Tuesday, 16 February 2010

2010 Medical Engineering Student Project Competition

We're holding our 22nd Annual Medical Engineering Student Competition at the Engineering in Medicine and Health Division of the IMechE on the 23rd of June this year. The deadline for applications is 12th May, with prizes of £500 for undergraduate projects and £750 for best thesis.

It's always a pleasure to chair this event and the students never fail to amaze me with how much better they are than I was at their age!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Creating a Better User Experience: Write a Quick Start Guide

I had to check and polish up a "Quick Start Guide" for some beta software recently and it was a much more powerful exercise than I was anticipating. This is something I'll now try do for every project I'm on, as it help flush out usability issues from the tiniest details such as common terminology to the very large issues such non-intuitive work-flow early on in the process.

To create the Quick Start Guide, we start with the product vision and sketch out the grand user story. From this, we can then then graft on the specific references to the software, how it supports the users needs and how they have to operate it to achieve their goals. Issues then begin to surface in five major areas (although I'm sure usability experts and designers would find more than I have).
  1. Work-Flow Vision. Does the software live up to the vision for the solving the users' problems? If we find ourselves jumping around a lot in the software to achieve things, then odds are that it isn't properly aligned with the vision. This is a very compelling reason for doing something like this as early as is possible. Leave it until the end of a project, and we're forced to twist the vision to fit what we've done, live with the embarrassment and hope our users won't hate us for it. Of course, getting the software and Quick Start Guide into users' hands early is as, if not more important than the guide itself, as they're the real arbiters of usability.
  2. Intuitiveness. Does the context of UI elements need to be explained so that they are meaningful? If so, then the interface isn't communicating its purpose efficiently! For example, "...click Start to begin translating the document": the button should probably read "Start Translating" or "Translate Document". Controls that have different effects in different contexts should also be a cause for concern, as this requires the user to build up a complete picture of the internal application state in their minds. Remember, we already have that privilege because we wrote it: the user does not, and will rapidly give up if expected to hold too much information in their heads. Finally, interactions we force the user to make that don't seem to be relevant to their task should also be stamped out. For instance "click Initialise Dictionary to load the language definitions into memory, then click Translate to translate the document". Make it obvious, make it unambiguous and make it matter.
  3. Feedback. It's good to end important work-flow steps by letting the user know what visual cues they expect to see. For example "The file will appear in the Translated Documents area" or "a green tick will appear to indicate the operation completed successfully. If a red cross appears, it means there was an error". If this can't be written down succinctly, or there is nothing in the UI to communicate this, then we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to add this to the software. A bad example would be "the translated document can now be found using Windows Explorer in the Translated Documents directory set in the User Preferences". When feedback is required to communicate problems, it should focus on the exact error rather than general failure. There's nothing worse than "there is an error in the form". What error? Where?!
  4. Illegal Operations. Illegal operations are those things we may need to inform the user they shouldn't do because of the negative effect they may have. Whether the reason is an adverse effect on performance or - the worst kind - something that will cause a crash, it should be fairly obvious that this is cause for alarm. If there is any interaction that can break the software, then it should be locked out. Operations that may have a more subtle negative effect should be warned against in the software, not in documentation, for example pop-ups that say "...this may take some time..." or "...this will break backwards compatibility with version 1.1". For long running operations, a modal progress dialog is a simple solution. Selective greying out is also common for locking out UI controls that could endanger processing, although whole application mode switching can be a much stronger visual cue.
  5. Terminology. Is the same terminology used everywhere in the Quick Start Guide and the software? A good way to start kick-start this is to introduce specific terminology and concepts in a short introduction to the Guide, and this may even reveal ambiguities or gaps in the overall vision. Consistent, meaningful and succinct UI terminology (and even spelling and grammar) is all too easy to leave out (how important is it compared to some low level bugs?), but it is incredibly cheap to fix and has a big impact on the user experience. While content and functionality is undoubtedly important, the user experience can make or break an otherwise great product. This "polish job" can be made easier by staying on top of it all of the way through development, and the presence of early documentation as a visionary reference for terminology and work-flow concepts can really help everyone stay on the same page.
Finally, another excellent tip from my Product Manager (thanks Derek!) was to get someone to read the Guide that has never seen the software before! It's easy to overlook the fact that the project team all carry implicit knowledge about the software (together with their pre-conceptions and prejudices).

In suggesting early documentation as a big help in maintaining a strong vision for the user experience, I'm by no means implying that it can replace a strong product vision: this is absolutely vital in creating what's best for the user and successfully guiding a project to success. However, having seen the powerful revealing and magnifying powers of the Quick Start Guide, I'd recommend it as useful tool to help communicate and implement product vision.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Happy Workers are Better Workers

Lately, I've been thinking about the ways our jobs satisfy us, or on the flip-side, can get us down. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy with my work, but I've been reflecting on the times this hasn't been the case and - for me at least - can see four contributing factors to job satisfaction. Note that I'm talking about job satisfaction, not our employment situation, which is naturally influenced by much baser instincts: pay, prestige, even physical comfort and the quality of the food in the canteen.

Let's go through the elements of this diagram.

This might seem like a low level, even fundamental aspect of someone's relationship with their work and my experience is that it comes a little later in life. Like taking full responsibility for our actions, this is at its best when we've matured. Professional commitment is what gets us into the office on time despite feeling ill and what keeps us checking our email in the evenings and at weekends. Without commitment to our jobs, we simply won't make the time and, worse, may start slacking off. Commitment is largely reciprocal: we commit to our employer when they commit to us, and decent management keeps this part of a work relationship alive.

This may also seem odd, but believing in what we do makes us more productive as we do it. Few of us likes being told what to do if we believe it's the wrong thing to do, but if we believe in our goals, then we'll try extra hard to achieve them. Although some beliefs are held very personally and are hence difficult to change, believing in what we do can be influenced by good leadership.

Caring about something is intensely personal and difficult to influence: it's much more difficult to change what someone cares about than what they believe to be right. In the employer-employee relationship, this is one aspect we aim to get right at the very start: we gravitate to vocations and employers about who's business we care. Similarly, when recruiting, we seek individuals who resonate with our overall plans.

I've put this at the centre of the diagram, as I feel that this is the core, around which all of the other work satisfaction factors are built. Personality dictates how much of each of the other factors an individual requires to top them up to "satisfied". There are individuals who will give their all to any task, no matter their feelings on it, but they are a rare find indeed. More commonly, we all demand a certain amount of each in order to enjoy our work. Failure to meet some or all of the satisfaction demands will result in degradation of the relationship and the quantity and quality of our output will fall.

Looking at these values, I feel that the relationships between them are also interesting and worthy of note. It's possible, I believe, to enjoy any of them in isolation, for instance to be committed to a job we believe to be a waste of time: this is raw professionalism. Likewise, it would be possible to care deeply about the work you do, but believe that you're still being asked to go about it the wrong way. However, add these things together and we get more and more out of our jobs (and our employees!)

Being committed to something you believe in is to be dutiful. This gives people a greater drive toward excellence in what they do: a valuable thing.

Committing to something we care about is dedication, which keeps us in it for the long haul. Once dedicated to something, we start making longer term plans about our jobs and our future potential grows.

Passion results from believing and caring (and I don't mean the kind of "passion" cited by those prone to losing their temper over things they care about: that's old fashioned short temper!). From this position, an individual can influence those around them: evangelise their work, teach and begin to lead others toward their goals.

At the centre of the Venn diagram is devotion. Once we're here, wonderful things can happen. Within devotion lies real leadership: dutifully holding true to what's best, the commitment to lead from the front and do yourself what you expect others to do for you, and the passion to inspire and teach. If you look around your company, you may well find people in senior positions who aren't completely devoted, but I'll bet that the MD is. To make it all the way to the top, we must show clear duty, dedication and passion for our work.

Of course, you may ask why should we pay heed to this emotional nonsense and liberal talk of personality traits, because after all, we're professionals and we have to do what's expected of us to the best of our abilities despite our personal feelings. That's the nature of work, right?

The difference is what the "best of our abilities" amounts to.

Not committing to people will undermine their ability to commit back and you'll get fundamentally less out of them, no matter how you deal with it. Decent, good quality management is important, but so is company ethos: an exploitative culture with no respect will prevent even the best manager making good on this part of the job satisfaction contract.

As mentioned earlier, belief can be influenced by good leadership. Persuasion is much better than dictation, but requires skill: only the strongest leaders can hope to get anywhere near to 100% from people if they ask them to blindly follow.

Finally, we can't change a persons ethics, so we must tailor tasks to what each individual cares about. This is no simple task, and there are always jobs no-one wants to do in a company. Savvy leaders know their staff and, where possible, play to strengths, and can otherwise gently persuade people that they care more for something than they originally thought. I'd rather not use the word manipulation, but you get the picture, and it's going on all the time without us noticing.

A final word before I sign off probably my longest blog to date and that's to remember this simple, old maxim about most people:
We work to live, not live to work
No matter how dedicated we are to our jobs, our family and friends will always be top of the list. They can be displaced for a short time, but if this persists, then we are asked to give up that which makes us truly happy, and we won't be thankful.