The philosophy of design at Spray Labs, a development department of Lycos Europe, can be summarized as pragmatic, integrated, and iterative.
Pragmatic means that we believe adaptation to the practical reality of product design gives better end results than striving for theoretical perfection. The everyday reality for Spray Labs, especially the design team, is one of short product development cycles (three to six months). Spray Labs is a young organization working in a new medium. This means that we have to rapidly design new kinds of products using technology that is constantly changing, in an organization that is immature and in constant flux. From this we have learned that methods and tools that deliver "good enough" results on time, on budget, and within scope are a designer's best friends. Methods that give perfect results too late are interesting but useless. Therefore we have focused on developing and customizing effective tools for user research, prototyping, production management, and user testing. We have to be flexible and humble in our attitude toward different design disciplines as well as nondesign disciplines. We avoid "religious wars" between usability, graphic design, technology, marketing, and other area at all costs. We'll use anything that works for us and gets the job done, regardless of its theoretical or disciplinary background.
Integrated means that we think that it's important to have good and constructive relationships to other disciplines within Spray Labs. We acknowledge that concept development, product design, and technology inextricably depend on each other. The process of defining, designing, and developing products is one of constant compromises and negotiations between the disciplines. Therefore it's important that the disciplines work closely together and understand each other, rather than fighting over whose point of view is correct. The less prestige and more humility between disciplines, the better the collaboration will be; and in the end, the design result will be better. Reaching this kind of harmony and balance requires a lot of work. Continuous outreach and product-design education from the design team to the rest of the organization is a good step. But more important, designers must scrutinize, reinvent, and broaden themselves.
Iterative means that we believe that taking many, small, and quick steps toward the goal is better than taking a few gigantic steps. Design activity in itself is a constant switching between perspectives, going back and forth between problem solving and problem definition. Working iteratively has proved quite useful for user involvement and user testing. It's better to have frequent contacts and interactions with users than to have one single instance trying to cover all bases and answer all questions. By increasing the number of opportunities for reviews, the chances of identifying problems and designing better solutions increase.
The product development process at Spray Labs has evolved and grown organically with the development organization and its needs. We chose the name Organic for the process to reflect this relationship. Organic encompasses all disciplines within Spray Labs; from product management, through product design and development, to deployment. Our approach is to develop and shape a process that fits the organization and its working methods, not the other way around.
Organic is more of a framework for a process than a cookbook for product development. The main benefit of Organic is that it functions as a communication tool between project members of different disciplines. It defines interfaces between disciplines, tasks, and phases in the process, and it provides project members with a common language for methods, activities, and work flows. By focusing on the input to, and deliverables from, the different stages of the process, project teams are free to choose the methods they find suitable to fulfill the requirements of each project phase and activity. This freedom is essential because we believe that empowered, skilled, and motivated designers are the foundation of a design process that works.
Through our work with Organic we've found that creating a good design process is not about great or groundbreaking ideas; it's about endurance, stamina, and stubbornness. It requires working the organization: its people and politics. Support from executive management and buy-in from people who are supposed to use the process are critical success factors for Organic.
A development project at Spray Labs consists of four phases: prestudy, planning, construction, and acceptance. These phases are separated by tollgates where the project can be canceled or moved into the next phase.
- Prestudy. The prestudy is a preparatory phase carried out before the development project starts. The purpose of the prestudy is to ensure that a product idea is technically and commercially feasible and that it will fulfill the needs and goals of our end users. In this phase product designers explore the product concept and potential design solutions. By working well during the prestudy, the product design team will have laid the foundation for creating successful designs in the later phases. A thorough user experience effort during the prestudy also minimizes the risk of suffering major and expensive changes late in the project.
- Planning. The detailed design of the product is created in the planning phase, which consists of two stages. In the first stage, all of the interaction design elements and components of the product are identified. This basically means identifying categories of pages or screens and creating templates. The purpose is to get a complete overview of all the parts of the product that have to be designed. In the second iteration the designers create detailed designs for the elements that were identified in the previous iteration. The purpose is to get a stable and detailed design that can converted into a blueprint that developers can use to build the product.
- Construction. The construction phase is the phase when the heavy and time-consuming technical implementation takes place. In this phase, designers focus on supporting the developers. Production art is created, that is, the real text and graphics that will be used in the product. This includes GIFs and JPGs as well as language files. Another important part of the design work in the construction phase is to assist the developers during implementation. There will always be flaws in the design that will be revealed during implementation, and the design team has to stand by to help the developers solve these problems.
- Acceptance. The acceptance phase is the technical rollout phase, during which the product is installed and prepared for live operations on the portal network. Few design activities take place in the acceptance phase. Activities consist of assisting the installation team if any questions about the product design arise. However, it's not unusual that user tests are conducted to identify potential problems with the product and prepare FAQs (frequently asked questions) and other documentation for the customer support teams.
SprayDate is an online dating service and community; it has become one of Lycos Europe's most successful products. SprayDate supports various forms of online dating through messaging, chats, anonymous phone chats, and video chat. However, many people continue the dating offline, and quite a quite a few marriages have taken their first steps on SprayDate.
SprayDate was launched in late 1999 in Sweden (branded as Love@Lycos outside Sweden) and soon became popular with a target audience aged 25 years and older. SprayDate is intended to be used by anyone who wants to date but who doesn't necessarily know very much about computers or the Internet. A lot of work and care has been put into keeping the features and functions of SprayDate as simple and straightforward as possible in order to make the product easy to learn and use.
A third major versionSprayDate 3is being developed and will be released in early 2002. The design team participated in the SprayDate 3 project from the very beginning and assisted the product managers and business developers in deciding which functions to add and which to improve. The design team started by analyzing the copious feedback from the highly active user base. Dedicated observational user tests also provided important insights into which parts of SprayDate needed fine tuning. The benefits of developing consumer products for the Internet become quite obvious when working with SprayDate; it is easy to solicit feedback from users and it's easy to observe and measure user behavior in the live product.
Here are some examples of problems that were observed during user tests and user feedback and subsequently remedied in SprayDate 3:
- The chat in SprayDate 2 crashed if too many users were logged in. As a result, it was difficult for users to enter and stay on the chat, which caused big problems for people who had set up chat dates and couldn't get in. This wasn't an inherent design flaw , but the technical breakdown in the system caused a major problem for users.
- The navigation and menus in SprayDate 2 weren't clear enough, especially in message groups and forums.
- The date search engine in SprayDate 2 didn't allow users to focus the search on new SprayDate users. Since most users scan the community for new users, they aren't too interested in "old" users that they've already seen.
Senior Product Designer
Spray Labs, Lycos Europe
Phone: +46 (70) 756 56 49
Jens Jonason is a senior product designer at Spray Labs, a development department of Lycos Europe. Before joining Spray in 1999 he freelanced as an interaction designer for several Web agencies in Stockholm, coauthored four books about the Internet, and led a project that connected Stockholm and Tokyo through a real-time video link. Jens studied and taught computer science and human-computer interaction at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.
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