The Sweet Spot
On software, engineering leadership, and anything shiny.

UX Week: Day 1

I’m here in San Francisco at UXweek 2009, sent by Riverbed, determined to learn all I can and rub shoulders with the best and brightest minds in the industry. It’s been a really cool couple of days so far. I’ve met some really cool designers and got to pick their brains on their team practices. The food, oh the food: it’s excellent (ahi tuna? creme brulee? smoked salmon? green tea cookies? Pinch me.)

Um, back to the main subject: I also attended a bunch of seminars and heard some brilliant talks.

Keynote - Matias Duarte - Designing webOS

Day 1 - Matias Duarte - Palm

Matias came up and talked about how the process of webOS came to be. They apparently began with a vision of the “Mad Men” 1960’s-style office environment, complete with the desk, paper calendar, wall clock, assistant, etc etc. He proceeded to label each set of office equipment to its attributes, and showed us how that feature eventually made its way into the UI.

Most folks I talked to, however, weren’t convinced that this was the exact ideation process behind the scenes–the “Mad Men” desk metaphor seemed just too perfect to fall together like that. Someone commented to me that that kind of pitch was what it would have taken to sell it to the higher-ups at Palm. All of us were pretty impressed by the OS, though. I’m sure a few iPhone users even got jealous.

All in all, their prototyping process took 6 months, involving paper, cardboard, cutouts, etc.

Take-home points:

Aaron Forth - mint.com - Why Good UX and Design are Successful

Day 1 - Aaron Forth - Mint.com

Aaron’s talk was a bit more business-oriented–I kind of felt like I was in some sort of entrepreneurship seminar! He gave a good glimpse on how mint.com developed in the early years.

“User experience is where strategy must begin.”

Branding challenge: unknown brand, small marketing budget, security concerns, legacy of user frustration in the industry. “mint”: refreshing, organic, different, benefits-oriented.

Design: Aaron mentioned how Mint’s design (a clean, airy feel) overcame the male-oriented nature of browsing patterns for certain Web sites. They have a 50/50 distribution.

User experience principles:

“Mint’s competitive advantage is that we build faster than the competition.” Aaron cited an example that the development team spent 20% of its cycles developing for IE6–so they decided to drop support for it, opting to degrade gracefully and provide the right sort of upgrade message to IE6 users. This revelation provoked a lot of buzz among the audience. Drop IE6 support? Risky for some, but for a startup like Mint where development cycles are sparse, maybe that’s what needs to be done.

Aaron talked about turning security concerns on its head. “You can’t afford not to use Mint with your account information spread all over the Web.”

Audience member asked a question: “How does your revenue model affect user experience?” Aaron’s response: “We make money only if the user saves money”–that is, if the user has a good experience. How specifically? Lead generation for financial services (new credit card, etc).

On usability testing: Mint hasn’t done formal usability studies, rather going with a “friends and family usability” testing model–an informal way to dogfood the interface with friends and family.

Bernhard Seefeld and Elizabeth Windram - How Google Maps Keeps Innovating

Seefeld - PM
Windram - UX

Principles for innovation:

Changemakers.com Redesign: Charlie Brown and Henning Fischer

Day 1 - Henning Fischer and Charlie Brown (Changemakers.com)

Social entrepreneurship site seeks redesign of static site to facilitate community interactions. This wasn’t too relevant to me, but some interesting points came up;

Seminar - Rachel Glaves - Sketching Fundamentals

Oh boy, my favorite part of the day–sketching class! We were given a bunch of Sharpies of different weights. (TODO: Here’s where I need to scan in my notebook sketches so these techniques make more sense. I’ll get around to them soon.)

We started out by practicing drawing straight lines and boxes. **Tip for straight lines: **draw from your shoulder, moving your whole arm (rather than drawing from your elbow). It helps to look at destination point and then draw toward that.

Draw in pen, not pencil. You can’t get the same amount of visual boldness, and you don’t have to waste your time retracing your drawings. Drawing in pen also helps you get over the need for perfection. If you mess up, just cross it out.

Techniques to increase visual weight:

Some tips when sketching interface mockups: