Entries in osmosoft (6)


UX Camp London - UX and the Enterprise

Yesterday I attended the 2011 London UX Camp, it follows the same format as a traditional BarCamp but only over the course of one day rather than two and focused on UX, or at least anything that could be related to UX.

I'd gone along with my Osmosoft colleague, Colm Britton, and we decided to give a joint talk on the topic of UX in the Enterprise. Neither Colm nor I would consider ourselves "UX experts" (although Colm is much more design focused than I am and has recently begun taking a lead on the design elements of Osmosoft's work - and a great job he's doing too) so we figured given the audience of UX Camp it might be interesting to talk about our perspective of pushing good UX from within an Enterprise, the challenges faced, what's happening to make improvements and some of the questions we have.

At the start of the day we put our talk post-it note up onto the grid and we were somewhat surprised to see a number of Enterprise themed talks also being proposed - in fact the two main themes of the day appeared be 'UX in Agile Development' and 'UX in the Enterprise'

I thought that I'd run through some of the main points that Colm and I talked about, and some of subsequent conversations that arose during our and others presentations. I won't go through all the slides, however the full set can be found here.


Many of the following points are based upon experiences working in BT both on the business side (I was previously responsible for some of the web innovation work for the Wholesale arm of BT) and recent experiences working with Osmosoft - given yesterday's conversations I'm confident that these points are Enterprise wide and not necessarily BT specific ...that said the usual caveat of 'these are views of my own and not of my employer' applies!

People tend not to trust what they don't know - this is especially true in monolithic organisations where rigid structures and business norms are in place.  If you try and suggest a new approach you're often looked at as though you're crazy.  On a project a few years ago we were discussing the need for interaction design and the suggestion that we needed to pay for experts to help ensure the application was enjoyable to use was met with horror: 

...this is a business to business application, its not supposed to be fun to use

There are many views and opinions as to what skill sets make for a good UX designer - an understanding of the aesthetics of layout, typography, colour and space, the ability to communicate well with clients and developers, being able to apply the mindset and goals of multiple personas, an understanding of human behaviour. There's also a growing trend of prototyping in code so fluency in HTML, CSS, JavaScript could be expected. And with the evolution of CSS3 things like a grasp of animation and motion also come into play.

No matter what your views are as to the perfect blend of skills to make a UX designer it undoubtedly requires a unique multi-disciplined person. In contrast most Enterprises are very much role driven organisations - people fill roles of rigid pre-defined skills and anything you do which falls outside of the bucket in which you've been placed is considered wrong or ignored.

At Osmosoft we recently went through to process of writing our job standards. Here we had what could be seen as a picklist of 'things' that based on our roles we should be doing. The difficulty we had was a lot of what we actually do wasn't a part of our role - it either sat under the title of a different role or didn't exist at all. A positive outcome from completing our job standards was recognition that perhaps new job roles needed to be created and with that hopefully we can shape the skill sets required.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all, and one that came up a lot during London UX Camp was how to justify the benefits of UX. In a world where everything requires an associated quantifiable benefit the cost of engaging a UX team is seen as an unjustifiable cost. Common sense tells you that building something that's unintuitive will lead to dissatisfaction and ultimately people not coming back to use what you've built again. As an argument for bringing in a UX team this kind of stacks up when it comes to customer facing things. But try applying this argument to internal applications and all of a sudden it becomes much more tricky.

Conversations throughout the day highlighted several approaches people have tried taking - analysis of efficiency which can then be related to a cost saving / increased revenue was common but often only possible after the fact.

As a common problem which seemed to be affecting a lot of people there was interest in continuing this discussion and come up with a robust set of metrics that'll stand up to business case reviews. I can see more posts on this topic coming soon! 

Some of the challenges of UX in the Enterprise are purely cultural, and one would hope could be changed through best practise and education. However there are also challenges which are more difficult to overcome and in some cases simply cannot be removed.

BT, as you can imagine, has a huge systems estate with much of it having been built many years ago. As such there are often constraints enforced by the capabilities of legacy systems. Like a complicated jigsaw puzzle making changes can be made at the outside but ultimately dictated by what is at the centre - and getting to centre to make changes there means carefully unpicking everything else. This is slow and expensive.

Being cognisant of these architectural constraints can be frustrating especially when it forces you to compromise on the UX - but they do need to be considered. In the past where UX experts have been engaged we've often ended up in a scenario where a beautiful prototype has been produced, this has wowed the business but when it came to actually implementing it things fell apart and what we were left with was a poor resemblance of what was promised. Ultimately this does no one any favours - developers are wary of what designers will ask them to do next, and the value of engaging with a UX team is greatly reduced and questioned by the business. 

In projects where a UX team is engaged they are often brought in far too late in the process. It's often at a stage where fundamental experience changes can no longer be made there's only an opportunity to make minor cosmetic changes - as Nick Dunlavey put it 'hit it with a pretty stick'.

When a UX team is engaged one of the many values they add is ensuring that the experience works from a DDA perspective. A common problem spoken about yesterday was when engaged late on in a project there are sometimes major changes that need to be made in order to achieve DDA compliance - no organisation would choose to ignore this so of course the recommended changes are made but often this is at cost to the project both in a financial and time sense. The fact that should UX have been properly considered at an earlier stage the cost and delay could have been avoided is normally overlooked and once again the UX team are seen in a bad light. Not good, huh. 

There are a lot of challenges when it comes to UX in the Enterprise, and I've only touched on a few of them here. However I want to end this post (which I apologise has turned out being lengthier than expected) with some examples of how BT are taking steps to improve. 

In BT we now have a team dedicated to usability. They are small in numbers and spread thinly across all kinds of projects (web based, internal applications, physical products, complete end to end processes etc). But they are in demand and being utilised more and more. In my opinion having an in house usability (or UX, design, UI, or...whatever you want to call them) team is a good move - they can understand the details of business processes better than an external agency and overtime engrain a user centred design approach to the heart of an organisation.

In Osmosoft one of our core principles to build prototypes rather than PowerPoint. Doing this allows us to more quickly build a closer relationship with the client (whether they are internal or external) giving them something that they can touch and play with helping us to get an understanding of the interaction needs. Based upon feedback we can quickly demonstrate iterative changes that can only be done in code. 

Through BT's usability team, Osmosoft and other pockets of the business there are groups running regular masterclasses and awareness programmes to help raise the awareness of UX needs. These follow a ground up approach and focus on those who have an interest - something that was pointed out yesterday, and quite rightly too is that education needs to happen from the top level down as well. Unless the senior members of an organisation recognise the benefits of good UX then there'll always be issues. 

Finally, a longer term goal of BT's usability team is to make UX a mandatory check point in its delivery model. As a gated checkpoint early on in the delivery process projects will only be able to proceed if they've had the necessary engagement with recognised usability experts. Inclusion in this process and its enforcement across the business is a long process, hopefully in parallel there'll be enough of a growing awareness that such a check point isn't really needed.

In summary, when it comes to UX in the Enterprise there any many challenges and there is plenty of room for improvement. Conversations at UX Camp London demonstrated there are lots of people interested in resolving these issues and that over the coming months and years there'll be increased acceptance and plenty of interesting changes afoot.


OpenBritain launch

For the past few months we've been busy at Osmosoft Towers working on an exciting project with with the folks at Open Britain.  Open Britain make available accessibility information associated to points of interest around the country.  Yesterday there was a 'soft' launch of the project at the House of Commons.  Unfortunately being at SXSW I was unable to attend, but others from Osmosoft were there in force mixing it up with ministers and the like.  There were even rumours of a sign-language flash mob involving David Cameron!

Anyway, here's the background to the project...

It started around a year ago with modest beginnings of providing some consultancy around the benefits of open data.  Open Britain, along with their partners, hold a number of datasets which up until now had been locked away in the depths somewhere.  Being advocates of open source and open data our view at Osmosoft was to make the data available in such a way that developers could build upon those datasets.  The more the data was being used the more valuable it'd become.

Back in May 2010 to help prove what might be possible we ran a three day hack event where four teams consisting of Osmosoft developers, data owners and individuals with accessibility needs were armed with a subset of accessibility data and brief to 'go build some cool stuff'!  Coming out of the hack event there was strong sense of excitement as to what might be possible should the data be made open.  However there were also some concerns around commercial sensitivities.

Over the following few months nothing was actually built with code however progress was made to mitigate the commercial concerns, and all parties involved agreed to a project to be managed by Osmosoft whereby data would be made available for non-commercial use.

It was agreed that Osmosoft would deliver three things: 

  1. an update to the Open Britain website
  2. a platform for capturing datasets
  3. a platform for developers to access and use the datasets

Work (and by that I mean coding) began again in December and the space of a few short months I'm proud of what we've produced as a team.

Update to the Open Britain website:

The original website hadn't been updated for a number of years and at a first glance you're hard pushed to know what purpose it really serves.  The homepage contains a number of search boxes, numerous adverts and links galore.

Our approach was to drastically simplify the user experience.  Discussions with Open Britain identified that the site had one primary goal and that was to provide visitors to the site with an easy way of searching the accessibility data.  There were also some contractual implications around advertising deals, but hopefully we managed to cater for these without implicating the user experience too much.

The site uses latest web techniques to aid the user as much as possible, such as using the browser to detect current location.  On completing the search the site retrieves matching results from the datastore in the backend (more on that in a moment).

The search results page has also been greatly simplified and provides the information that you'd expect from this type of site.

There is still some work to be done, navigation back to the search needs to be improved and there also needs to be some attention paid to the filters used.  For the moment we've taken a mixture of logical filters and ones that exist in the datasets.

I should also point out that the majority of the icons came from the fabulous noun project.

The data platform:

For us at Osmosoft the data platform was the exciting area.  It provided many areas of learning for us and also gave an opportunity to extend the TiddlySpace platform's geo capabilities.

For me one of the key areas of learning was around how to talk about what we wanted to do in such a way that it didn't scare the project participants from outside of Osmosoft!  It sounds like such a simple thing but when you're someone who uses the Web throughout the majority of the day it's easy to forget some of the preconceptions that others who are less reliant on the Web may have.  For this project a key area of concern was around crowd-sourced data.  Where we at Osmosoft saw it as potential gold mine of opportunities others in the project saw it as a pitfall of poor quality, unreliable data and potentially malicious risk.  It's a topic that has been debated for a long time and I'm pleased to say that we reached a sensible compromise. In the data sets we're indicating the provenance of the data and those who wish to only use data from 'trusted' data sources can simply choose not utilise the crowd-sourced data.

The data platform can be accessed from openbritain.org is built upon TiddlySpace platform and makes use of the platforms APIs to allow developers to use the data sets in their website, applications and mashups.  At the moment documentation is a bit thin on the ground but this will be improved upon over the coming weeks with full details of how to use the APIs and how to add datasets.  We'll also be adding to the datasets from a number of sources and providing a mobile web-app to allow individual point of interest data to be captured.

I'm looking forward to getting back to London to find out how the launch went and begin working on the next steps to make the open data platform a success.


Improving Digital Education

On June 23rd 2010 Osmosoft hosted a workshop at the Osmoplex where we brought together a group of school pupils and their teachers.  The purpose of the workshop was to try and tackle the problem faced in many schools where the IT knowledge of the pupils often exceeds that of their teachers.
Our approach for the day was to first try to understand the root causes to the problem, and then splitting into small groups each come up with a proposal, and where applicable a prototype, to demonstrate a potential solution.
The level of knowledge in the room was of varying nature.  On the side of the pupils it ranged from someone who was confident hacking their way around XHTML, CSS, and PHP through to others who were comfortable with the basics of using a computer.  The teachers in the room ranged someone who taught ICT to someone who was happy to admit that technology baffled them.  On the Osmosoft side our gaps in knowledge were around understanding the education syllabus as well as infrastructure & processes currently in place within schools.   
What's the problem?
The day started with a roundtable session with particular focus on listening to what the pupils had to say.  I have admit that I had an initial concern that this discussion would be dominated by the adults in the room, but expert facilitation by Jeremy Ruston and a willingness from the teachers to hear-it-like-it-is [for which they should be applauded] led to some frank and open discussions.
One of the key issues that surfaced early on in the discussion was ''slow network connectivity'' - this caused by a combination of poor bandwidth coming into the schools as well as heavily locked down and constantly policed computer builds restricting any optimisation for performance.  From switching on a computer to being logged into the schools network was typically a 25minute wait [now, where have I seen this before?] - not great when you're in a 50minute lesson.
"School computers are too slow and locked down. If I need to find something out I just whip out my Blackberry"
The ''availability of home computers and internet'' was also raised, and although all the pupils attending the workshop had access to home computers - and better access than they have in school -there were a handful of their peers who weren't so fortunate.  For them it meant that completing homework, which in many cases was mandatory to be done on a PC, had to be complete in school after classes had finished.
Something that I was rather expecting, although shocked to the extent, was the ''filtering of websites'' allowed to be accessed via the school network.  Valuable sources of information such as Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube are all blocked.  And just recently one of the schools reported that Google search had also been added to the blocked list!  On this point the teachers commented that many of the pupils were well enough versed in the creation of proxies [and other things which baffled me] to work their way around the firewall - although the most common catalyst for this was to access Facebook and other social networking sites.
Something that I found particularly encouraging was that a number of pupils recognised the value to be gained in having access to information from across the blocked sites and rather than hacking their way around the school network, or simply waiting until they returned home there was a growing trend of pupils bringing in netbooks and accessing the internet via 3G.  And whilst it'd be a stretch to say the teachers actively encouraged this it did appear that it wasn't being discouraged.
On discussing the content of ICT lessons this is where we got to some of the core, and seemingly most easily addressable problems.  There was a general consensus that ''ICT lessons were boring and repetitive''.  Lessons were often scripted from worksheets and focused on learning how to use basic functionality of applications rather than applying the application to achieve something cool.  There was a feeling that the lesson plans all too often catered for the lowest level of understanding, which unfortunately in many cases was the understanding of the class teacher.  Of the teachers in the room they freely admitted that they struggle keeping up to date with the latest technology and their lessons are written by 'oldies' [their choice of word and not mine] based on their understanding from 2, 3, 5 years ago.  Not exactly cutting edge.
"ICT is all about using Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Spreadsheets. Over and over again. Boring!"
''Compatibility between applications used in school and applications used at home'' was a major problem for most students.  The school syllabus is predominantly built around Microsoft Office applications - even to the extent of using Powerpoint to build websites! But with expensive license costs most of the pupils opted to use open source equivalents at home.  When bringing homework back into school there were frequent compatibility issues.
"We were asked to design a website and we were told to use Powerpoint.  I tried to handcode the website using HTML and my ICT teacher told me I had to use Powerpoint!"
As we went through the discussion it became apparent that many of the issues faced in ICT education weren't too dissimilar to those faced within the enterprise.  
The breakout sessions
After the roundtable we split into three teams.  My team consisted of two pupils, Vicky and Becky; an assistant Head Teacher, Jonathan; and fellow Osmosoftonians Martin and Simon.
As a group we explored some of the problems raised during the roundtable and started to play around with some idea's about what a good ICT lesson might consist of.  There were certain themes that were prominent in both Vicky and Becky's minds, especially when it came to sharing and collaborative working. When asked to pull together a wish list for what they'd like to see fixed the following came out as top priorities:
  • Better compatibility between tools used at home and those in the school
  • Increased network speed with better reliability
  • Access to modern software
  • Access social networking sites to help collaboration
  • Online schedules which are easier to be kept up to date
  • A list of trusted resources that can be used for research
  • An archive of achievements and qualifications gained throughout time at the school 
Aside from perhaps network speed and reliability all of these priorities could seemingly be addressed via the web and it was at this point we began discussing what a potential solution might look like.
What we ended up sketching on paper was a scaled down version of Facebook for the school - kind of back to where it started from then!  The idea being that the following functionality would be available; 
  • An interactive website that could be accessed both at home and in the classroom
  • A place to allow chat with classmates whilst in school and friends outside of school whilst at home
  • Video chat to ensure the person you are talking with is really who they say they are
  • An online diary containing details of school activities such as study groups and social events
  • A place to create and edit and share documents online
  • A list of trusted resources to help with research whilst at home
  • A place to capture any achievements and qualifications which can be added to my CV when I leave school
The idea was that the platform could provide functionality across the internet so that the same toolset was available in and out of school.  Certain functionality would be restricted when the site was accessed via the school network - for example the chat functionality might only be available outside of class times.
Based upon the sketches produced Simon and Martin hacked together a quick prototype to demonstrate how the site my look, whilst Vicky, Becky and I pulled together the notes for the end of day presentations... 
The presentations
The day ended with the pupils presenting their proposed solution back to the rest of the group - a daunting task for most people, but by this point in the day there was a great sense of camaraderie amongst the room and everyone handled the task extremely well.
Each of the solutions followed a slightly different theme but all addressed key problems.  It is worth pointing out the prototypes were the result of around an hour or two's hacking.
First up were Sam and Marley with DUCK, Dynamic Understanding Communications Konnections which provided a way of getting the syllabus onto the web in such a way that pupils and teachers could view the syllabus and explore the topics being covered, as well as provide a place to collaborate on the syllabus to help improve upon it.


Next up were Vicky and Becky [my team] MyBook which was about how we can use the web to bring communities together to share information and learning parties in a Facebook for the school type of fashion as discussed above.
And finally, we had Issy, Alwyn and Harriet presenting How IT Works which provided a bill of rights which people could get behind to help drive the approach for ICT education.
Overall the day was a tremendous success and I for one learnt a huge amount.  I was blown away by the enthusiasm of the pupils and their ability to integrate into what I'd assume is a totally alien environment for them.  However, like all prototypes they are only as good as the output which becomes reality so with that in mind it'll be interesting to watch what happens in this space, hopefully we've at the very least planted the seed for some change in a very important area.
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