Ideas of March 2012

This is my contribution to Chris Shiflett‘s Ideas of March initiative, which encourages people to write about why they like blogs.

My love of writing comes from a love of problem-solving. There is a sense of pride and accomplishment in finding the right words to say something. And yet, great writing has an inherent unattainability to it that keeps me ever searching. There are good ways and bad ways to communicate something, but there is never a best way. It’s like a video game in the sense that you can level up by writing often, but it’s not a game you can ever beat. There is no big boss fight at the end that proves that you are now the best writer you can be. What keeps me going is the nagging sense that the last thing I wrote could have been written much better, so I’d better keep trying.

There are many benefits to writing, of course. Most importantly, it’s a problem solving technique in itself. By taking the time to structure your thoughts and your words in a way that other people need to understand, you tend to get a better understanding of what’s going on in your head. Clive Thompson addresses this well in The art of public thinking:

The process of writing exposes your own ignorance and half-baked assumptions: When I’m writing a Wired article, I often don’t realize what I don’t know until I’ve started writing, at which point my unanswered questions and lazy, autofill thinking becomes obvious. Then I freak out and panic and push myself way harder, because the article is soon going before two publics: First my editors, then eventually my readers. Blogging forces a similar clarity of mental purpose for me. As with Wired, I’m going before a public. I’m no longer just muttering to myself in a quiet room. It scarcely matters whether two or ten or a thousand people are going to read the blog post; the transition from nonpublic and public is nonlinear and powerful.

Writing in public continues to help me gain clarity about my thoughts and problems. That I expected. But I didn’t expect it to give me such a sense of community. The past few months have been especially gratifying, ever since I’ve been invited to become a contributor to Smashing Magazine. Through that process I’ve met amazing people, and through them, I think I’ve become a better writer. Which in turn helps me to solve problems better. It hardly seems fair that I gain so much from this community. If you’ll allow me the use of a ridiculous phrase, the ROI on my writing seems preposterously high.

I started my first blog on Windows Live Spaces in 2003. I’d just moved to the US and needed a way to feel connected to friends and family in South Africa. It’s 2012 now, and I don’t write on Windows Live Spaces any more. I also don’t live in the US any more. I’ve moved homes and countries and blogging platforms way too many times over the past 9 years. But looking back over many false starts and wrong turns in life and in blogging, I’m grateful for the thread of words that runs from my beginnings on Spaces, through the detour on Blogger, and now my own home on this domain. Somehow, those words anchor me.

So maybe writing this has once again shown me the error in my original thinking, just as it’s done so many times before. I was wrong in my opening paragraph. I don’t write because I love problem-solving. I write to know that I am here.

Never stop searching

This is a great interview with The Bad Plus. They talk about Jazz and finding your voice, but it’s this part on humility that stood out for me:

I prefer to think that it’s possible to always sort of double-check yourself and be like, “Is this really the right thing?” and be searching.  The classic jazz example is John Coltrane: consummate musician, but really never stopped searching. I don’t think he ever believed the hype about himself.  He could’ve been like, “Man, I got it, I’m great.”  But that’s not the feeling you get. Coltrane was incomparably great, but he was also just humbly trying to figure it out.

This should always be our attitude when we design as well. If we think that we’ve figured out how people use computers, or exactly how human psychology works, or that we can design the perfect, seamless experience – then we tend to start designing for ourselves at the expense of our users. Never stop searching.

See also: Humble Design.

Why I’m sticking with Instapaper

Readability recently released their new iOS app to lots of positive reviews and public declarations about “finally” being able to switch from Instapaper. For all I know Readability is a superior product, but I haven’t even considered moving away from Instapaper. I have no desire to investigate the new app. So either I’m crazy, or it’s indicative of a shift in how we view software – a shift towards the human connection that underlies everything we do online. Let me explain.

I’ve been using Instapaper for a long time, the last few months as a paid subscriber. But that shouldn’t actually count for anything. The switching costs for “Read Later” apps are low. It might be uncomfortable to have two distinct reading lists for a week or so, but after one list dies down and the other one picks up, everything would go back to normal. In most cases you can import your data into a new service, so you don’t have to lose any historical data. So if switching costs are low, and Readability could very well be a better app, why am I not interested?

My loyalty comes from the fact that I’m unable to separate Instapaper from its creator, Marco Arment.

Marco does something really smart that gives him a big advantage over the makers of other, similar apps: he makes himself extremely visible. But even more importantly, he does so as himself, with his own personality, as opposed to some tightly controlled and measured “social media brand engagement” thing.

His blog is required reading on all things from tech to coffee to headphones. I hear his complaints every week on the Build & Analyze podcast with Dan Benjamin. So, yes, it feels like I know Marco (don’t be creepy). Sure, I disagree with his opinion on cars, and I feel like he’s a little bit harsh on Nest. But that’s part of what makes Instapaper a unique app. Its creator is a real guy I can relate to, albeit in a sometimes frustrating way because his opinions are SO WRONG SOMETIMES.

Instapaper is one of only a few apps I can think of where I know the developer’s name, and actually know a little bit about them based on their online presence. Pinboard is another one. So is nvALT. But those are exceptions; in the majority of cases I don’t know who the developers of the apps I love and use every day are. I’ve now come to realize that it’s no coincidence that I have no intention of switching away from any of the apps I mentioned above. But if a better RSS reader than Reeder were to come along, I would most certainly investigate.

If there’s a point to this story, it’s this. We’re entering an era where software is personal. By now we’ve all gotten over the initial shock of how the Internet can remove geographical barriers and turn us into one big happy, arguing family. We’re coming to terms with the fact that the Internet is people all the way down[1]. So now we can start to figure out what that actually means. I think it means that we’re going to pay increasingly more attention to the people who make the things we use, and their personalities will become inseparable from their work. Loyalty will come from our relationships with people, not things.

Which is why I’m sticking with Instapaper.


  1. Frank Chimero in Issue #1 of The Manual

The vomit draft

This is such a gem of an interview with Andy Ihnatko that it’s hard to pick just one section to quote, but I’ll go with this one:

What’s your advice to new writers?

Build your whole workflow around the “vomit draft.” When you create a blank document, empty your mind of any expectations or aspirations. Just start typing. Never edit anything. Just get it all out of you and into the document. Type, type, type until you get to the end. The results will be horrible, but the hardest work is done: you’ll have taken a nebulous idea out of your head and created something that really exists. Then you fix, fix, fix.

Such great advice – I’ve started doing this on all longer pieces.

Embedding User Experience Design in large organizations: issues and recommendations

As part of the inaugural “Great IxDA Debate” at Interaction 12Jeff Gothelf was asked to defend the position “Interaction design is not a respected design discipline“. He made the following point in his opening remarks:

Most of our employers still see us as wireframe monkeys and pixel pushers. They see us as annotators and documenters ““ not as problem-solvers and product designers. They evaluate us based on our portfolios of decontextualized wireframes asking not how we solved the problem or what the outcome was but instead wondering what tool we used to create the straight lines in our wireframe decks.

I agree with Jeff that there are some major barriers to getting User Experience fully embedded specifically in large organizations. I think the core problem is that most large companies still don’t see Product (the site or app) as a “profitability lever” that can be pulled. Instead, they focus on two things that have stood the test of time through years and years of MBA classes: Marketing and Pricing. These levers usually result in immediate returns, and they are easy to quantify and measure over time.

For Marketing (including SEO and PPC) the equation usually looks this: More money invested = More traffic = Increased revenue.

For Pricing, it looks like this: Lower prices = Increased sales = Increased revenue (albeit at lower margins).

But Product lacks the immediacy and simple quantifiability that make the other levers so enticing. One version of the Product equation could look like this: Investment in UX = Increased conversion and/or better experiences = Long-term effect on loyalty, trust, and profitability. That doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way “MO’ MONEY, MO’ TRAFFIC!” does.

The consequence of UX not being seen as an essential profitability lever is that it’s rarely adequately represented in the upper echelons of large organizations. It’s mostly seen as an auxiliary function down in the trenches as opposed to a core foundation of the business.

I also agree with Jeff that we are partly to blame for this situation:

The fact that those within the profession struggle to unify around a name for our profession hurts our credibility.

Yup. I’ve never seen an industry so intent on undefining itself (like here, here, and here). But I digress…

The fact that our leaders cannot identify in concise and consistent terminologies what it is that we do, hinders our progress into the mainstream of the corporate world. The fact that we, as practitioners, fail to consistently and convincingly describe what we do and the impact we have on our teams, products and companies, speaks volumes towards the progress we still have to make to get the respect we deserve and that is afforded to all these other professions.

So how do we begin to solve this problem? We do it by ensuring the work we do is credible, consumable, and relevant:

  • Credible: Use solid methodologies, accurate measurement, and success metrics that are clearly defined and agreed upon upfront.
  • Consumable: Tell the story really well to business stakeholders, using plain language to explain our process and its benefits, as well as the business results.
  • Relevant: Forget about squirrel projects for a while, and focus on things that are important to the business, like Checkout or Landing page optimization.

We should apply UX principles to our internal clients too. We know that organizational leaders are measured by (and therefore focused on) business results. So we need to not only design our Products to accomplish that, but we also need to design our deliverables in a way that shows the value of UX in clear and irrefutable ways. That’s how we get more CPO’s and CXO’s in large organizations.

And for the love of all that is holy, can we please just pick a name for ourselves and stick with it? I know there’s plenty wrong with the term User Experience Designer, but it’s the most recognizable thing we’ve got. It’s akin to attempts to replace the save icon – yes, it might not be appropriate any more, but why break users’ mental models about something that is so instantly recognizable?

Clutter is an information problem, not a design problem

Scrivs brings up an interesting point about cluttered design in Why Are We Scared to Design Less?:

Will larger companies ever get on board and understand that adding more doesn’t produce better results? I don’t think the issue is that managers and executives think that more information is needed on pages, I think the issue is that the information isn’t designed well enough so that it doesn’t require a million images or words to get across.

I agree, and it goes back to a point a made a few weeks ago about a lack of Information Architecture in many UX projects.

Meeting organizers: you’re responsible for our attention and focus

Dave DeRuchie makes a strong case that we need to put down our phones and get rid of distractions in meetings:

When you accept a meeting invitation, accept that your attention and focus for that time is also blocked. Avoid distractions that take your focus from the subject matter at hand. Be more connected to what you are doing by being less connected.

There’s another way to look at this. See, we’re distracted in meetings because we don’t find them that valuable, so we try to fill the time with multitasking activities that we feel do add value. So if this becomes a thing – if we agree and communicate that a meeting blocks out not just our time but also 100% of our attention and focus – well, that places a huge burden of responsibility on the meeting organizer. If you’re going to arrange a meeting, and you expect everyone to pay attention without distraction, you’d better make sure that it’s a meeting worth having – agenda, solid outcomes, everyone contributing, etc. Otherwise we’ll come after you and demand our attention back.

The pursuit for perfection

I love this line from Sweet Maria’s Coffee Library:

Espresso is fussy. It is the pursuit for perfection by a person who is driven by minutiae.

It’s not just Espresso that’s fussy. Design is fussy too. So is writing, drawing, painting, or any other creative pursuit you can think of. It is all “the pursuit for perfection by a person who is driven by minutiae”. And this pursuit is usually undertaken by unreasonable people.

Speaking of coffee (a huge passion that’s pretty hard to merge with a blog on design and technology), I guess this is as good an excuse as any to post this recent photo, taken at Melissa’s Food Shop in Cape Town:



Remember, always read the manual.


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