Eliot Tarlin, Per Nielsen, Carmen D'Arlach
Uppercase, Inc. is a two-year-old Xerox New Enterprise Company funded to develop both hardware and software for a thin, light, pen-based, page-oriented, document-reading appliance for the mobile professional. Our product, the eCase tablet personal computer, can trace its lineage back to Alan Kay's Dynabook project at Xerox PARC.
Within Uppercase, there has always been strong support for user interface design. From project inception in January 1998, the company as a whole understood that the success of our product would very much depend on the quality of our user experience. The eCase computer is a pen-based full-page portable device for reading, annotating, and managing documents, the main competition of which is pen and paper. To be accepted, the product has to be both familiar and easy to use.
The three full-time people in the user experience design team are interaction designers working closely with a consulting visual designer. This is a relatively large commitment of resources for a startup with only 60 individuals.
We call our contribution user experience design because it is broader than simply the interface. The eCase system consists of both hardware and software, and the software includes interfaces for both the PC desktop and the device. We assure the usability of all aspects of the system, everything from the out-of-the-box experience through product upgrade. As the product design develops, we are concerned with meeting the needs of both customers and third-party developers.
Our design method is task-oriented: What is it the user wants to do, and how can the eCase computer best support that work? As designers we stand between the technology (what can be done) and the customer (what should be done). The design goals that motivate our work include creating an intuitive product, as easy as pen and paper, with no surprises or impediments, assuring that it is flexible, providing a variety of ways for users to perform common actions, and striving for an interaction that is casual, supporting immediate access and active reading (that is, reading and annotating).
Our approach to design is collaborative, with the engineers actively contributing to our design debate. We have both scheduled and impromptu meetings to discuss design issues and review implementation constraints and possibilities. The Uppercase engineers are always part of our design review process.
Our ideal process has five phases: conceptualization, investigation, specification, design, and validation. Starting from a product concept developed by a small, high-level team, a broader group investigates market models, engineering issues, and user requirements. The project moves forward with a still broader group that defines the functional specification of the product. Then the various teams develop more detailed specifications within their disciplines, including the initial user interface design specification. Design, being an iterative process, cycles from design generation to validation to reconsideration several times before the product is complete.
To get things moving, the initial product conceptualization and investigation work was done by consulting market research firms. One such firm developed a report that defined the potential size of our market and helped secure corporate support, while another created a video to describe the product and its intended customer. Later, when we had our own marketing and business development groups, they revisited these early concepts and broadened both the product and customer definitions.
The directors of these two groups collaborated with our Chief Technical Officer/Vice President of Product Development to produce a functional specification of the product. This document provided clarity and guidance for product development, reducing many good ideas to those features that would actually be in the first release.
The user experience group explored several alternative interaction models and settled on an appropriate design. To speed up our process and, at the same time, involve engineering more, we communicated the details of this design to the interface engineers through brief design conversations and sketches. We often agreed to accept temporary interface placeholders when further design work was clearly needed. Formal written specifications and more polished screen art came later in the project when we had time to review the system as a whole. Our next steps are validation with real end users and application developers and continued refinement of the design.
At work or at home, most people amass more documents (articles, reports, catalogs, news items, mail) than they can handle. These documents either end up in piles, as in most people's offices, or they are categorized and filed or simply thrown away. As a fundamental customer requirement, the eCase tablet has to accommodate all these ways of dealing with documents. This makes organization and navigation crucial aspects of the interface design. As we worked toward an appropriate model of user interaction, we seriously considered four schemes.
The user interface software engineers proposed the first design when the product was thought of as simply a document reader, with no additional functions or applications. The metaphor was a notebook with a single level of tabbed sections that contained documents. Although simple and familiar, the design was criticized for being too simple and not extensible enough to accommodate all the documents a customer might want to carry.
The next design pursued was extensible: Containers could contain documents as well as other containers, providing a deep hierarchy. The user could use a table of contents to find a particular document or simply skim, starting at the first page of the first document and leafing through into the next document and the next. In tests, however, users complained they had to maintain a sense of where they were within the set of documents, and when they jumped to the next document, they became disoriented.
Our next model sought extensibility and simpler navigation through an approach similar to the Web. Everything was a link: Containers contained documents, and documents contained references to other documents and containers. Flexibility was the hallmark of this design, but people found it unacceptable because it was so abstract and lacked clear content structure.
Simplicity and structure then became the virtues sought by the design team. Extensibility was less of a concern because customer interviews had revealed that the number of documents users would actually carry on an eCase computer would be far fewer than had been assumed initially.
The team then reconsidered a tabbed interface design, this time adding a second level to the hierarchy. A user study indicated that this was a familiar and comfortable model, needing little explanation or instruction. Navigation among the tabs was clear and easy, with everything just a few taps away. Organization and navigation were unified, giving the user a single mental model of the system. This is the design we have continued to grow and refine over the last year.
Eliot Tarlin, Manager
User Experience Design
Senior User Experience Designer
User Experience Designer
Job Titles for Design and Usability Positions
User experience designer, visual interface designer.
For user experience designers: Experience designing interfaces for a variety of systems and applications, familiarity with Windows interface design guidelines and elements, an ability to work well with software engineers on design issues, strong written and verbal communications skills, and a BA or BS minimum.
For senior user experience designers: All of the above, plus graphic design and prototyping experience and previous pen-based design experience.
For visual interface designers: Four or more years of experience in designing screen-based graphics, familiarity with the Windows interface design guidelines and elements, and with Photoshop, Illustrator and Director, strong verbal communications skills, a strong portfolio of product interface designs for computer displays, and a BA minimum.
For user experience design management: Eight-plus years experience designing interfaces for a variety of systems and applications, extensive experience building and managing an interface design team, experience defining and directing product evaluations with users, familiarity with Windows interface design guidelines and elements, strong written and verbal communications skills, screen-based graphic design experience, previous pen-based design experience, and a BA or BS minimum, with a MA or MS preferred.
As a tool for user interface design, I feel there is none better than SuperPaint. This graphics program combines both drawing and painting, each in its own layer with its own tools, giving you control and flexibility. You can do pixel-level work with the paint layer and then copy the art to the draw layer where you can move it around as an object. The only problem: SuperPaint is no longer sold. If you can find a copy, it is for Macintosh only. To the great credit of the engineers, even though they stopped maintaining SuperPaint years ago, it runs on MacOS 8.6 (don't know about 9). Eliot Tarlin
"Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
©2000 ACM 1072-5220/00/0200 $5.00
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