5 x 5 on the Edge with Ash Donaldson


Ash Donaldson at UX BookClubphoto:Steve Baty

It’s time for part two of the 5 x 5 interview series, covering a range of speakers from the upcoming Perth web conference the Edge of the Web. Next I caught up with Ash Donaldson.

Ash Donaldson is one of those old school User Experience Designers that are the main stay of our industry. He’s the type of person that just extrudes knowledge and a passion for his craft . It’s well worth having a chat over a beer or two with Ash, you’ll come away with your head spinning, and not from the beer.

Ash is presenting on Designing to persuade: Shaping the User Experience at the Edge of the Web.

You have an extensive background in Human Centred Design, and not just from a theoretical viewpoint, but also from a practical standpoint as well. In this digital age of computerisation; we as designers often forget the base human element of design. How do you believe we can reinforce the “human” element of the design process.

Pick up a pen and paper, walk out the door, and involve your users.

Contrary to popular belief, they enjoy being involved. People like that someone is willing to listen to them. At the end of the day, not only do they think you, as a designer, are the best thing since sliced bread for actually involving them, they also feel a bit of ownership for what they contributed to the end product. If you did your work right, that end product is also a joy for them to use. It’s a win-win when you make humans the centre of your design strategy.

I know you have been a little busy of late with various volunteer and human interaction design projects. You are the representative Australian expert for the human-centred design International standards; also you’re involved in OZCHI and CHISIG. For people that aren’t in the know, what do all these groups entail and why are they so relevant?

The International Organisation for Standards (ISO) recruits the services of experts from all over the world to develop thousands of standards that ensure products, systems, machinery and devices work well and safely. Most people in Australia don’t realise that there are quite a number of ISO standards in human-centred design, human factors, usability, and software engineering.

Since 2004 I’ve been working with a range of amazing experts on standards for software quality, usability reporting, and the human-centred design process. These experts generally come from large organisations (Microsoft, Sun, IBM, etc), national standards bodies, or Universities. For me, it’s important to provide a voice representative of the smaller operator – people who don’t have the luxury of expansive time and budgets on their projects – to help make the ISO standards more pragmatic and accessible for everyone.

The Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group (CHISIG) provides a forum for people working on all aspects of interactive technology to bounce ideas off each other and seek guidance. In the past, I’ve acted as the Queensland and ACT representative, and helped out in NSW because, with the explosion of the user experience industry came a bevy of new faces with no idea where to turn for training, mentoring, and advice. Back then, it felt like there were only a precious few of us trying to help everyone by giving presentations, answering questions, and pointing people in the right direction when they were first starting out. These days, it’s great to see many more groups springing up to help fill those niche support roles for the industry, like: the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA), Interaction Designers’ Assocation (IxDA), and more recently (and rampantly), UX Bookclubs – all over the world!

OZCHI is the Australian conference for Computer-Human Interaction. There’s always been a bit of a disconnect between academics and practitioners in our industry. Many practitioners don’t have the benefit of a formal education in Computer-Human Interaction or Human Factors. This lack of theoretical underpinnings of our techniques can lead to the development of bad habits. On the other side of the fence, academics without access to industry tend to research esoteric topics – missing opportunities to make real advances for our industry. As someone who wore both academic and practitioner hats, I whinged about this quite loudly to the OZCHI committee in 2004 (OZCHI was purely an academic conference back then). They simply put it back on me and told me to fix it. The next year, I was the Chair of OZCHI and we had an industry track alongside the academic track. Despite many speed bumps, more and more industry practitioners are coming along to OZCHI these days. The cross-over between academics and practitioners is rewarding for everyone. (Pssst. For anyone who’s interested, OZCHI is in Melbourne this year: 23 – 27 November www.ozchi.org – Bill Moggridge (co-founder of IDEO) is one of the keynotes!)

The application of user research, iterative design and usability testing play a big role in your design process. These techniques could be seen to be only relevant to larger projects with endless budgets. Do you see a place for them across the entire design project spectrum, regardless of budget?

Designing a product, service, or environment without involving the people that are going to end up using it is a bit like driving with your eyes closed: You might know how to drive and the general direction you need to go when you start, but you’ll probably veer off, cause untold damage to your car, and get lost along the way – then have to just put up with where you end up when you run out of fuel.

Involving users is not and should not be expensive. I say “is not” because most of the time, if you’re designing something for someone, they LOVE being involved and it doesn’t take much time or effort to get some great insights. I say “should not” because unless I’m making tiny refinements to a mature product, or really need to convince managers/developers of the need to fix something, I’m not a big fan of lab studies. It’s an artificial environment, the users are stressed, and the things you can reliably discover are quite narrow compared to if you did a little ‘guerilla research and testing’ in the field.

When gathering requirements, people are notoriously bad at telling you how they do stuff (due to a whole list of cognitive and perceptual biases). Managers or user representatives are even worse. Observing people as they work in their own environment provides much richer and more accurate insights. Not only do you get to see the constraints they actually work under, there’s also a whole heap of value-added opportunities you can discover when you watch them work: From something as simple as adding a quick lookup calendar for users who constantly refer to their desktop calendars; to something as complex as combining parts of multiple applications into a common workflow with a new interface. This can be the difference between a functional application, and one that’s a joy to use.

The same goes for testing your product. If you’re designing something from scratch, it’s more the high-level stuff you want to concentrate on (like how well someone understands a label or how a process matches the way the users think of it) than the nitty-gritty (like how many fractions of a second will moving a button 12 pixels closer to the final form field save users?). You can get more realistic feedback by spending 5 minutes walking through a paper prototype at a few people’s desks, or loading up a functional prototype on their screens to see how they would actually use it ‘in context’. No matter how many times I do this, I always discover a number of the assumptions I made while designing the screens and workflows were wrong. This is why it’s essential to keep testing small, focussed, and iterative. Your users will keep steering you in the right direction. 😉

Is there any truth to your 300,000+ km that you have travelled in recent years? It seems that you are constantly on the go, be it attending or speaking at international conferences. Come on you are among friends here, what’s your secret?

Recent years? That’s just since last May, isn’t it? 😉

Some great conferences are overseas, so yes, I spend a good part of my year in the US and Europe. Also, working with ISO means going to a new city for every meeting. I tend to work a few months on, then take some time off for conferences and meetings. To let you in on a little secret: I’ve only ever been overseas four times in my whole life for pleasure. All the hundreds of other trips have been industry-related. Jet-lag sucks too much to waste a holiday suffering it.

Ash you must be one of the most physically active geeks that I know. With our occupations often requiring extremely long hours at the keyboard, do you have any suggestions for how people can get out from behind the computer, and improve their physical well-being. Also what’s with these crazy frog shoes?

If I didn’t exercise, I wouldn’t get half the things that I wanted to do, done. I learned years ago is that if you’re not physically active, you’re not mentally active. If you start your day with 30 minutes to an hour of exercise, you’ll more than compensate for it by knocking over much more work in less time than if you just grabbed a coffee and sat and stared at your computer all day. It’s amazing what a good kick of endorphins can do to help you whistle through the piles of work.

I find the best time for me to exercise is early in the morning. I used to be a late-night worker, but that was because I couldn’t concentrate earlier in the day, and I’d end up making little progress until the sun went down – then work late into the night. These days I’m up at 5:30am and I’m working efficiently by 8am. What used to take 14 hours to do now takes only 7 and I have the evening to read, research, and relax.

The crazy shoes are my Vibram Fivefingers. It’s kind of an anti-shoe. Wearing them is like being barefoot, but with thick skin on the soles of your feet. I run in them because, well, against what people tend to believe, running shoes cause injuries. Don’t take my word for it though, search the medical literature of running barefoot versus shod (with shoes). If you’re interested, I even wrote a blog post about it recently.

Thank you Ash, looking forward to chatting some more at the Edge of the Web.

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