Category Archives: UX Design

Google at 20: how a search engine became a literal extension of our mind


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Benjamin Curtis, Nottingham Trent University

We are losing our minds to Google. After 20 years, Google’s products have become integrated into our everyday lives, altering the very structure of our cognitive architecture, and our minds have expanded out into cyberspace as a consequence. This is not science fiction, but an implication of what’s known as the “extended mind thesis”, a widely accepted view in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.

Make no mistake about it, this is a seismic shift in human psychology, probably the biggest we have ever had to cope with, and one that is occurring with breathtaking rapidity – Google, after all, is just 20 years old, this month. But although this shift has some good consequences, there are some deeply troubling issues we urgently need to address.

Much of my research spans issues to do with personal identity, mind, neuroscience, and ethics. And in my view, as we gobble up Google’s AI driven “personalised” features, we cede ever more of our personal cognitive space to Google, and so both mental privacy and the ability to think freely are eroded. What’s more, evidence is starting to emerge that there may be a link between technology use and mental health problems. In other words, it is not clear that our minds can take the strain of the virtual stretch. Perhaps we are even close to the snapping point.

Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?

This was the question posed in 1998 (coincidentally the same year Google was launched) by two philosophers and cognitive scientists, Andy Clark and David Chalmers, in a now famous journal article, The Extended Mind. Before their work, the standard answer among scientists was to say that the mind stopped at the boundaries of skin and skull (roughly, the boundaries of the brain and nervous system).

But Clark and Chalmers proposed a more radical answer. They argued that when we integrate things from the external environment into our thinking processes, those external things play the same cognitive role as our brains do. As a result, they are just as much a part of our minds as neurons and synapses. Clark and Chalmers’ argument produced debate, but many other experts on the mind have since agreed.

Our minds are linked with Google

Clark and Chalmers were writing before the advent of smartphones and 4G internet, and their illustrative examples were somewhat fanciful. They involved, for instance, a man who integrated a notebook into his everyday life that served as an external memory. But as recent work has made clear, the extended mind thesis bears directly on our obsession with smartphones and other devices connected to the web.

Growing numbers of us are now locked into our smartphones from morning until night. Using Google’s services (search engine, calendar, maps, documents, photo assistant and so on) has become second nature. Our cognitive integration with Google is a reality. Our minds literally lie partly on Google’s servers.



But does this matter? It does, for two major reasons.

First, Google is not a mere passive cognitive tool. Google’s latest upgrades, powered by AI and machine learning, are all about suggestions. Google Maps not only tells us how to get where we want to go (on foot, by car or by public transport), but now gives us personalised location suggestions that it thinks will interest us.

Google Assistant, always just two words away (“Hey Google”), now not only provides us with quick information, but can even book appointments for us and make restaurant reservations.

Gmail now makes suggestions about what we want to type. And Google News now pushes stories that it thinks are relevant to us, personally. But all of this removes the very need to think and make decisions for ourselves. Google – again I stress, literally – fills gaps in our cognitive processes, and so fills gaps in our minds. And so mental privacy and the ability to think freely are both eroded.

Addiction or integration?

Second, it doesn’t seem to be good for our minds to be spread across the internet. A growing cause for concern is so-called “smartphone addiction”, no longer an uncommon problem. According to recent reports, the average UK smartphone user checks his phone every 12 minutes. There are a whole host of bad psychological effects this could have that we are only just beginning to appreciate, depression and anxiety being the two most prominent.

But the word “addiction” here, in my view, is just another word for the integration I mentioned above. The reason why so many of us find it so hard to put our smartphones down, it seems to me, is that we have integrated their use into our everyday cognitive processes. We literally think by using them, and so it is no wonder it is hard to stop using them. To have one’s smartphone suddenly taken away is akin to having a lobotomy. Instead, to break the addiction/integration and regain our mental health, we must learn to think differently, and to reclaim our minds.The Conversation

Benjamin Curtis, Lecturer in Philosophy and Ethics, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Andrea M Lewis

Andrea Lewis is a psychologist and Managing Director of Ad Hoc Global Ltd. With a foundation in equity research, she has been leading product development in technology and digital media for over 12 years and leads UX due diligence assessments, research, and strategy.

My Experience with Sitemaps

I was eager to explore building sitemaps after being introduced to their benefits while learning about the web design process. However, I had an unconventional first experience: I was asked to create a sitemap after the content and navigation were decided. While after-the-fact planning is bad practice (particularly for a UX consultancy website), it was a learning experience in my skills development as a Junior UX Researcher. Most challenging was the structuring of each page within the sitemap in a way that would be understandable to the user. Because the sitemap was based on an active website, I had to do some UX reverse engineering.

figure 1: My First Attempt

On my first attempt, I made the mistake of including all headings and subsections in the pages of the website. In retrospect, its smart to include only the headings that user interacts with. This resulted in an unclear and fairly cluttered sitemap that did not wholly represent the navigational complexity of the website.

It was after this initial setback that I made a mental breakthrough. In order for the sitemap to accurately portray the website, each page link needed to be displayed in a way that was understandable and intuitive for the user.

At first, this task seemed simple as the website did not have a lot of content. Nevertheless, creating an accurate pattern for the sitemap that precisely mapped each website page proved an obstacle. After some experimentation, I discovered that the website pages were all linked in a way that formed a circular navigation pattern.

figure 2: Final Sitemap

After this discovery, I displayed the pattern in an easy to use map. As seen in Figure 2, all of the pages in the navigation bar are linked both to the ‘Homepage’ and the international team pages. (The team pages are listed in a drop-down menu in the navigation bar). The ‘Teams’ page links to ‘Services’, which links back to ‘Contact Us. Finally, the ‘Insights’ page stands on its own with links to the various social media accounts below.

This task has shown me the utility of sitemaps for both designers and users. Sitemaps can be used to help  a user navigate, or allow a designer to structure a meaningful navigation process. In essence, sitemaps are hierarchical models that break down content into specific areas as well as show the relationship between internet and external pages. I now understand how the process of building a sitemap is a fundamental skill for UX practitioners.  

Gary Maccabe

Junior UX Researcher with a background in psychology and social media management. My interest in UX design stems from my time studying Cyberpsychology and human cognition as part of my BSc. (Hons) Psychology degree. Although it is still early in my career I have provided many large organisations with UX services and solutions. This experience has given me a solid understanding of what good UX design is and how to deliver it.

Zen of UX from a Developer

When we talk about developers contributing to UX design, many people are quick to point out that developers have a different mindset. Developers are often reduced to stereotypes of an overweight maths nerd who is busy hacking behind a computer screen with no social skills. While this may be true for some developers, there are many developers who also have an understanding of good design principles.

Code Has “Design”

Many people believe designers are people born with some special genes and only they can design and come up with design ideas. Contrary to that, design is actually a skill that anybody can learn. According to Cambridge Dictionary of American English “Design” is defined as the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object or a system (as in architectural blueprints, engineering drawings, business processes, circuit diagrams and sewing patterns).graph_models

If we look at this definition we can see that design is more about problem-solving rather than producing art. Whenever a developer is writing code they are actually planning/designing the system in which different elements of code (i.e objects in OOP programming) will be interacting with each other. They have to plan and imagine all possible problems and create solutions that are easily understood by machines. This means they already are designing, but they are expressing it in code. Hence, it would be safe to say the developers are designers of code. If they are given a chance they can easily learn to express their ideas visually, just like they learned to express them in code.

Good Code Needs Aesthetic Sense

In order to write good code, developers have to adopt aesthetics.A good developer doesn’t write code just for the sake of making something work. Their code also has to be to be easily understood by other developers. Just like when evaluating the quality of any other product, code which is aesthetically pleasing ( along with other attributes) is deemed better by other developers. Developers are also judged by how “beautiful” their code is. As Ruben Verborgh puts it “Programmers are functional artists.However, we’re not the kind of artists that create purely for beauty. We are functional artists. We have a functional task as well as the duty to write beautiful code because it is effective and thus lasts.

Code Design Principles and UX Design Principles

Writing beautiful code like UX design requires simultaneously satisfying goals that often conflict e.g:

good-code-big

We need to have an understanding of a problem well enough and design a solution which is as simple as possible to explain to a machine and to other developers who are like users of our code. As Allen Kent &James G. William puts it “ beautiful program is like a beautiful theorem: it does the job elegantly and has a simple and perspicuous structure

Code Readability

Code readability is one of the first things we learn as developers. It is also referred by some as the – The first law of programming: code is read more than written. Developers spend the majority of their time editing other people’s code. By making our code readable, other developers can find their way to places they need to improve just like good UX design helps users navigate through the system. Code readability also requires the code to be structured well and has many similarities to Information Architecture in UX Design.

Code readability principles
  • Locality: Keeping related stuff together
  • Consistency: Using familiar patterns
  • Verbosity: When in doubt, explain. Be as obvious as possible

Code design principles encourage developers to write readable code; written for humans and not just for machines. In other words, we are improving the user experience of our code (i.e. other developers) by following good design principles. This means good developers should easily be able to transfer this understanding to apply to UX design.

Python’s Design Philosophy

Python is a programming language which was designed to be a highly readable language. Guido van Rossum, the creator of Python, created it aiming towards simplicity and generality in the design of its syntax. Tim Peters adapted the guiding principles for Python’s design philosophy in what he calls the “Zen of Python.

zen-of-python

One can easily adapt these aphorisms and apply it to UX design.

 

Zen of UX Design Adapted from Zen of Python
  • Creating a beautiful product is better than an ugly one.
  • Every component of our product should be visible explicitly and separately
  • Design should be simple rather than complex

  • Choose flat over deep website hierarchies. Content is more discoverable when it’s not buried under multiple intervening layers.

  • Sparse is better than dense. White space is design’s best friend! Not every single space needs to be filled with color, shapes or words.
  • Design for readability. Content is king and your users should have a good reading experience
  • As much as possible don’t break usability principles
  • Only  break usability principles in extreme case, one in which it is causing problems for the user
  • Write good error messages
  • Unless not required by design
  • Everything should be easily understood by the user. The user should not need to guess.
  • There should be one and preferably only one obvious way do something. Limit the number of choices given to a user
  • If the design is hard to explain it’s a bad idea and vice versa
  • Now is better than never although never is often better than right now!

This is not an exhaustive list, but it still covers the some essential concepts of UX Design. As evident from above developers are making design decisions on code level already and have the creativity and ability required to solve UX design problems.

Creating a digital product can be compared to a building a house where UI is like the outward appearance of a house. A user can recognize beauty in a UI, just like they can appreciate a beautiful house. But perhaps even more importantly, the real beauty in the design in both houses and programs are the things that are invisible to the uninitiated, but important nonetheless.Moreover, good user experience needs good performance which ultimately needs good code design. Also, there are many similarities between code designing and UX design and developer can easily transfer their understanding to UX design. Admittedly, a trained designer will probably be more effective at finding design solutions especially when it comes to problems related to visual design but UX is more than UI and good design is more about problem-solving than creating art – everyone including developers can contribute to it.

 

Ad Hoc London Team

Ad Hoc London explores audience needs in the UK. We routinely conduct UX and usability research in London, Southampton, Manchester, and Glasgow. We optimise information for laptops, tablets and smartphones so customers have the best possible user experience. We help clients benefit from understanding their audiences’ varying needs.

Product Design to UX

Physical products and UX at first seem worlds apart, so how could a tangible object have similarities with an online product? It seems ridiculous that these fields should have anything in common. However, the design process from start to finish in fact follows a very similar path. From experiencing both fields it is evident that all products must go through a long, complicated process to achieve the end result, whether that be a UX friendly display or tangible product.

product-design-ux-3
Product Design framework applied to UX Design

Product Designers are problem solvers; there are very few successful products that do not solve a problem the public face. The phrase: “Even if there is a gap in the market, it doesn’t mean there is a market in the gap” is constantly used by my lecturers as a reminder, you may have an innovative new idea but it does not mean that people will buy it or like it. My degree of Product Design with Professional Experience emphasises physical products and the different stages of launching a product onto market.

product-design-ux1
Similar Paths: UX and Product Design

We spend the year in 4 quarters:

· Research

· Ideation

· Development

· Launch

Put simply,

· We research the target market
· We come up with a range of ideas for the target market
· We then take forward one idea to develop
· Finally we launch this product onto the market

This framework however can absolutely be applied to UX design. The research phase is in fact very similar. Tailored research is vital in both; it must be bespoke for the target audience or intended user. This is perhaps the most important phase for UX, gathering user needs is essential to how something is developed. During my degree the research phase for product design included interviews and surveys displayed in a detailed report including personas, literature reviews and stats. Breaking down the problems people face everyday and whether there is a gap in the market for a product to aid the problem.

product-design-ux2
Some phases  that Product Design and UX Design follow are similar

In UX you must find out what is instinctual to the users, it is incredibly important to understand the user more than anything else. A researcher will do this by very similar methods of collecting quantitative and qualitative data. For both fields this is a vital stage, if overlooked you will miss what the public want or need therefore making the end products useless.

The Ideation and development phase are more specifically defined. This is where in Product Design we will sketch and model solutions selecting the most effective way the user reaches their goal; this phase is called Ideation. Being as creative as possible we invent new ideas and then begin a selection process. We then take the best idea to the Development phase and this is where the technical, science based side comes in using CAD technologically moving our product forward. Using manufacturing information, prototypes, reverse engineering and technical drawing to work out the details involved with product design. The ideation and development phases in UX although different would still follow a similar criteria, using idea generation, prototyping, testing and then ultimately product development.

Finally the Launch phase allows us to brand our product, learning about the legalities involved with this. A UX designer would go through an equivalent processes to ensure the the product is thoroughly tested and completely ready for launch.

These 4 phases can cover all steps involved in launching any kind of product, however these phases do not have to divide into separate deadlines as they would on a degree course. I believe it is important to have them intertwined and constantly active within the process. As UX has taught me; research should be constant, testing completed work and helping it progress further. If small problems are ignored early on they will progress into much larger problems later down the road. I aspire to learn more about UX in the months to come and to gain a larger range of skills involved with UX research and design.

 

Ad Hoc London Team

Ad Hoc London explores audience needs in the UK. We routinely conduct UX and usability research in London, Southampton, Manchester, and Glasgow. We optimise information for laptops, tablets and smartphones so customers have the best possible user experience. We help clients benefit from understanding their audiences’ varying needs.

My Journey into UX Design

The field of User experience (UX) design was largely unknown to me until fairly recently.  It is not something I was introduced to as part of my undergraduate psychology degree despite studying ‘Cyberpsychology’, which focuses on the study of human cognition and behavior within the ever expanding digital world. Although the ‘Cyberpsychology’ part of my course did not directly discuss UX design as a discipline (which now I think it should have) it opened my eyes to the effects that technology is having on our everyday lives, from the way we communicate to how we behave offline vs online. This is what initially drew my interest to the field of online research.

Dr. Susan Weinschenk UX
Dr. Susan Weinschenk on the psychologists view of UX Design

Yet, it wasn’t until shortly after I completed my degree that I first came face to face with the term UX design. I was scouring job sites (as all new graduates do) trying to find an area where I could combine my background in psychology with my new interests in online research. Admittedly, I was skeptical at first as to how UX design and psychology were intrinsically related. However, once I began researching the field more thoroughly, I immediately recognize the overlap.

I discovered that like empirical psychological research, good UX design relies on data gathered from qualitative and quantitative research methods such as interviews, observations and surveys. Having a background in psychology placed me in a great position to start practicing UX, as not only had I built a strong foundation around these research practices, but I had also (without realizing it) studied many of the same theories and concepts that underpin much of the research that is done within UX.

For example, I found that motivation, perception, memory, attention and cognitive biases must all be considered when observing/testing users. I also found that the only way to consider these concepts in relation to different users is to be empathetic. Thus, the ability to show empathy and understand another person’s situation and experience has been essential to my role as a UX researcher. Empathy is another UX skill I have been developing unwittingly for a number of years through my previous work as a student mentor. When I came to realize its importance within UX research, I knew that this was the right career choice for me.

designbook

One strange aspect of being a UX researcher that I have grown to enjoy is explaining what it is to other people. As UX is a relatively unknown field it is very common for others to ask what it is. Although explaining what UX is to laymen can be a hard task at times, I get a great sense of satisfaction and achievement from another person having an ‘aha’ moment when they finally come to understand what I do (I get the same feeling when a user instinctively knows how to work an interface).

I’ve found that one of the most effective ways of explaining UX to another person is to discuss the design of everyday objects and why they are designed that way. Once they realize that everything from their car to their Xbox controller has mountains of usability research behind it they often think ‘well yeah I guess it does make sense to do the same thing for websites’.

UX Design
Understanding UX Design

A good example of this was when I was discussing my new job with my brother and I was using one of the many definitions that I had picked up online to describe it to him (such as these UX Design, UX Research), but he was still finding it hard to understand. The conversation then moved on to his new car and how it was so much easier for him to start and stop the engine using a button rather than turning a key and that’s when I said that’s the outcome of UX research, that’s what I do, but think online…his ‘Aha’ moment then followed shortly after.

This is also when I realized that UX practitioners had been recycling findings from fields like ergonomics and human factors and applying them to online environments, which only enhanced my interest in the field.

Looking to the future I’m excited to see what new challenges I’ll face in my role as a UX researcher and how the field will evolve alongside new technologies. Also, having spoken to others in the field and seeing how enthusiastic they are (even after 10 years) I’m very confident that I have made the right career choice.

 

Gary Maccabe

Junior UX Researcher with a background in psychology and social media management. My interest in UX design stems from my time studying Cyberpsychology and human cognition as part of my BSc. (Hons) Psychology degree. Although it is still early in my career I have provided many large organisations with UX services and solutions. This experience has given me a solid understanding of what good UX design is and how to deliver it.