Revisiting Adaptive Mobile UX Design

Last month I had the pleasure of returning to Columbus, OH to speak at the inaugural M3 Conference, devoted to all things mobile. I gave an extended version of my Adaptive Mobile UX Design talk from the Midwest UX conference earlier this year, adding more on core UX considerations for a mixed designer-developer audience, as well as updating much of the material to account for all of the changes in the mobile space in the past six months.

I’ve posted the slides from my talk on SlideShare, also embedded below with a complete transcript of speaking notes. Thanks to all attendees, question-askers, live-tweeters and folks I got to hang out / geek out on mobile with.


[Slide 1]
Hi. My name is Jen Matson and I’m an interaction designer and user experience architect. Today I’m going to talk about ways of crafting a great user experience for the mobile web.

[Slide 2]
But there are no simple directives for doing so. And insights about how to make the right design choices often come from trial and error, as well as experiences we have as users. That was my path — a winding one. So I’m going to share with you a little of not only my thinking, but my process.

[Slide 3]
Think of it as a treasure map, but instead of one big “X,” there are a number of different stops on our journey, from a visit to a Sears store, to a look inside our users’ heads, to an exploration of some myths, to an examination of some concrete technologies you can use. First stop: Sears, or how I came to be there.

[Slide 4]
At the beginning of this year, I converted a spare bedroom in my house from what was essentially a storage space into a home office. Fortunately, my desk is right in front of a nice big window. UNfortunately, it’s a single pane, old wood window, in my 100-year old uninsulated house. The room stays cold, and I realized pretty quickly I needed a space heater.

[Slide 5]
Since I didn’t want to wait for one I’d order online, I decided to purchase one from a store near me. I did go online first to research features and prices, but then I headed over to my local Sears, since I figured they’d have a pretty extensive appliance selection.

[Slide 6]
I go to the store, head upstairs to where the space heaters are, and find the one I want. The price was a bit higher than at other stores online, but still okay. Even so, I’m a savvy shopper, and I wanted to see if Sears maybe had a price-matching policy.

[Slide 7]
So I took out my smartphone, and did the following Google search in my web browser: “Sears price match policy” Great, a web page with that exact phrase for the title, at the domain. So I tapped on the link to view it. But this is what I got:

[Slide 8]
“The server has not found anything matching the Request-URL. ERROR 404 Not found”

Not good. Where was the web page that Google had tantalizingly dangled in front of me? But looking at the error page URL, I see:


Ah, sounds like a mobile URL. So the Sears web site KNOWS that I am on a mobile phone, but it can’t use that information to provide me with the appropriate experience based on the content I’m looking for and the context of me, standing in their store. So then I went directly to “”, got their mobile site.

[Slide 9]
I repeated my search phrase there. But I didn’t really get anywhere there, either, just over 64 thousand results for things like jewelry. Obviously searching their product catalog, not the site.

I even tried to go to, but I kept getting redirected to the mobile site. There was no way I could get to that page with the price match policy info from my phone.

Overall, not a good experience. And I’m not just talking about the mobile web site. While I did buy the space heater anyway, the entire process left me pretty grumpy.

[Slide 10]
What we have here is a failure to adapt. The site couldn’t adapt to the combination of an incoming search query from a mobile device to a page on their main web site. They actually blocked me from getting to information they did have on their main site. I certainly hope web experiences like this do become extinct.

[Slide 11]
Now this story dates from January or February of this year. So I wanted to check in and see how Sears is doing, mobile-wise. If you type “” directly into the address bar, you get taken to what looks like a new mobile site, much improved in both UI and functionality. But unfortunately, repeating my little scenario by following the top link on Google for “sears price match policy” resulted in…

[Slide 12]
This. Come ON, Sears! Clearly, there is still work to be done.

[Slide 13]
So, what is Adaptive Mobile Design? It’s an approach to creating web sites and applications that try to give each user the best possible content and experience, tailored to their device and browsing context. And the “try to give” part in there is pretty important, since we can never anticipate all of the factors involved.

As it turns out, this approach is nothing new. Another industry has been doing this for hundreds of years.

[Slide 14]
The ad industry is the perfect example. Display advertising, in particular, is a specific medium where within the relatively two-dimensional constraint of showing an advertising message, it adapts to the user context. Here’s one from a classic roadside ad campaign:

[Slide 15]
(Burma Shave ad, part 1 of 5.)

[Slide 16]
(Burma Shave ad, part 2 of 5.)

[Slide 17]
(Burma Shave ad, part 3 of 5.)

[Slide 18]
(Burma Shave ad, part 4 of 5.)

[Slide 19]
(Burma Shave ad, part 5 of 5.)

[Slide 20]
Or this print ad, taking advantage of the then-novel full color printed magazine page.

[Slide 21]
Or Boston’s famous Citgo sign, where, in its pre-digital incarnation, shown here, the canvas was thousands of illuminated tubes of neon, lit up and set to animate.

[Slide 22]
The message adapts to, and sometimes even acknowledges the medium, as well as the setting. This tour bus ad, for example, is clearly meant for locals, as the tourists unwittingly become part of the ad.

[Slide 23]
And the same campaign, adapted for taxicab and subway placements.

[Slide 24]
Here we’ve seen three major design considerations: canvas, capabilities and context. As applied to mobile design, Canvas is the varying display sizes and resolutions of phones, tablets and other devices. The capabilities of the device, from the processor speed to the data connection speed, also play a role. Finally, context: where the user is, what they’re doing, and their attention level.

[Slide 25]
So here’s where someone might say, “Great! As long as we understand these three things, let’s jump right in and create a great mobile experience. We’re ready!” To which I’d reply: “Maybe.” Because there’s one big thing, that can be summed up in one little word, that needs to be considered first and foremost.

[Slide 26]
That description of adaptive mobile design? That middle bit: “understanding user needs.” Above all else, you need to know your user, not just her place in space or gadget she’s using, but what really motivates her.

And if you already have a deep understanding of what drives your users to interact with your product, service or site in the first place, then: “Yes, fantastic, you’re ready.” Because that kind of research — really, just talking and listening to your users, whether it’s through usability testing, user interviews or even just surveys — is an essential not just as a first step, but an ongoing process. But hey, you guys are already doing that anyway, right?

[Slide 27]
Well, if you’re not, then all bets are off. Unless you’re designing something for which the target users are pretty much you, there’s a good chance you’re making some wrong assumptions about why and how people will use your site. And we know how that one goes.

[Slide 28]
Because, the funny thing is, Sears actually got bits of the “canvas, capabilities and context” piece right. They anticipated that yes, I might want to view content tailored to the small screen of my phone, and correctly detected my mobile browser. But by fixating on the presumed object in my hand, the experience is disjointed, untethered from the thoughts in my brain.

[Slide 29]
What’s my immediate task? Get information on their site I requested by tapping on a link. And that’s actually a sub-task of getting price match policy info. And that is the same task whether using a phone or computer browser. And my actual goal, the reason why I’m standing there in the store? To buy something. Presumably, Sears wants me to do that. And wants to support me in any way they reasonably can to help me reach that goal. Define your user goals and tasks, and *then* you can start to use those mobile considerations to better shape the experiences you design.

[Slide 30]
So, considering your user’s goals and tasks is essential, but getting that data can be kind of tricky. To get it right, you ideally need to be doing your own research. And while it’s not a substitute for user research, industry research can be amazingly helpful in providing general information about user behavior and context issues. Much of this research generously shared by mobile pioneer Luke Wroblewski on a regular basis on his web site, at And mobile analysts like Horace Dediu and Michael Mace help make sense of this data, synthesizing, charting and reflecting upon it, to create a multi-dimensional view of what’s happening in the industry based on observing mass mobile purchase and usage behavior.

So along with insight about your site’s users, this research is valuable in helping to create a realistic picture of the mobile Internet user.

[Slide 31]
In fact, actual behavior is so varied, it can be most helpful to start training your brain to NOT jump to certain assumptions about mobile Internet usage. Mobile designer/developer/author Josh Clark has written and spoken quite a bit about some of these mobile context myths, but I’d like to review a couple of which are probably the most important — or dangerous:

[Slide 32]
Well, of course! What makes it mobile is that you’re, well, mobile. Some of the time, yeah. Catching up on email and news while sitting on the bus headed to work is a perfect example. But I’m also using a mobile device while sitting on the couch, watching an old episode of “Law & Order,” thinking “hey, that actor looks *really* familiar” and then grabbing my phone on the coffee table to hit IMDB to do a quick search. Both scenarios are equally valid.

[Slide 33]
Even if certain mobile carriers focus on the first one. Over and over again. After all, if we’re NOT on-the-go, then we’re less likely to be using their service, right?

[Slide 34]
But the research data tells that nuanced story that reflects my mixed home-and-away usage, and probably yours. In fact, an even *larger* number — 84% — report accessing the Internet on a mobile device while at home.

[Slide 35]
This myth stems somewhat from the previous one, in assuming on-the-go usage can lead to justifications for removing content or features to presumably better serve these distracted, impatient nomads. And sure, it’s much easier to chop things out from your desktop web site to fit a small screen than re-think your site structure and navigation to best accommodate mobile use.

Here on the “desktop” version of the web site for retailer Nordstrom, we see a lot of ways to shop, and links to support that activity by getting users to the right departments and brands.

[Slide 36]
Another feature that is very well-liked by users, and is an especially popular promotion around the holidays is the free shipping offer, something proven to help increase sales. Here we see it promoted in two different spots. Clearly, it’s important, right?

[Slide 37]
Well, apparently not so important to mobile shoppers, as the mobile version of Nordstrom’s site omits any mention of free shipping. For some reason, different content choices are being made here, and presumably not to optimize for the mobile context. In fact, this disconnect is likely less a choice and more an accidental byproduct of not synching sales channels. But it’s still an example of treating mobile users as second-class shoppers. And while there is a link to the view the full site at the bottom of the page, that’s only useful for shoppers who have a specific task in mind they can’t complete using the mobile site.

[Slide 38]
Oh, and I almost forgot — before I was able to see the Nordstrom mobile site at all, I had to suffer through this pop-up, one of my main mobile site pet peeves. You have an iPhone app. Congratulations! Now can I get back to shopping for a new pair of boots already?

[Slide 39]
Someone might say, well, people are more likely to shop online using their computer. Isn’t it hard to see pictures of clothing on a tiny screen? Well, 25% of U.S. smartphone owners, about 22 million Americans, say that they mostly go online using their phone, rather than with a computer. Those people will likely never see the “free shipping” message on the “main” Nordstrom site, because, for them, the mobile site *is* the main — and only — site.

[Slide 40]
So, you know your users and what they want, and you’ve got a better understanding of what’s fact vs. fiction through industry research. All you have to do now is start creating that experience. How do we apply them to the design of mobile web sites?

[Slide 41]
There are many different approaches you can take, everything from creating a separate mobile site to creating a single site to serve all devices and contexts.

Crafting a bespoke site or app is great, if you can manage it. But the fact is, it’s time- and resource-intensive. And it can be tricky figuring out how to gracefully integrate and manage a number of elements — work streams, strategy, content — across multiple sites.

It’s also a big challenge to redesign an existing site to be truly responsive. The tools and technologies are there, but to successfully implement such a site, it takes both developers and designers with intimate familiarity with all of their capabilities, limitations and differences cross-platform, -browser & -device. That’s a pretty tall order, for even the most skilled teams.

An approach that’s likely to work for a larger number of companies, especially those looking to make incremental improvements today, is to be pragmatic. Apply new technologies to your main site, where it makes sense, in order to improve the mobile experience for your users.

[Slide 42]
And these new technologies? HTML5 and CSS3. These two are just the latest versions of both HTML and CSS, used to structure and present web page content. But they are chock full of new features — too many to cover here, in fact. The following are just those most relevant to the mobile browsing experience.

[Slide 43]
First, HTML5. There are five features — four big ones, and one little one — that we’ll be looking at:

– Smart web forms, with form input UI changing based on the form field type.
– Geolocation, where the site can know your location and use that info.
– Dynamic device orientation, where the site gets motion tracking info from your phone.
– Web-native video playback, such as what Apple uses to display videos without the use of Flash on its iOS platform.
– And, semantic web markup, which is less a feature than an architectural change

[Slide 44]
Here we’ll look at smart web forms as implemented on sites viewed with the iPhone’s Safari browser. Shown is the default soft keyboard, a Qwerty one with all letters. Since space is limited, numbers and symbols requires toggling to different keyboards.

[Slide 45]
But if we go to eBay’s mobile web site, we can see one of the new input types in action. On this page, in order to bid on this Go-Betweens record, I would tap in the field for “USD” (dollars), where I want to enter an amount.

Since the field value must be a number, eBay has specified an input type attribute value of “number” for that field. So when the soft keyboard appears, the version shown is numeric, not the default Qwerty one.

And here is what the HTML code for that would look like. Since it’s a new attribute type, it’s simply ignored in older browsers without any ill effect.

[Slide 46]
Here’s another input type, on MailChimp’s web site. When you go to sign up for an account, there’s the familiar field for inputting an email address. Tap on the email field…

…and you get the Qwerty keyboard, but slightly modified, with the “@” symbol and a period sharing space with the space bar. This way, the user can enter an email address without having to toggle back and forth between the different default keyboard states.

And here is the code for that feature.

[Slide 47]
Next geolocation. This is something that is incredibly common in mobile apps, such as Google Maps, where it detects your current location to plot a course. But this is something that web sites can do, as well. On some platforms, such as the iPhone, you’ll need to explicitly turn on the ability for the web browser to use geolocation, as it’s turned off by default.

Assuming you’ve turned this feature on, Old Navy’s mobile web site has a store locator that uses geolocation. If you tap on the Find Store button…

…you’ll first get an alert asking you if you want to let this web site know your location. If you tap on “OK”…

You’ll automatically get a list of locations nearest you, without having to enter or tap on anything additional.

[Slide 48]
The next feature is dynamic device orientation. Like geolocation, this is something that’s being used in mobile apps now, primarily for games. Web applications of this feature are still pretty few and far between, but there are some demos online showing exactly how the movement of a device in-hand can effect objects onscreen.

Here is a brief video showing me using one of these web demos on my phone.

[Slide 49]
Another, more common feature, is web-native video playback. The de facto standard for video playback on the has been Flash, which isn’t a true standard at all, but a proprietary technology owned by Adobe.

Apple’s decision not to support video playback using Flash has given HTML5 video a real boost, and largely because of that, sites like YouTube and Vimeo have been adding HTML5 video support.

Here are a couple of examples showing how iPhone and Android each handle things. On the iPhone, tapping on the “Play” icon for this particular video…

…Triggers playback using the native iPhone video player. Safari hands off the request to that app.

[Slide 50]
On Android, things work a little differently. Again, seeing the same video play icon, tapping on it…

…brings up a couple of programs from which the user can choose to play the video.

Handling video natively, each mobile platform gets to provide an experience that best meets the expectation of its users, instead of applying a one-size-fits-all approach.

[Slide 51]
Finally, semantic the new semantic tagging structure that HTML5 uses, something that should warm the hearts of information architects everywhere. Instead of faceless divs and spans that need classes and IDs to give them any meaning, the new content containers *themselves* have meaning. When we specify “nav,” “header” and “footer” in a wireframe, those elements can now be coded with “nav,” “header” and “footer” tags.

This also happens to be important for findability, as search engines are increasingly looking for structure to help apply meaning when parsing web page content. Properly structured and tagged content, especially when semantically tagged, will be more likely to be indexed properly and given greater prominence in results.

Those are the HTML5 highlights. Next…

[Slide 52]
CSS3. The story here for mobile is pretty much CSS Media Queries, whereby custom stylesheets, which determine web page layout, styling, and even content, can be served up for different screen size, page orientation and resolution. This may sound like a fantastic way of tailoring your content for mobile, and it is. But media queries are not the silver bullet for your mobile solution. Ensuring you don’t serve desktop assets to devices on slower connections, for example, is something that is trickier and requires additional techniques to achieve.

[Slide 53]
A good example of a design that adapts to different screen sizes is the web site for northwest music festival Sasquatch. Here we see the full page layout, viewed in a web browser, close to fullscreen, on my laptop. But when viewed on my iPad.

[Slide 54]
…The images and other content scale accordingly, filling the entire screen in way that perfectly suits this browsing context. This, instead of presenting a zoomed-out view of the “full-size” web page. Or even worse, a page with the right side cut off and a dreaded horizontal scrollbar.

[Slide 55]
And on the iPhone, the smallest screen size, you can see how the design once again undergoes a transformation. The heading design is completely different, in order to fit into that small space, and no attempt is made to show the full navigation bar, which likewise wouldn’t fit.

And next to the screen is the bit of code that shows how a phone-specific stylesheet is served up via a media query that says: “use this design when this content is viewed on a screen, with a maximum device width of 480 pixels.”

[Slide 56]
Orientation is another media queries feature. Here we have two screenshots from my iPad of a web site that changes the design based on the dimensions of the browser window: blue if the window is between 400 and 1000 pixels wide, red if it’s wider than 1000 pixels. Above is the code that specifies which stylesheet to use for which orientation: landscape or portrait.

[Slide 57]
And the third feature is screen resolution. Here are three different phones, each with a different screen pixel density. The oldest phone here, the iPhone 3GS, can show 163 dots per inch. The Samsung Galaxy S has a 233 DPI display. The best picture is on the iPhone 4 — with it’s “Retina Display” it can show twice the number of pixels as the previous generation iPhone, at 326 DPI.

Why do these things matter? By targeting screen resolution, you could serve up an entirely separate set of high-quality images to users with displays capable of viewing them in all their fine-detailed glory. Otherwise images designed for a lower resolution display may not scale properly.

And the code for that media query.

[Slide 58]
Of the features mentioned today, it’s important to note that while not all are currently supported by browsers on the most popular smartphone platforms, the majority are. This is an excerpt of a chart from that covers the features I’ve mentioned and many more. So you should refer to it when deciding whether or not it makes sense for you to use a certain HTML5 or CSS3 feature for your mobile site. Even so, it can only show you what the latest and greatest devices are capable of, as most Android users, for example, are stuck using older versions of that OS due to lack of updates from carriers or OEMs.

[Slide 59]
So, I know that’s a lot of information to absorb. But, to wrap up:

You’ll already be doing something right by considering any device, any context, any screen as part of your design process.

Research is essential to get a mobile site or app right, since there are so many people doing it wrong.

Modern smartphone browsers already have good HTML5 and CSS3 support, so you should start using these techniques now. And of course ensure your sites are build in a way that browsers without those capabilities are still able to get essential content and functionality.

Finally, in order to create mobile web experiences that are both adaptive and exciting, it takes close collaboration between designers and developers, with each ideally moving closer to the other’s role: designers familiarizing themselves with code to understand capabilities and create prototypes, and developers getting involved as early as possible in the design process, to help shape the discussion with their in-depth knowledge of platforms and technologies.

[Slide 60]
Here are a few great resources that have more information relating to some of the ideas presented today, including some folks I’d recommend following on Twitter for the great links and other mobile web-related content they post on a frequent basis. All the sites have tons of examples, many of them interactive, so you can see these and other techniques in action.

[Slide 61]
I hope you’ve found some tangible things you can use in crafting better mobile experiences. I also hope that you’ll find — as I did — that taking the first steps on that path by putting yourself in the minds of users, and starting to use these techniques to enhance your existing sites, you’ll be able to see how rewarding an adaptive approach really is.

[Slide 62]
Thank you.

The Illusion of Control

photo: P Hansen

My father took a lot of pictures. Photography was a hobby and, for a short while, part of his professional life while an engineer at Polaroid. I grew up loving the click-whoosh of an instant photo being taken, slip of murky proto-photo being ejected into waiting hands. Pulling to expand, then snapping flat the brushed metal and leather-paneled slab… just getting to handle the camera was almost as fun as staring at that inky square, waiting for the image to appear.

Photos would get pinned to the fridge by magnets or to the cork board in the entryway with pushpins. Most of those would eventually make their way into one of the large, three-ring photo binders that collectively served as our multi-volume Family Album. And there each photo would sit, layered in plastic against an adhesive-backed, card-stock page, waiting patiently for that holiday visit by relatives. Not long after their arrival, binders would be taken down off the shelf and rifled through for collective reminiscing and occasional moments of embarrassment. (Plaid bell-bottoms!)

Of course nowadays, I can snap a funny photo, upload it to Flickr or Twitter or MLKSHK, and quickly get comments (or “likes”) from my friends. Or I could go a step further and toss it up on a different kind of site, like Canvas, where my photo would serve as raw material for a cycle of remixes and captioning that ends only when all the lulz have been wrung out of that particular creative sponge.

Now, some people might dismiss the purveyors of silly photo mashups as nothing more than juvenile mouth-breathers killing time between flamewars. And many people want nothing less than to have their personal photos subjected to (often ridiculous) manipulation by strangers. But somewhere between that static photo album and the photo-free-for-all is the space in which most of us probably play. We want to share our pictures, and solicit comments, approval, acknowledgment. We’re willing to release them out into the world to be viewed and experienced in many different ways.

The web is not a photo album. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. I put up content, you read it, view it, share it using a phone, a computer, a tablet, a PC. Then you might print it out, repost it somewhere else or make it your computer desktop image. You might even decide to make a CafePress t-shirt from it. (Though let’s hope in that instance I’ve released that image to the public domain or used a liberal Creative Commons or similar license.)

As part of sharing my content with you, I implicitly agree to your, at minimum, experiencing it in a different context than I might. After all, you might use the Flickr Android app to view a 320-pixel-wide version of my image, even though I might blanch at the thought of browsing my own photo library in anything less than full-screen mode using iPhoto on my 22″ widescreen monitor.

But as soon as I release that image onto the web, that’s my problem, not yours. I’ve relinquished a certain degree of control.

And such is the case for any content I, you or anyone might choose to put on the public web. Yet so many web designers seem to, if not actively fight against this notion, be made uncomfortable by the fact that you might choose to browse their shiny new web site using a netbook, or a phone, or just a smaller-than-fullscreen web browser on a computer. We need less “my design is meant to be viewed” and more “our content is meant to be enjoyed.”

So how to begin changing the conversation? While many of the ideas will be familiar to those who followed the aims of the Web Standards Project (“simple, affordable access to web technologies for all”), established in the early part of the past decade, the web thinkers, designers and developers rallying under the current banner of “Future Friendly” have summed things up quite succintly in three basic points. The first one, in particular, makes a rather nice manifesto in and of itself:

Acknowledge and embrace unpredictability.

In other words, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Accept there will always be a new device, a new technology, and entirely different way of experiencing content. And step two is, naturally, to carefully consider and prepare anything you might unleash onto the web accordingly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the people behind Future Friendly are largely approaching this from having done a lot of work in the mobile space. Quite frankly, the explosion of mobile has been a much-needed kick in the pants to further dissemination and adoption of these broadly-applicable ideals. When mobile Internet usage is growing at such a fast pace that, by current estimations, its volume will exceed that of desktop Internet usage by 2015 (if not sooner), it becomes impossible to deny that web sites unfriendly to mobile use are simply unfriendly. Period.

Things that may be a minor annoyance when experienced in a desktop browsing context — minimum browser window widths, plug-in downloads and long page-load times — often become intolerable in a mobile one. Attempts by designers and developers to shape the experience by elevating form over function only serve to drive users away.

Sites like Media Queries strive to highlight some of these newer, adaptive designs that change to suit your screen size in the same way CSS Zen Garden did for site using web standards almost ten years ago. And there’s movement away from plug-ins towards web-native experiences, as evidenced both in an announcement by SlideShare this week that they were ditching Flash in favor of HTML5, and a report last month that more top web sites are now using web-native-technology-leveraging jQuery than Flash. And mobile web pioneers like Yiibu (Bryan Rieger and Stephanie Rieger) continue to not only evangelize for better context-appropriate web experiences overall, but share actionable insights in amazing presentations like this one about some of the ongoing issues with serving that right experience, at the right time, in the fastest possible way.

In these ways, we’re still figuring out the mechanics of how to harness certain technologies and approaches, and when to discard others, all in the service of removing barriers to truly delightful experiences.

And it truly was a delight, using that Polaroid camera. I may not longer own it (and getting more film for it would be a challenge in and of itself), but that kind of connection is something that I’ll always seek out, in experiences both tangible and digital. Designers and developers who strive to be future friendly should end up being user friendly, which gives them that much more of a chance of wowing me. And that’s a challenge I’d love for more of us web professionals to take on.

Doing (or Not Doing) Agile UX

Twice in the past month, I’ve found myself responding to developer colleagues of mine who have been encountering difficulties working with UX folks as part of Agile project teams. The development teams want to jump right in and start building and collaborating, but the UX designer prefers working separately, handing off requirements once they are largely defined, implementation detail and all.

Having worked as part of Agile project teams in the UX lead role at a couple of different companies, I’m familiar with that situation. So I’m always eager to share my experiences from the “design side” and help explain some of what might be going through that UX designer’s mind. Because, in many ways, I was that stubborn, documentation-happy designer. (And alas, in a client-services scenario, the road to project completion is covered in virtual paper…)

My first exposure to the Agile project process was at a technology product company I worked for a little over five years ago. And, from the start, I hated it.

Having honed my project skills at an agency where a spec document of 100+ pages was a source of pride (See how comprehensively we documented the system?), I was loathe to discard what I viewed as an essential skill. Shorter documentation, in theory, was not necessarily a bad thing, as my idea of a good time definitely does not include wrestling with Format Painter in Word, or cutting and pasting boilerplate language about recurring functional elements. But the idea of no documentation, as communicated to the project team by our SCRUM master, was something that seemed completely unworkable.

And it didn’t work, at least not at first. Our project was a chaotic mess! All of us were new to Agile and unsure how to proceed. The SCRUM master dealt with uncertainty by attempting to order us to do things in a very prescribed manner, which further alienated him from the rest of the team. I dealt with the uncertainty by doing a little prototyping and a little documentation (Agile be damned!), both because it was what I was comfortable with and was what the developers were, ironically, seeking. The developers and I ended up working together very collaboratively, bonding over our mutual distaste for our methodology-obsessed project lead, who couldn’t see that we were following the spirit — if not the letter — of a quick build-and-release process.

Now, it took me quite awhile to figure out the unpleasant parts of that experience had very little to do with Agile. Inexperience, clashing personalities, different expectations about work style and product… these were far more powerful forces.

But the positive parts were also there: I discussed implementation approaches with developers, created quick prototypes in code, and helped QA my own work and that of others. These were things I’d always loved doing. But it was only later, on a second go-round with Agile that I learned that they — along with an experienced, good-humored project lead — were in fact all valued as elements key to a successful Agile project.

Ah, but what about that damned documentation? And other things, like pixel-perfect wireframes and comps, that I still clung to as some measure of familiarity and control?

Well, those things were hard to (mostly) give up. It helped that my prototyping skills improved to the point where I could demonstrate more complex interactions. And I became more comfortable with group technical and UI design sessions, once I’d had time to chew on some of the bigger problems and develop a high-level understanding of what was needed. (I still shudder at the idea of design-over-my-shoulder, as epitomized in this terrifyingly cheerful 37signals blog post.)

Even so, what ultimately made things work was both gaining the trust of the developers on my team and learning to trust them. And that takes time, as we silently size each other up — Does this person know what the hell they’re talking about? Will my design be mangled? Will this person design something that can’t be built? — and are able to eventually dismiss fears as we see how we work together and what we actually create.

Once you’re able to see ideas take shape in ways beyond what you imagined, all due to the input of a strong team, it becomes much easier to present work without having figured out all the details in advance, and to be open to criticism and feedback from anyone, not just other designers. And, hardest of all, it even gets easier (if never completely comfortable) to admit when you don’t necessarily know the best way of doing something.

In fact, it ends up being lot more fun when you let demonstrably awesome designers and developers surprise you with how much more they can do.

Membership Confusion

Inspired by the talk at last night’s Puget Sound SIGCHI meeting, I decided to renew my long-overdue membership.  But apparently the people who created their web site didn’t consider that someone could have let their membership lapse for more than a year, as I appear to be stuck in a time paradox (click to enlarge):

Puget Sound SIGCHI Web Site: Membership Renewal Page

I’m not quite sure what will happen if I click on the renew button.  Pay for membership this year (2011) or retroactively for last year (2010)?  Maybe I should have just renewed in-person at the end of last night’s meeting.

The Message Notification Experience

Based on the links in my newsreader over the past couple of days, I know I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed  this thoughtful examination of one aspect of the iPhone’s mail app user experience.  The author describes how the app changes its method of alerting the user to new mail based on the user’s context within their inbox.  It’s a neat, yet subtle detail — so subtle that I hadn’t ever noticed it myself, and I’ve been using an iPhone for the past year and a half.

Having someone point out that detail was like someone telling you about the hidden-in-plain-sight arrow in the FedEx logo: not only can you not unsee it once you see it, but you start looking for similar instances elsewhere.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that I recently became aware of differences between web sites’ use of another, more subtle kind of alert mechanism.  And it resides in a web page’s humble <title> tag.

Now, the <title> tag has long been abused in all sorts of ways, from being used as an SEO keyword-spamming mechanism to being downright neglected and forced to serve up the exact same site name text in every single page.  Sometimes a UX architect like myself gets to help shape its usage, suggesting the <title> tag have structured, human-readable content for easy scanning in a list of bookmarks or search engine results.

But what about when page freshness is at least as critical as page content?

Compare Gmail and Twitter, both sites which reside in open tabs in my browser every day.  Both sites use the <title> tag to describe content (site name and location) as well as freshness (new message count).  But one is slightly more usable for my personal, tab-crazy scenario.

Because I have so many tabs open at once in my browser, the actual tab text (the <title> tag) gets truncated to as few as three usable characters.  (My tab for “The New York Times” reads “The …”)  In my main browser, Firefox, Gmail’s nicely-structured, decent-length title looks like this in fullscreen:

Full browser tab for Gmail

…but like this in a tiny tab:

Minimal browser tab for Gmail

What’s lost is my ability to see how many new messages I have at a glance.  To get that info, I need to break my existing task flow to mouse over or click on the Gmail tab.  If I’m just web surfing, no big deal.  But if I’m working in another app layered over my browser, actually stopping what I’m doing to click over to check my messages is a definite interruption.

(And yes, I know I could turn email off altogether while working on other things, but sorry, that’s not how I roll…)

Twitter better enables my multi-tasking lifestyle by helpfully putting the new message count as the first element in their title tag, which is visible even at the smallest tab size:

Minimal browser tab for Twitter

It may be less structurally proper, but it adapts far more gracefully in different scenarios, even the less common ones.  Just like the iPhone mail app.