Thinking Inside the Box

martiniIf you want to see Post-it notes in a new light, Patrick Hofmann is your man.

The UX design guru from Google Australia comes to his workshops armed to the teeth with the things, but for a very good reason.

The Post-it note may seem like the go-to tool for taking notes in the office or redecorating a colleague’s car on practical joke Tuesday, but to Patrick it’s a vital tool for collaborative visual thinking.

I had the good fortune to attend his Away with Words – The Semantic Sequel  workshop in September, a follow up to his August webinar What Technical Writing Taught Me about Design at Google.

An excellent speaker and an authority on reducing the white noise of over-written text down to a few engaging visual cues, Patrick provided many highlights.

These ranged from examples and anecdotes from the development of Google Maps, to insight into the research behind recognisable icons (small fact: most four-year-olds will recognise what the outline of a rotary dial telephone stands for without ever having seen one).

Google Maps was a great place to start, being a ground-breaking project Patrick has been heavily involved in. Early screenshots displayed the assumptions that the team started with, including the need for a column of text directions that stole limelight from the actual map. Gradually, they banked more and more on user intuition by moving the emphasis onto visual icons, which vastly improved the usability of the maps.

Which brings us to the Post-it note, a great tool for collaboratively boiling down complex instructions to their core meanings and translating the results visually.

Most content planning collaborations start on a whiteboard or an entire wall, but what the technical writing team at Google Australia do is first limit themselves to storyboarding instructional steps on A4 paper in nine or less movements.

Imagine a noughts and crosses layout of nine panels being your entire space to complete the instructions with images and a few written lines or labels where needed. It really forces to you think visually, economically, and objectively for the user (because there’s no space for subjective detail).

Now transfer that onto a Post-it note. Using a thick whiteboard marker.

The exercise sounds like a tall order, but like a lot of the content in Patrick’s workshop it left you with a light bulb moment.

I think everyone in the audience expected to come up with very compromised visual instructions for the action we were laying out (which, as it happens, was “How to make a dirty martini”). However, the exercise resulted in visual breakthroughs and consistent design thinking which easily shed light on how Google technical writers make their visual choices.

Ever wondered why the icon for a pizza restaurant in Google Maps is a white square within an orange circle? The answer isn’t just down to user testing – the development team came to that result because they started with a Post-it note.

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