HighEdWebDev: Compelling User Experience

Day Three of HighEdWebDev 2007: Beck Tench of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering did a great presentation: Designing Compelling User Experience (in Higher Education). Based on what I saw, I’d say Beck’s a gifted graphic designer and a natural teacher, involving the audience and making us forget we’re talking about some technical thing, showing images of turtles, mushrooms, flowers, washing machines and a high-waisted-shorts-wearing grown-up boy scout.

Beck raised the questions: How do you make an experience compelling? How do you build a space that people will love? How do you build something where people can come and get what they want and leave without being controlled? These are questions often being ignored in higher education where there’s a tendency to use narrow definitions of our audiences and to provide them narrow corridors in which to explore.

We looked first at four methods for developing understanding of content and workflow: concept maps, bullseye diagrams, navigation maps, and workflow diagrams. I’ve done a lot of concept maps to understand content connections and workflow. Beck suggested annotating the connecting lines with the verbs that connect them. (This reminded me of entity relationship diagramming for database design.) We applied each of the methods to the concept of laundry—amusing for the audience. During the bullseye diagramming we enjoyed some disagreement about the importance for folding and the critical nature of cycle choice. Beck pointed out that in addition to using the bullseye to prioritize, it helps point out items competing for attention.

beck's workflow diagramThe workflow diagram section was especially interesting: starting with a simple (though highly thought-through sentence) and then diagramming it with decision points, milestones, and participants).

We looked at starting navigation maps from the bottom and working up rather than the traditional reverse approach. Beck encouraged that there’s often a tilt of the head when you start out this way: “Design will become more about the experience than about the structure of the information.” This approach recognizes the reality that, as we know, people often are not starting at the home page. After a first draft, you can redraw, looking for connected ‘siblings’, patterns, and relationships. The result will be a map with a flat bottom with an uneven top. I’m interested to play this out and see what happens.

Beck then explored the introduction of humans into the process through methods with varying levels of intimacy: web-based surveys, card sorts, one-on-one interviews, and ethnographic studies. If my presentation reiterated the need for data on which to base your decisions, Beck reinforced the value of tactile experience, the importance of respecting the people you’re designing for, and the validity of trusting yourself.

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