26 6 / 2014

It is summer once again, which of course means it is also the season of developer conferences and other annual tech announcements. As Apple, Microsoft, Google (and even Samsung and Amazon) have laid out their major initiatives to excite developers, I can’t help but notice a growing disparity between how developers and designers are supported. It seems like the pace of innovation and support for developers grows by leaps and bounds each year while designers are left behind. As OS level APIs, IDEs, and even new programming languages are being developed at an amazing (and ever increasing) pace, the tools interaction designers have access to have simply not kept up. This swift, yet predictable yearly cadence of innovation gives programmers a chance to learn new tools and skills, but there aren’t new tools for designers to create designs the leverage the new technology coming out. Interaction designers need new tools to do new work.

Interface standards and conventions have evolved more in the past seven years, then they have in the entire era of personal computing. Interface frameworks have become more sophisticated by leveraging dedicated GPUs, and now are rendered in ways similar to that of video games. Most Interfaces designed before the first iPhone was released lived on the desktop or laptop, and for the most part not anywhere else. Today designers must create interfaces that accommodate multiple types, sizes, and resolutions of screens. This additional complexity means that the design effort required to produce a single app has increased. An app design today may live not only on a desktop, tablet, or phone, but also on watches, TVs, glasses, and in virtual reality. As the The job of the interaction designer has become more challenging, the tools they use have not kept up with the pace of technological innovation. Designers need modern tools more than they ever have before.

Across the board, transitions are becoming a standard element in today’s user interfaces. Animation has become as important as layout, color, typography, and other elements of design. While it is now technically possible to engineer interfaces with realistic motion, it is near impossible for designers to prototype such effects in an effective way without programming. While the evolution of user interface standards and conventions has been rapid, the tools to design and prototype (not just develop) next generation experiences are surprisingly last generation, and ancient by comparison. Yes, there are tools out there such as Facebook’s Oragami, and even Google’s Polymer, but these are developer tools first and foremost - they require a working knowledge of programming. And yes, there are other tools like After Effects, Keynote, Tumult Hype, and more, but these are not specialized tools for interaction designers to craft, experiment, and iterate on interfaces. Even dedicated tools like Axure are not robust enough to prototype rich interactive prototypes that move and flow like a real app.

Google’s introduction of it’s new Material Design guidelines  has made the dearth of modern interaction design tools very apparent. Google did a great job in providing visual assets, templates, and sample files for designers to use in it’s guidlines, but they are in the Adobe Illustrator format. As much as I love using Illustrator, it is a 28 year old application built upon PostScript - a technology that was created for desktop publishing. To put this into perspective, in the latest version of Illustrator, CC 2014 (released this summer), users finally have the ability to create modifiable rounded corners! Rounded corners, which were a big deal in web design in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, are a new feature in today’s design tools. How are designers supposed to use static vector graphics to create rich immersive experiences that move and respond to a user’s gestures? They can’t. At least not yet.

It can be argued that designers should just learn to code - work in the medium of final production, and just stop complaining. While there are many advantages to this approach, the drawbacks are much lager and numerous. To produce innovative and creative results designer need to work in an way that allows them to easily create, evaluate, and iterate on designs without being distracted by technology. They need to primarily focus on how humans want to use technology, and less on how that technology functions. Though a general understanding of technology is needed to create effective and production ready designs, engineers are best tasked to focus on the technological implementation. (Yes there are hybrid programming-designers, but they are a minority in the industry) To make this argument tangible, let me use an example: Architects typically follow a creative process that begins with using tools that are (relatively) simple do conduct early exploration, and more complex tools are brought in only after an idea has been refined and vetted. So initially, an architect may start off with pencil & paper, then move to a CAD program, then build a 3D model before the full size building is constructed. The architect progresses from using tools that allow freeform expression, to those that provide accuracy and support the integration of technical constraints into their ideas. At each stage of the creative process, an architect has unique needs that are met by different sets of tools. If an architect was to skip freehand sketching, digital drafting, and scale modeling, by moving from initial idea straight to a life size building, the results would be horrendous. The same can be said for interaction designers. Moving from idea straight to programming an interface is just not a viable option. Ideas need time and space to be generated, articulated, evaluated, and refined before they are engineered. Having the right tools at the right time is as paramount for architects as it is for interaction designers. The time has come for designers to have access to modern tools to create modern solutions.

The lack of dedicated, modern interaction design tools is surprising to me, as there seems to be a lot of incentive for tech companies to support designers. To win the battles of market and mindshare, each company needs more high-quality, popular, and useful applications than their competition has. After all, a great platform is useless without any apps. To get more titles on a platform requires that people make more apps for that platform. To make more apps, people need to program them, but the software also needs to be designed. Tech companies are really good at attracting engineers, but need to get better at attracting designers by focusing on their needs, wants, and goals. Though tools like Adobe Flash (and to a much lesser extent, Adobe Flash Catalyst, Microsoft Expression Blend with Sketchflow, and even Hypercard) is pretty much dead, it represented the kind of effort I am writing about. It was a tool that allowed designers to create animated interactive experiences. Though often misused (remember Flash intro screens?), and a performance hog, Flash was a tool made for designers and programmers alike to create immersive experiences that at the time, were cutting edge. Heck, there are even things today that Flash can do, that cannot be replicated on the native web. It has been shown time and time again that when tools are made accessible to ‘normal’ people (i.e. not programmers), that a vibrant cornucopia of content will become available. Consider the popularity of games like Little Big Planet and Minecraft, in which people without coding skills created amazing and lavish interactive worlds. Imagine what apps could be created if designers had access to professional grade tools that were even more powerful to create the tomorrows experiences. Designers need and want to create whats next, but lack the tools to do so.

It takes a multidisciplinary team to quickly create the next big app, and while in the past it was possible for platforms to be successful by attracting and supporting only developers - the time has come for the tech industry to evolve and explicitly attract and support interaction designers as well. User experience has always been a differentiating factor in both the enterprise and consumer worlds, but never before has there been such mainstream demand for great user experiences. So how can the platform creators attract designers? They should create new tools, techniques, and technologies to support the way designers work. I think these kinds of tools should be released in a similar way that developer tools are, in which early and open public beta access is provided so that designers can provide direct feedback as the tools are being developed.The dialogue created between the tool makers and the tool users would allow designers to help shape the tools they will use to create their designs. By empowering designers the way developers have historically been empowered will create a more inclusive and innovative space in which to work.

At the end of the day, everyone benefits from better apps coming to market. The desire for creative expression is there, but interaction designers have access to less sophisticated tools than their programming counterparts. Designers think differently, and about different things, than programmers do, and they need tools to support their work. Designers need new tools so they can maximize their potential and create amazing new experiences today for tomorrow’s users.

12 2 / 2014

This workshop is a precursor to creating full, research-backed personas, and is aimed to externalize what stakeholders already know about their customers - to share prior knowledge and assumptions through experience working at your company, interacting with users, and data generated by users. The provisional personas developed here are also known as: Proto-Personas, Ad Hoc Personas, Strawman Personas, Skeletal Personas, or Pragmatic Personas.

Find the presentation on Slideshare and Scribd

31 1 / 2014

This presentation aims to teach others how to use the user centered design methodology known as personas. 

Presentation can be found on: Slideshare and Scribd

Personas are archetypes (models) that represent groups of real users who have similar behaviors, attitudes, and goals. A persona describes an archetypical user of software as it relates to the area of focus or domain you are designing for as a lens to highlight the relevant attitudes and the specific context associated with the area of work you are doing.

31 8 / 2012

The following is a large spreadsheet comparing all the UX / IXD tools I could find - Everything from Wireframing to Prototyping, on the Mac, PC, and Web. Created as a way to determine what programs to use depending on various project needs and thought other interaction designers would find this useful.

Take a look at the UX / IXD comparison chart, and please do let me know what you think. I would like to maintain ownership of this doc, but am open to constructive criticism, suggestions, etc).

Inspired by two articles: A Real Web Design Application by Jason Santa Maria, and Prototyping: Picking the Right Tool by Todd Zaki Warfel