Jackson Fox’s Weblog

Interaction designer, student, and all around web geek

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Blogging for Lulu.com

March 10th, 2008 · No Comments · Posted to Weblog

So, while I might be pretty awful at posting here, here, or here, I’ve started posting over on the official Lulu blog. My first two posts focus on some of the widgets I helped build while with the community team at Lulu:

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Remote Usability Tools

February 21st, 2008 · No Comments · Posted to Weblog

Slides from my presentation on remote usability tools (UserVue and Ethnio) at the last TriUPA event of 2007.

Note: Since I gave this presentation, Ethnio has re-launched focusing on live recruiting. While Ethnio doesn’t really facilitate remote usability tests anymore, it’s a very nice complement to tools like UserVue.

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Building User-Centered Web Apps in a Crunch

October 30th, 2007 · No Comments · Posted to Weblog

I gave a talk last week at the inaugural meeting of Refresh the Triangle called “Building User-Centered Web Apps in a Crunch.” The main part of talk was based on Jakob Nielsen’s “Guerilla HCI” ideas, with a sprinkling of ideas from the Agile UCD movement. It was, more or less, my first public speaking gig, and I don’t think it was too bad. I need to talk a bit slower, and I could probably do better than this for a closing statement:

So, um, yeah. That’s it… Thanks!

The slides are online on Slideshare:

You can also check out photos from the event on Flickr.

I realized after the fact that my slides don’t stand well on their own, so I though I would share some resources and references I used in compiling everything. So, I’m putting together a page over on Jottit with notes on the talk.

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A Design Diatribe

September 5th, 2007 · No Comments · Posted to Weblog

Khoi Vinh:

There’s also another, more formal idea at work on A Brief Message: the notion that online publications don’t necessarily need to be decorated databases. They can be art directed, too.

This past week Liz Danzico and Khoi Vinh launched a much lauded new site called A Brief Message. The goal of the site, as stated on the about page, is as follows:

A Brief Message features design opinions expressed in short form. Somewhere between critiques and manifestos, between wordy and skimpy, Brief Messages are viewpoints on design in the real world. They’re pithy, provocative and short — 200 words or less.

As one would expect from a site founded by designers, written by designers, and featuring writing about design, A Brief Message is well illustrated, impeccably typeset, follows all of the modern thinking on grid-based web design, and even features tasteful ads from The Deck. The first piece touches on a subject near and dear to the hearts of many designers: The Death of Print. Honestly, I feel somewhat unworthy of writing about the site. I find myself pondering every punctuation mark and scrutinizing every sentence a dozen times.

The problem is that I don’t feel welcome at A Brief Message. I don’t mean to say that I feel unwelcome at just this site, in fact I feel the same way about Design Observer and many other design-oriented sites. Nor do I mean to imply that the individuals that write, run, and comment at A Brief Message make me feel unwelcome. I feel unwelcome because I don’t understand their Design. It simply isn’t my design.

Recently, I’ve noticed a marked change in the language that is used on the websites that I frequent. “Art direction” seems to be popping up everywhere now, names like Michael Beirut are getting dropped, and everyone seems to be a member or leader in AIGA. Maybe it really isn’t the discourse that has changed, maybe it’s me, but I’m finding it harder and harder to relate. I have never worked for an “agency.” I did not go to design school. In fact, I majored in Computer Science. What I know of typography, color, and grids I learned from the web (much of it from Khoi’ s blog).

I consider myself to be a designer. I have called myself a web designer, a user experience designer, and an interaction designer, but regardless of how I couch the term I consider myself a designer. My job is to create a pleasurable and usable experience for our authors. I spend a lot of time creating page flows, wireframes, reviewing alternative designs, collecting feedback on designs, and then communicating the sum of those parts to our development team. I work for a smallish company, so I get to do my fair share of coding as well. Honestly, I’ve come to dislike the term design because it is so hard to define and because it belongs to so many traditions (old and new).

I don’t see my experience reflected in design writing online. Most likely I’m looking in the wrong places, expecting too much from people who have no obligation to conform their views to my own. It’s just that I don’t feel like it’s always been this way.

Of course, if I so rarely contribute to the discussion, how can I expect others to?

PS — My apologies to Khoi and Liz, A Brief Message is a wonderful site and it’s unfair of me to single it out like this.

PPS — This was probably the wrong time to ditch my old theme and revert to the WordPress default.

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It’s a Business Card and a Website in One!

August 15th, 2007 · 1 Comment · Posted to Weblog

My new homepage

I decided to jump on a bunch of bandwagons all at the same time, so I updated my homepage using jQuery for some amazing (stupid) animations and hCard to embed my contact info in to the page. Check out the site for yourself, or convert the hCard to vCard.

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SXSW 2007 Trip Report

June 25th, 2007 · No Comments · Posted to Weblog

I once heard someone call South by Southwest “spring break for geeks.” Well, there’s nothing like empirical evidence, so I tagged along with the Lulu.com community team to investigate South by Southwest (SXSW) for myself. Held annually in Austin, TX, SXSW is a film festival, music festival, and “interactive” festival all rolled in to one multi-week extravaganza. Actually, only the film and interactive bits coincide. The music festival is so big it needs the whole city to itself.

What’s the appeal of SXSW for a designer? Well, the conference schedule is an interesting mix of themes, including web design, user experience, gaming, and business. Keynotes ranged from customer experience guru Kathy Sierra to game designer Will Wright. And then there are the parties. If you’re a large (and hip) web company these days, you’re sponsoring a party at SXSW. Sometimes more than one. Yahoo, Google, Mozilla, eBay, PayPal, and cnet we’re all paying bar tabs this year. Interestingly, there were a number of small and medium web companies banding together to put on parties as well.

I spent a good deal of time in the Lulu booth, but I was able to sneak away once or twice a day to sessions.

When JavaScript and Ajax Go Bad

My first session was rather disappointing. “When JavaScript and Ajax Go Bad” was a discussion of the “right way” to improve web user experiences with JavaScript. In particular, there was a lot of discussion of graceful degradation and progressive enhancement, with the speakers taking the stand that a website should always work without JavaScript. While I’m sympathetic to this stance, I would have like to see some acknowledgement that in practice it can be very hard to achieve. Overall the session was a good overview of enhancing web interactions with JavaScript, but didn’t explore the topic very far.

High Class and Low Class Web Design

The second panel I attended delved into the topic of class in design. Examples of “high class” design included BMW, Apple, and the NY Times while examples of “low class” design included Walmart, Fox News, and WWE. The topic quickly turned to the importance of context in design — know thy user. Khoi Vinh, design director at NYTimes.com stated outright that without a design “visionary” like Steve Jobs, you needed research and analytics to know your audience. However, it was noted that simply “knowing” your user may not even be enough, you had to empathize with them. The more emotional distance between the designer and the audience, the less likely the design is to succeed. The audience questions raised two interesting ideas: How do you take your audience outside of their design “comfort zone?” And is there an analogue to social mobility in design?

Why We Should Ignore Users

This session was largely a discussion of Donald Norman’s “activity-centered design” idea form his now-famous “Human-Centered Computing Considered Harmful” article in Interactions. More specifically, the panelists discussed the problems with eliciting user needs and motivations via self-report techniques. People are notoriously bad at knowing what they really want, and a large part of the user experience in any system is subconscious. There was a great deal of discussion about the utility of personas, though it was eventually conceded that the technique was god in theory if not yet in practice.


“Valleyspeak” was a panel focused on running a tech business outside Silicon Valley. The panelists were independent web designers by trade, and the discussion focused in large part on web tools for collaboration, billing, project management, and development. They also mentioned the benefits of events like SXSW for maintaining contacts with other independent designers and developers (your “tribe”), and touched a bit upon the idea of “co-working.” Co-working is where multiple small businesses or individuals share work space, as a co-worker you get to a out-of-the-house office, shared administrative expenses, and the opportunity to have office mates without the hassle of actually having to work with them. This was a 30-minute panel, and there wasn’t much time for questions or discussions. I was hoping for something more than a “my favorite web apps” session, but they did mention a number of useful tools, the list is available online at http://buildingblocks.pbwiki.com.

Create a Kick-Ass In-House Design Team

There was a lot of good discussion in this panel about building (and keeping) a good design team, and two points in particular stood out to me. First, that a design team needs a production support team to help build prototypes and explore design ideas. Obviously this isn’t feasible for a lot of design teams, but I can really see the utility in this. An alternative would be to give a smaller design team enough time to prototype ideas within the team — obviously this only works for teams with some development skills. The second point that intrigued me was the emphasis many panelists placed on the need for a high-level voice in the organization. This could something as high as a C-level executive, or a director who is involved in planning.

Spring Break For (Web) Geeks

So is it “spring break for geeks?” I have to say that’s a pretty good description. The panels I attended were generally good, but only one or two were exceptional. I like that almost half of the schedule was selected by the conference goers. The conference is very much of-the-moment (Twitter was everywhere), and very much web focused. “Design” in the context of SXSW always means web design and web user experience. The main theme of SXSW seems to be meeting people, catching up with friends from around the country, and parties. As someone who designs for the web and finds more and more of their time using the web instead of a desktop computer, I found the discussions at SXSW engrossing. I enjoyed my trip and would definitely go again given the chance.

Originally published in the June 2007 Triangle UPA newsletter

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Thoughts on DCampSouth

June 19th, 2007 · 1 Comment · Posted to Weblog

Well, now that DCampSouth has come and gone, and I’ve had some time to think back over the experience, I wanted to share some thoughts and lessons learned in organizing the event. Overall, I think the event went off very well, and I’d love to do it again next year.

Lessons Learned

  • Pizza is cheap — Pizza may not be everyone’s favorite lunch food, but it’s cheaper than boxed lunches and we were able to order the day of the event, which means we knew exactly how many pizzas we would need.
  • Find co-organizers — This may seem obvious, but I found myself thinking that co-ordinating with other people would be more of a hassle than doing everything myself. Those are the thoughts of a crazy person.
  • Design something — DCamp is supposed to be about design, so why not design something? We held a min interactionary at the end of the day and it was (1) a lot of fun, and (2) a nice way to put some of the discussion of the day in to practice.

Of course, not everything went smoothly.

  • Snacks — We didn’t need any. Order a bit extra breakfast and lunch and you should be good for snacks, at least with the size crowd we had (~45 people).
  • Wifi — I’m almost glad that we didn’t have wifi, since it removed a distraction during the sessions. However, a LOT of people were asking about it.

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I think that went pretty well…

June 5th, 2007 · No Comments · Posted to Weblog

Well, DCampSouth has come and gone, and I (personally) think it went off very well. Of course, I’m hardly an impartial observer…

A huge thanks to Greg Corrin and Christin Phelps, who helped me organize the event. There wouldn’t have been a DCampSouth without them. Thanks yet again to the organizers and attendees at the original DCamp for inspiring DCampSouth. Thanks to all of our sponsors for their generous support:

I also want to thank Thomas Vander Wal for his excellent keynote.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who came and made DCampSouth so much fun and made the conversations so interesting.

I’ll see everyone next year at DCampSouth 2008!

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Ready for DCampSouth?

May 28th, 2007 · No Comments · Posted to Weblog

DCampSouth is this Saturday!

Time: 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Date: June 2nd, 2006
Place: School of Communication Arts, Raleigh, NC

DCampSouth, the unconference for everyone interested in design and user experience, is this Saturday! I hope I’ll see you at the School of Communication Arts in Raleigh this weekend, but first I wanted share a few interesting things about DCampSouth.

  • We’re opening with a keynote by Thomas Vander Wal!
  • DCamp is all about great discussions, and anyone can start one. We’re going to invite everyone who attends to propose a session and add it to the schedule on Saturday morning. No PowerPoints are necessary, and you don’t even have to prepare any material to propose a discussion.
  • DCampSouth is FREE!

There’s lots more info on the DCampSouth wiki, so be sure to stop by and check it out. You can find a schedule for the day, proposed session ideas, directions and more… http://dcampsouth.pbwiki.com

See you soon!

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DCampSouth Date & Location

April 24th, 2007 · No Comments · Posted to Weblog

It’s official, DCampSouth will happen on Saturday, June 2nd at the School of Communication Arts in Raleigh, NC.

Date: June 2, 2007
Place: School of Communication Arts

What happens next? Well, it’s time to spread the word about DCampSouth. You can help us out by posting information to weblogs, groups, and mailing lists. Let you co-workers know! Let your friends know!

Also, we’re still looking for volunteers to help organize the event. If you’re interested, send me an email (jacksonfox@gmail.com).

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