Monthly Archives: September 2013

Functional Specs 101

I am taking a course on production pipelines and project management. Knowledge of project management is a great extra to add to skill sets of UX researchers/designers, who are going to serve in a product team and work closely with other functions such as UI designers and developers.

As the UX lead in the course project, I learned quite a lot about the streamlined product development cycle. We as a whole team went through the confusions on procedures of creating Functional Specs, and how to integrate other UX research steps such as user research and wireframes into the writing of Functional Specs.

Here, I am going to share my understandings and learning notes based on several readings and class practices on Functional Specifications (Functional Specs) basics and its role in project executions. I am trying to achieve this goal by asking the following 3 questions:

What are Functional Specs?

In a nutshell, Functional Specs are documents that specify the “what” and “how” of a product – What is the product set out to do? How does the product look like? How do users interact with the product? What are the technologies to achieve the functions? It should include the purpose, look, and behaviors of the application.

Why we need Functional Specs?

  • Function Specs serve as roadmaps for product development. By nature, it provides both the landscape and all the necessary details of a product, which meet the requirements of stakeholders, to the developers. Thus, I view Function Specs as the bridge between frontline-clients/users and backstage developers, groups that are vital in product design but might not have a chance to direct communicate with each other.

Function Specs as a Bridge

  • Function Specs help to streamline the product development process. Through writing Function Specs, the product team can gradually move from chaotic information-gathering stage (with ambiguous and different understandings/inputs)  to reach an agreed vision of the product.

However, this happy ending needs to be built upon quality procedures to create the Functional Specs.

How to write Functional Specs?

  • Do the research to define the product.

This stage is what most UX researchers are familiar with. At the early stage of product development, researches are needed to generate a clearer definition of the product. I view this early-stage research system as a bi-directional system: top-down research approach and bottom-up research approach.

By top-down approach, I mean conducting comprehensive analysis on precedent similar products to (1) avoid reinventing the wheel; (2) get a quick understanding of the product through a short cut.

Bottom-up approach, on the other hand, requires more time and efforts to learn the target users as well as communicating with clients to define the product. User-centered design methods such as ethnographic study, contextual inquiry, interview & focus groups, and task analysis can be used to this end.

  • Create the designer model / represented model.

After gathering and analyzing all the data, models can be used to represent research findings. As pointed out by Allan Cooper in About Face 3 (a must-read for UX designer/researcher), there will be 3 models in a product: users’ mental model, represented model (or designer model), and implemented model (or programmer model).

Users’ metal model represents what users see and understand in front of a product – a perceived product.  This can be studied and represented as persona and persona-based scenarios.

Implemented model or programmer model is the actual mechanism that runs the product, mostly only understood by programmers.

The huge gap between users’ mental model and implemented model is bridged by represented model (designer model). It is through this represented/designer model that users interact with the product. Thus, Cooper pointed out that a good design is having a represented model as close to users’ mental model as possible.

Mental Model, Represented Model, and Implemented Model by Allan Cooper

Mental Model, Represented Model, and Implemented Model by Allan Cooper

Since the represented model is the exact layer we are designing, it becomes the focus of the Function Specs writing. Meanwhile, its bridging nature also means that whatever we are designing on this layer, we should always keep users’ mental model and technical limitations in mind and open the communication channel to stakeholders and programmers.

  • Design the information architecture.

So, when we focus on the represented model, what exactly we should consider? The first and foremost step, as what we learned in sketches, is the architecture of the application. Try to think about these questions: What are the key pages users need to visit? What is the function of each page? What elements and contents should go to each page? After answering these questions, we will be able to establish the structure and flow of the information.

At this stage, flowcharts, interactive prototypes, and wireframes can be very helpful to organize thoughts, represent results, and provoke discussions. Wireframes are extremely helpful to gather stakeholders’ feedbacks on functionality and architecture of the product because it strips out distractive design elements entirely. The core objective at this stage is to get the represented model onto paper, in the form of flow of key pages and navigation design.

  • Design documents

Design documents can be viewed as pre-Functional Specs documents. We can put all we have together and document all the feedbacks. Based on this, more detailed Functional Specs can be built. A lot of iterations will happen at this stage, including redesign of information architecture, visual appearance, and detailed interactions. Through several iterations, the team might be able to get to a clearer view of the product and reach final consensus.

  • Functional Specs

Here comes the final step. To this end, we need to write up the Functional Specs to put everything we’ve been discussing and improving on the paper. This again, makes sure that our clients are aware of and agreed on what we are going to built and the programmers have the “Bible” that they can refer to. More technical requirements (say, which development technologies to use) might need to be discussed with programmer representatives.

So, in the end, what makes good Functional Specs? Check if the Functional Specs have following characteristics:

  • Blueprint. The Functional Specs should give an overview of what this product is about and who are the target users. This helps to build the consensus among the whole team. However, don’t include unnecessary research data (especially those “raw data”) to confuse and overwhelm programmers. A clear table of content is also very important to facilitate a holistic understanding towards the scope of the product.
  • Exhaustive details. Try to include all the teeny-tiny interactions going to happen in the app. Company the explanation with corresponding screen shots. This could be harder than we thought – there might be a lot more “what-if” situation that we didn’t fully consider, which could cause a lot of confusions and communication cost once deployed to programmers. Practice and a good eye is needed.
  • Consistent and concise writing. Use the same design language throughout the document. Don’t use two terms to refer to the same elements. For example, do not randomly use “drop-down list” and “drop-down menu” interchangeably in the same document.

This learning notes are based on class materials, and some more readings, especially the following two. They provide clear and in-depth explanation on Funcional Specs, with great examples.

Functional Specs Tutorial by Allen Smith

Painless Functional Specs Tutorial by Joel Spolsky

Next time, I will briefly review the Agile development model and discuss how we adopt it in our projects.


The future of biometric data tracking isn’t about devices, it’s about experiences

As a person with Biomedical Engineering background, I am so happy to see the coming trend of body-centric technologies. With carefully-designed UX, they can create a new way of social interactions.


Everywhere you look these days, there seems to be yet another sensor-enabled device or mobile app that wants to monitor everything from your heart rate and posture to your brain waves and breathing patterns.

But mainstream adoption of technology that helps people better understand their bodies won’t just happen because of more sophisticated sensors or engineers who are smarter about manipulating data. According to Dr. Leslie Saxon, head of the University of Southern California’s Center for Body Computing, biometric data tracking will have its “iPod moment” and spread to the masses when it’s packaged with experiences that improve the way we receive healthcare, communicate with friends and even enjoy movies and music.

“Everybody, right now, is so focused on the sensor and the engineering and nobody’s really focused enough, in my view, on the experience,” she said. “That’s going to make the products that hit the home-runs, that…

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Promoted Pins Come to Pinterest – How Bad is it?

Tonight, I received an email from Pinterest – beginning with a heart-touching story of how he used Pinterest to collect precious moments of his son, Pinterest CEO Ben then rolled out the idea of experimenting pin promotion on Pinterest as a profit channel to maintain the operation of the site.

We are not new to the idea of content promotion: Facebook and Twitter jumped into the realm earlier. While Pinterest guaranteed that the promotions won’t be disruptive because they will be transparent (you know which pins are promoted pins), relevant (the pins will be consistent with something you are interested in), and listening to your feedbacks (machine learning helps to improve the relevancy), we knew both Facebook and Twitter promotions do the same thing.

So, what do you feel about content promotions so far on Facebook and Twitter? Comparing to Facebook and Twitter, what kind of experience you are expecting for promoted pins on Pinterest?

For me, the more emphasis on content exhibition the site has, the less the effect of promoted content has. For example, the news feed on Facebook is really about the performance of the people. In this case, the sneak promotions are relatively incompatible with the main focus and interests of the users. While on Pinterest, the role of content publisher is really minimized and deemphasized in the visual level with heavy emphases on the contents themselves (see the screenshot below). As long as the smart machines promotes “tasty” pins, which I am pretty sure they are capable of, the user experience won’t be compromised much.

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 1.47.27 AM

Sometimes we need to embrace this win-win situation, don’t we?

Social Media as The Battlefield of Marketing

I was at the ExactTarget’s annual Connections conference on Tuesday. It was a great learning experience listening to the talks given by @kyleplacy and @scottdorsey on the state-of-the-art marketing technologies. I paid special attentions (selective attention maybe) to the role that social media plays in digital marketing. Here, I would like to reflect some take-aways from this conference. These points are by no means comprehensive enough to cover the topic of social media marketing, but rather elaborations on the notes I took at the conference.

Brand Co-creation

Brand co-creation is a marketing strategy that tries to achieve amplified branding impacts through engaging consumers. The emerging of social media changes the landscape of marketing, from segmented and passive consumer groups to connected and active consumer groups. This shift is similar to the idea of “context collapse” as discussed in class, as the connectivity and transparency of social media breaks the barriers between different social/consumer groups. By leveraging the power of social media, marketing can be much cheaper and more efficient for the companies and enjoyable for the consumers.

Does the following screenshots look somehow familiar? Are you also part of the co-creation process?

Toms #travellingTOMS compaign

Toms #travellingTOMS campaign

Shutterfly FB campaign events

TOMS encourages customers to post traveling photos with their TOMS shoes in the photos, and Shutterfly asks you to invite your friends to personalize and get a free photo book while you get a 50% discount. When you think about these events and many other out there, you will be amazed by how these events can bring companies thousands of clicks, transactions, brand awarenesses, and storytelling-style advertisements. All you need to pay is some free photo books and let you do the work for them. Also, use of the hashtags (#) makes the brands more recognizable, and makes it easier for companies to gather and analyze the data.

Personalized Experience:

Coming closely with brand co-creation is the personalized experience – individuals create unique experience interacting with the companies through the co-creation events facilitated by the companies. This helps to create stronger bonds between customers and the brands. Another perspective to see personalized experience is from the big-data point of view. By acquiring more and more information through social media, companies are able to deliver more personalized, and context-awared information to customers. Relevance driven by data is the key to create this kind of tailored experience. That is also what we talked about in the first week of class: “data is the internal Intel”. Data is a core value of social media.

Consumer Mobility

Based on a Gartner’s report, by 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide and that by 2015 over 80 percent of the handsets sold in mature markets will be smartphones. The change of market is not only manifested as the increased quantity of mobile devices, but also on consumer behaviors: based on another report from Gartner, worldwide mobile transaction values will reach $235.4 billion in 2013, with a 44% increase from 2012, with an expected 35% annual growth between 2012 and 2017. All this data is suggesting an important marketing as well as UX-design lesson: whenever a social-media campaign is planned, usage through mobile devices should be primarily addressed.

It was amazing to see how user/customer experience can be enhanced by these digital marketing approaches. This not only helped me to better understand the business behind social media but also provided me with a new perspective to look at UX.