In a groove or in a rut?

Created: Tuesday, 16 January 2018 Written by Gary Elsbernd

Stuck in a rutSometimes we can be comfortable, applying familiar patterns to familiar problems. Whether it's layouts, frameworks or tools, we can get "into the groove" where we feel we are accomplishing things quickly and efficiently, leaning on our experience and proven solutions. At some point, this groove can become a rut, where we no longer challenge our assumptions or look for better options.

Often we believe the "sunk cost fallacy" - concentrating on what we already invested in the current solution, such as time, money, and effort, and it may keep us stuck. Sure, the team knows the current tools, and the design patterns are well documented and understood, but do they really push the boundaries of what modern web applications can be? Browsers, platforms and tools change so quickly, you may be designing for yesterday's constraints.

How to get out of a rut

1. Acknowledge The Problem

You can not get out of a rut if you don't acknowledge you're in one. Forgive yourself for not noticing sooner, for letting yourself go this long without addressing it. The important thing is you're addressing it now. Challenge yourself to look for novel solutions to familiar problems. Before you implement the same, successful solution as you have before, try to decide if this is the project on which to try something new.

2. Step Away from the Computer

When you’re in a holding pattern with the same designs and the same effects, slowly back away from the computer. Don’t force it or expect inspiration to appear if you’ve been staring at the same design for hours. Come back later and you may be shocked at what starts coming out of you and onto the page. Sometimes getting out of a creative rut just means taking a breath, a moment and a break before it all comes flooding back again. Embrace your rut as part of the process and rest assured that it won’t last forever.

3. Change Something Small

Start by changing one control, color or font. It may not be permanent, but the small change gives you permission to make other changes, and may trigger additional ideas.

4. Find Inspiration

Seek out and experience the world and find inspiration in everyday things. One great place would be an art gallery or museum. If you can’t leave your desk, the Internet is an obvious gold mine to get inspired and get the ideas flowing again. Read voraciously - blogs, books, news - anything that discusses designs and evolving technology. There is always something new on the horizon. Read enough and you can identify the fads from the trends.

5. Look Outside Your Industry

We limit ourselves when we only compare ourselves to our direct competitors - we can be the best of breed platform in our industry, or we can try to be the best solution in any marketplace. You have to redefine what you are building. Instead of looking at designing for an insurance company, reframe it so you are designing content publishing or a customer self service portal. You open yourself to a new set of competition and new ways of looking at things.

There's nothing wrong with staying consistent and reusing patterns that solve problems under specified constraints.  The danger comes when you stop questioning assumptions or apply solutions that don't solve the entire problem.  Don't let you groove turn into a rut.

Why do we need UX?

Created: Friday, 22 September 2017 Written by Gary Elsbernd

User experience will happen. Whether it's designed up front, or a product of users interacting with your product after the fact, the human and product will interact. Good UX happens when we make decisions in a way that understands and fulfills the needs of both our users and our business.

It's important in this definition to recognize both sides of the equation; the user and the business. UX design strives to produce positive emotions in the user, whether it's through delight or just satisfaction in getting the task performed efficiently. On the other hand, anyone working for an organization has to ensure the organization goals are met as well. Sometimes negotiating between the two stakeholders can be tricky, when the needs are in conflict.

So why do we need UX? To ensure someone is looking out for both sides equally.

In defense of Clippy

Created: Friday, 16 December 2016 Written by Gary Elsbernd
Clippy wasn't so bad...

Clippy was ahead of his time.

I'll let that sink in.

Clippy, the infamous Microsoft Office assistant,  was introduced in November 1996. He was refined three years later, in Microsoft Office 2000. He went into retirement two years later, when he was turned off by default. And he finally departed this digital veil in 2007, when Microsoft Office dismissed him all together.

While he was eventually consigned to the dustbin of failed software, like Microsoft Bob, at the time, his novelty spun off a wave of "conversational agents." I worked on "Seemore the Sock Puppet" - a conversational agent for Payless ShoeSouce back in the 90s who you would click to "See more" - get it?  He waggled his eyebrows, and danced around the screen.  In a juvenile Easter Egg, there was one pixel on the screen that would make him pass gas, if you knew where to find it.

Clippy is famous for being one of the worst user interfaces ever deployed to the mass public. He stopped users to ask them if they needed help with basic tasks, like writing a letter or making a spreadsheet. In user experience terms, Clippy was “optimized for first use”: amusing the first time you encountered him, and frustrating after that. He was a puppet who only knew one script and kept repeating it, at you, throughout the workday.

Today, we have Conversational Agents again!  Apple's Siri, Amazon's Echo and Google Home, not to mention all manner of chatbots on the web are all examples of the evolution of the conversational agent. A conversational agent is a software program which interprets and responds to statements made by users in ordinary natural language. It integrates computational linguistics techniques with communication over the internet.

Why are these agents so much more successful than clippy? - I have a few hypotheses:

  1. They are user-invoked. Instead of interrupting your work or conversation with proactive suggestions, these agents do not speak until spoken to. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if Siri were to interject "You seem to be having an argument with your spouse - would you like me to read emails relevant to the situation?"
  2. They demonstrate semantic learning and artificial intelligence. Technology has developed to the point that these agents are much more flexible and "conversational." Google Home can keep track of context and respond correctly to unclear pronouns.  For example, while playing music, you can ask, "Hey Google, who is this?" and Google will accurately interpret you are asking about the artist for the music currently playing.  In addition, you can ask Google about a nearby sushi restaurant, and then ask "How far away is that?" and Google will understand you are referring to the restaurant you were just asking about.
  3. They are often voice-controlled.  With the exception of chatbots, these conversational agents are triggered with voice cues, respond audibly and can be used hands-free.  The ease of being able to wonder out loud who played the Joker in the 60's Batman series (Cesar Romero), and have Google tell you without pulling out a phone or laptop or reading and parsing text is a game-changer.
  4. They have personalities, but not overwhelming personalities. Each of the conversational agents have fans and Easter Eggs of questions you can ask to get funny answers programmed by developers.  They tell jokes, play games and sing songs, but only when explicitly requested.  Otherwise, they are all business.  
    Personalities have been added to chatbots as well. Students at The Centre for Psychology at Athabasca University developed the Freudbot, with whom a student can engage in an online conversation with a simulated Sigmund Freud.  Freudbot is capable of discussing a range of personal and psychological topics.

Conversational agents only work when they are truly conversational.  They require the semantic awareness and ability to follow a conversation that has only been recently possible in technology.  Poor Clippy was just a victim of timing (and poor animation).

I'm ba-a-a-a-ck!

Created: Tuesday, 29 November 2016 Written by Gary Elsbernd has returned to Joomla. started as hand-written HTML, and as my knowledge grew and I looked into content management systems, it moved to Joomla.  This was a good fit and I used Joomla for years.  After a while, though, a few things bothered me about the platform.  Each time there was a major upgrade, I had to migrate things by hand.  There were few options for automatically updating the site to the latest version, and a lot of my extenstions and templates broke between the versions, so I had to either sit on obsolete technology or spend a weekend upgrading my site and finding replacements for the parts that no longer worked.

I moved to WordPress in 2014, and thought I had the world by the tail.  It was an incredibly powerful and popular platform and I was learning a lot of things about their template system.  The upgrade paths were good and they had a lot of extensions available.  Unfortunately, being the most popular platform makes you the largest target for malicious actors.  I was hacked twice in the past two years, with my traffic being redirected and my site being blacklisted from Google and Bing.

After the second hack, I decided to come back to the familiar turf of Joomla, while upgrading to the latest version, including things like two factor authentication.  I have a nifty new responsive design and was able to preserve the Elsblog archives.

I think if I had more time and were more interested in the back end of security and databases, I could have made things work in WordPress, but I now prefer the comfort of a secure, familiar and powerful platform, even if it isn't the largest one out there.