On the creative process, getting started, and chasing Flow.

Last week I delivered a new talk at a Cape Town SPIN meeting (the Software Process Improvement Network). While I was preparing for it I thought of a working title for my next talk:

A talk about preparing a presentation for a talk about preparing a presentation for a talk.

You see, I have a love/hate relationship with new talks. I love delivering a new talk, and I love getting feedback on what worked and what didn’t. I love making it better. And I hate pretty much every moment leading up to delivering it.

But this is, of course, the problem with the creative process.  It’s blood, sweat, and tears, most of the way. Rands recently wrote a post entitled A Hard Thing is Done by Figuring Out How to Start. He writes:

Those who do not understand creativity think it has a well-defined and measurable on/off switch, when in reality it’s a walking dial with many labels. One label reads “Morose and apathetic” and another reads “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out”. This dial sports shy, mischievous feet – yes, feet – that allow it to simply walk away the moment you aren’t paying attention, and each time it walks away, it finds a new place to hide. I’ve spent a good portion of my life wondering where that damned dial is hiding.

He goes on to explain how random moments of discovery and seemingly useless tangents are all part of the preparation process, and that we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we’re struggling to get started. He closes with this:

W’re addicted to quick fixes, top ten lists, and four-hour work weeks, but the truth is – if it wasn’t hard, everyone would be doing it and a hard thing is never done by reading a list or a book or an article about doing it. A hard thing is done by figuring out how to start. You’ve been spending a lot of time thinking the result is what matters. You have a bright and shiny goal in mind that is distracting you with its awesomeness. It is this allure of awesomeness that is the continued reason why you keep searching around your house looking for that mischievous walking dial. My guarantee is that what is going to make this bright and shiny thing awesome isn’t finishing. It’s all the little, unexpected details you discover trying to start. It’s all the small pieces of unexplainable execution that will not only make it yours, but also continue to teach you how you get things done. And when you’re done, you’ll discover finishing, while cathartic, is just a good reason to go start something else.

I’ve absolutely found that to be true. My basic process for preparing a new talk is as follows:

  • First, I spend weeks researching and saving articles to Delicious.
  • Then I live in FreeMind for a few days, building the outline of the talk.
  • I then proceed to tell myself I’m ready to roll, so I  spend another week or more getting all those thoughts onto slides.
  • This is followed by several nights of bad sleep as I start seeing the holes in my thinking, and struggle to find the right words/pictures/length/style/order.
  • And then, suddenly and without fail, about two nights before the talk, I hit Flow. That “mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Things suddenly fit, I spend 10 minutes re-ordering slides and it suddenly all makes sense. From that point on, the process is an absolute joy.

Why is Flow so hard to find? Or is it meant to be hard to find, because the creative process requires struggle as its fuel?

Whatever the reason, Rands helped me relax a little bit and panic less during the beginning phases of the creative process. Because all those starts, stops, and anxiety eventually come together to collide in the ultimate high that happens when things just… flow.

The problem with fluid layouts, summed up in one screenshot

We’ve received quite a few questions about why we changed kalahari.net from a fluid layout to a 960px fixed width layout. There are pros and cons to both approaches, and Smashing Magazine did a great job of explaining those trade-offs in Fixed vs. Fluid vs. Elastic Layout: What’s The Right One For You?

For me, the most important reason to use a fixed layout is that it allows you to have full control over the experience and what the user sees on the screen.

But since a picture is worth a thousand words, I guess you can sum up the problem with fluid layouts with a single screenshot:

The most important characteristic of a good Product Manager

About a week ago I had a discussion with a colleague in our development team about the new product development process we rolled out a few months ago. One of the words he used to describe the new process is fair.

It was a passing comment and I didn’t really think much of it at the time, but since then I keep going back to that conversation, and the importance of fairness in the product management profession.

Loads of articles have already been written about the characteristics of a good Product Manager (see the end of this post for links to some of them). They’re all fantastic, and I go back to them constantly when I’m in the hiring process or looking for personal development areas. But I’ve never been able to find the one characteristic that I think a PM simply cannot do without. I now think that fairness is that characteristic. Here’s why. (more…)

Little UI details: Twitter iPhone app’s clever solution to Reply / Reply All

The Twitter iPhone app is getting a world of criticism right now, and I have to say I agree with most of it (for an excellent overview and analysis of one of the main issues, see Why the Quick Bar is still so offensive). But let’s also give credit where credit is due. As Little Big Details has shown us – sometimes small UI touches can take a user experience from “meh” to “awesome” pretty quickly. And I think the Twitter iPhone app’s implementation of replying to a tweet with multiple users in it does just that.

If you respond to a tweet with two or more usernames in it, you technically need two options: Reply (to reply just to the person who wrote the tweet) or Reply All (to mention everyone that’s mentioned in the tweet). So, two buttons needed, right? Not in the Twitter app. There is just one icon to reply to such a tweet, and the screen you get then looks like this:

The screen automatically selects all users that appear directly after the user who wrote the original tweet. So in essence the reply button gives you three options: (more…)

Improving usability with the visual design principle of Proximity

One of the most often violated principles of visual design is, ironically, also its simplest — the principle of proximity:

Put things that are related close together, and space things that need to be seen as separate

One of the more extreme and frustrating examples of this can be found on the online banking site for ABSA (a South African bank):

The problem here is that if I select a beneficiary from the list I have to click the “Next” button that is at the bottom of the screen — far removed from the action I took in the dropdown. Instead, the “Add new” button, used to create a brand new beneficiary, is in close proximity to the dropdown, and therefore gives the sense that the dropdown and the “Add new” buttons are grouped together. The solution to this problem is so incredibly simple: just switch the buttons around.

Another example I came across recently lives in Outlook for Mac 2011. Let me first say that as much as I’m not a fan of Microsoft, Outlook for Mac is still so much better than any version of Entourage, so for that I am eternally grateful. But the implementation of email search really needs some work.

(more…)

Proving the value of user experience design to organizations and clients

This is a question that doesn’t seem to go away: “How do I convince my company that good design is worth investing in?” It’s frustrating to work in an industry where you have to spend so much time showing the value of what you do.

At first I placed all the blame on (big) companies who are too cheap to pay for good design because they don’t think it’s necessary. But then I started to wonder… maybe some of it is our own fault? Maybe we just haven’t yet proven, within our industry and the companies we work at, that good design will result in positive ROI?

If I remember one thing from Marketing 101, it’s this obvious (but often forgotten) truth: Businesses exist to make money. Companies work so hard to make us happy for one reason only: so that we will buy more of their stuff. This seems obvious, but it’s important to remember. Because when you talk to the management teams of your organization/clients, telling them how beautiful their site will be once you’re done with it is just not going to cut it.

To prove the value of user experience design, you have to prove that by investing in it, the business will make more money. It’s as simple as that. Well, the concept is simple. The execution is… complicated. In this post I’d like to propose some ways to help us prove the value of design, so that we can spend more of our time building great experiences and less time telling people why they should build great experiences. (more…)

The KFM Website Redesign Project, or What’s Wrong With Our Industry

I just found out about the redesign “project” (not sure what to call it) that South African radio station KFM is kicking off (thanks for the heads-up @1rene, @kerry_anne, @allankent, @wendyrobb, and many others). Here is the ad for it:

I’ll stay away from the cheap shots you could take on the ad itself, because granted, they’re admitting they need a designer. Instead, I’d like to focus on two major problems with the idea itself, and what that means for the web design industry. (more…)

Best practices for user onboarding on mobile touchscreen applications

As the UX field grows and more companies start taking user-centered design seriously, we need to start thinking about how we’re going to rescue all those stray sheep of the UX world — those areas that are getting left behind because we’re (understandably) focusing on the obvious, most important things. Two of these “stray sheep” issues come to mind immediately.

One is bad error messages, which is the subject of a whole other rant, so I won’t go into that now (I’ve started a Flickr group to collect examples – come join and contribute!). The second is user onboarding, which Whitney Hess defines as follows:

Onboarding is the process by which you can help users overcome the cold-start problem””a blank profile, an unfamiliar interface, a general feeling of “what the heck do I do next?”

And that’s what I’d like to address in this post. (more…)

Design is about meeting business goals, not making you feel good

In this post I make the argument that companies should hire designers that have a strong foundation in psychology and design theory. I further make the case that when Product Managers and other UX practitioners give feedback on designs, they should move away from their personal visual preferences and instead focus on feedback that relates to the user and business goals they are trying to meet.

I recently had a discussion with an Interaction Designer friend of mine about the perils of Design by Committee.  His take on it was, in essence, as follows (paraphrased a little bit):

The problem is that everyone thinks they’re a designer. Not everyone can code, so they don’t go to developers telling them their markup needs to be more semantic or more valid. But everyone has a gut feel about design – they like certain colors or certain styles, and some people just really hate yellow. So since everyone has an emotional response to a design, and “it’s just like art,” they think they know enough about design to turn those personal preferences into feedback.

It is a real shame that we have come to this point where design just means “making things pretty” for some. Even among people who do understand it’s about more than that, there is sometimes this misconception that there is so much personal taste involved that “your guess is as good as mine.” And to add insult to injury, they way that feedback is given to the designer is often more destructive than helpful. Look, I’m not against design feedback at all – it’s an essential part of the process. But if you’re going to give feedback, do it right. More on that a little later.

The truth is that design is science. Yes, of course it’s a creative discipline, and every designer has a style they like, and strong ideas on aesthetics.  But it is important to understand that aesthetics is the last mile of design. Before that (if you do it right) comes hours and hours of analysis and thinking, resulting in solutions that are built on very real psychological principles, easily proven using the user experience validation stack.

(more…)

Inspiration for designers stuck in the ‘sheer undiluted slog’

I recently read two book excerpts, both about art and the creative process, that I think are extremely relevant to web design, so I wanted to share it here. The first is from the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, and it tells the story of a ceramics teacher on his first day of instruction:

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of the work they produced. All those on the right would be graded solely on their works’ quality. His procedure was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the quantity group; 50 pound of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on quality, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an A. At grading time, the works with the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the quality group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of clay.

The second is from Absolute Truths, where a character in Susan Howatch’s novel talks about the struggles she encounters as a sculpter: (more…)

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