It’s been quite a while since the last blog post back in June. Last week was a pretty cold week here in London and this photo reminded me of the first ever post on this blog made back in January.

The UK (Nov 2010)... made me ill for a week.

If you live in England, you’ll know that England is probably better at preparing for war than it is at preparing for a snowy winter. Alas. At least it hasn’t been as bad as winter in Siberia.

There haven’t been many posts on in 2010. I’ve had loads of ideas for posts, but have been too busy diving into the different areas of UX and Interaction Design, reading every book I could get my hand on. I’ve learned loads and it’s probably been the most creative and idea generating (apparently ‘ideating’ is a word) year I’ve ever had. Nowadays the sketchpad is always in the bag to scribble stuff on even on the daily London commute.

This is all Boris's fault.

There has been a lot to learn, and only 24 hours per day. This post talks about how UX is broadly split up into 5 main areas, and this one talks about how getting good at them all is a lot of work. UX and Interaction Design require a mixture of technical and artistic skills such as coding, information architecture and design, graphic design, typography, business strategy, psychology, human factors, ethnography and subject matter expertise in a range of industries.

It’s a bit like architecture in the real world. In his book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Matthew Frederick wraps things up with:

Most architects do not hit their professional stride until around age 50!

There is perhaps no other profession that requires one to integrate such a broad range of knowledge in history, art, sociology, physics, psychology, materiality, symbology, political process, and innumerable other fields, and must create a building that meets regulatory codes, keeps out the weather, withstands earthquakes, has functioning elevators and mechanical systems, and meets the complex functional and emotional needs of its users. Learning to integrate so many concerns into a cohesive product takes a long time, with lots of trial and error along the way.

If you’re going to be in the field of architecture, be in it for the long haul. It’s worth it.

UX is similar to architecture on this note. For sure, UX is currently not as highly regulated a profession as architecture and it takes years to learn architecture regulations. But it is very cross-disciplinary, and what gets displayed on a computer screen is limited only by the imagination, whereas architecture is limited somewhat by the laws of physics. It’s also worth considering how the pace of change in the digital world is many times faster than in the physical world, which makes keeping up with the latest trends in the field of UX even more challenging.

Sometimes, impatience is a virtue, and it got me thinking about how people learn and how one can learn faster. Ironically, after years of studying at school and university, I bought The Good Study Guide, which was “good”, and has a “good” section on how in an ever-changing world, the best thing we can all do is invest in our ability to learn, because we’re all life long learners now.

Hopefully more posts from now on…

What was the last thing you did that totally engaged your mind and made you forget about everything else?

Watching a film maybe? Or reading a book? Playing Tennis? Eating Filet Mignon?

Filling in a survey? Tweaking your social networking privacy settings?

Maybe like me, you’re glued to your computer for hours each night doing “stuff” except you’re not really sure what that stuff is. Just that it takes up all your time and attention, and is very, very important. Sadly you are also under Sheila’s spell.

But you were probably quite happy to be in such a state of engagement, and to some extent were probably bummed when it ended, right? When you were no longer in the zone…

And User Experience Design is all about designing to help engage users in their activities.

Why is that important?

Well, a chap called Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi (only 13/26 in case you were wondering) carried out some research on how great athletes, chess grandmasters, programmers, surgeons or painters felt when they were in the zone performing at the peak of their abilities. Then he wrote a book on his findings called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

As Professor Csikszentimihalyi summarises, there are eight commonly reported traits that naturally result from being in flow:

  1. Clarity: The goal of the activity is clear. Not conflicting. Not confusing. And not just the overall goal. At every stage you know what to do next.
  2. Feedback: Feedback is immediate. At every step, you are given feedback allowing you to make your next move. Otherwise you’ll get bored, distracted and won’t be alert.
  3. Challenge: The challenge of the activity matches your skill level: not so easy that you get bored, and not so difficult that you get overwhelmed.
  4. Focus: Your attention is concentrated and you are focussed on what you’re doing. Generally, our brains are constantly switching between doing something and monitoring the result. But when in flow, these two merge into one beam.
  5. Distractions: You’re not distracted by everyday problems or frustrations. You’re so engaged in what you’re doing that you can’t afford to think about something else. So a side effect of flow is how it can be a form of escaping reality.
  6. Control: You’re in control. But not totally… if it was too easy you’d get bored or complacent. You’re on an edge but still in control.
  7. Confidence: You lose self consciousness. You stop worrying about what others think because you don’t have this luxury. You’re doing something more important. As a result, losing self consciousness while in flow can mean you appear more confident than you normally might.
  8. Timing: Your sense of time gets transformed in some way. You might spend what felt like a few minutes doing something only to discover you were doing it for hours. The time just flew by. Or the opposite might happen and everything slows down and you can see the ball actually bounce off the racket strings like Neo would if he played tennis.
Neo serving.

But Professor Csikszentimihalyi also talks about people having a certain type of “autotelic” personality… people who are naturally able to keep themselves in a state of flow by trying to apply the feeling of being in flow even to their everyday tasks and chores (alas, a third of our waking lives are spent on such maintenance activities as housework, brushing teeth, or twitter).

So flow is something we should aim for when carrying out any activity, especially now that we recognise the characteristics of flow. In a way, flow is the most we can expect from ourselves.

And if you run a business, imagine designing the Holy Grail of all systems – a system that engages and motivates your employees to work harder, faster and with more enjoyment. Almost as if they were trying to beat their hi-scores on a computer game all day…

There are quite a few terms such as User Experience Designer, Interaction Designer and Information Architect flying around… what are the differences?

I think this diagram tries to explain it, but I don’t have a clear idea just yet.

Just a short post this time. Here’s a bunch of links that you might find useful.

So you wanna be a user experience designer?

10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Interaction Design

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture

25 User Experience Videos That Are Worth Your Time

So although it’s a short post, it’s massive in terms of information once you’ve clicked on the links. I’ve read all these pages, bought a bunch of recommended books, bookmarked all the best sites, subscribed to all the RSS feeds and so the next few posts will talk about some of the more interesting things worth knowing.

In my last post, I talked about how Scary Evil Computers like Sheila are taking over our lives.

I forgot to mention by the way, I’m a computer programmer… yep. A programmer who hates computers.

Isn’t that a bit weird?

That’s what I thought too. Something’s gone slightly wrong somewhere. So I thought about what makes a programmer. What are the core characteristics?

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of computer user in this world:

  • Those that like to master difficult things. Quite masochistic, and violently denying that anything could ever be difficult to use – apparently you just need to use your brain, and once you work out some impossibly unusable feature set, you can mock other users as they struggle.
  • Those that are lazy and like to make life easier on themselves. Finding it annoying when something is harder to use than it should be. Not having the patience to faff around with some dumb machine.

That’s what I’d call intentionally stereotypical. But if I had to choose, I reckon programmers fall into that first category – and although I do too in many areas of life,  not when it comes to technology.

Arguing religiously about variations of Linux or which programming language is the best, or the intricacies of process management in operating systems is not for me. I’m more interested in ease of use, good design and usefulness.

From reading Alan Cooper, a software developer would most likely be the type of person who would smash open an alarm clock just to see how it works and then revel in putting it back together again. Hmm. Can’t say I’ve ever done that.

Microsoft’s Tom Corddry once said:

Developers are invariably male, eat fast food, and don’t talk except to say “Not true”

Reminds me of one of those JavaScript pop-ups.

JavaScript Popup
You make me sick...

I’ve been a web applications developer at a software consultancy for over 4 years and work with people at the top of their game. Despite my friendly mocking, programmers demand a lot of respect. They do an incredibly difficult job and handle a lot of complexity in their computer-like brains. You can’t build quality software without good programmers.

I got into coding after finishing a maths degree, so for sure, I’m a nerd, but not a geek, and programmers can only be geeks.  Take the test.

And being a nerd, there are definitely aspects of coding that are cool. But I miss the fast free-flowing design side of things from back at school in art and design class. When I was little, I’d spend all day drawing people standing on green grass. I’d even colour the top part of the paper blue to represent the sky.

Sunburnt children
Sunburnt children.

That’s not my drawing… but you get the idea.

But with all the recent maths and coding I’ve done, the artistic side of my brain has stayed relatively dormant for the last 10 years, until this year when I came across a term I hadn’t heard of before: User Experience Designer

It seems that a User Experience Designer is like an architect but for computers – responsible for gathering user requirements and writing user stories, sketching designs and rapidly creating working concept prototypes. All before a single line of proper code has been written.

Hang on! That must surely be a total waste of time because it’s not writing any code, and the only thing that matters is writing code, right?!!

Huh… maybe we’ll come back to that last paragraph in a later post.

UX Design looks like a great mix of design work and programming. As I looked into UX Design I found this, which is a great place to start, and was all the inspiration I needed. I’ve since bought a bunch of books and am now training up in all things User Experience Design related. And I’ll blog about some of the interesting things learned on the way. Hopefully you’ll find something useful here.

It’s very cool finding something you thought you’d lost a long time ago. I’ll leave you with Steve Jobs’ speech.