Usability lab hack in Yosemite & iOS8

March 23, 2015

usability-hackIf your work involves usability testing, chances are you are constantly trying to refine and optimise your testing set up.

A recent usability study had us working in a DMZ, requiring the usability tests to take place in a specific location. No big deal there. It was however the first study we had run using iOS8 in this environment; and, as we learned on the morning of the first tests, iOS Safari currently won’t connect to a secure domain running through a proxy server.

The first sign of trouble was that UX Recorder – our mobile recording app of choice – wouldn’t load the secure domain, something we attributed initially to the app itself. As UX Recorder uses the default Safari browser, this meant that our tests couldn’t be recorded.

The easy (and obvious) answer to accessing the secure domain was to download Chrome on the iOS devices, which handles https protocols in a completely different manner. But UX Recorder – and therefore recording mobile activity – was no longer an option.

By complete chance, I had this blog post open in my laptop’s browser from a couple of days before (I am a hopeless tab opener-and-abandoner) and another piece of the answer fell into place. Quicktime in Yosemite allows an alternative video source – specifically an iOS8 device. By recording a connected  device through Quicktime, we had high quality footage of the device in action. And what’s more, we could watch it being used in realtime on another screen through screen sharing.

The final problem was front-facing camera footage of the user. By recording the screen through Silverback, with the Quicktime window in focus, we had the result we needed. Okay it’s not perfect; the camera isn’t looking right into the user’s face. If they sit slight out of kilter with the built in camera, or move a lot during the test, then we don’t see them quite as well. But then this already applies to desktop tests run in Silverback anyway, so no major loss there.

The problem we started out to solve was getting through a secure site through a proxy; what we ended up with is a new way to record user activity on Apple mobile devices, and one which will now be our go-to method.

Pros

It works  well, doesn’t slow down the iOS device, plus can give you a way to remote view the device activity through screen sharing.

Cons

No on-screen activity – clicks, taps etc. (the Quicktime feature to record clicks isn’t an option in this case)

This is going to be our method of choice going forward, hope it’s something you can use in your own testing.

N.B. For all this, it goes without saying that in a standard testing environment where no proxy is involved, using Safari is not an issue.

Sharpening the saw

January 5, 2015

For many years during my early career I was immune (or certainly resistant) to business and professional development books. The thought of them repelled me; indeed many still do. The particular brand of let’s say ‘bravado’, as pedaled by the likes of Tony Robbins, leaves me utterly cold.

The later discovery then of how different Stephen Covey’s philosophy and writing is became all the more significant. And for me, that revelation came in the form of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

It is a shame how listicles – the click-bait articles that appear daily around the web (“11 awesome ideas your website must include!”) – have served to cheapen any ideas put forward in a numbered list. I say a shame, because “7 Habits…” is essential reading for any professional, and should in no way be categorised with all the poor relations in print and on the web, which mimic its title.

One of the principles Covey introduces in the book is the 7th habit, that of ‘sharpening the saw’. The phrase derives from an allegory of a wood-cutter who cuts through logs for a living, sawing all day. He’s so busy sawing he doesn’t have time to maintain the saw. With inevitable consequences.

My career has taken me in a number of directions, each of them self-initiated, and generally fuelled by a relentless fear of getting lazy, or growing complacent. Covey’s words and ideas have helped me in any number of situations over the years, and he continues to inspire. This last year though, it strikes me that I’ve fallen well short when it comes to the 7th habit.

Earlier in the year I had one of those forehead-slapping moments of clarity: the unchallengeable fact that everything we choose to do in turn means not doing something else. We have a finite amount of time available to us – as illustrated with stark clarity in a post earlier today from Chris Murphy – and if we are fortunate, then we choose how to fill that time. As competition for time and attention increases, so too does the need to differentiate between activity that helps to develop you as a person, and activity that you simply feel obliged to take part in.

As an example, after signing up in 2008 Twitter very quickly became an essential professional tool for me, a discovery engine that has without question enhanced my professional life. But at its worst Twitter becomes just a way of filling up time. “Catching up on Twitter” was at one point an additional task to fit into the day, just in case anything was missed – a link, a conversation, an announcement – that would leave me disadvantaged. Ludicrous when put as bluntly as that, but a fact nonetheless.

So it’s important then to make sure that activity is nourishing, and encourages the right kind of thinking. And overall I feel like I’ve fallen behind over the course of the last year, littered as it has been with books and articles unread, and no end of unfinished writing.  Somewhere along the line, I’ve made bad choices about what to give my time and attention to, at a time when competition for both has increased exponentially. As with everything in life, it is all about choices.

This coming year, I commit myself once again to sharpening the saw – and never letting it get to the state it fell into last year.

You can read a short passage on the 7th habit, plus the other six, here. See if they makes sense to you. It does for me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

Best behaviour

September 29, 2014

Stating the obvious, lifting a smartphone and tapping any app’s icon represents a choice for the device owner – a choice between using the app, and doing literally anything else. For successful apps, use becomes habitual. More than that – for successful apps, it must become habitual.

One of the best insights I’ve seen on this topic (I don’t recall the source so unfortunately can’t give due credit) correctly stated that establishing a new habit means creating time for it. By implication, that will almost certainly require taking time and attention away from something else.

The assumption that a product will simply be used is an optimism bias that afflicts so many entrepreneurs and technologists. Viewing the challenge of designing products as not only the creation of a compelling experience, but one that impels someone to make room in their life to use it, is a sobering thought.

The ability of an app to achieve this place in someone’s life can go beyond what it offers in terms of functionality, and certainly how it looks. Every investment in a product or app, as noted by the BufferApp blog earlier this year, is an investment in a future self; a better self. For use of an app to become a habit, it must be able to deliver a desired transformation. The transformative potential of interactive technologies is something I’ve been immersed in on a number of key projects this year at Fathom.

First alerted to the resource by a blog post from Joe Leech, BJ Fogg’s Behavioural Model has been nothing short of a revelation. Like so much of what user-centred thinking brings to the table, it comes across as simple common sense, clearly articulated. And like so many of the best tools in UX work, it offers a framework around which to plan and execute design and content strategies. Think of it as an ‘Elements of User Experience‘ for behaviour change.

Fogg is a computer scientist and founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. Although not intended specifically for UX work, the Behavioural Model finds a natural home in the user-centred design process.

The link with Stanford certainly imbues the model with academic credibility, putting it alongside the work of Weinschenck, Kahnemann et al as a reference point for designers wanting to leverage the power of psychology in their work. In use, the model excels as a starting point in assessing the nature of a challenge, and pointing the way to the response without authoring it outright.

Work on the models sadly appear to have stalled with no updates in a couple of years, and the detailed resource guides withdrawn from the website. But what remains is left is a godsend for designers hungry for another framework to bring structure to the design process.

UX Scotland 2014

July 11, 2014

It’s a couple of weeks already since UX Scotland; such is the pace of work these days that my brain has barely had time to process the whole experience.

I was again delighted to speak at the conference, which remains a favourite of all UX-related gathering I’ve been fortunate enough to attend. Without repeating every word from last year’s post, it’s just a lovely event. The city itself was looking great, the venue was again the unorthdox yet perfectly fitting setting, and the programme of talks & workshops again struck the right balance between aspirtational theory and gritty practical.

Feedback on my talk, Managing Complexity – UX vs the business model has been really satisfying. I was a little apprehensive about being quite so candid about a particular project I brought into the talk, but comments have completely vindicated that decision.

Colin Meney’s summary of the talk is available here, and I believe articulates the key points much more clearly and succunctly than the original talk did!

UX Scotland 2015 is already in the pipeline by all accounts. I look forward to making the regular trip across the Irish Sea once again, confident that I’ll be seeing as comprehensive a cross-section of the industry as I could wish for.

A criminal past

May 1, 2014

My name is Patrick Stuart Monro, and I have a criminal past.

Some weeks ago this thought occurred to me:

It had begun to feel that so much of what I was saying, whether on Twitter or off it, sounded like that old stereotype of the ex-smoker whose every utterance forms an unrelenting diatribe against their former habit.

Moving deeper into the wold of user experience research and user-centred design has turned my professional sensibilities on their head; I’m a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. From an inauspicious start at a design sweatshop, successive developments brought me to increasingly align with principles that should have been ingrained from day one, but were not.

I envy those who realise early in their design careers – perhaps through effective education – that people should be at the centre of their work, those who will consume the outputs from it. My early career was a series of exercises in aesthetic futility, recurring attempts to prove something about myself that rarely manifested itself in user-centred design of any variety.

Graphic work particularly was more often than not an exercise in Photoshop promenading. Maybe I would shoe-horn in a new typeface that I liked the look of, usually in wilful ignorance of the ultimate audience or purpose.

That said, no-one suffered, no-one died. Every piece of work I produced was signed off by a client as fit for purpose (not necessarily an endorsement of it being effective of course), and the work I was doing was no better or worse than numerous design projects created every day around the world.

What my tweet made me aware of was that I wish at times I could address my younger self (doesn’t everyone?), and begin to plant the seeds of responsible design earlier.

An opportunity has become available to do something approaching this, as a contributing lecturer to the Interactive Multimedia Design course at the University of Ulster. I can at least begin to make amends for my own lack of understanding (something I can’t solely attribute to poor levels of design education) by passing on some of what I’ve learned in 20+ years as a designer, albeit far too few of those spent as an effective one.

I find it cathartic to admit that I really haven’t been the designer I should have been for most of my career. But – as with all personal transformation – admitting aproblem is the first step. Followed by taking each day as it comes, and working to improve, one day at a time.

And I use each day to distance myself as far as possible from that younger version of me; the one who didn’t appreciate the privilege of working as a designer, and the responsibility that it brings with it.

I remain an eternal student of design. There are those in the industry (the ‘design’ industry in its widest possible sense), both globally and locally, that I look to now to help me make up for lost time. And it’s time I acknowledged them.

And with that, the subject of a future post becomes clear.

  • About Rick Monro

    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX Director, designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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