Attending ALA Midwinter 2015

I recently attended the ALA Midwinter 2015 conference in Chicago ( My work at ITHAKA is a great fusion of my two professional interests: UX and libraries, and this was my first chance to attend a conference for librarians.

It was quite a different experience from the UX conferences I’d been to. It seems like there are at least two kinds of UX conferences: The pure-training kind, where the program consists of sessions where you can learn about stuff. The other kind offers professional development, but also opportunities to further the agenda of the organization. Think UXPA – in addition to listening to talks about UX, you can also meet with other leaders (at the chapter or international level) to talk about the profession.

The ALA is huge, and there seem to be a ton of opportunities for librarians to get involved with the ALA. Much of the sessions were committees and interest groups getting together to talk about whatever they were interested in. That seemed to be the focus – in contrast, UX programs seem to be oriented around the speakers themselves. You pick and choose sessions based on who’s speaking and what they’re speaking about.

The sheer volume of sessions on the program was overwhelming. For any timeslot, there could be dozens, and the timeslots all overlapped with each other. On top of that, you might have to go to an entirely different hotel to get to a session you wanted to attend.

I’m glad I went, though. It was fantastic to immerse myself in the world that librarians live in. There are plenty of folks in that world interested in user experience, so I got to talk shop a few times while I was at the conference.

A Discontinuous Experience with Outlook

Sometimes (maybe often?) I wish that my desktop wasn’t treated as a completely separate platform from the iOS I use on my phone (and occasionally on an iPad).

As I continue to find better ways to deal with email, I recently tried out Microsoft’s Outlook, which they recently acquired from another company and rebranded as theirs. It does some good work – it has the ability to hide messages until you want them back, but it seems to cooperate with the labeling system I put in place for my email. It also has a nice distinction between “important” emails and “not so important emails”.

The problem actually comes in when I want to use this Outlook on my laptop. It turns out Microsoft’s Outlook for the web is actually just their free email service, corresponding to Google’s Gmail and Yahoo!’s Yahoo! Mail. It doesn’t even seem to work the same as the iOS app.

What the heck, Microsoft? You snared me with this clever little app, and then when I try to continue the experience on my laptop, you try to get me to use the latest version of Hotmail. We live in a world where people move across devices. Your product lineup needs to recognize that.

Argus and Information Architecture

Information architecture was invented twice, and one of those times, it happened in Ann Arbor. Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, two librarians in Ann Arbor, began to think about the problem of organizing information on the Internet during the 1990s and ultimately wrote the seminal “Polar Bear Book,” Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Then they started a consulting agency called Argus.

Argus is one of those places in our local professional history that acts as a nexus point. Various members of our community worked there. Argus famously (or, at least, it should be famous) worked for Borders, the now-closed Ann Arbor-based book store. In the days before the Amazon of today, Borders wanted to figure out what to do with the Internet. Argus proposed an online presence where users could buy books online. Borders turned down this idea of, basically, doing what Amazon ended up doing.

Amazon went on to be very successful. Borders entered a slow decline, eventually closing down and taking with it a local institution, a “third place” where people could mingle in their community, and a source of jobs.

Argus closed earlier in the wake of the 2001 bursting of the dot com bubble. It is nevertheless an interesting episode in our local history.

Human Factors on a Snowy Night

Last month, I had the chance to sit down with Paul Green, professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, to talk about his intersection with the local User Experience scene. It was the first interview for my history project and a good start.

I drove from downtown Ann Arbor to the University of Michigan’s North Campus on a cold January night and found my way to Professor Green’s office. It was crowded with years’ worth of papers, reports, files, and books, with just enough space for him to sit at his desk and a guest to sit next to him.

We talked for about an hour and a half about how he came to UMTRI; about the life cycle of professional organizations (which, as it turns out, is a common theme in these interviews), and the formation of ACM SIGCHI. Professor Green is actually a member of the human factors field, which is an important predecessor to human-computer interaction and, ultimately, user experience, and still a highly relevant field today.

When I left the building, everything was covered in a thick layer of fresh snow glinting in the street lights. It was a long, snowy drive home, but worth it.

Learning to Use Inbox

I’ve been trying to use Google’s Inbox for the last few days, without much luck. It’s kind of a similar situation to Mailbox, a few months back.

I’m really on board with the idea of reimagining email, though. My conclusion at this point is that the design of this rather similar apps is that they just don’t work well for me.

The thing is, to really make use of either of them to their full ability, I have to go into Gmail and turn off all the filters that automatically sort most of my messages into folders and bypass the inbox. I also need to think about a new model of handling the “to do” emails. I don’t typically think of my personal* emails as “do now” or “do in a week.” Mostly, they are “do this as soon as you have the energy to do it,” which means that my emails stick around in the inbox or relevant folder, marked unread, until I can handle them. Also, in the past year I really started using Evernote for many things, including keeping track of tasks. I hesitate to open up another source of to-dos.

The ability to make email disappear until I’m ready to handle them sounds really cool, but it’s just not the way I’ve worked – I generally don’t have specific dates where I think I can deal with them.

The bundling capability in Inbox also looks pretty cool but, again, I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on my email through heavy use of folders (or labels, if you will).

What I really want to do is try out Inbox for my work email. That’s where I always have emails that I want to follow up with at specific times and have a continuous stream of topics where I can’t really predict how I’ll want to support them. Maybe one day.

*As it turns out, “personal” actually means “personal-for-fun and personal-for-all-professional-activities-outside-my-job.”

Learning to Use a Mouse

Late last year, I was involved in usability testing and encountered something I did not expect to find. Multiple participants were completely defeated by Apple’s Magic Mouse.

Specifically, they couldn’t figure out how to scroll. This problem was compounded by the way that scrollbars vanish by default in more recent versions of OSX. To top it off, the default scroll direction recently reversed in OSX, meaning that even if these participants learned how to use the Magic Mouse, they kept scrolling the wrong way.

I didn’t expect to be helping participants learn how to use a mouse in 2014. Twenty years ago, usability texts discussed how you might find test participants that don’t have computer experience (meaning you might have to train them) and of course the older someone is, the more likely it is that they’re not experienced with computers. And I’m just coming at it from the perspective of usability testing in the USA—of course there are places in the world where people don’t use a mouse.

But we were working with American college students, and Apple made them feel stupid. I like the Magic Mouse, overall. Having the scrollbars vanish doesn’t affect my workflow. And I spent a couple of days training myself to use the new scrolling direction. For someone used to Windows or older versions of Apple’s computers, or someone that just uses a laptop all the time, walking in off the street and trying to use this lab setup was challenging and distracted them from the test tasks.

I’m not sure what to do about it yet. I’m not ready to say that we need to screen people or offer a short training session. I did go back and change the scroll direction, restore the scrollbars to always displaying, and get another mouse with a scroll wheel. Doing these things solved the immediate problem, but I’m just not sure what the long-term implications are.

About About Face 4.0

I got a copy of the fourth edition of About Face for Christmas because obviously that’s the kind of gift that I would appreciate. I read the second edition almost ten years ago and it’s a book that stuck with me over the years.

The thing I valued most when I read that book was that it altered the way I thought about design problems. The example I always reach for is the extended riff on the ubiquitous “Save” button you find in things like Word. It’s a button that you have to click (or a menu command you must choose) to commit any changes you make to the computer’s permanent memory. Sure, there is auto-save functionality but even in 2015, it is… not quite satisfactory.

Cooper argued that this is a button that shouldn’t even exist in the first place. Why doesn’t our software simply remember everything we did? It should save everything as we go. If we make mistakes, it can be corrected by also having extremely effective “Undo” functionality.

The key idea here isn’t to design a better “Save” button. The better design is nothing at all. The idea that sometimes it’s better to design nothing at all has stuck with me over the years. I’m pleased that the core of this idea, saving everything as you go, has been incorporated into more tools (though notably still not Word).

Practical Skills and Built-in Knowledge

Years back, I joined Tim Keirnan for his Design Critique podcast to talk about shaving technology. Learning about the evolution of the straight razor, safety razor, and finally the cartridge and electric razors that most people use now was what kickstarted my interest in the ways that we build knowledge into our artifacts.

When you use a straight razor—that is, a very sharp knife—you must take care of the blade, keep it honed, and hold it at a precise angle and move it in specific ways. Without the knowledge of how to use the razor, you have a suboptimal experience.

The safety razor has a lot of this knowledge built into it. It’s built to hold the blade at the right angle. Rather than maintaining the edge of the blade, the blades come sharp and are discarded once blunted.

As our artifacts become more advanced, we build more knowledge into them. More people are capable of doing more because of the spread of the knowledge. We lose the need to learn as many skills, though, and to understand the way our devices really work. Overall, I think we’re better off, but it’s interesting to keep in mind what we lose.

An outline of the history of Southeast Michigan UX

I want to research and write a history of the user experience field in Southeast Michigan. I think the heart of this effort will be, unsurprisingly, research. Other than poking around in organizations’ websites, I think the heart of this research effort will be interviewing people that were involved in our history.

I’ve been thinking a bit about how to organize the history when I sit down and writing. Obviously, this is all subject to change as I learn more, but roughly, here’s what I think:

  1. The early days of Southeast Michigan UX – TecEd and the auto industry (maybe all of time before 1996?)
  2. The time period when the University of Michigan School of Information is reorganized to include the Human-Computer Interaction discipline and the invention of the information science flavored Information Architecture (1996 – 2003ish)
  3. The era of active chapters of UPA and CHI and other organizations like IXDA and UX Network, and the growth of more academic programs in the area at WCC and MSU (2003-2010ish… I’m not sure where exactly to put the boundaries of this time period, and there may be enough going on here that it’s worth cutting up further)
  4. A flowering of new organizations, while older chapters diminish (2010 – today)

That third part in particular has a lot going on, so it’s ripe for subdivision. It’s also worth noting that this division is chronological, but it may make more sense to slice up the material by themes or to follow particular threads. My concern is that simply covering everything year by year would just result in a jumbled-up timeline.

A Brief History of UX in Southeast Michigan

How did the user experience community in Southeast Michigan get to where it is today? At the UXPA/CHI/STC holiday mixer a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded again of just how much information about our history exists in people’s heads and nowhere else.

This isn’t news, and I’m not the first person to think of it by far. There’s certainly recognition out there that the founding figures in HCI aren’t going to live forever, and if we want to preserve any of our field’s history, we’d better start writing it down.

Indeed, writing about history from the past twenty years or so presents some interesting challenges that history from previous times did not—much of our correspondence has moved to email. I imagine that in the future where storage is cheap and the Internet never forgets, historians will drown in the amount of electronic correspondence available to them (emails, tweets, and the like). However, years and years of my own digital communications are completely lost, and I suspect I’m not the only one. There’s a time period—say, the 90s and 00s—where our emails were much more ephemeral than today.

That’s a problem for historians working in the future, though. My immediate problem is that there are a lot of living people with knowledge in their heads rather than knowledge that’s written down. I don’t want to write a comprehensive history of HCI, though that would be fascinating to read. I don’t even think I could cover all of Michigan. Southeast Michigan alone is interesting enough.

After all, this is the region that produced TecEd, a respected user research company, an early iSchool in the form of the University of Michigan School of Information, and the place where information architecture was born one of the two times it was born. This area has seen chapters of the UXPA and ACM SIGCHI rise and decline, and an explosion of independent groups. I want to get out there and interview the people that were around for these events.

I don’t know exactly what I will write, where I will write, or how long it will be, but the more I think about it, the more I want to do this.

2012 was the year of the analytics book. 2015 will be the year of the history project.