Aesthetic longevity is the new product expiration date

In Beauty Is Free, Mimi Zou argues that quality has become a given in most products, so beautiful design is one of the primary ways to differentiate in a crowded market:

In a time when products outlast their reliability expectations, has aesthetic longevity become the new expiration date? While it’s not viable to design for changing tastes, it remains that the aesthetics of a product should always be given great emphasis: be it physical, digital or a manifestation of both. Keeping vitality in mind, the aesthetics of a good product should complement its functionality and be made with full intent. The most insightful designs are those which are not only competitive in quality and cost, but also uncompromising in aesthetics.

I’ve always defended aesthetics in web design in particular by arguing that it builds trust, increases engagement, and elicits the appropriate emotional responses to the brand (i.e., consistent with the brand promise).

This article gives us another reason to push for a relentless focus on good aesthetics: since most products now have a baseline quality that is good enough, users expect beautiful products.

Also, this.

I made this on a Mac

It’s amazing to see the outpouring of condolences and memories and stories about Steve Jobs and the effect that he’s had on our lives. What’s most telling to me is the countless people – myself included – who feel like we have a connection with him because of the products he brought into this world. That’s extraordinary.

This morning I counted the number of Apple products we have in our house (12), and I realized that Steve Jobs and those products helped me figure out what I want to do with my life. He showed us the power of beautiful design, and he built products that want you to succeed in whatever it is that you choose to make.

I think Seth Godin said it best:

Steve devoted his professional life to giving us (you, me and a billion other people) the most powerful device ever available to an ordinary person. Everything in our world is different because of the device you’re reading this on.

What are we going to do with it?

I made this on a Mac. And this Mac will continue to inspire me to make better things.

Thank you, Steve.

Update: Of course Frank Chimero would come along and say what I was trying to say, only much better:

That sadness [you feel] is for the loss of a man who unabashedly devoted his life to making things that helped others live well.

We all have that same opportunity. Take a moment to consider your job. Boil it down to its essence: you make things for other people. The most important concept to learn from Jobs is embedded in how we feel after using one of his products. That very same thing is happening now in his wake. Look closely and you will see it: wonderful experiences have an afterglow to them. The delight we find in what we do is in some way lost in the moment, but captured in our memories.

Update 2: There are so many amazing tributes coming through that it’s hard to keep up. I want to preserve the ones that spoke to me in some way, so it might as well be in this post. Here is Michael Lopp:

My first thought as I stared long and hard at Appl’s home page yesterday wasn’t a specific Steve story or one of his many insightful quotes. The thought was”¦

You are underestimating the future. You are fretting about the now; worrying about little things that don’t matter. You are wasting precious energy obsessing over irrelevant details. You don’t believe that a better future is out there and can be built, that it can exceed peopl’s expectations, because you’re spending so much time considering the truth of the present and the seemingly important lessons of the past.

You are underestimating the future because you believe you cannot see it, but you can – you’ve seen it done before.

Update 3: Ok, just one more (I think). Here is Shawn Blanc in 3rd-Party Family:

You and I are on the same team. We all are. We may link to the same articles, review the same products, develop apps for the same market, and design with the same intense perfectionism, but we are a community. Let’s continue to fight for each other, encourage each other, and work together to make amazing things.

We are the 3rd-party family of Apple nerds. Let’s make a dent.

I’ll drink to that.

“Sooner or later you will wake up screaming”

This is such a great story. In How I became a cartoonist, Tom Fishburne explains his journey from drawing cartoons as a side hobby to turning it into a successful business:

I then faced the terrifying decision of when and how to jump and leave a safe job behind to make it a real business. I found inspiration in a quote from David Hieatt: “There is a point on a runway during takeoff that a plane reaches V1 speed. Once it passes V1 it has reached the point of no return. The point where the take off cannot be aborted. The plane has to take off. Or crash.” He suggested that entrepreneurs draw their own V1 line, and then jump when they reach that point.

Here he explains how he dealt with one of his early setbacks:

When you do something entrepreneurial, sooner or later, you will wake up screaming. I discovered that I started to have pain in my wrist if I drew for longer than 20 minutes. This is a problem when you make a living with your hands. It scared me. I highly recommend that you never ever google any health issue you fear you might have. Fortunately, I was able to change my behavior by wrapping my pens in foam rubber, using ergonomic keyboards, and wearing a wrist splint. The pain went away. I learned that any setback is just a test to see how badly you want something.

There is so much honesty and wisdom in this essay – you have to read the whole thing.

Design and copy changes in the new Windows 8 “blue screen of death”

In a recent episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber and Dan Benjamin pointed out something interesting about the Windows 8 redesign of Microsoft’s well-known “blue screen of death”. First, here’s an example of what this screen currently looks like:


Notice how Windows essentially accepts the blame in this situation. The title of the page says “Windows”, and they give you the cold, hard facts: An exception occurred. The application will be terminated, and you have to restart. Sucks to be you.

Compare that to the redesigned screen for Windows 8:


Notice all the subtle differences here. The emoticon to put you at ease. The nice font. The assurance that they will restart the computer – you don’t have to do it yourself like in the previous version. But most of all, notice the copy changes.

Your PC ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle and now it needs to restart.” In this version Windows isn’t the culprit any more – your PC is. Your computer did something it shouldn’t be doing so it broke. “But hey,” they say, “don’t worry, Windows has your back and is swooping in to save the day!”

It’s a subtle change in design and copy, but credit where it’s due: this is pretty clever.

Designing for permanence

Jennifer Fraser brings up an interesting point in What I Bring to UX From “¦ Architecture:

As an architect, the implicit permanence of designing a building carries with it a sense of responsibility”¦ I can’t help but wonder if we would have better designed products if some of that responsibility and sense of permanence of architecture found its way into what we do as user experience designers.

We live in an environment where most web design is seen as variable. With A/B testing, Minimum Viable Products, and the prevalence of Content Management Systems, nothing is set in stone. If something doesn’t work, we change it immediately – and see the results of those changes immediately as well. This is a very good thing; optimizing user experiences is, after all, what we do.

But I do wonder what would happen if we felt the weight of responsibility a little more when we’re designing. What if we go into a project as if the design we come up with might be around for 100 years or more? Would we make it fit into the web environment better, give it a timeless aesthetic, and spend more time considering the consequences of our design decisions?

The role of UX in the future of products and services

Kyle Baxter in The Age of Insight, responding to a fantastic essay by Seth Godin called The forever recession (and the coming revolution):

We have to think about completely disparate fields””say, manufacturing, software development, design, and psychology””and combine them to make products that conform themselves to humans, rather than making humans contort themselves to the product in order to use it. We must think about big ideas””ideas that will change society and how people interact””and the little ideas that merely improve peopl’s lives just a little.

We have to think. This is an age where all of our gains will come from insights into what make products, services, processes, and structures fundamentally better for us. Whereas the twentieth century was about standardization and following a series of steps in a well-defined process, in this new century, there are no defined processes. Everything is to be questioned, re-thought, re-made, or even thrown out altogether.

I completely agree with Kyle’s view that we’re shifting from a world where users have to conform to products and services, to a world where those products and services go extinct quickly unless they conform to the needs of users. I further believe that the field of user experience design needs to be a central player in this shift. The theory, psychology, tools, techniques, and practice of user experience align perfectly with the type of thinking that’s needed to make things that work better for us.

One of the biggest issues holding us back from taking a leadership role in this space is the term itself: user experience design. There is so much not to like about it. “User” has a sterile, detached, almost robotic feel. “Experience” can mean absolutely anything, and opposition to the word is growing (and not just from Merlin Mann). And then there is “Design”, a word everyone wants to own – and despite some fantastic definitions out there, no one can completely agree on what it is.

But for better or worse, this is the term we’re stuck with. So we have a predicament. The UX community is fighting over semantics and who should be allowed to call themselves a UX designer. If we could just step out of that for a while and think about the larger implications we’d be able to see how perfectly positioned we are to drive this fundamental shift to better products and services.

We borrow from social sciences to bring ethnography to design so we can uncover needs by observing users in their natural environments. We borrow from psychology to design experiences that follow the principles of visual perception and emotion. We build on a very long tradition of graphic design. We use design thinking, product discovery, and all the tools and techniques that go along with that to come up with appropriate solutions to problems. The list goes on and on.

My wish is that, as a user experience community, we would move beyond the argument over what to call ourselves.  And that we would move beyond our focus on web design and take ownership of our ability to bring our skills to physical products as well as “services, process, and structures” (in Kyle’s words). Let’s be a big part of the coming revolution.

Breaking down silos is not *that* naive

Jason Mesut made quite a few waves this week with his presentation Truth and Dare – Out of the echochamber into the fire. It’s definitely worth your time so I recommend you click through and read it before you continue here. Ther’s a lot to like and a lot to think about.

Jason explicitly asks for feedback and counter-arguments, so I do want to address one slide in particular, shown below:

Naive silos?

Now, I might be putting the puzzle together wrongly here, but since these slides came out right after I published a two-part series on Smashing Magazine called “Breaking Down Silos”, I’m going to assume h’s talking about those articles. If my assumption is wrong this is going to be really awkward, but oh well.

So, let’s look at why Jason is calling this concept “naive”. I wasn’t at the presentation, so all I have to go on is his bullet points.

Organisations are complex

Of course organizations are complex, and if anyone tries to argue otherwise they’ve never worked in one. But I never said that this is simple:

There are no shortcuts to breaking down silos. You can’t fix the environment if the organization doesn’t understand the problem. You can’t improve the development process if the right environment doesn’t exist to enable healthy guidelines. You have to climb the pyramid brick by brick to the ultimate goal: better software through true collaboration.

I don’t propose “7 steps to a happier you” in the article. I propose a process of understanding the problems and unique needs of the organization, followed by a tailored solution that takes those unique needs into consideration.

People are better in small groups

I absolutely agree, and that’s why prioritization at an organizational level needs to take this into account and empower small teams to do the work without interference. Her’s what I said in the article:

[Once strategic priorities are set], projects would move to small dedicated teams, which would have complete ownership of the design and implementation. The product council sets the priorities, not the details of implementation”Š”””Šthose are up to the teams themselves.

I go on to talk about the importance of autonomy and the meaning people find in their work when they work in these small groups.

Change takes too long

I don’t understand the argument here, so maybe this is one of those “voice-over required” points. But if the argument is that change takes too long so we shouldn’t even try, I don’t buy it. Her’s how I end the article, again acknowledging how difficult it is:

Building collaborative environments is not easy, because change management is not easy. But the positive outcomes of doing this far outweigh the pain of making it happen. You’ll end up with happy, creative teams that feel a sense of ownership over what they’re building and a sense of pride in its quality.

I’d also like to point out that I wasn’t being academic in these articles. Everything I wrote is based on principles we’ve tried and applied in real life in the organizations where I’ve worked. There’s always room for improvement and growth, but this wasn’t a theoretical exercise.

I know this doesn’t matter that much in the bigger scheme of things, and I admit that the only reason I’m even writing about it is a slight irritation with the word “naive”. But if Jason is indeed referring to my article (again, this is going to be really awkward if he’s not) I at least wanted to clarify my viewpoint.

So there that is.

Authorship and the balance of science and art in design

I really like Adrian Shaughnessy’s view on design authorship and that constant struggle to find the right balance between art and science in design. From A Layperson’s Guide to Graphic Design:

As designers we are inclined to solve the problems of our clients, but we want to do it in our own way and in our own voice.

Of course, this takes us to the essential paradox at the heart of all types of design: the urge for a personal authorial voice is considered to be antithetical to rational objective design. To be truly objective, the designer needs to remove all personal feelings from the equation and zero-in on a rational solution “” or so we are told.

Yet there never was great design of any kind that forced the designer to eradicate his or her own voice, and all great design, the stuff that matters, has a strong personal signature which doesn’t impede functionality. Designers may not be artists, but they still want to “” metaphorically and literally “” sign the work they do.

(link via @justinspratt)

The implications of Amazon’s Silk browser

The most interesting part of today’s Amazon announcement is not whether or not they have an “iPad killer” (ugh), but the news of the new Silk browser that will run on the Fire. The details are getting lost among all the “Is Apple dead?” talk, so I wanted to point you to a couple of important articles about the implications of Silk. Here’s a recap of what it does, from their blog:

Instead of a device-siloed software application, Amazon Silk deploys a split-architecture.  All of the browser subsystems are present on your Kindle Fire as well as on the AWS cloud computing platform.  Each time you load a web page, Silk makes a dynamic decision about which of these subsystems will run locally and which will execute remotely.

Silk will use Amazon’s EC2 service to pre-cache web browsing, and in the process return heavily compressed images to the browser. There are two things that might not be immediately clear from their announcement and accompanying video.

First, this is not a new idea (and it can have pretty negative effects on user experience). Here is Mark Wyner in Amazon Silk. Just Like AOL Used to Make:

This is quite exciting news for the laymen. But does anyone remember AOL and their promise of accelerated browsing? They, too, elected to compress images and run a proxy server to deliver websites faster.

The result was horrible. Professional web designers take great care to build websites which are optimized for speed while retaining as much quality and visual integrity as possible. When ther’s a middle man degrading our work, it causes problems.

Second, the data mining and aggregation implications are quite staggering. Here is Chris Espinosa in Fire:

But what this means is that Amazon will capture and control every Web transaction performed by Fire users. Every page they see, every link they follow, every click they make, every ad they see is going to be intermediated by one of the largest server farms on the planet. People who cringe at the data-mining implications of the Facebook Timeline ought to be just floored by the magnitude of Amazon’s opportunity here. Amazon now has what every storefront lusts for: the knowledge of what other stores your customers are shopping in and what prices they’re being offered there.

I’m sure we’ll hear more about these issues (and of course the privacy implications) in the days to come, but for now these are two very interesting posts on the implications of Silk – definitely read through them both.

Slides: An introduction to user experience design

One of the talks I do at speaking events is a general introduction to the elements of user experience design. The slides are always evolving so I’ve been hesitant to upload the presentation to Slideshare since it will be outdated pretty much immediately. It’s also a presentation that relies heavily on the voice-over – it’s not really something you can just read from front to back.

Having said that, I think it’s time to put at least a version of the presentation online, with a bunch of disclaimers about how this is a simplified view of what UX is, that it requires explanation in a lot of areas, and that it’s definitely not exhaustive or the only way to think about UX. Here’s the summary:

In this talk I give an overview of the elements of User Experience Design, and more importantly, why you should care about it. The goal is to provide some baseline knowledge of the user-centered design process to equip anyone to take those skills back to their daily work and start applying it immediately. I discuss user experience research, content strategy, interaction design, and visual design, and how those elements work together to build great experiences.

So, here you go. I hope you find it useful.


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