big data needs big tools to sort it

The idea of “big data” is very popular in big business, but it’s trickling down into a lot of other things we use. This should be good; more is better, of course. Well, it is when it doesn’t add to complexity of use. I wanted to share an example of a less than great implementation of big data in a consumer use case…

strava heatmaps

This is the route builder in popular bicycle ride tracking app, Strava. It has a “heat maps” feature that is the big data implementation. It does some mathematical aggregation of all ride traffic to give an idea of how often individual roads are used. The idea, at least I think, is to help you choose “better” bike routes based on the logic that the most people would use the best route. (whatever “best” is a measure of) This is kind of handy in some areas.. Rural places. Small Towns, like Lafayette, where I moved from. But in highly populated areas, like San Diego, where I am now, it’s not as useful. There is a lot of tourist traffic, making some paths, like beachside walkways with high foot traffic, appear to be the right place to ride. My choice of “best” comes from wanting to get to work fast or wanting a hard training ride, so dealing with foot traffic is far from ideal.. but there’s no way to separate it out.

Strava has already started to divide groups by population in other features. “Segments” of routes show a listing by time duration of every user that’s ridden them. This feature has long had a gender segregation, but more recently for paid members offers filtering by age and by weight. Why is this useful? Well, it helps competitive cyclists know how they are doing against other people they might be racing.

I’d really like to see them add to this – it would be great if there was a way to break down the heat map by some categorization. Maybe it’s just max speed on that particular ride. This could weed out the beach cruiser people, or, depending on what you were trying to get out of it, could weed out the folks who are competitive/training.

Regardless, I think this is a decent illustration of lots of data needing more advanced tools to be useful. I think we’re going to be seeing more and more of this as time goes on. It’s a rife place for Interaction Designers to develop new standards.

Skills to help you land a UX job.

This past weekend I had the chance to attend the IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) Western district conference.  I’ve been to several IDSA events in the past, but skipped last years. It was good to get back and hang out with the Industrial Design “tribe”. (The idea of tribes were one of the themes of this years event) I met a lot of nice people, learned a lot of new things, and had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative “design swarm”.

On the flip side, as a UX designer, I was one of a minority. It’s not a huge difference – much of the methodology of the two disciplines is the same, and many Industrial Designers are taking work in UX as of late. Still, I felt like a bit of a representative of the UX side of things, and people were asking me questions.

Two of the most common questions I heard were: “How do I get a job in UX?” and “What goes in a UX portfolio?” These are both particularly salient areas of thought since UX as a field is still relatively new. Trying to come up with answers on the spot got my mind working, and I put together a short list of things that I think should go into a UX portfolio. I think these things are really representative of the work that happens in industry (at least as far as I’ve seen) and also the stuff that really provides value – whether that’s to clients, or development teams or project managers.

Situational Awareness / Presentation skills

This is not as much a portfolio piece as it is a factor in how the portfolio is presented. And this is a tough one to demonstrate. There are two main factors here:

  1. UX folks should be dealing with people who use, or will use whatever it is that’s being designed. We could pawn that off onto a researcher, but throwing this kind of stuff over the wall is a waste of opportunity. That said, a designer has to be sensitive to those being interviewed/observed and understand their needs; even if it’s just in the context of the interview.
  2. You have to present your work to someone at the end of the project. If you’re just presenting it to your design director, maybe it doesn’t matter as much how you approach the presentation, but there is real value in being able to talk to a dev team, a PM or even the C suite. You have to know what drives them, and address it as you talk about your work.

Structured Research

I’ve seen a lot of really nice student projects with absolutely no basis in research. (or reality) Make sure you’re showing that you can do the science to prove to your audience that you made the right design decisions.

Sometimes just having research isn’t enough. It has to be structured. What was your plan going into the research? Did you have key questions that you asked all respondents? How did you choose them? What did the results statistically tell you?

Insights

Insights are kind of easy. Most designers have these throughout. But as in the above, can you tie the insights to real data and real users?

Process

Industrial design has really provided us a lot of structure in terms of documentation. Any ID process book is a good starting point. It’s important to talk about all of the design activities you did, but maybe more importantly, you should tell why you did them.

Wireframes / Prototyping

This is a gimmie. Everyone should know how to do basic wireframes. But go further – make sure they’re annotated and explain the functionality and the reasons that design decisions were made.

Detailed Design

It’s the next step after wireframes. Know how to specify visual style in a “pixel perfect” way, and be able to show and explain design patterns.

Information Visualization

As we move further into a “big data” world, it’s important to be able to use visuals to help users make sense of statistical data. It’s one thing to come up with a flashy, novel idea, but another to make something that is easy for a user to get use out of.

Strategy

Strategy is emerging as an important part of the UX package as more businesses are using UX to drive sales. The idea is to understand the business goals, design for them, and explain why your design helps the company achieve them. You could say that this is designing with an eye to the business, but it should be more holistic – How does this impact the dev team? How can the marketing team make use of your work?

 

 

 

There are surely many other things I could put in here, but these are the things that guide my work. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in flashy presentation, which is great in it’s own right, but the real value is giving your clients a good return on their investment, and I think the above list does that.

Style guides

This is surely something from the boring side of design, but I figured it was worth throwing up here.

As a part of my thesis work I’ve come to a point where it seems prudent to develop a style guide. I’ve done one of these once before for a student data management web app, but it was a pretty low impact affair. The one I’m doing now is a little more robust, and kind of spans the two different types of style guides that I’m aware of – Brand and Layout.

Both of these have some bleed into each other, but I think each is important for it’s own reason. For my project I’m doing a slight re-branding, something that the company hasn’t really thought about for 40 years. This is particularly important because the company doesn’t have a mission statement, and their existing brand is a little watered down by a non-specific name and failure to adapt the brand when the core product/service changed.

Among some of the other resources I used to try and figure out what should go in here was this article which provides links to several corporate brand guides that I thought were pretty useful.
20 Inspiring Brand Guides

From this, the key elements that I’m including in the brand guide are:

brand values
a new logo and usage guide
colorway and usage guide
type faces

Layout is another very important part of my thesis, as I will be designing a website, interactive touch screen displays and in-store signage. In fact, these needs are really the impetus for taking on a style guide, as it should make it quicker to churn these out with consistency. This is also a little bit of a headache, as I’d originally hoped that I would be playing the role of designer in a strict way for these parts – with output being hi fidelity photoshop/illustrator mockups. This would have freed up _a lot_ of my time, but my committee, probably rightly so, requested that I actually build out functional stuff. What this means for a layout oriented style guide is that it’s going to be more of a CSS pattern library. Here’s an article I found that was a pretty good example. Creating Style Guides.  I would love to find something that’s a little more verbose as far as a bullet list of elements I need, but this is highly dependent on the project I suppose so it might be a tall order.

So far here are the sections I’m working with:

web site (incl component CSS patterns)
touch screen
signage

Anyway, I had better get back to it. Just wanted to post those links because I thought they were useful.

Tiny living as a fallback plan rather than a choice

So I just saw this quick little interview with a woman who is car living with her family because they can’t afford a house/apartment. I think it’s interesting to look at the smaller living trend from this perspective.

One issue herein that I’ve already encountered in a discussion with a friend is how children fit into the tiny living philosophy. I don’t think this lifestyle is expressly for people subscribing to a child-free lifestyle. Jay Shafer has approached the issue by building a separate tiny house for his wife and child, while his original one remains his office/workspace.. but does that defeat the purpose? What is the right size tiny house for a child? 

Also, I feel like maybe the element of community is the biggest issue for car-dwellars in cases like this. The family is having to adapt to this new lifestyle, but they are also trying to keep it secret out of shame. If there were places where people living this lifestyle (by choice or not) could gather together, it might not be so bad.

I experienced a state park camp ground for the first time in probably 20 years recently. It was eye opening, I didn’t think people still recreationally camped, but the large campground was sold out! It was much as I’d imagine a car-dweller community would be – places to park, bath houses, and lots of people hanging out outside, often in groups. Children were a lot more free roaming and unattended, and everyone just seemed friendly. If something like this were put in the proximity of a city, or if a shuttle ran from the campground to the city, it seems like it would be pretty functional.

Just thinking… 

Music that matters (to me) – Waltham/Damone

There are ongoing themes in my listening habits; at the most fundamental, bands that I tend to revisit occasionally. Sometimes it’s more about the body of work of a specific musican or group of musicians. In this case, I wanted to post about a couple of bands that I keep coming back to, and the common denominator is guitarist Dave Pino.

I think my introduction to Pino was the band Damone, and specifically their album “From the Attic” which saw major label release on RCA in ’03. (a version of it had previously been self released as “This Summer” under the band name “Noelle”) I really wish I could remember how I found this album, but I’m totally drawing a blank. It was around the time that I was the operating station manager for the short lived Purdue Student Radio station which would be the sensible discovery avenue, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. I do know that the single “Frustrated Unnoticed” was the first song I heard, and it felt like a different production style than the rest of the record, but regardless, “From the Attic” was, and continues to be a very captivating album for me. The lyrics were all penned by Pino, supposedly as a means to get back a girl who had dumped him.  A band was formed around these songs when Pino encountered Noelle LeBlanc, then still in high school. On this album in particular, Noelle’s inexperienced yet honest vocal delivery is the perfect match for the adolescent-ish tales of lost love. This feature is something that I’ve struggled to explain to people who are used to well polished and professional singers. There’s just something real and personal about it.

Here’s a very early public access in-studio of the band complete with the oddball-ness of Pino rocking a doubleneck SG; apparently the norm for him while in this band:

It must have been around 2006 when I found out about the band, because I remember their second album surfacing. I had been telling people how cool Damone was, and they would go listen to the couple of early release tracks on myspace (sic) and tell me I was stupid because the band was terrible. The band had very much changed. Instead of the 80’s influenced pop-rocking featured on “From the Attic”, the new record, “Out Here All Night” was showing a lot more thrash metal influence, while keeping the power-pop choruses in place. Noelle’s performance was a lot more confident, no doubt built up from years of playing shows. It lost some of the charm though, I think. Another really obvious thing was the absence of Pino from the videos. He’s still credited for the album, but I question what level he was involved.. As I encountered more of his body of work, it seems like this material wasn’t as much “him”. The band released a third album in ’09, but to be honest, I haven’t even listened. I think I’m only in it for the first one. Apparently the band has folded, but Noelle continues with solo work as well as a band called The Organ Beats.

 

At some point I realized that Pino was really the mastermind behind the Damone record that I enjoyed so much, and I started digging to see what he was up to after leaving Damone. There were a few bits and pieces out there. Notably, this youtube video of his process in learning to throw a guitar around his body, a showmanship bit that had some popularity at the time. (I must admit I suffered some injuries attempting the same myself)

There were also a handful of really cool guitar lesson videos he had done, breaking down some of the more difficult parts of Damone songs. Here’s the only one I can find that’s still on youtube:

Perhaps the most relevant thing I found though was Pino’s previous band Waltham, (to those of us not from the east coast, it’s pronounced “Walth Am”) and this great little bio pic that someone made of them:

The whole angle is great. it’s kind of a slightly modernized take on 80’s stuff like Rick Springfield. It’s kind of gimmicky, but still good enough to enjoy. In my excitement about the band, I started telling friends, and oddly, a couple of people I knew were aware of these guys. My buddy John had been living out in Boston and recognized some of the guys in the band from their day jobs at Guitar Center. My friend Karen who had lived in Sommerville told me about the Pizza place that Dave’s father owned.

Showing a bit of a pattern, the band continued but Dave was gone. The 2003 release “Permission to Build” had all the same charming Pino features that Damone’s “From the Attic” did, but the follow up EPs were lack luster. Still the band made a major label run in ’05 with some touring through Germany. After a long hiatus, they put out another collection of songs through band camp in 2013 as “Wicked Waltham” but it seems like they only play new years eve events and the occasional charity show at this point. Still, they left behind some good music and some entertaining, albeit slightly hokey videos like this one:

Pino now seems to be a bit of a hired gun, playing with the band Powerman 5000 and Andrew W. K.

Let’s think about this for a sec – Tiny houses and zoning

Media coverage of developments in tiny homes usually focuses on how pretty you can make your little house, with lots of exterior shots of fancy colored homes. I think this trend has a tendency to keep us from looking at some of the bigger issues regarding small living that are getting glossed over.

If you’ve seen any of the interviews with Jay Shafer, then you know that one of his big issues is the legality of small living. Most folks that go this route put their house on wheels because it then qualifies as an RV, and escapes a lot of the scrutiny that a permanently placed home might. In the following video, the issue of zoning is raised. It’s definitely an interesting topic, and I think that maybe in the long run, it would do us more good to focus on these legalities more than the pretty designs that will continue to be presented to us.

After I started thinking about the topic, I really feel that _some_ regulation is a good thing. If the tiny house trend continues it’s popularity, we could have a large number of these showing up in surprising places, which could lead to problems. The video has one zoning official stating that she’s worried about “squatter camps” showing up, which I think is unlikely.. the reality though is that the definition of a squatter may vary from one person to another. I’m more worried about safety issues like fire hazards or black/grey water dumping.

The current popular thought on this issue seems to be circumventing zoning issues altogether by going with a “trailer park” model of property management, wherein a company owns a lot of private space and allows people to put their houses there for a fee. It’s not a bad idea, but I imagine it too could use a regulatory refresh before this style of living grows.

As an aside, I had no idea that Houston was so zoning free. It’s an interesting model and seems to have met reasonable success. Too bad it’s in Texas. ha!

Tiny house designed by a shipbuilder.

I’m going to try and start adding more frequent but shorter posts. Many are going to be videos I find, and such is the case with this one.

Here’s a video documenting an interesting tiny home in New Zealand designed by someone with ship building experience. I think the ship connection is interesting because boats with living area have similar or more rigid constraints as tiny houses. This particular house didn’t have much that was ground breaking, but there are a couple of notable differences from what I’ve seen in other small houses.

The first is that he skipped the gabled roof that has become popular if not requisite in tiny homes, which are probably the result of the popularity of Jay Shafer’s works. In this example, he ends up with a really tall house overall, which seems like it might be a pain to haul around, but the sleeping space sure seems a lot nicer.

Second, he’s running 12V electricity through the home. This allows him to not need a central power inverter, and also keeps him from having to deal with high voltage wiring. Interesting short cut, but I think I’d rather have 120V outlets, just the same.

On his 12V system, he’s also got a water pump for his plumbing. In all of the tiny house projects I’ve looked at, I’ve not noticed this before. Seems like most people use a gravity feed system, often based on a cistern. The pump makes sense when you consider that he has a 300l water storage inside the house. He used a “flexitank”, something from the boat world, and stashed it under the sofa. Pretty interesting, and I think it would provide some peace of mind if you’re living off grid for a while.

Finally, I thought his approach to the composting toilet was interesting. Since it’s just a bucket in a box, he didn’t build it into the house. Instead, it’s mobile, and can be slid under a cabinet or taken outside when not in use.