This months Keep It Usable guest interview is with our friend Fritz Von Runte.
Fritz is the Head of design for our client On The Beach
and we had the great pleasure of working with the team on a recent project.
“I would go to the lab with Keep It Usable in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d be writing tickets to change things – in the best Agile practice.”
Could you tell our readers a bit about your background and your role at On The Beach?
I started my career in Art Direction almost 20 years ago, working for the advertising industry. I was always interested in “New Media” and eventually I decided to shift my career, to focus on web. Then, 7 years ago I made my masters in User Interface Design and specialised in UX.
At On The Beach I wear a couple of hats. I’m the head of a design team of four professionals. We try to maintain a certain design language throughout the company, with consistence and on brand. It’s a tough job because it’s a big company, with many colleagues, many requests, and many design problems, all in need of our solutions. Plus, it’s one of the most successful online travel agencies in the UK market. It’s a massive responsibility. I am also responsible for designing the experiences our users will have, not only in the web but also offline, via our flight and hotel vouchers, and customer documentation, for example.
What does your typical day involve?
I have a very busy schedule, but there’s a certain framework that I try my best to fit it. We’re Agile, so every morning we have the Design stand-up where we communicate what every member of the team is doing at the moment and discuss the flow of tickets. We also have Agile stand-ups for all other projects, most of these involving the Design Shop (as we call our team), so one of us must be there to update the other teams. I try to schedule all my meetings in the morning so I can use the afternoon for research and design.
How important is UX at On The Beach and why is it valued?
On The Beach has been around for almost 8 years and it grew very rapidly. A couple of years ago they began to understand the need to pay more attention to the experiences and the usability. I was brought on board as the first designer focusing on the UX, we had a good six months changing the culture to accept and understand a bit more about this need. But, to be honest, this change was painless and smooth, as the directors were (and are) open to new solutions that could improve the website and our client’s experience. We have a lot of room to develop, to research, and to propose new ideas. It’s a wonderful place to work and it’s a thrill to be doing UX design at this moment in time at a company like On The Beach.
You work to an agile development process. Why and how does UX fit into this process?
I guess that is the biggest challenge. Agile is awesome but historically it tends to treat design and the experience as something frivolous or secondary. One of my goals is to raise awareness of how better it is to deal with usage challenges from the start instead of doing it rapidly and then having to re-do it. On the otherhand, when we are testing and prototyping, we use Agile principles and it works really well to prove (or disprove) assumptions from a very early stage, without having to spend much time in development for example.
What tools do you work with?
Primarily with paper and pencil – it’s how everything starts!. Then I move to a PC. I find it easier to talk to the network and to other technologies with a PC. But, we have all sorts of platforms in our team; Windows, iOS, Ubuntu, Android…
When it comes to software I use many different ones. The whole Adobe suite of course – and I mean the whole suite! I’ve used Visio in the distant past, then I moved to Axure and Balsamiq, but because of the dynamics here at On The Beach I now mainly use Illustrator for my low-fi wireframes as I’ve accumulated an extensive library of symbols and actions… Plus a lot of on-the-fly coding on the console and notepad, and also other online tools like UXPin, Litmus, JSFiddle, etc.
Mobile app vs responsive web design vs mobile web – what are your thoughts at On The Beach?
Responsive is a terminology that I don’t really subscribe to. There are two ways to see this issue. Firstly, like we all used to test our websites, years ago on different browsers and systems, and get charts of usage of monitor sizes and resolutions, we now should make sure this product performs well in all possible environments – the mobile, the tablet, the internet tv, the laptop, etc, in all browsers and all systems. Nothing has changed – the game is just a bit harder now.
Secondly, different products have different needs and different platforms have different needs. The very first version of Tetris I’ve ever played was called Nyet. Tetris is a classic game that existed in any possible platform, even portable ones like Gameboy. Have you tried to play Tetris on the mobile? It changed the whole dynamic and usability of the game. So having a webapp whose functionality is the same on different platforms, but with some adjustments to the grid depending on the screen size, is not something I take for granted.
I always challenge the concept of mobile apps, for different reasons. I don’t think it’s always the best way to serve your product to a client. I have a parallel career as a DJ and record producer, and the music market is flooded with Mobile Apps. I don’t see it as a great tool to serve content. I see it mainly as a badge on your mobile screen, saying to the world and yourself that you’re are a big fan of artist or band xyz. I think mobile apps – the ones you download, and that updates itself when you’re connected to the wifi – are more interesting when your product is a tool and that you think the user will use it enough times to justify its download and space on screen and internal memory.
With On The Beach there are two main factors that made us not to choose this route. Firstly we are so dynamic when it comes to software development, making at least two deploys per week, that an app from us would be constantly updating, and that wouldn’t be the best experience for the user – think Acrobat Reader, when was the last time it didn’t tell you it needs updating? The second reason is accessibility. Although we have a significant number of customers choosing us as their online travel agent more than once a year, plus all the people that come back from their holidays and come to us to book their next ones – and that would justify an On The Beach app as a tool – we wanted to use our efforts and energy on something that would serve everybody. For example, users coming from Google or Bing, a link on Facebook, a suggestion of a friend or a specialist site like Trip Advisor (that sends us hundreds of users every day). Instead, we made an entirely new website, just for the mobile, that you don’t need to download or upkeep. It’s there for anyone with a connection and it works really well.
Describe an example of the work involved from design through to implementation?
I think the design process is the same on every branch of design. From designing a chair to a party flyer, from a shopping cart experience to a car. We have an idea, then some high level analysis, then research, concept, testing and finally wireframing. Then back to the research.
How important is research to OTB? How did the Keep It Usable research feed into the agile development process and how did the feedback help to shape the software?
Research is fundamental to my work and to the company. We are constantly analysing data and testing the best way to do everything. When it comes to our mobile website we did extensive research, and Keep It Usable was a major part of it. We had instant feedback on certain features that are paramount to the mobile experience. I would go to the lab with Keep It Usable in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d be writing tickets to change things – in the best Agile practice.
What are your favourite UX-related resources?
I have way too many bookmarks, rss and twitter feeds, but I think the benefits from other people or companies experiences come from knowing the whole case. This is why I love to go to meetings and talks, I’m very active at #NUX, and I try to go to all UX conventions I can. It’s a good way to get to know people in the industry, but mainly I do it to hear the cases straight from the horses mouth. A button being small or big, positioned left or right, its colours… it doesn’t mean anything without data, without knowing the purposes and goals that were briefed.