Monday, May 14, 2012

The Troughs of Disillusionment

Once again, my experience with music delivers an epiphany that sheds light on other aspects of my personal and professional life. Bear with me on this somewhat wandering blog as I tie several seemingly disparate threads together into a tapestry of personal meaning. (I also apologize for that last sentence, but as burdensome as it might be to read, it was a lot of fun to write.)

Thread One

I was collaborating with some IBM colleagues on an article, and one of the collaborators introduced me to the term hype cycle. It was coined by the Gartner Group to describe a predictable pattern associated with technology breakthroughs.

Initially everyone gets all excited and expectations soar to unwarranted heights. Then comes the trough of disillusionment as reality sets in. Eventually, the audience resets its expectations, and acting on those new expectations, the technology is put to productive use.

Thread Two

I've been really digging in on my Dobro and have made a lot of headway in the last six months. I have a goal to reach a certain level of competence within a selected repertoire of songs by the time I go to the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp in June, and I'm just about where I wanted to be. I had one of my monthly lessons with David Ellis this weekend and reviewed the fiddle tunes (popular in the nightly jam sessions at camp). While doing so, I realized that I don't have great breaks, what I have are good fakes. At one point as I'm about to do Blackberry Blossom for David, I say, "The only thing this will have in common with Blackberry Blossom is the chord progression." In other words, I play simplified versions that capture the spirit of the melody, while allowing me to play at jam speed.

Thread Three

I'm almost 63 and it seems anytime I get an ache or I feel a bit puny, I immediately imagine it to be some fatal illness. During one of those funks and on my way to a recent checkup, I asked myself what I would do if the doctor said I had six months to live. I was surprised by the spontaneity and the clarity of my response: "I'd quit trying to play Saint Ann's Reel so damn fast and just enjoy playing all the notes."

Thread Four

OK, this is the last thread and the one that really triggered this blog. I was driving to the monthly SEBA jam on Sunday, feeling tired and even a tad bit depressed. Something in me didn't want to go--I just wanted to turn around and go home, crawl into bed, and pull the covers over my head. I did an uncharacteristically mature thing: I turned around and went home.

The Epiphany

I think that with anything (and possibly anyone) we love, we go through similar patterns to the hype cycle. But instead of being a one time thing resulting in a static plateau--it has the potential to keep repeating itself at increasingly higher levels of satisfaction (or competence, depending on what you're measuring). But each of those cycles is separated by a trough of disillusionment.

For example, I had great expectations that I would become good with all of my practice and dedication. But at my new level of good, I could see a level of better that was still ahead. So instead of feeling good, I felt not-so-good.

At this point, I think there are two mistakes one can make:
  • Mistake One: Quit trying to get faster at Saint Ann's Reel and just enjoy playing all the notes. What's so wrong with that? Well, if I KNOW I only have six months, then nothing is wrong with that. But what if I could know with that same certainty that I had another 20 years? In that case, I'd like to get better at it during that time.
  • Mistake Two: Do the cowboy thing and "get right back on the horse that threw you." That can lead to an even deeper trough of disillusionment as you learn to not enjoy the thing (or person) you are passionate about.
What we need to do when we hit the trough is to stop for awhile and enjoy what we have. Sure, slow down on Saint Ann's Reel for a while and enjoy it. There needs to be a period where we cash in some of our satisfaction equity and just appreciate what we have accomplished. So what if my breaks aren't great, that's OK. I'm going to go to camp with some good fakes that will let me jump into the jams and pull my own weight. It's going to be a lot of fun.

And I've already talked with David, and after June, he and I will sit down and set some new goals. So until then, I'm going to have some fun and not worry about how good I need/should/could be.

In the meantime, I know I would like to get better, and I know I will get better. But for now I'm giving myself permission to enjoy where I am today.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is 'Useful' the New 'Usable?'

I have recently written two separate pieces that are starting to converge for me. One was a guest blog at Useful, Saleable, Buildable: The Role of UX in Defining Requirements.  The other was a column in UX Dimensions of Conflict

In the first, I mention that I have been shifting my design focus from being usable to being useful. In the second, I discuss the risk of innovative design versus conventional solutions. I wonder if I am becoming the IKEA of user experience, looking for products that are functional, reasonably attractive, but most important, easy to ship and warehouse.

And I'm wondering how I feel about that.

Useful and/or Useable

Let me start by differentiating these two terms.
  • Usable has to do with attributes like user-friendly, intuitive, learnable, error-tolerant, etc. Essentially, how easily does the design help the user meet the goal of the design?  For example, a print dialog can be very usable if it enables a user to make all the right decisions and efficiently provide the required inputs to print a document.
  • Useful has to do with does the feature serve a goal of the user? Let's go back to the print dialog example. If the user doesn't want to print documents, if instead the user wants to export them as .XML files, then the print dialog is not very useful.
I think we would all agree that useful and usable are not mutually exclusive, but I definitely see where I spend most of my effort on useful, whereas not that long ago it seemed most of my effort was on usable. And I think it has been an appropriate shift.

I know that sounds heretical, but hear me out. There are some dynamics in my world that have made this a logical transition:
  • I work for a company that has a well-defined style guide and philosophy for its UIs.
  • I work in an engineering group that has a designated library of UI widgets.
  • My engineering group uses Agile as its development methodology.
  • I work with UI developers who are well-grounded in principles of HCI.
My interaction design is pretty well bounded by compliance and the widget library at our disposal. So there is not a lot of wiggle room for interaction design decisions--and interaction is at the core of usability.

Being Agile means that to a large degree the building of it is the designing of it. Couple this with the fact that I work with talented UI developers who have a finite bag of widgets, and I really should not waste a lot of time defining interactions they can build faster and better than I can design.

So most of my energy is spent at the front end defining scenarios and sketching wireframes that help encapsulate what the user wants to do. So when I put a calendar widget on a wireframe it tells users and stakeholders "Yes, we will accommodate the fact that you want to set date parameters around this feature." It tells the developer, "Use your stock date selector here."

In an ideal world I would circle around and do usability testing to see if all of this was usable, but I rely on our staying compliant with corporate guidelines and industry practices and the skill of the developers to reduce our usability risk. Usability is becoming a triage victim of the new economy--but largely because its risk is getting low for all of the reasons I've stated. It is a better business decision for me to worry about are we building a product the user will value, i.e., find useful, rather than are we building interactions that will be usable.

Innovative versus Conventional

OK, notice there is no and/or on this one--I went all the way to 'versus.' Yes you can have both, but it is like the treble/bass knob on your radio. The more you have one, the less you get of the other. Here, the trick is balance. I am particularly sensitive about this because I think the kind of environment I have been describing does not naturally stimulate innovation. Technology constraints, widget library limitations, and the tight time-boxing that comes with Agile means I probably will not do a lot of revolutionary interaction design. In fact, I argue in my UXmatters column that innovation can often work against usability. Users know and understand conventional interactions such as radio buttons, text fields, calendar widgets. Change those rules and you introduce usability issues.

So when should you bother with innovation?

When usefulness demands it! I just had my socks blown off this week by something that came out of the Watson Center for Research. Let's just say it was a very innovative way to have users interact with the UI. It so happened that it can be applied to a problem I'm trying to solve around helping users navigate through complex risk components that have a lot of interaction with each other. So why am I now (uncharacteristically) willing to go to bat for a UI that can't be built out of our standard widgets and which will initially befuddle the user due to its novelty? Because it will be so damn useful!

I really do believe the landscape has shifted and UX professionals should be focusing on usefulness. We can't ignore usability, but we do need to be sensitive to where usability risk is getting mitigated by well-thought out style guides, practices, pre-developed widgets, and skilled developers--and make good business decisions about putting our efforts further upstream in designing products that are useful