Monday, May 24, 2010

What Are User Profiles? A UX Perspective.

Set up screen showing some "user profiles"

"User Profiles" have recently become a buzz word around my company, largely because of a new feature implemented in this year's (2010) product release. We actually have different UIs that we show a customer based on what kind of information they want to see from our product, if they are non-technical, average, or expert, or if they are a parent, gamer, etc. This approach has been seen as revolutionary in the industry, and we've gotten kudos from reviewers.

The problem with using the term "User Profile" to represent this product strategy is that it becomes very easy to conflate it with the UI research term, as well as others in the same family - personas, user types, scenarios, etc. Here's an example of how this conflation has consequences.

While working on designing the next-generation UI for another of our security products, I got the following email from the product manager:

"About the profiles, I heard people commenting that a classification as Basic, Intermediate, Advanced would be difficult for the users. They will never place themselves into the right category. I am concerned about the naming of the groups."

From this comment, we can interpret a misconception with potentially grave consequences. The product manager is making one of the fundamental mistakes of user interface design - that the "skin" of the product will reflect literally the "guts." In other words, we literally ask a user to choose what their profile is, and then if we show them a different UI based upon one's self-identified technical skill level (as we've done in the consumer product), the user will have some indication of this in what they see as they interact with the UI. The problem is that what I call a "user profile" is NOT the same as a custom UI based on a user's profile.

Here is my reply to the product manager, which does a good job of summarizing my feelings about what user profiles/personas should be used for during design:

"I wanted to clarify about what the user profiles should be used for, and what the process should look like. You mentioned that you were concerned about the naming of the groups. I agree with you that a customer should not be put in the place of having to identify themselves as a basic, intermediate, or advanced user, with no basis for judgment or the outcome of their choice. Actually, what we mean by the term 'user profiles' is more like a design research method, or even more accurately, a thinking tool.

For now, we should think of the categories as similar to the categories that come out of our market research segmentation. We would never have the customer identify themselves as per such categories ("Beta Mom" or "Technophile") or even see or be aware of them as marketing campaigns are created. In the UI design world, these profiles are useful because they allow us to create an idealized case, and continue to ask ourselves throughout the design process, “Would a person from this segment understand how to do x?” “What would they want to see on their dashboard?" "What would 'Joe 6 Pack' think of this screen?" etc. This way we ensure that we are meeting the needs of a variety of users.

These questions still remain to be answered:

  • Should we make multiple different UIs, similar to the consumer product’s approach, or is this even appropriate for our target user group?
  • Should we instead, suggest different modules to be included in the dashboard?
  • Should we address the needs of less technical users with things like Wizards, but show only one UI to everyone?

By creating user profiles that allow us to classify and personify our target users, we can continue to put ourselves in their shoes and ask whether certain approaches will meet their needs.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

How to make a light-up (LED) hula hoop

A couple quick disclaimers about this project. First of all, it's not easy. It took me about 6 months of having all the materials to actually muster up the courage to take on the project. I *do* have to say that the effort is well worth the reward of this amazingly entertaining toy. Also, this is not a project for the novice crafter - you have to do scary things like solder LEDs and battery assemblies, figure out how many ohms of resistance your circuit requires, dremel custom-fitted holes, and get together some hard-to-find items like translucent poly tubing and color-change LEDs.

Second disclaimer is that this is by no means an original idea or concept - tons of people have made light-up hoops, and you could even spend about $175 on one online if you don't want to make your own. Rather, I am posting this because I noticed a paucity of clear, coherent how-to's, and I think in the process of building this version of a hoop we discovered/invented some neat shortcuts for doing things.

And so...on to the directions.

Step 1. Assemble materials.

To make my hoop, I used:
  • translucent poly tubing (3/4 inch) from Home Depot, approx. 12 feet (depends on your personal preference)
  • a tubing connector,
  • 30 white LEDs, and 6 color change LEDs
  • 9V battery
  • 9V battery connector
  • soldering iron
  • solder
  • heat-shrink tubing
  • heat gun
  • a dremel
  • bunches of unicorn and star stickers

Step 1 1/2. Cut corners (I mean figuratively).

By this, I mean, get all materials in a state as close to the final one you will need them in. For me, this meant the LEDs - why solder together 30 LEDs when you can buy a pre-strung set for $8.99 on eBay? I made things a little more complicated because I wanted to intersperse 6 color change LEDs into the string of white ones, so I had to solder them in at junctions throughout. But I'm getting ahead of myself. One could easily use an LED set "off the shelf."

Step 2. Make your LED string.

As I mentioned, I used a pre-assembled string (arguably the cheapest way to get LEDs anyway), and interspersed 6 color change LEDs. I also needed to detach the string from the AA battery pack that originally came with it. This is because the most streamlined way to power the hoop is by using a single 9V battery.

Step 3. Power your LEDs.

We did some circuitry to power our 36 LEDs on a 9V battery. First, we attached a 9V battery connector to the string. We also needed to add in some resistance, as 9V is a little too much for those LEDs to handle, and they could burn out. I wish I could tell you the exact number of ohms we ended up using, but like any good real-world physics problem, we quickly abandoned the V=IR formula when it didn't work. We ended up using trial-and-error with a resistor multi-pack I had from Radio Shack. THAT worked - (with apologies to Mr. Dhillon, my AP physics teacher with the *almost* incomprehensible Indian accent...he did teach me well - hey, I remembered the formula!).

Step 4. Cut a battery holder.

After a couple hours of trying out various fancy and streamlined battery holder scenarios, we arrived on a simple ghetto version that gets the job done. We dremeled a rectangular hole into the outer edge of one end of the tubing (allowing for about 1 1/2 inch where the tubing connector will push in). This is kind of confusing in words so here are some sketches/pictures:

Diagram of Battery Assembly
Photo of Battery Assembly

Step 5. Thread your string.

We used an old electrician's trick to get the LED string into the hoop. We took a long piece of yarn, tied a nut to one end, and the end of the LED string to the other. Then, we dropped the nut into one end of the hoop, and it quickly slid through the tube, allowing us to catch it and pull the LEDs through. We secured one end of the LEDs to the other (forming the circle) using a safety pin. See picture for a close up:

Step 6. Connect up the hoop and seal the battery.

Once everything was hooked up and the battery assembly in place, we connected the hoop using the plastic tubing connector. Because this is an extremely tight fit, we used the heat gun to heat up either end of the hoop right before we slid the connector in (makes life soooo much easier!).

The size for the battery holder that we cut is very precise, which is great, because it holds the battery in place very firmly, and it only sticks out about 1/4 inch from the outside edge. I've been pleasantly surprised because I don't notice either the uneven weight, or the added bulk from the battery, when using the hoop.

I also sealed up the battery assembly using a piece of clear duct tape. This isn't the world's best way of doing things, because I have to un-tape the battery assembly every time I want to turn the hoop on or off (I do this by detaching the battery from the battery holder). An ambitious crafter could perhaps add a switch to the circuit assembly, but I got too lazy and I wanted to play with my hoop as fast as possible.

Step 7. Glamor-fy!

I wanted to add a little personality and bling to my hoop, so I covered it in unicorn/flower/star stickers. I used stickers that were plastic and semi-transparent so they would be somewhat weather-proof and show light behind them. I've seen other hoops with gaffer tape looped around them, that is a neat effect too.

Sticker glamour

Note the pink unicorn

Step 8. Play somewhere dark.

(This is self-explanatory.)

Some other tips about enjoying your light-up hooping experience.
  1. Hoop somewhere you can watch your reflection in a window.
  2. Don't worry about having to know how to do fancy tricks and acrobatics. Seriously, doing anything with a light-up hoop looks damn cool!
  3. Have somebody take pictures of you using your hoop. It's so neat to see yourself with a swirly light-stream "hoop skirt!"
Wearin' my "hoop skirt!"

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: A big thank you to my fantastic husband Shane, for his amazing talents with custom holders, dremmeling, electronics, connectors, and his infinite encouragement in doing silly fun projects!