Creepy or Cool. My Capstone and journey into extreme personalisation.

Human Centered Design. Human. Centered. Design.

This article charts the course of a human (me) who discovered that he really wasn’t the human at the center of the design. Someone else was and someone else always will be. The you in user isn’t you. It can’t be you. It shouldn’t be you.

Over the last six months I’ve participated in the online Coursera Interaction Design course and produced the following prototype app for my capstone project.

It was designed for a work colleague based on her unmet needs. It’s an app that helps you to meet your life or work goals by getting to know the real you and then using these insights to help you — getting to know you involves it ‘reading’ and ‘listening’ in to your emails, texts, phone calls and other personal data. It then helps you by sourcing very personal insights and suggestions from the web. This is about extreme personalisation — the app digs into what you don’t know or haven’t yet realised about yourself and uses that to help you. It’s about the unconscious that lives in our technology. The name of the app says it all. Hopefully.

It’s called Creepy or Cool. You can see it here.

It started with a story.

All good designs start with stories. Stories contain free spirits like context, purpose, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, wants and needs, all bound up into an easily digestible format. We know how stories work and if you ask nicely people will always share them with you. A colleague of mine uses a range of devices on the tram, at the tram stop, at home, at work and everywhere in between. What unfolded from her story was a dynamic interplay between context (the where of devices), usage (the how of devices) and what they were used for (the why of devices). It became clear that almost every device (and app) could have a different why and how if used in different contexts. It’s certainly not a static situation. It really not about the device, it’s about what they mean to her and the experience they contribute to.

My devices only do what I ask them to do.

As it turns out my colleague does a lot of research using her devices but once her fingers stop flashing over the keyboard they stop helping her….She wished that her devices would come together and find out useful things for her without being asked. She wanted more of a dividend from her devices and apps. Fair enough too.

So, I put pen to paper and drew a storyboard to help me visualise a potential solution. It was both magical and rubbish. Magic first. It pushed me to get my ideas out of my head and commit them to paper. It also gave me a means to get feedback from others. As before, you are NOT the human in human centered design. Anybody but you is. Rubbish? It’s perfectly OK to draw badly when you’re designing for others because human centered design is not about artistic ability it’s about your ability to communicate what you’re thinking so that you can get useful feedback. Rubbish drawing is OK if it gets you fantastic feedback….and fantastic user feedback is honest and uncompromising not soothing to your ego.

Prototyping and Ego

In every job I’ve ever had until I started working in design you don’t share things until they are 100% ready, polished and reputation enhancing. It’s an ego thing…if it’s not ready you don’t show it. When you’re designing the single smartest thing you can do is to prototype your best ideas and see if the human you’re designing for thinks it fits their contexts and needs. Prototypes are cheap, often physical means of getting user feedback. It’s better to find out quickly whether your idea is magical or simply, rubbish. Sometimes, often even, your prototypes are both. The feedback from showing these prototypes got me hugely valuable feedback, some about the magical ideas, others about the rubbish bits.

Clickable takes you for a journey into context…

Developing a clickable prototype using Sketch and Invision allowed me to create something that could be tested in the users context. After all, the app wasn’t developed with me in mind. This is about her story not mine.

I tested a version with my wife — that was hard going until I pointed out that she was testing the app, not me. After that she really started to share. I’m pretty sure she enjoyed providing ‘developmental’ feedback though…

Then came the avalanche. I conducted A/B testing of my clickable app using UserTesting.Com. Good god. I listened to people I didn’t know who, on the other side of the world navigated through my app and provided feedback.

They said things like:

…”it looks at my apps and my phone and tries to get to know me and it’ll search the web and find things that benefit me”

“It kind of freaks me out that another app or site is accessing things on my phone…security wise, it kind of scares me”

“How does it keep my data secure?”

“It’s very basic. It doesn’t really inspire confidence in the user”

“Oh…it’s pretty useful…wow”

“That’s kind of creepy”

“If it could work that would be really awesome”

“I would not have signed up because it seems kind of creepy because it can listen in on your phone calls”

“I think the concept is really good”

“If you could get past those barriers this would be a really useful app…really clever too”

“It was interesting…I would like to see the app when it works”

“It makes me suspicious”

They loved the idea but thought it was creepy. So, the app became known as Creepy or Cool. Between my wife’s feedback and the A/B testing I made many significant changes to the prototype, all directly tied to user feedback. Again, it’s not about you, it’s about whether the prototype fits the user’s needs, within the context they want to use it in.

What did I learn from Coursera?

The user experience was so patchy, so often, that I’m convinced that the human’s at Coursera thought they were the human’s in Human. Centered. Design. They thought that they were the you in user. The academic who fronted the course for his university contributed very little to the user experience — the courseware he supplied in conjunction with Coursera often seemed to be copied from his bricks and mortar classroom. It’s ironic that the user experience of a user experience course was so poor.

What I reacted so badly to wasn’t the fact that the courseware and platform were so poor but rather that the academic and the Coursera people hid behind technology. They presented what was in reality a (rubbish and magic) prototype of a platform but maintained that it was fully grown — if only they had framed it as being in development and engaged us students in making it better. They would have transformed hundreds if not thousands of frustrated, disappointed students into being a worker bee army of developers who would have willingly helped to develop Coursera into a better platform. Human centered design is often about reframing challenges and this was a challenge that could have been resolved if only they had stood back and reframed it.

We would have learnt about interaction design by being part of the development of a global learning platform. Instead, they kept us on the outer and because they did that, they often disappointed us.

Final Thoughts

I once read that people expect that whatever you’re showing them is as good as the last best user or customer experience they had. If they’ve just seen AirBnB’s subtle, intuitive app with it’s dreamy pictures and almost perfect navigation then that’s the standard they expect from every other app. The fact that these incredible apps and experiences exist is a double-edged sword for students of interaction design. On one hand, it’s easy to see and experience what amazing looks like but on the other hand life is comparative and our apps will be directly compared to those developed through deep investment in user research and experience. There are no short cuts here. We live in a post technology for technologies sake world. It’s all about the experience and the only way to understand what the experience is to listen to stories, stories about people living their lives so that we can enable them just a little more.

Lastly, a huge thank you to my fellow students.

Morgan (