The intangible benefits of user-centred design

Cennydd Bowles makes a good point about the intangible benefits of user-centred design in “Why aren’t we converting?”:

I do suggest seeing user-centred design as something wider than just a means of optimising a conversion rate. While there may not be a noticeable uplift in any specific metric, the raw material of design is frequently intangible: trust, loyalty, engagement, etc. These things are much harder to measure, but they still make themselves felt indirectly in other metrics: support costs, referral rates, customer retention, and so on. Separating the effect of design from these long-term figures is, of course, pretty much impossible, but the long-term aggregated data makes it clear that the effect is genuine (see Apple, etc).

It’s a real shame that the results of UX can’t always be measured in a direct uplift in revenue and/or conversion metrics. But it shouldn’t be an excuse not to invest in good design, or worse, to resort to dark patterns.

The demise of quality content on the web

I remember exactly when I decided to stop reading Mashable. I saw the headline Facebook Users Beware: Facebook’s New Feature Could Embarrass You on Twitter, clicked through, hunted for the words of the article among the sea of ads and social sharing icons, and then closed the tab after realizing it’s just another rehash of Facebook frictionless sharing (albeit in a tantalizing way). I went back to my Twitter feed and unfollowed them.

I’m sure the article was great for traffic, though. It is the perfect linkbait title backed up by a perfect SEO-ified URL (/new-facebook-feature). Here’s a screen shot of what’s visible above the fold:



You can’t see a single word from the actual article without scrolling. It reminded me of a comment that Merlin Mann recently made in his typically funny and obnoxious style:



I think I’ve finally hit the limit of my tolerance for web content that’s designed to make advertisers happy. I have no problem with working hard to build an audience – I have a blog, after all. But we seem to be in this bizarre race to the intellectual bottom to write the most generic article in the world so that everyone with an Internet connection will click through. And the only purpose seems to be to keep the advertising monster fed, fat, and happy.

I’m worried that all the noise makes it increasingly difficult for quality content[1] to be seen. Worse, I’m worried that it’s discouraging the creation of quality content because what’s successful (i.e. what gets the most clicks) is mostly lowest-common-denominator blog post titles that either start with a number or end with a question mark. James Bridle sums up this problem so well in The New Value of Text:

Like over-stuffed attendees at a dull banquet, the mind wanders. We are terrified that people are dumbing down, and so we provide them with ever dumber entertainment. We sell them ever greater distractions, hoping to dazzle them further.

Or as Marco Arment put it: “Anti-intellectualism is one of my biggest fears for our society.”

Yet despite all the evidence to the contrary there is still a common refrain on the Internet that quality content will always find its way out of the depths of obscurity. Kristina Halvorson recently complained about the fact that computer-generated articles are gaining traction. Joshua Porter responded: “Re: quality content…there is always room at the top.” My response to that was cynical, but borne out of the type of regurgitation you see everywhere:



I used to believe that if you write with passion and clarity about a topic you know well (or want to know more about), you will find and build an audience. I believed that maybe, if you’re smart about it, you could find a way for some part of that audience to pay you money to sustain whatever obsession drove you to self-publishing (and to do it without selling your soul in the process). There are certainly examples of that out there (Daring Fireball, Shawn Blanc, Ben Brooks, etc.), but I’m not convinced any more that such an option exists for anyone who works hard and gives it a solid go.

The problem is not that people don’t have enough time, it’s that people don’t have enough attention. Like an oil well there’s only so much there, and once the well runs dry you don’t have a lot of options:

So one effect of Peak Attention is that every human mind has been mined to capacity using attention-oil drilling technologies. To get to Clay Shirky’s hypothetical notion of cognitive surplus, we need Alternative Attention sources.

The wells of attention are being drilled to depletion by linkbait headlines, ad-infested pages, “jumps” and random pagination, and content that is engineered to be “consumed” in 1 minute or less of quick scanning – just enough time to capture those almighty eyeballs[2]. And the reality is that “Alternative Attention sources” simply don’t exist.

I don’t know where we go from here. I just know that I’ve stopped reading sites that cater more for advertisers than for me as a reader. It won’t make much of a difference, but it will hopefully help me sleep better.


  1. Of course, we’re never going to agree on what “quality content” means. It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things, and everyone’s definition will be different. Still, my personal view is that quality content presents two or more of the following components: (1) new information, (2) interpretation of information, and/or (3) a well considered personal opinion about what the information means.  â†©
  2. Wait, who am I to decide what people should and shouldn’t read? You’re absolutely right, I can’t do that so I should get off my high horse and let people read whatever they want to read. This is an opinion piece.  â†©

Aesthetic longevity is the new product expiration date

In Beauty Is Free, Mimi Zou argues that quality has become a given in most products, so beautiful design is one of the primary ways to differentiate in a crowded market:

In a time when products outlast their reliability expectations, has aesthetic longevity become the new expiration date? While it’s not viable to design for changing tastes, it remains that the aesthetics of a product should always be given great emphasis: be it physical, digital or a manifestation of both. Keeping vitality in mind, the aesthetics of a good product should complement its functionality and be made with full intent. The most insightful designs are those which are not only competitive in quality and cost, but also uncompromising in aesthetics.

I’ve always defended aesthetics in web design in particular by arguing that it builds trust, increases engagement, and elicits the appropriate emotional responses to the brand (i.e., consistent with the brand promise).

This article gives us another reason to push for a relentless focus on good aesthetics: since most products now have a baseline quality that is good enough, users expect beautiful products.

Also, this.

I made this on a Mac

It’s amazing to see the outpouring of condolences and memories and stories about Steve Jobs and the effect that he’s had on our lives. What’s most telling to me is the countless people – myself included – who feel like we have a connection with him because of the products he brought into this world. That’s extraordinary.

This morning I counted the number of Apple products we have in our house (12), and I realized that Steve Jobs and those products helped me figure out what I want to do with my life. He showed us the power of beautiful design, and he built products that want you to succeed in whatever it is that you choose to make.

I think Seth Godin said it best:

Steve devoted his professional life to giving us (you, me and a billion other people) the most powerful device ever available to an ordinary person. Everything in our world is different because of the device you’re reading this on.

What are we going to do with it?

I made this on a Mac. And this Mac will continue to inspire me to make better things.

Thank you, Steve.

Update: Of course Frank Chimero would come along and say what I was trying to say, only much better:

That sadness [you feel] is for the loss of a man who unabashedly devoted his life to making things that helped others live well.

We all have that same opportunity. Take a moment to consider your job. Boil it down to its essence: you make things for other people. The most important concept to learn from Jobs is embedded in how we feel after using one of his products. That very same thing is happening now in his wake. Look closely and you will see it: wonderful experiences have an afterglow to them. The delight we find in what we do is in some way lost in the moment, but captured in our memories.

Update 2: There are so many amazing tributes coming through that it’s hard to keep up. I want to preserve the ones that spoke to me in some way, so it might as well be in this post. Here is Michael Lopp:

My first thought as I stared long and hard at Appl’s home page yesterday wasn’t a specific Steve story or one of his many insightful quotes. The thought was”¦

You are underestimating the future. You are fretting about the now; worrying about little things that don’t matter. You are wasting precious energy obsessing over irrelevant details. You don’t believe that a better future is out there and can be built, that it can exceed peopl’s expectations, because you’re spending so much time considering the truth of the present and the seemingly important lessons of the past.

You are underestimating the future because you believe you cannot see it, but you can – you’ve seen it done before.

Update 3: Ok, just one more (I think). Here is Shawn Blanc in 3rd-Party Family:

You and I are on the same team. We all are. We may link to the same articles, review the same products, develop apps for the same market, and design with the same intense perfectionism, but we are a community. Let’s continue to fight for each other, encourage each other, and work together to make amazing things.

We are the 3rd-party family of Apple nerds. Let’s make a dent.

I’ll drink to that.

“Sooner or later you will wake up screaming”

This is such a great story. In How I became a cartoonist, Tom Fishburne explains his journey from drawing cartoons as a side hobby to turning it into a successful business:

I then faced the terrifying decision of when and how to jump and leave a safe job behind to make it a real business. I found inspiration in a quote from David Hieatt: “There is a point on a runway during takeoff that a plane reaches V1 speed. Once it passes V1 it has reached the point of no return. The point where the take off cannot be aborted. The plane has to take off. Or crash.” He suggested that entrepreneurs draw their own V1 line, and then jump when they reach that point.

Here he explains how he dealt with one of his early setbacks:

When you do something entrepreneurial, sooner or later, you will wake up screaming. I discovered that I started to have pain in my wrist if I drew for longer than 20 minutes. This is a problem when you make a living with your hands. It scared me. I highly recommend that you never ever google any health issue you fear you might have. Fortunately, I was able to change my behavior by wrapping my pens in foam rubber, using ergonomic keyboards, and wearing a wrist splint. The pain went away. I learned that any setback is just a test to see how badly you want something.

There is so much honesty and wisdom in this essay – you have to read the whole thing.

Design and copy changes in the new Windows 8 “blue screen of death”

In a recent episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber and Dan Benjamin pointed out something interesting about the Windows 8 redesign of Microsoft’s well-known “blue screen of death”. First, here’s an example of what this screen currently looks like:


Notice how Windows essentially accepts the blame in this situation. The title of the page says “Windows”, and they give you the cold, hard facts: An exception occurred. The application will be terminated, and you have to restart. Sucks to be you.

Compare that to the redesigned screen for Windows 8:


Notice all the subtle differences here. The emoticon to put you at ease. The nice font. The assurance that they will restart the computer – you don’t have to do it yourself like in the previous version. But most of all, notice the copy changes.

Your PC ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle and now it needs to restart.” In this version Windows isn’t the culprit any more – your PC is. Your computer did something it shouldn’t be doing so it broke. “But hey,” they say, “don’t worry, Windows has your back and is swooping in to save the day!”

It’s a subtle change in design and copy, but credit where it’s due: this is pretty clever.

Designing for permanence

Jennifer Fraser brings up an interesting point in What I Bring to UX From “¦ Architecture:

As an architect, the implicit permanence of designing a building carries with it a sense of responsibility”¦ I can’t help but wonder if we would have better designed products if some of that responsibility and sense of permanence of architecture found its way into what we do as user experience designers.

We live in an environment where most web design is seen as variable. With A/B testing, Minimum Viable Products, and the prevalence of Content Management Systems, nothing is set in stone. If something doesn’t work, we change it immediately – and see the results of those changes immediately as well. This is a very good thing; optimizing user experiences is, after all, what we do.

But I do wonder what would happen if we felt the weight of responsibility a little more when we’re designing. What if we go into a project as if the design we come up with might be around for 100 years or more? Would we make it fit into the web environment better, give it a timeless aesthetic, and spend more time considering the consequences of our design decisions?

The role of UX in the future of products and services

Kyle Baxter in The Age of Insight, responding to a fantastic essay by Seth Godin called The forever recession (and the coming revolution):

We have to think about completely disparate fields””say, manufacturing, software development, design, and psychology””and combine them to make products that conform themselves to humans, rather than making humans contort themselves to the product in order to use it. We must think about big ideas””ideas that will change society and how people interact””and the little ideas that merely improve peopl’s lives just a little.

We have to think. This is an age where all of our gains will come from insights into what make products, services, processes, and structures fundamentally better for us. Whereas the twentieth century was about standardization and following a series of steps in a well-defined process, in this new century, there are no defined processes. Everything is to be questioned, re-thought, re-made, or even thrown out altogether.

I completely agree with Kyle’s view that we’re shifting from a world where users have to conform to products and services, to a world where those products and services go extinct quickly unless they conform to the needs of users. I further believe that the field of user experience design needs to be a central player in this shift. The theory, psychology, tools, techniques, and practice of user experience align perfectly with the type of thinking that’s needed to make things that work better for us.

One of the biggest issues holding us back from taking a leadership role in this space is the term itself: user experience design. There is so much not to like about it. “User” has a sterile, detached, almost robotic feel. “Experience” can mean absolutely anything, and opposition to the word is growing (and not just from Merlin Mann). And then there is “Design”, a word everyone wants to own – and despite some fantastic definitions out there, no one can completely agree on what it is.

But for better or worse, this is the term we’re stuck with. So we have a predicament. The UX community is fighting over semantics and who should be allowed to call themselves a UX designer. If we could just step out of that for a while and think about the larger implications we’d be able to see how perfectly positioned we are to drive this fundamental shift to better products and services.

We borrow from social sciences to bring ethnography to design so we can uncover needs by observing users in their natural environments. We borrow from psychology to design experiences that follow the principles of visual perception and emotion. We build on a very long tradition of graphic design. We use design thinking, product discovery, and all the tools and techniques that go along with that to come up with appropriate solutions to problems. The list goes on and on.

My wish is that, as a user experience community, we would move beyond the argument over what to call ourselves.  And that we would move beyond our focus on web design and take ownership of our ability to bring our skills to physical products as well as “services, process, and structures” (in Kyle’s words). Let’s be a big part of the coming revolution.


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