Class final project: smoke and mirrors

The presentation of our final project managed to compensate for a complete lack of quantitative data with visual humor and gadgets. I’m still shaking my head.

Note: Beware this post is pretty much rather stream of consciousness, and worse was typed in a couple different sittings, so its not even the same conciousness.

The Project

Our final class project was an interactive prototype of a bike computer / navigation system. We split up into semi-randomly assigned groups of four, where the group consisted of one person who had self identified as a researcher, two people who self identified as good at design, and one who self-identified as a good prototyper. I made the mistake of identifying myself as a prototyper.

Some Pictures

Before the rest of this rather long winded post, I’d better throw up some pictures so you know what the hell I’m talking about. Here’s a couple of screenshots from the flash prototype.

The map and stats screen:
Map and Stats Screen

The trip planning wizard:
Map and Stats Screen

The team

My teammates were all undergraduates. That presented a problem constantly, because they had a different definition of last minute than I did. The class was on Tuesday night, so at the latest, I needed to get things done Monday night, preferably Sunday afternoon and night. They seemed to love working through monday and tuesday, ignoring this whole job thing of mine. The procrastination thing really did a number on my schedule ultimately.

The schedule

First week a two page research doc plus a conceptual map and a ui structure was due. Week two screen templates and renderings are due. Week three a prototype and presentation are due, along with usability testing. I looked at that and immediately knew that life as a prototyper was going to be rough unless we got ahead of the curve. Did that happen?

Not so much. I don’t know that it would have anyway, but any dreams I harbored of getting ahead were fucked because two people went away for passover. One from wednesday to sunday, the other like thursday to monday night. Hows that for a kick in the pants.

Week one

This week we met briefly a couple of times to get research going. We did have some really good ideas, some of which ultimately fell through the cracks (which i was reminded of later in other team’s presentations) – but the conceptual diagram and structure map were pretty much phoned in because no real meeting of the minds had happened yet. Not a good start.

Week two

This is a little fuzzy, but I don’t recall getting off to a good start. I think there was a little spurt of design before everyone disappeared, and there was a lot of design generated and shared through email and the dreaded blackboard system, but I still feel like things would have been easier and the results better if we were in the same place. There were some good ideas floating around, as well as some not so good ones. The design was always a little too frilly for an embedded device that should have been centered around simple information delivery.

I spent quite a bit of that easter/passover weekend designing the visual identity of our team, creating a rendering of our hardware and creating a splash movie in flash before finally jumping in to redesign our stats screen (things like speed, heart rate, etc), which as the time was this hard to read muddle of data – it was in rows and columns, but it wasn’t chunked well and the units and category labels had as much weight as the actual data, which clearly would be more important to see as the labels should melt away for an experienced user.

As I both expected and feared, the visual design deliverable was “finished” minutes before class on Tuesday night, leaving no time to get a head start on the prototype. To make matters worse, there weren’t nearly enough screens designed, there was no real concept of how the workflow would proceed within each screen and how the user would move from screen to screen. I also saw the visual design as far from finished.

Week three

Now it’s white knuckle time just a bit. Need to develop a prototype in Flash in under a week so it can be usability tested – and I’m refining the team’s design on the fly. Terrific. Suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time in Flash and Fireworks that week, and not nearly as much time sleeping.

My biggest regret of the prototyping effort was misallocating resources from visual fidelity to functional fidelity. (the prototype was supposed to be higher visual fideility than functional) I had made the same mistake on the previous prototyping project where I had cutesy windows sliding in and out rather than polishing the visual design; I made the same mistake again in actually implementing our trip planner screen which acted as a wizard so the user could set any one or more of 5 ride parameters (distance, end point, terrain type, etc) and then be guided through choosing a route based on those parameters (see the second screen shot above). I had argued against it in a design meeting, but somehow suckered myself into giving it a try. Oops, that took about 6 hours – and of course it was almost there after just half that time.

This is where some conflict started arising among the team. Okay mostly between me and the rest – my prototype was visually more simple than what their designs had (loosely) specified. It was fun to dance around that by pointing out that their designs didn’t even agree with each other.

During this week, usability testing is happening in parallel as much as possible with my prototype development – which is the crux of the problem with the schedule…

The Presentation

Come the deadline, the team has put together a slide deck for our presentation, and we’ve very briefly rehearsed the presentation. We’re going fourth out of five teams, so we got to get a feel for how ours stacked up against the rest, which was good and bad. Bad because the teams presenting before us actually gathered and presented quantitative usability results – that didn’t even occur to me or the team, so we don’t have anything to show on that front. A little annoying seeing some of the really good ideas that we either didn’t come up with or more often had in early brainstorming but let slide through the cracks at some point. Good because I’m starting to feel better about our design; the prototypes we see are vindicating my resistance to needless glitter like background images. At least for me, working on something flat out like this totally breeds contempt; I could see all the flaws in our design and not how it might actually not be so bad after all.

I insisted on going with pictures rather than bulleted lists as much as possible, and I think that turned out for the best. Instead of presenting usability test results against the backdrop of ugly excel charts, we did some hand waving in front of a picture of a team member with a notebook wearing flip flops in hot pursuit of someone riding a bike, and more pictures of a mockup of the device taped to a bike. We even had a color printout attached to cardboard to pass around the room (this was fun to watch. I’d designed the device with a curve so that it would be easy to pivot the thumb between buttons, so a lot of people actually tried that on the mockup) We had the Queen song “Bicycle Race” playing behind a list of acknowledgements. If I remember correctly we got applause before even taking questions.

I have no idea what grade we got on the project, but one of the “bicycle experts” brought in to be part of a panel of judges said we had “the best presentation so far”

All’s well that ends well I guess.

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