Wednesday, 16 July 2008

A vision of students today

I love this video from Michael Wesch and his students at Kansas State. If you haven't already seen it, definitely worth watching. Thanks to Les Watson for first pointing it out to me.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Nick's top Google tips

I'll admit - I'm just like everyone else. Despite the wealth of electronic scholarly resources available to me, Google is my top research tool.

I do have various tips and techniques I use to get what I want out of Google. These aren't revolutionary but in case they are useful, here are a few:

Restrict search to or .edu websites

I often use or - why do I do this? I'll generally get a good result. I work at a university and I'm interested in what others are doing. That's just relevant to me, but more broadly universities are full of very intelligent cutting-edge researchers who openly share their ideas. Finally there isn't much web junk (eg comment spam and affiliate websites) in the academic domain.

Restrict search to ppt filetypes

ppt are powerpoint files. Use filetype:ppt to only view presentations. Why do I find that helpful? Again, you don't get much spam in presentations. Even better - presentations are short. I'm lazy, I'm in a hurry - I just want the key ideas. That's what you get in a presentation.

Try combining both of these: for example put "user centered design filetype:ppt" into Google and you get the presentation I recommended in my last blog post. That wasn't how I originally found it though - I used my third technique:

Search by name or email address.

Follow the person rather than the idea. In literature searches people are used to searching by author name, but they don't do it so often on the web. If you find one person with a good idea and follow the links you could find a whole community.

(Incidentally - if you've never searched on your own name or email in Google, do so now before your future employer or date does. But that's another story...)

Convenience trumps quality

Another conference I was at last week was the JISC/CNI Meeting 2008 in Belfast "Transforming the User Experience". Again more on this soon - I've had too many interesting events recently to digest and write them up.

One strong strand that came out at JISC/CNI was that university libraries spend a huge amount on electronic library resources, and have online catalogues and search systems for all of those resources - but people don't use them. What do people use? Google. Maybe Google Scholar.

This is a real shame, as there are lots of high quality resources out there locked behind the subscription wall which Google doesn't see - but it seems universal. One speaker said "even the academics who complain of students using Google admit when pressed that they rely on it themselves!"

Why? It's just human nature. As another speaker said "convenience trumps quality. Every time. So we have to make quality convenient"

How do you make things convenient? Simple and Quick are good places to start. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Don't expose too many options, bells & whistles by default.

User Centered-Design & User Experience

Several colleagues from Bristol recently attended a training course on User Centred Design from a local Bristol firm Pure Usability. I wasn't there but think I missed out on an excellent day. I'm hoping to read some of the notes from it.

On the same day of the course I was attending the Oxford Podcasting Open House at Wadham College (more about this on the blog soon). Also there was a whole team from Berkeley, including Judy Stern, whose job title (according to my notes) is User Experience / User Interface Designer. Interesting job title I thought...

Doing some research into this I found two concepts, with definitions taken here from a presentation by Allison Bloodworth & Ian Crew at Berkeley: User-Centered Design in IT: the Low-Hanging Fruit.

User-Centered Design (UCD)
a design philosophy and a process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of the end user of an interface or document are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process

Goal: to make the user's interaction experience as simple and intuitive as possible

User Experience (UX)
the overall experience and satisfaction a user has when using a product or system

Goal: meet user goals and tasks while satisfying business and functional requirements.

UX and UCD are a great way to describe at least 90% of my viewpoint "designing IT services by first understanding how people behave". I've been talking about this for ages but without the right words. Having the right vocabulary should make in much easier to be articulate about it in future :-)

There's lots more to read in Allison & Ian's presentation, explaining why this important and introducing tools to improve usability of products and services. Fro even more info (I always like a reading list!) they give these books:
  • “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” – Alan Cooper
  • “The Design of Everyday Things” and “Emotional Design” – Don Norman
  • “Usability Engineering” – Jakob Nielsen
  • “Don’t Make Me Think” – Steve Krug

Monday, 7 July 2008

CIOs Present & Future: Google event at the Science Museum

Last Wednesday I attended this Google event. It was an interesting format - attending were a mixed group of university students, and people working in IT. The event was rather grandly titled 'CIOs Present & Future'. I wasn't either, and was unsure whether to be more flattered if mistaked for a student or a CIO...

It wasn't all sales, but the main thrust was to explain the concept of Cloud Computing and Google to pitch their Enterprise services, especially their email, calendar & collaboration offering Google Apps (free of charge for education customers). I have been quite cautious about Cloud Computing. I am though a firm believer in the consumerisation of IT, and designing IT systems with an understanding of how people behave. These were two themes that came up throughout the event. I had several 'Yes!' moments - nodding enthusiastically to what the speakers were saying.

We started with Robert Whiteside (Head of Google Enterprise UK & Ireland) & Dave Armstrong (head of Marketing Google EMEA). Dave talked about consumerisation. Consumer technology innovates faster than enterprise technology (the iPhone was quoted as the classic example).
In the enterprise market, tools and user interfaces for traditional enterprise apps have often been constructed based on business processes (as they should be) but with no consideration of the 'human factor' - how people actually behave. Ease of use of user interfaces is a good example, but it's more than that. For example, people don't like to laboriously assign lots of metadata when creating a document.

User satisfaction for consumer technology has overtaken user satisfaction for business technology. What are your users saying?: "why can't I do this as easily at work as I can at home?". Can we benefit from this?

People are the same person at home and at work.

On the Internet, products win based on the number of mouse clicks - the 'democracy of the mouse clicks'. Those that don't get the human factor right don't survive, as people move elsewhere. Google study features in public beta, looking at logs of how people use them, and refine, enhance or scrap them accordingly.

The Big Switch by Nick Carr was mentioned several times as the tome to read on Cloud Computing. I've bought a copy, half way through so far.

We then had several of Google's customers speak. Rob Ramsey of Taylor Woodrow came first. Taylor Woodrow have bought into Google Apps in a large way. He says it made sense for them as they have a very mobile workforce. The key to successfully deploying it was to find the real wins for people. A big one was the ability for people to have separate personal and work calendars, but view them joined together in the same environment.

Barbara Colledge, Dean of Partnerships for Students of Leeds Metropolitan University was next. Leeds Met have deployed Google Apps for all their students (but not for staff). They were the first UK university to deploy Google Apps (SOAS have since done so as well, and others such as UWE have deployed Microsoft Live).

Previously at Leeds Met student mail was little used, as the quota was small and it didn't meet student requirements. The benefits in going with Google are
  • enhanced service,
  • brand association,
  • environmentally sustainable,
  • constant innovation (frequent new features),
  • additional tools
They went live with a trial of 3000 students in January and then extended it to all 30,000 students in September. Leeds Met have a history and culture of partnerships, and don't mind the risk of not doing everything in house. They did have concerns about privacy and data security. These came from staff - the Students Union were completely behind the plan. They resolved those concerns by getting the lawyers to consider it carefully.
Leeds Met now have a limited pilot for staff, but are unsure about whether to deploy for all. They are also planning to introduce email for life for alumni - this is a big attraction.

Paul Cheesborough, Telegraph Media Group finished this section. They surved their staff and found that 9/10 believed they would be more productive if allowed to bring their own home computer into work. They are now piloting a new approach with Google Apps.
Don't underestimate the frustrations of a limited email quota - this is a huge problem for people! Email is a touchstone issue which affects everyone (like car parking)
Google Sites collaboration features are another big win
Major attractions for the business are
  • lower costs,
  • more innovation (features)
  • Open APIs to customise for the business
The Telegraph haven't adopted Google Apps wholesale yet, but are at the point of making the decision.

Summary of my personal thoughts on Google Apps? More impressive that I had expected. Worth exploring further. A better fit for student use than for staff use. There are huge concerns around data protection - look at it in conjunction with Guidelines for Using External Web Services from University of Edinburgh.

We finished the first session with Dave Cliff (from the Computer Science department at Bristol!). He is trying to improve UK CS courses to produce graduates who have the skills to manage the increasingly complex 'systems of systems' which IT produces. This was interesting stuff, but not so relevant to the rest of the event. Along with The Big Switch, he also recommended Technological Revolutions & Financial Capital by Carlota Perez for a historical view of how technology develops.

After the break we had workshop sessions with a mix of the student and industry participants. The topic was 'what are the top 5 challenges facing the CIO of the future?' Our group (after interesting debate from different viewpoints) came up with:
  1. The transition from CTO to CIO. It is less about managing infrastructure than about managing information - making it both secure & available.
  2. Focus on people, look at how they work and provide technological solutions to enable them to work more effectively
  3. The ability to change
  4. Become more involved in the actual business decisions, not just IT
  5. Navigate increasingly complex compliance issues (eg data protection)
Update 14th July: A quick note in response to some comments off-blog.
I am enthusiastic about the consumerisation of IT and user-centred design/experience design. I am not enthusiastic about cloud computing (getting a third-party, eg Google, Microsoft or whoever to host services for you in their data centres). 'Cautiously interested' would be a better description.

After reporting an event with case studies from happy Google customers, to redress the balance somewhat it's worth looking at those universities who have evaluated cloud computing and decided against it.

One view from Oxford University Computing Service:

"I think outsourcing of an institution’s e-mail to a third party is fraught with problems. Probably the same could be said about documents. Maybe one role for Google Apps is to use it in addition to what you currently provide, perhaps for use on specific projects."
[I think OUCS originally looked at Google Apps for calendaring]

UC Berkley established a committee which produced a report UC Berkeley:
Exploration Of Partnership Opportunities For Campus Collaborative Tools

"the general consensus of the committee is that the campus should not contract with either vendor [Microsoft & Google] for the provision of email, calendaring and/or web storage services at this time. Serious concerns stand in the way of the campus adopting such an approach. On balance, the potential for realizing cost savings and increased functionality from outsourcing these campus services to Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Live@EDU are not sufficiently compelling to overcome those concerns." [the major concerns were around privacy & accessibility, these were described as showstoppers by some people]

"In the near to medium term (12-18 months), the result of the committees findings is that the
campus should continue to improve existing messaging services..."

"In the longer term, the committee feels that it is important to continue to track the developments in this field... As with any service offered by the campus, we need to continually evaluate if the services we offer are provided in the most cost-effective way and continue to meet the evolving needs of the campus community. Additionally, the capabilities envisioned for the collaborative tools Microsoft and Google (and others) are developing beyond the email, calendar, and file sharing space are potentially quite compelling, and may offer considerable value to the campus community."

Finally some news stories from just the last month: