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Insight From a Senior Interaction Designer

Posted by marinasum on January 26, 2008 at 8:33 PM PST

Frank LudolphBefore coming to Sun, Frank Ludolph worked at Apple for 12 years, first as a codeveloper of the Lisa Desktop Manager and then as a UI designer. Frank joined Sun in 1992, left for three years during the dot-com boom, and returned in 2000. So far, his entire career at Sun has been in UI. I recently chatted with him about human-computer interactions, the UI construction process, and his take on the design scene at Sun.Philosophy
"Architecting UI is an iterative process with developers and marketing," Frank begins. Designers represent users. Product management represents a product's functional requirements and specifies them and the product capabilities as projects kick off. "However, if a capability isn't usable, why go to the trouble of developing it?" Frank asks rhetorically.

"Achieving usability often involves building an underlying model that a human being can intuitively and painlessly pick up and use," says Frank. All too often, because of their intimate involvement from Day One, developers understand "too well" the nuances and assume too much. "We must clue users in on the model, which should be something that either they already know or that reveals itself. It's not enough to just be logical," he explains.

For example, to design the Solaris OS Installer, Frank took these steps:

  1. Defined the scope with product managers and senior architects.
  2. Conducted a competitive survey to learn the presentation in similar applications.
  3. Built an interactive mock-up and conferred with product managers, executives, engineers, and end users.

Frank calls the process an iterative cycle. If implementation promises to be tough, some redesign might be necessary. Also, he closely follows the project's progress and adjusts the mock-up as appropriate. "You ever remodeled your house? If you did, the contractor had a thousand questions throughout, didn't he?" he smiles. Reality checks to ensure that the reality maps to the design are important, too.

The Sun Way
"UI development at Sun has always been a struggle," observes Frank. "That's because talents and smarts abound here, so much so that many folks fail to see things from the end users' standpoint, be the users sys admins monitoring networks or accountants compiling spreadsheets." The process that Frank has long adopted works well for the Sun technical community whose members "constantly deal with multiple layers of abstraction."

Frank has high praises for Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, who's demonstrated that he truly values end-user experience. Jonathan has impressed upon his senior staff to ask the development teams to show them the real UI in addition to project deliverables and schedules. "As a result, ever since Jonathan took the helm, Sun has been much more focused on user experience," Frank tells me. "When Sun resumed developing Solaris OS on x86 a few years ago, we put the Installer side by side with Linux distributions. It was a revelation to many."

Ultimately, users benefit, so does Sun's business.

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