Megan Leigh McDonald
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‘Don’t make me think.’ Steve Krug

Megan Leigh McDonald

Task apps, a brief rant

I’m looking specifically at the free version of GTasks which is rated at an average of 4.5 stars in the Google Play Store (26,812 reviews). I don’t mean to pick on GTasks, which has quite a nice, fluid interface. I’m focusing on it mostly because it seems to be one of the more often recommended, highly rated and it synchs with Google tasks. As time allows, I’ll try out and evaluate a few other task apps over the coming weeks.

At any rate, there are two things missing that would really improve my overall task management abilities.

1. No sense of “dependencies” or sequencing of tasks that relate. A task should either break down into sub-tasks or allow a way to link tasks together in either ordered or unordered. An ordered list allows for a parent to own a specific sequence of children or siblings, which allows the user to keep track of complexities. Ask any mother of 3 if her life is complex enough to need to do this and I’m betting her answer is a resounding “yes”. Although of course I defer to research over my gut instinct and personal experience (”I am not my users”).

An unordered bucket of related tasks allows for the fluidity to tackle tasks as they come up or to decide on importance of specific tasks at a later time.

2. Prioritization overload. Seems like one can prioritize tasks by dimensions of both date/time and urgency. The problem is those two are not very different. If assign dates to my tasks, then by default anything marked for “today” already is urgent. Looking at a long list of about twenty items for today and seeing 5 of them as urgent isn’t really helpful. I would want to know to what degree each is urgent relative to one another, not to mention the rank order of all other “non urgent” tasks.

A better interaction here would be to allow a drag/drop rank order so they can be put in order of importance within today’s (or tomorrow’s or next week’s) timeframe.

Pair the two solutions above and we have got my “nearly perfect” application for managing tasks.

Parlons-nous…what I learn from trying to speak French…

Last night I attended a French conversation group to get some practice and build some confidence in my speaking abilities. It’s interesting what came out of that for me and how that applies to my normal 9 to 5. Upon reflection afterward and during my long bike ride through the rain back home, I realized that learning another language builds some very important skills.

For example, it challenges one to think on one’s feet. There were a lot of people with different levels of knowledge. Choosing partners to talk with was somewhat challenging in that regard. On top of who looked interesting, I also wanted to choose someone who was at or around the same level as myself, but who would provide a slight challenge. For awhile I spoke to two very lovely ladies, a teacher/artist and an architect. We chatted away half the evening, talking about art and Paris.

Later in the evening, I found myself in a group with the ‘organitrice’ and some actual French people. I was a little surprised that French people would attend, but pleasantly so. At any rate, I found myself needing to strategize the way I phrased my thoughts in order to communicate clearly. Not having as many nouns and verbs in my repetoire meant that I needed to think creatively in order to describe at least the concept of what I was trying to say. I found that the more experienced speakers were more than happy to translate my attempts by reflecting back to me a better way to say it.

I have to say, I left feeling, well a little smarter and a little more practiced. If you’re at all interested in joining this group, here’s the information.

Agile User Experience Design Group - San Francisco - June Meetup

I recently attended the June meetup for the Agile UX Design Group here in SF at Pivotal Labs. It’s always really interesting to me to walk into someone else’s workplace. It’s always palpably different than every other place I’ve worked at or been to.

Flash Tag Cloud

Back in the day, I took a PhD class from an advertising exec who presented us with papers and testing results that suggested people value the concept of ‘gaming’ in their everyday experience. Certianly, Jesse Schell would agree with that premise given his dramatic and engaging speech “When games invade real life“.

Recently, a link to this cool looking interactive flash-based 3D tag cloud was passed my way and it turned out to be a great example that highlights the benefits of adding enjoyment. There was a short debate about its benefits and foibles. It was a bit glitchy when it comes to signaling relevancy by size (the relative size changes depending on user interaction instead of being set).

The thing that occurred to most of the participants in the discussion thread was that it needs to have a good foundation of meta data in the first place…which could be said of either a static or flash-based version. So, my follow on was that the real test here would be to test it for engagement and findability against its static counterpart. Now, that, I would like to see - I’m betting that given equal implementation, users will enjoy the flash-based tag cloud more.

I think it’s more than the fact that it’s fun. It’s also ’smooth’ or fluid. I couldn’t help but think of Prezi, the presentation software that allows for fluid motion and zoom controls, adding a kind of momentum and fluidity to the art of presentation. It gives the user a sense of velocity or a sense of ’speed’. If this is done correctly, it doesn’t leave the user feeling out of control. The 3D flash-based tag cloud shared this sense of speed with Prezi by giving me a feeling that I would find my results faster. Intuitively I know when I’m mousing over its topics that I won’t necessarily find what I’m looking for faster, but it felt like it would and the feeling was nice…perhaps something I don’t have an option to feel often throughout my dialy routines, certainly not in drive-time traffic!

So why, in the midst of release cycles and product requirements, do we forgo designing experiences that add these more abstract and nuanced feelings into the mix? It seems like, as UX professionals, we adhere so strictly to the fundamentals that if there’s even one minor problem, we discount it as a viable option. But, here’s the paradox: if we’ve learned anything in the past fifteen years, it’s that consumers are willing to put up with a few minor indiscretions if what they’re getting is better, more engaging or more fun than what they currently have. After all improving a user’s feeling about the product is also supposed to be at the core of what we do.

Usability Testing Tips

Want to learn some nice tricks to get your testing in DIY or guerilla style? Check this article on A List Apart out. http://www.alistapart.com/articles/quick-and-dirty-remote-user-testing/

Really informative with lots of juicy links to new and innovative web-ware. I especially liked the demo of Tree Jack, which is ‘like card sorting in reverse’. http://www.optimalworkshop.com/

Questioning Authority

Okay, so the title is a little misleading, since I’m not talking about being a rebel here as much as I am going to express my own questions about the relationship I have with authority. I was thinking about this recently and realized because of my unique experiences growing up in the Army, I may have some hidden issues with authority - maybe not, but I think it’s worth reflecting on. In fact everyone who works in any kind of job should probably reflect on that at some point.

In a lifetime, we move in and out of a series of relationships that involve authority, starting with the primary parental relationships, moving on to teachers, coaches, mentors, bosses, policemen, directors, etc. Our relationship with the concept of authority impacts all these relationships and the subsequent experiences we have in a lifetime.

Growing up as the child of a military man, I grew up with the symbol of U.S. authority around me everywhere, as well as a highly defined structure of how that authority translated from the highest rank to the lowest and the various roles and tasks assigned to each. Everything was pretty clear. There was no grey area between roles, no

Scrum Task Board Template

Even when working under the ‘Waterfall’ methodology, I always make it a point to keep a ‘task board’ at my desk or nearby. It’s something I borrowed from Scrum but it works so well for my own personal workload.

Customer Service User Experience

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about what makes designing for customer service different than designing for conversion or other business needs. Clearly, most of the goals around customer service efforts relate to cost savings in terms of reducing contacts, handle time or user churn (repeat user contacts). In this area, businesses are more transparent about making changes that impact the bottom line,

Clean Forms = Better User Experience + Conversion

As a veteran web designer, I’ve created many a form in my day, but recently really took stock of what I’ve learned over the years.

Process and the Laws of Physics

Is there such a thing as too much change? That seems like such a taboo thing to say out loud. I don’t want to be seen as someone mired in the past or unable to move forward through a dynamic and fast-paced work environment. As I look back on the many clients I’ve had over the years, I see countless professionals and offices with diverse processes. And I see this diversity of what is considered ‘process’ and ‘change’ as one of the many great mysteries of life itself.

I believe ‘process’ is the way we handle change in business and that it’s dictated by several natural laws:

1. The Law of Entropy: The amount of energy it takes to change is inversely proportionate to the lack of change that preceded it. This plays into our everyday experiences at work when people become complacent, don’t rely on data to drive decisions or foster an atmosphere of ‘group-think’. There can be a lot of change that seems to happen as most of the group follows very easily with the strongest personality. But this may not be vetted to be the best change or change that matches the company’s goals. It takes vast amounts of firm hand-holding to turn this kind of environment around. It seems to me, that there is a tendency for a large staff turnover when this happens.

2. The Law of Inertia: The amount of resistance is directly related to the amount of momentum needed to change. Somewhat related to Entropy, Inertia is more about the consistent action necessary to gain speed. If you know your goal and you move toward it, only to be constantly derailed by resistance, one never builds up enough speed to efficiently reach the destination. And, of course, the danger of getting thrown off course only grows with each setback.

3. The Law of Matter: This has more to do with the conservation of energy and its transference from one form to another. If you think of a business process like this, we have a whole lot of kinetic energy at the beginning part of our process and need to take the thoughts whirring around in the brains of a bunch of professionals and transfer it into a product that at the end of the day, transforms into dollars spent by consumers. There are plenty of things we can spend our energy on, but if we don’t realize that execution is a process of taking one form of energy and translating it into another, we may never get past the beginning stage.

There is a point when we think far too much and act not enough. This goes even for the people whose roles are at the very beginning of a process, for those are the people who set the pace and get the ball rolling for the rest of us. As a UI Designer, I get my energy from Product people whose ideas, creativity and understanding of data mixes with mine to produce something wholly different — wire-frames and mock-ups that visualize a different reality for our users. And so on and so forth throughout the rest of the PDLC.

I think process and change are the same things. I think because we’re a business comprised of people in the natural world that we need to look at ourselves in relation to that. What we do each day is molded by these abstract and often hidden concepts. Taken from physics but somehow very relevant, we are always part inertia, part resistance to entropy and part efficient transfer of energy whether we’re walking down the street or sitting in a board room.

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