I’m a Storyteller: Modeling Users, and Crafting Analogies for Better Design

I use analogies. I’m constantly on the lookout for the perfect analogy to describe this phenomena or that. For example, how do you describe culture to someone?

 If you go to the dictionary and recite: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group -(see: Dictionary.com (Links to an external site.)) I for one would find that answer lacking. I combine a definition with my cake analogy. That humans are born as a box of cake mix, culture is the eggs and an individual’s environment is the oven. Once you bake the eggs into the cake, the eggs are indistinguishable from the cake.

Now I feel as though I already knew this, but improv comedy possesses an invaluable toolkit for us as designers to borrow from. In truth I can’t think of a better way to achieve more divergent ideation in a short span of time. 

Off the top of my head some of the benefits of developing improv skills as a UX Designer are as follows:

  • You develop your active listening and observation abilities.
  • Practice and perform ideation techniques in collaboration with the other members of your group where you have to understand and build off your partners ideas in the moment as they act them out.
  • It improves your storytelling capability as you have to convey the appropriate context in a short amount of time to an audience with little to no material assistance. In many cases you are quite literally bodystorming an entire setting with nothing more than a chair.
  • It improves your ability to think on your feet and tap into your creativity.

I learned a lot from the Cooper chapter about how to construct personas. Specifically, while personas are presented as individuals, they are actually composites of a variety of users as determined through the analysis of user research. They are powerful tools for us as designers to present a range of behaviors, something which all products must strive to accommodate. (Cooper pg. 83) Furthermore, I found an understanding of the range of persona types to be particularly helpful for my current and future projects. And in particular, the design principle that we should focus the design of each interface on a single primary persona. (Cooper pg. 105)

To put this in perspective, in 501 I was assuming that my group would create a customer journey map based on a persona crafted from each of our 6 stakeholders, and then try to design in such a way to satisfy all 6 as best we could. It didn’t occur to me to make 1-2 personas based on information from the 6, and then just design for the 1 primary persona while taking into consideration the 2nd persona, but not necessarily designing for it.

Many companies are rushing to get their own “UX designer” but they often don’t really understand what that means. In many instances, they think UX is simply a set of principles and heuristics that the designer employs to optimize products, no user research needed. Or they might try to hand you some market research from the marketing department and expect that to suffice.  I’m not sure where the link went, but I had read an article several months ago about how to discern whether or not the UX job you are applying for is really a UX job. The key identifier was whether or not user research was a part of it. If it’s not, you should probably keep looking elsewhere.

There’s also an issue if you are working in a company that does appreciate user research as an important part of the user-centered design process, but there’s an economic downturn, and the board is looking to make cuts. Because of its newness and relative ambiguity in comparison to a department like marketing, UX is going to be close to the first to get the budget cut.

That’s why it’s also important for us as design professionals, to learn the language of business so that we can advocate on behalf of our discipline. Basically we have to get some numbers and prove our worth. Talk in terms of ROI and convince who we need to convince that it is significant enough to warrant the investment.

There was a time with UX would yield an average $100 for every $1 invested! That’s huge! I think marketing methods average $10-20 for every $1. Of course, UX is much closer to marketing averages these days, but UX provides an opportunity to be disruptive in a way that marketing and advertising simply cannot. Still, MBA’s all feel more comfortable investing in those rather than the veritable games we play with post-its by comparison. In which case we’ll have to convince them. 

Some benefits of UX Design (courtesy of Frank Spillers at IDF in lesson 2.2 of User Experience: The Beginners Guide)

  1. Products that meet the user’s needs – If your users are involved in the design process then your final product should meet their needs. That should deliver a more commercially viable offering and thus higher levels of profit for the company.
  2. Products that require less tinkering after release – It’s cheaper and easier to tweak sketches, wireframes and prototypes than it is to tweak a product after launch. UX enables a company to work out what doesn’t work and then abandon it before the development phase rather than after.
  3. Products which are less risky to the business’s reputation – UX is a quality measure. When you release products that users love to use and that meet their needs; your business reputation will grow. Conversely if you don’t get things right – your reputation will fall.
  4. Products which are relatively immune to scope creep – If you define the user’s needs and then design with them in mind; there should be a whole lot less scope creep and that makes it easier to budget for a project and to define a delivery timetable.
  5. Products which are competitive – the research phase of UX means that you should know what competitors are doing and how your product will be “better”. Design in this manner is based on the evidence and not on the “gut instincts” of the development team.

Some indirect benefits too:

  • Lower costs to the business of product development – Well defined projects which are on time and on budget are less expensive than those that are continually redefined.
  • Customer satisfaction – If the UX for a product is high then you’ll have happy customers reducing the burden on both support teams and customer services.

Featured Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash


Chapters 2, 7, 8, 9 in Quesenbery, W. & Brooks, K. (2010). Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.

Chapter 5 – “Modeling Users: Personas and Goals”, Alan Cooper

Richard Sheridan (2013). Joy, Inc.: How we Built a Workplace People Love. Chapter: The Power of Observation.

“Section 4.4: The Narrative Storyboard” in Greenberg et al. (2012). Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook. Waltham, MA: Morgan-Kaufman.

Prototyping w.me in XD

What isn’t a prototype? Even a finished product is a prototype of the next iteration or version.

The key takeaway from the Le Bricolage section was how the designers cobbled things together to make a brilliant prototype of an innovative technology that doesn’t actually exist. At the end he also noted that in his view, it’s a classic prototype and that the whole process they undertook should be studied and replicated. But reading about the Virtual Whiteboard I began to think about the looming future of the virtual reality fully immersive meeting and how might that impact the design process? I bet for many, there would still be something missing in collaborative efforts. I also wonder if these people might benefit from haptic feedback to replicate that feeling you get when you’re in the presence of other people.

One thing I wanted to make sure I correct in the Buxton chapter, is when he mentions how hunting and gathering research material borders on mania with good designers. That’s all well and good, but these days we say foraging. Hunting and gathering invokes an image of the “noble savage” whose way of life is reduced to a simple binary.

Speaking of prototyping tools, there’s a really lo-fi one called Marvel app, I have it on my phone. You can take photos of your hand drawn sketches and insert hotspots on the buttons you drew to link your frames together for a fully clickable paper prototype. As far as the Warfel chapter, Fireworks has been reincarnated into XD. Axure was still really popular up until a few years ago, but I don’t hear much about it lately. I heard that designers used to use PowerPoint for prototyping, I think with some of the other tools like XD, Sketch, etc., PP has been relegated back to presentations, but I thought it was really neat when I saw Kentaro earlier today in 501 using PP to interact with and cluster affinity notes.

It seems to me that one of the first things many a young UX designer thinks about when they survey the field of technology is how they can improve upon to various tools we use. And then of course many of them seek to profit off of these tools by selling them to the other UXers in the field. Personally, I’m sticking with XD for as far as it will take me, because one of the things that XD offers that none of the competitors can match is the resources and experience of Adobe, with its array of industry standard design tools which have a deeply integrated compatibility across the entire Creative Cloud. I am going to miss my student discount when it’s gone but I shouldn’t be too hard up to afford a personal CC account. Even so, XD is currently still free which is a big bonus over Sketch. I think one of the biggest assets for Sketch is still the incredible plugins it offers through its platform.

However, I’m a PC, and Sketch is Mac only. Although there is a free compatible version on Windows called Lunacy. Interestingly, I do have Lunacy, Figma, and I picked up the free Invision student license, so that’s on my laptop as well. There’s also Marvel app as mentioned previously, which has a really cool mobile app that you can photograph your hand drawn frames and overlay hotspots to create a fully functioning lo-fi prototype for people to test on a real screen! Really neat stuff there.

Unsurprised by the findings in Dow as it’s easy to see how people may look at us playing our little games and brainstorming through the iterative process, they may think it looks easy, or that it’s silly. It’s actually pretty difficult to come up with a bunch of ideas, and people who aren’t experienced in understanding how important a variety is will quickly find that they just settle on one idea because it’s easier.  This is similar to the difference between a trained researcher and a lay person. Lay people tend to assume that the first thing they think of is sufficient and seek ways to prove it. But in research, a person establishes a hypothesis and then goes out of their way to disprove it and refine it until they can’t disprove it anymore. Only after all of that, in addition to peers finding they can’t disprove it either, does it then become theory. 

In a nutshell, this is the method and philosophy of design thinking.


Chapters 6 – 11 in Warfel, T. Z. (2009). Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.

Chameleon: From Wizardry to Smoke and Mirrors, Bill Buxton

The Efficacy of Prototyping Under Time Constraints. Steven P. Dow, Kate Heddleston, Scott R. Klemmer. Creativity & Cognition, 2009  

GUI Prototyping Tools: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?GuiPrototypingTools

“Chapter 5: Picking the Right Tool” in Warfel, T. Z. (2009). Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media. 

Ethnographic Archaeology: Iterative Prototyping in UX Research and Design

From the outset of the Stringer et al., paper I was a little put off by the mention that they had developed a form of UCD called, ‘curriculum-focused design’. In so far as curriculum is content, they just conducted user-research along with iterative prototyping. And I think this point is not beyond the authors otherwise they likely would have showcased Curriculum-focused design in the title of the paper instead of the iterative prototyping. Another issue I see, and this is also true of the broader field of HCI, they misunderstand what ethnography is. You can’t do a real ethnographic study in 3 weeks. I hear seasoned ethnographers say that it takes at least 6 months to a year, but then they also have a tendency to return to the field site periodically for the rest of their lives to see how things change over time. Of course, it’s this lengthy duration that caused business interests to prefer quicker studies like surveys, and focus groups. Obviously this method had to be adapted to be useful, but in my view a better way to adapt it would be to have one of the researchers focused on conducting the ethnography throughout the duration. The entire case study could have been written as ethnography. This would not only yield insights about the users, but also about the researchers and the process. As it applies to HCI and IxD, ethnography is what we refer to as ‘Thick Data’. It tells rich stories about a few data points, in contrast to Big Data which looks for correlations and trends across innumerable metrics. But the point here is that ethnography is ongoing, it’s not that valuable if you just stake out 3 weeks for an ethnographic study and then presume you can get very useful socio-cultural insights, you only get a peek. How long does it take a person to become an expert in a field of study, or go from trainee to trainer at a job?

Humans are avid consumers and co-creators of culture, and culture is always changing. It should be no surprise to anyone that the girls in this study performed better at verbal tasks than the boys. It’s well known that women tend to have better verbal skills.

Image result for cavewomen invented pronouns cartoon"

But teenage girls have also been driving language innovation for centuries:


And I just wanted to mention that Lucy Suchman, the anthropologist of XEROX PARC fame that’s the pioneer of bringing ethnography into HCI design, came to Umich back in April and gave a talk as part of the Critical x Design series. I just mention this because her work at PARC is discussed in this video that I’m sharing to give a better understanding of how ethnography works:

Ethnography: Ellen Isaacs at TEDxBroadway

In regard to the Rudd et al., reading, well it’s a lot different nowadays. I can build digital prototypes all day for free on my computer. To do this paper-prototype assignment, I had to go out and buy some supplies. And as I was reading, it made me wonder if digital prototyping can now be considered lo-fi? One of the things I’ve noted through my trials and tribulations in trying to put my design on paper is that it really makes you stop to consider. If I’m designing on my computer, I’m more likely to say, “That works.” and move on to the next panel. Whereas on paper I’m scrutinizing my design decisions more because I don’t want to draw it all over again and I don’t want to use up the whole eraser on my brand new mechanical pencils I bought to draw with.

So I stopped, went to a fresh page, and started drawing out a sitemap. I don’t think I would have done so if I was just working in design software. Because it’s so easy to just cut elements, duplicate screens and the like, I’m more likely to just keep throwing designs at the wall(re: user) and see what sticks. What I’m finding works for me is to go search the net (Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, etc.) for design inspiration (I’m not reinventing the wheel) and then I keep what’s useful and disregard the aspects that don’t fit the problem I’m trying to solve. Something I also noted with regard to sketching and paper-prototyping. I purchased some of those UI stencils on Amazon , and I really like how clean and precise I can make my wireframes with them. However, I now feel constrained to only using the icons and buttons available to me  with the stencils, because a poor drawing of an icon will stand out like a sore thumb and may even draw the attention of the user I’m showing it to or testing it on away from the core concepts of the design.

In sum, I find the paper-prototyping rather cumbersome and tedious, but oh so worthwhile

I like using the term digital artifact to describe these interactive technologies. When we think of archaeology, we usually think of ancient civilizations. But archaeology studies artifacts, or more to the point, archaeology is the study of material culture. To put this in perspective, as an undergrad archaeology student, one of our assignments was to analyze the contents of our own trash can.

What stories do the materials we use tell us about the lives we live?

When I see an article about design trends in the upcoming year, it reminds me of archaeology, studying an ancient civilization’s pottery and how it changed over time. Over at Wayne State they have an ongoing archaeological dig over at Roosevelt park  from where there used to be a tent city about 100 years ago. Detroit had a housing crisis when there was a mass influx of people from the south moving up here to work on the assembly lines. Also, like I mentioned, you can technically go dumpster diving and utilize archeological field methods to understand the people who are currently using that dumpster.

Although, I think the primary reason archaeology is most closely associated with studying materials of the past is that those people are not around to speak for themselves. Since history is the written word, and history is written by the victor as they say, history is little more than self-reporting, so it’s not a complete picture. Archaeology can help fill those gaps. But we have other disciplines and methods we can draw from when the people we are studying are still alive and available to be contacted.

Amber Case, the cyborg anthropologist and UX consultant I mentioned at the beginning of the semester did talk about how sifting through your inbox for a particular email can sometimes feel like archaeology, sifting through dirt to find an artifact, in this case though I think information archaeology is really better understood as information architecture.

Featured Photo by UX Store on Unsplash


Rudd, J., Stern, K., & Isensee, S. (1996). Low vs. High-fidelity prototyping debate. Interactions, 3(1), 76-85.

The Webkit Tangible User Interface: A Case Study of Iterative Prototyping. Stringer, M., Rode, J.A., Toye, E.F., Blackwell, A.F., Simpson, A.R., Pervasive Computing, Vol. 4, No. 4. (2005), pp. 35-41

Empathy and Ethics in UX

I don’t think we can have ethics without feminist ethics. However, let me preface this by saying that I mean intersectional feminism. Intersectional feminism asserts that all aspects of socio-political identities overlap.

I was glad to see Alison Adam and Jacqueline Ofori-Amanfo dragging questionnaires and surveys just a little bit, while also advocating for ethnography and participant observation. And I also want to mention their criticism of the Kreie and Cronan paper because it highlights an issue that’s kind of been a recurring theme in my reading responses.

Outside of anthropology, social sciences like psychology and economics have a replicability problem. Much of psychological literature is based on studies conducted on Psych 101 undergrads at universities in N. America and Europe during a period of time when the student body was almost exclusively comprised of young white men. Many psychologists believe that they can study human behavior as something distinct from socio-cultural environmental habituation. But if you happen to have read my humans as cake, culture as eggs analogy from a few weeks ago you’ll know that in my view, you can’t distinguish between the two, the eggs (culture) is baked in and part of the cake (human).

In Emily Chang’s, “Brotopia” she talks about how women face barriers into the tech industry because of rampant misogyny and toxic masculinity. It’s somewhat similar throughout the business world. A lot of relationships and business deals are forged through social gatherings. And when these techbros grow up as introverted incels and then are suddenly billionaires, they host these extravagant gatherings, making deals in the hot tub surrounded by the kind of beautiful women that rejected them all their lives previously. Female entrepreneurs don’t usually get invited to these events and when they do, they tend to find it problematic as they often get propositioned by the men or treated as just another one of the women at the party.

There’s a software company in the UK that recently announced they developed an anti-shoplifting AI that is 99% effective at identifying shoplifters before they shoplift. They trained the ML algorithm by hiring actors to pretend like they were shoplifters. So these actors perpetuated the stereotypes that were given to them by a veteran security guard, and I think it was even like just 2 criteria. Trayvon Martin was murdered because of a stereotype that existed in the head of George Zimmerman. How do we know that these stereotypes passed to the actors from the security guard don’t hold a similar bias?

The problem with statistics is that it deals in probability, so all you can ever say to some degree, is probably. We have to remember that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. P-hacking is a big issue in science, where we can use software to find correlations that achieve that p-value. In a rush to publish or perish, in a profit driven system where academic journals don’t value failure, in a research culture that seeks to reduce everything to occam’s razor, weak behavioral correlations are rampant and often reinforce racial and gender stereotypes promoted by white supremacists. Because if you already believe the stereotype, then a p-hacked correlation can easily fit the narrative you’re trying to promote.

I found myself particularly interested in the probing method described in Boehner et al., especially the camera. As mentioned in the readings, surveys, questionnaires and even interviews can be problematic in regard to acquiring good data. Self-reporting is something, to be certain, but it’s of limited value because the person can lie or even unintentionally misrepresent their own reality. What people do, what they say, what they think they do, and what they say they do can all vary dramatically. And often times the more a person wants to be helpful, the more inaccurate the information they provide!

I think probes can be very useful in giving the subject opportunities to contribute within their own time and space. I neglected to mention as I ripped psychology in my response above, that a lot of studies are done in a lab setting. While this lends an air of credibility to the researcher, it removes the subject from the context of their own lives. I think it was the Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary, famous for popularizing LSD in the 60’s, who noted that lab settings and sterile white coats make people nervous, and it primes them for a reaction to the environment rather than the stimulus, the people he tested had bad trips until he made his lab more like a living room.

I have a hard time opening up to an interviewer, but if you gave me a camera and told me to take a picture of the spiritual center of my house, that’s another story, and something you could really gain useful information from, especially from a design point of view. Similar to how when conducting a contextual interview, it’s important to see the workspace as the subject sees it, without them cleaning up first.

I also just want to take a moment to reference The Triumph of the Default. Although I alluded to it previously, we have these tech people deciding what the default is in many cases. And because of that choice overload, many people conform to it even though it may not be adequate for them. Kind of like in Don Norman’s DOET, where he discusses how users think it’s their fault if they aren’t good with technology. Instead Norman says, blame the designer. Just before the semester started, Kentaro published this article  about holding moratoriums on technology until it can be fully vetted for things like bias. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. We often can’t see the ramifications of our actions until we look back in reflection. A better approach is to take our time and carefully scrutinize technological innovation with diverse perspectives. Without research and training, I can’t imagine how some invention I come up with can adversely impact a disabled person living on the other side of the country, or even in my own neighborhood, because their experience is not my own.

Default states, in general can be very useful in combating choice paralysis, because believe it or not, there is a threshold to which choice is useful. But default states can also reward bias. For example, earlier I mentioned an anti-shoplifting AI trained by actors pretending to be shoplifters. If they were just acting out stereotypes from the security guard who happens to mostly catch young black men because that’s who he’s most suspicious of, then the actors just trained the AI to be suspicious of young black men by default. And if we believe that this AI is actually 99% accurate, then it would provide statistical evidence to support the racist notion that young black men are more likely to be criminals. But this doesn’t even touch on the fact that black men don’t have the same opportunities to participate in the formal economy. When you aren’t allowed to participate in the formal economy, you participate in the informal economy to survive. That’s what most theft is. Never mind that due to wealth and income inequality, the police were formed to prioritize and protect the property of the haves over the lives of the have-nots.

Featured Photo by Duncan Shaffer on Unsplash


Boehner, Kirsten, Bill Gaver and Andy Boucher. Probes. Chapter 14 in Inventive methods: The happening of the social. Lury, Celia, and Nina Wakeford, eds. Routledge, 2012.

Kelly, K (2009) “Triumph of the Default” http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2009/06/triumph_of_the.php

Bennett, Cynthia L., and Daniela K. Rosner. “The Promise of Empathy: Design, Disability, and Knowing the “Other.” (2019)

Shinohara, Kristen, et al. “Tenets for Social Accessibility: Towards Humanizing Disabled People in Design.” ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing (TACCESS) 11.1 (2018): 6.

Adam, Alison, and Jacqueline Ofori-Amanfo. “Does gender matter in computer ethics?.” Ethics and Information Technology 2.1 (2000): 37-47.

Winner, L. (1986). Do artifacts have politics? In The whale and the reactor, pp. 19-39. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nissenbaum, H. 2001. How Computer Systems Embody Values.

Learning UX Design with the Interaction Design Foundation – a review

Hi everyone,

I’ve sampled a variety of MOOCs, industry publications, and organizations. I’ve scoured the internet for resources related to UX. In this post, I review one of my most trusted sources of information for UX courses and materials – the Interaction Design Foundation. The Interaction Design Foundation is one of my favorite websites and often the first place I go to when I turn to the internet to look up information about the user experience and interaction design. From courses, to articles, to template bundles on everything from Design Thinking and UX Design, to Front-End Development and Visual Design, the Interaction Design Foundation is at the cutting edge of human-centered research and innovative design.

Interaction Design Foundation Learning Paths
Don’t know where to start? IDF has a multitude of learning paths.

When I initially began my journey toward UX, I was more interested in UX Design. Only after I got into my graduate program where we were encouraged to specialize, did I start leaning more towards User Research. Given IDF’s variety of learning paths, the ease with which I was able to switch in order to find courses most relevant to my goals and interests was almost effortless. Of course, because of the overlap, I already had a head start.

IDF hosts a monthly professional masterclass at only $1 for members.

Since becoming a member, I’ve attended a few masterclasses. I mean, why wouldn’t I? It’s only $1 for members! Then I get an on-demand copy I can access from my profile.

IDF Masterclasses

Over the course of this pandemic with working from home, self-isolation, and other social distancing measures, every time you open up your browser there’s a new webinar or masterclass being shared around Linkedin or elsewhere. That’s great to see new faces, hopefully not rehashing the same old topics, but a lot of these webinars end up just being thrown together without the sort of upfront planning or thoughtfulness in regard to the audience and their experience.

Everything about the Interaction Design Foundation experience has been meticulously curated by industry leaders and thinkers.

IDF has an incredible collection of open-source, open-access literature.

The Interaction Design Foundation also has a large collection of literature, both classic and cutting edge. This material is a great resource to introduce people to core concepts and methods used in Human-Computer Interaction, with more advanced material to challenge the user at any stage in their career. Of course, there are many other websites offering articles, books, and lessons. I don’t know what materials every academic HCI program is using, but I do know that here at the University of Michigan School of Information, ranked the #1 school for Information Systems several years running, there are required graduate courses that rely in part on open source materials from IDF. These materials are used to fast track students from a broad array of undergraduate majors and professional experiences to master Human-Computer Interaction and UX Design.

I have said more than once that while I’m thriving in my graduate program at UMSI, I believe a lot of the credit for this is owed to the Interaction Design Foundation. In my first year of the program, I quickly rose to become a leader among my cohort.

A large part of this is because of the resources I have access to through the IDF. The courses, literature, and social media posts are some examples of this. But in reality, the resources I make use of most often in my professional work, consulting, and user research internship, are the template bundles.

I’ve used them help prepare for stakeholder interviews, contextual inquiry, affinity wall diagramming, facilitating group Design Thinking activities, heuristic evaluations, and even picked up an AR/VR/MR template bundle to inform my work with the Collaborative Lab Advancing Work in Space (CLAWS) on the AR Toolkit for Lunar Astronauts and Scientists (ATLAS) for the NASA SUITS Challenge.

At every step of the way, the Interaction Design Foundation has been helping me reach my goals. I’ve completed four courses so far, obtaining the Best in Class distinction in Design Thinking, and will be completing User Research – Methods and Best Practices shortly, and working on UX Management: Strategy and Tactics.

One last thing I’d like to mention before I end, the IDF is a community. I’m a member of IDF Detroit and IDF Ann Arbor. Of course we’re not particularly active right now, but I have been to meetups and have leveraged IDF, not only for their educational materials, but also for the networking opportunities. As you grow your skills and advance in your career, UX professionals start to become like a big family. Being a part of that community and taking advantage of networking opportunities are essential, and the Interaction Design Foundation goes out of its way to nurture that need. There are discussion forums, opportunities to interact with your classmates, and almost 500 IDF local chapters, hosting meetups and events, networking opportunities, workshops, and other opportunities.

The UX Community on IDF spans the globe.

Honestly, I can’t recommend the Interaction Design Foundation enough. It’s the first and last place I go to for information related to UX. Anytime I hear someone say something about UX or read an article discussing the topic, I cross-reference with IDF to see what they have to say. They are the industry leaders, and the organization is made up of great people who are a core part of the community that they’ve helped build. I’m a part of that community too!

I hope to see you there,


Creating an A-Frame Lunar Analog Environment

As the resident UX researcher and human in the loop testing co-coordinator for CLAWS, it’s my responsibility to plan, facilitate, and analyze usability tests with real people to get feedback on our AR Toolkit for Lunar Astronauts and Scientists (ATLAS). Earlier this year, CLAWS participated in the NASA SUITS Challenge, the pandemic forced our school to close campus, including our lab. My test plan was scrapped, and although I scrambled to put together a fully interactive prototype that participants could click through on their computer, I wasn’t quite able to complete it in time.

In the coming school year, CLAWS has opted to conduct all collaboration and research activities virtually, including HITL usability testing. Having this pre-plan in place, I’ve begun thinking about how to get the most out of remote testing. First, unlike last year, I am pushing for a more agile and iterative design cycle.

Instead of spending months evaluating our own work before showing it to test participants, I am seeking to test once a month, beginning with a simple paper prototype that we can test remotely with Marvel App. Based on our findings from these tests, we can improve our design. With Marvel, you simply draw your screens out by hand, take photos of them, and then you can link them together with interactive hotspots for test participants to click through.

Initially, I had proposed Adobe XD as a means of putting together an interactive prototype for remote testing and demonstration purposes. With XD, designers have the capability of creating complex prototypes that compliment the modularity ATLAS requires. You can create components, and instead of having to create multiple screens to represent every interaction, you can create every interactive state of that component within the component itself! On top of this, XD allows designers to connect sound files to interactions. Sound files like this one:


…which could be used to provide audio feedback letting the user know the system has accepted the user’s command.

Depending on how complex we want to get with our prototype, we could even test the implementation of our Voiced Entity for Guiding Astronauts (VEGA), the Jarvis-like AI assistant.

This will be a great way to test ease of use and overall experience before committing the design to code. However, I’ve also begun thinking about the best way to demonstrate our final deliverable to wider audiences. Even if we have a vaccine, it’s likely that a lot of conferences will still be held virtually. Furthermore, this is a big project, with a lot of students working on it, and we should have a final deliverable that showcases our work in an easily accessible format in order to feature it in our portfolio.

One of the possibilities I’m exploring is wiarframe. This is an app that allows you to set up your AR interface using simple images of your interface components.

The wiarframe design canvas

Designers can also prototype a variety of look (gaze, stare) and proximity (approaches, reaches, embraces, retreat) gesture interactions where the component can change state, manipulate other components, even open a URL, call an API, or open another wiarframe interface. This ability to open another wiarframe could enable my team to prototype and link together the individual modules for the user to navigate between.

Wiarframe is really useful when it comes to AR on mobile devices. Less so when the AR is coming from a head mounted display (HMD). Because, to open a wiarframe prototype, users must download the mobile app, and then anchor the interface to a surface.

This is really fun, but there is no sense of immersion. Back at our lab, the BLiSS team created a near life-sized mockup of an ISS airlock with which to immerse test participants in a kind of analog environment. This is common for testing designs for human-computer interaction in space. It is still too costly to test designs on actual users in the context of spaceflight (Holden, Ph.D., Ezer, Ph.D., & Vos, Ph.D., 2013).

In order to get the best feedback out of remote usability testing, we’re going to need an immersive environment, it needs to be cheap and relatively easy to put together, and widely accessible so that we don’t constrain our recruiting pool such that we can’t find participants with the appropriate equipment to test with.

I believe these requirements can be met and our problems solved with A-Frame. A-Frame allows creators to make WebVR with HTML and Javascript, that anybody with a web browser can experience. What’s more, users can fully immerse themselves in the VR environment with a headset like Vive, Rift, Daydream, GearVR.

On top of this, as I was exploring what A-Frame could do through the Showcase examples, I came across a WebVR experiment by NASA, Access Mars. Using A-Frame, users are given the opportunity to explore the real surface of Mars by creating a mesh of images recorded by NASA’s Curiosity rover. Users can actually move around to different areas and learn about Mars by interacting with elements.

An image from Access Mars instructing users on how to interact with it.

New to A-frame, I wasn’t really sure where to begin. Luckily Kevin Ngo of Supermedium, who maintains A-Frame, has a lot of his components available on Github. With limited experience, I was able to find a suitable starting environment, and with a few minor changes to the code, I developed an initial lunar environment.

Screenshot of the A-Frame lunar analog environment

If you’d like to look around, follow this link:


I’ll be honest there’s not much to see. Still, I’m excited about how easy it was to put this together. Similar to Access Mars, I’d like to develop this environment a little more so that users can do some basic movement from location to location. If we use this to test the Rock Identification for Geological Evaluation w.LIDAR(?) (RIGEL) interface, some additional environmental variables would have to be implemented to better simulate geological sampling. There are physics models that can be incorporated to support controllers which would allow for a user with one of the VR headsets mentioned above, to be able to manipulate objects with their hands. The downside of this is it would limit who we could recruit as a testing participant.

If nothing else, I want to be able to test with users through their own web browser. Ideally, they’ll be able to share their screen so I can see what they’re looking at, and their webcam so I can see their expression while they’re looking at it. While it’s not the same as actually being on the surface of the Moon, creating analog environments for simulating habitat design are relatively common at NASA (Stuster, 1996; Clancey, 2004; see also: NEEMO and BASALT). A WebVR environment as a lunar analog in which to test AR concepts follows this approach.

For usability scoring, we are using the standard NASA TLX subjective workload assessment as a Qualtrics survey to get feedback ratings on six subscales:

  • Mental demand
  • Physical demand
  • Temporal demand
  • Performance
  • Effort
  • Frustration

But testing aside, I also think WebVR is the best way to showcase our project as a readily accessible and interactive portfolio piece that interviewers could play with simply by clicking a link as we describe our role and what we did on the project. On top of this, with outreach being a core component of the work we do in CLAWS, an WebVR experience is ideal for younger students to experience ATLAS from the comfort and safety of their own home.


Clancey, W. J. (2004). Participant Observation of a Mars Surface Habitat Mission. Moffett Field, CA: NASA-Ames Research Center.

Holden, Ph.D., K., Ezer, Ph.D., N., & Vos, Ph.D., G. (2013). Evidence Report: Risk of Inadequate Human-Computer Interaction. Human Research Program: Space Human Factors and Habitability, 1–46.

What about Personas?

As we were going over Personas in my Interaction Design course at UMSI, I began seeing some articles on the topic that I wanted to share to the class.

Kill your Personas (Links to an external site.) – Microsoft Design

Stop obsessing over user personas (Links to an external site.) – UX Collective

The discussion we had on personas also correlate to an issue I’m having with the MacLean et al., reading. While I overall found Design Space Analysis highly informative and useful for the design process, I’m hung up on QOC as argument based. As interdisciplinary as Design Thinking is, when we justify our decisions through arguing for our rationale rather than proof, we end up in effect making excuses for what we did based on our own internal logic.

Models are only useful until they aren’t. Models, analogies, metaphors and the like, are kind of like stents that force a communication channel open to cram more information through than that channel could withstand otherwise. The experts who develop the models have a better understanding of that model’s limits and drawbacks than the person who is introduced to the concept through the model. So we need to really hone our instincts so we know when to break our own rules. A good recent example of this is the information processing model we spent the first half of the semester in 588 learning. Everything about vision, perception, attention and memory that we just learned in that class was related through this model. But that’s not what our brains look like, how do we know where that model breaks down? How many generations removed are we from the experts that developed it?

Despite what the rationalists think, logic occurs inside the individual. It’s good that we abstract data to create personas as noted from the readings. But as discussed in the articles above, we tend to ascribe erroneous details to these personas that come from our internal logic rather than the data. Ultimately I think this results in a holistic thinking that’s rather hollow. As Sapolsky notes in his tome (Links to an external site.) on human behavior, rationalism is most often rationalizing away violence as just part of human nature. We aren’t wired for [this], we didn’t evolve for [that]. Neither are we a ‘tabula rasa’ or a clean slate. We are born with an array of biological behavioral propensities that are cultivated through environmental inputs and our reaction to them.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that the words we use, shape our perceptions of the world. We can only think in terms of the words we know how to think in. When we enter a design process as non-experts we are looking to the user research to drive insight that give us a sense of holistic expertise. When we justify based on arguing rationale rather than proof, we employ rationalism, which essentially holds that whoever wins the argument is right, or at least closer to the truth than those who lost. As they say, history is written by the victors.

I say all of this because I have a growing concern that the interdisciplinary approach is starting to appear somewhat shallow and self-congratulatory. Like Dr. Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, we were “so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we didn’t stop to think whether or not we should.” Businesses scrutinize every penny and I see a future of tight deadlines and budgetary concerns where we fudge user research and employ our own inner logic to advocate for our own crappy designs while we post inspirationals on Instagram, repeating that saying, “You are not your user.”

But maybe we should be.

Featured Photo by Juliana Barquero on Unsplash


“Chapter 5: Structured Findings” in Saffer, D. (2010). Designing for interaction: Creating innovative applications and devices (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

MacLean, A., Young, R. M., Bellotti, V. M. E., & Moran, T. P. (1991). Questions, options, and criteria: Elements of design space analysis. Human-Computer Interaction, 6(3-4), 201-220. (through section 2)

Case Study:  (Links to an external site.)http://vesperapp.co/blog/how-to-make-a-vesper/ (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)

“Chapter 5: Picking the Right Tool” in Warfel, T. Z. (2009).  Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide.  Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.

Chapters 6 – 11 in Warfel, T. Z. (2009).  Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide.  Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.

GUI Prototyping Tools: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?GuiPrototypingTools

Critique: Reflections on Taking Design Criticism Well

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a comic book artist. I could draw of course, but I knew I wasn’t skilled enough to really go for it. After I got my first computer with an internet connection, I started thinking about web and graphic design as I was fulfilling these roles for my band. I ultimately didn’t pursue that path for a number of reasons. Namely, I couldn’t take criticism well. In fact, it wasn’t until the last few years when I began learning about UX and the user-centered design process that I ultimately learned to appreciate criticism. In high school, when I envisioned a life as a graphic artist, I imagined spending all this time to come up with a finished work just to have the client demand a slight change to the work that meant having to start over to create a new work that incorporated that slight change. At that, I lost interest.

Once I understood that things like brainstorming, sketching, parallel prototyping, and getting feedback early and often as a matter of course correction before any significant time and energy is spent on the finished product, it gave me the confidence to finally commit to this discipline and career path. I am probably best at being the brainstormer that comes up with all the worst ideas first, but I take solace in the understanding that this is helpful to the group. With all of this in mind, I started drafting up some quick “sketches” of animated notes on Adobe XD, because a lot of the elements that we might use as designers are already assembled through various UI kits that you can download for free on Behance (Links to an external site.). What I quickly found was that I wanted to go back and run a different design, so I actually created a parallel prototype and was essentially able to run my own a/b test to see which design I liked better. Parallel prototyping allows for more divergent ideation (there’s that model of divergent/convergent thinking as presented in the design funnel again), and an increase in self-efficacy, or the feeling of confidence in abilities regarding the task at hand.

While a lot of us will probably stick to using some form of software for our sketching needs, I think it’s important for us to practice and develop our drawing skills. In a similar manner to how typing notes into a Google Doc is more convenient for reference material, writing notes on paper has been shown to commit the information to memory better. (More info) (Links to an external site.)

Similar to the discussion on need-finding as an approach to qualitative design studies, there are also best practices in regard to giving criticism. Remember, that feedback is important information that the designer uses to course correct, so when you offer criticism, you really want to justify that criticism in a way that’s helpful to the designer and the work you are criticizing. If not, you might as well be naval-gazing.

Featured Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


“Chapter 4: The perfect brainstorm” in Kelley, Tom, & Littman, Jonathan (2001). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, america’s leading design firm. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Buxton, Bill. (2007) “The anatomy of sketching” in Sketching user experiences. New York: Morgan Kaufmann.

“Sections 3.2 – 3.4” in Greenberg et al. (2012). Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook.  Waltham, MA: Morgan-Kaufman.

Dow, S.P., Glassco, A., Kass, J., Schwarz, M., Schwartz, D.L., Klemmer, S.R. (2010). Parallel Prototyping Leads to Better Design Results, More Divergence, and Increased Self-Efficacy. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 11(4).

Design Critiques (Choose 1 out of the 2 to read deeply and quickly skim the second):

Design Critique and the Creative Process, Cassie McDaniel http://www.alistapart.com/articles/design-criticism-creative-process/ (Links to an external site.)

Spool, Jared (2012) Goods, Bads, and Dailies: Lessons for Conducting Great Critiques https://www.uie.com/articles/great_critiques/

“Sections 4.4” in Greenberg et al. (2012). Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook. Waltham, MA: Morgan-Kaufman.

UX is About Processes, not Products

I keep thinking about comments I’ve seen from UX designers on Instagram discussing posts that are tagged #uxdesign. These posts are almost always finished mockups. And amongst the generic bot comments sporting the ‘fire’ emoji, I often see an actual UX designer saying that this isn’t the kind of work they do in UX. While the work varies, UX designers tend towards the storytelling, the wireframes, the empathy/affinity/customer journey maps  that go into making sure the design team is on the same page.

I actually want to bring in another quote I seem to remember from Thoreau’s, ‘Walden Pond’, but according to Quote Investigator (Links to an external site.), it comes from a variety of sources, and the quote is attributed to unknown.

A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

All the background research, synthesis, needfinding, ideation, etc. that we do is sharpening the axe, which in this case would be the wireframe. But I also want to add that I’m grateful for the clarification on what wireframes are and the importance of them. It’s particularly easy to skip over the wireframe if you’re doing your work in an application like Adobe XD for example. When you create a box where a profile picture is supposed to go, it’s so easy to just drag and drop a stock photo into the box. It’s so easy to just select a color for the background.

These simple choices impede the kind of feedback we receive. People see the colors, they see the stock photos in place, and they don’t realize they are just looking at some rectangles in a rectangle. And I think that applies to different kinds of stakeholders too. Non-expert end users often have difficulty providing direct feedback on a finished design, which is why we employ methods like contextual inquiry and ethnography to get at the heart of what their reality is that they can’t readily supply. But even other members of the design team might have a more difficult time with a critique of something that looks more finished than not.

So far at UMSI we’ve gotten a lot of Design Thinking ala IDEO. And while IDEO is one of the most well known agencies, it’s not the only one. AJ&Smart (Links to an external site.) as an example, is well known for the Design Sprint. They also have a YouTube channel (Links to an external site.) and a podcast (Links to an external site.). I remember one video in particular, where Jonathan criticized Design Thinking as a linear process. And then the YouTube recommender showed me other videos where designers went on the attack suggesting that Design Thinking is out because it’s a linear process. Even though everywhere I learn about Design Thinking (e.g. UMSI, IDF) it is stressed that it isn’t a linear process.

I think the main point is that there is no one way to design a product. As designers, we have to synthesize all the resources and tools we have at our disposal and select the best one for that moment. In 501 earlier this week, Kentaro asked what we wanted to get out of the class. Immediately someone said, “An ‘A'”. But an A doesn’t necessarily demonstrate mastery of the material, it demonstrates that all the boxes of the rubric have been satisfactorily checked. When people who just want an A (not to overly criticize the person who said that, I want an A in the course too) apply design thinking to a project, I think there’s a tendency to treat it as a list of boxes to check off, and that results in it being a linear process.

Some of us may go off to work at an agency like AJ&Smart, where they travel around the world running design sprints for different clients on a variety of projects. Others may go to Facebook, and get caught in the cycle of implementing a new update every 2 weeks. Still others may go into a smaller firm where they are a design team of one. In each case, the process and methods most utilized are going to vary. I imagine a wireframe is more important at Facebook, where you have a huge team working on the product. I’m not sure if a wireframe is an important deliverable in a week long design sprint. On the one hand, I could see it being overlooked entirely in order to quickly generate a mockup or prototype. On the other hand, I could see a wireframe being the primary deliverable of a design sprint to pass along to the development team. But if you’re a design team of one, you may or may not be utilizing a wireframe. Personally, I think I would because if I left the company, I could leave them the wireframe for the next designer to work off of.

From Brown we learn that wireframes are representative of the concept we are intending to develop. They focus on the information being presented and the range of possibilities available to the user. What we think of as a wireframe may change over time, but the concept is still the same. It’s like a blueprint.

Ginsburg discussed the importance of concept exploration as it relates to the design process. The part that stuck out to me was creating the appropriate environment to allow for informal collaboration. I think about how people are products of their environment. Sitting in a cubicle all day can be depressing. Putting a picture up of a tropical beach can be a relief. Design is an ambiguous process, and you want to create an environment to support that. 

Storyboards ala Greenburg demonstrate the importance of the designer developing an understanding of the overarching narrative in which a user will use the product. How does this product fit into their overall life?

How can we make our product a seamless integration into the users overall narrative of life?

Featured Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash


“Sections 4.4” in Greenberg et al. (2012). Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook. Waltham, MA: Morgan-Kaufman.

Suzanne Ginsburg’s, Designing the iPhone User Experience: A User-Centered Approach to Sketching and Prototyping iPhone Apps. Part Three: Developing Your App Concept, Chapter 6: Exploring App Concepts

Dan Brown, “Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning”: Chapter 7: Wireframes: http://proquest.safaribooksonline.com/book/web-design-and-development/9780131385399/design-diagrams/ch07