Posted by Elizabeth
Last night I spoke about my research to the RSA Newcastle crowd at one of our monthly get-togethers. It was the first time I had spoken to an eclectic crowd — previous talks had been to audiences in either HCI or digital religion — and it went over very well. Preparing the slides also helped me clarify some thinking about two of my thesis chapters. (I’ll post the slides AFTER I submit my thesis.)
All good stuff.
Posted by Elizabeth
Last month I spoke at World Information Architecture Day 2015 Bologna, one of the two Italian events among the many around the world that celebrated WIAD 2015. This year’s worldwide theme was “Architecting Happiness”, and because the organizers in Bologna expected a relatively high percentage of their attendees to be from industry and not to be specialists in information architecture or user experience, they asked speakers to focus on an environment to which everyone could relate. They were happy with my proposal to speak about government systems, about which I had spoken several times before and which I already had in US and UK versions. So I had to translate the text of my slides into Italian, find photos and screenshots that would depict the concepts as relevant to the Italian government, shorten the thing a little, and emphasize happiness a little more. Then respond to the light edit, done gracefully and competently by Chiara Scesa, and head off to Bologna. Oh, and in the meantime collaborate with Luca Rosati in preparing a 2.5-hour hands-on workshop on usability evaluation for the afternoon session.
The speakers’ dinner was amazing. Not so much for the food — although that too was good — but for the company and the conversation. The six of us were three organizers (some of whom were also speakers) and two speakers besides myself (Luca Rosati and the closing keynote speaker, journalist Luca De Biase — evidently most of the speakers couldn’t make the dinner), and with that small a group everyone could participate in the larger conversation if they wanted. I greatly enjoyed getting to know everyone, and I felt energized and very much appreciated.
My talk opened the event. Technical problems prevented my presentation itself from appearing in the day’s video feed, but the audience questions did make it there. You can get the gist of the talk from the slides on SlideShare, (or if you wish to do so in English, consult the US or UK version), and I’ll summarize the questions and answers below.
- Question: In your list of stakeholders, you did not mention those who design and develop government systems. Was this a choice?
Answer: I forgot them. Which is ironic, because I have been one of them for most of my life. But yes, they are stakeholders too. Thanks!
- Question: The graph regarding security, which shows an inverse relationship between the level of security and the quality of the user experience — could it be that when you increase security it just becomes more difficult to improve user experience?
Answer: Yes. This graph came from the book and I am not in complete agreement with it; I agree with you.
- Question: In the UK environment, where you are now, how common, how frequent is it that they introduce usability methods in the design of government systems?
Answer: They have a centralized digital government agency, which has a strong user research team that supports the government agencies in doing this, and they have a style for all the government, that they should follow.
- Question: In your experience, the fact that there are projects in which usability for the public servants gets very little consideration — is it a problem of awareness of the customer, or of the budget allocated to the project? Is it possible to increase awareness without cutting too much into the budget?
Answer: The problem is with both. One problem is that the expenses of development belong to one group and the benefit of efficiency belongs to another — such that the one responsible for development doesn’t want to pay for something that benefits someone else. But there is always a way to increase happiness and usability without spending too much. It’s difficult, but with enough understanding, enough process, one can… My motto is “Any improvement is always an improvement.” Even if you can’t reach perfection, if you can improve usability and happiness, you have done a good thing.
Watching this video, I am struck by how much my accent in Italian has deteriorated in the almost 14 years since my husband died (there’s nothing like living with a native speaker!) but my command of the language is still good enough that I was comfortable giving my talk and answering questions in it. With a hesitation here and there while I searched for a word.
I won’t take much space (or my time) to describe the other morning talks, but I did want to mention briefly the one by Italo Marconi on ethics, happiness, and positive design. I found it provocative and interesting, something to be thought more about. (Although I can converse in Italian all day about ordinary topics such as what to have for dinner or how to get from Point A to Point B, deeper and more involved topics — at which Italians can be very good — are more difficult and I have to work harder at them.) I hope I will get the opportunity to talk with Marconi further.
In the afternoon, Luca Rosati and I led the usability assessment workshop, with the participation of Fabio Vitali as well. (Here are the slides, which Luca prepared.) We divided the group (some 75-80 people) into teams of six people and gave each team one of Jakob Nielsen’s ten usability heuristics, with questions developed by Giorgio Brajnik and revised by Luca, to aid them in conducting their assessment. We then set the teams loose on trenitalia.com, a site with which we knew everyone would have had not only considerable experience but also many difficulties because of its myriad usability problems. After 20 minutes we brought the large group back together and asked each team to share what they had found. I wish I could post the lists of problems that the teams reported, but I don’t think anyone kept the flip-chart sheets on which we recorded them.
As we were tidying up, Luca De Biase asked me a very good question. Trenitalia, he pointed out, already has much of this information from their logs, but they seem completely disinclined to do anything about the problems. How could an exercise like this make any difference? he asked. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good answer for him; four weeks later, I still don’t. But I keep thinking about it. If you have any ideas, please comment!
After the workshops, the attendees reconvened for the closing keynote. De Biase focused on the “knowledge economy”, where value is concentrated in the immaterial, where innovation exists only when it is adopted, and where design matters. He described the new narrative as one in which innovation is an ecosystem, analogous to the environment. Most people, he observed, now know that their invididual actions count toward the quality of the environment and that the quality of the environment matters in their own lives. “I hope it doesn’t take us 50 years to see the infosphere as an ecosystem to maintain,” De Biase said, “to see the Internet as a common good, managed in a healthy way, contributing to its value.” Designers are among those who do tend to see that already, he said, and who carry a code of ethics, of awareness, that recognizes that polluting the infosphere damages us all.
In response to a question from the audience, De Biase discussed information overload, how it can affect our interactions on social media, and how design can play a role. Companies such as Google and Facebook, he said, use technological methods to address information overload: Facebook, for example, uses an algorithm that prioritizes recently-clicked friends in determining the order of posts to show in your news feed. This approach reduces information overload, he said, but it creates an “echo chamber” that feels comfortable because it surrounds you with people who hold similar ideas to yours. But this isn’t the end of the story, he assured us. “After social media — that is, the media that connect people who like each other — arrives an epoch of civic media, in which people connect because they have something in common — projects in common, citizenship in common, choices to make in common.” He described a project on which he collaborated — the construction of a platform for consulting with citizens around rather heated themes such as the Italian constitutional reform. The problem, he said, was that if they made it too easy for citizens to interact with each other, to propose ideas, and to post comments, people tended to attack each other. So they made it easy to propose ideas but slightly harder (two clicks) to make comments; and instead of a “Like” button for proposals they used a triangle that offered three responses: “I agree”, “I disagree”, and “I don’t understand”. This changed the dialog, he said, to be more civil and thoughtful.
“Quindi, design conta“, De Biase declared. “Therefore, design counts.”
Amen, my friend; amen.
De Biase’s talk was so rich with insights that I can’t possibly do justice to it here. You can read his own summary (at the bottom of his blog post about the event), or you can watch the video of the talk (both in Italian).
After the conference, De Biase asked several people to write short articles on information architecture and user experience for the weekly technology insert he edits for an Italian daily newspaper, and I was one of them. I worked with Luca Rosati , who coordinated four of the articles (including his own), and was grateful that they invited me to write mine in English. Rosati translated it into Italian, and today it appeared online.