The struggle between Writing and Design, or Why everyone should write

Thinking about writing at Melissa's Food Shop, Cape Town.

How good I am at my job as a software Product Manager depends on my ability to do two things: Understand the needs that real people have when they go online (whether they can articulate it or not), and building products that satisfy those needs as well as meet business goals. It occurred to me this morning that in many ways writing is about doing the exact opposite. To a large extent, writing is about being selfish.

Virtually any book or article you read about writing gives the same advice: Write what you know and what you’re passionate about. Write what’s in you, not what you think people want to read. Just last week James Shelley reminded us that people cannot help but notice an individual with passion. In another post he says:

Although passion may at times appear dangerous, the planet does not need less human passion right now, it needs more passion than ever before “” passion that refuses to be immunized by the lulling caress of consumption and the crippling inundation of knowledge.

But it is this apparent struggle between Design and Writing (with a big D and W) that makes it so damn difficult to write sometimes. As user experience designers we’re trained to get out of our own shoes and into those of others. It’s about their needs, not our likes and dislikes. “You are not the user,” we often say.

But I have a feeling that the best writers (and designers, for that matter) are those who are able to balance this apparent conflict between user needs and internal passion effortlessly. Writers and designers who truly astound us with their work are those whose understanding of what people need are so ingrained in their beings, so much part of them, that they’re able to express their passion in a way that meets those needs “without fuss or bother,” as the NN Group definition of User Experience states.

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Humble Design

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of humility in design. About a month ago David Gillis said the following in a great article for UX Magazine:

When it comes to designing experiences, cultivating a humble approach is absolutely essential. The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness – a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong. Humility is about knowing what you don’t know, and when it comes to dynamic, interdependent, multi-platform systems, there are an awful lot of unknowns.

And then there’s this tweet by a good friend that’s been on my mind for a while now:

Humble

Ain’t that the truth.

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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.

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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…)

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