plus, there’s interactions that they can have with friends at other universities with Facebook, that they wouldn’t necessarily have if we created something, but how to take advantage of social networking in the university atmosphere. Another thing’s just come up, and I emailed Jared, I should maybe send the email to all of you, I kind of thought of where does innovation take place. Jared, you’ve talked about this a number of times, in different talks, where somebody throws a total, you have one client in particular that’s done a total redesign of their website, and sales went down.
Jared: Yeah, I’m not sure we can count that as innovation.
DeWayne: Well, I’m kind of going back to the Brown University website I sent you.
Jared: Right. Yeah, I saw that email.
DeWayne: And we talked a lot of the discussion, Brown University, and I will pull up the URL, and send it to all of you. Brown University is redoing their website, and they have quite a different design then they currently have. They’re catching a lot of flack for it. It’s in beta right now, public beta. They’re catching a lot of flack for it on campus, and getting different reactions from people in the web development community as well. Some of the discussion has been it’s quite different. It’s good that they’re trying something, and one person, from one university commented, “Well, ok, now they’re trying something, but we tried something a few years ago, too, and our admissions went down, and, you know, everything went down, you know, so we went back to doing things the same way everybody else does. the colleges and universities. Some kind of, but you know if we did, we’d change and evolve over time, then our websites would still look like they did back in 1996, and I really don’t want to go back to that. So, I guess we’re at that tipping point of, so, when do you go out on a limb and try something, versus the, you know, the weighing the consequences of, you know, what happens to your university and your inquiries or admissions go down, or your a e-commerce site sales go down. How do you, how do you judge how far to go?
Jared: Ok. That sounds good. We’ll come back to that. Why don’t we go to Nate. What are you doing?
Nate: All right. Well, the first thing that I’m interested in today is I just found out that SpoolCast is trademarked.
Jared: Is it really?
Nate: By Data Trade Conversion Services.
Jared: It has to be trademarked within a context.
Nate: It’s true.
Jared: The trademark has to have a likelihood of confusion. That’s the test of a trademark.
Nate: All right. That’s good. Glad to hear that.
Jared: Hell, I grew up with lawyers.
Nate: Let’s see. So, other than that, I’m out here in San Francisco, mostly do remote usability stuff, and remote ethnography to the extent that is possible. We’ve got a little small service company out here, and then we’ve also just started working on a product.
Nate: Bolt Peters.
Jared: There you go.
Nate: And we’ve just started working on an actual tool, called FDO, in the last couple of years, and let’s see. That’s the background. I think the other thing I’ve been interested in is how, I was just reading an article on how ‘Snakes on a Plane’ is the first movie that completely shot new scenes, rescripted and made major changes in the movie before it was ever released just based on internet feedback. I thought that was kind of interesting. That, sort of, like, intensely direct feedback with, sort of, users or moviegoers before the thing had ever been even seen by anybody.
Jared: Have you seen it?
Nate: We did. We went in D.C. to the premier, the midnight premier.
Jared: I saw it. I inadvertently saw it with my children.
Jared: My son went to the theater with five of his friends, only to find out that it was rated-r and the theater wasn’t going to let him in. He called me from his cell, and I had to go back, with the intentions of just buying their tickets and letting them go in, and the guy behind the counter said, “Well, you know, sir, you’ll have to go in with them.” So, I thought about it, and I really didn’t want to go, but I ended up going, and it was an enjoyable evening. I ended up getting 25 teenagers in that particular movie.
Jared: My son’s phone kept ringing, and he said can you help another four people get in?
Nate: Oh my god!
DeWayne: How much did you charge per kid?
Jared: You know I should of.
Jared: But, I got to tell you, if your going to see “Snake on a Plane”, seeing it with 25 sixteen year olds is probably the best way to see it.
Nate: Yes, I’d say that.
Jared: That’s very cool. Kyle Pero tells us about yourself and what you’re interested in.
Kyle: Ok. I am a company called Useable Interface, offering consulting services in usability and interface designs. I’m currently located in Philadelphia, where I’m the chair at SIGCHI. And SIGCHI is the Philadelphia chapter of the ACM SIGCHI. I’ve been in the UX industry for about six years. My background was originally in web development, but I quickly gravitated to the dark side of usability after the dot com bubble burst. I’d have to say that the main thing that I’m, probably, interested in now-a-days is, it changes very frequently, probably has to be, better way that graphic artists designers can work better together with user experience professionals. Basically, I’m really looking at collaboration methods tools, anything you’ve got, anything that’s out there. It’s something that, actually, our SIGCHI group is hooking up with the local AIGA chapter to work better together at. I really believe, it’s something that we can definitely work on, let the two camps get together and share their frustrations with each other. I know that when I get on to a new job, being a consultant, sometimes, I’m welcome with open arms from the design team, other times it’s your treading on my territory, and it’s meant with a lot of fear by us and worry. I think there’s a lot we can dispel, if we just learned more about each other and what we do. Respect what we do. Understand where our boundaries are and how we can help each other out. So, that’s probably the main thing that I’m interested in now.
Jared: Cool. Ok. Lyle, you up for this?
Lyle: Sure. I’ll give it a go. My voice isn’t 100 percent today, but it’s been like non-existent for like three weeks, and there’s a few moments of lucidity today, but we’ll give it a shot. I’m a project director with Human Projects International. We’re a consulting company that does human factors, usability and interface design work. Previously, led a user experience team in a large private company. Also, have a blog at www.crocolyle.com. That’s once in a blue moon, I’ll actual put something up in, and I’ve been very up with UPA, previously. Then, currently, I’m on the board of directors for UPA. So, that’s kind of my background. Right now, things that are interesting to me, I guess, something I’ve noticed lately, I’ve been, sort of, a long time to realize is, I think, companies are starting to realize that personalization on the web is failure. Unless you’re a major portal, personalization is usually overkill. So, we’re hearing, I think, less people who are launching portals, versus really talking about doing the personalization, and now they’re just talking about maybe the ability to do some light customization. Hopefully, they’ve given up the ghost on that. Also, I’m pretty interested in some of the things that UPA is doing with the usability body of knowledge, which is really an effort to codify, not so much codify, but document what we know as a field, and get it out there so people can share best practices and newcomers to the field can learn about how you do methods, and what methods are out there. You know, what roles are there in this field, those kind of things. So, I’m keeping an eye on that.
Jared: Ok, cool. Rashmi?
Rashmi: So, I’m Rashmi Sinha, and I’m based in Mountain View, California. I work for a small user research company called Uzanto and the word “uzanto” means “user” in Esperanto. It comes from a childhood fascination with Esperanto. We recently launched a product for doing remote user research called MindCanvas and the best way to describe MindCanvas is think online games meet online surveys. So that’s kind of what I do. Aside from that I, also, am Co-Program Chair for BayCHI and I spend some time like trying to line up speakers for that; I really enjoy that. In terms of what I am interested in currently, first I would look like to follow up on that problem with the website redesign thing. I actually went to Brown, got my Ph.D. there, so that’s fascinating.
Jared: That didn’t stop them from doing that.
Spool: You doing your Ph.D. there didn’t stop them from building it.
Rashmi: Yea. Imagine. (laughs).
DeWayne: I’ll send you from some of the message boards what they’re saying there.
Rashmi: Yea. I’m fascinated by what their reactions are. Another trend I’m really interested in the social sites and their popularity. One recent person who has become very popular in Europe is this seventy-nine year-old man from the UK, and he’s been boxing just about all his life. I think it just optimizes a lot of issues about people using research. People think, “Oh, you know, these are the nonsense type people, we have to cater to them”. To me, it’s something like a phenomenon like in Europe and the people who participate in it epitomizes that maybe our thinking is sometimes limited. I find that very fascinating the kind of people that participate and the extent of participating, and how to think about creating innovative services like that. That’s me.
Jared: Cool. For the two people on the planet that for some reason don’t know I’m Jared Spool. I run a small think-tank out here in the middle of North Andover Massachusetts. We’ve thinking of usability related stuff for eighteen years. Right now, I’m interested in a variety of things. One of the things that has interested me lately is I’ve got this sort of fascination with Google since I went out there to visit, I found it to be an absolutely surreal experience. I’m wondering what’s going to happen with that. I’m not sure I can see what’s up with them, if they’re anything more than one-trick ponies. That’s one thing of interest to me. I’m interested in lot of the other topics that we’ve been talking about so we can touch on some of those.
Jared: Why don’t we start by talking about the Brown site? For our audience at home the Brown site is http://brown.edu/home2 is this brand-new re-designed version of the Brown site. It’s an interesting thing. From what I’ve been able to piece together it was designed by the folks at Pentagram, which is a design firm that doesn’t do just online stuff. They do libraries, buildings, and things like that. So, they’re sort of this multi-talented very sort of high-end, a lot of people would refer to them to be one of the premier design firms out there. They’re a cache organization, and it’s interesting they’ve come up with this design which I guess it’s flash-based? It’s not flashed-based.
DeWayne: Actually, it’s Java.
Jared: It is Java. Yeah, the way I’m looking at it. Interesting sort of design that involves making things move. We actually had a virtual seminar a couple months ago on home page design, and a lot of the people on the seminar where university people. One of things we’ve sort of come to the conclusion of is that having lots of links on your home page, particularly university home pages, is a good thing, and trying to avoid short pages is a bad thing. That’s sort of the opinion we’ve come to. But, it’s not a widely-held opinion, a lot of people think pages get cluttered if you have a lot of links on them. So, I guess I would be interested in what other people thinking of this design,
Lyle: My first question is they may know the story behind how it was designed, we know who did it, but what was the process they used? How did they arrive at this and validate it?
DeWayne: From the best I can tell from monitoring the university web developer’s listserv, I’m not sure a lot of testing has gone into the site at this point. It was developed, as Jared said, by the company he mentioned, and it, as best as I can tell, hasn’t gone through a lot of usability testing, at this point, so…
Lyle: I guess usability testing is one thing, but, but, I’ll suggest even like grand perception is, is this huge amount of the color brown, which I would think is not a real happy color. So, if you are a new student looking for a college, how is that going to be engaging to you? What’s your brand perception of brown, before you even click on a link?
DeWayne: That’s one of the comments I’ve seen a lot of is the brown, which is probably the most disturbing aspect to me. We’re kind of following on this. The color theme, with universities, of course, is very big. There’s a University near us that orange is one of their signature colors and “Be Orange” is their mantra. Brown’s is “Boldly Brown.” And I’d guess you’d have to say that this is boldly brown, but there is a lot of reaction, adverse reaction to it. The color is one, the interface is another. The sliding windows confusing people, a lot of concern about that. Even concern, at least among the web developer community, about the heavy use of Java, and what happens if you have Java Script turned off?
Kyle: This is Kyle. I was just curious. Are these links going to the current website that currently exists? Is there a reason for the inconsistencies between the sub pages and home page navigation and all that?
DeWayne: I assume because it’s a beta at this point.
DeWayne: And they have some sub pages done and some not. The site is actually scheduled to go live right after Labor Day.
Jared: Well, one thing I was curious about too is, I think, Dewayne, you were mentioning earlier, like, when do you decide to take a bold risk.
Jared: You know, and what are the tradeoffs and that, and I was thinking, the larger the organization, the stake, you know, the bigger the stakes and the more, you know, infrequent these kind of risks are. And, I always like to see bigger organizations, whether it’s a foundation or a company or a whatever, take risks, even if it comes out as a failure, because nobody wants to do it. You know, there’s too much, when small companies take risks all the time, because there’s nothing to lose. But these big organizations, it seems like it’s always a feat to get somebody to try something new.
Lyle: I was just thinking it’s lucky their name is not Chartreuse University.
DeWayne: I just found a page on the site. Apparently, if you click on the “About Brown,” there’s a guy on a horse, and there’s a link that says “A new window into Brown.” And when you click on that, in the middle of the page, it says “nearly sixty departmental sites also have a new look and feel and updated content” named click on that link then. Apparently, like, Egyptology is completely redone but they’re not brown. Egyptology is this sort of sandstone background.
Lyle: Yeah sure. I just, I just think it’s an interesting color to welcome people with.
DeWayne: But didn’t UPS have a campaign, you know, what has brown done for you, or something like that?
Lyle: Yeah, but they, but they, you know they use a lot of brown, but it’s still a lot of brown and white.
DeWayne: Yeah. Their website has only a small amount of brown in it.
Kyle: There seems to a lacking of, like, a global navigation to link them all together, too. Like when you go to this sublevels, you know, how do you get back to the main brown and, and the, you know, the main hierarchy?
Jared: Welcome to the world of universities!
Jared: You know, university sites, from what I can tell, for the most part are always designed in a silo. Every department does their own little thing and it’s actually very challenging to get them to…
Lyle: Not unlike most large corporations.
Jared: Yeah, really.
Lyle: You know the VP-based navigation scheme has not left us yet.
Kyle: I have done some work on some university sites and it’s amazing how much they really want to just redesign certain areas. It seems, least from my experience. The graduate said he wants to be separate from undergrad and they want to handle their navigation separately. Nobody wants to tie it all together. Nobody’s looking at the entire picture. They’re all worried about their own little camp.
Lyle: Kyle, I want to bring you in to the whole social networking thing. So you’re, you’re a eighteen-something teenager and you’re used to using MySpace and you come to Brown.edu. You know, is this going to engage you? Is it going to entice you to want to go to Brown?
Jared: And what percentage are they targeting of undergraduates as graduates?
Lyle: Well, yeah, that’s true, but even so…
Jared: And how many kids decide on a school based on a home page on the website?
Nate: I wonder.
Jared: I currently got a sixteen-year-old who is thinking about college. And he doesn’t know how he’s going start to tackle this. So, I can pretty much guarantee to you that home pages on a website are the least contributor to whatever decision he’ll end up making.
Lyle: Fair enough.
Nate: Is he online now, Jared?
Jared: I’m sorry?
Nate: Is he big online?
Jared: Oh, yeah! You have to use a crowbar to get him away.
DeWayne: He would do a lot of research with our students here at UNI and with prospective students thinking about coming to UNI or orientation when students are getting ready to come. Really the big thing is they oftentimes will not go directly to the admissions site. They will go to the “About UNI” or to the “Student Life” section to a virtual tour. They want to see what it’s like there. They want to get a feel for “does this seem right for me?” Then they’ll go to the admissions’ site when they’re ready to do things like do an inquiry when they’re ready to apply for admission and things like that. One trend that the web is, we’re seeing more in universities on the web, impacting the web rather, is admissions offices are seeing more students applying for admission that they’ve never had an inquiry from before. Usually, it starts with an inquiry: “send us some information.” We send you information, we send you some more information, we send you some more information, and then you decide to apply. They’re seeing more students just doing that research behind the scenes, on the web, and then deciding to apply without ever having contacted the university before, which of course scares the admissions offices a great deal.
Lyle: But I think that maps to what’s going on in large corporations. There are many, many senior executives who do a lot of their research of potential suppliers online. And since the suppliers are getting contacts from people who weren’t on their target list, if you will, that just found them online, and did basic research online, and then contacted them and said, “I think I need more information now or I’d like to talk to someone in your department for sales.” And so, I think it’s a rough reflection of the online research being a more of a regular thing in business and life.
Jared: One of the things that’s interesting to me, you know, to talk about, sort of that question you had about innovation, is that why innovate with the home page? I mean, it’s a very high-risk place to do something. Why not pick some page, let’s say the athletics calendar, though at Brown that may not be the place to do that because I think their best team is their chess team.
Jared: But find some place, one of the research things or maybe undergraduate academics or something, and innovate there where you have less personas that you’re dealing with and less stakeholders you’re dealing with, and less risk. It feels to me that choosing a portion of the site to do something novel with that really, if it turns out to be a bad idea, you can sort of unwind it a lot easier and you don’t have the visibility, but you still learn as much as you would if you do something that’s exceptionally high visibility like the home page.
DeWayne: You do see a lot of that in Higher Ed with colleges and universities trying micro sites that are just for admissions, not necessarily the main admissions site, but a site just for prospective students that focuses more on a funkier design or special tasks. We’ve done that some with transfer students. We take a lot of transfer students from community colleges and we’ve just rolled out a new website that allows students to compare what classes they’ve taken at Iowa community colleges versus the major they want to take at UNI, and how do they fit together, and what classes will they have to take when they get here, and they can do it all on their own. We do see of a lot of that at other colleges and universities as well. One of the personalizations and portals and things like that were mentioned as we were getting ready to start. The interesting thing is a lot of those micro sites are based on personalization and they’re designed by the admissions offices to capture that inquiry information. So, personalization is still very big and on the upswing if anything at colleges and universities trying to capture information and make this site special to you as opposed to, you know…
Lyle: But what’s the benefit of that is where it usually shakes out, right? Is it really working or is it a neat theory that’s hard to execute?
DeWayne: Well, when we developed the site that we thought we were going to use to try to capture those names, we took the opposite approach from a lot of colleges and universities. A lot of them have these personalized sites that you can go into and find information and then save the information in your account about the college, whether it’s the major you’re interested in, things like that. And a lot of them require you to log in first, and give your information first, then you can go in and look at what is supposedly going to be a cool site and give you all the information you need. We felt less comfortable with that. We felt “let’s give them information,” and hopefully the information will compel them to fill out an inquiry form and let us get in touch with them further. We didn’t want the personalization to be a barrier to them looking at the information we had to offer.
Jared: I tell you one of the interesting things about these decisions, too, is, it almost seems like two different beasts when you’re trying, when you’re trying to innovate or, decide about personalization or something for marketing-based sites, versus heavy, functional, applications or sites. It almost seems like two…
Nate: Is there a difference?
Lyle: I think there’s, there’s a big difference between showing you your account information, the things that you’re working with your applications, versus trying to say, well, here’s what we think you’re interested in based on what we know about you, or we’re going to let you move these widgets around on a page and lay it out the way you think you…
Nate: Yeah, it’s kind of like what drives us. Like, for marketing stuff, it seems like innovation can come from so many different places. Like, somebody has a cool aesthetic idea, and all of a sudden, 900 humongous organizations copy, just because it’s sort of cool or looks good or resonates with people from a marketing perspective. But the functional innovations seem to come from a different place. Like MySpace, I mean, what the heck? It’s not really usable at all, but it’s innovative, I guess, for its audience.
Lyle: Well, it’s obviously usable, people use it all the time.
Rashmi: I wouldn’t say it’s not usable, I would say that you’ve never actually a lot of people use it, and, it has it’s quirks, but, the ability to just, I have watched people just embed videos in comments, and, I really feel like it’s quite usable. It’s just, not the kind of think that, people consider it a well-designed, well-done site. But it’s usable in it’s own way.
Lyle: Well, what do we mean by…
Nate: Didn’t they just change the whole embedding thing, haven’t they, like…
Nate: Awesome, awesome.
Lyle: How to make friends!
Jared: And as so soon as that happened, they went on this sort of “OK, embedding is bad” type thing, but then the people got upset because they couldn’t embed their favorite movies or music. So ever since then, they have been walking this very tight line of giving users enough embedding capabilities to put the stuff in that they want, but at the same time preventing this aggressive anti-social behavior.
Lyle: Well, I think that was an interesting little debate that we just had there, which is, is it usable? It’s a foundational question, what is usable? To me, I think it’s important to understand that usability is really a spectrum. Something is more or less usable, and there’s a point at which it’s usable enough for a given user, a given context, a given purpose. So, it’s hard for us to say whether MySpace is really usable, without having a little more information, but obviously, there are a lot of people who use it.
Jared: There are a lot of repetitive… We have two definitions for usability that we work with our clients with. The first is what we call the black and white definition, which is “Can someone actually accomplish their objective?” and MySpace obviously does that every day for millions of people, so from that definition, it is definitively usable. The second definition we call the shades of gray definition, which is “Is it as usable as it could be? Could you make it more usable?” And my guess is that MySpace could be made more usable, but tell me what couldn’t.
Nate: Well, it’s true, but, you see, it’s kind of like these things where you see that it’s exciting and it’s useful to people, so they’re willing to put up with it, but I think a lot of kids figured it out with no problem, but I’ve seen a lot of people, like teenagers, banging their head against their computer because it’s slow, or because they can’t do something, or something doesn’t work right, there’s also a lot of frustration, but it doesn’t matter because they’d rather use that than anything else. It’s always interesting to me, how much of it is these web-apps as nightclubs metaphor, so once it gets popular, it almost doesn’t matter what they do, to a certain point, and then once it has the stink of uncoolness around it, like Friendster or something, forget it, they can be as usable as they want, it doesn’t really matter.
Kyle: Isn’t it interesting that the perception people have, when they’re looking at something that, in our definition, is very unsophisticated-looking, it lacks any kind of clear design, or some sort of prettiness, that we immediately think it’s unusable, where as if you’re looking at something has very clean lines and has obviously had a lot of thought put into the design, it seems like people immediately come off with the impression that it’s not usable because it looks like a mess on the screen, in terms of just how pretty it is.
Lyle: Yeah, my office isn’t very usable to other people.
Kyle: But it is to you, right?
Lyle: And my house isn’t, either.
Jared: MySpace, in my mind, is sort of like a high-school locker. It’s these things that people decorate, or like a dorm room or something. Things that people decorate out the wazoo, bring their own personality in, blast their own music, and all this stuff. It’s their, each individual page, is their own personality and their own thing, and it’s not hard to find pages that don’t jive with my aesthetic is the way things should go. We all know Don Norman.
DeWayne: There is kind of a geographic element to MySpace as well. We see around here in the Midwest, Facebook is huge among the college students. MySpace is kind of the high school and now even sliding down into the junior high. Even the high school kids are kind of like going, “Ehhh, MySpace, ehhhh” because Facebook is coming out for high schools now. But once they get to college, Facebook is the big thing.
Nate: How is the interface of Facebook? I’ve never even seen it.
Jared: Well, you can’t see it; you’re not in college.
Nate: Did they change that?
Jared: I even signed up for it.
Nate: I thought they opened it up.
Jared: Oh, have they?
DeWayne: I think it’s open if you have a dot edu or if you get an invitation, I believe. I’ve looked at it; we talked about it with our students, especially with the photos that they posted on there. Because we’re seeing some, it’s hard to tell if it’s widespread or not, but we’ve seen some indication of some employers who are using alums to login to Facebook to check out prospective employees to see what they might be like. It’s usable but it’s different than MySpace. It has less of a blogger-type of feel to it, but more posting messages from friends and heavy on the photos.
Kyle: I can see that being really helpful for prospective students. For the university that I did testing for, when we talked to prospective students, they seemed most interested after finding out that the program was whatever, they really wanted to see that they could fit into this university culture. What do the other students look like, what were the other programs like? They wanted pictures and they really wanted stories from the students. But they didn’t want marketing fluff. They were specific in definitely requesting that they wanted the words from the students. They wanted contact with the students in some way to know that this was where they were going to choose to maybe live for the next four years.
Lyle: Going back to MySpace, I think, what’s the ultimate result here? It’s really a space for people to put up their thoughts and what not. A lot of it is just really a personal exercise in making your own thing. It’s not so much as, “Is it going to be read by anyone else?” There’s plenty of that as well. But it’s not like a business application site, it’s not like we’re talking about medical software or something that has to be very usable and there’s a lot of risk and business ROI that we’re talking about.
Jared: Kids are not loyal at all. My daughter would not use MySpace just because everybody uses MySpace.
Nate: And we did a remote study for one of these large social networking sites and what we found over and over and over again, above everything, all that people cared about was what the activity of the people they knew or wanted to know was like. If there was an activity from their friends or people they were interested in meeting or dating or whatever, then they wouldn’t log on. But if there was activity from other people, they were all over it. So it’s like sort of this momentum-based.
Rashmi: Yes, these are all social sites and I think the ultimate determinant is really who else is saying it. It’s like the nightclub thing. Who else is there, what are they doing, how can we connect with them? I also noticed what somebody else mentioned, that Facebook, when you get to college, you become a little bit more private about what your doing and your connections and then there’s a trend towards Facebook. Before that, there’s MySpace.
Jared: There was a New York Times article a little while back about somebody who was applying for a job in a law firm and people were doing Google searches and turning up old blog posts and MySpace stuff and pictures of them at some party that really wasn’t helping them with their job search.
DeWayne: We’ve seen our students with their Facebook accounts, the students who work in my office, are more and more considering turning off access to anybody except their friends in Facebook. As they get closer to graduation especially they want to limit access so that prospective employers can’t go in and look at what they’ve got, so that they don’t have to take off their Bahamas spring break picture or whatever they’ve got on there.
Rashmi: So coming back to what we started off with, when you have these college applicants, does the Brown home page really matter? Or are they just going to go through looking on their Facebook contacts and MySpace and finding out through their friends? So, you know, Brown could do this huge redesign but at least in terms of applicants, maybe it matters in terms of donors and in terms of graduate students and in terms of other groups. But, maybe for the applicants, it doesn’t matter so much.
Jared: We tell clients that their home page is the least important page on their site. That of all the pages on their site, it is the one that matters the most. The one that matters the most is the one the user needs to accomplish their goal. That’s almost never the home page. I’ve done these lectures where I have a thousand people in the audience and I’ll ask for people to hold up their hands if they’ve ever purchased anything because they saw it on the Amazon home page, and virtually nobody will raise their hand. Nut then I’ll ask how many people have purchased something because on a particular book page it had ‘customers who bought this book have also bought’, and clicking on that link and buying that book. And almost everybody raises their hand.
DeWayne: Well, I think it depends on what kind of site you’re talking about. I think in any commerce situation, that’s true. If you’re talking about, say, a personal page and a potential employer looking at it. You know, you’re applying for a job, someone goes to Jared Spool dot com, and that first page is their first impression. And now, that only tells them a bit about what’s on the site, so it is pretty critical in that situation.
Jared: Well, I didn’t say it was unimportant, I just said it was the least important. I –
Rashmi: The least important. I mean, you can’t really say that the home page is not important. The home page is very important.
Jared: I didn’t say it was not important, I said that it was least important.
DeWayne: I just wanted to agree that it is least important as well. I think that you’re…
Jared: What page is less important then?
Lyle: Well, I dunno. Your site map, there’s a whole bunch. But you look at most sites and there’s thousand of pages, there’s a lot of other ones they’d pick.
Jared: Well, on Microsoft.com, in a study that we were involved in a few years back, we discovered that there were eight hundred thousand pages that had never been retrieved from the server.
Lyle: So all of those of you less important there.
Jared: I would think that those would be them.
Nate: Well, at least they’re there. Someday.
Rashmi: I mean the home page is there, you enter, like it’s like a house. You enter the space, and even if you don’t stop there, it kind of leaves an impression in your mind.
Lyle: Right, like I might say that the entryway to my house is like the least important room, but functionally, in respect to the house and people’s impression of it and access to it, it’s highly important.
Jared: So why are things we measure as brand engagement, we can measure how people feel about a common brand, we can pick any brand you want, and we can measure their perception of it and what we call how engaged they are, which is – it goes from a scale of not caring about the brand – which means they may or may not buy from it – to being really upset if that brand has vanished from the earth tomorrow. And when we look at brand engagement and we look at how people perceive brands based on what they do within a website, what we’ve found is the home page has almost no impact on brand engagement. A really crappy home page will not have any more effect on how people perceive the brand than a really great home page. However, completing the task, whatever that task is, has a huge effect on brand engagement. So whatever the role of the home page is, completing the task is very important. But beyond that, it turns out we can’t find any evidence that it’s important at all.
Rashmi: I would need to see the data for that to buy that, Jared. I just would not buy that. Because, I mean, if I think about my impression of I don’t know how many sites, the home page definitely is something I often remember. And, I’d have to see the specific data for that.
Jared: But, you know, let’s play that out, right. So if you have a page that is really beautifully designed, like go to Amtrak.com, for example, a very beautifully designed page, but you can’t make a reservation on the site, like three quarters of the people who go to Amtrak.com have trouble completing a reservation without calling the 800 number, right? What we’ve found is that, even though it’s a beautifully designed page, it really sort of tees people off. But then you go to a page like Craigslist, where people have no trouble completing their task, but the page is not beautifully designed, it’s considered cluttered by a lot of people, it obviously hasn’t had the touch of a visual designer in any sort of way. And yet the brand engagement on that is really strong, and again, your impression of the home page is really – people go to a page not just to check it out, right, few people. The only people I know who go to websites to check it out are site designers.
Lyle: No, I disagree with that. Well, okay, maybe just to check the site out, but let’s talk about people coming from a search page like Google, where, I know I’m looking.
Jared: They come first to the home page if they’re coming from a search page, they’re going straight into the site. They dive deep in.
Lyle: Let’s say, let’s say I’m looking for new enterprise database software, and I do a search for that on Google. I’m going to get Oracle.com and you know, a bunch of other links to large corporations. That home page tells me whether or not this smells right, you know, it’s that information scent concept, and the home page should communicate to me what’s there and where to go. And you’re right, maybe I’ll land on a landing page or product page, but not always.
Jared: Okay. Well, sure enough, yeah. The top listing for enterprise database software is Oracle.com. But here’s the deal, right. You go to Oracle.com, and in the middle is this huge thing that says “Security is huge in middleware. Helps lock down your site”. It doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m looking for.
Jared: But my guess is that because there’s a link on the left that says “database” or “products,” those links that are on the left of that page are going to play a much bigger role on whether people feel the site is working for them. It’s not because those links look great or don’t look great. It’s whether or not those links have what you’re looking for. So if, in fact, you’re clicking on that page and you’re going there, it’s going to be the next three clicks that make all the difference. It’s not going to be this page at all. The fact that there’s a big Toyota logo, at least on my page, customer spotlight is “Toyota Finance Adds Value and Reduces Cost with Kaizen and Oracle’s PeopleSoft,” which has nothing to do with their database, nothing to do with what you’re looking for. The fact that that’s there or not there is irrelevant. The fact that they may or may not have a link that’s good, that’s the key thing. When we want people come to sites, when we want people do certain searches on Google, we watch people do all this stuff, that’s what we’re seeing. The home page plays are really small role in what is happening with that experience. It’s only when you can figure out where to go from this page that people get upset and start blaming the page.
Kyle: Right. I mean you do agree that it at least sets the tone for the experience. It’s going to start you off on either the right foot or the wrong foot. It’s the first hurdle you have to overcome.
Jared: Absolutely but of all the hurdles you have to overcome, it is the least important.
Kyle: As long as you overcome that hurdle.
Rashmi: We looked at the current home page for Brown University and the proposed one and we all had strong reactions to it and there can be very different impressions of Brown University, the school that is. It definitely leads to an impression about the brand. Even if you’re getting to one of the sections…
Jared: Really? That’s an assumption, right? My opinion of Brown University as a university hasn’t changed because of that home page and I’m betting my son’s perception, he is considering going to Brown only because he has friends there, and I’m sure that his perception probably wouldn’t change because the friends still go there.
Rashmi: You live in a neighboring state, Jared. I went to Brown when I was living in a small city in India and my impression of Brown was from a distance. Yes, it was a hell of a commute. I remember when I first got admitted to Brown and I started looking up geographically where it was and it was Rhode Island and I was like, “Oh, it’s an island.”
Jared: That it is a usability problem.
Rashmi: Yes, mis-advertising, I thought I was going to this island. People make their impressions from far away and the university home pages to give an impression of what it is. I agree with you that the efficiency of how you get the information has a very strong impression as well but there is no doubt in my mind…
Jared: If it had a great home page but a really sucky description of the doctoral program in the Psych Department, would you still think Brown was a great school? I think that the page that talked about the program that you were interested in far outweighs the importance of the home page.
Rashmi: Definitely. No doubt about that but at the same time I was looking in a bunch of schools and I was forming an impression about them. Brown, especially, I remember having a little bit of doubt with because it’s a smaller school and I didn’t really know much about it. There were other schools I knew about. You are forming an impression there of the overall thing even if your focus is on a specific department and how much money they are giving you and all that stuff.
Jared: In terms of graduate stuff, I’m sure that the graduate program, the professors that were there, the nature of the program, all that stuff must play a big role. In terms of undergraduate stuff, just watching it through my children’s eyes, when they look at colleges they could care less about the collateral material, whether it was the print stuff or the books. My son took the PSATs and now he’s on the mailing list to get every college brochure that’s out there so every day we get five or six college brochures. He doesn’t even open them up. The other day, one came in from Clarkson, which is where his mom went to school, and I handed in the envelope. I said, “This is where Mom went to school” and he put it in the trash. I said, “Well, aren’t you interested?” “He said, “It’s a good school but I’ll figure it out later or you’ll tell me or something.” He was not at all interested in their collateral. He said, “All these envelopes that we get all say the same thing, our school is great. They don’t say anything else.” He is just chucking every single one of them. He has no interest in looking at these materials. I’m betting that when he finally starts looking at schools for programs. His interest right now is in computer science and a little bit in theater. He gets that from his mom. It seems he’s going to be more interested in those pages that talk about the computer science programs and the theater programs than what he’s going to see. Look up computer science in Google or computer science degree or computer science undergraduate degree and click on some of the links, and the pages that they bring you to are horrible, absolutely horrible. We were looking at exactly that example and one of them brings you to the Carnegie Mellon page about the computer science program there. Carnegie Mellon has one of the best computer science programs in the world, yet the page that describes it is this awful, awful thing written up by the administrator of the curriculum, who basically describes all the prerequisites you need and all this and all that and it is a very logistical page. There is nothing on there that is compelling to convince somebody that they should attend this school and go to this program.
Lyle: It is funny that the university site would be too academic.
DeWayne: We have that problem where faculty want to list their research interests on the page when we want to tell them things like if you come here for accounting you have a better chance of passing the CPA exam than at almost any other college or university in the country. What is the bottom line? You talk about they are interested in the academics parts here, Jared, but that is important they want to know what their major is going to be and what can they do with it. But they also want to know, do I fit in here, do I feel good here, does this seem like the right place for me? And that is why Brown’s approach is such a bold step because you don’t really get much of a feel for the campus or the type of people there from the home page. If it is going to be successful then hopefully it gets students, prospective students to a way to visually identify with campus, get a feel for the type of students that are there, what is campus like? You know, that sort of thing. We have a saying here, that is pretty much shared by every other college or university in the country, if we can get them on the campus for a tour, then we can sell them, then they are sold, they will like it here. Everybody feels that way, but it does come down to whether it is looking at the site on the web site, and we laugh a lot about the web site, about making sure we have the obligatory young lady sitting in the grass under a tree studying, because everybody does, or a picture of our bell tower, because everyone has a campanile or a bell tower. Or getting them on campus, it is getting them, it is past they have the major they want, yeah we have a good program in that major. It is, is this a good fit for them. And that is what is hard to convey. We are starting to try do it a little late compared to some using student blogs to describe what life here is like. Hopefully the good and the bad to give it a realistic feel. Students are not stupid, they can see through what is real and, like somebody said before, what is marketing fluff. What are we throwing at them that is just written by our department? And that is the tough thing to position it, just like it is with any business, to make it real so that you can feel like, “Yeah, this is some place I want to do business with.”
Jared: Aren’t all of your students above average?
DeWayne: Oh, I certainly think so.
DeWayne: We have to accept by state law anyone that graduates from the top 50% of their class. So we have a wide variety of students, we have some excellent students and we have some average students. We try to be committed to giving them all a good education, but first we have to get them here. Because they can go to Iowa, Iowa State, they can go to a lot of private colleges around here or they can go out of state.
Jared: Now just one quick thought. MIT since February of 2003 has had a different home page every day.
Jared: Yeah, they put up a whole new home page every day. In fact, if you go to mit.edu, at the bottom of the page you will see an “About this site,” and then on that page there is a link which is this past spotlights, as they call each home page a spotlight. And you can go through it you can see the home page for every day since February 2003.
DeWayne: The common, the nice thing about that and maybe it is just the fact that MIT is synonymous with innovation that they can get away with that, but the key part of getting away with that and it working for them, I think, is that the name plate is there, the global navigation is there, it stays consistent. It may move around, but it is still the same global navigation links, so it is more of a background redesign and where is the menu going to be placed today than a total redesign.
Jared: Right. My point is that it is a different home page every day and, of course, some home pages are better than other home pages, and I am betting that it doesn’t impact anybody’s perception on the university. There is when they have a bad home page, it doesn’t matter because they will come back the next day and it will be a good home page, and it just doesn’t matter. I think their home pages are all done by students. I think people submit designs. And interestingly enough it says here the MIT web site was designed by Pentagram, the same people who did the Brown site.
Rashmi: So I mean with Jared, the example that you are bringing up are ones which already have a very strong public perception and impression, and people already know about the institution. I agree with what you’re saying. What you’re saying is that what you say about this very marketing manner has less impact than what the functional areas and the aspects of the site and what others might say about you or even your own members say about you in a more open manner, in blogs, social networking, etc. Correct? Is that kind of the overall…?
Jared: Yes, sure. Let’s take a vote, okay. Is the Brown site better or worse designed than Craigslist? Rashmi what do you think?
Rashmi: I would say worse.
Jared: Worse than Craigslist?
Rashmi: Correct, yes.
Jared: What do you think it’s worse than Craigslist?
Rashmi: Because Craigslist is a good service that millions of people use with a lot of success. I mean it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges. It’s a little bit difficult but, I mean, Craigslist is all about its home page and the service it provides for so many people. Brown’s site is a very small part of what Brown is.
Jared: Okay, Nate, what’s your vote?
Nate: See I’m going to go with Brown is better just because that Craigslist redesign that they did which takes up the exact same weight of the current Craigslist home page but at least just has some graphical treatment that made me so happy and I love Craigslist but I hate how it’s undersigned on purpose.
Jared: That’s craigslist.thebignoob.com.
Nate: Yes, that’s like South by Southwest, they had a redesign Craigslist panel or something. I forget the name of the shop that did this but….
Jared: I’m going to guess thebignoob.com.
Nate: Maybe, that’s a good guess. But you know, it’s stuff like that you can do that has zero impact on page weight that you can at least do some basic formatting to make it… and that I just what frustrates me about Craigslist so I’m going with Brown for that.
Kyle: Can I ask a clarification on the question? When you say design, are you saying is it more esthetically pleasing or do we think it’s easier to….
Jared: I don’t know we’re just talking about setting impressions here. So do you think the current design of Craigslist sets a better or worst impression for someone coming to Craigslist who may or may not know much about it then the new proposed design for the Brown site?
Kyle: I would say impression wise, ease of use wise I would say Craigslist. Impression wise I would have to say Brown. Only because….
Jared: Is better?
Kyle: Brown is better in terms of impression. In terms of brand impression. I mean my mother took at look at Craigslist and she’s like, “I wouldn’t trust that to save my life. I can’t believe you actually buy and sell on there.” Because it does, it does look very hacky. It looks like someone just threw it up there. For her it was very important, I mean if she saw something like what Nate just put up, the redesign of Craigslist, I mean she would probably trust it more, just on overall just look and feel gives her a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.
Jared: Lyle, where are you at? Lyle Kantrovich.
Lyle: You know, I haven’t looked at Craigslist recently but….
Kyle: It hasn’t changed much.
Lyle: It’s like what’s the lesser of two evils, you know? So, I don’t think either one is particularly good.
DeWayne: Well, I kind of on the fence there’s some elements about Brown that I think don’t make it a great design because I don’t think it appeals visually to a student coming there. They have to dig too much just to figure out if they belong there. Hopefully, they can find the information that they need but, getting that personal touch is really important. There’s a few other little usability features that I think are maybe a problem at this point yet as well, but, so….
Jared: Okay, which way do you go though?
DeWayne: I’m going to say at this point, given the importance of hooking perspective students as soon as they get there that I’d go with Craigslist just by….
Jared: You think that Craigslist will hook people better than Brown will?
DeWayne: It has not as well done, but not an un-eBay like interface where you see a lot of lists of a lot of different categories and you can find what you want. So, you know, no the design isn’t impressive at all but, you know. I’m concerned that the Brown design doesn’t convey a friendly enough feel, doesn’t convey a welcoming feel to perspective students. They’re very proud of their African exhibits in the museum, as is I’m sure they should be but when my students looked at it and under the Academics tab when the African masks popped up there, they were like, “what’s up with that?” You know, they wanted to see something more directly related to academics; students in labs and stuff like that.
Rashmi: Jared, you?
Jared: Am I allowed to abstain I guess? I would say that I think the Brown site is from an impression standpoint probably a little better than the Craigslist site. But I would agree with DeWayne, that I think that the links on the Brown site are missing what users need and I think that’s where the problem is. I think if you redesign the page so that you had all of the likely set done that people think that they are looking for that it really doesn’t matter what you’re doing with the Java on the page. Now I think that one of the things you’ll find is that if you start to do that redesign is that by just doing that, what you’ll find is that you’ll end up getting rid of a lot of the sort of crap that is there. But I don’t think the color brown makes a difference. I mean it’s not a particularly friendly color but it’s not the worst color I’ve ever seen on a website.
Nate: What’s the worst color you’ve ever seen on a website?
Jared: There was some site I saw the other day that had this sort of like neon pink on my monitor.
Jared: You know, you just want to say, “Can you turn that color off for a minute so I can look at it?” But I don’t remember what the site was.
DeWayne: It’s kind of the Universal rule in University web design that you get really sick of whatever your school colors are. I have to design a lot of purple and gold. I’m really tired of it. But I also thank heavens that I don’t work up the road about 10-15 miles at Wartburg College, which is a very fine college whose signature color is orange and they are currently in a “Be Orange” campaign so everything is bathed in orange. I don’t think I’d like to design in orange and black everyday. So that makes designing in purple and gold easier.
Jared: When I was in high school I had a friend who painted their bedroom completely black, with the exception of the ceiling, which they painted bright orange. It was the most striking thing, but I wouldn’t want to have to sleep there every night. Lyle, you mentioned the UPA Body of Knowledge. Is that process really happening? Steven Wright has an old joke which is “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” I mean what is the process? How does someone decide what knowledge is worth putting in the body of knowledge or not?
Lyle: Well that’s one of the questions that that group that is working on that is struggling I wouldn’t say struggling but has had to deal with is “What do we put here?” I think they did a pretty good job with that. There’s a preview up, you go to usabilitybok.org where they started is to talk about methods, talk about design principles and best practices. Things about organizations, usability teams, how do you integrate into software development those kind of things.
Jared: I know a web 2.0 site that has rounded corners.
Lyle: So it’s subject areas are a professional development in related fields and a glossary. So those are kind of foundational things, and the plan is over time to kind of build this out. So the idea is to start with things where, as a field we have the most agreement and the most interesting knowledge.
Rashmi: Why not something like a wikipedia type approach where you know where everybody can add and then some kind of social structure for figuring out what remains?
Lyle: You know, interestingly enough they put up this preview and they an easier way to getting a lot of feedback and one of the things that has come up is that question: What about a wiki, can we work that in here? That’s one of the things they are looking at currently, should they do that? It’s a site where want a certain amount of editorial work going on to say “Yeah this is stuff that we see a lot of agreement on and maybe the wiki area is where it’s more discussion and certain things from the field coming in that can migrate into the more definitive knowledge.
Jared: How is this project different than the Wikipedia project? Why not just do this as pages in Wikipedia? I guess who gets to decide if something is official?
Lyle: Well there’s an editorial process for that and it really is based on multiple facets probably getting a little beyond my knowledge of how this all works but I’ll give you my impression. There’s a team that’s looking at sort of research support for things. “How do we know this is the case?” or “Okay how long has this method been around and is there pretty good agreement on how it’s done?” Therefore what can we say about that? And then documenting that based on things that are already existing. Did I answer your question?
Jared: Yeah, I guess Wikipedia has a way of policing things. They do have an editorial team that seems to police things. People who, as far as I can tell have no other activities in their lives who do nothing but make sure that only accurate things are put into it. But no one was appointed, right? It’s all volunteer. This seems like it’s all volunteer.
Lyle: It’s volunteer but it’s supported by the UPA. Really what that brings to it is a level of being official. This is an organization that’s about usability and usability professionals and therefore if they say this is what we know as a professional association, that’s sort of a definitive reference for people. A wiki entrance, who knows who put that in so what’s the credibility of that over time? I think Wikipedia’s a great thing, but I know they did have discussions about how might that work in. But it’s really hard to present something under Wikipedia as being credentialed. Does that make sense?
Jared: It does. It does.
Rashmi: I guess when you read a book and it’s by an individual author, you know whose voice and whose ideas (they are.) If I read a book by Jared, I would know that this is Jared’s perspective on home pages.
Lyle: But then you’d know it’s not worth its weight in paper.
Rashmi: But then you have something like this, which is more diffused. Who is this really coming from? It’s coming from more of an organizational process than anything else. The knowledge is a bunch of people, but it’s very much mired in the social process. To me, in some sense, the methods are fast moving. They’re always changing. There are always new techniques developing. There are new things that are coming up, and it just seems like Wikipedia, would become outdated repeatedly, and you need this constant updating, Whereas if you really worked hard to get a community of people to contribute to a Wikipedia section on usability and I don’t even know what Wikipedia has in usability it seems to me that it would be a more sustainable effort. And I know Wikipedia’s thinking of some pages where you know, “a bunch of work has been done on this, and these are more credible” or something. Some of the others, it seems to me that would have more impact, and it would be more sustainable as an effort. A lot of times when these professional organizations start a big effort, it’s a lot of work. And often it gets dropped because it’s just too much work to keep up.
Lyle: I think that is one of the reasons a Wikipedia reference can only go just so far. Because you can only get masses of people to go just so deep. Whereas, if you have a dedicated team that’s getting financial support and organizational support from an association, you can go a lot deeper and carry it a lot longer.
Jared: Financial support?
Jared: So UPA is paying people to work on this project?
Lyle: Well, no. They are a volunteer effort, but there’s cost in running that volunteer effort, and publishing the body of knowledge and other things.
Jared: Okay. But the big resource is the human labor force, right?
Jared: Wikipedia is also always looking for donations and, to some extent, they have some economies of scale. So I think it’s very interesting. One of the things that is intriguing is that the description of a focus group as I see it under methods is shorter than heuristic evaluation. Yet, I guarantee you there’s been more research done on focus groups than there have been on heuristic evaluation.
Lyle: Sure. Well, keep in mind, this is the preview, and it’s still being worked on. It’s not like these are done. And the idea is that it evolves over time.
Jared: Well, okay.
Lyle: But I guess a trite way of responding is, no one’s done it on Wikipedia, and I think it’s great that UPA’s doing this. I think it’s going to be a great reference for people, so I don’t know what’s bad about that.
Jared: Well, I can’t say that there’s anything bad about it.
Lyle: And I think, back to the fact that having it coming from an authoritative source has a lot of value to people. If you’re running a usability team at a large company and your manager’s asking you how you should build your team or what are other companies doing in the space, what’s a typical budget, those kinds of things, having an authoritative reference from an organization like UPA is going to carry more weight inside a company than to say, “Well, I got this off Wikipedia.” I’ve seen that first hand.
Rashmi: I would have to agree with that. That definitely in a context of a company that we were trying to get a source that’s credible, UPA would have more credibility. Especially for things like this, organizational structure, the budget and all those things, I would really agree that the UPA is probably in a better position. But in terms of information which is more like methods, et cetera, I really feel that having a broader base of knowledge, gathering from a larger base of knowledge would make more sense. The UPA effort is great, and there’s no reason why somebody shouldn’t take it into their head to start making entries about usability in Wikipedia and contributing to it.
Rashmi: So, those can be parallel initiatives.
Lyle: It doesn’t preclude anybody from doing anything on Wikipedia. I’ve actually edited some pages on there myself under the usability section but I would encourage anybody who wants to contribute to the blog to do that. The team is very much open to and actually is inviting as many contributors as want to contribute. There’s plenty of work to be done in this area. When you think about a field that’s been around for 25 plus years, there’s a lot of knowledge to distill and, clearly, we’re learning new things as we go. They are looking for a way, as I said, to make I don’t know if I’d call it a sandbox but a way to talk about what we are learning right now, what are the new concepts, the things that people have tried it seem to be working but maybe aren’t proven yet so we can start tracking those things. Clearly, there are other ways to get input: conference proceedings, publications, and those kinds of things. To me, this is a landmark kind of development to get this sort of a reference. In the past, the most definitive references have been things like mailing lists or books that are out there.
Kyle: I agree. I think it’s a good idea and I think there’s value in the fact that you can trust the source. You know who the source is. But I’m curious, you sound overly concerned about this.
Jared: Well, I think it’s going to have a very UPA viewpoint on things and I’m sure that the UPA viewpoint on things isn’t the only viewpoint. I’m just curious as to how they decide that something gets declared good or something gets declared bad or even recommended for use or not recommended for use and things like that. I’m curious as to where that’s coming from. The other thing that struck me recently that is very interesting is that I’ve been spending a lot of time hanging out with magicians.
Jared: Very cool. In particular, a group called The Society of Youth Magicians. My 16-year-old is very much into magic and he’s gotten very good at it. He goes to these professional meetings and we went to one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to, the Society of American Magicians Annual Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. What was intriguing about this is, when you watch these kids talk to each other, they teach each other tricks. That’s the basic piece of magic, that they’re always sharing. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not actually magic. They share their stuff with each other and they show each other these various tricks. What’s really interesting is when a 15-year-old shares a trick with a 16-year-old. They don’t just say, “Hey, let me show you this cool trick.” They talk about it in a very specific way. They say, “Oh, let me show you the Anderson tear and restore.” The Anderson tear and restore was created in 1965 by a guy named Gene Anderson who basically perfected the modern technique of the tear and restore. There’s this real sort of oral history that happened with this stuff and high contrast that with the DUCS conference that I went to last November or October. At the DUCS conference there was a woman on the panel who was saying how one day they accidentally had a scheduling problem with their usability test. They had two users show up at the same time and they decided, “Oh gosh, why don’t we have two users in the room at the same time? We did this and it was really cool and you all should do this.” I wanted to say, “Well, that’s co-discovery and it was actually done in usability studies for the first time by Nortel in 1983. In fact, it’s an old psychological testing technique that goes back 20 years before that.” There’s no sense of history.
Lyle: Actually, I think that’s one of the things that the blog notes can help with, just documenting methods that have been around that newcomers to the field aren’t aware about.
Jared: But I’m wondering if it’s going to do it in such a way that people actually start sharing this as they talk about things. I’m just wondering who’s usability testing is the body of knowledge, I guess. How do we know it’s going to work?
Kyle: Why don’t you try submitting something and see if they let you add anything to it?
Jared: They won’t let me add to it.
Lyle: Jared, we would welcome your input. I would say that if you take a look at, for instance, the methods, it’s pretty basic stuff. It’s a high-level description of the method, how do you do it, references, other resources to refer to, and those kinds of things. It’s not like here were going to tell you everything you need to know right here. It’s to give people a certain level of knowledge and to provide them additional resources they can go refer to whether its research, whether it’s books, those kinds of things.
Kyle: You know Jared, you brought up DUCS, which was interesting. I thought that was one of the worst conferences I’ve ever gone to. I’m curious if anybody else went to it.
Rashmi: I went to it and I did not learn much.
Nate: We tried to go. We waited too long to register because we figured it was in San Francisco, we were in San Francisco. But we went on a studio tour, which was cool, just around the different design shops.
Kyle: The hype was just ridiculous over it and I was just so let down. I mean, the format of it, everything, the five-minute talks. It was just ridiculous.
Rashmi: I felt that maybe it was partly me. I’d been going to a bunch of conferences. Maybe it was more the beginning of the conference. In the beginning you begin to feel it is useful to you. It just didn’t go deep enough and there wasn’t new enough material to interest me. I took it as partly me but since there were other folks there who…
Jared: Well, my theory of DUCS this year was that they used basically the same format in 2005 as they used in 2003, the previous conference. I’ve seen this happen before with other organizations, UPA being one of them, the IA Summit being another, which is that organizations mature and, as they mature, the people, whether it’s a conference or a group, have to change how they serve those folks because they’re volunteer run and people aren’t really thinking about this full-time in any sort of way. They don’t realize that things are changing out from under them. Back in 2003, DUCS was intended to be, in essence, and interaction designer event. As an interaction designer event, people didn’t realize there were other people out there doing the same sort of thing. It was a gathering of a whole bunch of people who were discovering that there are other people out there just like them. They have this presentation format which is basically, “I’m going to spend five minutes talking about something cool I’ve done and then we’re going to move on to the next person.” When you come into a group and you realize that there’s a whole bunch of people out there like you that you didn’t know it existed, hearing a five-minute description of what they’re doing is a very cool thing. But two years later, interaction design has really come into its own. People understand what it is, people are trying to get really deep into things, and the five-minute format doesn’t solve that anymore. I think that that was the big problem with that conference in terms of the presentation style in the way they put it together. They didn’t tell anybody this. I submitted a paper and they said, “Your paper is limited to 22 pages.” I’m thinking, “OK, that’s a fairly long paper” and I filled up 22 pages. Then they came back and said, “OK, you’re going to have five minutes to present.” What? I have to get 22 pages into five minutes? So that I think was the issue with that particular conference.
Lyle: You know what’s funny; I think conference design is really hard. I stay as far away from it as I can because, frankly, it’s hard to prototype and test it. You just have to run it and see how it goes, get your feedback, and try and do better next time. Of course, then it’s a whole different timeframe and location and all that.
Rashmi: One observation, I been going to a lot of these camp type events, the BAR camps etc., and DUCS was the most extreme in contrast to any of those events that I’ve ever been to. That isn’t necessarily negative. DUCS was like a craft event. Even in the breaks they had this comedian come out. Everything was very much down to the last detail. It was kind of planned for you and you just kind of stayed in the space and you laughed at a certain time and you just kind of went along with it. It was a very designed experience, the way that design folks tend to do. In contrast, you have these BAR camp type events which are really much more spontaneous and there is much less structure and it’s a lot about hanging out in the hallway and talking to people. I enjoy both experiences but in different ways but it was a real study in contrasts in event design, so to speak.
Lyle: So what you’re saying is that a conference entitled Designing User Experiences had the experience too designed?
Rashmi: I don’t think it was too designed but it was very designed. I was told when I mentioned this to a few people that there are other conferences that are much more designed than even DUCS.
Lyle: Oh, yeah, I mean TED, right?
Rashmi: I think TED was brought up as an example but I don’t know exactly how TED works. What’s it like there?
Jared: I’ve actually never been there. Has anyone actually been to TED?
Nate: I heard about it.
Jared: I’m not cool enough to get invited.
Kyle: The whole idea of having an MC do the whole entire event for DUCS was just ridiculous. It wasn’t needed and it was really lame. The person really didn’t understand our field. She really was trying to and to relate with us and it was a really lame attempt at trying to keep a laugh in between sessions or whatever it was. I don’t really know what’s the point of it was but, whatever it was, I think they failed.
Jared: Well, MC-ing is a real art form. I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done poorly. I think that you don’t need a lot of MC support for a professional event. I think that MCs are something to do for a variety act. All these magic shows I’ve been going to lately all have MCs. But, in fact, one of the things I’ve learned about the MC is the purpose of the MC is actually to fill these gaping holes in time, because when a magician performs, they often make a mess – they put confetti all over the stage and stuff – and you have to clean all that up and set up for the next magician, and that just takes time. So, an MC is sort of an inexpensive way to choreograph the time between acts. But I don’t think it’s necessary in a technical conference to have an MC, per se. In many ways it plays down the intelligence of the audience to have to say, “OK, now I’m going to explain to you what you’re about to see in this next session.” I think you should just let people talk to themselves and do stuff. We are running out of time on our little experiment here, which was not a designed experience, I don’t think. Why don’t we go around just once, and everybody share what their big ending thought is, in terms of what we talked about. Then we can say good night and put this thing to bed. Nate, why don’t you go first?
Nate: My biggest revelation is that Jared’s least favorite color is pink.
Jared: Yes, but I’m not saying it’s not a favorite color. [laughter] It’s my least favorite color.
Nate: And, other than that, it’s kind of cool to see the BOK thing. I was disappointed that it was only 31 percent Web 2.0 compliance. I’ll keep thinking.
Jared: How compliant is Bolt Theater stuff?
Nate: Oh, we’re like 21.
Jared: Oh, OK.
Nate: Actually, Ethnio like 53, though.
Jared: OK. You’re not jiggy with the corner theme.
Nate: We’re not. I think it might be a good thing, though.
Kyle: I thought you weren’t going to use that word.
Jared: Oh, damn it. Lyle Kantrovich?
Lyle: I think it’s been a good start. I think we talked about a bunch of different interesting things. I’m trying to think about what I think was interesting. We had a cool discussion about what does it mean to be useable, and I think that’s an important thing to cover. And as you talk about, if that’s useable or non-useable, but to clarify what you mean. I’m just glad that my voice held up through this, and that Jared got this thing started off.
Jared: I’m very impressed that your voice held up through all of this.
Lyle: You know how impressed I am. [laughter] It’s been nonexistent for three weeks.
Jared: Trying to do charades through the Internet is really hard.
Lyle: Yeah. I have X-rays that I can show, and I’m going to see a specialist, so still not out of the woods.
Jared: Did you get them wallet-sized?
Lyle: No, these are big ones.
DeWayne: Are they on your MySpace account?
Lyle: Yeah, I can put them up for you guys.
Jared: Actually, put your X-rays up on Flickr.
Lyle: Yeah, that’d be great. “Here are my sinuses. Here’s what they look like.”
Jared: Kyle Pero?
Kyle: There’s a lot of things. This is my first look at the Brown redesign beta site. I really want to look at it some more. It’s pretty interesting. I’m curious to see what they go live with and what the response is. So that was pretty cool. The discussion about the home page being the least important page – something to think about, or something to argue about some more.
Jared: I will now spend the rest of my life thinking about this.
Kyle: [laughs] I thought that was interesting. It was cool to see DeWayne doing some of the same research with the universities that I had done in the past, with the social networking. Students wanting to seek out other students, or prospective students wanting to seek out current students. That was pretty interesting. Very good so far.
DeWayne: I’m interested in the reactions to the Brown site and, out of that, some of the discussions about what makes a site useable. I’d like to have gotten more into, before we ran out of time, some of the personalization and portal type of discussions. We ventured a little bit into that, but there were some comments about that early on that made me think that that might be an interesting discussion as well. All and all, it was a lot of fun.
Jared: Cool. Rashmi?
Rashmi: I enjoyed the bit toward the end where we were talking about the “designed” and the “undesigned” experiences and how do you really design them. I hope that, in future, we will talk about how you design the experience that feels undesigned. I enjoyed the discussion about conferences, too, and I cannot wait to hear Jared go on about Kyle.
Jared: Oh yeah, you can. [laughs] I just found out yesterday that courses are due on the first. Did you see anything about that?
Rashmi: Yeah, I’d seen it but I realized that I can not make any of those deadlines this year.
Jared: I’m just resubmitting what I did last year. Apparently it has to go through review again.
Rashmi: See, I told you. Yeah, I look forward to discussing that.
Jared: I very much thought this was a very good session. I enjoyed the discussion about the Brown site and talking about all that. We touched on personalization and the role of home pages and finding usability. It’s all very cool and I think this was a very interesting conversation. I want to thank you everybody. I think we’ll try to do another one in a few weeks.
Nate: All right, thanks for putting it together, Jared.
Jared: Oh, no problem. Take care.