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VIII.2 March 2001
Page: 63
Digital Citation

Industry briefs: MONKEYmedia


Authors:
Eric Bear, Barbee Teasley, Ledia Carroll

back to top  Philosophy of Design

bullet.gif Changing The World

Our founding principle is that our business is driven by an insatiable passion for making the world a better place. That includes making things easier for users of products and applications we work on, being a great place to work with reasonable hours so employees can have outside lives, and picking our projects carefully. We think a lot about what kind of work we most want to be doing and for whom we most want to be designing. We are especially interested in designing for electronic toys and appliances, including handhelds, MP3, WAP, wired home, Internet, and entertainment projects. We are interested in working on simulations, Web-based applications, Massive content/info spaces, Multi-user spaces, Interactive video, Classroom apps, Real world help systems (e.g., interactive) and Next generation devices.

bullet.gif Service And Technology

The upper left quadrant shows conceptual design for short-term delivery of creative works targeted at audience engagement. The media industry reigns this domain; there are a lot of firms doing this kind of work which creates much competition and the timeframe necessitates horrendous work hours. The lower right quadrant shows a different set of difficulty. Here, advanced technology development constrains design thinking to the realm of concrete functionality. MONKEYmedia's market opportunity lies orthogonal to these diametrically opposing industry pulls. Originating at the intersection of advanced technology and new media communications, but breaking the bounds of each industry's constraints, is a design trajectory we believe to be key to discovery/inventing the future of best usability and engagement practices.

bullet.gif Intellectual Property

Another area of our design philosophy is our approach to intellectual property. We are multidisciplinary in our approaches; we exist in both industry space and in academic space. Similarly, we exist in HCI space (where we are very novel in our approaches) and in New Media (where we are very intellectual). Our work is in the gray areas between all these disciplines. Computers are good at crunching numbers. And people are good at making reasoned decisions. Our work aims to address what happens when something is 30-70 one direction or the other.

Our style of thinking leads us to develop many novel interaction techniques. When we write contracts, we clarify that we own any novel interaction techniques we develop while working on their projects. The client still gets their functional specification or other deliverable and can build the product using the interaction technique we develop while working on their project. They automatically get free license to use all ideas we come up with while working on the project for which they hired us. But we patent any novel techniques we develop in the process. This retention model of novel interface techniques allows us to protect our intellectual property and use it to our best advantage. Effective, novel interaction techniques are often appropriate technologies for other applications.

bullet.gif What We Do

In gross terms, "interface" encompasses the place where the person and the system meet. It's the point of contact, the boundary and the bridge between the content and the reader. In electronic media, it includes everything from the organization of the material to the layout of the screen, the audification of the space, and the way people use their hands and fingers. The term "interface" means different things to different people, depending on their particular training and expertise. Stereotypically, content experts focus on organization and flow. Visual and industrial designers focus on the presentation of the product. Cognitive psychologists focus on the participant's process and problems over time. And engineers focus on the implementation of software mechanisms. Not only do these multiple foci overlap; they are intimately interrelated and ultimately inseparable.

Because it encompasses so much, we've found it useful to break interface design into three general domains of design (each of which individually draws on a combination of skills from different disciplines).

This helps to identify problems, issues or questions, and to address them with solutions of appropriate scale. These domains are information design which regards content's architecture, interface design which regards the sensory aspects of usability interface design, and interaction design which regards the ways products invite people to act. At MONKEYmedia we work in all of these areas. Lately we've been calling these combined areas User Experience (UX).

bullet.gif People/We Are A Think Tank

We envision ourselves as a think tank. We require designers and design managers here to have degrees in both a people-centered domain AND new media/tech. A person might have a degree in Human Factors, Cognitive Science, Psychology, Sociology, or Anthropology as well as one in Media Arts & Sciences, Interactive Telecommunications, CS, or Visual Design. Eric's background is in dance, music, and new media and since the beginning of the company he has sought out others to work here who have multidisciplinary backgrounds. We have a number of Ph.D.'s and everyone either has advanced degrees or degrees in multiple disciplines to mix up the knowledge. Our employees have diverse backgrounds that include experience working with teenage boys and girls, gaming, speech, usability expertise, handheld devices for a range of applications, and medical informatics.

We really aim to be an inspiring place to work and learn. We have a weekly meeting where we either learn something new that applies to our work, review a project so everyone can learn from it, or brainstorm about an interesting problem we may or may not be working on for a project. We also read in our field, and last year we all went to CHI in the Netherlands. We talk frequently about what interpersonal and structural dynamics are happening that we can improve. And we work reasonable work hours, generally 40-50 hours per week. This creates a better world for our employees and for the work. Also, happy people are more engaged in their work. The combination of interesting work, inspiration, and reasonable hours creates low turnover so our knowledge builds with each project rather than walking out the door.

back to top  Design Process

Some things we could call our process:

  • THE 5 MONKEYS OF MONKEYMEDIA.
  • THE MONKEY METHOD.
  • THE MONKEY WAY.
  • THE MONKEY M.O.
  • MONKEYmethodology
  • MONKEYmethod
  • THE MoMe WAY

Our projects incorporate five methods that we implement through the phases of our project lifecycle:

  • DISCOVERY
  • INVENT
  • VALIDATE
  • REFINE
  • COMMUNICATE

bullet.gif Discovery We combine our in-depth understanding of business, audience, and technology with research on a project's particulars. We test out competitive product offerings, do prior art research, and put together previous market research, prior art with our own analysis of the design problem. We do user and client interviews and sometimes formal competitive analysis usability testing on competitor sites. The goal is to understand technology barriers and possibilities, the business our client is in, and the goals of users. We are looking to get a solid grasp on what else is out there that we don't already know about.

Research is really important to us. We have a passion for learning things we didn't know before. We spend a third of a project's time and budget on the design analysis phase. The staff has tons of domain expertise all over the map but we get excited when we find out something new, like "Who would have known that the users would have thought that?!" In fact, we share our findings about what works and what doesn't with our clients at all stages.

bullet.gif Invent Best Of Breed Solution

We invent information architecture plans, and specify interaction details. This whole process involves a great deal of ongoing idea hatching, analysis, storyboarding, discussion, design, and prototyping. You can see from the chart that the design phase of the project extends throughout the life of most of the project. Design for us usually involves lists and flow diagrams on whiteboards, which turn into simple prototyping in the form of more simple and formal drawings, wireframe schematics we make in Visio and more complex prototyping in computer mockups that we can user test. Throughout the design process, we maintain a broad perspective on client needs, program goals, audience considerations, and technology risks while we craft, track, iterate, and communicate detailed project plans

bullet.gif Validate

We validate our designs by having fresh eyes from other teams evaluate our designs, continually stepping through processes to check for flow and doing usability testing. We are currently building a usability lab. We do formal and informal usability testing on our work. So far, for more formal testing we have worked closely with outside labs and informal testing here in our offices and out in the field.

bullet.gif Refine Final Product

We refine all of our solutions with new feedback and knowledge gained from our validation methods.

bullet.gif Communicate

We do this formally via requirements analysis documentation and the functional specification for a design, which includes navigational maps, screen schematics, use cases, media specs and style guidelines. We do this on an ongoing basis with clear project management, which creates open communication between clients and designers throughout the process.

Our process is the same process no matter what it is that we are designing, a voice control device, a car dashboard, a Web site, a remote control, or a PDA for health care workers. This formal process works really well for us for several reasons. Most important, we have specific core competencies and these steps describe what those are. Second, the terms are simple so we can describe what we do, even to people who aren't very familiar with our line of work. Third, the steps relate to a timeline. This allows us to talk both internally and externally in relation to time so we can be very clear about resource allocation. Finally, the process is also informal enough to serve as an "antiprocess" to allow for variation as necessary. Our process has developed organically as MONKEYmedia has grown from being a small family shop five years ago to being a company of 20 full-time employees plus a fluctuating crew of freelance collaborators. Since our formal process has grown with us, it is the process that we know how to use and do use. It's not something restrictive people are required to use and yearn to veer from but can't.

bullet.gif Improve The Process & Reassess

This is not part of the official chart because it's obviously not something for which we would charge clients. But it is an important part of our process. We always debrief. We talk about what we did well and what we could have done more expediently—and how we can make the process better in the future. Improving the process is good for peers and our clients, and keeps us fresh.

We also reassess and improve the process on a larger scale company-wide every two years. We perceive this as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and ask ourselves what it is that we do. Since the beginning we have done User Experience work, but what parts of that and what our clients need, and what exactly we do, has shifted over time. The first major shift we have experienced in the past two years is that we used to do engineering in addition to our UI work. Now we focus solely on UI and mentor subsequent engineering rather than implement it ourselves. A second shift is the impact of R&D in novel interaction techniques on our Intellectual Property portfolio. This has always been important to MONKEYmedia, but we recently emphasized this by adding a Director of R&D to our team. A third shift is that we have made the decision to grow. For a long time we have had to turn down interesting work we would like to take because we don't have enough time to do it. Now that we have decided to grow the company we can take on more projects and still maintain the environment we like to have.

back to top  Design Project Examples

The design challenge for our project with Noggin, a cable TV channel for children, was to make navigation to and among a myriad of site activities not only easy, but fun in and of itself. Artifacts of these activities are broadcast in the interstitial space that advertising would normally occupy. The proof of concept prototype shown in Figure 4 illustrates a method of navigating large quantities of content that was developed as part of this project.

Each bubble represents an activity. Bubbles are clustered by category, and the colors indicate the category type. Clicking in the cluster areas (i.e., fisheggs) with the magnifying glass cursor brings the region to the foreground, using a pseudo-fisheye navigation technique allowing context and detail to be displayed simultaneously. More traditional fisheye navigation is used within the focused category.

The HIV PromptChart shown in Figure 5 is a Web-based tool created to help hospitals and clinics manage patients with HIV. Physicians can quickly prepare for a patient visit, make treatment decisions with confidence, stay on the leading edge of research, educate patients, and help them comply with prescribed therapies all without making significant changes to current practice patterns.

Server-side Java generates the multi-variable chart shown in Figure 5 that helps doctors visualize what would traditionally occupy a folder full of lab reports. On screen or in print, patterns are more readily revealed, and better treatment decisions are fostered.

In a trial for a set top box manufacturer, we explored a variety of interaction paradigms for a digital music delivery service intended to augment the home listening experience and provide functionality and flexibility that hardware CD players can't. A further goal was to find a way to translate the complexity of data available in the MP3 world into a relatively simple UI. Listeners can customize the player interface, using the settings screen shown in Figure 6.

They can select which of the many elements of track information are displayed during playback. As part of the process of integrating listening elements with browsing available music, we invented a new technique for eliminating the shopping cart from the world of e-commerce.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Domains of Design on monkey.com, featuring Poly-Vectoral Reverse Navigation

F2Figure 2. MONKEYmedia's niche in the HCI ecosystem

F3Figure 3. MONKEYmedia processes and project phases

F4Figure 4. Pseudo-fisheye navigation among "fishegg" clusters

F5Figure 5. HIV PromptChart graph tab

F6Figure 6. Turbonium-inspired TV interface

UF1Figure. (Pictured left to right) Ledia Pearl Carroll, Eric Gould Bear, and Barbee Teasley

back to top  Sidebar: Company Snapshot

Job titles normally used for design and usability positions:
Interface Designer, Interface Design Expert, Interface Design Manager, Usability Specialist.

Customary job qualifications for these positions:

  • Passion for changing the world
  • Strong industry track record designing cutting-edge products and services
  • Well versed in HCI literature & methodologies
  • Outstanding analytical, oral and written communication skills
  • Degrees in both a people-centered domain AND new media/tech:
  • Human Factors, Cognitive Science, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology
  • Media Arts & Sciences, Interactive Telecommunications, CS, Visual Design

Number of individuals employed in design and usability:
At the time of writing, 15 of 20 employees work directly in design and usability. At the time of publication, we expect to have completed another round of expansion, both in terms of our staffing and offices.

Breadth of project teams:
Everyone on our project teams is an interface designer. We try to put together teams of people with the most project-relevant backgrounds and skills; and we all get to rotate through different roles within projects.

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench

Favorite publications (books, periodicals, CDs, videotapes, websites) that you find helpful in your work (standard CHI citation format, please):
Tanizaki , Jun'ichiro. In Praise of Shadows; translation by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker. Leet's Island Books 1977

Tools that you use to design on-screen interfaces (software, thinking tools, etc.):

  • Photoshop
  • Visio
  • Flash
  • Whack Pack
  • whiteboard rooms
  • Illustrator
  • Dreamweaver
  • Director
  • digital cameras
  • (our own) XtraOrdinary Interactions Toolkit.
  • Favorite quote: Free your inner monkey!
  • Sources of inspiration (We polled the design staff):
    We are inspired by recurring and unique shapes in nature: ferns, shells, nautilus spirals, skeletons, ribs, bamboo, wings, feathers.
    We are inspired by the interworkings that keep big industrial systems going like airports, printing presses, theme parks.
    We are inspired by our kids, each other, activism, the future, Star Trek, shadows, seeing people succeed with technology, excellent design in any medium: visual, auditory, architectural, industrial.

back to top 

©2000 ACM  1072-5220/01/0300  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.

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