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November 08 2013


35 Magnificent Free and Premium Tumblr Blog Themes

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The various blogging platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, and Medium has paved the way for newer and better features in web applications. Tumblr has always been a very interesting platform because it utilizes many post formats which appear naturally in the user interface. Thus many Tumblr themes are built focusing around these post formats. It is a unique way of blogging where you don’t always need to be writing text in order to post.

For this collection I have organized 35 outstanding themes for Tumblr blogs. Some of the free themes have been around for years, while others are still pretty new. I’ve also split the list between some free themes along with some premium designs. You can definitely count on high-quality work in these premium themes – the question is do you use Tumblr enough to justify a purchase? Check out these templates and see what you think about refreshing your blog, or even opening up a new one!


mono minimal responsive tumblr blog theme


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green layout inspiring tumblr premium design


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Vintage Metro

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clear blue clarus theme tumblr free

Art She Said

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Rubber Cement

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linear green white simple minimal tumblr theme


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Simple Things

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green chunky dark tumblr theme blog

Color Shades

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Royal Cameleon

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white minimalist lightweight tumblr blog design

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October 07 2013

Sponsored post

April 02 2013


August 28 2012


Lessons Learned Designing a Windows 8 App

Windows 8, expected to be released in October 2012, is the latest version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system. Its release also marks the first time that Microsoft has significantly evolved its design since 1995. Microsoft’s new, touch-oriented design language opens the door to designers, giving them a chance to reconsider their existing applications.

Christina and I are graduate students in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. In April we were hired as interns by Blink Interactive, a UX research and design agency in Seattle, to become their resident Windows 8 experts. We scoured the Internet for articles and videos, attended Windows 8 developer events, spoke with Microsoft evangelists, and spent a good, long time using Windows 8 on both tablet and desktop computers.

Finally, we conceptualized a Windows 8 version of Rhapsody, an online music provider (and Blink client). Through trial, error, and multiple iterations, we learned how to reconcile the needs of Rhapsody’s users, the scope of their application, and the rather-strict Metro guidelines.

A window to the world

Windows 8 will be installed on a wide variety of devices, from tablets to desktops. Whereas some tablets will only run Windows 8 applications with the Metro UI, others will be able to switch “modes” between the traditional Windows desktop (Aero UI) and the Metro UI. This is the key feature that sets it apart from Android and Apple tablets: Windows 8 enables people to use the same device for watching Youtube videos on the couch as for working on design comps in Photoshop.

Microsoft recently issued a statement saying that it would no longer call its design language Metro. The company has yet to provide vendors with an alternative name. As such, this article refers to Microsoft’s design language as Metro.

User interface

To unify their cross-platform experience Microsoft will employ Metro, a design language they initially developed for the Windows Phone and Xbox. Metro is inspired by the Modernist style of the Bauhaus Design School, Swiss design, the international typographic style, and motion design. Microsoft uses five core principles to define it:

  • Authentically Digital: Metro designs avoid skeuomorphism. Unlike iOS –which encourages the use of realistic on-screen objects –Metro eschews faux textures, shadows, bevels, and/or 3-D looking icons for a more modern look.
  • Pride in Craftsmanship: Metro designers pay close attention to detail and work to ensure their designs are pixel perfect.
  • Be Fast and Fluid: Metro applications feel responsive, using motion and screen transitions to facilitate flow.
  • Do More with Less: Metro applications have limited scope. Their designs avoid unnecessary content and chrome (buttons, functions, and controls).
  • Win as One: Metro designs employ Microsoft-sanctioned patterns to decrease their learning curve.

In addition to these guidelines, Microsoft hopes to create a sense of familiarity between all third party apps by encouraging the use of a pre-defined grid, typography, screen hierarchy, and navigation. The grid – composed of 20×20 pixel squares – dictates how text, images, and tiles are laid out on the screen. Even the standard font, Segoe UI, and the font sizes recommended by Microsoft were chosen to fit in the grid.

That said, though, it’s important to keep in mind that these are suggestions; great Windows 8 applications should respect Metro’s principles, but could deviate from one or two of them altogether.

Information Architecture

Microsoft is a bit more strict when it comes to the screen hierarchy, which is limited to three levels: Hub, Section, and Detail pages.

  1. Hub Pages provide an overview of content and functionality. They link to various sections.
  2. Section Pages showcase the content/functionality comprising a section. Content on section pages page can be displayed in any form, including tiles and lists.
  3. Detail Pages are end nodes in the hierarchy. The content comprising them includes text, pictures, video, or songs.

To navigate between the different screens users can tap on headers or tiles. Tiles are clickable rectangles that can contain a photo, icon, or text. Some[t1] applications also have a nav bar at the top of the screen that remains hidden until the user swipes inward from the upper or lower edge of the screen. The nav bar is used to navigate between completely distinct sections of the app –such as tabs in a web browser. Some applications implement a dropdown menu next to the top level headers that allows the user to access sibling and parent pages.

Learning to speak Metro

Blink partnered with Rhapsody, an international music service provider, to conceptualize a metro-style prototype of their application. Rhapsody provides access to over 14 million songs by thousands of artists, as well as editorial content, and radio. They already have apps for a wide variety of devices, from phones and tablets to in-car entertainment systems, so Windows 8 was a logical addition. Our team’s design goal was to create an experience that would feel familiar to current Rhapsody users, while reflecting Metro and Windows 8 principles and navigation structures.

This proved challenging. The wide scope and deep hierarchy of Rhapsody’s app conflicted with the 3-tiered navigation dictated by Microsoft. In addition, we needed to reconcile the interaction patterns that Rhapsody users are familiar with––such as a persistent player and queue––with Windows 8’s chrome-less design.

We began by itemizing the existing Rhapsody Android app’s features and UI in order to make sure that we accounted for everything.

Information Architecture

The current Rhapsody application has four different sections: Browse, My Music, Radio, and Featured. Each contains enough content to constitute a Metro application all on its own. Our challenge was to unite them.

We began by implementing a navigation bar to provide access to each of the four different sections, as well as the main Hub (home) screen from any page of the application.

After showing our wireframes to Microsoft employees, they advised us to use the initial hub screen to showcase the different sections. This, however, meant adding an additional level of navigation to an already deep hierarchy – deeper the 3 levels dictated by Microsoft. If a user was interested in Scandinavian Pop, for instance, he would have to travel from:

Home → Browse → World → Europe → Scandinavia → Scandinavian Rock/Pop

The challenge was allowing the user to return to the Home screen without having to continue tapping on the Back button. Some applications solve this by placing a Home button in the app bar –although this is generally considered against proper Windows 8 Metro design. Instead, we decided to use a dropdown menu next to the page headers that provides access to the Home page, the four section pages and, if applicable, sibling pages (such as subgenres).

Contrary to Metro style design patterns, we initially used hubs and section pages to break down pages that contained large amounts of content, even when they were not pages at the very top of the hierarchy.

Artist profiles, for instance, were structured as hub pages that showcased the artist’s image, top albums, popular tracks, and similar artists. Each of these groups was linked to a section page that provided the remaining content. When we showed our design to Microsoft designers, they advised us to keep all the content for all the groups on a single, wide page. This was one case in which we decided to go against the advice we received – there were simply too many cases in which the number of albums and similar artists would make the page too wide to browse with ease. Pavarotti, for instance, has over 100 albums. Having a single page would make it difficult to find a specific album, and require semantic zoom to make users aware of the existence of the other sections.

User interface

Windows 8 design guidelines encourage hiding the chrome, or persistent navigational elements of an app. Note that in all of the screenshots we’ve shown up to this point there isn’t any primary or secondary persistent navigation visible. Those navigational elements are available by going back to home or are tucked away in dropdowns from titles. This sounds like a constraint, but it really is a solid principle for mobile and touch applications in general.

However, we still ran up against the “don’t show chrome” principle when it came to the music player. Rhapsody users are accustomed to having the music player visible on every screen.

Initially, we created a sidebar that showed the cover art of the album currently playing, buttons to control the music and the queue. Users could hide and show the sidebar by swiping it on and off the left edge of the screen.

This was a problem, though, because it took up a great deal of real estate on the page and was considered “chrome.” We then considered placing it either in the app bar or in the navigation bar. MSDN suggests placing players in the navigation bar (top of the screen), whilst all other music applications seem to have it in the app bar (bottom of the screen). In the end, we decided to place it in the navigation bar to free up the app bar for other controls.

In addition to the navigation bar player, we also designed a full-screen player and a snap view player. Snap view is similar to “restoring down” an application, and allows users to view two applications at once. The full-screen player opens when the user touched the album cover in the small player, or as a screensaver after the user has not used the device for a few minutes.

When the user opens the application in snap view, they are presented with only the player, since it is not practical to navigate content in such a small view. The snap view player shows the last track played, the one currently playing, and the one coming up.

Start here

Metro is Microsoft’s attempt to create a more cohesive user experience across both its platforms and third party applications. Having a consistent set of affordances and navigation patterns lessens the learning curve and increases the usability of Windows 8 applications.

The challenge for designers is to reconcile the Metro style design guidelines with the specific needs of the application and its users. In addition, the resulting design must be unique: it must convey the company’s brand and its personality.

So how should you get started? First, take a look at the resources below to become familiar with the basics. Then, decide what features and content you want to implement and fit them in Microsoft’s suggested 3-level hierarchy.

Once you know the structure of the app, take a look at the templates provided by Microsoft and use them as starting point. Keep the five Metro principles in mind, but make your app unique by applying your own branding and style, as well as using shapes, colors, and subtle patterns.

The Cocktail Flow app is a perfect example of this – it’s a beautiful, tile-less Metro design. Throughout the process, show your application to your client, users, and if possible Microsoft representatives (at least for now this is a mandatory step to submit your app to the store). Use their feedback to continue iterating on the design until it’s pixel perfect. Good luck!


The post Lessons Learned Designing a Windows 8 App appeared first on UX Booth.

August 21 2012


The Difference Between Information Architecture and UX Design

Information architects form the blueprints of the web

Next to explaining what I do for a living, the second question I most frequently hear is: “What’s the difference between Information Architecture and User Experience?” The line always seems to blur between the two, even though there’s clearly a difference. How should I go about explaining it?

Information Architecture, according to Wikipedia, is “the art and science of organizing and labelling websites … to support usability.“ According to the same source, User Experience is “the way a person feels about using a product, system or service. [This includes] a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system.”

Even with regards to its definition, User Experience takes Information Architecture as its foundation and brings it to the next level.

Information Architecture concerns structure

Information Architecture is a relatively old term. Old in the sense of the web and old in the sense of our progression through technology. It focuses on the organization and structure of content in a manner in which a user can navigate through it. Digitally speaking, it can range from a simple brochure site all the way to a complex information system.

Information Architects work to create usable content structures out of complex sets of information. They do this using plenty of user-centered design methods: usability tests, persona research and creation, and user flow diagrams (to name only a few). That said, it still seems that UX design is in vogue.

And here’s why: Information Architecture comprises only small a part of a user’s overall experience.

User Experience concerns emotion

What’s User Experience then? User Experience Designers take a site’s information architecture one step further, considering not only its navigation, but also its ability to facilitate engagement. To do this, they employ user-centered design to produce a cohesive, predictable, and desirable affect in their target audience. Whoa.

UX designers turn ordinary experiences into exceptional ones

Essentially, UX designers work to make things more profound, targeting their users on an emotional level. I don’t mean “tugging at heart strings” emotional, but more eliciting an emotional response in respect to what they just accomplished. UX design adds context and story to a user’s natural behaviour and, in so doing, gives them something to take away from their experience.

The Fundamentals of Experience Design

Stephen Anderson believes that the best experiences lie at the intersection of “People, their Activities, and the Context of those activities”

You can look at it like this: UX encompasses the whole spectrum. It’s like taking a cup of IA, mixed with a dash of usability, a pinch of content strategy and whole lotta creativity. Or, even simpler, UX is the love child between a Creative Director and an Information Architect. A lot of the time this means stripping things away so you’re left with just the essence of what a user needs.

Being easy and cool

If you aren’t completely confused yet, you’re probably thinking that you need a good IA in order have a good UX. Exactly. Another way of looking at it is: User Experience Designers consider Information Architecture, but Information Architects don’t necessarily consider their users’ entire experience.

A usable experience is easy, simple and gets the job done. An engaging experience does all of that and instills a lasting impression on the user. It’s the difference between coming away from a site and thinking “That was easy” and “Whoa. That was cool.”

It’s the difference between Wunderlist and Clear.

Between Sketchbook and Paper.

Both of the former apps are good, easy, usable tools. But the latter apps are not only easy and usable, they’re fun and engaging.

It’s all in the approach

Looking at any one discipline’s workflow is a daunting task, but let’s take a quick 10,000-foot view how the workflows for IAs and UX designers might differ. Information Architects would likely consider their requirements, research their users’ goals, and conduct some form of competitive analysis. In the end, they might generate page flows, wireframes and, of course, a sitemap. Add on some usability testing, refinement and revisions, and it’s off to the designers.

UX designers, though, would likely take a different approach. Although they’ll take the IA’s workflow into consideration, they might also consider the emotional goals of their end-user. Their competitive comparison may be more around interaction models, rather than structure and layout.


UX builds on the foundation that IA provides, aiming to take that experience to the next level, both creatively and emotionally. This is the outstanding difference that defines how the apps, sites, and products of today are designed as opposed to those of yesterday. For those interested in more resources, I’ve included a list of links below to check out.

The post The Difference Between Information Architecture and UX Design appeared first on UX Booth.

August 14 2012


Journey to The Heart of UX Design: Debunking Myths

What makes a truly great car? Beauty? If that were the case, then every millionaire in the world would drive a gaudy, two-hundred-thousand dollar sports car. While they are often undeniably beautiful, many sports cars leave much to be desired: they lack storage; they are bad for the environment; they are uneconomical… the list goes on and on.

On the flip side, there are some remarkably reliable cars that can get a person from here to there for a very reasonable amount of money. But how many people want to show up at a business meeting in a Ford Focus?

Many of the world’s most successful car companies share something in common: they don’t just settle for making great cars; they offer something more. BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen sell an experience – a vision of driving. As an owner, they make you feel as though you’re part of something larger.

Do you remember Volkswagon’s Fahrvergnügen campaign?

The road less travelled

Fahrvergnügen, directly translated, means driving pleasure. This is what Volkswagen drivers want: something beyond the “everyday” experience of getting to and from work; something better. At the end of the day that’s what good UX design is all about: giving people a product or service that amplifies (or transcends) their experience.

It sounds simple but, along the way, we often forget. People often confuse “good design” with “good looks” and while looks are certainly part of it, actual design is more than just skin deep. Recently deceased Apple CEO and user experience genius Steve Jobs summed this up perfectly when he said: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Good design doesn’t showcase a company’s vision so much as it enables that company’s users to tell a story. User experience design, then, encompasses everything from the initial idea to the last pixel on a page. It is about performance and efficiency, intellect and emotion. It is about solving problems and finding the optimal way to affect users with a sense of purpose.

Assuming you have a great designer – a true expert who understands form, functionality, and emotion – it’s easy enough for them to offer a relevant experience… but is it exceptional?

The danger zone

Yet another common misconception regarding design is that any designer will be fine for basic user testing. While the expert designer’s review can certainly be useful in finding obvious usability issues, it is never a substitute for good, wholesome user testing.

It’s probably apparent by now that there are many misconceptions about what constitutes good user experience design. Talking about it is easy, but defining it is difficult. The best way to avoid (almost all) of the common traps is to never forget that good design centers around serving content – be that a message or an idea.

If you are interested in learning more there are plenty of great resources:

  • First and foremost, you’re reading this blog which is an incredible source of information and always shedding new light on the world of UX and many of the obstacles we have to overcome as a young and highly misunderstood field.
  • Box and Arrows features podcasts, cutting edge articles, and a job listing board.
  • What more, UX myths helps dispel many of misconceptions about design and user experience in general.

Regardless of how you choose to look at it, we are in the midst of a user experience boom. There’s information and misinformation around every corner. Hopefully, though, armed with this knowledge and a few good resources, you can begin to differentiate for yourself.

To theyself, be true

User experience design enables us to effect a sense of purpose. It facilitates a conversation between the audience, the designer, and the object being designed. To that end, start by learning what your users really want. Then use design to exceed it: form and function, intellect and emotion. It is, as cheesy as it sounds, not only about creating a great product but also delivering something more: a real, exceptional experience.

The post Journey to The Heart of UX Design: Debunking Myths appeared first on UX Booth.

July 31 2012


Running a Successful User Workshop

For UX professionals, talking to real users is undoubtedly an important part of the process. Our clients are experts in their industries and we are experts in ours but the best way to learn what users do, think, and want is to ask them directly.

Users aren’t fictional; who do you want to speak to?

That’s where user workshops come in handy. In essence, user workshops are sessions where we invite people who have a connection with our client to meet and talk about their experiences. Through workshops we can draw together groups of real people and quiz them about their behaviours and opinions.

User workshops won’t tell you exactly what to do but, if run correctly, they can give you invaluable insight at the crucial early stages of a project. They can also be relatively inexpensive to run.

Group dynamics can also lead to interesting discoveries that we can’t get from other forms of user consultation. For example, a user may be inspired by the debate and thus encouraged to share views when they may otherwise remain silent.

All this sounds good, yes? Here’s some advice to help you setup your next user workshop.

Before your workshop

The best workshops take planning. Start by talking with your colleagues and/or clients about your reasons for wanting to hold a user workshop:

  • Who do you want to speak to?
  • What information are you hoping to obtain?
  • What topics of discussion would presumably provide the most insight?

Next, recruit well. Recruiting users is always the hardest job because it takes longer than you think. When it comes to recruiting users, it doesn’t matter if you use a specialist recruiter (e.g. Acumen) or if you drag them in off the street. As long as you determine who you want to speak to, how many people you want and what you will give them for their time. Be sure to incentivise well: £25-£50 in hard cash is enough to ensure people turn up but not so much that they just come for the money

Create profiles of the kind of people you want to talk to. Preferably people who already understand the product or service you are discussing. Be sure to get the numbers right. Up to six people is a good number for a simple discussion, 12 to 18 is better if you want something more involved with breakout sessions

Prepare your users. Whatever time you set aside for your workshops you don’t want to spend a large chunk of it explaining why people are in the room and then another chunk sitting in silence while everyone has a good think about it. Instead, send participants an email or letter about a week before the actual session that explains where it will be, how long it will take, what you want to talk about, what they should bring with them (do you want them to look at a website beforehand?)

Get the setting right. If you can, visit the intended venue for your workshop to make sure it’s up to the job – Is it big enough and in the best location? Does it have the right facilities? – Get a feel for where everyone will sit and move around.


Workshops will inevitable be an alien environment for your users. For some, the idea of sharing their thoughts with a roomful of strangers will be downright scary. At the start of the session you should smile and run through a simple checklist, saying something akin to:

  • The session will largely involve open discussion and I want you to speak up!
  • I’ll give you support but I want you to do the majority of the talking.
  • Be vocal. The more you say, the more I will understand what to do next.
  • Be honest. All your views ‐ positive and negative ‐ are important.
  • I am not the client and anything you say will remain confidential.
  • Finally, and most importantly, there is no such thing as a silly idea. I want to approach things afresh, without preconceptions or perceived limitations.

Make the most of your time

At this point you have achieved something relatively rare – you have gathered users together in one room. Don’t waste the opportunity! Work hard to avoid dull monologues peppered with uncomfortable silences. One of the best ways to get the blood pumping and conversation flowing is to get people out of their chairs. Hand out post-it notes and pens. As you progress through the session, encourage people to scribble down their ideas and stick them on the nearest wall.

You are looking for breadth, not depth so avoid spending too long on any specific subject (e.g. the pros and cons of social media); don’t be afraid to close discussions down if you think a particular topic has been wrung dry.

Remember you are dealing with different personalities. Encourage the quiet ones to speak and wrestle the talking stick from the verbose, but do it in a nice way. Mike B. Fisher provides an excellent observation on differing personality traits and how to deal with them in his article, Understanding User Personalities.

Don’t hold the baton!

And when it comes to talking: don’t hold the baton. People naturally want to fill silences; shutting up will encourage others to talk. When I put a question to a group I count to ten in my head before saying anything else. I usually get to about six before someone says something and… off we go!

Record the events. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be too busy running the session to take notes so get someone else to help you, or use a Dictaphone or a video camera to record what people say and do. For me, voice recordings are most useful. I can play them over and over again and a lot of what users say then tends to sink into my brain through osmosis.

And if you’ve used post-it notes take pictures of everything before you take them off the wall ‐ you’ll soon forget how they were laid out.

Report back

However you communicate what you’ve learned, make sure you do it in a quick, easy-to-understand way. Nobody reads 150-page, wordy reports so be economical with the detail.

I prefer to sit and talk through the findings. I may support the discussion with simple, visual presentations and use recorded clips if they help to make a particular point.

I will sometimes create a more-involved document to be circulated to the masses, but even then I avoid wordyness. I rely hugely on images and simple bullet point lists and aim to produce something that anyone can skim in a couple of minutes and get the general gist.

In sum: next time, don’t just think about your users, talk to them!

The post Running a Successful User Workshop appeared first on UX Booth.


WordPress vs ExpressionEngine

I’ve used WordPress since starting this blog in 2006, but quite a few designers I respect favour ExpressionEngine. So I did a little digging on the pros and cons. Here are some interesting reads.

WordPress ExpressionEngine logo

ExpressionEngine/WordPress comparison, link points to a balanced comment on EE Insider, 2012
ExpressionEngine Should Be GNU (and Free?), by Chris Castiglione, 2010 (good comment thread)
WordPress versus ExpressionEngine and part two, on Lab.SixtyFive, 2011 (switching from WP to EE)
Switching Mindsets: From WordPress to ExpressionEngine, by Mindy Wagner, 2008
ExpressionEngine Designers Questions, answered by Mark Boulton, 2005 (still relevant)
WordPress vs Drupal vs Joomla vs ExpressionEngine, comparison by Paul Kortman, 2011

And a few designer websites running on each platform.

Designers using WordPress

Designers using ExpressionEngine

I think the choice depends on the requirements for the website and the preference of the designer, but I’ve no experience using ExpressionEngine so can’t give a personal comparison. Can you?

Identity Designed

Brand identity inspiration on Identity Designed.

Related posts worth a look

July 24 2012


Working on a Team as a UX Designer

User-centered designers aren’t just professional learners; they’re teachers, too. Our job is to reflect what we know while adopting the language of our end-users. This changes our team’s perspective which, in turn, affects its ability to solve design problems. Four ways that I’ve found effective to that end include: learning, brainstorming, (shifts in) perspective, and momentum.

When I was 11, my mother petitioned the local school board to advance my twin brother and me two numbered grades – sixth to eighth – in the middle of the school year. After months of discussion and debate, the board eventually acquiesced. One week we studied with our usual cohort and the next we were thrust into an environment wholly unfamiliar to us.

Kids in a classroom

History and English were the easiest to “get:” they were essentially classes in rote memorization. Science proved more difficult. Our eighth grade teachers introduced us to biology, geology, and chemistry. Hard sciences, indeed.

Mathematics was most the formidable, though. In my sixth-grade Arithmetics class, we reduced fractions and solved elementary functions. In Algebra, we sought answers.


I joined my eighth grade classmates at the precise moment when our Algebra teacher introduced Linear Equations. With it, we met a number of different concepts:

  • Cause and effect. In Algebra, X and Y were “variables” that could be related by something called a “function.” Any change in X resulted in a change in Y.
  • Change over time. The mathematical unit for change was called “slope” or “rise over run.”
  • Line graphs. Graphs facilitated spatial reasoning and reminded me of the old adage about a picture’s worth.

I’ll be honest: Algebra was really difficult for me. Not only because it was part of the “advanced” math program at my school (adding insult to injury) – it was an entirely new way of looking at the world. Variables? Functions? Change? I lost a lot of sleep.

As a class project, students were asked to prepare a “book of linear equations.” The idea was that, in creating and presenting their various books to the class, students would become better acquainted with the material it contained. It was a concept I was quite familiar with after several years of public schooling. The strange thing is this time it actually worked. After interpreting the material in my own words, I better understood what Linear Equations – what Algebra – was all about.

Learning is, almost by definition, a humbling experience. When we learn, we admit to ourselves that we aren’t “right” and that we don’t comprehend something as well as we could. Learning can apply to social systems (a.k.a “groups of people united with a purpose,” a.k.a your team), too. However, unlike conferences or classrooms – where people come together in order to learn – learning in the context of a social system can have unexpected consequences. Political scientist and thinker Donald Schon explains these in his book Beyond the Stable State:

The power of social systems over individuals becomes understandable, I think, only if we see that social systems provide for their members not only sources of livelihood, protection against outside threat and the promise of economic security, but a framework of theory, values, and related technology which enables individuals to make sense of their lives. Threats to the social system threaten this framework.

Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State

Anything that challenges the values of a social system – teaching, for example – can incite what Schon calls dynamic conservatism. In other words, it’s difficult to get groups of people to change their mind.

If my entire undergraduate career in Mathematics taught me one thing, it was that although change is easy to model, it’s incredibly difficult to affect. Numbers are a great tool for modelling things, for measurement, but they tell us nothing about the ways in which (groups of) people think or act, nothing about how we might change their frame of mind.


But things are always in flux, right? Time inevitably passes so that the only constant we have is change. Design is simply the actions we take in preparation for change.

Brainstorming is a creative exercise that encourages people to suspend their judgement in order to conjure up solutions to a particular problem. It’s a technique often employed throughout a design project that bears much in common with improvisational theatre.

Say you’re Wufoo; you’ve got over 11 links in your header. During a brainstorming session, someone on your team suggests removing the Blog link. This person explains that users of Wufoo click the footer’s Blog link five-times-more often than the header’s. While it’s easy to see the fruits of this kind of labor – if you remove a link, it’ll make things cleaner – it’s what you don’t see, the assumptions guiding the exercise, that are arguably more important.

It’s quite possible, for example, that your team ignores a fundamentally better design. This happens because of what an ex-colleague of mine calls “being pickled in the brine.” After months and months of working together, team members form shared value systems. They see the world through the eyes of their peers so often that the suggestions they make today are not only informed by the suggestions their team made yesterday; they’re valued against them. If someone’s unspoken proposal seems superfluous when valued against the shared value system in which they reside, they’ll often (subconsciously) stifle it.

It’s an oft-misunderstood dynamic. While brainstorming provides a perceived “freedom of choice” to its participants, it’s likely not the same breadth of choice visible to someone outside of the system. This simple fact makes consulting possible.

In order to yield a better design, user-centered designers must facilitate new, shared experiences that form the basis of new value systems.


Artifacts of design carry with them an amazing capacity to impact the way we think and reason. Inventions such as Facebook, Twitter and Google – and, before them, Television, Radio, and Print – provided new ways for us to communicate with one another and, as a consequence, new ways to see the world. This might seem obvious, but that’s only because value systems are difficult to unlearn. For those of us who’ve grown up accustomed to modern communication technology, it’s difficult to imagine a time before these technologies existed.

Despite this, author James Gleick attempts to do so. In his latest book, The Information, Gleick tells the story of the human race as it’s adopted and adapted new communication technologies. Regarding the invention of writing Gleick says:

In our world of ingrained literacy, thinking and writing seem scarcely related activities. We can imagine the latter depending on the former, but surely not the other way around: everyone thinks, whether or not they write. But Havelock was right. The written word – the persistent word – was a prerequisite for conscious thought as we understand it.

James Gleick, The Information

This is an important point: before writing, thoughts could only be verbalized if they were to be shared. The invention of writing afforded us a prodigious capacity to capture and document; to share and scrutinize not only own own ideas, but the ideas of others as well. Things that aren’t documented – say a hallway meeting or a Skype chat – lack weight if they aren’t written down. It’s the same reason why my Algebra teacher asked us to create a book of Linear Equations: to facilitate conscious thought.

I began work with a startup early last year on a particularly thorny design problem. Before hiring nGen Works, their team had collaboratively designed and developed two different approaches to their application over the course of nearly 18 months. None of them worked. Carl Smith discussed the project at length with the stakeholders and, having decided that they had the capacity to learn, we agreed to work together.

In the usual user-centered design way, I began the project by listening. What expectations did everyone on the team have? What’s considered valuable? or not-so-valuable? Every time I had a conversation with a member of the team, I added it to an ongoing project journal:

For the first month of the project, I took 45 minutes each Friday to review what was said, what was implied, and where the team thought the project was going. What I learned was this:

  • Everyone had different assumptions.
  • Everyone had different priorities.
  • Everyone had a different idea of what we were building.

The first two issues were easily remedied: more communication (more of the same) would shed light on people’s assumptions and motivations. But the third? How could everyone have a different idea of the system being built, especially after 18 months? I began work on a concept map (something different) that pieced everything together:

It evolved over time into this:

I claim no talent as an illustrator and, thankfully, aesthetic appeal is not the point. Concept maps facilitate visual thinking. After presenting this diagram to the team, we began a new kind of conversation about the models behind the system, how things fit together, and what individual screens of the application really meant in concert with one another. This wasn’t the first time a diagram has helped me clarify things: a line graph was infinitely more intuitive to me than a pair of variables for learning linear equations, for example.

As user-centered designers, it’s our responsibility to constantly learn, assess, and represent (literally re-present) the context in which we’re designing.

At their core, designers are learners as well as teachers. The design process, for example, is something that’s been intensely scrutinized by designers in our field. We learn from ourselves. We’ve given a ton of thought to the various ways in which we collect and present data, and call them by a whole host of names:

  • Stakeholder Interview
  • Experiential Themes
  • User Story
  • Usability Testing
  • Analytics
  • Remote Research
  • Persona
  • Content Survey
  • Sitemap
  • Page Description Diagram
  • Card Sort
  • Design Dictionary
  • Mental Model
  • User Flow
  • Quick-hit List
  • Design Lab
  • Wireframes
  • User Flows
  • Storyboards
  • Prototypes
  • Photoshop comps

The goal of any of these activities or documents is to facilitate shared understanding: to clarify the solution to a design problem. But many people – especially clients who are new to the world of design – don’t understand how everything fits together. What good is our process if we can’t explain it in a way our clients will understand? To that end, I worked with my friend David Leggett to prototype an online documentation system:

The best part is there’s no boilerplate material here when it comes to “deliverables;” each bucket of deliverables is uniquely tailored to a client’s project. Further, each deliverable is linked to others in a way that helps clients see their relationships with one another. This is much more intuitive than, say, a 36-page PDF that presents deliverables in a linear fashion.

If a user is looking at a mental model:

and clicks one of the user personas at the top:

They’re taken to a screen that helps them better understand that user’s context. To practitioners, this web-based version of deliverables may seem redundant. To clients, it can be much more self-evident. Regardless of how you communicate with your team it’s essential that you do so – with both regularity and variety.


All projects have momentum, the rate at which they progress an idea. In classical mechanics, linear momentum is defined as:

p = m × v

Where p is momentum, m is mass, and v is velocity. I’d like to suggest that this definition can also apply to a creative endeavor. In the world of bits, mass is meaning. As the saying goes, “ideas carry weight.” Because developers call the-rate-of-speed-with-which-they-develop code their code velocity, a project’s momentum could be thought of as the product of its core idea(s) and the team’s code velocity.

Technical definitions aside, if a project “has” momentum, its team works well. A shared set of values pervade every decision. Conversely, if a project lacks momentum, either it’s being coded slowly or the idea(s) behind that project are in flux (or worse, both). Because clients pay for forward momentum, it’s critical that designers help determine the weight of ideas. To that end I recommend a combination of techniques I’ve discussed throughout this article: discovery, documentation, naming things, and availability. Let’s look at each.


Not everyone appreciates healthy discussion. Call it dynamic conservatism or just plain ego, some people have a fixed perspective. This is the bane of consulting. Therefore, an integral part of any design process is a discovery phase, which essentially centers around the following questions:

  • Am I / Are we capable of learning the client’s language? Their business? Their value system(s)?
  • Am I / Are we capable of explaining (teaching) my / our design process?
  • Am I / Are we willing and able to forego certain aspects of the project? my /our process?
  • Is the client willing to explain their value systems in a way that makes sense?
  • Is the client willing to learn more about their design’s context? In other words: are they willing to admit they don’t know everything about their problem?

Answers to these questions are never binary. Instead, they manifest themselves over a period of time. Before committing to any sizeable design project, set aside a small period of time to feel the client out. Ask the client what they’re looking for, make some progress towards that goal, but also explain to the client that you’ll approach their project in an exploratory way. After a month or so, re-assess these questions and see if this project feels like the right fit. For more information on this subject, I also highly recommend Andy Rutledge’s cost of services calculator.


As mentioned earlier, writing affords reflection. Although it’s tempting – and easy to forget – always ensure that conversation comes first. A great rule of thumb is this: don’t speak for people, speak with people. Because writing provides a sense of permanence, people often (incorrectly) believe that just because something is written or published it’s somehow more correct. Baloney. Whenever possible, ensure that documentation reflects the latest conversations you’ve had with your team. Documentation is never specification, just a point of reference.

Naming things

Similar to the concepts discussed in the Brainstorming and Perspective sections, naming gives us the power of distilling something’s essence. One example of this comes from the same startup I mentioned earlier. There, the client had a number of different visions for the mobile component of their application. Carl had the great idea to just call it “snap and send.” Effectively, the mobile app would take a picture and upload it to the website. Easy. After giving it a name, the mobile component of this application carried much more weight. The initiative gained momentum.

Another example of this comes from the movie Fight Club:

It was right in everyone’s face, Tyler and I just made it visible. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, Tyler and I just gave it a name.

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Those of you who’ve seen the movie might recall that, at this point, Fight Club is in full swing (no pun intended). Everyone wants to join. The movement had been around the whole movie, portrayed in counterculture snapshots and Palahniuk’s penchant for violence. After giving it the name Fight Club, though, Tyler Durden’s idea crystallizes and takes on a life of its own.

Make it available

Availability is empowering. Because Google, for example, provides a gateway to a vast amount of information in a fast, intuitive interface, people are empowered to learn new things. In a perfect world, our team’s design environment allows for that same feeling. To that end, consider:

  • Basecamp – If all conversations, deliverables, etc. are documented in one location, it allows your team to access the team’s collective knowledge, instantly.
  • Google Docs – Collaborative editing and commenting, in addition to notification settings, ensures that teams can come together around a particular idea.
  • Office hours – If possible, set aside an hour or two a week to just answer emails and be available for questions. Holding office hours empowers your team to answer design questions.
  • Roll your own – David Leggett and I prototyped a documentation system to explain our perspective on our client’s design problem. This makes a large body of knowledge accessible to a team and facilitates self learning.
  • Sketchboarding – This is essentially the physical analog of the digital documentation that David and I created. Being a tangible artifact gives it permanence and prominence within your office.

Be a good study buddy

Learning is an essential skill for any knowledge worker and, increasingly, we’re all knowledge workers. Designers have a unique skillset that allows them to work within their teams to facilitate both a self-learning and a shared-learning environment. This ensures that the projects they work on move towards the “weightiest” ideas in the fastest manner possible.

The post Working on a Team as a UX Designer appeared first on UX Booth.

July 17 2012


Five Tips to help Designers Find the Perfect UX Agency

Most UX designers I know aren’t masochists, but boy do they love chaos! Why else would they choose a field where, depending on where you work, a “matrix” could be a reference to content or Keanu Reeves? The fact is: unless they are the Che Guevara type, designers are often as good as the ecosystem and culture of their employer.

Consider the following scenario: your recent start up fails but you learn a lot about Lean UX along the way. Soon thereafter, you get a job offer to build the UX department at a major agency. However, at that agency, the project managers aren’t even sure what a task analysis is!

Introducing Lean UX there will probably take you a very long time (as will the cancerous growth on your UX soul).

Fear not, fellow UX designer! If you’re considering joining an agency, here are a couple of tips to make your search a little easier.

Don’t find a job, find a culture

A bacterial culture

Everything has a culture. What’s theirs like?

You can’t do it alone. Even if you’re Donald Norman. Does this agency simply want a voice in the room that can pull usability principles out of their hat during design reviews? Don’t work there.

UX designers need a culture that appreciates the vast, overlapping universe of experience design. Of course: unless you work at an Adaptive Path, IDEO or EffectiveUI, you’re most likely not going to find a place that are deeply knowledgeable about user experience. That’s okay. Perform your own gap analysis and understand to what degree the culture has a passion for learning user experience. That way, the majority of work you do will be focused on the client, not your team’s culture.

Look for receptive leadership

This is a big one. Get a sense of whether or not the leadership truly cares about the people doing the work. If you’ve ever seen Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas then you’ll know what I mean. Disconnected leaders see their team mates as pawns used to advance their goals.

When staffing a project, does management take into account people’s personalities in addition to their skillsets? …or are they just checking items off a list? While managers should always care about profit, the best also care about their team’s experience. This kind of receptive leadership implies two-way communication. It means that there’s an emotional maturity in place so that an organization can course-correct by listening to (and acting in the best interest of) its members.

Next comes the leadership part. Will they say no to a client? This is key. If an account manager is told to “compromise for client happiness at all costs” then it’s unlikely that their agency can lead the client and help their team produce its best work.

Finally, does the leadership express core principles the agency must abide by? I’d settle for something like “we’ll never deliver bad work, no matter the timeline.” Regardless, ask them what they stand for. Next, see if they walk the walk: talk to their junior designers.

Ensure tolerance to uncertainty

My favorite quote from the Effective UI book is “intolerance to uncertainty is intolerable.” If only every agency I worked for had this chiseled in marble! A tolerant organization recognizes an essential and undeniable reality about good design: no solution is obvious.

A sword

Look for good values. The best agency will be steadfast on some issues and lax on others.

Do projects at this agency often begin without a signed Statement of Work (SOW)? This can happen when clients have an urgent deadline and/or when both sides “act on good faith.” In this case, the agency must communicate that work without an SOW is an investigation into what’s possible.

Next, note whether or not this agency explains working assumptions to their clients. If not, they’re vulnerable to scope creep and/or client bullying.

On the flip side, always avoid agencies that spell out every feature exhaustively. How can you find the best solution if the SOW already has? Without doing research there’s no way you can know what the best solution for a user should be.

Identify their process

Clients will always want work produced faster, for less money, and with more certainty. And while I feel for them (many have jobs riding on a project), agencies must do their part to both educate clients and earn their trust. A large part of that comes from managing expectations.

Scope is simply a measure of how much of their design problem a client wants to solve at any given time. Grill the agency as to what their scoping process is. Don’t look at the “cool” infographic they have on their website; talk to people on the ground and understand how plans come together.

Regardless of their actual methodology, an agency’s process should always protect the integrity of its design endeavors. Nothing wastes client money more than the internal kickoff in which someone says “what deliverables should we do?” The rest of the kickoff is then spent discussing how the design will be communicated rather than how design itself should communicate!

Look for checks and balances

An agency’s team dynamic should encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration and debate. Design is a human endeavor, making camaraderie critical. One person who’s only out to make themselves look good can take the whole thing down.

How does this agency handle conflict resolution? What if, say, an Account Manager and a Project Manager don’t get along? Does the agency prefers to “let people work it out?” That’s not leadership.

Alternately, if they run witch hunts in their post-mortems then they’re running on a culture of fear. No one department should be favored over another. All departments – including UX – should be treated with respect to ensure a democratic system of checks and balances.

In sum

No agency is perfect. No company. No client. No person. It comes down to intention, really: does this group of people want to transform human experiences for the better?

Any agency can become a great place to practice experience design. But you can save yourself a lot of heartache by interviewing your future employers with the same rigor and diligence which which they’ll undoubtedly interview you. In the process you’ll really learn why you do what you do.

The post Five Tips to help Designers Find the Perfect UX Agency appeared first on UX Booth.

July 03 2012


Design for Readability

Compared to their print counterparts, the web versions of many magazines give readers a decidedly poor reading experience. Most websites follow a lackluster design model. Will digital publications ever be able to compete with the reading experience that printed ones have bought readers to expect?

Web designers have it rough. Translating ideas from designs to fully-coded websites is a process fraught with challenge and, due to factors often outside of their control, most find themselves in a perpetual state of compromise. Fortunately – for writers, readers, and everyone in between – the gap between what we can imagine and what we can create is closing, pointing the way to a more beautiful, readable web.

The Standard Content Design Model

Everyone who has used the internet is familiar with what I call the Standard Content Design Model (or SCDM for short): the prototypical blog format, where “content” fills one, long, vertical column. It dominates nearly all digital publications (Hi, UX Booth readers). The SCDM is so versatile that it’s used to display search results, news feeds …anything you can imagine!

It’s the norm largely because, by default, that’s how browsers present text. It looks like this:

Three versions of the SCDM.

Cause, meet effect

A number of milestones in the history of the web have had the power to change browsers and, potentially, uproot the SCDM. With the release of CSS in December 1996, for example, designers gained the ability to quickly, easily and consistently define the layout of their designs. In theory, this was a death knell for the SCDM.

But not in practice.

Perhaps early web designers were so focused on making elements of their designs (headers, main navs, sub navs, footers, sidebars, links, ads, etc.) behave consistently that the content – the one, true variable – became an afterthought. Another (more likely) cause is due to the popularity content management systems (CMSs) gained as a consequence. Instead of having to worry about coding, CMS + CSS allowed publishers to swap out designs with the click of a button. This left them with more time to focus on content.

How would you like your content? Vertical? Vertical? or Vertical?

For those of you who’ve built a site or two before: there’s nothing new here. This is the current state of affairs with regards to publishing. And back when WordPress was only used for blogs, it was good enough.

Today, though, WordPress is used to maintain large websites with many different types of content. Applying a custom design to one post, or to a whole set of posts, is difficult and time consuming. As a result, ventures outside the SCDM are still rare – a full sixteen years after the release of CSS!

Why? It probably has to do with how we think about content in the first place.

Design before content

In the standard content model, the design (form) of a site precedes its content (function). Many people agree that this approach is off piste; function should come before form because, in many ways, it serves to define it. Jeffrey Zeldman writes:

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

Jeffrey Zeldman

Instead of designing for content in a way that gives users the most enjoyable reading experience, web designers have been making designs (using the “standard” model), and plopping their content into it. As an afterthought.

This mindset seems to be the primary difference between designing for the web and designing for print. On the web, design often precedes content, yielding to the SCDM and the subpar reading experience that comes with it. In print design, content comes before layout and readability shines.

Head to head

Let’s investigate this discrepancy courtesy of Esquire magazine. Take this article about Bruce Jenner, father of the youngest two Kardashian’s and former decathlon Olympic gold medalist, in the June/July 2012 issue of Esquire.

On their website, the article is a perfect example of the SCDM in action. The page has 3 columns, with navigation on the left, links and ads on the right, and the article straight down the middle. The text of the article, the central content of that page, is crowded on all sides by links and ads that distract me when I’m reading. Nevermind that the article is paginated, which studies have shown decreases readability.

Now let’s take a look at the magazine version. First of all, I’ve got to include more images because the intriguing title page is a two-page spread with a photo. (Side note: was that Wheaties box designed before I was born?)

The style of this spread makes me want to read more. Varsity-style lettering is a fitting choice when your subject is a former Olympic athlete and the color scheme of the typography and section dividers match well with the photo, giving everything a sense of balance.

Turning the page, we come to the article itself. Again, custom typography plays a major role in the design. It serves to separate sections of the story as well as for decoration and contrast.

The photo here you may recognize from the screenshot of the web version, but it’s much bigger and clearer in the print version (you can’t even enlarge it on the site). The text of the story has more room to breathe, here, because it takes up all of the real-estate, instead of being confined to a fixed width down the middle of the page and crowded further in by ads, links and nav items the way the website is. Finally, the text in the magazine layout is broken up into columns so that the reader’s eyes can travel naturally from top to bottom, and from left to right.

Overall, the magazine makes for a much more pleasant reading experience. The website serves its purpose – the same content in print is available online – but if you were given both options, which would you read? I have to wonder if the poor design of their web content has a secret agenda. Maybe they designed it poorly to drive readers to buy the magazine, instead.

Designing for readability

All is not lost, though. We’ve recently seen the addition of media queries, responsive typography and web fonts to our toolbox.

Thanks in part to these milestones, the web continues to be a playground of innovation. Some designers are pushing the boundaries of what it means to properly Design around their content.

I Love Typography

I Love Typography makes custom designs for each new article they post. This one is called The Design of a Signage Typeface.

The font is big enough to embrace, the different background colors make it easy for the reader to keep their place, and the two column format allows our eyes to travel in both directions, a familiar experience because that is how we read print.

I Love Typography doesn’t always go with a two column format in a custom design, but I wish they would because it reduces the amount of scrolling. It seems such a waste of perfectly good real estate when there is only one column on the left (as they use here).

I Love Typography’s custom-designed blog posts are also designed responsively. See for yourself. (Note that on a mobile device the design reverts to one column for obvious reasons.)

Jason Santa Maria

Jason Santa Maria is famous for redesigning his website with each new piece of content he publishes. His candy series is no exception, and this one in particular, formatted in two, wonderfully even columns, is a sweet treat. Again, emulating multi-column magazine formats improves the reading experience, and requires less scrolling, which is nice.

Similarly, Santa Maria’s archive uses three columns, allowing readers to scan quickly across months and years to find what they’re looking for. As an added bonus, articles with custom layouts are accompanied by screenshots, to help the visually inclined find them more quickly.

Craig Mod

Craig Mod’s journal has an interesting design. I usually dislike type set this small, but because the columns are well spaced and each section is appropriately titled it’s enjoyable. The titles serve to break up the sections, so user can quickly scan the content. Users often scan – as opposed to read – web content, so it’s important to include subtitles.

The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent publishes artist interviews. Each interview starts with a huge header image that takes up the entire browser, much like the Esquire article we examined above (the magazine version, not the web version). No confusion who this interview is going to be about.

The interview itself occupies the middle column of the design. The top of the left column is used for the “About” section, where you can learn more about the artist being interviewed. The right column and the left column below the “About” section reprint memorable quotes from the interview, or relevant quotes from related sources. The reprinting of quotes and inclusion of relevant outside material are an old magazine technique that allows readers to scan to find the good stuff and important takeaways. It also helps hook the reader. Maybe you weren’t interested until you read that quote halfway down. You might go back and read the whole thing after that.

Usually about halfway through the interview, a second image or video is included. Notice how these images, accompanied by quotes and links, take up the whole three columns, effectively interrupting the interview itself. This is a nice break for readers. It allows them to rest their eyes, but if they want to keep reading, there’s no one stopping them from scrolling.

Finally, the previous and next arrows are displayed on the right and left at all times. These arrows subtly inform the user that there are more interviews to be read without distracting from the reading experience the way a sticky top or side nav would. It also avoids burying the prev/next links at the bottom of the article, in the usual way, so that even the reader who didn’t read all the way to the bottom knows that there is more good content to be found.

A more readable future

Fortunately, web technology develops rapidly. Over the next few years it will become easier and easier for designers to give content the attention it deserves. In the meantime, designers can do their part by putting in the extra time to design more readable content. Yes, there are hurdles to jump, but the tools are available now and some industry pioneers are already leading the way.

Developers can speed the process by focusing their energies on creating more flexible methods to format readable content (flexible templates, more custom content types, on-the-fly paragraph division to form even columns out of long content, etc) that don’t break designs and layouts.

And if designers and developers learn to work closely together, anything is possible.

The post Design for Readability appeared first on UX Booth.

June 19 2012


Designing the Team Experience

A few years ago, the company I was working for ran recruitment for an entry-level position in which they asked applicants to email over samples of their work as attachments. Aside from the work itself, I was fascinated to see the different filenames applicants had chosen for their attachments. Most of them were named according to the project they had come from or were just called something like sample_for_companyname. Some, though, used names like theirname_jobrole_application. I had a good feeling about those ones.

Whether you’re sending a file to a friend, colleague, or potential employer, context is important. The project title might have been a useful file name to applicants on their own computers, but to us – stored in a folder full of resumes and samples – it was meaningless. The people who’d told us who they were and what the sample was for in their filename had given consideration to the recipient of their application.

“That’s the spirit,” I’d say to myself. They were thinking like UX designers.

The point of this story is that we spend a lot of time thinking about people in the experiences we create professionally, but not enough time applying these insights personally. Doing so can help us create with less friction as we function within our teams.

A powerful mental model

When we’re designing, we often consider our audience’s mental model – how do they perceive the world? Mental models are created from a mixture of past experiences and assumptions. Computer filing systems offer a classic example. Files can be grouped together and stored in folders. People get that concept pretty easily because – just like real life filing – it fits their mental model.

Icons help interaction designers communicate abstract concepts; how can we do the same?

Consider mental models when talking to your colleagues and clients, too. If we talk about ideas in a way that draws on what they already know, it’ll be easier for them to slot new information in alongside it. We can use analogies to show how what we’re doing relates to something they’re already familiar with. I was once working with a client who wasn’t following the difference between client-side and server-side code, so we started using a shop window/shop storeroom analogy, with reloads being like a trip to store room. It made the conversation easier for both of us.

It works it the other way around too. Elements of our clients’ business that we’re not familiar with can be baffling, so we can try to make sense of abstract or complex concepts by suggesting comparisons. We might get the comparison wrong at first, but that doesn’t matter – it’ll still get them thinking about alternative analogies that do work.

Plain language

Clarity is essential to good design. There’s not much point in something if people don’t understand what it’s for or what it’s trying to say. This applies to any communication with our clients and colleagues, written or verbal.

Keep conversations, emails and documents straightforward. Professionally, we’d never fill a website with long text, written in the passive voice and packed with jargon, so we can’t let that kind of language creep into our emails either.

Other people might do it sometimes – people often get a bit strange and formal when they’re writing – but their job probably isn’t focused on how the person on the other end will react, so they’ve got an excuse. We haven’t.

Add helpful headings

Another simple way we can make ourselves clearer is by making good use of subject lines in emails, section headings in documents and slide headings in presentations. In her book, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk provides the following paragraph without a header:

First you sort the items into like categories. Using color for sorting is common, but you can also use other characteristics, such as texture or type of handling needed. Once you have sorted the items, you are ready to use the equipment. You want to process each category from the sorting separately. Place one category in the machine at a time.

It seems almost meaningless – abstract sentences about sorting things into categories. Then she shows it again with the header “Using your new washing machine,” and it makes perfect sense. As Dr Weinschenk says, “Provide a meaningful title or headline. It’s one of the most important things you can do.”

Keep everyone interested

We often think about how we can grab users’ attention, so we know it’s not easily done. Keeping it is even harder.

One of the best ways to stir emotion and grab attention is to employ a story. Think about how often we see case studies on websites explaining how something worked. Think about how charities don’t just give us statistics about the number of people in need of our help, they tell us the story of one person’s individual struggle. Stories, especially with characters we can relate to, make things more real, more memorable. The need for a story is the whole reason we use personas to help the team focus on who we’re designing for.

We need to keep stories in mind when we’re making a case for a particular design option. We can use a character – usually one of the project personas or a research participant – and tell the story of how the character would use the product and how they would react to it. Using a story like this to make a case will be interesting and memorable, which means it’ll be a far more persuasive than relying on statistical findings alone.

Cater to wandering minds

No matter how driven and committed the team is, people’s minds are going to wander. Research by Jonathan Schooler has shown people’s mind wander even when they don’t notice it happening, so almost no one is going to have caught one hundred per cent of what went on a meeting or a phone call.

We need to make sure that we allow for wandering attention by always doing thorough recaps at the end of any conversation. We can send summary emails around the whole team and ask everyone else to chip in and add a note if anything’s missing. This takes the pressure off any one person, and stops vital pieces of information slipping through the net.

Recaps are useful for both informal chats as well as organised meetings. If you came up with a great way to deal with that navigation problem with your developers while you were waiting for the kettle to boil, send a quick round-up email afterwards outlining what you agreed upon.

Give people control

The self-determination theory says that people find autonomy and competence most motivating. We all like to feel that we are in control of our own lives, and that we’re developing our skills and capabilities. These things motivate us far more than any external influences like earning more money or fear of the rules. We also like to feel like we’re getting somewhere so we’re constantly on the look-out for signs of progress.

Increasingly popular websites such as Treehouse make great use of this theory. Not only are they giving users an opportunity to take charge and develop on their own, but they’ve grouped tutorials into badges, giving people something tangible to collect in order to track their progress. It’s not the badges themselves that people are interested in; it’s the sense of achievement.

Applying this theory to our team has obvious implications for anyone who manages or mentors others – give them plenty of opportunities to develop their skills and give them freedom and independence in their work – but we can apply it to our clients too. They might have come to us for a service but that doesn’t mean they want to lose control of their project, and anyway, it’s likely that they know their business better than we do. We can’t confuse providing a service with taking over. We need to find ways to work collaboratively and help our clients feel as much ownership of the project as us.

Be careful to keep them in the loop, with frequent, informal catch-up calls. You don’t have to wait for scheduled deliveries to get their feedback. Even if they don’t want to actively contribute at every stage (or if you can find reasons why their suggestion isn’t the best) they’ll feel like they’re valued if you’ve take the time to ask their opinions. Sometimes it can be tempting to save things up for a big reveal, but this rarely has the effect we were hoping for. Clients will automatically feel more strongly towards an idea that they feel they had a hand in, even if none of their ideas made it into the final design.

Put yourself in their shoes

This one’s last for a reason – it’s what all the others boil down to.
UX design is all about empathy. We spend all day trying to imagine what’s it like to be the user – what they would want to read here, which button would they press there – so it shouldn’t be too much of stretch get into the habit of imaging what it’s like to be in our colleagues’ and clients’ positions, and thinking about what will make the design process easier for them.

We know that good design isn’t about us – the designers – at all. It’s not about showcasing our skills, or trying to impress anyone. It’s about giving users what they need and want. This mindset can be applied to whoever you’re dealing with. Don’t focus on making yourself look good, focus on making the team feel good.

Turning design principles inwards

This article considers just a handful of the psychological principles that we use every day. There are plenty more that I could’ve included – just think of all the lists of heuristics and design guidelines you’ve ever read!

Those design principles aren’t based on what computers can do or how code works – they’re about people. Our colleagues and clients are people too, so we need to keep the principles in mind all the time – not just when we’re thinking about our end product.

Each time you make a design decision, think about the principles that guided that decision. Then think about how that same principle can be applied to your team to consciously create great team experiences. The better we can make the process of designing user experiences, the more people are going to want get involved and embark on their own UX design projects. And that means better user experiences for everyone.

The post Designing the Team Experience appeared first on UX Booth.

June 12 2012


Women On Top: Inappropriate Dropdowns

It’s mercifully rare these days that I abandon an online form in righteous fury because the “Title” dropdown doesn’t include “Ms.” Even so, there’s often an element of sexism in these lists. Have a look at any of them, and who comes first? Men. The first option in a title dropdown is almost always “Mr”, followed by Mrs, then Miss, and finally Ms.

Although I don’t suspect companies of deliberately putting titles in order of the respect they consider due to each (well, except perhaps the Daily Mail, an organization famed for its misogyny) this is one of those conventions that makes me question it. In Forms that work: Designing web forms for usability, Caroline Jarrett writes of dropdown lists:

Order the options in a way that will make sense to the users. There may be a natural order to the options, for example, months of the year. In many other cases, sorting the options alphabetically makes it easy for the user to scan the list.

Alphabetical order wouldn’t be very helpful in a list of items that all begin with the same letter. And I don’t accept that there is any “natural order” to the categories of men, married women, unmarried women, and women-who-don’t-think-it’s-any-of-your-business-thank-you-very-much. So on what other basis might one order the list?

Survey the merchandise

Looking at a wide variety of online forms, it’s clear that most organizations provide options beyond the “four M’s”. Some allow the selection of “Other” and a free text input field:

Further, Doctor, Reverend and Professor are common additions (as with Aviva):

A few forms, including this one from, insist that doctors reveal their gender by selecting from the options “Dr (Male)” and “Dr (Female)”. Personally, I wouldn’t buy from a company who did this. One of the main reasons I considered doing a PhD was so that I could have a non-gender-specific title!

Barclays obviously hopes to count aristocrats and soldiers amongst its customers.

Boots, too, welcomes the lords and ladies, but also expects clergy to register (I suppose they need toiletries just like the rest of us – cleanliness is, after all, next to godliness).

British Airways, with its international clientele, has a good reason for including foreign titles such as Herr, Contessa and Tan Sri (a Malaysian dignitary). And there’s no reason that senators and ambassadors shouldn’t want to earn air miles.

Other organizations, like Boden, are less realistic in their listing of every possible title from Wing Commander to Marquis. How many Barons do they think are going to purchase their linen cargo shorts?

It’s precisely this (in)frequency that often seems to influence list order: start with the standard Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms, and put the less common options at the end. And that’s as it should be – the further down the list an option is, the further the user has to move their mouse, scroll their wheel, or move their viewport on their mobile device.

Fitts’ Law states that the acquisition of a target is a function of the size of the target and its distance from the starting point. The starting point for all users will be the top of the dropdown, and all the targets are the same size; thus the lower down the list an option is, the harder it will be to select. So why not apply that principle to the full list, and order it by the frequency with which each item is likely to be selected?

Theoretically, this would increase the overall usability of the title dropdown.

Numbers don’t lie

Before we continue, it’s worth noting that I work for Age UK, a large non-profit that has data from thousands of people who’ve donated, signed petitions, bought products from, and/ or joined our online community.

I queried our members by title, and the results were as follows:

Title Incidence (%) Mrs 48 Mr 39 Miss 6 Ms 3 Dr 1 Rev 1 Other/Missing 2

In following with Fitt’s aforementioned Law, I could change the dropdowns on our site to mirror the current title-frequency. This, in theory, would make it easier to select the most common title, “Mrs.”

Seeing as I was due to carry out usability tests on a prototype for a new form for our website, I included the new title dropdown to test my hypothesis. None of the five participants (two men and three women) appeared to notice anything unusual, and everyone selected their title without any hesitation.

The new dropdown was then implemented across all the forms on our website. We also updated the brand guidelines to advise that titles should be ordered by the frequency with which each is expected to occur among the audience.

It has been six months since we made this change and the results have been positive. I have analyzed the name data collected since the change, to test whether it was causing problems for our users. There are no obviously male names associated with the title “Mrs,” which would indicate that a man had automatically chosen the first option in the dropdown because that’s what he was used to doing. Neither have there been any complaints to Customer Relations that we had someone’s title wrong. I’ve also carried out dozens of usability tests on forms with the new list order since then, and no-one has commented or hesitated.

On improvisational improvements

A word of caution before you go off and change all of the dropdowns on your website: this is not an approach that should be taken to all dropdown lists. Where there is a “natural order,” for example in age ranges, this should be preserved; and alphabetical order can help people scan for known items, especially in long lists.

But analytics can and should be used to improve the user experience of forms in other ways – for example to set “smart defaults” for radio button sets, if you have data that proves one option is considerably more likely to be selected than the other(s). It may not be an improvement to women’s lives on the scale of the Pill or maternity leave, but interaction with our forms is now a little easier for those who want to select “Mrs.”

What otherwise mundane elements interest or infuriate you with regards to online forms?

The post Women On Top: Inappropriate Dropdowns appeared first on UX Booth.

June 05 2012


5 Useful Lies to Tell User Research Participants

If you’ve ever run a research or usability test, you’ll know they can be tricky to facilitate. After all, you’re dealing with people; and people come with a whole host of existing preconceptions, personalities, emotions, and experiences. One thing that can help you to gain more honest and thereby useful feedback from research participants is, in fact, to lie to them.

Data is a sorted sort. Not only must it be properly contextualized and analyzed in order to bear useful information, it must also be collected and collated in a prudent fashion to begin with. Researchers go through this high level of detail to ensure the validity of their results. Dr. Marion Joppe of Ryerson University provides a more exacting definition:

Validity determines whether the research truly measures that which it was intended to measure or how truthful the research results are.

User researchers can increase the validity of their results in a variety of ways. Sometimes they conduct research “on-the-road” – known as
ethnographic research
– to interact with participants in their context of use. Other researchers go as far as recreating the environmental setting in which the product will be used. For example, if testing a television or video game, they might rearrange their lab to feel like a living room (comfy sofa, pictures on the wall, etc). If the product being tested is something that’s mostly used in the evenings, they might change the lighting in the room. If participants would often be interrupted while doing a particular task, the researchers might frequently interrupt their participants during the test. You get the idea.

In his 1994 paper
: Practical Methods for Testing and Improvement, Miles Macleod posited the following questions to aid the validity of research:

  • Are you looking at the right things to be representative of real-world use?
  • Are you collecting the right data and the right amounts of it?
  • Are you analyzing the raw data reliably?

The general consensus across these approaches – and Macleod’s questions – is that to increase the validity of a test requires scrutiny and planning. Though we’re all aware that planning is a good thing, what if you have planned accordingly, but you just want to ensure more worthwhile results? That’s where ly – err, deception – comes in. Two types of deception are commonly used by researchers to gather results with a greater degree of validity: active deception – in which participants are misinformed about certain aspects of a study, such as its true purpose – and passive deception when they are not made aware of certain aspects of a study.

It is often necessary to deceive users during research because giving participants complete information will likely change how they view what they’re doing, how they think, what they do and what they say. In turn the results are less valid. Robert Kerr provided a good example of this
back in March
known as “the Good Subject”; a respondent who – upon knowing the true purpose of the study – will be eager to say and do the things they think the experimenter wants, rather than what they would do naturally.

Anything we can do to uncover more valid results is a step in the right direction. To that end, here are a number of lies that you can use to obtain more valid results.

Tell them you had nothing to do with the project

“I’ve not worked on this at all so please feel you can be honest in your opinions”

Telling the participant you designed the thing they’re testing will very likely ruin the validity of the research. Non-confronters, people-pleasers, and aforementioned Good Subjects tend to go out of their way to avoid conflict and will therefore refrain from making negative remarks. Instead, they’ll be full of overwhelming praise even if they noticeably struggle on many of the tasks.

Even if you are the person who designed the product being tested, just omit that information. If they ask, lie. Say you’re not part of the design team at all; you’re just “a researcher.” In fact, even if they don’t ask, you’re better off denying any affiliation with the software whatsoever – they’re probably thinking it.

Play dumb

“I’m actually not familiar with this software so I’m afraid I can’t help you. Would you mind spending another minute on this task whilst talking me through your thoughts and expectations?”

Even if you deny having designed the product that they’re about to use, respondents will likely assume you know the product they’re made to use. If you’re asked to help, use your judgement and assess the length of time the participant has already spent on the task. If they haven’t tried long enough – and they’re not overly stressed – play dumb. This can often instantly refocus them. Another option is to state that you would be “unable to help them as in real life;” however, this implies that you do know how to complete it which can add to their frustration and performance pressure.

Still not sure what “playing dumb” is? The user may ask you “What should I press here?” To which you might say “What would you expect to press?” This is a good start, but you might increase the power of your response (in addition to switching the responsibility of the task back to the user) by adding, “I’m actually not familiar with this software so I’m afraid I can’t help you. Would you mind spending another minute on this task whilst talking me through your thoughts and expectations?”

Lie about the purpose of the study

“We’re just making sure that everything works as you’d expect it to”

By telling the user the true purpose of the study you risk contaminating the results. Research respondents will likely pay more attention and put more focus on any task they know you’re analyzing. This isn’t how they would normally interact with what you’re testing, of course. To keep their reaction as realistic as possible, it’s useful to lie about the purpose of your study.

Lying about a study’s purpose is one of the oldest tricks in the book, according to
Allan Kimmel
. His 2001 research paper found it to be one of the most common practices amongst seasoned researchers. Though it’s easy – even natural – to do, be sure you tell the truth after the the test has concluded. More on this later.

Lie about the number of people observing the test

“One or two people might pop into the room next door to watch for a bit, is that ok?”

User research sometimes takes place in a room with a two-way mirror so that the researcher’s client(s) can observe the test in an adjoining room. If there are lots of people behind the two-way mirror observing, don’t let the user know this or it will put them under immense pressure. When respondents know they’re being watched, they often feel pressure to say positive things and perform well.

Lie about how well they’re doing

“Oh, fantastic; that’s really useful!”

Speaking of performing well, some users – especially first timers or shy respondents – may need the occasional bit of reassurance and/or encouragement. A good example would be “Oh, fantastic; that’s really useful!” (even if it isn’t) whilst keeping your body language fairly neutral. This phrase can also be used to gain more comments from the user and can be very effective at helping users to feel more comfortable expressing what they dislike.

Lavishing praise might not seem like a lie per se, but it’s just as powerful. Give it sparingly. Overly positive reinforcement can actually encourage a very specific response from the user, leading to confirmation bias.

One important caveat

Okay, you understand the notion of research validity and you’ve got a bevy of lies you just can’t wait to tell. What’s the catch? Although lying can help you get more valid results, it’s very important that you don’t impinge on the ethical guidelines set by the APA (American Psychological Association):

  • Any deception must be justified in terms of significant scientific, educational or applied value that outweigh any risks to participants.
  • It must not cause physical pain or emotional distress.
  • The researcher must debrief the participant at the end of the session.

These ethical guidelines particularly apply to Lie #3. Always explain the true purpose of a study at the end of the research session. This should be done carefully to ensure the user is clear of the importance of the lie(s) and how telling the truth would have likely changed their response. It’s a good chance for them to further reflect and you may find that at this point, when the participant is relaxed because in their mind the research is over, some of the most useful insights can be gleaned.


Remember these are white lies that aren’t intended to harm the participant in any way. Using them can help participants feel at ease which encourages more honest responses and therefore higher research validity. You don’t need to use them all the time.

Before you put them through their paces, carefully consider the aim of your research and the impact of each lie. You may wish to just test out 1 or 2 lies until you feel comfortable. It may feel odd at first, but remember it’s for the benefit of both the user (to put them at ease) and the research (to gain better results) as a whole. When you notice the user’s posture or facial expression visibly relax, you’ll know the lie has worked well.

Are you ready to start lying to get more from your research? It’ll be our little secret!

The post 5 Useful Lies to Tell User Research Participants appeared first on UX Booth.

May 24 2012


Comics and UX, Part 2: Flow and Content

Comickers have long known the secrets of visual storytelling, and there is much we in UX can learn from them. Earlier this week I shared basic techniques comickers use to craft stories and lead their readers’ eyes. Today I will show you how to master flow and control the perceptions of your readers, how visual metaphor in UI can bridge language barriers, and why our definition of “content” needs revision.

Note: In this article, I will use “reader” when referring to people who would read comics and/or visit web sites, and I will use “user” to refer only to people in the context of visiting web sites.

We already covered grouping, proximity, pacing, and balance. Each of these is powerful enough on its own, but when combined masterfully, they allow you to control a reader’s perceptions. I’m going to show you how to weave these disparate pieces together to build a better experience for your users.


Taken together, all of the elements of cartooning create something called flow. A master of flow can make readers’ eyes dance across the page, even in unconventional directions.

Left to their own devices, eyes want to travel in a downward slanting direction across pages. This is why ad magazines have “v” shaped layouts. This is really only good for scanning. Both web designers and comickers don’t want readers to scan, we want them to digest, to understand, to listen with their eyes.

While there are very few rules in comics, one is that the Western reader’s eye always starts in the upper left side of the page. If there is no panel there, the eye moves downward and to the right in search of a place to start.

Illustration for Of Github and Pull Requests.

Using the above techniques, you can coerce the reader’s eye to take unconventional paths.

Comicking techniques in action

Now that you know the basics, let’s put these babies to use! We’re going to start by looking at some fairly high-level implementations where we can use visuals to replace words before moving on to show how proximity, temporal spacing, balance and flow can be used directly in a design.


An excerpt from an IKEA instruction manual.

When you rely more on visuals than text, your work can be understood across language barriers. Art is a universal language, and that’s why we see it used so much in international publications or handbooks like IKEA’s above. There’s even a set of international road signs used by countries complying with the Vienna International Convention. This way, when you cross country borders in Europe you know that there’s a railroad crossing ahead or that you need to keep an eye out for pedestrians– even if you don’t speak the language.

Sourced from the Merriam Webster Visual Dictionary (which is a really cool resource)

You’ll notice that these images are starting to form their own language, a visual vocabulary. They’re becoming symbols, with each symbol embodying a single idea. This is how writing began in Egypt and China. Similarly, it’s how our interfaces evolve.

Visual metaphor

A comic panel becomes an image that suggests an action which can be further simplified into an icon. Would the letters t-r-a-s-h resonate as much as this simple image? Sometimes, a “simple image” describes a complex action. For instance, this icon can mean trash, remove, delete, discard. On a list of favorites, it can mean “unfavorite this and remove it from my sight” – a very complicated concept! But we can use visual shorthand to get it across intuitively.

Real-world examples

Shopping cart inventory screen from

In this shopping cart inventory screenshot, we can see not one but two comic techniques at work: panelling and proximity. Notice how each item has its own box or panel separating it from the other. But also notice how the “your order” box is off on its own on the right, in the last section the user will look to when looking at a page in left-to-right eye movements. This makes sense since the designer wants users to first review their purchases then the information in the “your order” box before clicking “check out.” Imagine how much clunkier this would be if the “your order” box was on the left!

Also notice the “x” buttons in each item’s box. Here we see proximity and visual metaphor at work. The “x” here simply implies “remove” without the need to explicitly state it. The proximity of these removal buttons to the items they remove also lets users know what will be removed.’s home page features new submissions from users. uses proximity, visual metaphor and panelling as well. The white box that encompasses each “shot” contains three to four icons that show how many views, comments, and favorites the image has and if the image has an attachment. Interestingly, the creator’s name doesn’t appear inside this panel. It appears underneath the panel, but users can infer ownership by proximity. What the name is closest to, it must be related to.

Blue Cross Blue Shield’s home page exemplifies “flow.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield does a great job with their entire home page. It starts with a sweeping establishing shot – lots of space gives the user a chance to pause and absorb the site. The caption pulls them in and the “Shop for Health Insurance” box calls them to action. Right below that, three evenly spaced panels set a stable rhythm for their content, stressing that each article is of equal importance.

This page is a good example of flow, so good that I wanted to show you how easily its layout could be repurposed for a comic.

Content vs. Copy

Will Lieberson, editor at comic publisher Fawcett Publications, stopped by a barber shop late one night. While waiting for a shave, he noticed that a kid next to him reading one of his own comics! But then he realized that the boy was only reading the top panels of every page. When he tried to explain to the youth that you should read a comic’s page from top to bottom to get the whole story, the boy quipped, “I know, but this way is faster!” (citation: Steranko History of Comics, Vol 2, Page 15)

Panel of Fangs of the Fiend found at Stupid Comics

When your words and pictures are fighting each other for dominance – when you fill your page with information that doesn’t further the plot – readers start skimming, also known as scanning.

People don’t read, they scan…right?

Thanks in large part to Jacob Nielsen’s work, it’s a common heuristic that people don’t read pages, they scan them. This is, of course, a drastic oversimplification. We’ve trained readers to skim content by inundating them with terrible, fluffy, poorly prepared and badly placed content.

It’s a natural reaction to bad storytelling to just skip to the good parts.

Consider how our grandparents would pick and choose their reading materials. After carefully choosing their reading material, they sat down to digest their choices in full. They didn’t skim The Great Gatsby. They didn’t glance at the Wall Street Journal. They chose what they wanted to read, and they read it. Works were curated by slews of creators, editors, and reviewers to ensure that when audiences came, they were not disappointed. People would become outraged with creators and publishers over bad content!

It’s not that people have no patience. It’s that the bulk of online content providers have repeatedly failed to provide things worth spending time on. Now users have knee-jerk reactions. As soon as they land on a page, they turn their shields on – deflecting the ads, the talking dogs, the long intros, the fluffy copy – and begin searching for the meat, the ker-pow.

Users are like that little boy, reading the top panels of every page then moving on because life’s too short to slog through your crappy content.

Content strategists and user experience designers have tried to address this observed “people don’t read, they scan!” problem in a myriad of ways by optimizing microcopy, keeping things above the fold, A/B testing calls to action, etc. But we need to remember to keep an eye on the whole experience. Comics would not be the cultural cornerstone they are today if comickers had started optimizing the first panel on every page!

People don’t scan, they look

People aren’t reading web pages from top to bottom, but they are looking at the page. Humans are visual animals first. Images are often the first thing we notice on a page while words add an extra layer of abstraction that your brain has to decode.

I often hear presenters extolling the value of good content. But what they’re actually talking about is often just copy. Copy isn’t the only kind of content!

Back in ye olden days of the World Wide Web, text was the path of least resistance and images were seen as non-semantic and often garish substitutions for meaningful copy. But we’re living in the future now. We have all kinds of accessibility options at our disposal, from WAI-ARIA to HTML5 video’s subtitles to our good old friend alt text. We’re better equipped than ever to plan, design, and measure the effectiveness of visual content.

Content strategists and UX practitioners, I implore you to emulate the authors of the golden age of comics and lean on your graphics specialists. If you’re a one man UX army, remember to use Photoshop or a sketchpad from time to time, and try to stretch your visual communication skills with things like weekly challenges.


Many comickers evolve into storyboard artists and move on to work in cinema or animation. I evolved into a front end developer and UI designer. I still use my skills to communicate with words and pictures, just in a different medium. If you’re going to connect with your audience, you’ve got to learn the art of the flow, you’ve got to guide their eyes, and you can’t do that with mere words alone. Content strategists and copywriters often see the Internet as an endless document comprised of page after page of text and navigation. But I echo the words of Scott McCloud when I say: the Internet is an endless canvas.

Resources and thanks

You can get a better feel for graphic storytelling by reading comics like the fine ones below created by expert comickers:

Thanks to Kurt Busiek for helping me find the barbershop story and to Scott McCloud for putting us in touch.

Check out these classic books by Scott McCloud:

I love talking about sequential art and comics, so drop me a line! @CrowChick, Dribbble, My web ramblings blog.

The post Comics and UX, Part 2: Flow and Content appeared first on UX Booth.

May 22 2012


Comics and UX, Part 1: Cross-disciplinary Techniques

Comics, cartoons, sequential art. Each of these words implies the same thing: stories told with words and pictures. Much has been written about about how storytelling affects the user experience, but little has been written about how visual storytellers craft that experience. Today, I’m going to share the tricks of the trade that comickers use to lead a reader’s eyes across a page. You can use these techniques to tell stories, sell widgets, promote an idea, help users find what they’re searching for – the possibilities are endless! (And I promise there will be lots of fun comics.)

Note: In this article, I will use “reader” when referring to people who would read comics and/or visit web sites, and I will use “user” to refer only to people in the context of visiting web sites.

Long before I was a web designer, I was “Rachel the Great,” known in high schools around the world for my weekly comic adventures at (I even won an industry award for my work!) When comics could no longer pay the bills, I used my talents to jumpstart a career in web design.

What the flip do comics have to do with web sites? Quite a bit actually. Comics and websites both start as wireframes.

Both mediums tell stories and convey ideas using words and pictures. People will scan boring or confusing sites as well as comics. In both mediums, you have to either pull readers into a narrative or immediately offer up the meatiest part of the content, lest readers skip to the next page.

Because they have so much in common, many basic comic techniques apply equally as well to web pages. Let’s go over them!

Techniques and theory

There is a saying among equestrians: “Control the head, and you control the horse.” A reader’s eye is like a horse: both will roam if left on their own. The reader’s eye wants to gallop madly across the room and look at that shiny thing over there or that iPhone in your hand. Like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, as creators we have to run twice as fast just to keep our readers in one place!

A good comic doesn’t lay itself out. It doesn’t magically fall from the artist’s pen fully-formed onto the Bristol board. There are scripts (content), layouts (wireframes), pencils (mockups), and inks (final designs) to do before the words are finally married to the pictures.

But the difference between a good comic and a great comic can be found in the place between the script and the pencils. Everything else is icing.

Panels: temporal snapshots

Generally speaking, a comic’s panel and frames act as a mini corral for the eye. Readers process each panel individually. Further, we know that everything inside takes place at the same time and at the same place.

Panels also work as a grouping device. Everything within a panel is related to each other, whether they be characters in a scene or random objects.

Excerpt from Beauty Is as Beauty Does, a comic I made for


Things close to each other seem more related than things farther apart.

Notice how the first panel is a picture of a woman and a boy. In the second panel, they’re a sister and brother or mother and son. The characters are exactly the same in each panel. The only thing that has changed is the distance between them. Your mind naturally infers a relationship based on proximity.

The same goes for panels. The eye naturally “jumps” to the next closest panel, even if it’s not in a “conventional” location or direction, even if the things in the panels don’t seem immediately related. Your brain fills in the gaps and makes inferences about those relationships.

For instance, in the first panel here we see a pair of Nine Inch Nails tickets. In the next panel, we see someone holding two slips of paper. We assume that those aren’t menus or bookmarks or business cards: we assume they’re the tickets!

Spacetime, whitespace, and pacing

As in the universe, so in the comic: time and space are irrevocably linked. Panels set the rhythm and pace of a page.

A comic with panels of equal size at regular intervals “sounds” like a metronome.

Tick tock, tick tock. The pace is neither fast nor slow. It’s like watching a sitcom as compared to a drama or an action film.

You can actually “slow” time in a comic by increasing the distances between elements.

A big splash of whitespace gives the impression of slowed time.

Likewise, many tightly spaced panels give the impression of quickly passing time.

Strong diagonals also give a sense of frenetic energy or an off-kilter situation.

Balancing words and pictures

A common comicker admonition is “show the story, don’t tell the story.” While it is possible to have a comic that consists entirely of pictures, a comic cannot consist solely of words. That would be a novel.

Andy Runton’s “Owly” is an all-ages comic devoid of dialog and text.

A good comicker works to balance words and pictures. Sometimes it makes sense to let words do the heavy lifting, especially when it comes to concepts that are difficult to explain with images, like facts and figures (although infographic artists show us that visuals can help with those, too!). However, when it comes to emotions and abstract concepts, pictures often can convey complex information much more succinctly.

There’s a lot going on in this short comic. A good author could put this scene into words, but it would take much longer for the reader to read and process the scene, whereas with pure visuals, you can digest what’s happening in a few seconds.

A good writer knows what an artist can show for them and leaves them room to do so. Likewise, a good copywriter knows the abilities of their designers and collaborates with them. Would an infographic say this better than a list of numbers? Would a video of the product in use be a good supplement to a step-by-step instruction guide?

Next up: flow and content

Each of these techniques is useful enough on its own, by when you combine them they become downright powerful. In the second, final article of this series we’ll combine these approaches to achieve better flow and more compelling content. See you soon!

The post Comics and UX, Part 1: Cross-disciplinary Techniques appeared first on UX Booth.

May 18 2012


Facebook’s Faceoff with Google+

In the early battle between Facebook vs. MySpace, Facebook dominated by offering a simple user interface to connect with friends. Backed by explosive success, Facebook has maintained a “we know best” attitude about design through continuous iterations. With the rise of Google+, Facebook has been pressured to address usability concerns expressed by its cynical, albeit deeply ingrained, user base.

We put Facebook to the test with a panel of five remote web testers in early August, 2011, and listened to them voice their frustrations aloud as they navigated the site performing several assigned tasks. Although Facebook has taken steps to address some of the usability concerns we exposed, issues still remain.

All testers came from UserTesting’s on-demand panel, had over 100 friends, spent over 30 minutes on Facebook every day, and were Americans between the ages of 20 and 40.

Photo privacy controls

Nine months ago, managing the privacy settings of a Facebook photo album was a nightmare. Users had two options:

First was to click “Edit Photos” within the album. Our tests revealed this was far from intuitive. Users stated they were instead searching for a “lock icon” or an identifier next to the album. What’s more, the “Profile Pictures” album – the default album comprised of photos of a user – didn’t even have an “Edit Photos” option.

Second was to manage album privacy was to go to Privacy Settings → Customize Settings → Edit Album settings. The Privacy Settings page allowed users to set access for all “your photos, statuses, and posts;” however zero testers used default settings. The Edit Album link was buried in between larger buttons and other controls that were in bold font, which users struggled to find.

Privacy settings were not located in the right context when users needed to access them. One tester said it best: “The privacy settings can get really complicated… even if I’ve done one before, it’s been awhile, maybe I’ve forgotten or the way it’s done is changed.”

Facebook's old privacy settings page

Facebook’s old privacy settings page tested poorly.

When Google+ launched, by contrast, it let users easily share each photo or post with whichever “circle” of choice.

Google+'s status update panel

Google+’s status update panel puts the “reach” of your update front and center.

Whether or not the release of Google+ was the catalyst or a coincidence, Facebook redesigned these pages in late August – just 3 weeks after our usability study. Users can now manage album privacy directly from their profile and change album privacy settings directly on their albums page. Further, users can set each status update or album its own privacy setting, inline with each post.

Facebook's new status update panel

Facebook’s new status update panel seems to follow Google+’s approach.

“Smart” friend lists

Google+’s circles were a direct response to Facebook privacy control woes, particularly managing friend lists. “Friend lists” are how you can organize your friends on Facebook. You can grant or limit access to friend lists you create to view albums, status updates, and availability in chat.

We asked users to enable only four of their best friends to see them online without instruction. To do this, they would have had to create a friend list, put these friends in the list, and then limit their availability in chat.

Easier to find

To create a friend list, users could formerly go to go to the Home page, click Friends in the left navigation column, then click Manage Friend List. If users accessed Friends from their profile, they must go to “Edit Friends.” One user did not assume the “Edit Friends” button would lead to a page to create and manage friend lists.

Friend lists are now easier to access on the left navigation bar under Friends.

Facebook’s friend lists were far from friendly.

…In the proper context

After completing the task users were still unsure about their success in creating a friend list. This was because the newly created list did not appear in the drop-down menu when selecting Custom privacy controls.

This has not changed. Furthermore – in chat – when users click “Limit Availability,” they can only see names of friend lists they have created, but are still unable to see who is in these lists or update them from here.

In September, Facebook created “smart lists” to automatically group close friends, family, coworkers, and schoolmates. For many users, these ‘smart lists’ are arbitrary, as sharing decisions are most often based on relationship comfort level –– not organizational ties.

Facebook chat

Coincidentally, our August study ran right after Facebook chat launched. We found that users were confused that friends appeared in their chat bar who were not online. One frustrated tester complained he could not feel certain that he could see all his online friends in the chat sidebar, since Facebook includes offline friends in the mix. When he realized he could not chat with friends who appeared in his chat list, he assumed that chat was broken.

Likewise, one woman was completely confused when she saw her daughter appear in the chat list, realizing this was impossible since she was standing there right next to her.

Users felt that some online friends were “missing” because they could not scroll up or down the list to make sure. Days after the launch, Facebook added a scrollbar. However, offline friends still appear in the list.

After the test, we asked users what features they wanted in chat (UserTesting provides customers four, written, follow-up questions after the video test). Five out of five users wanted the ability to be invisible in chat. The common reason was they did not want to be messaged by certain people at certain times. Interestingly, no one was interested in being “away” – one user commented that Facebook status updates have taken the place of “away messages” (of the AOL era) as an indication of our current state in life.

As there are likely millions of people who have Gmail open in one tab and Facebook in the other, Facebook could take note. (Facebook Chat is more comparable to Gchat than Google Hangouts, which has higher functionality for group chats.)

Where search meets social

Facebook identifies as a social discovery engine, not a search engine. However, as Facebook nears the one billion user mark, it’s become increasingly harder to find the right person, page, or app you’re looking for.

Users were asked to search for friends by current city and for statuses that contained the term “vacation.” Two users expected when they type something in search and press enter, they would go to the search results page. However, Facebook takes users to the first result that comes up. That would be like googling something and automatically being redirected to the first result.

As an example, when one user typed in “vacation” into the Search bar and pressing ENTER, he automatically arrived at the “Pet Society Vacation” app page.

We observed two users try to click the magnifying glass option in vain trying to perform an advanced search.

Little has changed with search since our original Facebook user study. To perform an advanced search, users must type in a term in the search bar, mouse down to “See more results,” then go to the left menu column to add more filters. Meanwhile, Google+ lets users easily search any person, page, and even content and has filters clearly on the results page.

Our suggestion? When users hover over the search magnifying glass, offer a drop-down menu to do an advanced search. This aligns well with what we observed. Further, when you press “Enter” in Search, take users to a search results page. If the first result that shows up in the results preview is what the user wants, the user could click on it – or press the down arrow, then enter – on their keyboard.


Move fast and break things is a great motto, but it just seems like when features of a very successful company lack usability – the general sentiment of the people is, “They don’t care about us.” Users in our original study expressed that Facebook made some things difficult on purpose as if they were being tricked for some ulterior motive.

Facebook has since taken conciliatory steps to address the issues exposed in usability tests, but their reputation as a top-down all-knowing power prevails. If Facebook wants to win the battle with Google+, they should humble their design decisions down to the needs of the user.

The post Facebook’s Faceoff with Google+ appeared first on UX Booth.

May 08 2012


Effective Presentation of a Website’s Navigation

Users obtain information on the web in one of two ways: searching or browsing. Browsing – moving through a multi-faceted content structure – is made easier when information architects present users with an intuitive navigation hierarchy. This article discusses two techniques to that end.

There’s a great line in the Postal Service song, This Place is a Prison, that states, “It’s not a party if it happens every night.” Although the singer specifically refers to a life of too much partying, it’s a good reminder that anything that happens too regularly loses its significance.

A copier's start button appears larger than its neighboring buttons

This same concept holds true in our navigation. As humans, our brains are wired to notice contrast, things that stand out from the norm. It’s why photocopiers employ big, green start buttons. It’s also the reason that the interface on my smartphone offers a collection of colorful icons instead of just text links.

When looking for Yelp on my iPhone, I’m not scanning for the word “Yelp;” I’m scanning for a red square. This is a much faster mental calculation than exhaustively reading each application’s name. It’s clear in both cases that the designers have put prioritization and visual language to work.

Defining our terms

Prioritization is the act of giving an element prominence relative to its importance in a (navigational) hierarchy. With regards to a navigational hierarchy, this is done by first considering each element’s relationship to its user’s goals.

Prioritization is the reason why items like “Settings” or “Profile” are typically less noticeable than the primary actions on a site or application. It can be communicated in a variety of ways, but essentially prioritization means that items of more importance should call more attention to themselves.

A screenshot of

Harvest App prioritizes more regularly used links (Reports and Timesheets) over others (My Profile)

Visual language, on the other hand, involves using visual elements to convey meaning. Often times this is done through illustration or iconography, though any visual cue that reinforces the function of an element contributes to that application’s visual language.

By way of contrast, consider text-only navigation structures – especially those that use the same font size. Without introducing/incorporating a rich visual language, these structures don’t reach their fullest communication potential. Simple visual cues go a long way towards helping users parse information because they facilitate recognition over recall.

Some well-known sites and applications make use of the calendar icon.


Unfortunately, designers often do the exact opposite in their designs. In their desire for consistency they often force users to carefully scan each item until they find what they’re looking for. Emerson once termed this kind of foolish consistency “the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Let’s take a look at a few bad examples:


Craigslist offers both little prioritization and a non-existent visual language. Users are required to read nearly each entry on the home page before finding the link they’re looking for.

A screenshot of

Jimmy John’s Website

Every time I order a sandwich on the Jimmy John’s website, I find myself carefully re-reading each navigation item. For the sake of consistency, every navigation item looks the same: red, black, and white. The sandwiches at Jimmy John’s are great; the navigation, less so.

A screenshot of

Microsoft Metro UI

One of my favorite recent violators is the Microsoft Metro UI. This has been out for some time in the Windows Phone interface and will be arriving soon on the desktop with Windows 8. By making the home screen tiles all the same color with white lettering and white icons, the user has to read each tile instead of responding to unique icons and colors. (John C. Dvorak recently wrote a great piece about this in PC Magazine.)

Rdio iPhone App

The Rdio iPhone App interface makes the same mistake as the Microsoft Metro UI. While they do incorporate iconography, the consistency of color and size of the icons forces the user to closely scan each item. In an otherwise beautiful and successful app, I find myself repeatedly scanning the home screen options to find my desired action.

Apple iTunes

In Apple’s iTunes 10 (as well as its Finder), the sidebar items were converted from color to grayscale. In bringing consistency, Apple removed the contrast between each entry, thus requiring users to scan more closely and read labels to find the desired content. Previously, if you were looking for podcasts, you scanned for the purple icon. Now you have to scan for the word “Podcasts” because the icons run together.

Screenshots of iTunes 9 and iTunes 10

iTunes 9 appears on the left and iTunes 10 appears on the right.

Path Sliding Menu

The Path iPhone app uses a similar sliding navigation to that found in Facebook app. There is one important difference, however, in that Path does not use icons with labels whereas Facebook does. Each time I open the Path navigation, I have to read each entry until I find the one I want. With Facebook, I’m reacting to the visual patterns and selection is much faster with less cognitive load.

Screenshots of both Path and Facebook's iPhone apps

Learning by example

So now that we’ve seen them, can we avoid these hobgoblins of consistency and create more effective navigation structures? Let’s look at some good examples:


Mint has long been viewed as an exemplary user experience and they have some nice touches in areas that use highly visual navigation. The “Ways To Save” tab in particular relies on a thoughtful collection of icons for navigating.

Screenshot of


The ESPN site has a variety of different navigation styles throughout, but I find the hover state for the primary navigation items to be particularly effective with its combination of photos, videos, and various text weights.

Screenshot of

Volkswagen of America

When browsing the vehicle model options on the Volkswagen of America website, the dropdown navigation menu combines prioritization – Sedans before Convertibles – with visual language – an iconic version of each vehicle in varying colors.

Screenshot of

Twitter Web App

The Twitter web app has a very simple interface with only a handful of links, but each is accompanied by a distinct and meaningful icon to set it apart and the most important action, composing a new tweet, is set apart in bright blue.

Screenshot of

Instagram iPhone app

The buttons on the Instagram app effectively combine both prioritization and visual language. Each button is identified by its associated icon and the most important one (the camera) is centered and stands out with a blue background.

Screenshot of Instagram's iPhone app

EPB Fiber Optics

The EPB Fiber Optics website makes good use of varying levels of priority within the top level navigation. The primary navigation items are all in black with the most important option (“Order Now”) set off in blue.

Screenshot of

Guidelines for success

We’ve seen examples both good and bad, now let’s try to generalize a bit. The following guidelines can help us create more prioritized, visual navigation schemes:

  1. Pay attention to User Goals and/or Conversions

    When trying to determine how to prioritize and bring meaning to your navigation, think in terms of your users’ primary goals and/or site conversions. Make those elements prominent and easy-to-understand.

  2. Be Inconsistent

    Take inspiration from the photocopier: instead of striving to give all navigation items the same size and appearance, leverage inconsistency in your design so that the most important items receive the most visibility.

  3. Use Visual Language, not just Textual

    Where it makes sense, use icons and other visual cues to bring additional meaning to your navigation instead of using only text. This will allow the user’s brain to process more quickly by relying on pattern recognition instead of reading.

  4. Size (and Color) Matters

    Use size and color distinctions to differentiate more important links or buttons.

Final thoughts

With so many aspects to consider when designing navigation, it can be easy to fall back on convention and create more work for your users as a consequence. While there will always be situations where using these techniques doesn’t make sense, keep in mind that differentiation can be a powerful tool.

Not all navigation is created equal. By employing prioritization and visual language in your navigational elements, you’ll help users forget the navigation altogether. They way they can focus on the content they’re really after.

May 01 2012


How to Win the UX War Within Your Organization

When companies don’t care about user experience, it is clearly reflected in the products they create. Although everyone can agree that software should be intuitive, user-friendly, and aesthetically pleasing, many managers aren’t willing to invest the time and resources it takes to build something compelling. A large part of our job as UX advocates, then, is explaining design’s impact on the company as a whole. Determining which battles to win and which battles to lose – even intentionally – can help you win the UX war.

A scene from the movie 300

The war within your organization is probably not this obvious.

The nature of the battlefield depends, in part, on your company’s business model. I work in a business-to-business (B2B) organization which means that the products that my employer sells are primarily targeted toward other businesses. Business-to-consumer organizations, on the other hand, sell their products directly to consumers. They can obtain actual feedback from actual users.

In general, B2B organizations don’t receive as much feedback from consumers as business-to-consumer (B2C) organizations. For example, consider point-of-sale (POS) software systems used in restaurants. When selecting POS software, procurement departments for these organizations likely have very different sets of purchasing criteria such as cost, maintenance fees, existing vendor relationships, etc. Usability may not be an important priority when selecting the software outright.

And olde-time cash register

Cash registers are often sold to businesses, not consumers.

The problem here is that cashier feedback is at least two degrees of separation away from those who need it most. Without strong and consistent feedback from end users, it is unlikely the organization designing the POS software will recognize their own problems.

Another challenge that B2B software faces is that new software typically draws inspiration from existing software in the given industry. It is incorrectly assumed that because the current products are “getting the job done,” that they are models to be followed.

Every organization is different. The challenges you face in your company may not be the ones I face in mine. But hopefully my experiences in dealing with some of these complex issues might help you be better prepared for similar situations.

Battles you can (and must) win

In order to make an impact in your organization, there are certain key principles upon which you can’t compromise. Be confident and assertive when dealing with the following issues, but be sensitive to people’s perspectives as well. Remember that you need to build strong relationships with stakeholders now to support your cause in the future. As Howard W.Newton once said: Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.

Convince stakeholders that the problem exists

Sometimes business stakeholders are completely unaware of the issues that exist with their application’s user experience. Maybe nobody explained the application’s problems to them in detail. Or maybe someone did but it wasn’t very convincing or the consequences were not well understood.

One surefire way to prove a problem exists is to record users while they use the application. This technique allows candid feedback from the users, as you can see how they use the application first hand. Sometimes the results may surprise you.

If the user takes a different route – to go to a given page or to complete a certain action – instead of following the designed workflow, analyze why the user chose to take this path. Was the existing workflow not obvious? Was it cumbersome? Was it just easier to do it this way? The answers to these questions will help you gain insight into your users’ behavior & expectations. Some popular tools that can help capture this kind of feedback are Jing, Screenpresso, CamStudio, and Silverback.

Next, get the project team – including all stakeholders – in the same room and play the recorded user sessions. As a group, take note of various usability issues. What do they struggle with? Where do they make the most errors? Do they find the workflow confusing? Documenting even the most mundane problems in an application can get your stakeholders to pay attention to the application’s user experience.

Coming up with an agreeable solution

So you have demonstrated the problem exists; now prove a solution exists. Again, you cannot compromise here. Pick a specific part of the application that needs a makeover and build a high–fidelity prototype to demonstrate how it could be better. Be sure to communicate the difference between the complexity of the existing design and the simplicity of your new design. Some of the popular tools that can help in this area include: Balsamiq, Mockingbird, MS Sketchflow, MS Visio, and Hotgloo.

A wireframe

Help stakeholders visualize your solution by wireframing it.

Next, see if your end users like your redesign. The last thing you want is to get approval on a design that your end users don’t really care for! If possible, talk to a user or two to see what they think of your design and refine it as necessary.

Finally, present it to the team. This is a much better way to show the stakeholders how things can be improved from the current design and thus, get their buy-in easily.

Garnering support from the sales & support teams

In many B2B companies, the most knowledgeable people to talk to about real user feedback is the support team or help desk. These teams deal with angry and frustrated users every day, and can probably list the top five customer complaints off the top of their head! Be sure to incorporate the feedback from these groups in your design when possible.

Alec Baldwin says 'Always. Be. Closing.'

Sales people frequently have a unique perspective on your business.

The sales and marketing teams typically have a large influence on product design and development. Talk to them about the findings from the user sessions and the feedback from the support team. If you can convince them how your application’s poor UX is affecting customer adoption and is creating negative experiences with the product, they will join your cause. It’s hard for management to ignore a sales team that says Our product’s design is keeping us from meeting our goals!

Winning the numbers game

The higher up you go in the chain of command at an organization, the less they care about esoteric product details. Managers usually want to know how much will this effort cost them, how much will it save them, and how long will it take before they see results. These are not unreasonable questions to ask, so you’ll want to phrase the benefits of good UX in terms they’ll understand: dollars and cents.

Poor design inevitably impacts a product’s development and support costs but often this can be difficult to quantify. As a consequence, design is often seen as “subjective,” when you and I both know its manifestations are anything but. Luckily, there are several articles out there that can help you quantify the effects of user experience on the bottom line: Usability cost benefits evidence, Constructing a User Experience: The Cost-Benefits Compass, and Calculating ROI on UX & Usability Projects. Take a look, spend the time, and make the case for improving your application’s design in a language your stakeholders will understand.

Battles that are okay to lose (even on purpose)

So far we’ve discussed battles you have to win – but everyone knows you can’t win them all! Any strategist will tell you that knowing which battles to lose is imperative to winning the war. Let’s look at a few.

Finding someone to blame

Some people in the team will always point the finger at someone else – nothing is ever their fault. If the design sucks, it’s somehow the Project Manager’s fault or the Business Analyst’s responsibility. Or they weren’t given enough time to come up with a better design due to tight project deadlines.

An angry, finger-pointing monkey

Pointing out who’s to blame for the product’s poor UX will get you nowhere. In fact, doing so is counterproductive and can only lead to distrust. Instead, focus on persuading the team to join you in a fight for a redesign. Let them know that their opinion matters.

Looking for progress

Change is hard for most people to accept – especially when they’re skeptical about its effects. Yes, you’ve been fighting the good fight in the name of UX, but don’t expect everybody to get on board so quickly. It may take awhile for your colleagues to see the value in building applications with better UX.

Be patient. Gently ease your team into the process of taking the user-centric approach. Make sure the team doesn’t lose momentum. If they do, act quickly and step in. Help your team see the goal (separate the forest from the trees).

A tortoise, slow and steady.

Slow and steady wins the UX race.

Remember, you need everyone’s buy-in for this to work. Even if they are slow, as long as they’re steady and making measurable progress, you’ll win the war.

Becoming “that” guy

A badge that reads: Hello, my name is 'That guy'

Although I received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the UX initiative I started at my company, I also received some snarky remarks from a few folks. The truth is, I made a conscious effort to avoid highlighting any specific product or team because I wanted this initiative to be a positive experience for everyone.

Not everyone sees it this way, of course. Tell your colleagues that you appreciate the fact that they take pride in their work and acknowledge that you’d be upset too if somebody implied you did a poor job. Help them understand that you are just there to help.

Defining yourself

Hopefully your effort will be an eye-opening experience in your organization. Even so, that doesn’t mean that management will champion a UX team right away. They still may want to see how this will pan out in the long run. So in the short term, you may need to do some of the work “for free” on projects just to show them how things are done.

Get out of your comfort level a bit to take on a new role that you had not signed up for. It’s okay to lose the battle of defining yourself.

Don’t be afraid to wear a different hat if you have to. If you’re an IA being asked to do Visual Design, do it. If you’re a designer being asked to do some requirements gathering or user interviews, do it. If you’re a developer being asked to do interaction design, do it. Never forget that your ultimate goal is to win the war!

Win the war

In the end, it’s all about perspective. When you find yourself fighting any of the aforementioned battles, take a step back and try to figure out whether it’s worth the fight. Consider what’s at stake. What matters the most is that you don’t lose hope or momentum. Once people see the benefits of your effort they’ll start asking for more, and then quickly realize that they’re going to need a bigger team to handle all requests moving forward. And that is a good problem to have.

April 24 2012


Breaking Out of the UX Status Quo

As a UX Designer you’ve committed your career to helping people. You challenge the status quo everyday…but are you challenging it enough? How about with your deliverables? Your customers are people, too! Are your common deliverables – personas, sitemaps, user-flows and wireframes – really usable or are they just getting in the way?

It’s no secret to us: user experience designers speak their own language. From personas to user journeys, card sorts to wireframes, there’s a certain vernacular to our profession. It’s something that we learn over the years but that our clientele must overcome immediately.

Frustrated with the conventional deliverables used to communicate our work, I began to reconsider their presentation. What resulted is certainly not “conventional,” but – taken together – they are arguably more usable.

Personas are like resumés

Personas come in all shapes and sizes. Contrary to what they’re designed to do, however, rarely do they convey a good sense of the user. Most look like resumés: sterile and lacking in personality.

When was the last time you hired someone based on their resumé alone? Even with a resumé you still need to conduct an interview in order effectively gauge a prospect. Seeing someone and listening to their words reveals their personality – the key element missing from most personas.

So I started a searching for a better way. The first thing I did was move my deliverables online. This allowed me to link them together so that clients could click between them. For desktop projects I use Axure and for mobile and tablet I use Both of them are great tools as they create clickable, HTML-based output.

Next, I searched high and low for inspiration. This persona, created by User Insight, is definitely different. Therein, the user (Tina) does not consist of mere bullet points; she comes off as a real person. Jason Travis’s personas are infinitely more visual. Being picture-based, though, they lack any descriptive text whatsoever.

Inspired by these (plus adding my ideas and style) I tried to put together a new version of the traditional persona.

Barnabas's persona

You can view a demo here.

This approach paints a much more holistic picture of a person. Not only does it include their goals, it includes important, ancillary information such as their worldview, what they are looking for and their motivation. Further, the overheard conversation adds just the right amount of insight into his/her life. The “questions” section helps identify the areas the target user is unsure of and the “life pieces” section makes the persona human-like with feelings and desires.

Sitemaps are like spiderwebs

Sitemaps are (as most of you know) used to “map” the major components of a website to a rather sparse-looking diagram. Because they’re so sparse, they also tend leave a lot to the imagination. This gives rise to common retort: “What’s this page do, again?” “Can you change this page to that?” “How about we scrap that page”

You know the routine. Because clients come to us for the visual thinking they often can’t turn these sparse diagrams into anything “useful” on their own.

This got me thinking: why not just put the thinking alongside the map?

Barnabas's persona

You can view a demo here.

Even though it’s just a small difference, this approach pays off. It helps our clients understand the internal monologue that drives the narrative. Knowing the reasoning behind your decisions helps others understand (and agree) with your perspective.

User journeys are like electric panel diagrams

User journeys map the steps of a user, correlating goals (explained in Personas) with a site map to better illustrate how users will get things done. As a result, designers can make informed suggestions to the site’s information architecture.

The problem is that most user-flows are very dry. It is difficult to feel empathy with a user and their journey if all you see are boxes and arrows (similar to electric panel diagrams).

After scouring the internet looking for something better I found a couple of good approaches.

Jakub Linowski's user flow

Jakub Linowski’s Grand Narratives & Play Points diagram offers a compelling yet easy-to–understand presentation based on wireframes.

A user journey from the Bluepoint+ deliverable framework

Blueprint+ (Service Design Visual) is great because it includes the persona and a timeline.

Carlos Abler's user journey

Carlos Abler’s Multiuser WireFlows combines the two former ideas.

All of these are good but they all seemed to be missing something.

I’ve been always fan of recycling, so I thought there has to be a way to re-use the sitemap and display the user-flow on it. I also wanted to re-use my personas in order to create empathy for the user’s journey. This led me to the following presentation:

Barnabas Nagy's user flow

You can also view a demo here.

As you can see, I simply re-used my sitemap and added one of my persona with speech bubbles. In the speech bubbles I added the thoughts of the persona at every stage of their journey. This adds a human touch. The thoughts of the persona can explain to clients the reasons for the journey taken and the scenario puts these thoughts into context. It is simple but visually understandable way to show your user-flow.

Clients that already understand your sitemaps and personas will have no trouble seeing the two work together.

Prototypes/wireframes are like abandoned houses

Wireframes created in the absence of personas are broken. Yet we do this all the time. Why do we create personas if we don’t use them?

Looking for a better way, I saw a picture in the essay of Rósa Gudjónsdóttir:

A man working next to two cardboard cutouts of personas.

I was fascinated by the idea of having my personas around me. I started to print my personas and stick them to the wall in front of me. It helped, however, the screen and the wall are two different worlds, analog and digital. No good.

I eventually placed my personas in the margin of my prototype to serve as a constant reminder of who my users are:

A wireframe juxtaposed with persona avatars.

You can also view a demo here.

Not only does this help us to not design for ourselves, our clients and stakeholders are now constantly reminded who will use our design. The time and effort we put into establishing our personas is never lost.

Never stop learning

As I mentioned earlier, these ideas have helped me better convey my work to my clientele. They are not perfect, of course, nor were they intended to be. I am certain that it is possible to tweak them or in fact come up with even better presentations that work for you.

Are you also frustrated with common UX processes or deliverables? Don’t let the status quo get you. Always try to make things better, iterate and optimize. Surprise your users – err, clients – with something new and innovative as this is the way forward. If you’ve tried your hand at something different, be sure to share your result in the comments below!

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