Sleeping Kindles and designing for experiences beyond the web

I love Tom Armitage’s post Asleep and Awake, about the differences between the Kindle and the iPad. Here’s how he describes what happens when you wake each device up:

The Kindle blinks ““ as if it’s remembering where it was ““ and then displays a screen that’s usually composed of text. The content of the screen changes, but the quality of it doesn’t. Ther’s no sudden change in brightness or contrast, no backlight. If you hadn’t witnessed the change, you might not think there was anything to pay attention to there.

When the iPad wakes up, everything else in the room disappears; your attention’s been stolen by that burst of light.

He goes on to describe the Kindle as having a “quiet confidence” while the iPad constantly seeks your attention. The conclusion serves as a healthy reminder of the scope of true user experience:

The Kindle, much like a paperback book, is just as happy “asleep” as it is in use. It’s a reminder that the design of genuinely ubiquitous devices and products is not just about what they are like in use; it is also about what they are like when they are just present.

We need to remember that even on the web, we’re not just designing online experiences. All the touch points with users have to be designed. Yet we often don’t apply user-centred design principles to areas like customer support and logistics. Let the Kindle’s “asleep” state remind us to do so.

How to frame a UX project

Kelly Sutton provides a great reminder of what design thinking is all about in Your idea is terrible, a post about startups and the current obsession with “social layers”:

The problems that your project solves shouldn’t start with “Wouldn’t it be nice if”¦” Instead, they should always be phrased, “X sucks because Y and Z.” You may not even have a solution. Technology may not even be the right solution. But please stop adding social layers to social layers and raising 5 million dollarbucks.

Every UX project should be framed in the same way.

Don’t start with “What would happen if we move this button over here?” Instead, start with “Our checkout process sucks because our research shows that users are not seeing the ‘Pay now’ button.”

Windows 8, Metro UI, and why most people buy Windows PCs

Marco Arment recently wrote an excellent post about the differences between Apple and Microsoft customers. It got me thinking about Windows 8, Metro UI, and a slightly different theory on what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with the next version of their operating system. Here’s Marco:

People who aren’t willing or able to compromise on their needs regularly are much more likely to be Windows customers. The Windows message is much more palatable to corporate buyers, committees, middlemen, and people who don’t like to be told what’s best for them: “You can do whatever you want, and w’ll attempt to glue it together. It won’t always work very well, and you might not like the results, but we will do exactly what you asked for.”

He leaves out one important group of people who are also more likely to be Windows customers: regular users who don’t care about computers at all, and just want something to perform their daily email / browsing tasks on. Matt Gemmel sums up this crucial market really well:

The biggest (and most lucrative) set of customers is ordinary people, without a computing degree or specialist knowledge. These are people with no interest in specific technologies, but only in how easily they can finish today’s tasks without reading the manual. Apple caters to that market; companies who loudly proclaim their device supports CSS3 and MPEG4 and SDHC don’t even understand that it exists.

I agree with Marco’s (and Matt’s) main point: one of the main reasons for Apple’s success is their ability to compromise in the way that designers use the word: saying no to the right things. And that the Microsoft team will need to learn to compromise like that if they want to compete seriously on the tablet front.

Still, most people buy Windows PC’s not because they care about extensibility or because they have moral objections to Apple’s supposed walled garden. Most people buy Windows PC’s because they are just plain indifferent. It’s what they know, it’s what they’ve always used, and they don’t care enough about computing to consider other alternatives. This isn’t a good or a bad thing in itself, it’s simply the way it is. (more…)

The inventions that prevent information from vanishing

James Gleick provides a very interesting excerpt from his book The Information in the article How Information Became a Thing, and All Things Became Information. In the excerpt he discusses the inventions that allow us to record and preserve information (like the transistor and the “bit” as unit of measure), and how this fundamentally changed society:

The information produced and consumed by humankind used to vanish””that was the norm, the default. The sights, the sounds, the songs, the spoken word just melted away. Marks on stone, parchment, and paper were the special case. It did not occur to Sophocles’[1] audiences that it would be sad for his plays to be lost; they enjoyed the show[2].

Now expectations have inverted. Everything may be recorded and preserved, at least potentially: every musical performance; every crime in a shop, elevator, or city street; every volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; every card played or piece moved in an online game; every rugby scrum and cricket match.

It looks like a great book. James, if you’re out there, when will the Kindle edition be available?

 


  1. The Wikipedia entry on Sophocles is fascinating.↩
  2. Speaking of enjoying the show↩

Why I write: noticing and sharing

Frank Chimero in Stand Clear of the Closing Doors:

Noticing is important, but what’s more important is sharing what one observes to define the edges of the experiences we share. This overlap bonds us, and the best part of paying attention is that it reminds us that we are occupying the same space at the same time as others. We are a part of the world, even in those in-between spaces.

I’ve read many books and articles about writing and why we write, but this is probably the statement that comes closest to my own feelings about writing. I want to share the things I notice in an attempt to find some of those shared experiences and the overlap that bonds us.

C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I guess I write to know we are not alone – especially in an industry like ours that can sometimes feel very isolated.

Ok, that came out way heavier than I planned. In my defense, it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon. Anyway, here’s a video of a dancing cat to balance things out a bit.

Persuasion design in grocery stores

I recently wrote about persuasion design on the web. In How Whole Foods “Primes” You To Shop, Martin Lindstrom gives some great examples of how grocery stores use persuasion design tactics to get people to buy more:

Ever notice that there’s ice everywhere in this store? Why? Does hummus really need to be kept so cold? What about cucumber-and-yogurt dip? No and no. This ice is another symbolic. Similarly, for years now supermarkets have been sprinkling select vegetables with regular drops of water–a trend that began in Denmark. Why? Like ice displays, those sprinkled drops serve as a symbolic, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity. Ironically, that same dewy mist makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would otherwise. So much for perception versus reality.

I get it, and I understand that businesses need to make money, and this helps them do it. I don’t have to like it though, right?

Paving the cowpaths: using architecture concepts to improve online user experience

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with the parallels between architecture and web design. Dan Lockton recently published Architecture, urbanism, design and behaviour: a brief review – it’s an extract from his PhD thesis where he discusses how architecture can be used to influence behavior. It’s a long article, but well worth your time – I highly recommend it.

It’s full of architecture concepts that can be applied to designing for the web, but I want to discuss one in particular – the idea of “paving the cowpaths”:

One emergent behaviour-related concept arising from architecture and planning which has also found application in human-computer interaction is the idea of desire lines, desire paths or cowpaths. The usual current use of the term [“¦] is to describe paths worn by pedestrians across spaces such as parks, between buildings or to avoid obstacles “” “the foot-worn paths that sometimes appear in a landscape over time” (Mathes, 2004) and which become self-reinforcing as subsequent generations of pedestrians follow what becomes an obvious path. [“¦] [T]here is potential for observing the formation of desire lines and then ‘codifying’ them in order to provide paths that users actually need, rather than what is assumed they will need. In human-computer interaction, this principle has become known as “Pave the cowpaths” “” “look where the paths are already being formed by behavior and then formalize them, rather than creating some kind of idealized path structure that ignores history and tradition and human nature and geometry and ergonomics and common sense” (Crumlish & Malone, 2009). Particularly with websites, analytics software can take the place of the worn grass, and in the process reveal extra data such as demographic information about users, and more about their actual desires or intention in engaging in the process. [“¦] This allows clustering of behaviour paths and even investigation of users’ mental models of site structure. [“¦] From the point of view of influencing behaviour rather than simply reflecting it, the principle of paving the cowpaths could be applied strategically: identify the desire lines and paths of particular users “” perhaps a group which is already performing the desired behaviour “” and then, by formalising this, making it easier or more salient or in some way obviously normative, encourage other users to follow suit.

This is such an interesting perspective on user-centred design. We all know that we need to design for real user needs, and not what we think they want, but it’s often so hard to do all our design work from that perspective. That’s where real-world analogies like this can be extremely helpful.

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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.

(more…)

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.

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