Some days are not profound

This is one of those days.

Nothing’s really wrong. I’m just weary of winter. The sun is out and I’m not out there. I really, really want to put my snowblower in the back of the garage and pull the grill to the front.

The Ribbon: a study in good product design practices

When I came to my new company, I didn’t mind going from Vista back to Windows XP. There were a few tools and features that I missed, but ultimately one version of Windows isn’t too much different than another.

But I would have caused a serious uproar if I had to use something other than Office 2007.

It’s pretty rare for me to feel passionate about Office software. The last version of Word that I really, really liked was probably Word 5.1a for the Mac, back in 1992. After that I got proficient with some newer features, most notably working with references and TOC formatting for an 800 page software design book that I put together from individual documents in a ridiculous amount of time back in the late 90s. But it got harder and harder to like Word, and I found the time I spent typing in plain old text boxes on the Web to be a refreshing change. I even adopted Notepad and other text editors as my quick writing tool of choice, and still find I prefer working in plain text to having to think about formatting as I write.

So what changed my perception of Office? Why am I no longer afraid to set foot in Word? Why do I actually evangelize PowerPoint 2007? I think the answer is that the Office team, Jensen Harris among them, sat down and looked seriously at how people used, or didn’t use, Office, and made some hard choices about how to change the software to fix what they found.

Jensen had a great presentation at Mix that explains the process that the Office team used to come up with the new Ribbon-centered design for Office 2007. I’ve only looked at the slides so far, not the actual video, but by themselves they’re pretty inspiring.

What are the takeaway principles? I think the outline of the presentation spells it out:

  1. Define the problem by talking to actual users. Don’t rely on the conventional wisdom to tell you whether there is a problem with your software. Conventional wisdom would have told Microsoft that Office was a cash cow with no issues and no room to improve the brand, that they should just keep marketing the product the same way and keep stacking on task panes.
  2. Get data about the problem. Start with internal observations (menu and command count), then go to external observations to define a hypothesis and an approach based on user interaction data and the emotional tone of how your users approach and think about your product.
  3. Define the design goals, and draft a list of principles that guide the solution. If the solution is too complex to define up front, you’ll need guiding principles to help you make decisions along the way as you iterate.
  4. Prototype. A prototype can be created a number of ways, from plain old paper to Photoshop to RAD tools. Use what’s appropriate and don’t discount the low tech solutions. At my current gig, most of our prototypes are created in Visio.
  5. Evaluate the prototypes. I love Jensen’s list for this process because it sums up about two semesters’ worth of marketing education from my MBA program:
    • Beta users
    • Anecdotal feedback (blogs, forums)
    • Benchmarks and Metrics
    • Observations and Interviews
    • Usability studies (around the world and remote)
    • Card Sorts and Paper Prototypes
    • Surveys
    • Longitudinal Usability Studies
    • Long-Term Deployments (5 months+)
    • Truman Show
    • SQM (Customer Improvement Program) [automated data collection from volunteers]
  6. Finally, build in room for iteration. You probably won’t get it right the first time, but you’ll learn from every trial.

I’m excited about Jensen’s summation of the experience because it is high-visibility verification that structured software design matters. It’s a great story to tell your management team, your development team, or that guy in QA who complains about changes to the screens.

I already know this approach works because I’ve used it, or at least a subset of it. At my last gig, this is what our design process looked like for our last release:

  • Problem: Users couldn’t find functionality in our software that was already there. Some of the functionality confused users. Prospects didn’t enjoy working with our product as much as with competitive products.
  • Design goals: Improve discoverability and make the product more enjoyable to use. Design tenets: reduce the number of toolbars; have consistent places and ways to expose functionality; borrow UI conventions from products that the user is familiar with; use a familiar overall convention to frame what the user is doing and make them at ease; eliminate features that weren’t adding value.
  • Prototyping: Paper, Photoshop, and quick XAML apps. In some cases, I mocked up parts of the UI using sticky notes to move around different modules or parts of the screen design, so we could figure out how to get the features in the most convenient places.
  • Evaluate prototypes: Here customer presentations and beta users made the biggest difference. I would have loved to have the budget for more formal usability testing.
  • Iterate: We rebuilt our development process to allow for course corrections along the way.

The process isn’t rocket science, but it works, and so will your product if you think honestly about every step along the way.

RIP, Myrtle Talbott

Every now and then, you lose one of the truly influential people in your life. Earlier this year, it was my grandfather. Last week, I got word that another one had passed on: Myrtle Talbott, who taught my once-a-week TAG class when I was in fourth and fifth grade, who was a longtime member of my church, and who was the first teacher I had who really stretched me.

Picture this: I’m in elementary school, glasses and so uncoordinated they give me extra time in the gym outside of classes so I can learn how to do something athletic without falling over. I’ve been through third grade and the teachers are so tired of trying to keep me engaged that they shift me off in the corner with a book. Then fourth grade starts and they round me up with a few other kids, put us on a bus, and send us to another school halfway across town, where Ms. Talbott waits for us, along with a Spanish teacher, CPR practice, creative writing instruction, real-life biology and science, and a bunch of kids who didn’t seem to mind that I was so odd. And she wouldn’t let me just slide by on glibly knowing the answers. Indeed, she was the first teacher I had who gave me an inkling of that uncomfortable truth: sometimes there are no right answers, only tough questions.

Later I saw her all the time in church, but I never made that connection again. She had already put me on the path and I needed to find my own way from there. But I still wish I had been able to come back and see her before she passed away. I don’t think I ever really thanked her for everything she did for me.

So if you see this and were one of her students, stop in at the guestbook and leave a tribute, won’t you? It seems a shame to leave it empty.

An open look into the mind of an iPhone product manager

Apple has posted its application form for the new iPhone enterprise tools, whatever they are (Apple has been awfully nonspecific on that point). This is cool for a bunch of reasons:

  1. It’s an open, transparent beta process for a piece of enterprise technology.
  2. From Apple. When was the last time you heard any of the words in the first point from Apple?
  3. And there is a fairly detailed feature list too!

Well, prospective feature list. And of course I should note that there’s a chance this comes from a marketing manager who’s looking to write case studies. But still: cool.

Reliving youth I: Ramagon

ramagon hub or ball or whatever

I don’t know what it says about me that I spent a good part of Saturday morning obsessively trying to remember the name of a toy that I had twenty-five years ago. In my defense, I was only trying to get the second movement of Bolcom’s 8th out of my head.

The toy I was trying to recall was a construction set. The main parts were a polygonal hub to which one connected struts to build the structure. After a good amount of aimless Google searches (though building toys 80s rods does turn up some funny things), the name swum into my head, unbidden. Ramagon.

The best image I found of the Ramagon toy was in an eBay listing. You can see the struts, in multiple lengths, in the front of the photo, with the soccer-ball-like hubs beside them. I had forgotten the snap-in panels, which were in different shapes to adopt to the different angles that could be formed from the intersection of hubs and spokes. And this was one of the cooler bits about the toy: while you could build right angles with it, its native symmetry was triangular and pyramidal. The symmetry came from the hubs, which are octagonal in cross section. The hubs could accept eight spokes in the same plane around their equator, eight more above or below the equatorial plane, coming off at about 45 degree angle, and one more at each pole. The spokes snapped in and out easily, as their tips were composed of two prongs that could be compressed together to fit into the holes in the hubs, and compressed again to come out.

The spokes were the weak link in the set; while the rest of the construction was solid, the plastic was just on the brittle side of strong and those prongs were prone to snapping off. (You’ll notice in the eBay image that a few prongs, disconnected from their struts, are included). But the set as a whole was very cool. You could build stuff with it that simply outclassed anything that you could do with either Lego (of the time, with its strongly rectilinear bias) or Erector. In fact, I remember hearing from one of my Dad’s NASA colleagues that the set strongly resembled something that was to become the foundation for the Space Station frame, and that NASA used the Ramagon sets to model future structures (this mention of the toy in a Kennedy Space Center kid’s book is kind of suggestive).

So what happened to Ramagon, and why isn’t it remembered in the same breath as Lego? One issue, perhaps was the purity of the hub and spoke model. You’ll notice in the eBay picture that the hubs had to do a lot of extra duty as engines, gun barrel mouths, and even wheels (with special rubber wraparound “tires” applied). There was no real room for the custom pieces that allowed Lego builders to extend beyond the basic brick.

And the company building the toy had its own issues. The founder, Richard Gabriel, took the concept from licensee to licensee but was apparently never able to get enough going to build market momentum.

Bleah

I’ve been fighting it, but now it seems the cold, or rather miscellaneous bug of the week, is upon me. Too bad, too, because it’s a nice day and I can see the future of my iPhone getting much brighter.

There is an article to be written about the effectiveness of Apple’s product management—introducing the iPhone as a purely consumer device, then creating a massive developer ecosystem in a single announcement yesterday—but I kind of like Fake Steve Jobs’s take on the announcements even better.

iPhone SDK, plus Exchange support too

I came into Gizmodo’s liveblog of the iPhone SDK announcement a little late, but the good stuff has already started, beginning with the announcement of native Exchange support for the iPhone. If I just worked in a Mac world I wouldn’d care so much about this, but with one too many IT administrators who don’t care to open up MAPI on their Exchange servers—plus the need to get access to calendars and address books—I’m thrilled that this is coming.

The internals of the SDK are really interesting, too. Of course the hacker community has known about this stuff for a long time, but seeing the full list of what is supported on the phone—certificates, Bonjour (aka ZeroConf networking), the Keychain, SQLite, the address book, threading support, location management, audio mixing and recording, video playback, 2D Quartz, plus a touch-optimized version of Cocoa.

And the development tools stack looks great too, including a true iPhone Simulator. Question: What about test automation? It’s been a long time since I looked at Xcode; does it include a test automation framework?

And I would never have expected a heavy emphasis on games on the first demo of the SDK, but all of a sudden it makes sense. The iPhone is not just a Windows Mobile killer, it could also be a PSP killer.

Now. What I’m waiting for is guidance for IT administrators so I can go have a conversation with my IT guy. And, of course, for the first iPhone apps to show up.

Update: SalesForce.com client!

More Bolcom reviews

I’ve turned in my score and come back to work from Carnegie Hall, but I still can’t get Bolcom’s 8th out of my mind. Then the perilous path was planted/And a river and a stream/from every cliff and tomb/till on the bleached bones/red clay brought forth, indeed. My bleached bones are a little sore from too little sleep and the train ride, but I remain under the spell of the piece.

There was no review in the New York Times this morning—one hopes one will be forthcoming—but a pair of reviews in other sources give a pretty good impression of the concert. ConcertoNet gave a positive review, pointing out the strong role of the women of the TFC in the work (“At other times, as in The Shadowy Daughter of Urthona, the rarified women’s group (as well as a lovely solo by Lorenzee Cole) illustrated this feminine poem”). And on a blog called Leonard Link, New York Law professor Arthur S. Leonard specifically called out the “excellence of the chorus” while declining to give a detailed impression of the piece since he and other listeners in the balcony did not receive text booklets. It’s unfortunate, as I thought our diction last night was particularly clear; I guess the hall swallowed the consonants.

For the benefit of Mr. Leonard and the other balcony listeners, the texts, as well as the full unexcerpted program notes, are available in PDF on the BSO web site.

Back to Carnegie Hall

I’m on the Acela this morning, heading back to New York for my second ever concert at Carnegie Hall with the BSO. This time feels more like a real performance; last fall when we sang Debussy’s Daphnis et Chloe, the chorus part was more atmosphere than anything else. We didn’t even have words to memorize, just vowel sounds.

Well, we have words this time. Thanks to Mr William Blake, whose prophetic vision has been stuck in my head for weeks now. I know thee, I have found thee, and I will not let thee go! Thou art the image of true God that dwells in darkness of Africa…

The cold that has been sneaking up on me for the past few days is almost here. I hope it holds out for a few more hours. There’s this weird thing that happens to my singing voice right before a cold settles in, when all the awful stuff in the back of my throat hits my vocal cords just right and smooths everything out and I’m hitting notes that were trouble the day before and will be unreachable for a week afterwards. With a little luck this is that kind of cold. I can hope, right?