Denny's musings on space, tech, writing, photography, books, comedy, and whatever

Category: Writing

User eXperience (UX) Writing and Design

As a sincere believer that technology improves our lives when it’s well implemented, I’ve always enjoyed making the products I love more accessible. This started with writing tutorials and tips pieces as a tech journalist. After I joined Microsoft, I was able to help make Windows and the Xbox even more accessible and useful to customers as a UX writer and producer. My user experience work has focused on listening to what works for customers, simplifying what frustrates them, ensuring key functionality is prominent, and making the experience friendlier.

I worked with the Xbox.com engineering team to design the My Xbox feature from the ground up. The concept was to make all your key communication and information as an Xbox gamer accessible no matter where you are, from messaging and viewing achievements to seeing what your friends are playing. I helped to design the text, the customer flow, and prioritize My Xbox’s launch features. Over a decade later, this feature still lives on as the Xbox Profile, and it continues to grow in popularity.

When the Xbox One launched, presenting a collection of related items to a customer was labor intensive, and the customer experience was poor, requiring them to click a game’s image to see the price and description. I worked with the engineering team to implement and evangelize collections. This feature provides an easily updated, catalog-based method for presenting collections of items for sales, events, and other promotions. Collections dramatically increased revenue by enabling larger and more frequent sale events on the Xbox One dashboard. The more efficient build and localization process of the catalog-based design let us present sales and other collections worldwide, instead of just in the highest priority regions. Collections also make for a much better experience by letting customers see a game’s price, discount, and details without forcing them to click through to each individual title.

When the Xbox One brought HD displays and smooth framerates to console gaming, our team felt like we could use those capabilities to really show off AAA game launches. Working with an amazing team of artists, designers, and coders on the Xbox Dash team, including Bruce Warren, Todd Bohanna, and Jana Sheehan, we created full-on multiple-page multimedia promotions to promote the launches of AAA titles like Ryse: Son of Rome, Halo 4, and Battlefield 4. Called Media Experiences (MEs), these modules included animated backgrounds; detailed explorations of game features, lore, and characters; videos, photos and music; and they allowed gamers to share excitement for the games via console messaging. MEs not only had significantly higher customer engagement than typical game detail page promotions, but they also provided a significant lift in preorders.

(Imagine this with animated rain and flashing fire, and the Battlefield theme playing.)

Building off the success of the web-based My Xbox, Microsoft decided to build a dedicated Windows Xbox app for Xbox One players, allowing customers to see and preorder/purchase new and upcoming games, communicate with friends, stream Xbox games to the PC, and more. As the gaming lead on the Xbox dash team, I ensured that the user experience followed best customer practices and I prioritized the functionality that our metrics indicated was top priority in the initial launch. After the application was relaunched to support the highly successful Game Pass subscription programming, I worked with the engineering team to refine the UX and prioritize the functionality for the Store section in the app.

Of all the UX work I’ve done, redefining the Windows UX, Help system, and troubleshooter process has likely had the most positive impact on customer experiences. Teaming with Windows engineers on areas such as audio devices, driver installation, and user access control, my team and I worked to make Help text more accessible (and we were the first team to use real-time customer feedback to further refine help information), to improve user interface text, and to make flows for processes more logical and streamlined. From significant changes like completely rewriting help files into a friendlier voice, to small but helpful details like adding illustrations of audio jack functionality, our team significantly increased customer satisfaction with the Windows UX in comparison to the legacy Windows XP/95 content we replaced.

Improving the user experience has always been a passion. When the Xbox engineering team was trying to get approval to do an unprecedented total revamp of the Xbox 360 user interface, I interviewed Marc Whitten, then the head of Xbox development, and created a faux Wired article fictionally describing the proposed “New Xbox Experience” a year after it launched. That article helped Marc get the greenlight from execs for a costly, risky revamp that continues to evolve today in the Xbox user interface. It’s awesome to power-on an Xbox 360 console and still see the fruits of the efforts my team and I made, and to see those improvements still reflected in the latest Xbox Series X|S.

Having started my technology enthusiasm in the days of typing LOAD “:*”,8,1 to start a game, and now loving an era of being able to just say  “Alexa, let’s play Star Trek trivia” anywhere in my house, it’s exciting to see how much the user experience has improved.

As we move forward into new frontiers like virtual and augmented reality, the continued improvement of digital assistants, and more, I’m psyched to see where the user experience will go, and excited to be a part of helping make these awesome, entertaining, life-improving technologies even more accessible to future audiences.

A Writing Sampler

I started writing professionally in grad school working on my MS in Communication, after making a bet with my roommate Jimmy on who could get published first in a computer magazine. I won the bet, and I’ve been writing and editing professionally since. Along the way I’ve done features, reviews, and tutorials for consumer magazines like OMNI, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, United Airlines Hemispheres, and a wide variety of technology magazines and websites, including Tom’s Hardware, ExtremeTech, c|net, Computer Shopper, Computer Gaming World, Handheld Computing, AmigaWorld, COMPUTE!, and many more. Also four books so far, and a ton of technical writing ranging from software manuals to Windows help files and user interface text. It’s been a bit like having writing class homework due throughout my entire life, but I love it.

Feature Articles

The Science of Star Trek
This was written for the late, great OMNI Magazine. I was able to interview science fiction production luminaries like Andre Bormanis and Mike Okuda while they were working on series like Star Trek: The Next Generation. This assignment also landed me a chance to visit the Deep Space Nine sets.

Virtual Blue Yonder: Fightertown Takes Off
Another OMNI article. The tour of Fightertown, a virtual air combat facility, was a blast, but the best part of this one was getting to fly in the back seat of a real USAF F-15D. I wish I’d had about four more pages to write about that part of the experience.

VR Headset Head-to-Head
A comparison of the Oculus Rift and HP Vive for Computer Shopper. I think the headline pun was just fortuitous.

Reviews

Cloud 9 C989 ergonomic keyboard (Tom’s Hardware)

Fnatic REACT+ headphones (Tom’s Hardware)

Oculus Rift VR headset (Computer Shopper)

Oculus Touch VR controllers (Computer Shopper)

HP Elite Slice PC (Computer Shopper)

Digital Storm Eclipse PC (Computer Shopper)

JVC Everio GZ-MG37 camcorder (c|net)

Books

Sony CLIE for Dummies (Wiley Publishing)
One of four technology tutorial books that I wrote or co-wrote, this one in the popular “…for Dummies” series. This is a PDF containing a few sample chapters to give you an idea of my accessible style when writing tutorials for novice and casual readers.

User Experience

UX Examples: Over the years I’ve helped make Xbox.com, the Xbox console, and even Windows easier to use and more accessible. Here’s a look at some of the work I’ve done,.

Manuals

BackupBuddy 2.0 (Blue Nomad Software)

Tutorials

Build a VR Powerhouse
I was given a $2,000 budget to design and build a fast PC for VR gaming. Part of Computer Shopper’s “Build It” series, the idea was to show not just what I chose, but explain why I chose those parts, and then talk about the process of putting it all together.

Video Scripting and Voiceover

I codesigned, cowrote, and cohosted Xbox LIVE’s Insider Moves game tips show along with Ryan Treit. This pioneering tips show, created when YouTube was still in its infancy, would often get over a million views each week on the Xbox 360 console. We aimed to provide content for novices and hardcore gamers alike, and incorporated humor and running jokes to keep people coming back even if they weren’t stuck in that particular game.

I’ve also appeared as a guest expert covering computer hardware and gaming on broadcast shows such as The Screen Savers and CNN Headline News.

Photography

Denny Atkin Photography on Facebook
A small sample of my photography. I’m a big aviation and space buff so you’ll find an emphasis on airshow pictures and drone panoramas, but there’s a bit more variety in my Samples Album. I’ve also taken hundreds of product photos to accompany reviews and feature articles; you’ll find some of those accompanying many of the articles above.

NASA Social Reporting

The Final Space Shuttle Launch
Day 1, Part 1:The Twent
Day 1, Part 2: Visiting the Launch Pad
Day 2, Part 1: Ground Control to @Astro_Ron
Day 2, Part 2: Go for Launch? Really?
I was lucky enough to be selected as one of about 100 social media representatives to view and report on the final Space Shuttle launch, STS-135, as part of the NASA Social program. Since then, I’ve also reported on the first test launch of the Orion capsule that will be used in NASA’s Artemis program, and on a visit to the NASA Armstrong center at Edwards AFB to report on aerospace research.

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