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E-Learning as coffee break

Since you cannot have a decent idea without a manifesto, here’s one I prepared earlier for a suggested initiative for e-learning for a current client.

Concept is to develop and offer a library of short-n-sweet e-learning lessons on topics that may be of value. The shortness comes from enforcing a 5-min time limit, being the time needed to sit down and drink a cup of coffee (hence the coffee lessons name). But that shortness also comes from enforcing a time-limit on production. These should not be epic productions, more as labours of love from those of us wanting to share our knowledge but only being able to find occasional moments between projects to work on them.

What that means for the producer is firstly that anyone can do it, and secondly that we can afford to be smarter about the tools we use to make our content quickly. For example:

  • use a rapid e-learning tool and a simple template to plug in content
  • use your computer’s built in webcam to capture an introduction video or content describing key points
  • use Captivate or other screen capture tools to demonstrate a process
  • use audio recording to easily add a voiceover to content, etc

In this I’m inspired in part by the dogma school of film-making that deliberately enforced constraints over the film production process. Putting similar limits on producers encourages us all to produce (you don’t need the fancy tools or skills, because you don’t have time to use them). Which can help produce a wide variety of simple skills. Having our coffee lessons available is a growth exercise for both the learners (any of us) and the teachers (again, any of us).

Having helped assess a few people’s presentation/training skills where they have to pick a topic to present, obviously the key to a coffee lesson is picking a topic suitable for the 5 min limit. You’re not going to run a coffee lesson on “InDesign” for example. But you could run 5 mins on publishing an InDesign book as an ePUB compatible with your internal environment, for example.

As a follow-up a colleague has just noted that for a lot of general skills these coffee lessons already exist. Just search Youtube and you’ll find short-n-sweet videos on a plethora of skills. However what BYO provides is the ability to provide content specific to your organisation, the option to track usage (by offering via your LMS), and of course the experience in developing for yourself.

Rich media EBooks (on the iPad/Phone)

Good news from Apple. Made my coffee break when this trickled into Google reader:

IBooks app updated to support audio and video content

To date my EBook focus has been on the iPad platform, since that’s the tool we’re evaluating for business reference/learning. The first books were plain text and images, and handmade.

Initial attempts to add richer content via CSS and Javascript had mixed results (and will publish those once complete). But until now it was quite clear that audio and video were out, at least without some major hackery. So let’s hope this is good news….

Bad usability calendar

I’m a firm believer that one of the most effective ways to learn is to study mistakes, yours or other peoples. Which is why I used to live at Web pages that suck when first starting out in developing web content.

Just come across a similar, humoured, approach to usability in the Bad Usability Calendar. Highlights a different usability issue for each month. Which means it’s not much use as an actual calendar but very useful as a quick usability prompt.

Granted a bit late now to pick up the 2009 edition. But watch the space for the 2010 copy.

Application design is like recording a cover version of a song

Let’s face it. 99% of our design effort is spent on developing applications that already exist in some form or another. We work continuously to build a better mousetrap, not invent some fundamentally unique and novel way to catch rodents.

This is not to belittle the difference we make but to recognise we stand on existing shoulders. Or if we don’t, that our users do and will judge our efforts (fairly or unfairly) against those pre-existing expectations about what our [insert class of application here] application should look and feel like.

This need to try and marry those conflicting needs of “identifying with the original” and “being different” led me to compare the whole application design issue with music, in particular cover versions. Here’s another area where you are developing something that has both to be distinctive (and your own) while still recognising the essence of what came before.

what makes a good cover?

So what makes a good cover version? And what can that tell us about application development? Probably two conflicting goals:

  1. be true to the original, but
  2. add your own individuality.

Also hidden before the above two is “choose a good song to start with”.  For software development that means picking an application that people are going to want to “listen” to.  Your application version of a cover of the Macarena might not get the audience you would like, no matter how hard you work.

Be true
At some level each song (and therefore each application) has an underlying essence. Any to-do list manager needs to cover fundamentals like adding/removing items from a list. Any photo library needs to be able to add tags to photos to classify them, etc. The trick is to use the concept of the cover song to uncover what is the essential for your new version. What needs to exist for your users to recognise this as one of the type? And importantly for them not to dismiss it for missing something fundamental?

In looking for original applications you can start to diverge from the whole “application = cover song” metaphor, since with applications it is possible for what is considered the original to change. In music the original version of Tainted Love will always be by Gloria Jones, nomatter how many people have (a) never heard of it or (b) prefer Soft Cell’s version anyway. With applications what is considered original can vary, with first versions disappearing from view (Visicalc anyone?). In fact it’s probably more accurate to talk less of the original application and instead talk of the definitive or archetype. And recognise that it can change. For example 5 years ago the original/definitive social website you’d need to study would have been mySpace. Now it’s Facebook. Unless you’re in Brazil where it’s Orkut (thanks Oxyweb).

In some domains, there might not be an obvious original. In such cases the essence may be determined by reviewing multiple examples and drawing out the commonalities. And in that regard you’re moving towards the same approach as per the backs of most software packages, each with their feature lists comparing themselves (favourably of course) with the competitors.

Be individual

So once you’ve determined your original, and confirmed what features/functions are needed to be true to that original, now is the time to add your own spin. To add your personal creativity. To make the cover version.

And like musicians you’ll play to your strengths. In the same way that a Metallica cover of White Christmas is likely to include a few guitars, so a cover of the to-do list manager you create will reflect your own preferences in design, usability and approach. As long as the underlying essence remains evident, go for it.

Usability for the enterprise

In many enterprises, usability, if it exists at all, remains an isolated and inconsistent experience. The amount of importance attached to user interface design or the wider user experience often varies according to the level of epiphany within individual project managers or developers. Indeed in some large development projects I’ve seen usability commitment (and commensurate quality of the output ) vary between developers on the same project.

The challenge for the enterprise therefore is establishing some consistent approach to usability across the organisation that

  • Recognises the varying usability needs of the project (the steps appropriate for a command-line interface used by 3 senior administrators must be different to those for a GUI used in front of customers across 2,000 bank branches)
  • Recognises the varying skill and exposure levels of the involved parties
  • Works with the above two constraints to maximise the cost-benefit of usability activity.

In brief, this post explains an approach that we implemented for one organisation that works very well in engendering usability with minimal up-front upheaval.  In essence only three steps:

  1. Make usability assessment a mandatory step within the project planning process
  2. Simplify and distribute the fundamental usability activities
  3. Standardise and centralise the advanced usability activities

Make usability assessment mandatory

The trick in this step is to make the assessment of usability needs mandatory, but not the conducting of any activity. The purpose of the assessment is solely to determine what activities are appropriate for the project.

This assessment can be easily quantified via some form of checklist or score sheet, tailored to the particular needs of your organisation. Have your project managers review their project against your checklist and output a score and/or recommended level of usability activity.

In developing your score sheet, here are some attributes to consider:

  • Audience: internal or external users? Education/experience levels? Prior exposure to tool/concepts? Number?
  • Platform: web-based vs. native app?  GUI vs. mainframe/terminal?  Availability of support resources (online help, tooltips,..)?
  • Timeliness:  How time pressured are users?  Is it critical to complete fast?  Are customers watching?
  • Location: for use in a quiet office or on a noisy factory floor? To be used outdoors? Underwater?
  • Risk: what are the implications if the customer gets it wrong? To them? To us? What’s an acceptable error rate?
  • Alternatives: availability of training developers? or classrooms?

In its simplest form, have your project manager score their project on a 1-5 scale for each chosen attribute. Then get them to compare their total with your own guidelines (a la most personality quizzes in the Women’s glossies):

  • If you scored < 5, your project has low usability requirements. We recommend (a).., (b)…
  • If you scored between 6 and 10, your project has medium usability requirements. You must complete (a..). We recommend (b)…, (c)…,  etc

The checklist provides the project manager with a list of required activities, and a list of recommended activities.   Give some flexibility since human nature (and most project managers are human) welcomes a semblance of control and personal decision-making. It also accommodates differing levels of commitment to usability within your organisation and encourages those who are ahead of the curve and recognise the value of completing more, rather than less.

In outlining the required and recommended activities, also provide some estimates of the work effort, scheduling and resourcing needs. This gives the project manager all the information needed to produce a project plan that correctly integrates the new activities in the tasks to follow.

Note: These implementation guidelines need to reflect your organisation’s own development methodology: waterfall, agile, etc.  The aim is to make it easier for the project manager to add these activities (and mitigate risk/fallback to them once project is implemented) than to ignore them.

Simplify and distribute the fundamental usability activities

Within your list of required or recommended usability activities there will several that are so fundamental you’d be recommending them on most projects. They’d also be activities that most project managers would say they do already (to some extent). These are activities like:

  • Contextual inquiry
  • Paper prototyping
  • Design walkthroughs
  • Usability walkthroughs, etc

Such activities can be defined to such a level that project teams can take responsibility directly for their completion. The role of the central usability team is to support them in that regard by:

  • Providing clear instructions on how to most effectively conduct the activity
  • Developing and issuing related resources or tools (for example, interview checklists, prototyping templates, etc)
  • Offering in-house training or support

Where the line is drawn between the fundamental and the advanced activities will vary from organisation to organisation. And will vary with time. However initially focus on those activities project managers would expect (or believe) their project team is already completing themselves. Even getting to a standard definition and implementation of a usability walkthrough would be a great improvement for some organisations we’ve worked with.

Standardise and centralise the advanced usability activities

When the usability needs for your development become significant it is time to call in the big guns:

  • Interactive prototyping
  • Heuristic evaluation
  • Formal evaluation
  • User survey, etc

These are the skills your project managers/teams are not yet skilled enough to conduct themselves (heuristic evaluation), or that it is easier to always manage from a centralised location (user survey).

These may also be skills that you would want to always retain central control over. This is particularly the case if working with external developers/vendor companies. As part of the contract you’d be happy/expect them to conduct the fundamental activities but would manage the advanced activities in-house to (a) ensure they are completed satisfactorily, and (b) to make the outcomes a guaranteed part of the development obligations.

Note: Longer term the organisational goal should be to inculcate usability so deeply into standard project management practice that you are able to push activities “down” from this centralised/managed position to the fundamental. There is no reason why your usability lab cannot become another resource (like an OHP) to be booked for project meetings.

Alternatively, investigate replacing some of the complexity with technology. For example a tool like allows anyone with a Mac to conduct an in-depth usability evaluation complete with recordings of on-screen behaviour and user reactions/responses. No need to buy that two-way mirror!


Usability is far too important to leave to personal preference. Make identification of the need (and risk) standard for all projects and you’ll be in a position to use that identified need to drive adoption and the subsequent performance benefits.


CY6532 is the keypad code to get into the toilet block at Jindabyne campsite. I tell you this not because I think you’re all going to rush there and steal a shower. It’s because having stayed there for a weekend to go skiing I now have that number lodged in my brain. And I resent it. I resent the laziness of the design solution that imposes this overhead on me.

I’m sure cognitive scientists will tell me that there is no finite limit on brain capacity (since in this instance we’re not talking short term memory with its estimated 7+/-2 limit). But rationally or otherwise I cannot help feeling that my having to remember that code has meant some other useful snippet of information has been relegated to the dark corners of my brain. Or dropped out altogether. And for what? I’ve left the campsite now. I won’t be returning for a year at least. How much longer am I going to ‘know’ CY6532?

All the time as designers we have an option that transfers the awkwardness of a design from us to our users. We impose on them some – we think insignificant – overhead (just remember this code) rather than coming up with something smarter (swipe card/bracelet? Door unlocked?). And all such impositions get wrapped up as “training issues”.

Well next time you face that decision, remember CY6532. I know I will for far too long.


My iPod (and other items?) automatically adjusts for an initial “The” when sorting artist names. Rather than grouping all such bands under “T” it ignores “The” and puts in the appropriate place in the list. Eg “The White Stripes” appear with “Wolf Parade” not “TISM”.

Point to ponder is what happens to the songs by the olde British band The The? Where to go to look for them?