UX Kuali

The stuff we don't have to know but want to know

Faulty Assumptions About ‘Digital Natives’

by Kevin Makice

This is now a couple weeks stale, but a study conducted by the ALA surfaces important insights about the digital skills of students. A two-year, five-campus ethnographic study took a look at student use and perception of libraries and librarians. They found that students overused surface digital tools like Google and rarely consulted librarians for assistance in research. Furthermore, librarians (and professors) may have unreasonable expectations of the research skills and practices available to current students, making any interaction that does happen intimidating and ultimately unproductive:

“If we quietly hope to convert all students to the liberal ideals of higher education, we may miss opportunities to connect with a pragmatic student body,” wrote Mary Thill, a humanities librarian at Northeastern Illinois. “… By financial necessity, many of today’s students have limited time to devote to their research.” Showing students the pool and then shoving them into the deep end is more likely to foster despair than self-reliance, Thill wrote. “Now more than ever, academic librarians should seek to ‘save time for the reader.’ ”

While this is a specific study about academic research as it pertains to libraries, the research also generalizes to challenge a wider assumption about the effect growing up surrounded by digital material has had on young adults. The notion of  ‘digital natives’ is that the way humans learn and communicate has fundamentally changed for a generation that has never known a world without email. As a result, designers (and others impacting the design of project) presume a certain level of literacy about digital tools and even a preference for new communication methods. As Steve Kolowich writes in IHE, “Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.”

The research will be published in a paper this fall, “Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know.” The full IHE coverage of the work is worth reading, particularly in the discussion of how this points to a systemic approach to addressing the problem of digital literacy (i.e., professors and librarians need to work together to cultivate a better relationship with information).

Inside Higher Ed (August 22, 2011, by Steve Kolowich)

Investing in Conversation

by Kevin Makice

While word-of-mouth is associated mostly with product- or service-oriented companies looking to expand their market base, social recommendation is something that can be leveraged in almost any project. When your active users are also evangelists guiding their networks into your system, communities are a potent means of increasing personal investment in its success.

Rather than rely solely on the content and experience in a website, designers can intentionally facilitate community interaction by making it easy to create artifacts, augment and validate information, and impose a level of small-group trust that no organization will be able to duplicate on its own. As Eric Fisher writes,

Communities can be very useful, almost like a buffer between us and the world. In the wild, they’re an evolutionary defense mechanism against danger: a larger group is more powerful than an individual and the individual can look to the group for social cues on what to do. For us as people, having a community is more of an emotional attachment: we define it by the close people we surround ourselves with—our friends and family. We know them, we like them, they know us and they like us. We share thoughts, feelings, experiences and we turn to them for love and support throughout our lives because we trust them.

Fisher describes social design in three parts: your identity, the community around your, and the conversation in between. All three parts need nurturing.

For a project like Kuali Student — where clients are entire institutions who make the huge decision to migrate to new tools — the value of social design is not in having students or faculty rave about the experience to their friends outside their university. It is more about finding ways to inject the trust flowing through small communities into the perceived value of the whole system. If students are empowered to recommend and affect the way courses are presented, for example, KS could be seen as an advisor, not just a registrar. This adds value to the investment by the institution, making the decision-makers happier and more likely to promote their good decision to decision-makers on other campuses.

Fish of the Bay (May 3, 2011, by Eric Fisher)

UX as Continuity Managers

by Kevin Makice

In reflecting on a 3-year-old best practices article by Agile expert Jeff Patton, Jared Spool recalled one way to think of the UX role in the Agile process:

Jeff mentioned that user experience designers on the Agile team end up adopting a similar role to the person who gets the credit of “Continuity” in a film. It becomes their job to make sure the final experience makes sense, even though the order of construction was not linear. This is a huge challenge and one that has come to the forefront as more teams move to an Agile development method.

I found that description compelling. At Indiana, we’re taught a framework (PRInCiPleS) that values non-linear exploration to build a strong argument following a presentation order. In other words, we are encouraged to work simultaneously and continually at any stage in the development of a design argument, with an eye toward selecting the most compelling of that work to support linear logic. Agile teams working “out of order” can benefit from someone(s) reviewing those parts in the context of the big picture view, suggesting new directions and activities to fill the remaining holes in the design logic.

Jeff Patton is giving a virtual seminar on the subject of UX and Agile communication through story maps. Register today to also get access to his UX Agile overview.

User Interface Engineering (August 17, 2011, by Jared Spool)

The Skills of ‘Digital Natives’ are not Innate

by Kevin Makice

Research conducted by the Open University on so-called ‘digital natives’ — young people whose pervasive exposure to digital information altered their brains, so they learn differently — and concluded that there’s no proof such skills are innate.

Is there really a distinct group of younger people who are not only easy with technology because they’ve grown up with it, but actually think and learn differently as a result? The idea gained quite a bit of traction after Marc Prensky wrote about the idea ten years ago in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, with other writers weighing in, such as Bradley Jorgensen with Generation X and Generation Y.

Since then, the concept has often been questioned, and even Prensky’s own ideas have changed somewhat. The notion persists in the public imagination though. After all, it seems to bear the fatal hallmark of “common sense”. On one side of the divide is the young person who uses technology like she drives her car, without the need for conscious attention to the process. On the other side sits a grizzled and mature individual, maybe a would-be ‘silver surfer’, frowning impotently at a keyboard and calling for his granddaughter.

These personas are the default assumption for most designers and policy makers, presuming that both ends of the age spectrum have natural gifts or barriers to use of digital tools. The nature of OU’s enrollment (anyone can apply) gave the institution a pool of 7,000 participants to study, ranging in age from 21 to 100. Over 4,000 responded to the questionnaire asking about attitudes and educational use of the tools.

“We found no evidence for any discontinuity in technology use around the age of 30 as would be predicted by the Net Generation and Digital Natives hypothesis,” says the report. What they did find was an association between attitudes toward technology and approaches to studying, regardless of age.

Merlin John Online (August 15, 2011, by Gerald Haigh)

What Is UX (As Defined by Job Hunts)?

by Kevin Makice

Onward Search — a staffing company focusing on interactive, Internet marketing, and mobile professionals — created a UX Careers Guide that shows where the jobs are, what people are getting paid, skill sets, and tools UX professionals need to know. The site has seen a 171% increase in UX job requests in the past year. The graphic also has a nice, concise description of the kinds of specialties under the UX umbrella.

UX Career Guide

© 2011 Onward Search
This graphic is also downloadable as a PDF

Source: Onward Search

ARGfest-o-con 2011 & Experience Design

by Kevin Makice

I was fortunate to have an opportunity not only to speak at ARGfest, but also to gain a deeper understanding about the creativity and process that drives alternate reality game development. While it is unlikely there will be priority made to develop game mechanics into the base Kuali Student installation — a few years from now, maybe? — there are lessons to be learned and inspiration to be gained from the project work in the ARG community.

Some highlights …

Getting Buy-In

In the “ARGs for Marketing” panel discussion, the focus was on how to sell a grumpy exec on the value that can be gained by investing resources into an interactive game. The way David Varela, Sarah Smith-Robbins and others talked about the process of getting buy-in is quite familiar to UX designers trying to evangelize the value of active stakeholder participation in system development. “If there were a formula, it would be formulaic,” said Varela. Whereas media starts with a script, transmedia begins with a strategy. Smith-Robbins emphasized the importance of having the execs play a game, to understand what they are asking to build, so expectations of the experience and the outcomes are clear.

For a game to have a chance to generate real engagement, it has to be fun and as free from the “middleware of lawyers” and oversight as possible. Communities, when empowered, will police themselves and reward well-designed, enjoyable games with positive personal investment. That investment must be mutual, too. “It is interesting to look at the ghost towns left after games had ended,” Smith-Robbins said. “Those brands started the conversation, but they aren’t interested in continuing them.”

Generating Artifacts

John Maccabee gave an interesting demonstration of how quickly a simple story and a few puzzles and props can generate new social objects. Maccabee is the CEO of CityMystery (for some background, read this interview), the creators of the first museum ARG. His talk began with a short historical science fiction story involving time travel, but it quickly involved a large helium balloon, magnets, glue, a fork, and a texting-based puzzle that required close listening and some web surfing. In 25 minutes, that activity spawned digital pictures, a clear record of progress to monitor later, new connections between participants, and a giant souvenir balloon that gets a second life as a kid plaything in our living room (including a free advertisement to all the people who saw us tote the balloon home that something strange just happened).

Game artifacts (I’m avoiding using the term “swag” since one of the Saturday talks muddied the water a bit), whether they be digital or physical, are ways to embody both memory and value of the game experience. Geoff May of 4D Fiction curated a museum of the physical artifacts, an impressive display of past gaming that rekindled memories and sparked new conversation around them. Designers of any system should understand that participants in any experience will look for similar opportunities to save value in this way.

Watching the Doing
John Maccabee’s short transmedia story spawns new social objects

Game Mechanics for Storytellers

Studio Cypher‘s Ian Pottmeyer, one of the people instrumental in bringing ARGfest to Bloomington, gave a talk outlining some of the basic terms and considerations when designing a game. The ARG community is brimming with quality storytellers and puzzle experts, but there may be room for improvement on the nuts and bolts of game design. Ian’s advice includes:

  • Provide something for everyone, to recognize that people participate for different reasons
  • Make clear the options a player has when deciding how to participate, especially when the interaction is a temporary deviation from the normal set of activities
  • Make use of expected skill sets of the players
  • ARGs are cooperative, but there are different ways to design cooperation (e.g., gating vs. tethering)
  • “Victory is not the same as fun” … provide small conclusions within a world of never-ending stories
  • Failure should be informative (show players how they can improve)

If one considers almost any development project, many of the above concepts map directly to notions of feedback, contextual inquiry, social computing, and need-based design.

Gaming in Education

Ted Castronova (Indiana) and Drew Davidson (CMU) gave the educators’ perspective on gamification within the classroom. For Castronova, experimentation with points-based learning ended in disaster. He claims that the gaming concepts that map to what students hate about classroom learning (player interaction, relative standards, delayed rewards, game masters, risk, hard mode, listening) don’t lend themselves to gamification in learning. What they do like, according to Castronova, are rules, absolute standards, work grinds, restarts, and agency. “They don’t want to be punished for mistakes” without a chance to try it again. The big insight from Davidson — who had to endure emergency dental work to give his talk — is that games should be “snackable,” able to fit easily into our existing lives and be completed during the small chunks of available time. He also makes a claim that “cheating is learning,” with a caveat that learning opportunity can still be designed.

Kuali Student isn’t addressing class content or structure, but these are helpful lessons to make present in understanding contemporary student expectations of engagement with their education.

Overcoming Challenges

The afternoon panel picked up where the morning one left off, talking about the problems one encounters when building transmedia projects. Rob Jagnow, Andrea Phillips, and Tony Walsh reiterated on some common themes, like supporting multiple audiences and empowering players to collectively shape their own experiences. Little rewards show that a contribution is being made by the community, that they matter to the puppetmasters, and helps players invest more deeply in the experience. “The illusion of player agency can be good, if it is a good illusion,” said one of the panelists. Empowering players also means letting go of a set action plan, and having multiple backup plans at the ready. Most importantly: provide an out-of-game backchannel to talk to the players, where honesty is critical (“The characters in the game say This Is Not A Game. It is not meant to be a hoax.”).

I compiled a list of participants in the #argfest hashtag on Twitter, giving anyone interested in talking to active members of the ARG community about 50 possible contacts.

The Combine 2011

by Kevin Makice

The Combine is a display of talent and entrepreneurship around five main themes: creativity, community, culture, capital and code. The speakers and activities over the three-day event emphasize the people, ideas and environments that drive technology.

Three speakers have already been announced:

  • MERLIN MANN — Independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster
  • MICAH BALDWIN — CEO, Graphic.ly
  • ADE OLONOH — CEO fnd Founder, Formspring

Micah spoke at the inaugural conference last year.

The Combine begins on Thursday, October 20, with an open pitch session to match startup ideas with investors and a Tech Cocktail party at IU Alumni Hall. An Ignite Bloomington (#6) follows the day of speakers at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre, and the weekend closes with a day of workshops.

Early Bird tickets for the conference events are $185, available through September 17.

I’m biased because this is taking place in my hometown (Bloomington, Indiana) and was a blast when we organized it for the first time last year. I do think that The Combine will be a great event for designers to attend. It is a chance to (a) support the Midwestern tech, business, and creative communities, and (b) influence and be influenced by the other non-design parts of the development process.

Twitter: @thecombineorg
Website: http://www.thecombine.org/