SXSW Sessions Preview: Prototyping for Wearable Design and Creating a Timeless Experience

posted by: EchoUser

Here at EchoUser, we have so many innovative minds that we were lucky enough to submit five ideas for next year’s SXSW. Last week we heard from Aaron Rich, EchoUser’s VP of operations and co-founder on UX as a buzzword, and now we dive a little deeper with Seiko Itakura and Yalu Ye on their submissions about wearable prototypes and timeless experiences, respectively. Both designers want to bring awareness to how we can design better, more productive experiences for people.

First up, a quick chat with Seiko.

With the popularity of wearables growing tremendously, but no clear path to what makes one good – it’s time we discuss what the “wearable” experience really should be and to create the one that people will actually enjoy. As Seiko knows from past experience, it’s not an easy task, which is why no one has found the special sauce yet. But, she also knows there are things designers could be doing to better reach users’ goals – like prototyping.

Why is prototyping wearables so important?
Anytime a new category is developed, as we’re seeing with wearables, almost without exception, the first iterations are going to fail. Until a design standard is created, companies are going to struggle. But, there is a path to quicker acceptance – that’s where prototyping comes in. Really, prototyping should be an important element for all designs, but it’s especially vital for wearables because the standard isn’t there yet. Wearable as a category also intersects so many different industries – tech, fashion, fitness, productivity, security – that it’s near impossible to get it right the first time. The usability and experience has to be just right.

By creating prototypes, designers are able to test designs on users multiple times before developing the final product, saving huge amounts of time and money instead of building a product only to realize it doesn’t meet user expectations.

Why are you the right person to give this talk?
Over the past year, I spent a majority of my time interviewing a wide variety of wearable users to find out about their experiences with watches, glasses and fitness devices. I learned about the functions and features that people deemed most useful, and the things that didn’t necessarily work for them. Through this process, I started to design my own wearable device and recognized the importance of testing all the different variables at hand. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m the go-to wearable expert around EchoUser and know I have the knowledge to help other companies uncover how to better design their wearables as well.

What is one the pitfalls you’ve seen with wearables?
While I think activity trackers are actually useful, I see a lot of problems with the design. From the research I conducted, I found that even if people loved their activity tracker, they eventually stopped wearing them – for the same reason they stopped using a regular pedometer to begin with. The initial idea of monitoring fitness and health sounds interesting but, when the data collection itself doesn’t yield results, people get bored. Additionally, this specific type of wearable is most helpful if you keep it on 24 hours a day, but when it runs out of batteries, users take it off to charge and forget about it. I think there could be a better design for re-charging these, and prototyping could definitely have an impact here.

See Seiko’s submission and VOTE here!

Next, Yalu talks to us about creating a timeless experience…

…and no, she’s not talking about your wedding photos.

What she is talking about is designing experience of products and services that lasts more than a few months. We all know the initial excitement we can have around a new iPhone app, piece of software or new device, but most of them won’t be top of mind in a year let alone five, ten or 20 years. It takes a special recipe to develop a true timeless experience. But, as Yalu points out, Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.

Why do we need to discuss “timeless experiences”?
In our “everyone has a smartphone” world, new products, services, and apps are being introduced daily, if not hourly. But, with all of these becoming outdated so quickly – how useful and meaningful can they really be? We need to stop thinking about what the cool thing now is, and start thinking about designing experiences that will last into the future and have sustaining impact.

For example – think about the telephone. While the form and mechanism have changed since it “launched” in 1876, the core experience of communicating with people remotely has outlasted time. My goal is to show how UX design can help create meaningful experiences that not only resonate with users now, but will outlast its founder too.

What’s an example of a “timeless product” that didn’t work?
While I think portable data storage devices (i.e. floppy disks, magnetic tapes, hard drives) seemed to be timeless at one point, they are starting to phase out with our technological advances. The core idea behind these devices is to store invisible data on visible, yet fragile, devices. Although very important devices in the past, they are not reliable enough to stand up against cloud storage. Think who want to carry multiple devices of data worrying about its damage, loss or heaviness? We are still looking for ways to store our invisible data, but the experience of storing it in different portable devices is or will be left behind time.

See Yalu’s submission and VOTE here!

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Asteroid Design Jam at EchoUser

posted by: Amelia Altavena

At EchoUser HQ this week, our office held a design jam of armageddon-sized proportions. Designers and researchers from EU, along with designers from Further, SpaceGAMBIT, and Premise, were given the following challenge:

“How do we distill dense and complex asteroid data into useful, interesting, compelling, and intelligible information for the general public?”

NASA Minor Planet Center‘s Jose Luis Galache, our representing scientist and astronomer, gave the designers background on the data available. Essentially, NASA has a ton of data (size! composition! orbit! etc!) on over 60,000 objects. Great…now what do we do with it?

After digesting both our morning coffee and the challenge, we broke out into 4 teams and spent 2 hours conceptualizing and brainstorming ideas on how we could potentially bring this complicated data to the general public. As a group of non-scientific designers and researchers, we started with what we normally do in such design quandaries: learning about the users. Luckily, we were our target users!

Here’s what we came up with:

Team 1: (aste)Roid Rage!
This was my team! We focused on kids and the idea that we could trick them into learning about asteroids by turning the data into a super fun game. Our game (Asteroid Rage!) lets the user gain control of nearby asteroids (NEAs) using nukes, gyros, and white paint to attack friends. Users earn currency in the game by researching, observing, and analyzing much like an astronomer would. Currency can also be used to build asteroid defenses to protect your home base. Ideally the game would create a community of aspiring scientists and informed youngsters. Future versions would include mining, building custom asteroids, and the ability to launch asteroids at Minecraft environments.

Team 2: BadAsteroids
This team approached the challenge from a higher level by first identifying each type of persona that represented the array of users that make up “the public.” Their three levels then informed the design of a basic platform where a user could drill into the information — and, at the very highest level, actually contribute information as well as develop apps that interact with the data in meaningful ways. Their solution engages everyone from the curious science student to the amateur astronomer.

Team 3: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Asteroid — The Winners!
During the initial briefing, JL brought up the fact that traffic on the Minor Planet Center’s website always spikes whenever an asteroid makes the news — such as the one that blew up over Russia last year. Based on this nugget of insight, Team HGttA decided that the MPC’s website could be enhanced with a more whimsical and innovative approach to the data. What if there was some sort of sidebar on the MPC’s website that looked similar to the trip-planning widget used for sites like Kayak and Expedia? Essentially, a user can “book” a trip on a nearby asteroid (currently there are 5 upcoming “flights”) to better understand things like its flight path and how many NEAs are around at any given time, connecting the user to the data in a very human way. This unconventional idea won, and it’s no surprise given how cool it would be to allow a user to hitch a virtual ride around the solar system on a giant asteroid!

Team 4: Asteroid Runners
Also taking a page from the unconventional playbook, the Asteroid Runners proposed that the best way to get the public engaged with data is by pulling them out from behind their computers and onto the pavement. In this asteroid race, runners would be the asteroids with the goal to destroy Earth! Obstacles (Jupiter, the Asteroid Belt, etc.) would pop up over the course of this Ragnar Relay-style race. But alas, Earth is not totally doomed. There would be public participation as well for non-runners who, by answering trivia questions, could potentially save Earth from the asteroid-runners. The race would raise awareness as well as potentially raise funding for NEA research.

All in all, the jam was a success. The ideas were creative, inspiring, and definitely a springboard for integrating alternative ways of thinking into our upcoming Asteroid Hackathon event in October. For such a beastly problem as presenting a wealth of difficult data to the public, the jammers accomplished quite a bit in only 2 hours!

Can you spot our judge, Jose Luis?

Want even more? Along with our Asteroid Hackathon event in October, our very own Mick McGee and Amelia Altavena, submitted a SXSW talk to explore the topic even further and dive into the next generation of asteroids. SXSW serves as the perfect venue to replace the visions of blasting pixelated rocks in archaic video games with real ideas on how to use big data visualization and crowdsourcing to save the world from planet-destroying asteroids.

But – we can’t get to Austin without your help. Vote for Mick and Amelia to give them a chance to discuss more at SXSW Interactive next year!

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Meet the EchoUsers: Laura Chang

posted by: EchoUser

As you all saw, we recently announced that we’re opening our first outpost in Washington, D.C. We couldn’t be more excited to expand our presence across the country. What better way to celebrate our new locale than by getting to know Laura Chang, EchoUser East’s captain, a little better.

Without further ado, we give you this month’s Meet the EchoUsers:

1. How did you know you wanted to work in design?

Entering Stanford as a freshman, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Looking back at it now, I think that’s a common story among designers. We straddle the line between the left and right brain, being creative but also very practical and analytical. When you have to pick one area to focus on, like a college major, it becomes really tough.

As I looked into majors that might fit my interests, I heard about a program in the engineering school called Product Design, which blended mechanical engineering and art. I started taking a few classes and fell in love with the design process. I loved the idea of creating objects and experiences with purpose. I also loved the idea that this process could be applied to almost any industry. I graduated knowing how to think about the world and its challenges, instead of just knowing some subset of facts about it.

2. After college, how did you take your new found love of design to the real world?

When I graduated, I knew I liked design, but I didn’t see myself working on physical products. The digital world felt more accessible and pervasive, and moved at a faster pace. After an internship with T-Mobile in Berlin, I came back to the States and joined Google as member of their Google Apps for Business support operations team.

Right away, I found it really easy to see value in the business products Google was developing, and was amazed by how quickly they were transforming the enterprise. My goal was to improve the customer support side of Google Apps for Business, which included streamlining help platforms like the online help center and email support channels, reducing the number of issues reported, and optimizing internal workflows to deliver fast and high quality support. I had to look at the system as a whole in order to improve the customer experience – an excellent design exercise. I soon found that the best way to improve the customer experience was to start with the user; I analyzed and funneled user feedback to the support and product teams so that it became clear how the product experience was affecting its users. For example, because we regularly received so many questions about setting up accounts, I focused on helping product managers and engineers improve the setup experience altogether, and prevent issues from happening in the first place.

3. What brought you to EchoUser then?

Working on an operations team allowed me to improve one system within the larger Google environment. But, what made the most sense to me was trying to improve the product itself, and not just the operation surrounding it. I wanted to improve things upstream, where the customer was interacting with the product, instead of downstream, when they needed to contact support. That’s when I started exploring the more traditional UX side of development at Google. I found incredible mentors on the design team who let me take on design projects of my own, and I ultimately decided that I wanted to work full time in the UX design industry. I had a dream of working at design agency, and now, here I am.

4. You’ve had the experience of working in-house at large companies and now within a consulting agency, what do you see as the main difference?

Working in-house, you get very attached to the product you’re working on. At Google, I worked on one product for years, seeing it evolve and improve, and got to know it inside and out. I also got to see how all of the internal stakeholders worked together to develop and launch a product from beginning to end, and experience all of the joys and pains that went along with it. But working at an agency, you get to focus on honing your design skills, and apply them to all sorts of scenarios. You have the opportunity to work on multiple products and see many different approaches from so many people – a really good learning tool at this stage of my career.

I’m lucky to have had both experiences.

5. Where do you see the future of design going?

We have some pretty incredible technology platforms on our hands. But the real need is to take a step back and understand the broader context of our environment and goals before slapping together another gadget we may or may not need. Designers will need to think more about systems than single interfaces. For example, a hot topic is the Internet of Things – making physical objects more intelligent and interconnected. Does this mean we should go and wire up everything in the house, just because we can? We will have to think on a broader scale, not just about what people do on a screen, but how people and objects move and interact within a system – on the road, in a field, at the mall, in a hospital.

6. What advice do you have for people just entering the industry?

It’s an industry where you can’t replace experience. It’s not enough to just read a book – you have to learn by doing. The best way to get started is to do your own design projects in your free time – make your own website, redesign an app, rethink an everyday user experience- and get feedback. When I started out, I redesigned websites for my friends, and offered to make mocks for my coworkers – all for free! Another valuable thing I did was talk to designers I admired, and asked them to teach me their ways. I would not have gotten anywhere without them.

7. If you could re-design any experience, what would you pick and why?

I come from a family of physicians, so over the years I’ve heard a lot about healthcare’s inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement. Especially given all of the recent healthcare system changes, it’s become very confusing for people to navigate coverage and treatment options. I’d love to design a more patient-focused healthcare experience that’s more transparent about what you’re signing up for, what it’ll probably cost, and what caveats you need to be aware of. While I realize it’s a very complex system, I still think there’s a lot we can do to demystify it.

8. You brought up the new office and moving across country. What are you most excited about in D.C and what are you going to miss most about San Francisco?

I’m going to miss a lot about SF – my co-workers especially. I think of SF as the Hollywood for technology, where everyone has big dreams and wants to make it big, so there’s of course a lot of energy and excitement in a place like that.

But, with that, I’m really excited about the new adventure here in DC. On a personal level, I’m from the area, so it’s great to come home after being away for 9 years. It’s kind of a rediscovery for me – I get to revisit those museums I used to love as a kid, and reconnect with old friends, but also explore the growing tech industry, new neighborhoods, and new companies. There’s a lot that’s unfamiliar to me in the challenges of opening a new office and exploring the many different industries out here, but I couldn’t be more excited to have this very unique opportunity.

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