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SilverlightShow Interview with Billy Hollis - Presenter in a Visual Studio Live! Las Vegas Workshop

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In this SilverlightShow interview, we talk with Billy Hollis – the presenter at the most-awaited workshop at Visual Studio Live! Las Vegas conference (March 26-30, 2012) -  ‘Creating Today’s User Experiences - An Entry Point for Developers’.
As we have announced, SilverlightShow is the
Social Media Premiere Partner for this conference and we’ll be sending one SilverlightShow member to this conference for free.

About Billy: Billy Hollis is an author and software developer from Nashville, Tennessee. Billy is co-author of the first book ever published on Visual Basic .NET, VB .NET Programming on the Public Beta. He has written many articles, and is a frequent speaker at conferences. He is the Regional Director of Developer Relations in Nashville for Microsoft, and runs a consulting company focusing on user experience design and rich client applications. You can visit his website at: www.billyhollis.com

SilverlightShow: Hi Billy! According to info from the kitchen of Visual Studio Live!Las Vegas, your workshop has so far attracted most interest by the conference registrants. The topic of the workshop is: ‘Creating Today’s User Experiences - An Entry Point for Developers’. Why do you think user experience has become an important topic for developers right now? Isn’t it better for developers to just leave this work to a UX expert, and focus on development only?

BH: The biggest reason developers are shifting focus to user experience is simple. Apple is kicking us to the curb in some key spaces. Executives are demanding, for example, that corporate apps be made available on iPads, and the users just expect the experience on such devices to be excellent.

I believe that the notion that developers can delegate user experience design to a UX expert, and then just stop worrying about it, is just not feasible for most applications. First, such UX experts are hard to find. If you’re in, say, Springfield, Illinois, where do you get one? Certainly small to medium teams often can’t find or can’t afford such help. Second, designing great user experience requires a deep understanding of the application domain. Developers usually have that, and pure designers generally don’t. Designers do a lot better in the consumer space, because they are themselves consumers, but it’s much harder for them to put themselves inside the mind of a typical corporate application user.

Finally, I think the best designs, particularly for complex business applications, come through collaboration. Even if a designer is involved, the end product will be better if there is collaboration with developers, and developers will be better collaborators if they understand the principles and speak the language of design.

SilverlightShow: What are some of the key user experience concepts you plan to touch upon in this workshop, why should attendees join it?

BH: I’ll be covering over two dozen key concepts, out of a universe of about 150 design principles that I’ve studied in the past five years. The ones I zero in on are the ones that have helped me most in doing designs for my own clients.

I cover them in families of related concepts. One family concerns how users efficiently select options and navigate through an application. It includes Hick’s Law, inattentional blindness, and gestalt principles, among others. These principles are mostly concerned with how the user’s visual and cognitive systems work. Then there’s another family of design principles based on the human preference for natural things. It includes whitespace, proper use of gradients and animation, layering to get 3D effects, and so forth.

Then I talk some about purely aesthetic concepts, plus ideas such as mapping and affordances. I also discuss the need to use context to decide good designs, because sometimes design principles involve tradeoffs, and the right balance depends on circumstances.

SilverlightShow: That sounds like a lot of material! Can attendees really learn all that in one day?

BH: It is a lot, and that’s why I used the term “entry point” in the workshop title. I can’t teach everything, but I can build a skeleton that will enable attendees to keep learning on their own.

But I think it’s quite true that they would walk out with their heads spinning if I just talked all day. So instead, we do regular exercises to help them apply the concepts themselves, and I require class interaction at certain points. That makes it real to them.

Some exercises are just a minute or two – for example, analyzing an elevator panel to see what’s wrong with it. Others take as long as twenty minutes. I think there are about ten or twelve exercises scattered throughout the day. In that sense, it really is a workshop, not a day long technical lecture session.

SilverlightShow: What knowledge do you expect attendees to gain after this workshop, and how would you advise them to continue their education?

BH: First, they should walk out with a sense of how important this material is. In fact, I actually scare them at certain points. I’ve seen an entire dominant ecosystem of this industry become irrelevant in ten years – IBM, from 1985 to 1995. I don’t want that to happen to the Microsoft side of the industry, and meeting rising user expectations is, I think, one of the essential foundations to prevent that.

Then I hope they find out if this kind of work resonates with them. I believe almost all developers can do a lot better in user experience design than they realize, but some just don’t take to it. Others get really lit up about it.

Finally, they will have learned the raw essentials, and be directed to resources that will take them further. If they really like this area, they’ll be studying it for years. But I think they can take some of the basic ideas out of the workshop and begin applying them in their own projects the day they get back home.

SilverlightShow: What is the trickiest part in building user interfaces, where do you think developers stumble most?

BH: The trickiest part by far is breaking out of the ruts they’ve formed from old technologies. Modern technologies, such as HTML5 and XAML, give us enormous freedom in the way we interact with the user. But most developers have ingrained habits to just divide the screen up into rectangles and pour something into each one. Some of my exercises are designed, in fact, primarily to force them out of their ruts.

Another tricky part is finding the right level of understanding of the problem space before beginning design. With our current emphasis on agile, a lot of developers interpret that to mean they need to get down to coding really early in the process, and figure out requirements as they go. For certain phases of development, that works OK, but to come up with, say, the central navigation theme for the entire application, it doesn’t. A certain breadth of understanding of the problem space is needed to do that, and even then usually some experimentation and user feedback is needed to get a good design.

SilverlightShow: Most SilverlightShow community members are already quite fluent with Windows Phone development and have created one or more applications for this platform. In your opinion, to what extent does user experience contribute to the success of such an application, compared to functionality?

BH: Functionality comes first, in the sense that no one will use an application without functionality they need, regardless of how pretty or well designed it is.

However, if you assume that most developers can get the functionality part figured out, then user experience becomes the differentiator. User experience also weighs as heavy as functionality on how much value the user perceives in the typical application. Plus, to be blunt, really bad user experience repels users, especially when they’ve become accustomed to better UX in other apps.

I like to put it like this. For most of our careers, success has been measured by our ability to make something possible. That’s not enough anymore. Now, we are also expected to make it easy.

SilverlightShow: How and where may conference attendees meet you during the conference (outside the workshop)?

BH: Oh, I’m pretty easy to find. I spend a fair amount of time in the areas outside sessions, lounging around, and I’m there specifically for people to come up and talk if they need to. I usually come to lunch too, even though I don’t usually eat lunch, and anyone who sees me wandering through the lunch hall is welcome to flag me down for a discussion. Finally, I’ll be MC at the evening event, Wild Wednesday. I do about twenty minutes of comedy ranting there, plus draw the tickets to give away prizes and such. I’m usually available afterwards for a conversation or two.

Thanks Billy for this interview! Wish you, as well as our free pass winner, a successful workshop and conference event!

Do you, as a developer, manage to create good user experience for your apps, what are the difficulties you face? Feel free to comment below this interview.


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