Design as opportunity to make meaningful connections

I love pretty much everything Frank Chimero writes, and his essay on the meaning of design from a few weeks back still rings in my ears:

We should care more about our craft because w’re granted an opportunity to contribute to the world. We should care more about what we say because each time we speak, ther’s someone there to listen. We should care more about our audiences because they are the ones who give our work value. We might think that design work is about you or about me or anyone else who makes it, or maybe about the things that we make and the artifacts we produce, but don’t let this way of thinking fool you. The things we make are all just excuses to speak with one another and to help one another. We are all linked, and the things that we make for each other strengthen the invisible threads that tie us all together.

Many people won’t agree with this sentiment. Many will think it’s silly to think about something as trivial as web design in this grandiose way. They’ll remind us that we’re just making web sites, not saving the world. And that’s fine – not everyone is going to care as much about design, or even understand why some of us do.

But I do care. I care because I think we have the opportunity to shape a technology that is at once exhilarating and dangerous. A technology that has the massive opportunity to bring people closer together, if we can just keep it together long enough not to destroy each other in YouTube comments and flaming blog posts.

So, yes, I care a lot about this, probably more than I should. But I’m with Frank on this: everything we do is just an excuse “to speak with one another and to help one another.”

Being honest about technology

I’m still slowly making my way through Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, and this quote really jumped out at me this morning:

We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us. These amended narratives are a kind of realtechnik. The realtechnik of connectivity culture is about possibilities and fulfillment, but it also about the problems and dislocations of the tethered self. Technology helps us manage life stresses but generates anxieties of its own. The two are often closely linked.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Here’s another great example of how differently designers and users see the world. When we hear the word “clutter”, we think of visual noise. But Jared Spool explains what users mean when they say that word:

Over the years, w’ve learned that users have a different meaning of “clutter” than the designers do. It’s not the visual design the users are reacting to. It’s the actual content. Clutter is what happens when we fill a page with things the user doesn’t care about. Replace the useless stuff with links, copy, and content the users really want, and the page suddenly becomes uncluttered.

Here’s the kicker – their redesign was actually more cluttered, but users didn’t care:

We put the old and new pages side-by-side. The new page definitely had more text, less whitespace, and more dense information design. Yet, when we asked the users to tell us which one was more cluttered, they were unamimous: the old design was the cluttered design.

It’s another reminder (sorry, yawn) about the importance of Content First. I keep coming back to Jeffrey Zeldman’s classic essay Style vs. Design:

Most of all, I worry about web users. Because, after ten-plus years of commercial web development, they still have a tough time finding what they’re looking for, and they still wonder why it’s so damned unpleasant to read text on the web “” which is what most of them do when they’re online.

Mobile applications that trick kids into buying stuff

I completely agree with Gabe Weatherhead’s views on apps made for kids in The Value Of App Reviews:

My number one reason to give a bad rating and review is when an app made for kids has both up-sell and review requests plastered all over the screen. They are trying to prey on small children tapping anything that pops on the screen. If you make a kids app, do not put links to your other apps in the game. Put them in the preferences. Put them in the app description. Hell, put them in some kind of app documentation. But when they are in the game, you are telling me that you’re shady and unscrupulous and I can’t trust your app.

This is a dark pattern, and I simply delete the app if I come across this kind of design. For some better patterns to follow when designing apps for kids, see Luke Wroblewski’s Touch-based App Design for Toddlers.

Why most South African tech startups don’t hire designers

It seems like everyone was looking for developers at this year’s Tech4Africa conference. We heard some fantastic startup ideas, and each pitch was usually punctuated with something like, “And if you know any good developers, please let me know.” Cennydd Bowles made the following observation after the first day of the conference:

Cennydd Tech4Africa

I understand and support the rush to find good developers because I love all the local ideas entering the market (much of my own talk at Tech4Africa was dedicated to improving developer environments). But I’m concerned about tech startups[1] going on the hunt for developers without also looking for quality User Experience Design skills at the same time[2]. In Tart Up Your Startup! Erika Hall explains the dangers of ignoring UX in startups:

You are making UX design decisions as soon as you specify anything you expect another human to interact with, as soon as you specify anything that has implications for how a human might interact with it. Of course, you are are also making system design decisions, but we assume you are comfortable with that sort of thing.

So don’t pretend like you aren’t making design decisions already. And don’t make them by omission. You cannot NOT design something. The floor of Silicon Valley is littered with the crumbling husks of great ideas””useful products and services that died in the shell before they hatched out of their impenetrable engineering-specified interfaces.

So if this is so important, why are most South African tech startups (and large companies, for that matter) not looking for UX designers? In this article I’d like to explore what I believe the three main, interconnected explanations are, and how this is actually an opportunity for the design community to prove the value we can add to product development. I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations on this topic as well. If you think I’m missing the boat, please let me know.

Experience design as craft

Peter Merholz describes Instapaper creator Marco Arment‘s approach to design in Craft in Interaction and Service Design:

Instapaper shows the power of approaching experience design as a craft, as opposed to some kind of massive organizational process. Too often companies launch something and then move on to whatever’s next. Instapaper shows what happens when you go deeper and deeper and deeper into something. Unlike Microsoft or Adobe, who simply tack on features with every new release, Marco, instead, refines the design, honing it, polishing it, like his app is some jewel. I’d love to see companies approach service design the way Marco has. It would require a fundamental shift in how they work, but the results could be quite beautiful.

How often do you hear the words “We’ll get to that in Phase 2”? And how often do you actually get to do “Phase 2”? It’s a running joke in the software industry that calling something a “Phase 2 feature” is another way of saying it will never happen. There are just too many squirrel projects, too many Shiny Things that need to get done.

It doesn’t have to work like that, though. Small, dedicated teams who have autonomy and a clear decision maker can focus on one area of an experience for an extended period of time. This can work even in large organizations, but it requires trust and a long-term vision, both of which can be hard to find in big companies. It is the only way to bring craft and care to a design cycle that’s often treated too much like a conveyor belt.

Solving information overload: the role of manual content curation

There’s an information overload just on articles about information overload, so you might be reluctant to spend time reading another one. However, Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance by Maria Popova is the best commentary I’ve seen on the topic in a long time.

The article starts off by explaining the root cause for the problem we find ourselves in: the concept of “rare” largely goes away if all information is available digitally:

W’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information “” not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.

The consequence is that it’s now so much harder to know what pieces of information are worth our time. Just because something is accessible doesn’t mean we should access it. Maria goes on to explain why editors (or content curators) are so crucial if we want to solve this problem:

The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

Information curators are that necessary cross-pollinator between accessibility and access, between availability and actionability, guiding people to smart, interesting, culturally relevant content that “rots away” in some digital archive, just like its analog versions used to in basement of some library or museum or university.

I do want to add a thought on the idea of “automated curation” – what sites like are trying to do (you know, those tweets proclaiming that “The [clever name] Daily is Out!”). I simply don’t think effective automated curation will ever be possible. I agree with Angie King on

My experience with just proves the importance of curation over aggregation. Without an editorial eye overseeing the publication of my page, the content loses value. I actually prefer just paging through my Twitter stream over trying to make sense of the no-context, automatically generated list of junk that displays on my page.

In a great piece called The language of data: fear + words, Randall Snare explains why automated curation is so difficult:

Emails ““ and other written things ““ aren’t just filled with semantic meaning, but with subtext. Algorithms treat words like the basic components of language, while the actual basic components are often hidden ““ elements like association, nuance, emotion and humour.

Which brings us back to the need for humans – call them editors, call them people who read a lot, call them whatever you want – to help guide us to the information that might interest us. I’d go so far as to say that our ability to grow and learn depends on it.

Tech4Africa slides: Breaking down silos

I was privileged to speak at Tech4Africa 2011 about a topic that I care about a great deal: how our environments and the way we work impact the quality of the software we produce. The talk came out of a question I keep asking myself over and over: why, despite our best efforts, do we still too often produce low quality software? Here’s the talk summary:

Why do we see so many web applications with inferior user experiences? Why do UX designers often get stuck being asked to “make the design pop a little more,” with no room or incentive to innovate? Why do some web developers feel demotivated and unable to break out of doing things the way they’ve always been done?

In this talk I explore some of the main causes of ineffective software development, and discuss practical recommendations on how to improve team structures and development processes to build high quality software that users care about, want to use, and that therefore makes more money for the business.

I discuss how designers and developers can work better together, how to ensure everyone gets input into the roadmap without it becoming chaos, and how to make sure that the business benefits are clearly articulated and communicated.

So here are the slides from my talk – I hope you find it useful. If you’d like to read more about this topic, you can check out a two-part series of articles that I wrote for Smashing Magazine.



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