Embracing boredom

In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other Sherry Turkle tells a story about having dinner in Paris with her daughter, Rebecca. While they are eating, Rebecca gets a call from a friend in Boston, asking if sh’s available for lunch. Rebecca simply answers that it won’t be possible, but that Friday could work. She doesn’t even tell her friend that sh’s currently in Paris. Sherry has mixed feelings about this:

I was wistful, worried that Rebecca was missing an experience I cherished in my youth: an undiluted Paris. My Paris came with the thrill of disconnection from everything I knew. My daughter’s Paris did not include this displacement.

I told me wife this story later that evening, and we started talking about our own tumultuous 30-day backpacking trip through Europe at a time when our relationship was”¦ well, let’s just say it was on less stable ground than it is now (remind me to tell you how we broke up on top of the Eiffel tower and got back together in Venice).

We talked about the truth in Sherry’s words – how being so utterly disconnected from the rest of the world played a big role in our ability to immerse ourselves in the newness and strangeness of the culture around us. We were only able to check email about once every 3-4 days. I can’t even imagine how I’d be able to go that long without email now, but back then it wasn’t a big deal. Less email = more time for walking through the streets of a new city.


Being your own biggest critic

Ryan Singer in Identifying conflicts in a UI design:

When I’m working on a UI design I look for things that are wrong. I have to do that because ther’s no checklist of things that are “˜right’ that make a perfect product. You can’t check a requirements list and say “Yep, everything’s there!” and conclude that you made a good design. You have to look at the design itself and hunt around for problems: things that cause friction, things that aren’t clear, things that take too long, things that break expectations. These conflicts are the heart of design. If we could just pile features one on top of the other, we wouldn’t have to do design. Design is what you do when piling elements onto each other doesn’t work. It’s the process of identifying and resolving conflicts.

This is so true. As the debate about unsolicited redesigns rage on (most recently on ignore the code), I often think about the dangers of pointing out the flaws in designs. I try to remind myself that there are most likely missing details and nuances behind design decisions that I don’t know about. As Rebekah Cox says:

Design is a set of decisions about a product. It’s not an interface or an aesthetic, it’s not a brand or a color. Design is the actual decisions.

That said, Ryan’s article reminded me that pointing out what’s wrong with a design (based on objective principles, not feelings) is the most effective way to figure out what’s right. And that process has to start at home. If we’re serious about relentless quality we have to be the biggest critics of our own designs.

Deluge of Content on the Web Swamps Yahoo (and puts content creators in a tough spot)

The Wall Street Journal in Deluge of Content on the Web Swamps Yahoo:

As Web traffic explodes, Internet companies are struggling to profit off ads shown next to the articles, videos and other content offered to viewers. It’s a simple rule of any market. The more information that is created, the more the value is reduced. And despite attempts to woo spending with bigger, bolder and more targeted ads, services that help consumers navigate that content, namely search, remain the big money makers online.

As I (and many others) have written before, it doesn’t look like display advertising is a sustainable business model for media sites going forward (and I think we can agree that it makes for a pretty bad user experience). This puts content creators in quite a predicament: how do you make money from producing content? The WSJ piece points to the central problem here:

“People tell me that content is king, but that is not true at all,” says Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategy and innovation officer at Vivaki, the digital-media unit of Publicis Groupe SA. “Most people make money pointing to content, not creating, curating or collecting content.”

Although the value of pointing to content is indisputable, we need a better way than display ads for content creators and curators to make a living. And I don’t think we quite know what that looks like yet.

A Fresh Look At Usability Heuristics

Alex Faaborg for UX Magazine in Debating the Fundamentals: The geographic, temporal and political nature of usability heuristics:

On the surface, usability heuristics provide a simple checklist for making any interface perfect. But what is fascinating about them is the extent to which all of the heuristics are actually in direct opposition to each other, the extent to which they are geographic and temporal, and the extent to which they expose the designer’s underlying political views (at least in the domain of things digital). Usability heuristics present a zero-sum game with inherent tradeoffs, and it is simply impossible to achieve all of the heuristics simultaneously.

This is the best UX article I’ve read in a while. Like most UX designers I live and breathe the usability heuristics, and have always been reasonably comfortable with the tradeoffs, but this article perfectly articulates the complex interplay at work.

But it’s not just a theoretical exploration, I really appreciate the thought put into the practical approach to managing these complexities:

Novice designers memorize the list of usability heuristics and try to employ them in their work. As a more experienced designer, you may have already seen a deeper dynamic at play here. Instead of using heuristics as a simple checklist, try placing pairs of the heuristics against one another in a spider graph.  Achieving every ideal isn’t possible because the pairs exist in direct opposition. Realizing this, the challenge shifts to shaping a design that captures as much surface area as it can, given all the opposing forces.

This is one of those “I wish I wrote that” articles.

Hot Shots, Shoelaces, and Designing for Ordinary People

There’s a scene in Hot Shots! Part Deux (shut up, we all have our guilty pleasures) where Charlie Sheen’s character (Topper Harley) rescues Rowan Atkinson’s character (Dexter Hayman) from prison. The conversation goes something like this:

Topper: Dexter, I’m here to rescue you. Dexter: You don’t understand. I can’t walk. Topper: Why? Dexter: They tied my shoelaces together. Topper: Bastards!

The joke is funny, of course, (shut up, it is funny!) because of the ridiculous nature of the claim that tying someone’s shoelaces together can somehow stop them from walking around. We look at the situation from the outside and think they’re idiots – don’t they realize they can just untie Dexter’s shoelaces?

I often think of this scene when I hear designers defend their decisions by insisting that users will “figure it out”. I hear statements like “it’s not our fault that they can’t use this feature”, and I think about users with their shoelaces tied together, unable to move. We look at them with pity in our eyes – if they could only see the obvious and untie the knot, they would have no trouble using the site.


In defense of RSS

There was plenty of chatter about RSS over the weekend, mainly because of this “you’re doing it wrong” article on Ars Technica.

Most of the responses I’ve seen are strong defenses of RSS, and I’m happy about that. There has been so much talk about Twitter replacing RSS that I’ve been wondering if anyone else still uses it as much as I do. In fact, because of the iPad and apps like Reeder, my RSS usage is at an all-time high.

Marco Arment argues for a combined Twitter/RSS setup:

I can follow tons of low-traffic sites and keep my reading list more diverse than if I relied only on social links, but other people ensure that I never miss anything great on the high-volume sites.

Ben Brooks has a different use case (more similar to mine) – he subscribes to lots of feeds, but he doesn’t allow the unread count to bother him. He makes a good point about not blaming RSS if you feel overwhelmed:

A tool is a tool. Should I get mad at my car because there are thousands of miles of road I haven’t driven yet to drive? No. If you don’t like RSS don’t use it. If you want to use it but don’t want to have thousands of items, then use it like Marco does. Or use it like I do and check the feeds more often.

But of course, no discussion on RSS is complete until its creator weighs in. Dave Winer blames feed readers (like Google Reader) and their insistence on showing you how many unread items you have, and asks us to separate that from the technology itself:

If you miss five days of reading the news because you were on vacation (good for you!) the newspaper you read the first day back isn’t five times as thick as the normal day’s paper. And it doesn’t have your name on the cover saying “Joe you haven’t read 1,942,279 articles since this paper started.” It doesn’t put you on the hook for reading everything anyone has ever written. The paper doesn’t care, so why does your RSS reader?

These guys all make a very good case for RSS so I’m not going to say too much more about it. I do want to add something I haven’t seen mentioned before though: using folders in your RSS reader to help manage the deluge of information. Here is a screenshot of my folder structure in Reeder:

RSS folders

I have a certain set of blogs that I tag as favorites, and those are the ones I read first. If ther’s time I move on to the others.

Note that I have a folder called “Large tech blogs”. The usual suspects are in there: TechCrunch, Mashable, Ars Technica, Wired… These blogs post a lot, so when the unread numbers get out of control I typically just scan some headlines and then mark all as read. With the big blogs I know that if something is really important, Twitter will tell me.

RSS will remain an important part of my workflow, and since I turn dock unread badges off, I don’t feel like my app of choice is silently judging me.

Setting up folders and actively managing your RSS feeds is hard work. But the payoff is huge for me – I can quickly get a broad overview of what’s going on in the industry without having to rely on the fleeting nature of a tweet coming across my timeline.

I’m a die-hard fan.

(By the way, if you’re interested in following my shared items, you can do so here)


Apple and Faster Horses

The Harvard Business Review says they have proof that Henry Ford never said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It’s an interesting piece, but it’s the conclusion I want to quote here:

The real lesson learned was not that Ford’s failure was one of not listening to his customers, but of his refusal to continuously test his vision against reality, which led to the Ford Motor Company’s failure of continuous innovation, resulting in a catastrophic loss of market share from which it never recovered.

Translation: regardless of where your innovative ideas come from, make sure you test those ideas with users and learn from their feedback.

The iPhone might have been one man’s vision, but the way users interacted with the first generation iPhone paved the way for the iPad and the iPhone 4. They tested their vision with a real product, and then learned from it.

Content Designed to Manipulate Users

Back in 2004 Adam Greenfield wrote down some ethical guidelines for user experience in ubiquitous-computing settings. He starts off as follows:

Principle 1: Default to harmlessness. Ubiquitous systems must default to a mode that ensures their users’ physical, psychic and financial safety.

That might sound a little overly dramatic, but as we’ll soon see, it’s a very important principle for a designer to keep top-of-mind. Adam goes on to say this:

Principle 5. Be deniable. Ubiquitous systems must offer users the ability to opt out, always and at any point. As an absolute ethical imperative, users must be afforded the ability to make their own meaningful decisions regarding their exposure to ubiquitous perception, the types and channels of information such exposure will necessary convey, and the agencies receiving and capable of acting on such conveyance. Critical to this is the ability to simply say “no,” with no penalty other than the inability to make use of whatever benefits the ubiquitous system offers its users.

Now. Think about those principles, and then have a look at the newsletter preferences page for eBucks:

eBucks Newsletter Preferences

The text in the opt-out line reads:

I’m not concerned with my eBucks balance and I don’t think I should be the first to know about all the latest news.

It’s an interesting content approach taken by eBucks, and one I would argue violates both principles I quote above. They are basically making you feel out of touch (“be deniable”) and a little bit stupid (“default to harmlessness”) if you don’t subscribe to their newsletter. Are they also implying that you won’t be able to view your balance if you don’t subscribe? Probably not, but it can be interpreted that way.

Fast forward a few years after Adam’s article, and we now even have a name for this type of tactic. It’s a classic example of persuasion design:

Persuasion design doesn’t share User-Centered Design’s ethical neutrality. Instead, it makes an implicit but undeniable judgment that certain behaviours are preferable to others. Persuasion design prioritises business goals above those of the user, and its values are irreconcilable with empathy, the central value of User Experience.

This is just one example, but you can see it everywhere. It might seem innocent at first, but it’s such a slippery slope to the evil of dark patterns. We need to consider the implications very carefully before we employ such techniques.

Speaking the web’s language

Frank Chimero on why designers should learn to code:

Design decisions are not only affected by the characteristics of the content being designed, but also the qualities of the format. The best way to understand the characteristics of the web is to speak its language. Good design and good markup provide structure to content. Good markup is a fundamental part of good design: beautiful on the inside, beautiful on the outside. HTML and CSS give another venue to provide structure to content in the native language of the web, and learning these guides decisions by surfacing the affordances of the medium. Design decisions are affected by both the content and the format, like how a sculptor would make different decisions if she were working with clay rather than marble.

Spot on. The whole post is worth a read, and Frank gives some good suggestions for resources to help designers get started on coding.

New Rules for Effective Customer Service

A couple of weeks ago our 2-year old daughter threw my wife’s phone in the swimming pool. The resulting journey through the Vodacom customer service labyrinth to replace the phone was frustrating, but it also gave me a new level of understanding and empathy for the immense challenges of providing customer service to hundreds of thousands of people.

This is an article about social media, customer support channels, and the principles every company should establish in their culture to serve their customers better. And (spoiler alert!) I do manage to get a new phone for my wife.

“Umm, So, Our Daughter Threw My Phone In The Pool”

What’s most surprising about getting a call about my wife’s phone suddenly finding itself at the bottom of our pool is how completely nonplussed I was about the whole thing. When you become a parent the kinds of things that upset you change significantly. I think I’ve discovered a pattern: if there is no blood involved, there’s really no reason to get upset. So after establishing that there was no blood involved, I proceeded to the next step – trying to replace the phone.



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