Although we didn’t win the award, I walked away far from empty handed.

For those that missed it, an app that we designed was selected as a finalist in the Disruptive Design category for the 2011 AdobeMAX Awards. Our friends at DevelopmentArc had the crazy idea to build Maque and fortunately asked us to handle the User Experience, Branding & Visual design side of things. You can read more about the app here if you want a deeper dive on what Maque is and how you can get your hands on it.

WE MADE ANOTHER APP!

Being in LA for the award nomination I got to spend 3 solid days with the boys from DevelopmentArc, Aaron & James , which is always a good time. When I say I didn’t walk away empty handed, these guys are largely to do with it. We had a free day on Sunday so at breakfast I threw it out there that we should build a mobile app since we had the day available. Admittedly a self-serving act, I had to throw it out there because Aaron & James are two of the brightest developers I’ve ever worked with and I wanted us to jam out another project while we were together. Luckily they were an easy sell. So we kicked the tires on a few ideas (which we’ll tackle later for sure) and ended up settling on building a lightweight dataviz android app for the conference. We initially wanted to pull in FourSquare and Flickr feeds as well but just didn’t have time and like any project we had to kill features and scope.

We headed back to the hotel and got to work. James and Aaron split up their dev tasks and I got to work on the design and branding. I’ve been part of a few other hack day opportunities back when I worked at Nitobi and was quickly reminded again how important it is for us to take some personal time away from our client projects to make things we like and want to bring to life. James had a prototype up within the hour and we were testing the interaction design immediately and already laughing at how fast it was all happening. Aaron, while grunting in the corner, managed to get the framework together in the same amount of time and was using Maque to grab real data from the Twitter API and pulling it into the app to test.

At that moment it finally came clear to me what Maque could do for every app and website developer in the world. A temporary service layer for any type of project. Genius. We were being rate limited or “throttled” by Twitter for hitting the API too many times while attempting to figure out what rate we needed to acquire data in order to produce the data visualization in the app in the way we were envisioning. The lights switched on when I realized the potential because you have to remember that I’m not a developer; just a UX guy but now I get it. So, rather than waiting for Twitter to reinstate our API requests, Aaron just ran the data through Maque and was easily able to randomize, increment & scale the data set without being online. Please tell me you now understand the importance of this. If you don’t, drop me a note. With the data in place we got about 80% complete on the app and went to dinner and came back to finish it up. As with any project time was a major constraint and we just didn’t have time to implement viewing of tweets within the app. Sorry but we’ll get it in there ASAP and make it cool. That said, we got the data-viz component to a good place and packaged up the app for the Android Marketplace around 1am. The app was elegant and the process was fun. Time to sleep.

The app is called Max Storm and you can grab it on the Android Marketplace.

Opening Keynote

What a show. Adobe arrived with a bang and had an impressive visual buffet for us to experience for 5-6 minutes. I managed to grab the last few minutes of it.

I could give you my thoughts on it or you could just watch the opening keynote here and others if you like and form your own opinion.

Shout out

I have to take a moment to say congrats to my old comrades at Nitobi on the acquisition! It’s huge. You guys deserve it. It was surreal watching it from the crowd knowing that it was something I was a part of at the inception of PhoneGap and could have been part of today if I hadn’t moved on. Very cool for you guys.

SESSIONS

I followed the ongoing discussion formed around the new series of touch apps that Adobe announced at the opening keynote (Photoshop Touch, Collage, Proto, etc.). As one might expect I gravitated to the sessions focused around discussing the interface and UX of the new apps. I wasn’t wowed by any of the sessions, but was very pleased by one in particular (Dave Hogue’s).

Ty Lettau’s session on “Interface Design for Modern Cloud Applications” was an insightful recount of their (Adobe’s) process for re-imagining the Adobe tools & controls for the context of tablet devices. I love that they have smart UX people driving the ship on these new apps. They’ll be light years ahead if they keep up that focus and don’t get last in crowded UI’s with a gazillion tools/toolbars. I am VERY curious to see how Adobe responds to the emerging market of tablet-based productivity solutions and how their core suite of products will or will not evolve based on the patterns being introduced in the new tablet apps. It seems obvious to me but then again I’m not tasked with potentially upsetting the apple cart if changes were made to products that have been around for 20 years, no matter how bloated they are.

The best discussion about the impact of tablet apps was the one that emerged from a panel session with creatives using the apps now daily. I completely agree that these devices and apps should be seen at most as an extension of the creative process, not a replacement for desktop solutions. Context is the biggest missing link when I hear people’s comments, questions, ideas, assumptions about new devices impacting a practitioner’s workflow or someone just using them for fun. These apps and devices are useless if not designed with all the new affordances dictated by a new set of device constraints and contextual opportunities available. We can now rapidly sketch with clients and share the information in new ways. This isn’t to say that I will now start sketching with clients. I already do. This just gives me a new opportunity to rapidly generate ideas and save them for later to assess and I can easily share them with my team or clients w/o having to scan my notepad or take a picture of it.

I had a particularly good time taking photos with my tablet during some sessions and placing them directly into my notes for the session and sketching around them to provide another point of recall and context for my notes. Huge. I’ve been skeptical about the productivity limitations of tablets since they arrived on the mass market. Turns out I just needed to find it for myself rather than someone trying to convince me of how many things I can do with one. The bottom line is that I should have bought a stylus sooner. I bought one at the beginning of the trip and it completely opened up the interaction for me. Using my fingers to draw or write just wasn’t doing it.

Dave Hougue’s session entitled “Design Better Experiences with Fireworks by Understanding How People Think” was my favorite and had very little to do with Fireworks. Nice code name Dave. ;^) I just met Dave a few nights prior and learned that he is a trained psychologist that made his way into UX and is now the VP of User Experience at Fluid in SF. Dave spoke about what Haig (my business partner) and I have been debating over the past 3 years, the undeniable importance of cognitive science disciplines as a key influence in user experience design. Case in point, which I did clarify with Dave after the session but, I happily raised my hand as the only person in the room that had ever designed an interaction/interface to ‘annoy the user’. What I couldn’t say at the moment is that I have only done that in the context of ideation when you play the advocate of ‘Bizarro World’, a term and approach I learned from Dan Saffer back at Interaction10. The goal is to identify the worst possible outcome you could create for a user of the product or service you are tasked with designing. Then you take those ideas and use them as guidance to uncover the inverse of that effect and the design strategy you need to consider to ensure that those things never happen. Make sense now? Sorry Dave for being the sore thumb but now you know what I was getting at.

As Dave’s session continued to unfold he touched on some foundational aspects of identifying the role of psychology in User Experience design, some of which were a welcome refresher and some new topics I’d only heard of in passing and will certainly explore more after this session. This is likely going to come off as a review pf a Psych 101 class reading list but hey, have you read all of this? I sure haven’t. Dave highlighted several of the many Cognitive Biases that we should all be aware of:

  • Anchoring: the common human tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.
  • The Framing Effect: drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented.

In addition to the overview of several Cognitive Biases, Dave made valuable references to several other topics in psychology worth exploring:

  • Sturgeon’s Law regarding the balance of Accuracy vs. Time.
  • Occam’s Razor: The razor is a principle that suggests we should tend towards simpler theories until we can trade some simplicity for increased explanatory power.
  • The Pareto Principle: states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

I’d love to continue digging into Dave’s session as it does deserve deeper thoughts, but I need to get this blog post done! Clearly I’ll have to follow up at a later date. You might also want to follow Dave on Twitter if your into the relationship between cognitive sciences and UX.

BEING NOMINATED…

Was pretty damn cool. I was humbled by the nomination but it really hit me when we walked into the rehearsal for the awards ceremony and I literally saw how big this was going to be. Enter butterflies. Rainn Wilson from the office was a hilarious host. He was a great sport dealing with such a huge crowd of nerds and even had the developers and designers in mild opposition at several points, all for fun of course. It was amazing to see our work presented on a 50ft wide projection and though we didn’t win it I was still proud. For some reason our app was the only one of all the nominees that received crowd applause when it was announced. That was cool. The crowning moment was when Rainn called for a round of applause for the winners and then pointed directly at us and called for a bigger round of applause for the losers while muttering under his breath that he’d sat in those seats several times and never won a fucking award. Thanks Rainn. It was hilarious. Happy to be in the same company as you buddy.

Heading Home

As I said at the beginning we may not have won but I didn’t walk away empty handed. I bought a stylus, we made an Android app that people actually downloaded and I get a new set of tablet based apps to beat up on and see how they work for our team and our creative process.

Thanks for reading. – Chris

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