I started writing a long post about things that had inspired me in 2014, the things that stuck with me through the end of the year. I walked away, but when I came back, I saw there was a theme: simplicity, doing less. For many of us, our passion is to be constantly making, building things, adding things, perfecting them. But sometimes instead of building that new feature, the best course of action is to make one small tweak, then measure and learn. To getting out of the way in 2015.
It's been five years now since I finished grad school, transitioning from a career in academic (psychology) research to user experience and product design. I’ve been chatting a lot recently to people making career changes to UX, so this is the first article in a series on launching your career. I’m assuming you are already coming with some background in UX-- a course at General Assembly or a graduate program-- and you’re wondering what’s next.
One of the keys to producing great work is to produce a lot of work. In order to produce a lot of work, you have to work quickly, which means being comfortable with your tools. This is easy to do, but tedious and the payoff seems unclear. Your tools are your method of expressing your ideas. If you can’t use your tools, you can’t express your ideas and you can’t make cool stuff. Even in intern-level candidates, I’m looking for some evidence of basic proficiency with a professional design tool. Good ideas are the most important thing, but ideas are worthless if you can’t execute on them.
Develop expertise in the Adobe programs at a minimum - Photoshop or Illustrator (ideally, both). Tutorials on Lynda.com are a great first step. My one critique with those is that the design projects are often less than engaging — you are creating things that feel rather dated. If you need a little eye candy, you can switch to Skillshare but the content is less comprehensive. (The instruction is also a mixed bag, but they’ve switched to a very inexpensive plan model so try a few things until you find a class you like.) Dedicate yourself, even to the seemingly useless things you think you’ll never use. The more skills in your toolbox, the more ability you have to pull ideas into your designs later.
I recommend starting with Adobe tools because you’re looking to build a solid, marketable foundation and Adobe tools are the most common. Branch out from there into Sketch app, Omnigraffle, Axure or the tool of the moment that tickles your fancy. Branching out also leads to new ideas you bring back to your main program. I use Fireworks, mainly, but teaching myself Illustrator and using that for a while really upped my Fireworks game.
One of my favorite books on creativity is Twila Tharp’s The Creative Habit: “Skill is how you close the gap between what you can see in your mind’s eye and what you can produce; the more skill you have, the sophisticated and accomplished your ideas can be.” Take the time as you are launching your career to create a foundational skill set.
I was cleaning out a few piles of books recently to make room in my apartment to host Thanksgiving. (Yes, there are books where people should sit, eat, and stand.) I found a tiny little pamphlet by Peter Drucker called Managing Oneself. I went to recycle it, but started reading it instead. (Typical.) In this time of annual reviews, I thought I’d share a few things that inspired me on re-reading.
“We will have to place ourselves were we can make the greatest contribution." - Peter Drucker
The book is essentially a long article originally published in the Harvard Business Review. It urges us to become familiar with our strengths to determine where and how we should work and thereby effect change on the world.
He proposes an intriguing method to determining strengths: feedback analysis. The method is to track each action and it’s expected outcome over the course of a couple years. In reviewing this document, it will be very clear where your strengths and weakness are — the places where you have successfully predicted the outcome indicate strengths. I am a little skeptical here, but have wanted to try it since I first read the article. Usually when feedback is discussed, it comes from an external source — manager, peers, etc. This introspective and analytic method is appealing to me. My skepticism comes from a sense that perhaps this is a way of tracking whether you are strong at predicting outcomes or not. But as a basic idea of journaling and reflecting, I think it makes a lot of sense. In some ways, this blog is my method of tracking and reflecting. I appreciate the ability to go back and see what I was thinking a year or two ago.
In getting to know yourself and your strengths, there are a few questions you can ask on how and where you might perform best.
- What is your learning type? Are you a reader, listener, writer, speaker?
- Do you work best alone or with a team?
- Are you stronger as a decision-maker or advisor?
- Do you perform better under stress or in high structure?
- Do you prefer a small company or a large one?
The next step is to communicate out to others what you are trying to do, how you will go about it, and the results you expect. I was recently participating in a user research study, and one of the stakeholders was asking a lot of questions about the study. I was confused at first — I almost didn’t know how to answer the questions because the reasons we were doing research and the expected outcomes were so obvious to me I never even thought about them. I took them so much for granted I had a hard time putting it into words. But this stakeholder reminded me that thinking about and communicating your most basic goals and motivations is helpful — not intrusive, or condescending. Drucker calls this your responsibility for relationships. As you cannot accomplish things alone, each person is responsible for both communicating and asking others about their contribution and goals. And this effort is always appreciated.
You own your career, your performance, and your success. Your drive change in your projects and your organization. Don’t wait for someone else to do that for you.
I came across this blog post a while back, by Diogenes Brito, and cut and saved a bit of it for later. I stumbled across it again today and it still resonated strongly. Diogenes says:
I was continually amazed by the examples of good art, photography, and design work that the other designers [at Squarespace] collected and shared, and my exposure to it made me better at my craft. I believe it is important for every creative to seek out and immerse themselves in great work.
It makes me feel better when I waste time admiring illustrations, spend too much on fancy pens, or wax poetic about my love of my beautiful pink Blu Dot desk. It’s a good reminder to look outside of Dribble for inspiration. I love art, illustration, fashion, cooking and food photography, and I think all these things feed my design practice.
This idea also gives insight into how to cultivate a culture of design and good design practice at an organization. Things that might be taken for granted like physical surroundings, context, influences, and availability of inspiration are an important piece in shaping a company's culture. How can we expose our colleagues to better design, inside and outside our field? I’ve seen shared Evernote inspiration notebooks and email groups where people mail screenshots, but I’m not sure those get much attention. What if designers did weekly demos of interfaces they liked, similar to a code review? What if the whole company was invited to attend?
I have a lot of sketchbooks. The pile is a bit scary, actually, balanced on my printer (like the printer itself, gathering dust). It’s about 5-7 active sketchbooks, and a small stack in the filing cabinet that I can’t quite part with yet. I’ve found it best to organize them by project, with one for the “here-and-now” work, and one for future ideas for my project, and one for really random ideas that don’t quite have a place yet. It preserves the flow, and I’m in the right headspace when I open one.
But my favorite sketchbook is a battered one that I reserve for sketching interfaces that I see and like. Sometimes I set aside time to do this, for practice, and other times I do it as a way to get unstuck, to get the pencil moving on the page. (Aside: working from home, I find another great way to get unstuck is to wash dishes.)
I learned this technique in grad school, where our Interaction Design studio instructor made us fill an entire notebook of sketch copies through the semester. It was brilliant and I practice I’ve tried to keep up since. Similar to science students filling notebooks with diagrams to study, the best way to deeply understand something is to draw it yourself.
“It is not until you draw something, whether it is an object, a building or an activity, that you really begin to understand it.”
― Martin Salisbury, Illustrating Children's Books: Creating Pictures for Publication
Lately, I’ve been focusing on mobile animations, which is where the idea of sketching to understand really shows it’s value. I don’t worry about what these look like so much, instead I focus on breaking down an interesting animation or interaction into it’s steps or frames. The act of trying to capture something ephemeral means you have to concentrate, pay attention to the detail, and repeat. Not only have I learned a lot more about what goes into animations this way, but it's also easier to notice animations and their details when I see them in the wild.
It’s a useful bit of my design practice that I miss when things get busy. I bought a new notebook today*, after submerging my existing one in a puddle on the counter. Since I’m my only taskmaster now, it’s my goal to fill it before the end of the year.
Happy sketching Friday!
*The sketchbook I like for copying detail is the Rhodia reverse notebook. It's gridded, medium-sized square, and spiral-bound, so it lays flat.
I love cooking. The exploratory, tactile, and (comparatively) fast results provide a nice creative foil to my design work, where I spend all day manipulating screens, waiting for releases, and not seeing the customer’s face when she takes the first “bite” of my new design.
But I’ve been in a bit of a cooking funk lately, and feeling rather unmotivated. Looking back on previous years, this is typical for me in August and September. NYC sees epic temps and humidity in those months, and eating, let alone cooking, sounds absolutely unappealing. It’s October now, but still unseasonably warm, and I’m just getting back into it, slowly, letting things braise while I work, enjoying the feeling of productive multi-tasking with hardly any effort.
To beat the funk, I started collecting new inspiration, and the New York Times Dining section is one of my go-to inspiration sources. I recently downloaded their Cooking app (also a microsite).
The app is glossy and shiny, taking full advantage of the gorgeous food photography that accompanies the recipes. Many clever animation details add to the delightful experience.
My favorite detail is the clever way they handled the navigation: when you're a few levels down into a recipe view, there's both a back arrow and the navigation menu icon available, so you're always one click away from where you need to go.
You can also see times to prepare while scanning the recipes.
Some details I wished for was a way to search by cooking method (e.g., braising, my favorite kind of cooking) and having new recipes highlighted further up the home page. Instead, I have a bank of "recommended" recipes but I'm not sure what the recommendations are based on, as I only have one item saved so far. I do think the app is focused towards first-use, which is smart, but now that I've visited a few times, the amount of content is a bit overwhelming and it's hard to know what I've seen before and what I haven't.
Congrats to this team who was able to sweat the details, make an awesome user experience. This is an iPad app I'll definitely come back to.
When my alarm went off this morning, at it’s usual time, it was still dark outside. Summer is officially over. (Long over, I know, but I’m tenacious.) This past winter saw an incredible amount of snow in NYC. My usual habit is, if there’s snow on the ground, I’ll walk one block. I don’t quite know if it’s sad or awesome that the rule doesn’t hinder me much (there’s three delis, 15+ restaurants, at least 5 bars, great coffee, a wine shop, and a hardware store all in that radius). I feel lucky to have so much convenience, but sometimes, claustrophobia starts to kick in.
For over 3 years, I’ve done my work as a (full-time, in-house) UX person remotely. Most of the folks I work with are somewhere in California, but the rest are all over the world—Germany, Bangalore, or scattered throughout the US. Whenever I tell someone I work remotely, they squeal with excitement. I’m living their dream! I’m lucky to have a great bunch of teammates that have ninja-level skills in remote collaboration. I’ve learned a lot from them, but the adjustment wasn’t easy, and some thing are definitely harder than others.
I don’t have a hard time getting started working, but I do have a hard time stopping—especially to take a shower or exercise in the morning. I’ve managed to make the early morning shower non-negotiable, and I love heading to the gym in the morning—I get out of the house, and come back in to start my day. I’ve done other little morning routines in the past, such as leaving the house to get a cup of coffee and coming back, or leaving the house at the end of the day to go to the gym then, as a signal to start or end my day.
Mix it up
Now, I live in a small NYC apartment, so perhaps this isn’t a universal problem, but when I don’t get a change of scenery from time to time, the walls start to close in. I’m an expert on local coffeeshops, I’ve rented co-working desk space, and I try to eat lunch completely out from time to time. I make sure my desk is an organized, attractive place to spend time when I’m there. I’m a junkie for Meetup groups, both UX-focused, but also just neighborhood happy hours. They give me a way to (kinda) replace the after-hour drink that’s a bonus of working in the office. I even met a fellow remote worker in my neighborhood this way! We chat work at the coffeeshop together and have been known to haul ourselves to lunchtime yoga.
What you think is obnoxious, really isn’t — it’s probably just enough
I think this is true for a UX person in general, but over-communicating is really important here. Say it, say it again, then say you’ve said it. It’s going to be your job to check in with people, ask them what’s going on, and offer your help. Yes, it’s not fair that they think you can read their mind, but just suck it up here. You need to re-frame your job from, "Maker of Pictures" to "Master Communicator Who Also Communicates in Pictures."
Focus on sustaining and cultivating relationships
This is super-hard for me, because I am a crazy efficiency freak. So, in my imagination, I should be to heads-down work all day and be a super-productive design all-star. Of course, by that point I may have gotten out of sync with others, or just merely am not putting in the time to develop the kind of relationships needed to collaborate with others on a creative team. I cringe at reaching out to people just to say hi, or using time at the beginning of meeting asking about plans for the weekend, because I respect their time. But, when I think about it, some of the people I value most are those who take the time to reach out to me in a person way, even though I’m not physically there. And long-term, these relationships make you a more efficient designer.
Ok, this is hard. This is why they built all those open-plan offices, right? You really have to work through the discomfort with someone on remote creative collaboration. Once you’ve broken through and get them thinking and reacting as comfortably as they might in front of a whiteboard, you can leverage that relationship. It’s definitely a complicated dance that taxes your leadership and facilitation skills. You need to find a way to motivate that person to be creative with you, without being pushy or scaring them away. Get comfortable with silence, which can seem more awkward on the phone or online call. Eventually your collaboration partner will start to fill the space with ideas. Screen-sharing is incredibly helpful, as you can transcribe ideas for your partner with your design tool of choice. If your partner is willing, have them drawn something on scrap paper and email you a photo or hold it up to their webcam. Basically, be flexible, be scrappy, and learn to work with ambiguity and imperfection. In design and life.
I have a lot of books, living in various stacks and piles all around my (tiny) Brooklyn apartment. The Anatomy of Type (Geometry of Type for the UK version) isn’t the usual sort of book I’d write about here, but it’s made it’s way to the top of the stack next to my desk on several occasions now so I knew it was time to give it a shout-out.
Originally, I bought it for my Kindle, and while I could tell I’d love the book, I wasn’t super pleased with the Kindle (for iPad) version. The book is mostly images that you want to study in close detail, and the Kindle experience was awkward, with lots of opening light boxes and zooming in and out to see critical detail. I bought the hardcover edition to take another pass through. I was able to snag a used copy of the UK edition because I liked the cover much better. It came right on the day before Christmas, so I stashed it under the tree to play with Christmas Day and had a happy afternoon paging through.
This is very much a book about letters—their shapes, and what about their shapes make them more or less appropriate for a particular kind of usage. It’s a good answer to someone who might ask, now that I am finished with Bringhurst and Lupton, where do I go next?
"What gives a typeface its personality? Why does one font appear bigger or clearer or darker or warmer than another? The answers to these questions can often be found by simply looking more closely at the letters themselves."
In general, following all of Stephen Cole’s doings will lead you to serious type nerdery. You can lose yourself in fonts in use or read type reviews at Typographica. That said, I feel the level of detail in Anatomy of Type really lends itself to the immersive (and offline) book experience. Then you can hop back online to try a few type experiments of your own. I liked taking a piece of sample text and seeing if I agreed with Stephen on how the various type families might make it feel.
Overall, I find that any book where I buy the electronic version only to go back and decide I need the hardcopy is worth telling others about. Grab The Anatomy of Type, curl up on the couch, and geek out.
I love reading interviews with designers and artists. They're a fun insight into how people think, and I often end up feeling good about something I have in common with the other person. One thing that comes up frequently in these interviews is that the designer or artist didn't have any specific mentors, but wished they did. I came across this article on design self-education, with some great advice on finding virtual mentors:
"Choose a couple of designers, developers, marketers, etc and follow them a little more closely than you follow everyone else. Listen to what they say and more importantly what they do. Study the portfolios of your favorite designers. Dig through the code of your favorite developers. Watch how your favorite marketers promote themselves.Actions speak louder than words so pay close attention to what your mentors do over time. If you can make connections with these people and get their ear so much the better. However you don’t have to make the connection as long as you continue to observe what they do."
I think one of the more intriguing aspects of this idea is that it’s also a self-discovery process. By curating a list of the people you admire specifically, you come to understand what’s important to you, what is your unique point-of-view. I want to spend some more time (in an ongoing way) thinking about this. In the meantime, I went through some of the inspiration I’ve saved recently and pulled out a few virtual mentors and noted what I admire.
Jessica Hische Her work is gorgeous, but anytime I hear her speak, I’m left struck by HOW HARD this woman works. It’s quite inspiring when you realize there is no magical talent fairy that going to sprinkle you with awesome dust one day. You just show up, get to work, and practice until your skills catch up with your vision.
Chris Risdon There’s something about the topics he chooses and the way he describes his process that really appeals to me. I might have a secret Service Designer inside of me, and I find his work in Experience Mapping, and talks on Persuasive Design inspire to get out there and try new stuff.
Rachel Hinman Mobile is cool, sure. But after attending a workshop lead by Rachel on mobile design, my biggest takeaway and inspiration was the process she used to solve customer problems. I love her simple, visual storyboards that make customer problems speak loud and simply.
Alexa Andrzejewski Alexa used her skills as a User Experience Designer to launch a successful, design-driven startup. (Foodspotting.) It reminds me that a designer’s passion for making stuff doesn’t have to stop with mockups.
These are the folks that come to mind now, but I know that there are heaps more. I hope to do this again soon, and I’d love to hear who others consider to be their virtual mentors.
Some favorite interview sites:
I can’t tell you how much I am loving Codepen right now. In the “Should Designers Learn to Code?” debate, I definitely fall on the side of why the hell not. (But I’m a DIY addict who thinks it’s totally reasonable to make your own cheese.)
Anyway, this app is perfect for the sorts of tinkering and code experiments I enjoy. I have very little interest in planning and executing production-level sites, but I love trying out new ideas and seeing how they work. Codepen is awesome because it handles all the boring bits of getting started, and the results of your experiments appear right next to your code.
Need some inspiration to get started? The CSS experiments on Codrops are interesting to try to reproduce. I like to try them out, then brainstorm creative ways I could use the concepts in my own projects.
Beautiful Web Type It’s easy to use Google Fonts inside of Codepen and experiment until your heart’s content. But, digging through to find a reliable typeface in the hundreds of choices can take all day. (Aren’t you supposed to be coding?) Thankfully, Chad Mazzola put together this rad site to display the beautiful possibilities of a few choice fonts.
Framer Framer is another little tool whose brilliance lies in automating the boring work so you can focus on the fun stuff. (Amazing UX, right?) Framer integrates with Photoshop or Sketch, and exports layered mockups into an HTML prototype you can manipulate. It’s a nice way for designers to tinker with bits of animation without committing to a full-scale code prototype.
Two weeks ago, I attended Brooklyn Beta for the first time. The energy and enthusiasm of attendees was awesome and inspiring. It was clearly evident that the organizers put a lot of time and attention to detail into the conference experience itself (the photo above shows just a tiny bit of the super fun decorations) and it was a great time. I’m still trying to find a way to process what I took away and move it into action, so I’m starting with a blog post on what I learned.
Connect to what you love
“Make something you love” seemed to be the slogan of the conference - printed on t-shirts, cups and banners. The speaker set were all actively doing something they fully loved, and many had clearly come to that through a process of trial and error. We learned from a non-profit startup founder that you may not automatically know what the “right” thing is - and your first project may not succeed. Experiment to find what you love. Other speakers, like Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, have connected to the passion of others (Etsy sellers) to support and encourage it. And Tim O’Reilly calls on us to find a way to create more value for society within what you already do. (Here’s a great article that I think clearly explains his philosophy.) I want to better prioritize time for personal projects, take better advantage of “20% time” offered at work, and just be more thoughtful about opportunities to infuse meaning into my work.
Accept your mistakes with grace
One of the parts of BB I really appreciated was a pre-conference discussion with the Facebook design team that worked on Facebook Home. It was a frank reflection about how projects don’t always work the way you think they might, and it’s rare that design teams are given the space to look back and evaluate the outcome of a design. “Fail faster” is a huge buzz phrase now, but the unspoken culture of many companies is that failure is not an option. It renews my commitment to try more ambitious things at work -- not necessarily bigger things, but things that don’t automatically default to the lowest common denominator.
Get inspired by others
A lot of energy gets created by having a group of passionate individuals in the same room. And I don’t mean passionate in a special way (the speaker set was amazing and intensely passionate) - I mean the every day passion that drives web workers to get out there and do their best each day. I work from home, and this event was a huge wake-up call to get back to in-person interactions with my design community.
I’ve always been a frustrating dinner partner. I refuse to make a suggestion where to eat, because I love the surprise of finding new restaurants or discovering foods I didn’t know I wanted. I don’t want to be trapped by the limits of my creativity at the moment of low blood sugar. There isn’t much difference in my shopping - I’ll be most excited if there’s a surprise involved. I joined a CSA for this same reason - the bag of unknown vegetables is a weekly present I love opening. I don’t remember how I stumbled across Birchbox, but you can instantly see how the beauty product subscription service is innovating in the online commerce space. For $10/mo, you get a curated box of samples (surprises) that they hope you’ll love enough to start buying from their online store. (You bet I signed up right away, and it’s FUN.)
Thinking about innovating an e-commerce user experience is a challenging task. When words like “user delight” are thrown around, you have to wonder if it hasn’t all been done before. In doing some background research for a recent project, I went looking for delight in e-commerce experiences. Here’s some elements I found:
1. Real people
Some of the product signup experiences I loved best had a real human/customer element. These products had a keen sense of why their customers were using their product.
Evernote's sign-up screen
2. Charming copy
A sign-up experience with friendly microcopy is engaging and moves the user along with enthusiasm. A genuine expression of welcome personalizes the usually anonymous online shopping experience.
Do's sign-up form
3. Easter eggs and general fun
The hidden corners of an experience are great places to put in extra effort to make an experience memorable. (But remember to make sure you’re thinking about the users’ perspective when adding fun - there’s a time and place, and the error messages aren’t usually it.)
Virb's captcha at the bottom of their sign-up form
Many sites have repeat customer traffic, and when this is the case, remembering their customer’s preferences and browsing behavior and responding accordingly is a great way to add some extra personalization to a buying experience. FreshDirect remembers and highlights my frequent purchases, while Meetup remembered me in between visits and offered a promotion.
FreshDirect displays your favorite items
Meetup remembers that I started to create (but didn't complete) a Meetup group
5. Creation as sign-up
When they can start with the fun bits (creating something cool), visitors become more invested in converting to active users.
Squarespace's sign-up flow has you choose a template first
Creating a sense that the user is in an exclusive club with access to a limited product adds an element of specialness to the experience. You’ll see this most often in waiting list to get into a product, but the LayerVault example below is especially clear.
LayerVault plan page
7. Shopping carts
The shopping cart is a great place to add small details of delight. This example from Warby Parker almost makes it into a game to fill your cart with product. (Not to mention the pure delight in it’s at-home try-on model.)
Warby Parker shopping cart
I wrote an article that appeared in UX Magazine last week as call for designers to consider how their designs can create more meaningful experiences for their users. Good design is persuasive, and an important part of UX practice is thinking about the behaviors, habits, and environments we are creating or encouraging as part of our designs. I seriously geek out on psychology and I was inspired by lots of reading. For my fellow geeks, I wanted to share some resources here. Designing for Emotion Aaron Walter Get this off your reading list and into your brain already. Great examples.
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Steven Achor This book gives a lot of serious insight into your own life and career, but also tons of behavioral levers to use if you're designing collaborative work applications. And with ideas like the "Zorro Circle," it's a quick, entertaining read.
The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work Teresa Amabile The target audience is managers, but if you're designing a product where people spend much of their workday, it helps to think like a manager who wants to create engagement and creativity. As a bonus, you learn example how not to be the emotional drain at work
And a bonus video from Dana Chisnell: Deconstructing Delight: Pleasure, Flow and Meaning
Amid the work of experience maps, improvement matrices, and innovation concepts, MicroInteractions: Designing with Details by Dan Saffer was a satisfying reminder to always come back to the details. I often find myself juggling projects of varied scope. That means I am balancing big picture thinking with focus on the small details. It can often feel like the big picture work has more of an impact. It takes more time to think through, and consumes more of my attention. As I grow in my career and tackle projects of greater complexity, having a firm grasp of the big picture is indispensable, but the details can’t slide in quality.
While microinteractions exist in your product regardless of the level of attention paid to them, there is difficulty in selling the value of doing them well - especially when it requires extra effort or unfamiliar territory for your dev team (I’m looking at you, animations). Saffer briefly mentions the difficulty of selling microinteractions, but only goes as far as to say it’s worth the effort.
I don’t have an answer to this either*, but I do know it’s important to maintain your level of excellence in design craft, even if those designs rarely see the light of day in their full form. Microinteractions renewed my inspiration to sweat even the details that probably won’t see implementation.
So, to get in fighting shape, I set myself the task of reviewing my latest projects’ microinteractions and designing improvements. I learned a couple of things from this exercise:
- I found most bad microinteractions were a symptom of a bigger design issue - usually an entire neglected flow.
- A good place to look is at the intersection of systems or flows. The ‘seams’ can often use the benefit a microinteraction brings to the user experience. Ryan Singer captures a good example.
- When you focus on just one microinteraction, it’s amazing how many different forms it can take, especially if you experiment with tweaking all the levers of: form, triggers, feedback, rules, and loops. I’ll follow-up in another post with more detail on the specific interaction I chose.
This is a great book for new interaction designers as it really breaks down the steps of designing simple interactions. For experienced designers, the curated examples from Little Big Details are a reminder you owe it to yourself and your craft to set aside time to think and design in this way. Rely on self-motivation and the personal satisfaction of a job well done.
*Ok, I can’t resist brainstorming some ideas:
- Prototyping. I think we all know that one. I think especially for situations where the implementation is telling you no just because they can’t picture or are skeptical that something can be done.
- Designer/coder. I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine this is less of an issue where designers deliver front-end code. It’s a cool idea, but I don’t know how that scales to huge complex products and projects. Maybe the UI coder is part of the UX team and the team delivers UI with designs.
- Educate. Teaching your team about microinteractions and having them look for places that this level of detail can be added is invaluable. Some of the best microinteractions come from their insight into what’s possible with low effort.
"How wonderful! They've stolen my idea! It's become their idea!" In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath use this quote to illustrate the successful outcome of a sticky idea. This quote struck me as a great distillation of my goal as a user experience designer - to craft and sell a user experience strategy in such a way that it's internalized by stakeholders and teams as their very own idea.
User experience designers need to communicate an experience vision to diverse audiences in a way that the audiences can use it to make guiding decisions about a product. This means that both executives and people on the front lines are using the same language of user experience in their day-to-day conversations. What does this look like? Here's a story they tell about a game manufacturer:
Whit Alexander, the co-founder of Cranium, recalls a time he called a Chinese manufacturing partner to describe a concept for a new game piece. The piece would be purple and made of multiple parts that would need to be glued together. His partner balked. 'It's not CHIFF,' he said. Alexander was astonished. His supplier, halfway across the globe, had just corrected him using Cranium's own strategic language. And the supplier was absolutely right.
CHIFF stands for "Clever, High-quality, Innovative, Friendly, Fun" and guides all product decisions at the company. It's an excellent example of a sticky strategy. As designers, we need to communicate our vision in a way that doesn't make stakeholders eyes glaze over - a way that gets it out of our heads or in conversations between two people, and into the tangible space.
Communicate your vision in a way that sticks
Chip and Dan Heath describe how to make any idea sticky using the framework of Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Stories. I've pulled out some of their key points below and discuss them in relation to how you might make your user experience strategies more sticky in your organization.
Simple The key to being simple is to limit yourself to expressing one core idea. If you try to communicate all your ideas and all your thinking at once, you'll be communicating nothing in the end.
- Start with your elevator pitch - who is it for, what does it do, and why it's different and better for the users.
- Use generative metaphor to connect the idea to something your audience is already familiar with - "it's like pinterest on a feature phone for foreign relief workers."
- Use plain language. Trader Joe's sticky "unemployed college professor" target customer could be the more complex "Upscale but budget-conscious customer."
Unexpected Communicate what isn't obvious about your strategy. Express what you are leaving out or placing less importance on, so that the strategy can be used in actual day-to-day decision-making.
- Use surprise to get their attention.
- Describe how someone would apply the strategy in an extreme way. The newspaper editor who requested "names, names, names" even if it meant he had to spend more money adding pages to the newspaper (names are more important than cost) or Nordstrom employees who take customer service to extremes by gift-wrapping products bought elsewhere or starting customer's cars in the winter.
Concrete As experts, we suffer from what the authors call the "Curse of Knowledge." We know too much, so we think and communicate in abstractions. However, your audience needs to hear things for the first time in a way they can picture. It's the difference between donating money to help a particular child, or donating money to relieve hunger in a foreign country. Focusing on a particular child is the more successful tactic.
- Use visual artifacts to give life to the conceptual frameworks your strategy is based on.
- Create clear and meaningful design or product principles to guide decisions about what's in and what's out.
- Define what is a clear win for your project ("we'll know we're successful when…").
Credible, emotional stories As user experience designers, this is probably where we feel the most comfortable. Stories engage your audience and create buy-in by framing your ideas in terms of inclusive problem-solving rather than a battle of opinions.
- Center stories on individuals with compelling detail; don't use statistics (save those for another time).
- Create a whole picture from problem space to ideal experience (even if you can't describe the interface of the solution, describe the desired emotional experience).
- Use storyboards to lend a visual component.
- Talk to your audience about what you have in common, and tie your message to what they care about.
- Draw a connection to where a similar strategy has been successfully used in the past.
All that time spent crafting an amazing experience for your users could be wasted if you can't make the strategy stick in the minds of your stakeholders and team. Small adjustments in the way you communicate can have a huge impact.
Yesterday, I stumbled across this older but information-packed video of Janice Frasier speaking in Los Angeles. Check it out, I watched it twice. (Not only because of the giant bunny.) Kill your darlings: User experience and lean startup
Some teaser tidbits from the video:
Do a wireframe check with your developers on a regular basis. Once you have your sketch, take it to your developer and ask these same 4 questions every time:
- Is this an accurate reflection of the system?
- What here is hard?
- What are the alternatives?
- Is this worth it?
Extra design inventory is waste. Design one page and test it to figure out you're on the right track before you design a whole system.
Put stuff on the walls. Nothing gets a conversation started better. In fact - don't have meetings, have working sessions.
When I read The Shape of Design, it was hard at first, and then lovely, and then I realized this wasn't so much a book as advice on living. Design isn't separate from your life. Be a better person who wants to make the world a better place and you'll be a better designer. I'm not much of a "touchy-feely" person, so I was surprised to find that this resonated with me. A successful design is one that elegantly moves forward business goals and satisfies user needs, but can everyday design make people's lives better? Not just happy to use our product, or delighted, but actually push in the direction of making the world a better place?
The obvious answer is yes, especially when you think of projects like charity:water. But for the rest of your projects, the day-to-day work, it's possible too, it just requires a different lens.
Much is written about user experience design and empathy. Sometimes, it's implied that all one needs to do is to go out and interview a large number of users and the empathy will just naturally come. (And, don't get me wrong, it's a great start.) A typical UX process involves finding out user problems and solving for them. And in the world of business applications, this seems to make sense, seems to fit, seems like the right tone. Ask the users some formal questions, find out what they need to do, don't get too personal with them. But – maybe there's more. Maybe we can try harder. Chimero says, Ask why. We can keep asking why until we go deep enough to uncover something we didn't expect.
When you think you have the answer, ask why again. Try to go deeper.
My current project has just finished a round of intensive field studies and is faced with a mountain of data. We observed the typical business processes and asked the typical workflow questions. Thankfully, our researcher is pretty great at asking why. As our team is looking at the data, we have a great starting place that is rich with motivation, emotion, and anxieties. Our first pass through these interviews was already pretty insightful. As we explore the data more in design concepts, the most productive and innovate sessions come from taking these insights and asking why again. Perhaps the harried project manager who needs to schedule the meeting is is over-anxious about the details because this is an important client and losing their business means another round of layoffs in the entire company. She's worried about a meeting, a big project, and the future of her colleagues. Why does she care so much about her colleagues? It turns out they're a strong team that values supporting each other. How can our designs support and encourage this feeling of community and support this team has, and spread it to other teams?
I used to think that Human-Computer Interaction was a weird, outdated phrase for a field that had moved on from command-line interfaces. But maybe it's relevant now more than ever. Perhaps "user experience" is depersonalizing our work. If we can respond as a human and a designer, we can make meaningful and warm connections with our users, who transform our work (and the world) by their use of it. Give your users the gift of attention, time, and deep listening. Go back and ask why again. Go deeper than you normally do, more than you think you should.
Earlier this year, I attended the AgileUX NYC conference. It was a great one-day conference with 14 presentations on how to do design in an Agile environment, with a focus on Lean UX. Looking back through my notes on the experience, I was inspired all over again to try new approaches, and I wanted to share them here.
So, what is The Lean Startup?
The Lean Startup is a software development approach outlined by Eric Ries: “Because startups often accidentally build something nobody wants, it doesn’t matter much if they do it on time and on budget. The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build – the thing the customers want and will pay for – as quickly as possible.” The key method is constant adjustments to strategy via the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. The focus is not on shipping working software. The focus is on achieving validated learning on what customers value in your product. This means features aren’t “done” until you have proven with an experiment that what you built solves your customers’ problem.
Ok, then, what’s Lean UX?
There are lots of definitions and lots of different ways to do this, but basically it centers around doing UX in an way you can to shorten the build-measure-learn cycle - that is, get faster to learning from the customer. From the LeanUX Residency: “By reducing long product cycles into smaller, shorter chunks and validating these iterations with people that will use our products, we gain the important information needed to avoid expensive development cycles that are laden with risk.”
More reading on Lean UX:
- The 9 Principles of Lean User Experience - LUXr
- LeanUX: Getting out of the Deliverables Business - Jeff Gothelf
- http://www.uie.com/articles/lean_ux/ - Jared Spool
Key takeaways from the conference
- Get out from behind Photoshop. Everyone is talking about designers learning to code, sketching, running design studios with their teams, pairing with developers.
- Quick, continuous design testing - and plan it the day before. Meetup tests three times a week, many others at least once a week. Keep tests and results informal (no deliverables!) Collaboration is key.
- Mentor and get mentored across functional and departmental lines. Reach out especially to sales and marketing departments. Make it visual.
- Visual artifacts such as sketches, post-it notes, and personas on the walls get everyone involved and sell the experience. They act as “visual radiators.”
- Get data and use it. You can’t run experiments or track successes without data.
- Almost every presenter acknowledged that working with remote teams this way is challenging.
Notes from my favorite presentations
4 Keys to Success in a Design Driven Company (slides)
- Get through the loop (idea-feedback-revise-prototype-validate…) as fast as possible.
- Defining the problem is what's hard.
- Listening vs Vision – if you focus only on your vision you're not open to feedback. To experiment, you have to be willing to change course.
- Evolve thinking, not the pixels on the page.
Replacing Requirements with Hypothesis (slides)
- Requirements don't expose the customer needs to teams.
- Hypotheses are assumptions about the product or users to be tested.
- Validated learning, not software (code), is the measure of progress.
- Reduce time from product idea to learning if users want it (3months to 3 hours, in one of his examples).
- Awesome example: success for a product he worked on was based on whether users installed the product. But, users weren't installing product. They think (hypothesis) installation is too hard and they need to build a customer installer. Tested by putting a button on their site ("Install for me!"). When the user clicks, there is a customer service rep behind the scenes manually doing the installation. A Wizard of OZ prototype let them know if the feature was worth building.
Agile Lessons Learned (slides)
- They test 2-3x/week – and don't plan the test until the day before.
- Their experiments are not just A/B Testing, they do long term experiments involving people (e.g., customer reps directly emailing new Meet Up organizers). They test which reps are successful and what it is that they are doing.
- Don't try to explain process because people don't care! Just start doing it.
- Have the freedom to fail – "What would you do if you knew you would fail?"
Demystifying Design (slides)
- Make the entire process of design work visible to your teams. They'll see that design is hard! Teams will start to own the design work along with you.
- Tell everyone what you are doing and why.
- More on visibility: hang artifacts on walls, blog, celebrate wins, teach design to teams.
I keep a running list of books to read, and, as a fast reader, go through these lists quickly. And while I internalize a lot of the lovely bits of the things I read, sometimes with an especially wonderful book, I find myself wanting more - more engagement, or something tangible left behind. This was the case with The Creative Habit. I don't quite remember how this book made it on to my list (note to future self, keep track of that from now on), but I ended up buying an electronic copy for my Kindle and nearly devouring it before I realized I absolutely needed a physical copy of this book. I got one, started reading it over, and now it's covered in highlights. My point? Go out. Get this book. Do it now. I can't imagine a person in any profession that wouldn't find inspiration in this book. As a user experience designer, I sometimes wonder where creativity fits into my design practice. I don't often get to choose my projects. I don't usually get to propose wild, crazy, way-out-there-flying-toaster solutions. As others have noted before, design creativity is frequently the quieter kind that comes from navigating many constraints. Even then, that's a creativity that needs to be exercised to stay sharp. Here are some things I took from The Creative Habit that I'm going to bring to my practice as a professional designer. It's New Year's Eve in August, and these are my resolutions:
1. Develop your perspective
Tharp stresses the importance of having a point of view on your work, knowing what that point of view is, and consciously developing it. An exercise Tharp suggests is to sit down and watch a couple. Write down the first 20 things they do. Do it again, but this time, write down the first 20 things that are interesting to you. This takes a lot longer and gives you insight into what your perspective is. I think this can be done with designs as well. I keep a collection of imagery I find interesting or inspirational, but I rarely go back through and review it for what exactly is speaking to me or what the themes are that may tie them together. It's time to start.
This kind of exercise can also help you determine your personal "focal length" – small, medium, or large distance. People have a tendency to prefer one of these modes and work best in it. As a designer, it's helpful to know what your preferred length is, and make sure you stretch into the other perspectives as you design.
2. Be aware of your spine
A spine is the core of your work. In making art, the spine is the central idea the artist is trying to express. In design, this can be new idea you are experimenting with to solve a problem. For example, you may have an idea to design your application in such a way that it makes people feel good about how they are doing their work. Can you evaluate every page, every interaction to see that this spine is strong? Perhaps this just another way of expressing the idea of design principles. But note, this is design principles much less in the vein of "be simple" and much more in the vein of this excellent piece by Mark Boulton on design principles for their CERN project. I can't say enough about how awesome this article is.
Rachel Hinman talks of the importance of mobile applications or interfaces to "speak their power." That is, for them to be so intuitive that it is instantly clear what they are designed to do and how you should interact with them, like a light switch or a shopping cart. I think the idea of spine is important in achieving this clarity of purpose. The shopping cart and light switch each have a strong spine.
I want to make a conscious effort to make sure I can identify the spine of work – before, during, and after executing on it. If I can't identify a spine, then I think I need to dig deeper, ask more and better questions.
3. Ideas are work
Ideas are everywhere, but you have to be dedicated and persistent about tracking them down. Tharp writes that ideas can come from many places: reading, conversations, others' work, or nature. Stuck? Go on a field trip (with a plan) and collect ideas. She calls this "scratching." She calls on us to scratch in the best places and use the best material to improve the quality of our ideas. Go to the masters, explore history. I love this call to action. I need to get back to reading through Megg's History of Graphic Design and Designing Interactions (they've become lovely doorstops. Shame on me!) Karen McGrane has done a comprehensive and awesome review of Interaction Design history. I want to get out more and design in the field and be prepared to accept and record ideas when I do so. I want to be more comfortable dedicating some time each day to generating new ideas.
4. Be organized
Once you've started collecting, be organized. Tharp keeps a box for every project, and in it she places every item of inspiration or research she collects for the duration of the project. These collections create a soil from which ideas grow. Stay organized, and evaluate your ideas after you generate them. Put little ideas together so big ideas can form. And you can't just sit there and think and think in front of your notebooks. Be physical in ideation – make 60 sketches and keep one. Track these ideas so you can evolve on them over time.
I keep Evernote notebooks full of screenshots and sketchbooks and scraps of paper with thoughts all over the house, but I hadn't thought much about imposing a structure on these things. I can see the value in that now. I've started keeping separate notebooks for my different projects and it's valuable to be able to flip through, review the progression and re-mix old concepts. It helps to get into the headspace of just that one project (or aspect of a project) and focus on it.
Although this was a book about creativity, Tharp tells us to put craft before creativity. Skill is what lets you execute what you see in your mind. Practice. In fact, practice perfectly. Practice the fundamentals, practice what you aren't good at. Practice by apprenticing yourself to the masters of your craft. Copying (over and over and over) the work of those you admire enables you to internalize their structures and point of view. You can take them on as mentors.
The main takeaway of this book for me was that creating is work (hard work) that takes discipline and habit. This discipline, habit, hard work and planning will give you confidence to execute and believe in your creations. I'm going to create a daily habit of practice in my work. I remember a time when I was practicing making buttons (yes, boring website buttons), a couple a day, for about two weeks. It was zen.
Some practice-related inspiration
I've had the intention to start writing for a long time now. It's pretty rare to see a user experience designer without a blog, making it a standard item on the professional checklist. Problem was, I just couldn't get started. It felt insincere. I thought perhaps everything had already been said. I didn't want to seem pretentious. I'd procrastinate for weeks designing Wordpress templates, then drop the whole project. Recently, I've had a change of heart. I found myself reading more, learning more, and scribbling little half-formed ideas in corners of my sketchbooks. I'd save articles in Evernote and jot notes about process or application of methods. I wasn't really sharing these with my colleagues, because, although I have the benefit of a large (and awesome) UX team to work with, I work remotely from home. I can't just turn to one of them and say, "Hey, I was thinking…" anymore.
A friend reminded me about the process of reflection we were encouraged to go through in grad school. At the time, I hated it. I'm an enthusiastic learner, but in a more hands-on, I'll-teach-myself kind of way. Being required to sit down at the end of a semester and write a five-page paper on what I learned just didn't appeal. But a way to look back and reflection on your thinking, learning, and projects is essential to growth. What especially resonated with me was Mark Boulton's post on why he blogs: " [...] it’s here – on this blog – where those ideas are nurtured and grown into something more. The very act of considering what I write is what makes my blog an integral part of my design toolkit."
So this is a place for reflection and developing ideas about my design practice. It's a space showing a personal journey, but if others find it interesting or useful, I'll be all the more delighted.