Tuesday, November 25, 2008

CanUX - Banff - Nov 16th-18th, 2008

CanUX - Banff - November 16th-18th, 2008


This is a seriously smaller conference than I have attended for a long-time, and I was looking forward to the intimacy in contrast to the large scale organization and co-ordination that you get at conferences like CHI. This conference puts a cap on 70 people - with the intent to keep it small and focused. It is organized by nForm Experience Consulting, based on Edmonton.

The first session was a design slam:

Design Slam

We started the conference with a hands-on design activity. The 'clients' were a somewhat ailing airline: Best-Jet, serving North America internal flights, and also running vacation destination trips to Mexico. In turn, each of the four employees of the company, in their respective roles - CEO, operations, sales, marketing, gave their respective concerns about the company, and the changes that they'd like to see, and they also provided a bit of customer feedback data. 

The task was broad - to create a plan to improve experience for customers; but it mustn't cost too much because of financial issues the company is facing. The experience needed to be accessible, and personalized.

Each table - of about 7 people - were the consulting company, and needed to come up with a competitive pitch. In all the responses from each table were remarkably similar. Most teams had considered a few primary personas: the business traveller, the vacation traveller, and families. Teams had particularly looked at the common needs these personas had, and created a proposal to address these needs, as well as the issue that had been raised of the lack of engagement of cabin staff.

The pitches presented to the client were also aligned by considering the experience before, during, and after the flight, and teams advocated piloting the improvements in a phased approach.

Here are some of the suggestions that were scoped out:

  • Build an on-line profile, based on existing infrastructure of frequent flier miles.
  • Profiles can be used as the basis to building 'groups': frequent travel partners, families.
  • Develop a system that captures info to provide a more personalized experience based on preferences, and enables in-flight options to be automatically 'turned on' for assigned seat.
  • Advance info. about food options, entertainment options (even this level of info. doesn't exist today - and passengers are forced to make decisions about what food to consume before the flight, and what personal entertainment to bring - without knowing what will be offered in-flight).

  • Profile info. of customers enables cabin staff to serve needs, increases function and meaningfulness of job, increases job satisfaction, and motivation.
  • If seat gets switched, profile gets moved automatically.
  • Using profile info. to define seating zones, such as the family-friendly, work, and sleep zones.
  • In-flight internet access - enabling business travelers to access documents in the cloud, online shopping etc.
  • Provide the option of in-seat screen internet access + keyboard (as opposed to having to manage a laptop on-flight).
  • Enable plug-in in-seat screen use - direct from laptop - so that all documents can be accessed via the in-seat screen. Use of a privacy screen with this.
  • Enable automatic uploading of photos to your favorite online site. Provide option to make public for an in-flight slide-show, that collates photos from passengers and shows them on a channel of the in-seat entertainment system.
  • In-flight chat options, multi-player gaming options (like Virgin America is planning to provide).
  • Travel destination information, ability to purchase local attraction passes.
  • For destination travel, enable co-branded flights ("the fun starts before you board the plane").
  • Partnership with Google for online info. system: AdWords & AdSense
  • Partnership with Amazon: Kindle - use on aircraft, and rental for vacation; pre-loaded with material related to your profile.
  • In-flight survey, rewarded with milage points.
  • Automated in-flight notifications sent to 'your flight collection contact', updating arrival info.
  • Faster existing aircraft - utilize all 3 exits.

  • Update profile with data from flight. Personal analytics of flights: games played and scored, movies watched, photos etc.

The Design Slam worked well as a first session. It got us to know each other, and think broadly about changes that could be made to an end-to-end user experience.

Web Form Design - Luke Wroblewski

Luke kicked off the second day of the conference with a presentation on web form design.

He started off by giving plenty of illustrations of web forms that suck, and using big numbers to help us realize the inpact of having bad form design: such a numbers of forms that are filled in for ebay, given that 30,000 people in the US alone make their living off ebay, and it being the 30th largest economy in the world. The main structure of the presentation revolved aound considering 10 fixes to (an old version of ) a form that users need to complete to use Boingo (the wifi connection service).

Luke kept the audience attentive during the two hour session, not least by his relaxed and engaging style of presenting, as well as simply having insightful and interesting content; but he also engaged the audience in a game of web-form-design bingo! Prior to delivering the content, he requested that we note 10 ways that the Boingo form could be improved, and then during the presentation we matched our answers to his suggestions. This provided a bit of fun, and a game-like quality to the presentation.

The top 10 suggestions that he gave were:

1. Create a clear path to completion for the user
2. Fix labels - in this case by top aligning them
3. Minimize the help and tips required
4. Provide validation in-line: example - user name availability
5. Make a distinction between primary and secondary actions
6. Make it clear what's going on, when actions require some time to process
7. Clearly communicate an error has occured, through top-placement and visual contrast
8. Remove fields that ask for info. that is not needed
9. Improve form organization: examples: grouping of questions, speak with one voice using natural language
10. Employ gradual engagement: enable them to experience your product (even a bit of it) prior to requiring them to sign-up

Luke emphasized that these principles work for small and simple forms, as well as large and complex ones. Large complex forms can typically be made much simpler, by striping out unnecessary segments. A quote, that his team back at ebay apparently put on their slides when purusing an endeavor to reduce form complexity: "no one raindrop believes that they are to blame for the flood." Finally, the idea of gradual engagement is somewhat new online, and something that we will see more and more of. Inspiration for this comes from Will Wright, creator of Sims, and Spore, who has emphasized that people should have success with your product within the first 5 minutes.

Luke's materials on web form design can be found at:

UX Swimlanes - Yvonne Shek

This presentation was about creating swim lanes for use in design. Swim lanes are a bird's eye view of a story, scenario, or working component - that shows the user's experience, business processes, and under lying technical systems that support the story.

Yvonne presented an example of swim lanes, that supports materials tailored for execs and project sponsors (comics), project managers, ux, mid level business, and tech / architecture types (tools and systems).

Swim labes are used very early on in the project ideally, in order to get everyone on the same page & buy-in. They help to define the process, and the scope. Developing swim lanes involves understandint the user, their goals, motives and tasks, and also maps out the start point, end point, and outcomes.

More materials on swim lanes can be found at:

Session - Banff Centre, Creativity


Trainiers from the Banff Center provided 3 options for creativity leadership experience: (i) collage creation (ii) drum rhythm from around the world (iii) improv

I chose the improv class, and enojoyed an afternoon of creativity and leadership awareness improve techniques. The introduction to this reviewed the ideas around improv, and we started off by partnering up to engage in a unique form of introductions, comparing the environment youcome from (where you grew up), with the environment you are currently in. This enabled us to focus on who we are, rather than the standard details about what we do.

Much of the session involved experiences improv activities, starting withe the class 'red ball' activity:                      

o improv ball-throwing with everyone in a circle
o improv ball-throwing in pairs, repeating the sound of the ball, and making a new one
o improv reflection mimiking, with one person the driver, and the other the follower, then both 'following'
o improv statues, with each new statue, resulting from the previous

Some important insights from this session included:
  • Learn to banish the inner critic, either through working quickly - and not giving it time to surface, or by boring it away. If you move quickly, and 'just do' then unique ideas are surfaced. If you lull it to sleep then you can free yourself from its contraints.
  • Attend to non-verbal communication to better understand what is being communicated.
  • Don't over-think things. Allow ideas to emerge.
  • Other professions (music, sports) are primarily about practice - as leaders we need to create opportunities to practice.
  • If teams can work together well, they can improvise, and find new inspiration and ideas. They are likely to produce fruitful, impactful work, and these may devaiate, and be better than, initial plans.

Jerome created the five sketches technique to instill good thorough design-processes in his work place, in a situation where there were no designers, and developers did design. In previous situations he had got tired of design falling at the end of the process, with insufficient attention paid to it. Jerome developed a method, inspired by several areas: parallel design (multiple designs), Six Hats (de Bono), and Conative preferences (your doing style: generator, implementor, conceptualizer, optimizer).

Parallel design is at the heart of the method - and is a technique that comes from Bill Buxton. The intention is to saturate the design space. It involves having several developers independently propose designs, and combining them. The process as a whole starts with a discussion of the problem, and defining the problem. After this each developer sketches 5 ideas, and the sketches are presented. Ideas from the sketches are then mashed up, analysis conducted, and a sketch written.

Some of the benefits realized by employing this '5 designs-or-else" have included increasing and improving creativity fitness levels, changing corporate culture, increasing the engagement of employees and saving time and money. Jerome has also found use of the technique influences future design.

Show and Tell Reception


The show-and-tell reception was fun. From data visualization and artistic work, to a cartoon creation site for kids, through the IA redesign of a government city website, through swim lanes that were used as the backbone of a coporate presentation that utilized photo-based cartoons. 


Brandon extended the emerging theme of the conference - of sketching, getting stuff done quickly, and exploring multiple ideas. In contrast to using wireframes, he'd been looking for a method that avoids unnecessary details, reveals the best of multiple solutions, & gets everyones input and buy-in.                       

The solution incolves plenty of sketching, creating sketchboards, sharing and incorporating feedback, bringing it altogether and working in a sprint. The process involves both exploratory sketching for getting initial ideas out - which involves getting out lots of rough and varied ideas, and refinement sketching.

Exploratory Sketching
So, we had a go - first with exploratory sketching - using a 6-up template - and filling the page with multiple ideas in 6 minutes. The project that we were given was to engage with some aspect of 'Facebook for the Intranet'. The ideas here is just to free up your mind and get some ideas out. Here's mine:

Brendon provided some techniques and resources to help with exploratory sketching:
  • Word Play: Consult lists of words, (e.g. autocomplete, booklist, quicklook, tabes, steps, starts, drag & drop, tags and tag clouds, trees, work areas, etc.).
  • Inspiration libraries: use a good screen capturing tool, and photo tool and build your own huge inventory of different things that you can do.
  • Conceptual models: any idea that you have is just a point in space, so you need to find out the rest of the space - use spectrums, 2x2's, grids. e.g. 2x2 Active to Passive, Anonymous to Familiar.
  • Presentation, Leah BuleyHow to be a UX team of one (presentation on slideshare). 

Refinement sketching
After exploratory sketching comes refinement sketching, where you move into one or two of those ideas, and focus on those better ideas. This sketch should be on the 1-up page. 

In order to get people to focus where you want them to:
  • use designer markers: - cool and warm gray
  • Switch out line weight
  • double trace
  • Using cross-hatching to take the focus away from certain areas. 
Also at this stage, take time to create call-outs; but not to the level of wireframes, and even here do multiple sketches where beneficial.

The sketchboard stage usess a very large sheet of paper, and you'll get input from the whole team. The board should be filled with sketches. On this board requirements and personas can be added, steps and processes should be laid out. Bradon also had a handy tip - to use drafting dots to reposition pages, which are more flexible than tape, and can be repositioned on the fly.

Facilitation stage
The facilitation stage is where, ideas are shared, and a discussion is facilitated. At this stage there can be a lot of drawing going on, on top of the sketchboard. It becomes this annotated living document, that everyone can draw on. Pass the pen - if you don't like how this is drawn - then pass the pen to them. Lot's of standing. You can also assess who is engaged, and who is not.

Bringing this all together, and making it work typically involves a 5-day sprint:

Monday: Brain dump, start sketches
Tuesday: Assemble sketchboard, Share and review sketchboard
Wednesday: Create higher fidelity designs
Thursday: Share higher fidelity designs, Refine designs
Friday: Keep refining designs, complete designs

Sprints are exhausting, and need to be scoped. Brandon commented, that he'd once worked on a week long sprint that was only about the left-hand nav.

This process is therefore about enabling the right ideas at the right time, having a lot of ideas, and making a design activity that everyone can get involved with.

In Conclusion

I recommend CanUX. Don't go with colleagues - then it's easy to make friends with new people that you meet there, and the small numbers of attendees encourages a feeling of friendship. I liked the fact that many of the sessions incorporated activities, and were very hands-on.