Dan and Steve write: We express ourselves
Cool artwork at 111 Minna makes for an exciting backdrop for presentations
Steve and I recently attended an event hosted by Microsoft, called Express Yourself. It was a party/networking gathering focused around a “design contest” in which four prominent Bay Area software design firms presented the work they had done to “solve a real-world design problem” that Microsoft had posed a few days beforehand. As they promoted it:
Are you a User Experience Rockstar? Are you a Master UI Coder? Do you know how to work together? Want to network, drink and learn with 100 of your finest peers in San Francisco?
Please join Microsoft and four leading software design firms in the Bay Area as they compete head to head to solve a real-world design problem… Contestants will receive their design problem three days ahead, and the day of the party will compete to finish and present their solutions using Microsoft’s new Silverlight technology and Expression Suite of design tools. Attendees watch the solutions come to life, comment and party until the awards ceremony.
To begin with, it was a great party–a beautiful venue in downtown San Francisco, open bar, excellent food. Balancing a Martini glass in one hand and a half-spherical bowl of Pho and chopsticks in the other, I contemplated the usability of flatware.
The design problem Microsoft had posed to the firms was to create a “safe” social networking environment for a teenage girl. Microsoft had supplied the firms with personas representing the girl, her mother, and her “quasi-bad-ass” friend.
Update: the contest’s problem statement, rules, and evaluation criteria are now posted here.
The presentations all shared what seemed to us (and to many of the people in the audience around us, judging by an almost non-stop flow of derisive commentary) as a common and almost complete lack of thought or even lay-knowledge about the culture of users for whom this environment was being designed.
Update: details (including screenshots) of the different submissions, and the winner are posted on organizer Will Tschumy’s blog (7/2/07 and 7/3/07).
This apparent lack of consideration for the consumer/end user’s culture and needs/wants stirred a reaction and raised some questions for us.
Dan: None of these (contest entries) look like they’re for teenagers. I mean, it seems so obvious to me that the place you would start would be figuring out what the person you’re designing this thing for would find exciting.
Steve: The most exciting moment (leading to spontaneous applause) was for a interface widget that created this very Web2.0 mosaic of media, kind of like a tag cloud of images and movies. Completely unusable since you couldn’t see what was in the teeny pictures, and very adult in its visual. The audience applauded for something they would like.
In the presentations, I really wanted to see one of the teams consider a definition of what it meant to be safe. That is a very loaded word and it needed to be unpacked. Until you know what safe is, you can’t design for it.
Dan: If I was a kid, the last thing I would want would be any kind of web thing that my parents were involved in.
Steve: If any of these designs get published, I’d like to see someone compare them with Imbee, an actual site that that just launched, aiming to address this same need. Will those appeal to teens? Have they found a way to navigate the tension between “safe” and “parental involvement”?
I’m not being a research snob here. I understand the timeline didn’t support the teams doing their own research. But Microsoft supplied personas. Aren’t personas proxies for research? Or, are they, (as I’ve said before) simply user-centered bullshit. For all the power they are supposed to have with design teams to keep them focused on designing for the user, they didn’t help at all in this case.
Dan: People have all these tools, but they have no idea what needs to be built.
Steve: And maybe the focus of the event was purely on the building. But then Microsoft should have framed it differently. Distributing personas and judging solutions would suggest that it was about building the right thing. But Microsoft’s tool is to help you build better; perhaps their assumption was that the designers would bring the process and MSFT would bring the tool?
Dan: I wonder what Microsoft wanted to find out from doing this, and whether they found it out?
Steve: That’s a good question. I assume they were doing it more as a way to create a splash and be seen as a real player in the design community.
Dan: Then they should have done a challenge that was geared to the strength of the people they had competing. Plus, this was about using their software, right? So why focus on research results as the way to get people into the task? I think they went too far towards the front end of the “project.” They should have given more of a creative brief, and let people go at it.
To me, this whole thing really shows how a lot of people still don’t acknowledge (or don’t fully get) how much work has to be done to actually turn research into design decisions. I think this bodes really well for the work we do.
Steve: I’m relieved you think that. I felt the opposite, actually. I felt depressed about the opportunities for our approach. It’s kind of depressing that in 2007 the “top” software design firms are so locked into distinguishing themselves with shiny shiny and no thinky thinky. [Assuming these were in fact the top players in their firms and not the B Ark].
If making use of real tangible understandings of real users isn’t even on the table for a lot of these folks, then where do we find people to play with? To inform or collaborate with? Maybe that’s not even the point though. Maybe those designers should be working for us rather than the frequent reversal.
Dan: I totally agree-the needs and desires determine what will really work for people and be successful. Then the design should be executed within those constraints. Context, not content, is king, right?