Recap: September Girl Geek Dinner with Whitney Quesenbery and Michal Levin

We were thrilled when we managed to coordinate getting two of Fluxible‘s speakers to join us for our first Girl Geek Dinner of the fall season. Whitney shared a topic near and dear to her heart, and timely for both Waterloo Region residents and Americans — the election process from a voting perspective. Michal gave us a sneak peak of the presentation she would present at Fluxible on Designing for Ecosystems. (She made a few tweaks prior to presenting at Fluxible, and we’ll try and get a recording of the presentation.)

While Jessica Ivins unfortunately couldn’t join us for the Dinner, I was fortunate enough to catch her presentation at the conference. Presentation here.)

We gathered at the Rum Runner Pub under the Walper Hotel. A new venue and a few new technical and environmental challenges — you get used to it. Many thanks to PJ for running out to pick up an extension code. 🙂

Whitney took the stage first with Can UX Save Elections? (This is a previous, slightly different version of the talk, but quite similar.) You can find a transcript of the presentation here.

I don’t think anyone who is familiar with the news would be unaware of the basis for Whitney’s talk. She started off talking about the troubles the US faced in 2000, where it took some time to figure out who the President was after election night, led to all manner of conspiracy theories, and introduced terms like “hanging chad” into the nation’s vocabulary. Then there was Minnesota, which took months to figure out who their senator was (Al Franken won). And New York state ballots that looked like bingo cards on steroids… Clearly, American elections had some design problems.

Enter Whitney in 2002 after the passing of the Help America Vote Act and creation of the Election Assistance Commission. She and her fellow committee members created the guidelines for voting systems in the US, which is no small accomplishment. (There are 3000+ counties in the US, and elections are run locally.)

They created small, simple field guides to voting-related processes, like “Testing ballots for usability” to help regional elections staff begin to think differently (and better) about how elections are run locally and how voters can be best served.

One of the big things they initially looked for were anomalies in voting patterns with the Better Ballots project. Too many votes for the district, or too few, lots of spoiled ballots, etc. Often the measurable result of convoluted language/instructions and weird ballot design. Among many other processes, they did flash testing on the street in New York, and collaborative iteration and usability testing in Minnesota.

Whitney’s also been involved in projects to improve voting systems for voters with accessibility issues, from physical to literacy-related. Because there’s a lot more to the voting process than just what’s on the ballot. (And there are considerations of dignity and privacy for many voters.)

Some links of interest:


After a short break, Michal took the stage, starting off with the provocative question: Does Size Matter? (Spoiler: definitely, but in more and different ways than have likely ever occurred to you.) Michal’s talk was about Designing for Ecosystems. And these days, it seems like everything is an ecosystem. (Did you know the average tablet owner has at least six devices?)

One of the first key points was that in designing for ecosystems, not only do you have to have the right ingredients, they have to work well together, too. And these days the “ingredients” are everything from laptops to tablets to smartphones to ereaders to iPods and beyond. It’s not as simple as designing consistent UIs. The three cornerstones of designing for ecosystems are: Consistent, Continuous, and Complementary.

Consistent designs have a consistent (though not necessarily identical) appearance across devices. The function and flow of the app, for example, are familiar and logical. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to accomplish something that should be the same as what you’re used to. (Hulu, Trulia, and Google search were some examples.)

Continuous design shifts experience among devices, and can share the same experience, or a progression of experience. This enables the invaluable ability to “pick up where you left off”, even if there’s been some contextual or environmental shift. (AirPlay, All Recipes, and TripIt Pro were some examples.)

Complementary designs involve devices that influence each other, have varying levels of integration, and can “pass” experiences among each other. Not all devices have to have an identical app, for example, as long as the app on each successive device used helps you accomplish what you need to. (Real Racing 2, KL Dartboard, and Slingbox were some examples.)

So size does matter. Not in absolute terms, but rather: Where are you? What are you doing? What were you doing before this? What is your goal? “Family” also matters. Things can be different, as long as they have a familiar common thread and complement each other to the benefit of our experience.

Michal’s final advice for designing for ecosystems is to maintain focus, be flexible, pursue visual connections, and to shoot for the cloud, since that is where our ecosystems largely live now, and will even more so in the future. Ultimately, though, all designers’ main goal should be to make people fall in love. <3 And with that warm and fuzzy bit of inspiration to round out the evening, were were done, at least officially. Two fantastic presentations that tweaked the imagination and educated in different ways. Many thanks again to Whitney and Michal for joining us as well as speaking at Fluxible.

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