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February 11 2014

08:00

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 8

That old cliché isn’t true: all good things don’t have to come to an end. It’s possible to prepare your team for ongoing success and growth, but you have to be smart about how you do it.

In this series I’ve shared what’s worked for us at Intuitive Company. How we thought of our team as an organic garden and realized that once we had all of the right elements established, we didn’t need to mess with things too much. We prepared an open workplace, planted the right people, watered and added fertilizer to boost morale and growth, tilled and experimented to ensure we didn’t rest on our laurels, observed and protected our team when necessary, and then picked some of our best performers and work to celebrate and spotlight.

After all that, the final step is enjoyment—sitting back and appreciating the positive environment everyone has worked so hard to create. To us, success is the feeling of completion—of hard work yielding superior results for clients. We have to make time to soak it in, because there’s always more work to be done!

Enjoyment

The ways in which we have fun and enjoy what we’ve built and achieved at Intuitive Company often take the form of office events. Beer Swap, Happy Hour, Poker Night, and a having a team in the Broad Street Run have all been successful and bring our group even closer together.

And so I’ll end this series by asking you whether your team or company ever takes time out to just enjoy what you’ve accomplished together. If you’re at a larger organization, I’m not talking about holiday parties or other corporate-wide events that hundreds attend and everyone stays in their own clique. I mean more intimate celebrations or excursions where an individual team or all members of a small office can relax and have fun. It’s easy to add in a few activities throughout the year to show appreciation, encourage team bonding and just blow off steam.

I hope what I’ve shared about our experience growing Intuitive Company has given you ideas of ways your small business—or team within a large corporation—can create a more open and successful workplace environment.

If you’ve tried other tactics that led to the same positive results, I’d love to hear them, especially since I know we’ll need to keep honing our approach as we continue to grow.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

February 04 2014

08:00

Guerrilla Usability at Conferences

Does your company have display booths at trade shows and conferences? Typically, these are marketing-dominated efforts, but if you make the case to travel, working the booth can be used for user research. Here’s how I’ve done it.

Positioning and justification

At times it can be a hard internal sell to justify the costs and diversions to take your one- or two-person show on the road, all the while piggybacking off of another department’s efforts. Yet, standing on your feet for 12 hours a day doubles as a high-intensity, ‘product booth-camp.’ Say what you will about sales folk, but they are well trained on knowing how to (or finding someone who can) answer any question that comes their way. As an in-house UX professional, the more I can technically understand about our SaaS product, the more context I can have about our user’s needs.

I’ve found that having prospective customers participate in a usability session is a great way to show that we were taking the time to invest in them and their opinions of the product. As a result, there have been specific features that have been rolled into our application during the next sprint, which were proposed as small sound bites of feedback during these sessions. It shows we were listening, and makes a great justification for a follow-up phone call.

Recruiting and screening

To recruit, I scan Twitter to find those who tweet that they are excited about attending the upcoming conference. I cross-reference the Twitter handles to the names in LinkedIn to see if, based on job title and industry, they would be good participants.

I reach out to them to see if they’d be willing to sign up for a slot, proposing times between presentation sessions or before/after lunch to not conflict with their conference attendance.

Because the expo halls are generally open the entire day, even if there is no one booked on the calendar in specific spots, I also grab people just milling about to keep the sessions going. If you do this, be sure to quickly do a visual scan of their badge, as you can get a good sense of what they do and what knowledge they might have by where they work.

Booking

For the time bookings, I find that Calendly.com is a flexible, free, user-friendly way to book time slots with random people, using just a URL with no account sign-ups needed. In addition to custom time buckets (18 minutes, anyone?), Calendly also provides the option of a buffer increment after every session, so I can take notes and regroup.

Screen shot of a calendar with appointments booked.

Pick a time, (most) anytime.

Calendly does a good job of reminding participants when to show up and how find me–all the important things, including integrating well with all the major calendaring applications.

Come conference time, I have a slate of appointments along with contact information and reminders when they were coming. Couldn’t be easier. If expo hall hours change, I can easily message participants to let them know of the reschedule.

Duration

In a normal, controlled setting, I would typically want to go a full hour with a participant to properly delve into the subject matter and go through a number of different tasks and scenarios. “Pick a few and grade on a curve,” as Neilsen once said.

However, with the participant’s attention scattered given the sensory overload of the conference floor, anything more than 20 minutes gets to feel too long. At conferences, you’re going for quantity over quality. An advantage to this staccato method is when you find a vein of usability that you want to continue to explore in further depth and detail, there’s likely another participant right around the corner (either scheduled or random) to confirm or refute that notion.

Script and tone

The main challenge of this technique is that you’re not supposed to ‘sell’ in the role of testing moderator but rather to guide and respond. I wear many hats when working a booth; when not conducting these sessions, I sell the product alongside marketing.

As a result, 90% of the conversations in the booth are indeed sales, and switching roles so quickly is sometimes hard. I try to check myself when the testing script bleeds into ‘did you know that there are these features…’, because after 3+ days and what feels like a thousand conversations, I tend to put my conversations on a programmed sales loop, letting my brain rest a bit by going off of a script.

A pre-written task list helps keep me on point as a moderator. However, with the variety in participant group, I use the script much more as a guide than a mandate.

As with any usability session, I let the participants veer into whatever area of the app interest them the most and try to bring them back to the main road ever so subtly. With so many participants in such a short period of time, sometimes these unintended diversions became part of the next participant’s testing script, as it is easy to quickly validate or refute any prior assumptions.

Tools

Following the ‘guerrilla gorilla’ theme of this article, I use Silverback for my recording sessions. Silverback is a lightweight UX research tool that is low cost and works very well.

At one event, without my Bluetooth remote to use Silverback’s built-in marker/highlights, I paired an iPhone with an app called HippoRemote. Meant initially to provide ‘layback’ DVR/TV functionality, Hippo can also be written with custom macros to allow you to develop third-party libraries.

In the case of integrating with Silverback, this meant Hippo marked the start of new tasks, highlights of sound bytes, and starting/stopping recording–all the things that the Apple Remote should have done natively.

Despite some of the challenges in peripherals, Silverback is absolutely the right tool for the job. It’s lightweight, organized, and marks tasks and highlights efficiently.

Screen grab of the Silverback UI

Silverback UI

I recommend a clip-on microphone or directional mic given the background noise from the conference floor. Any kind of isolation that you can do for the participant’s voice will save you time in the long run, because you won’t have to try to scrub the audio in post-processing. Moving the sessions to somewhere quiet is a hard proposition, as the center of activity is where the impromptu recruitment tends to occur.

Wi-Fi

As a data-intensive SaaS product, the biggest challenge comes when trying to use the conference wi-fi. With the attendees swamping access points, there is no guarantee that I can pair the testing laptop and the iPhone used for marking, because they both need to be on the same network router for integration with with Silverback.

An ad-hoc network for the Mac won’t work, because I still need web access to use the application. Using my mobile phone as an access point has bandwidth constraints, and choppy downloads are not a good reflection on the speed of our application.

Unfortunately, then, every session begins with an apology on how slow the application is performing due to the shared conference wi-fi. A high-speed, private access point or a hardline into your booth cures all of these issues and would be worth the temporary investment for sales demonstrations and usability sessions alike.

Summary

There are a few adaptations we, as usability professionals, have to make from a traditional sit-down, two-sided-glass setting. Conference booth testing is a much more informal process, with an emphasis on improvisation and repetition. Some of the tools and methods used in guerilla testing certainly are not as proven or stable, but the potential recruitment numbers outweighs the inconveniences of a non-controlled setting.

From an educational standpoint, being inside the booth for days at a time will raise your knowledge-level considerably. You’ll hear again and again the type of questions and responsive dialog that prospective customers have around the product, and you’ll start to recognize the pain points coming from the industry.

After a half-dozen conferences, you’ll start to understand the differences in the average participant. In the case of the technology-centric attendees, some conferences provide a recruitment base of high-level generalists, with others being much executionally closer to the ground and detail-oriented. I tend to tailor my scripts accordingly, focusing on principles and concepts with the generalists, and accomplishment of specific tasks with the more programmatic participant.

One good thing about working for Loggly o’er here in the startup world is the ability to create paths and practices where there were none before. Pairing with the marketing team, using a portion of the presentation table to recruit participants off the expo hall floor, and sitting them down for a quick walkthrough of the product is a great way to become inspired about what you do and who you’re working for. As someone who still gets excited to travel, meet new people, and play off crowds, these sessions are always a highlight for me to conduct guerilla usability in front of my customers, peers, and my co-workers.

January 28 2014

08:00

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 7

After discussing how to prepare, plant, water, fertilize, till and experiment with and then observe and protect your organic garden of a team, I’m happy to announce that the last two steps are quite fun. You’ve worked hard to grow your business and have made the necessary tweaks along the way. Things couldn’t be better. Or could they?

Picking comes next, and it’s a way to recognize the highest achievers and celebrate successes.

Picking

On an annual basis, we draft individual performance reviews for each employee and circulate them amongst the three principals. These reviews incorporate feedback from co-workers and are probably the most formal thing we do. But it’s important for people to understand what they’ve done well and where they could improve. As we covered earlier, we believe people want to work here because of the environment and the responsibility they’re given from the get-go. If they’ve been performing well, they’ll receive a small salary bump and a healthy bonus in addition to being able to take part in profit sharing. So—unlike the majority of Corporate America—fancy new titles and promotions at Intuitive Company aren’t really end goals. But that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in the need to call out extraordinary employees.

We did that with our one and only promotion in five years—a User Experience Designer became a User Experience Director. He’d gone above and beyond in leading clients, leading staff, delivering incredible work, helping others, and showing maturity in thinking through very advanced client solutions. In short, he’s one of our best designers, and deserved some recognition.

We announced and celebrated his role change in a way that made it clear why we were recognizing this individual. Our hope was that it would give our younger employees a sense of what professional qualities and characteristics they should aspire to. One thing I always found curious at larger corporations was when dozens of promotions would be rattled off in one email, without any context as to why the individuals listed were deserving of the honor. It was just part of a process that people no longer viewed as special, but rather came to expect no matter the level of effort and passion they put into their work. Been here two years? Congrats! You’re gonna move from Assistant Vice President to Vice President for no apparent reason whatsoever, other than you’ve stuck it out.

Since promotions are rare at Intuitive Company, we do lots of other things to reward hard work on a more frequent basis. Examples include submitting project deliverables for industry awards, asking employees to show off great work at lunchtime review sessions, and sending high-performing individuals to popular industry conferences. We’ll put them up in nice hotels while they’re there, and when they return, they share what they learned with everyone else. This, too, gives younger team members motivation to do what it takes to be picked to attend in the future.

Your homework for this step entails thinking through how you reward your best performers.

  • Are your employees truly motivated by titles, or do they value other rewards more highly?
  • What other things could you do to recognize excellence?
  • Have you ever asked your employees what might drive them to stretch themselves?

The final step is within sight! I’ll be back to talk about enjoyment soon.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

January 14 2014

08:00

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 6

In this series, I’ve been using an organic garden analogy to describe how we’ve grown Intuitive Company sevenfold over the past five years. In previous installments I gave advice on how to prepare your organization for growth, and what it means to plant the right people into the mix, water and add fertilizer to encourage success, and then till and experiment to continue pushing yourselves.

Now comes time for observing and protecting. We’ve been thrilled to watch Intuitive Company grow and thrive, but we keep on the lookout for issues. Sometimes we need to provide cover for employees, be it by managing schedule conflicts or addressing tension with clients so that nothing escalates to a boiling point.

Protect and observe

One reason we’re able to do this goes back to our open environment. We’re aware of what’s going on with each project, as well as what may be going on personally with some staff members. This awareness allows us to act preemptively rather than defensively when we sense a deliverable or client or employee relationship might be on the verge of taking a wrong turn.

Problems will still arise every once in a while, but they aren’t showstoppers because of our vigilant observing. For example, if any employees are not performing as well as we know they could, we’ll revise their roles to better fit their likes and skill sets. This results in both happier employees and happier co-workers.

The staff often rallies together to tackle issues as well. We empower everyone to solve their own problems; being design-minded, solving complex issues is already their forte. Resourcing is a good example of this. When someone has free time, they proactively let their peers know in case another project could use a hand. Conversely, when someone needs help, they’re not afraid to ask. It bears repeating that none of this would be possible without the open culture we’d established upfront.

When your team or company has been succeeding, it’s time to take a step back, see what you notice, and make any necessary tweaks.

Ask yourself these questions during the observing and protecting phase:

  • Do you have a good sense of how each project team is doing?
  • Could someone use a break? Is there a better way to distribute the workload?
  • How often do issues arise, and could they have been avoided?
  • How are problems solved, and could more responsibility be given to employees to work things out on their own?

Stay tuned for Step 7: Picking!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

January 07 2014

08:00

The Creative Impact of Improvisation

Improvisation is a very old and time-tested form of theater. The earliest use of improvisation is found in records of a Roman farce performed in 391 BC. Given its long history, it’s surprising to me that in our modern world, comedy–and comedic improvisation–is considered a low-brow form of entertainment. It is generally eschewed by the erudite. But it shouldn’t be.

My own experience with improvisation spans 20+ years. And in the middle of that I took a hiatus from performing when my husband and I started a family. For four years, I did no improv. And my brain seemed to stutter to a screeching halt. I felt dull and less energetic. Creativity started taking more effort than it had previously. I felt like I was on autopilot. But I chalked that up to being a new, perpetually sleep-deprived parent. I’m sure that sleep deprivation didn’t help, but at the time I didn’t even realize what the real problem was.

Ramping up my brain

When I first came back to improv from that break, I felt like my brain was having to wade through mud to get ideas out. I looked at my fellow troupe members and marveled at how quickly they could craft a scene or throw out ideas. But after a couple of months with the troupe, my thoughts moved much more quickly. I could keep up with the rest of my team, and I suddenly felt so much more alive than I had in years.

I noticed something else. My creative process at work started to go into overdrive. I was able to generate, dismiss, or accept design ideas very quickly. It was much easier to do collaborative creative brainstorming and get dozens of ideas out because my thought processes had become accustomed to it. I felt like my mental Rolodex (here’s a link for the young whippersnappers who have no idea what a Rolodex is) was stuffed with ideas and was spinning impossibly fast; ideas were flying.

It was a wonderful feeling–like moving out of the fog into the sunlight.

The science behind creativity

I decided to do some research on this, and as it turns out, this isn’t just a fluke, it’s a proven scientific method of improving brain function.

Dr. Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist, has dedicated his research to the art of improvisation and how it increases creativity. He has a fascinating TED Talk on the topic. His studies focus on jazz piano improvisation, and he demonstrates that the same increase in creativity is seen when the subject is improvising while rapping.

A post by self-proclaimed “biohacker” Dave Asprey about Limb’s studies summed up what was found to occur in the brain while improvising:

“During improvisation, the self-monitoring part of the brain (lateral prefrontal for you brain hardware hackers out there) deactivated, while the self-expression part of the brain got activated (medial prefrontal). Literally, that means that to be creative, you have to stop picking on yourself while boosting your self-expression abilities.”

Turn off your filters

If there is one thing you get practice doing in improv, it’s in turning off your brain’s filters. In improv, there are no bad ideas, you don’t hesitate on an impulse–you must charge forward with the scene and be fearless about making mistakes.

Applying the same principles in creative work comes more naturally once your brain is trained to do it in an improvisational setting.

So how can you bring this into your own work when you don’t perform improv on a regular basis? Bring the improvisation to your team. There are simple exercises you can do in a team setting that will help break down the voice of doubt and hesitation.

You can begin very simply so that your team becomes accustomed to the idea of improvising. If the idea of finding extra time to do this is daunting, take advantage of weekly meetings (like staff meetings). Set aside one of those meetings a month to do improvisational exercises.

The pep talk

Make it clear to your team that this is an activity where mistakes are expected and even welcome. This is a safe environment for them to be silly…because when everyone looks silly, no one looks silly.

Tell them not to overthink reactions and to act spontaneously. That means listen to what the other players are saying without trying to formulate a response before they’re finished. This forces the players to practice some of the key elements of active listening.

You’ll also want to review some of the basic rules of improv with the team.

Warm up exercises

Keep in mind that in all of these games, there needs to be a coach. Someone directing the team members in what to do. The coach can participate in the warm up exercises, but there are some structures that require a “director” and the coach should fulfill that role.

  1. To get your team engaged, start with an alphabet challenge. There are many names this particular structure goes by, so I’ll leave it up to you to call it what you’d like.

    Instructions
    Have the team stand in a circle.
    Decide who goes first.
    The first person starts by saying a word that starts with the letter “A”, and points at another player.
    The second player must quickly say a word that starts with the letter “B”, and point at another player.
    Repeat this until the team has gone through the entire alphabet.

    This is a simple game, but it primes the brain and gets everyone on the same footing.

  2. A more complex warm up exercise is called “What are you doing?”

    Instructions
    Have the team stand in a line.
    The first player steps forward and begins miming a simple action. (Example: buttering bread.)
    The second player steps forward and observes the first, then asks “What are you doing?”
    The first player responds with something completely different than the action they are miming. (Example: “I’m climbing a mountain.”)
    The second player begins to mime the action the first player said–climbing a mountain in this case.
    The first player steps back to where they were in the line.
    The third player steps forward, looks at what the second player is miming and asks “What are you doing?”
    Repeat the steps above until all of the team members have had a chance to participate.

Intermediate structures/scenes

Once everyone is comfortable with the warm-up exercises, you can move on to some more complex interactions. These involve a handful of participants and the rest of the team act as the audience.

  1. This first scene is called Oracle. It requires three players to act as one entity. It also requires a “handler.” The handler should introduce the all-knowing and powerful Oracle, who can answer any question.

    Instructions
    Have the three players sit one in front of the other at different levels–one on the floor, one on a chair, and one either standing or on a bar-height stool.
    The handler introduces the Oracle and asks if anyone has a question for the all-knowing Oracle. If there is hesitation to ask a question, the handler can suggest a topic.
    (Example: “Today the Oracle will answer all of your questions about bacon. What would you like to know about bacon?”)
    The players answer in order with only one word each. Each player has to build on the word that the player before them said.
    Once that question is answered, the handle asks the audience for another question.

    Example:
    Audience Member: Oracle, why is bacon so good?
    Player 1: Bacon
    Player 2: is
    Player 3: good
    Player 1: because
    Player 2: it
    Player 3: is
    Player 1: bad.

    The players may want to prearrange a signal that their answer is over. Something physical like waving their arms or snapping would work well.

  2. Freeze tag is a structure that requires players to create a scene based on a physical pose. It takes a little more setup than the other scenes and works best when you have no more than six players at a time. Make sure the coach has a whistle for this one.

    Instructions
    The players stand in a line.
    The first two players step forward.
    If there is an “audience,” ask someone to volunteer to position the two players for the initial scene.
    (Positioning rules: The position should be socially acceptable, the position should obey the laws of gravity, and the two players need to be touching. It can be a little touch–like a finger to a finger–or it can be a lot of touch.)
    If there is no audience, the coach should tell the first two players to assume a position they would if they were playing a sport. The coach should pick a specific sport, and the same positioning rules apply.
    When the players are in position, the coach blows the whistle to start the scene.
    The players must build their scene based on the initial position, but should start moving out of that position as soon as possible.
    After about a minute, the coach should blow the whistle when the players are in an interesting position.
    When the whistle is blown, the players freeze.
    The next player in line approaches the frozen players, taps one of them on the back letting them know they can get back in line, and assumes that player’s position.
    The two players then start a completely different and unrelated scene based on the new position.
    Repeat until all of the players have rotated in and out at least twice.

For more improvisational warm-ups, games, and exercises, you can look through the Improv Encyclopedia.

Remember “Yes, and…”

This handful of exercises will get your team started and help break down mental barriers to creativity. The more you do this, the less they will second guess themselves. And remember to emphasize the king of all improv rules, “Yes, and….”

There is no faster way to kill the energy in a scene than when one player says “no” to another. Forward progress is the objective. If a player tells you that you’re making a documentary on unicorns, don’t say “No, we’re not, because unicorns don’t exist.” The response should be an affirmation and a continuation.

The Benefits of Play

I’m grateful that I took a break from improv while I was a new mom. Putting the focus on my family was the right thing for me to do. And the mental impact of quitting improv taught me valuable lesson. Coming back to it has fundamentally changed the importance I place on collaboration, creative play, pretending, and imagination, both at home and at work.
The National Institute for Play cites multiple research efforts which found that pretend play “remains key to innovation and creativity.” They state that play mixed with science begets transformation.
Whether at work, at home, or on the stage, because of my continued experiences with improvisation, I bring that sense of play with me. Not only does it make life more fun, it has also helped foster an early, more mature sense of humor in my children (now elementary school age) where wordplay, puns, and imagination are a part of everyday conversation. It has also put me on a first-name basis with the principal…but in a good way.

December 31 2013

08:00

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 5

In this ongoing discussion about growing creative teams organically, I’ve shared how to prepare your organization for successful expansion, how to plant the right elements into the mix, how to “water” for sustainable growth, and then how adding fertilizer can take your group’s motivation to the next level.

Tilling and experimenting follow once everything’s been humming along smoothly for a while. Changing things up can breathe fresh air into a culture, as well as offer lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

Experimenting

An example of this is how we’re currently pursuing a significant new product development company based on some particularly clever ideas that members of our team have come up with. Intuitive Company employees will have a chance to participate and take ownership in this opportunity, and everyone’s pumped about the chance to get involved in something a bit different than what we’ve been doing so far. It’s a concrete way to show how much we value our employees’ creativity. They know they’re not submitting “ideas for improvement” into the ether or failing to even voice their opinions because they figure nothing will come of their efforts. We’ve shown them that we’re listening—and acting upon their best ideas.

 

 

Our staff is constantly influenced by outside knowledge and that influence benefits both their career growth and our company’s offering. When more and more of the staff were requesting to attend industry and technology conferences, we looked to combine their drive for learning with our drive for knowledge sharing. As a response, we introduced the Intuitive Company Conference Program. In the program, the staff earns points towards conference attendance when they publish content to the outside world or bring knowledge back from the outside world into the office. This popular program helps build writing and presentation skills while at the same time injecting new inspiration and experience back into the office environment.

We also turned compensation over a bit this past year when we moved from the expected yearly hire-date-anniversary salary raises to performance-based bonuses. We still provide yearly cost-of-living salary increases, but we made a shift from the basic, “get-your-job-done” raises to more dynamic, “be-proud-of-your-performance” bonuses. Bonuses and profit sharing are now performance-based and the staff is clear on their and our expectations. This experiment has helped to enforce the idea that we’re in a competitive business, and the best performers make the most difference!

Lastly, while we still prefer to remain as flat and un-hierarchical as possible, even as we approach 40 employees, we realized that some adjustment was required. We introduced a mentoring system where the more experienced and senior staff are directly responsible for helping bring younger, newer staff on-board and up-to-speed with our methods and procedures. This is really just a small twist on some of our hiring practices discussed earlier in this series–incentives for the staff that finds us new employees.

The biggest piece of advice I have for this step is to simply introduce something new into your environment or work process and see how it goes. It may stick, it may not, but the goal is to learn something about your team and the company’s collective strengths.

I’ll be back soon with Step 6: Observing and Protecting.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

December 17 2013

08:00

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 4

So far in this series I’ve discussed how to prepare your team or organization for successful expansion, how to plant the right elements into the mix, and then how to ensure sustainable growth by “watering.”

Adding fertilizer comes next. Think of this step as finding ways to spark excitement, provide motivational guidance, or even remedy a malady.

 

Fertilizer

An example of fertilizing would be how we publicized annual company goals for the first time ever in 2013. When we had fewer employees, everyone instinctively knew where the company was trying to head and what we were striving to achieve. But with more than 25 people, the future vision of the company isn’t a given. We needed to clarify what we were working toward so that everyone felt ownership of the company’s goals. This year, Greg, Tim, and I came up with the goals and we’ve been holding quarterly company-wide assessments of how we’re performing against them. Next year we intend for everyone to be involved in the goal-creating process.

Another example of fertilizing is how we’ve begun asking certain employees to present their successful project work, brown-bag-style, to the rest of the staff. It might be the end product itself, or the way the work was prepared that we deem thought leading and beneficial for the rest of the company to hear about and learn from. It’s also a way to recognize particularly impressive efforts—to remind hard workers that we’re paying attention.

And finally, a garden sometimes needs fertilizer in order to head off a malady. In our case, we try to come up with ways to avoid roadblocks in our work. One example is how leaders in our design group took it upon themselves to set up biweekly design-review meetings. These sessions are only to solve issues—people stop in if they’re stumped by something or simply want to run ideas by their peers to ensure their work is the best it can be. We all respect and appreciate each other’s opinions and experience, so these meetings give everyone a chance to improve client deliverables by harnessing the power of the whole creative group.

Here are some ways you can “add fertilizer” to give your team an extra boost:

  • Take stock of the ways you could inject something motivational into employees’ weekly, monthly or yearly routines.
  • If you’re already discussing future goals, make sure those goals are tangible and realistic (even though they may be a stretch).
  • Ask yourself this: do employees honestly feel that they can contribute to the overall company’s success? If not, make sure they do.
  • Provide outlets for creative exchange and feedback to make sure no one’s working in a vacuum.

Next up: Tilling and experimenting!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

December 03 2013

08:00

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 3

In my last two installments, I shared how Greg, Tim, and I prepared Intuitive Company for success by creating an open work environment and then “planting” the right people into our culture.

Watering is next—and it’s critical. After a team of senior professionals were in place and had formed a strong foundation for Intuitive Company, we had to set them up for success to ensure things kept running smoothly so that our culture and growth wouldn’t wither. One of the most obvious ways we “watered” this team was to give them support in the form of new hires. We brought on younger employees slowly and in lockstep with well-thought-out decisions to take on additional client work.

03_watering_small

When someone officially joins Intuitive Company, they usually don’t feel like a new hire. That’s because we typically engage people on a project basis for at least a few months before bringing them on full-time. What’s more, many of these candidates have been referred by someone within the firm.

We won’t extend an offer to anyone who isn’t a good fit. We look for people who are driven—driven to innovate, learn, deliver and succeed. Being a good listener and communicator is a must as well. I’ll never understand companies that leave all of their hiring decisions to HR, or to a few people who aren’t going to be the ones working day-in and day-out with the applicant in question. That’s just asking for it. I don’t know if there could be a higher return on investment than what can result from investing time in growing your team with the right people.

Another example of watering is how we do everything we can to retain our employees once they’re here. We compensate at the upper end of the industry range, provide performance bonuses, contribute to profit sharing, offer full healthcare for the employee or their family (at the time of hire), frequently host lunches and pick up the tab, and encourage employees to travel comfortably when they have to head out of town to see clients.

But most importantly, we just let people do their work. We’re trusting and flexible. We don’t monitor hours or vacation days. I remember how demeaning it was to have to log two hours of personal time for a child’s doctor’s appointment, or how demoralized I felt when a family vacation should’ve lasted one more vacation day than I had to spare.

Now that we’ve helped build an atmosphere of trust at Intuitive Company, I can assure you that when employees don’t feel like The Man is watching their every move, they really, truly appreciate it, and it shows in their work and in their attitude. And no one has ever abused our system.

We also recognize that some people are social and others prefer to keep to themselves. Some people are natural leaders, while others are doers. So we don’t try to force anyone to be something they’re not, especially because we started with a core of senior people who could do everything: deliver, motivate, innovate, communicate, lead, and produce. We let those qualities influence the people we’ve added (and continue to add) to the staff.

One of the other mistakes we’d seen in our previous jobs was micro-management, so we knew when we started Intuitive Company that we must treat employees like the professionals they are. We vowed not to create organizational hierarchies just for the sake of doing so. We’ve found that if you simply trust people to get their jobs done and are confident that they’ll come to you if they have an issue, they’ll usually go above and beyond. People naturally group together by skill set and function, and leaders and doers will emerge on their own without having to be formally organized as such.

It was actually one of my experiences that led us to our anti-hierarchy stance. I was taking over a team of 60 people at a large corporation, and on my first day I was given this team’s organizational chart and instructed to “revise it so it works.” Management was confident that if they could just get the organizational structure right, all of their problems would be solved. I wasn’t told to observe what was working and what wasn’t or even allowed time get to know everyone. I was just supposed to rearrange boxes and rows and voila! The team’s processes and output would surely be flawless after that. Um . . . nope!

I’ve got a lot of advice for this step since it’s one of the most important parts of the process. Here are my suggestions:

  • Review your company’s hiring practices and see what can be improved.
  • Don’t wait too long before filling positions due to workload demands, and ensure that a candidate will be a good fit, both professionally and culturally. If other team members are already overloaded by the time relief arrives, you’re hiring too late. It’s a balance though, so hire carefully.
  • Observe how new employees assimilate into your culture and their roles and determine if anything can be improved with this process.
  • What’s morale like around the office? How intensely are people managed? You may discover that the two answers are related.
  • How many “layers” on the organization chart are there, and do they really have to be there? Make changes as necessary.
  • Does your team gel together, enjoy each other’s company, and know how to both work and play hard? If not, why not?
  • And most importantly, when people leave, do you know why? If you don’t, start asking the tough questions.

Stay tuned for Step 4: Adding fertilizer!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

November 19 2013

08:00

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 2

In my last installment, I shared how Greg, Tim, and I prepared Intuitive Company for success by focusing on creating an open work environment in every sense of the term.

Planting, or placing the right elements into the mix, was our next step. We wanted every aspect of our environment to be a positive influence and encourage great work. You can’t achieve that without first having the right people. Our employees are the “seeds,” if you will.

Planting

When Intuitive Company was founded, we decided to not only take our time bringing on new people, but to also focus on hiring senior level professionals first. This established a mature culture from which to further expand and minimized the growing pains that can sometimes result from bringing on several young employees all at once. Methodically hiring senior professionals in the early days also enabled us to realize our dream of having a “lead by example” culture once we started filling out our team. As such, we’ve never needed any official training or mentoring. It’s a true learn-by-watching (or doing) environment.

To expand upon this further, the openness we strive toward can only be achieved if we’ve picked people who are transparent about how they work and what they’re working on. Greg, Tim and I also need to be clear about what our expectations are. We’ve found the best way to encourage transparency is to show the rest of the team how heads-down hard work will lead to rewards (more on that in a future installment), and how egos or politicking will not be tolerated.

As such, the two other principals and I continue to complete hands-on project work—which serves the double purpose of keeping us fresh while also allowing our younger employees to learn firsthand. There’s a culture of respect and appreciation for the leaders who lead and the doers who do. Further, everyone can see and hear Greg, Tim, and I communicating with each other—making decisions, discussing client projects, and planning for the future. This helps reinforce a feeling of belonging among all employees.

Let me be clear: It’s not just the founding principals who are leading by example—everyone does. That’s because we’re picking the right people to join us. And when the right people are in an open, respectful environment such as ours, it gives even a young buck the opportunity to make an impression on the old dogs—to teach us new tricks, as the saying goes.

Up next: Watering. Until then, here’s a recap of what to concentrate on during the planting phase:

  • Reassess what type of culture you’re trying to build and figure out how to bring on people who will help grow that atmosphere.
  • Establish a strong foundation for your group to expand from by getting the right people in place and then letting them learn from each other, rather than work in a vacuum.
  • Make sure you’re setting the right example, too.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

November 12 2013

14:52

An Open Letter to Project Managers

Dear Project Managers,

It has been a very enjoyable experience working with everyone over the last couple of months and sharing our ideas on UX design. The various discussions about user interface, product usability, and user engagement have been an enlightening experience for me as well, and it is very positive to see that everyone involved in the product thinks so highly about improving the user experience.

In an ideal world with unlimited time and resources, I think the best way to address UX issues is to perform the same tasks as the user under the same environment/pressure–even if we’ve built something never done before–because then we would understand the exact problems that they have to solve and hopefully come up with the best solution.

User-centric design principles, however, do not replace the fact-finding mission we all need to take as UX designers; they merely serve as a starting point for making design decisions. We are not here to critique or provide expert opinions, but we are here to help ask the right questions and get the right answers from the users.

So, let’s talk for a minute about this thing we just launched.

What went wrong?

When you asked me what the users think without giving me time or money for research, you are in fact asking me what I think the users think.

When you asked me to apply standard guidelines and industry best practices, you are asking me to ignore what users have to say and to treat them like everyone else.

If our users are feeling a little bit neglected, it is because we’ve allowed ourselves to think we know better than they do.

Standards and guidelines abound, but not all of them apply. You have to know the rules first to know when to break them. These then need to be combined with as much knowledge or information as possible about our users so we can make some design decisions on the assumption that it is in their best interest.

Finally, we need to test and validate these assumptions so we can correct any misconceptions and continue to improve the product.

Somehow, SCRUM masters have convinced senior managers that standing in a circle in front of a board full of sticky notes constitutes a meeting and playing poker figures out the work schedule and priorities, but any suggestion of UX designers talking with end-users seems to be a waste of time and effort and not worth considering. If we aren’t given the right tools and resources to do our work, how can we be expected to deliver the best outcomes?

UX practitioners are not mind readers, and even if we do manage to guess right once, you can be assured that users won’t stay the same forever.

What could have gone right?

The more time you can spend thinking about UX and talking about it, the less time you will spend on fixing your products later.

If improving the user experience is something that the organization as a whole thinks is important, then everyone should be involved in UX design, just as the UX designer interacts with various people within the organization to come up with solutions.

Critical to improving an organization’s UX competency is removing the ‘black box’ view of UX design. There are definitely technical skills and knowledge involved, but I believe the most important skill for a UX practitioner is empathy, not Photoshop or CSS or how to read heatmap reports–as handy as those skills are to have and despite what many of the recruitment agencies would have you believe.

Certain aspects of UX design are familiar to all of us, in the visible and tangible part of the user experience. The user interface has a very visual and often subjective element to its design, but as a graphic designer can tell you, there are definite components (color, typography, layout, and the like) that are used in its creation. User interaction has a more technical and logical focus to its design because the nature of programming is modular and systematic.

Where I think people struggle to make a link with is the less accessible aspects of UX design, like dealing with user engagement of the product or the connection between the user experience of the product and the corporate brand/image. An organization may have many channels of communication with the end-users, but the messages spoken by the business unit can be very different than those of the product development team or customer support team.

Within the general scope of UX design there are different ways to involve the users: generating new ideas for product features, getting feedback on new releases/betas, running conferences or webinars, conducting research workshops, and so on, and it’s not as if organizations aren’t doing some of this already.

However worthwhile these activities are in themselves, if we make our decisions based on just one or two of them–or worse, carry any of them out but don’t act on the results–we’ve missed the opportunity to improve the user experience.

People who make complaints may just want attention–or perhaps they have been suffering for so long they can no longer deal with this unusable product. How do we know if all the complaints are filtering through customer support, and do fewer support tickets necessarily mean greater customer satisfaction?

Where to from here?

If we don’t like a particular color, we know how to change it. If a particular technology is incompatible, we can modify it or find an alternative.

But if we want to influence the behavior of our users, where do we start? Like any complex problem, the best way is to break the problem down into smaller and more manageable pieces.

If we want to make an impact on our product design, how do we go about it in the right manner? I think reversing some of the current attitudes toward UX design is a good starting point, because clearly the status quo is not creating the appropriate environment and culture for a UX-focused organization.

Don’t make the only UX designer in your company the UX team, don’t restrict the scope of UX design to the user interface alone, and don’t hide the users from the UX designers.

Do spend the time and resources to implement company-wide UX strategies, do try and understand UX design a little bit better, and do it as soon as possible.

But if we haven’t done anything yet, is it too late? Like everything else worth doing, it is never too late. However, not doing UX at all is probably not much worse than doing UX poorly. To act on good assumptions with caution beats acting on bad assumptions with confidence. A good UX designer knows that nothing about the user should be assumed or taken for granted, and we always need to be on our toes because just like the product, the user may see the need for change–even more readily than we do.

Having said that, if you don’t start taking small steps now, the challenge will become even greater. Make everything you do in UX design a learning experience that helps to reduce the problem.

If I haven’t lost you yet, then I think we are ready to talk some details.

Remember, there are a lot of standards and guidelines already, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel–we just need to work out what works for us and what we can disregard.

As with any problem-solving process, we have to go through an iterative cycle of observing, hypothesizing, and testing until we derive at the optimal solution. I emphasize the word optimal, because there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer but there may be the most optimal solution given the circumstances (time, resources, assumptions…).

For those of you that have gone through the pain (and joy) of implementing Agile methodologies, I think you will agree that there is no out of the box solution that is guaranteed to work for any organization. You can certainly embrace the philosophy and principles, but how you adopt them to work for your team will be quite different depending on how you define the goals and objectives you want to achieve, not to mention the type of teams that you work with.

Remember, I am not here to critique or provide expert opinions, but to help you ask the right questions and get the right answers from the users. What UX means for the organization is up to you to decide, but if I have managed to spur you into some action, then I will have considered my job complete.

Thank you for your time.

November 05 2013

08:00

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 1

When a company or team experiences rapid growth, it’s exciting. But more often than not, that success comes with a price. Behind the scenes, leadership is faced with the challenge of frantically filling positions to meet the escalating client demand, teams are asked to gel quickly and work around the clock to hit client deadlines, and ultimately the quality of deliverables suffers. It can be difficult to keep a handle on exactly who is doing what—much less who everyone is.

Preparation

But there’s hope. Greg, Tim, and I expanded Intuitive Company more than sevenfold within five years, and our experience proves that building a team doesn’t have to be a haphazard process, and exceptional growth doesn’t have to lead to pandemonium.

I liken Intuitive Company, and the process we’ve taken to build it, to an organic garden. It required some high-level planning upfront, followed by easy-going care and light-touch nurturing. In other words, once we had all of the right components in place, we didn’t need to mess with things too much. In fact, we never explicitly developed a “growth strategy,” per se. We certainly knew from our past experience what not to do. Our goal was to build a workplace environment that was optimal for employee satisfaction. We were confident that if our employees were happy, their level of work would be exceptional, and that would lead to high client satisfaction (and referrals). We were right.

I’m eager to share what’s worked for us in the hope that other small businesses—or teams within larger corporations—might be able to apply some of the same philosophies and experience success.

Preparation was the first step. We founded the firm with a determination not to repeat the management mistakes we’d seen in our previous jobs—mistakes that led to high attrition rates and low morale. If there’s a word to sum up what our goal was, it’d be “openness.”

An open work environment is a must. We believe cubicles and closed-door offices do not help foster teamwork, communication, or creativity. Offices convey a sense of importance, and I’ve seen them be a ridiculous, energy-sapping source of jealousy and competition among employees at larger corporations (“Whoa, he’s got a corner office?”, “How come she has a bigger office than me?”, or “I better get an office after this promotion!”).

What’s more, I’ve witnessed how an office building’s overall location can improve or weaken employee communication and morale. That’s why we took great pains to set up a proper environment for success before our first team member was brought on board, and then moved into an even better space and location as we prepared to enter our next phase of growth.

Our floor layout is completely open. No one has an office, not even me, Greg, or Tim. We enjoy a floor-wide music system, cable TV in certain locations, fun décor, and amenities such as two stocked kitchens (including a beer keg!), vintage arcade games, pool and Ping-Pong tables, and even lockers and a shower. There are conference rooms for client calls and a separate lounge area for when privacy might be desired or required.

But perhaps even more importantly, our space is situated next to a gorgeous running trail in a cool neighborhood that has several coffee shops, bars, and a record store. Many times, employees will hash out ideas while “walking and talking” outside, or could just as easily pop into a café and brainstorm client projects in a different setting. From firsthand experience, I have no doubt that our office is much more inspiring than rows of gray cubicles in a nondescript building within an office park.

Now, I realize that not all firms can choose (or change) their locations. For the first few years after we started Intuitive Company, we were in a less-than-ideal space, but we made the most of it. So I encourage you to take a look at your floor layout and see if there are ways the space could be opened up.

Another key aspect of preparing our company for growth and success was establishing the kind of atmosphere we wished we had at other employers. An open floor plan certainly helps foster communication, but it’s not enough.

In our previous jobs, we’d seen too many managers send important messages impersonally, or in a tone that was condescending, demanding, or both. That’s why we choose to communicate in person as much as possible. There’s significantly less room for misinterpretation that way, and there’s just something about having a face-to-face chat that comes off as more respectful. Sure, we still send tons of emails, texts, and IMs to each other, but for the really critical things? We’ll always pull up a chair or head out on a stroll and take the time to have a real discussion.

I’ll cover our second step, planting, in the next installment. Until then, here are some questions to ask yourself as you get started on the preparation phase:

Opening up your environment

  • Could office doors be removed? Cubicle walls lowered?
  • Could desks be moved into the center of the floor, or perhaps line the perimeter instead of being in rows or clusters?

Encouraging open communication

  • Survey how communication works on your team or in your company as a whole. Is there passive-aggressiveness over email? Is there a lot of gossip?
  • How is good news delivered, versus bad news?
  • Would increasing the amount of in-person communication help cut down on rumors or improve morale? Try it out and see!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

September 24 2013

08:00

Your Boss Works for You

This past June, I stood on the brink of achieving a major professional goal. The UX apprenticeship program I’d been working so hard on was going to begin on Monday. It was Thursday. On my desk lay a curious stack of paper labeled “Manager’s Onboarding Kit.”

Of all the things I’d planned for and anticipated about the apprenticeship program, becoming a manager was something I hadn’t even considered. It’s something I’ve consciously avoided my entire career. The apprentices arrived, and I awkwardly mentioned that “technically” I was their manager. But after working with them for awhile I noticed something that changed my whole perspective.

I was working for them, and I loved it!

Granted, my situation might be unique in that my express purpose is to nurture and grow the apprentices’ nascent skills, but I learned many lessons about management that other managers can benefit from. Each of these lessons revolved around ways in which I found myself working for my team.

I cleared the path

Long ago, Samantha Bailey told me that the role of a UX manager is to shield her team from the chaos above them. I’m glad that lesson has stayed with me for so long, because I was able to put it into practice with the apprentices. I told them that their primary goal was to learn new skills and grow them. If anything got in the way of that, they should come to me and I would make whatever it was go away. I helped them clear a path to their goal through the organizational jungle.

An unexpected but happy consequence of this was that my working hard for my team inspired them to work hard for me. If you work for a consultancy or agency, you’re probably required to fill out your timesheet daily. And you probably don’t do it. The apprentices did. I told them that I relied on their time entries to track their progress and needed them to enter their time, daily, and never once did I have to have the timesheet talk with any of them.

I told it like it was

I wasn’t born in Minnesota, but I may as well have been. I am rife with Minnesota Nice. Giving people feedback beyond, “Great job! Here’s some hotdish!” makes me twitchy. But my role is to help people with promise develop that promise into talent. To do this, I needed to extend myself beyond my comfort zone and give the apprentices feedback about things they needed to work on.

It wasn’t easy for me, but it did get easier as time went on. This was because my telling it like it was led them to trust me. That trust yielded results. One apprentice in particular would make a point of implementing the feedback I gave her. One week I’d awkwardly say she should work on something, and then the next week I’d both hear feedback from mentors about how she’d done that thing and she would tell me herself. That not only helped her grow; it helped me grow too.

I increased my say/do ratio

One of my early mentors kept track of her “say/do ratio” on the whiteboard at her desk. This is a personal metric that describes how reliably a person does what they say they’re going to do. I laughed, but she was serious about it. She was exceptionally reliable. I’m fortunate that this is another early lesson I retained.

When you work for your team, you need to do a lot of things for them. I’ve not always been the most organized person, but I felt was important enough to commit to making a concentrated effort. Working for my team would be no good if I didn’t do the things they needed me to do.

Being an interaction designer, naturally I designed a process to keep track of what I said I was going to do and whether I had done it. Often, apprentices would come up to me as I was at my desk. A to-do would often come out of that conversation. I use Things to track my tasks, and I keep it open at all times. With a simple key combination I could instantly enter a new task, leaving for later the classification of the new task. During our weekly one-on-one meetings, I left a section in the Evernote note that guided each meeting for me to keep track of new things an apprentice would need me to do. Each item had a checkbox, and after the meetings I’d enter them into Things and check off the boxes in Evernote. Once the item was completed, I’d check it off in Things. Maybe this seems excessive to you, but it works for me. Find whatever works for you and do it consistently.

I constantly sought feedback

At the very beginning of the program I let my team know that I had neither managed anyone before nor run an apprenticeship program. I told them I needed them to provide feedback on both me and the program for it to be as good as it could be. Sometimes they’d provide me with feedback I wouldn’t implement, but when that happened I explained why. Sometimes the things they needed me to do for them would take awhile. Sometimes the solutions to the problems they brought up weren’t obvious.

In these situations, I communicated with them about what was happening and I sought feedback on my proposed solutions. I consciously showed them that by giving me feedback they could make things happen. As it turns out, the apprentices and I improved the program together.

My favorite example of how we built the program together is the internal project they all worked on as a team. Initially, I was dead set against apprentices working on internal projects. To me, internal projects were something to keep interns busy. I felt that internal projects would be a waste of time for apprentices. The goal of apprenticeship is to learn UX design through actual client work.

The apprentices were getting that experience, one design method at a time. They’d do stakeholder interviews on one project, then user research analysis on another. What they weren’t getting was a look at how the design process moved from one stage to another, say from research to analysis and then design. After they brought this up enough times, I swallowed my pride and suggested they work on an internal project together, from start to finish, with me as their mentor. They jumped at the chance, did a stellar job, and learned what they’d set out to learn.

I was there

The act of being physically present with your team shows that you support them. I chose to sit right in the middle of mine. Not at one end of the desks, not in an office, but right in the middle of the apprentice team. We have an open floor plan at The Nerdery, where people sit in groups of 6-8 desks rather than in individual cubicles. Being right in the middle of my team made me easier to talk to because I was only a glance away from any of them. The result was that the apprentices talked to me a lot and used the support I offered.

I ran the numbers, but I didn’t let the numbers run me

Running an apprenticeship program for four apprentices takes a lot of tracking. I have to track their time, feedback on them, and feedback they’re giving me. I also have to track how much the program is costing and whether it’s hitting its metrics. If it’s not, I have to do things to move the numbers up. Yes, this takes time. But I did these tasks early in the morning before the apprentices arrived. When they did, I could focus on them.

With management comes administration, but administration is not the essence of your job. Your job is to clear the way for your team, and administration is just another thing you’re clearing from their path. Yes, it’s something you have to do, but it should absolutely not be your focus. Your team is your focus.

Problems I faced

Even though I felt exhilarated and energized by my new role as a manager, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. For example, I was still on a project as a billable designer. Balancing the work I wanted to do for my team with the work I needed to do for my client was challenging. Sometimes, I just wanted to hide so I could focus on data analysis or sketching, but I resisted. When you’re physically present, you should expect to be interrupted. What’s helpful, though, is to remember that they’re not really interruptions; they’re your job. The really tricky thing is that you can’t ever predict your team’s needs, so always expect the unexpected and have someone who can support you.

My own managers and my project team were my supports. One manager had a knack for giving me feedback without pussyfooting around. I appreciated that in her and I tried to emulate it myself. When I talked with her about becoming a manager, she let me in on a secret. She was like that with me because that’s what I responded well to. Other people needed pussyfooting to accept feedback.

When I confessed my newly positive feelings about managing to my other manager, he beamed with a knowing smile. At that moment, I knew that he’d been working for me and everyone else all along. Now when we meet, he encourages me to keep working for the apprentices and he helps me break down any organizational barriers that arise.

My project team supported me by respecting the fact that I now had two jobs. When they needed my undivided attention, they scheduled collaborative work time with me. This helped me balance my client and management responsibilities. They didn’t schedule all my unscheduled time, just some of it. This allowed me to focus on the client for a time without being out of reach. I simply told the apprentices where I’d be.

What you can take away from this

If you are determined to avoid management at all costs, like I was, here’s what I want you to take away. Managing people doesn’t have to suck. It doesn’t have the obvious allure of design, solving problems and making things, but if you approach management as if it were a design problem, it can be incredibly rewarding. Think of your team as your users and their ability to achieve their goals as their experience. Good management is the continual, real-time design of your team’s experience. When you get the opportunity to manage people, take it. Don’t run away from it.

If you are already managing people, try putting some of these lessons I’ve learned into your own management practice. It will make your work more fulfilling. If you are already working for your team, that’s wonderful! Let’s hear what you’ve learned about it!

 

Learn More from our Archives

Erin Malone’s So You Think You Want to be a Manager

Christina Wodtke’s Career Choices for Designers

Brenda Janish’s Leading from Within

September 17 2013

08:00

UX One-liners

A little background to start: I’ve had the honor of working as a designer-in-residence for General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive Pilot Program (UXDI) from June through July. Our team built, launched, and taught a UX course 5-days a week, 8-hours a day, for 8-weeks straight.  It was quite the challenging, yet rewarding experience.

However, learning from our approach, I found something about the way we bring people into the fold that we can stand to improve.

We instructors spent much of our early days teaching techniques by going through truckloads of slides. We sent students home to read more chapters and articles loaded with paragraphs after paragraphs of definitions and use cases.

Yet, when students have trouble with a particular technique or concept during their free practice time, we’ve always had to re-explain to them the crux of these ideas with piercing simplicity.

Why don’t these simple core ideas exist in a simple, more easily referenceable form?

Looking up any UX terminology in Google results in many results: incomplete lists long abandoned, or gigantic lists of terms with accompanying paragraphs–and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to avoid the full blown articles. At a time when Dieter Rams’ As Little Design as Possible is common advocacy, we can present the fundamental impressions of UX’s core capabilities as something much more succinct than a wall of text. I’d argue that we would want the same considerations for our own products and content.

I have a modest proposal. Introduce the essence of your techniques and concepts in a single sentence. Do it in a one-liner. If it goes beyond one sentence, make it shorter.

Understand that these one-liners are NOT meant to explain UX techniques or concepts as well as articles or lengthy discussions can. Likewise, the real substance behind any of these techniques and ideas will expand and change over time, context, usage, and the like.

However, my contention is that there should be a much simpler and more concise way for people to see to the fundamental core of a technique or idea. For any confusion and disagreements that exists within the UX community, one of our common goals is to better communicate our ideas and intents to our teams and colleagues so that we can better create.

Why not then reconsider how we communicate the most basic fundamentals of what and how we work?

UX has always had a rich tradition steeped in academia, which is often somewhat verbose. It’s only relatively recently that its relevance to the consumer world has been realized on a massive scale. As UX adapts to a rapidly shortening cycles of technological–and by proxy, behavioral–change, we need to consider simplicity and conciseness in introducing the rest of our world to not only the products we design, but also the universe in which we create.

There will be another session of UXDI session beginning in September. I’ll be preparing a list for the students to use. Would you do it for a class you taught?

Here’s to an improved UX of UX.

Here are some one-liners I think adequately communicate the focus of their associated techniques and methodologies. This is a start. Add your own in the comments.

Card Sorting Activity in which users organize a set of data in ways that they think makes sense. Contextual Inquiry Ethnographic Interviewing technique where the user is observed using products in their natural usage setting. Ethnographic Interviews Interviewing techniques combining one-on-one interviewing and extensive observation. Facets Preset categories used to filter information/content into more digestible chunks. Heuristics Quick rules of thumb used to streamline design decisions. Metadata Data used to categorize other data. Personas Description of fictional yet realistic persons that represents a target user group/market. Scenarios A story describing a user’s problem situation and how she might use a product to achieve a solution. Site Maps Modular diagram conveying your site’s page inventory and, to a lesser extent, categories. Usability Testing A test conducted with end users to see how usable they find a product. User Flow A path map highlighting what a user has to do within your product to accomplish his goals.

July 02 2013

08:00

Emotional Design with A.C.T. – Part 2

Back in Part 1, we looked at how the emotions expressed by people and products communicate personality traits over time. We also learned that customers are attracted to things that have an aesthetic personality that’s similar to their own,1 but they prefer products that take on a complementary role during interaction.2

In Part 2, we’ll look at how relationships are formed when people interact with products over time, and we’ll explore how people experience the emotion of “love.” Then, we’ll examine how basic product goals like desirability, usability, and usefulness relate to the different types of love. Finally, we’ll explore the A.C.T. model, a user-friendly take on using existing frameworks for designing emotional experiences.

Designing relationships

People attribute personalities to products and interfaces and expect those products to interact according to human social rules.3 Our emotional responses to the marketing, purchase, and use of products combine over time to create emotional experiences, which further combine to create emotional relationships.4 The quality of these accumulated interactions can mark the beginning (or end) of a “relationship” between the person and the product.

Throughout our lives, we’ve all been exposed to different types of relationships, both personally and through media. We have acquaintances, coworkers, companions, friends, lovers, wives, husbands, and every combination in between. While all these relationships are important, the people we love tend to have a special place in our hearts and minds.

But even amongst those we “love,” there are a number of different relationships. Some relationships are short, passionate flings based solely on attraction or lust. Others, though lacking in physical attraction, are deep, intimate friendships formed through ongoing interaction and conversation. Others are simple marriages of convenience with a firm commitment, but little passion or intimacy.

Although these relationships might seem to be very different, the people involved might still call the emotion they share “love.” This suggests that we’re using a single term to describe what may be several different emotions. Because of this, it can be difficult to come to a mutual understanding of what the word love really means.

Some people, for example, will emphatically say how much they love certain products. But when they say they “love” products, what do they really mean? What exactly is required to feel love for a product? Is it different from the love two people might feel for one another? Is love an appropriate emotion for relationships with products?

We can gain new insights into the formation of human-product relationships by understanding how humans form relationships with one another. Let’s take a look at the different ways people experience the emotion of love to get a better understanding of what it means to “love” a product.

How do I love thee?

Sternberg5 has described human relationships in terms of three forms of love.

Forms of Love

  • Passion (Infatuated Love)
  • Intimacy (Friendship)
  • Commitment (Empty Love)

 Passion, Intimacy, Commitment
Forms of love
(Sternberg, 1988), diagram: (van Gorp, 2009)

Passion

Passion is based on aesthetics. We’re passionately attracted to certain people because of how they look, sound, smell, feel and taste. These aesthetic cues communicate information about health, reproductive fitness, fertility, and social status to potential partners 7 8. We generally evaluate these cues automatically without conscious consideration.

If a relationship had Passion but lacked Intimacy and Commitment, it would be called Infatuated Love, or lust5. This form of love would describe the quick fling or one-night stand. According to Sternberg5, relationships based solely on Passion tend to burn out quickly. We tend to be attracted to people who are about as attractive, wealthy, and educated as ourselves (i.e. those who are similar to us).

Intimacy

Sternberg5 defines Intimacy as Friendship, rather than sexual intimacy. Achieving Intimacy usually requires repeated conversation and interaction over time. You don’t really get to know someone well without spending time together in a variety of situations.

When we engage in conversation with another person, we make both unconscious and conscious evaluations of them. We judge whether our styles of interaction are complementary and comfortable, or similar and conflicting. Does the other person constantly interrupt when you’re talking? Are you always butting heads over who’s in charge? Does he or she give you the amount of respect you feel you deserve?

If all you had with another person was Intimacy, you’d probably be very close friends. However, you’d likely not feel much Passion or sexual attraction. If someone has ever told you that they love you, but aren’t “in love” with you, it’s likely that they were talking about feeling Intimacy without Passion.

Commitment

Commitment is a mutually agreed upon agreement. In marriage, an individual consciously enters into a public contract with another person. Even in long-term relationships outside of marriage, the majority of couples in the western world still commit to an exclusive partnership. And yet, without Passion or Intimacy, Commitment is merely an empty agreement. If the only thing you had with someone was a Commitment, without any Passion or Intimacy, you’d have what Sternberg5 calls “Empty Love.”

Depending on the context, one or more of the three forms of love can occur at different times in a relationship. In the western world, Commitment usually comes after we’ve had a chance to evaluate our levels of Passion and Intimacy. At that point, we’ve hopefully decided whether the other person’s personality is a good fit for our own. In other parts of the world this may not be the case. Arranged marriages are one example of a relationship that begins with Commitment, with the expectation of Passion and Intimacy developing later.

Design goals, types of reactions & triune brain

At this point, you may be wondering how all of this relates to designing emotional experiences that encourage relationships. To start with, we could draw some parallels between the three forms of love and the three categories of product requirements I mentioned in Part 1. Here’s a quick recap:

  • Desirable
  • Usable
  • Useful

(Sanders, 1992)

Useful, Usable, Desirable

Design Goals
adapted from: (Sanders, 1992), image: (van Gorp, 2012)

Discussions of emotional design often focus almost exclusively on the aesthetics or Desirability of a product. However, much like a three-legged stool, the qualities of Usability and Usefulness still need to be there for the product to stand on its own. For software and web applications, all three legs of the stool need to be there to support repeat usage and interaction.

The most primitive part of our brain (i.e. the reptilian brain), is automatic and generates unconscious emotional responses. The part of our brain that we share with mammals and a few other vertebrates (i.e. the mammalian brain), is also largely unconscious and creates our emotional experiences. The most highly evolved part of our brains (i.e. the neomammalian brain), is conscious and is where we form complex emotional relationships. These different levels of brain function can help us understand how relationships develop through small, repeated interactions.

Emotional: Responses, Experiences, Relationships

(Demir, 2008), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)

Over time, simple emotional responses from the reptilian brain combine with the processing of social cues from the mammalian brain to form experiences, which combine with our thoughts and emotions from the neomammalian brain to create relationships.

Design goals, types of reactions, and forms of love

Let’s quickly examine how the different types of love relate to designing for emotion. The user is attracted to the product’s aesthetics, triggering the Desire or passion to approach. If the user finds the product Usable and easy to interact with, he or she may begin to feel greater connection or intimacy with the product. If the product then displays its Usefulness by reliably and consistently fulfilling its purpose, trust and commitment can result.

Design Goals, Forms of Love, Product Elements, Types of Reactions

Comparing Models

(Sanders, 1992)(Sternberg, 1988)(Demir, 2008)(McLean, 1990), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)

Desirability is connected to product aesthetics. Usability is connected to the quality of interaction, and usefulness is connected to how well the product functions. For complex products, this process repeats itself with each use, continuing over time to form deeper relationships.

The types of love

Just as there are different types of relationships between people, there are different types of relationships between people and products. For products where the context of use is a short relationship (as with a disposable product), focusing on a single type of love (or a single leg of the stool) may be fine. Various combinations of the three forms of love describes many of the common relationships we see in our lives.

Types of love

  • Passion + Intimacy = Romantic Love
  • Passion + Commitment = Fatuous or Illusory Love
  • Intimacy + Commitment = Companionate Love
  • Passion + Intimacy + Commitment = Consummate Love

(Sternberg, 1988)

Ideal Human Relationship model

Types of Love
(Sternberg, 1988), diagram: (van Gorp, 2009)

Passion (Desirable) + Intimacy (Usable) = Romantic Love

When you combine the attraction of passion with the interaction and conversation of intimacy, you get Romantic Love. In human relationships Romantic Love describes physical attraction, along with a sense of deep intimate connection, without any formal commitment.

In relationships with products, we can envision attractive, usable products and services that don’t require long-term investments. Virgin Mobile, for example, offers attractive usable phones with no contractual commitment. The target audience is young and drawn to the idea of not committing to a phone plan. Even the marketing of the page–Why “Go” Beyond Talk?–could be taken as a metaphor for moving to another stage in a relationship.

Virgin Mobile

http://www.virginmobileusa.com/cell-phone-service

Passion (Desirable) + Commitment (Useful) = Illusory love

Combining passion and commitment without any intimacy generally makes a poor foundation for a long-term relationship. This may be why Sternberg5 calls this combination “Fatuous” or Illusory Love. One example of this type of relationship would be a “sugar daddy” style relationship, where one partner is involved purely for passion, and the other is involved purely for commitment and the financial rewards that come with it.

In the world of design, attractive but unusable products are one source of this type of Illusory Love. We may purchase a product, attracted purely by its slick marketing or pleasing visual design, only to find that although it looks good on the surface and functions acceptably, it’s difficult to operate and frustrating to use.

Intimacy (Usable) + Commitment (Useful) = Companionate Love

When we combine Intimacy and Commitment, we get a good companion, hence the label Companionate Love5. This type of human relationship would describe a couple who are not physically attracted to each other, but are friendly and committed.

When we think of Companionate Love in terms of product relationships, we can imagine more utilitarian products. They’re easy to use, reliable, and perform the task for which they were designed. However, they don’t create that spark of attraction and desire, so there’s little passion involved. An example of this type of love would be your favorite hairbrush. This brush might be the one that does such a great job of styling your hair, you don’t need any other brushes. You probably don’t think much about your hairbrush when you’re not around it. But like the loss of an old friend, you may only really appreciate it once it’s gone.

Hairbrush

Passion + Intimacy + Commitment = Consummate Love

Occasionally, human relationships seem to encompass all three forms of love. These relationships have achieved what Sternberg5 calls “all consuming” or Consummate Love. The people involved are passionately attracted to one another, have a deep intimate friendship, and a strong abiding commitment.

In human-product relationships, if a product has achieved trust by communicating a clear and consistent personality over repeated interactions, the user may be willing to consciously Commit and engage in transactions with the product. Transactions that lead to the formation of relationships leave us practically and emotionally satisfied in the long term. For interactive products that are used repeatedly, Consummate Love is what we are seeking to elicit from our users.

Designing relationships with A.C.T.

The A.C.T. model embodies the different forms of love, and can help you envision product development as a process of building relationships with users. The terms in the acronym A.C.T. were chosen to help designers understand the requirements they need to fulfill at each stage: Attract, Converse, Transact.

A.C.T. explores the relationship between Sternberg’s levels of love (passion, intimacy, and commitment) and product requirements to produce a model that is both more prescriptive for designers and more communicative for business stakeholders.

Ideal Product Relationship
A.C.T. Model

(van Gorp, 2009)

Let’s quickly summarize the perspectives embodied in the A.C.T.

Attract

  • Desirability (do users find the aesthetics appealing?)
  • Aesthetic properties of the product (i.e. look, sound, smell, touch, and taste)
  • Passion
  • Unconscious, automatic responses
  • Reptilian brain

Converse

  • Usability (i.e. ease of use)
  • How the product interacts with the user
  • Intimacy
  • Unconscious and conscious experiences
  • Mammalian brain

Transact

  • Usefulness
  • Whether the product fulfills its function
  • Commitment
  • Conscious relationships
  • Neomammalian (human) brain

A.C.T. Model

A.C.T. Model Comparison

adapted from: (Sanders, 1992)(Sternberg, 1988)(Demir, 2008)(McLean, 1990), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)

Conclusions

We judge products by the personalities we sense through their aesthetics and style of interaction. It takes the skill and sensitivity of designers, marketers and user experience professionals to properly identify the personality that appeals to their target audience, and then consistently design, market, advertise and package that product with the appropriate personality in mind. The A.C.T. Model can help practitioners to more fully and systematically address the requirements that lead to successful products.

To explore this idea in depth, Edie Adams and I have written a book on creating better relationships between people and products. If you’re interested in learning more about emotional design, designing personality and the A.C.T. Model, pick up a copy of Design for Emotion. The book includes over 130 images and examples, interviews with industry experts, and case studies to help you do a better job of designing for emotion, personality and relationship. You can also get a free copy of Chapter 1 of Design for Emotion here.

- Portions of this post are excerpts from Design for Emotion, by Trevor van Gorp and Edie Adams -

References

Govers, P. C. M., & Schoormans, J. P. L. (2005). “Product personality and its influence on consumer preference”. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 22(4), 189–197.

Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2007). “Romantic ideals, romantic obtainment, and relationship experiences: The complementarity of interpersonal traits among romantic partners”. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(4), 517–533.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1998). The media equation: How people treat computers, television and new media like real people and places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Demîr, E. (2008). “The Field of Design and Emotion: Concepts, Arguments, Tools and Current Issues”. METU JFA, 1(1), 135.

Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The Triangle of Love: Intimacy, Passion, Commitment. New York: Basic Books.

van Gorp, Trevor. (2009). Emotional Design with A.C.T. Poster: 2010 IA Summit. Phoenix, AZ.

7Buss, David. (2003). The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. New York: Basic Books.

Etcoff, N. (2000). Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. Anchor Books.

Sanders, E. B. N. (1992, Fall). “Converging perspectives: Product development research for the 1990s”. Design Management Journal, 3(4), 49–54.

10 van Gorp, Trevor, & Adams, E. (2012). Design for Emotion. Boston: Morgan Kaufmann/Elsevier.

11 McLean, P. D. (1990). The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York: Plenum Press.

June 11 2013

08:00

Researching User Experience: A Knowledge Ecology Model

When we think of learning environments, we think of books, lectures, databases perhaps. But in my recent research, I discovered that the interactions we have with people in our networks play an even more important role in what we learn and how we turn information into actionable knowledge.

All of the people in my study were learning how to be lecturers and how to progress their careers after spending considerable amounts of time as practitioners in a variety of industries such as business and marketing, health, psychology, education, environmental sciences and entertainment. I focused on exploring what informed their learning and professional development and how it informed their learning.

After a series of interviews and qualitative data analysis, I found that what is primarily informing their learning activities is knowledge–knowledge of oneself and knowledge from a range of people in their professional and personal networks such as informal and formal mentors, industry and academic colleagues, family, friends, and even inspirational figures they have never met. Some of the key learning experiences include:

  • hearing from experienced leaders as ‘role models’ at professional development programs,
  • seeking and attracting developers (informal mentors or peers) while taking formal courses,
  • presenting papers at events such as conferences, thus gaining peer feedback and making friends,
  • getting known through volunteering within professional communities and internal committees,
  • maintaining personal foundations around the home, family, and social life, and
  • seeking or attracting new opportunities for expansion using a range of social media.

Five types of knowledge emerged from the data:

Knowledge Types Examples Experiential lessons from past experience, tacit knowledge, know-how Personal social savvy, common sense, trust, empathy Technical how-to guides, user reviews Disciplinary conversations or reviews within similar discipline or field Interdisciplinary conversations or reviews between different disciplines

Each knowledge type refers to knowledge co-created within relationships: knowledge from the new lecturer (knowledge of self) and knowledge from their developers (knowledge of others).

I also found that, for these new university lecturers, what they gleaned from informal interactions is key to meaningful learning experiences. All of the above forms of knowledge are created and used during the key learning experiences within the informal sphere of learning. The informal sphere is where trust is built and where people can ‘be themselves’ and choose to learn what matters most to them.

Contrastingly, information is discussed as useful for learning but is experienced as secondary to knowledge. My participants view the knowledge types as listed above as more important to their learning than information types listed below. Although they are both useful for learning, the lecturers first ‘relate’ to information types–they select information that they can relate to or they have something in common with–that becomes knowledge stored in the mind which strongly informs their learning.

From the data, I have identified the following categories of information resources used for learning experiences.

Information Types Examples Texts articles, books, websites, multimedia, emails Tools software, hardware, mobile devices, equipment Humans elevator speeches, business cards, online profiles Culture organizational or community Environments work/home space design, geographical location or political climate

Once a person interacts with these forms of information by relating to them personally, the selected information turns into knowledge inside a person’s head, to be used and re-used for learning experiences.

Relationships between people (in particular, reciprocal relationships based on trust and empathy) can be viewed as complex knowledge contexts, where knowledge is created from relating to information. By asking how particular forms of knowledge from people inform learning and development, we begin to see processes associated with the experiences of knowing oneself, knowing other people, and recognizing multiple layers of relationships. Processes involved in knowledge user experience include:

  • Knowing self by identifying, testing, feeling, discovering, reflecting on, and offering knowledge of oneself;
  • Knowing others by accessing, monitoring, aligning, seeking, applying and sharing knowledge of other people; and
  • Recognizing multiple layers of relationships by selecting communication modes, exploring personal dimensions, navigating across boundaries, balancing roles, and changing over time.

My findings reflect the experiences of a group of people who are moving between different contexts, such as industry to academia or research. The conceptual model described above is a ‘knowledge ecosystem’ which could also have implications not only for UX practice in designing, learning, and professional development experiences (both online and offline) for user groups who transition between different worlds, but also possibly for building bridges between them. Some general implications for UX practice are below.

At first glance, it seems that the current generation of UX practice is geared towards users’ experiences of information (texts, humans and tools) and also context (culture and environment), as in the case of service design, for example.

If information is only secondary to knowledge in terms of usefulness to achieve a particular goal or purpose, this finding suggests that the UX field could advance by looking beyond interacting with information and towards a more holistic, ecological view that encompasses both information and knowledge user experiences.

A key question here could be: How do we create a user experience that facilitates tapping into the different forms of knowledge found within people’s heads?

Thinking about people as users of knowledge rather than just users of information opens up a whole new terrain of potential design, thus moving from information user experience to knowledge user experience.

At the heart of people’s user experience is the concept of the human relationship, the processes of informing our relationships through knowledge, and strengthening our social networks to achieve one’s life purpose. Relationships are not just between the interface of human-to-computer/website but also, more importantly for knowledge user experience, human-to-human interaction, whether that interaction occurs online or offline.

May 28 2013

08:00

Going Beyond “Yes – and…”

My first experience in improvisational comedy was in 1989. I was a freshman at Texas A&M University. Some of the students in the theater department decided to get an improv troupe started and somehow talked me into joining them.

In the beginning, I was petrified to perform without a script. Looking back now, I can see just how much improv has taught me and how it informs the decisions I make when working with a project team to create a cohesive user experience.

There are a multitude of “rules” to improv. The one most people are familiar with is the rule of “Yes – and.” The principle behind “Yes – and” is that for a story to be successfully crafted, all players involved must agree on the premise. So if a fellow actor points at you and says “your face is green,” you accept that and move the scene forward with a green face.

What we don’t often hear about are all of the other rules of improv that can be pulled into daily work as an experience designer. What happens after you’ve said yes? What comes after the “and”?

I’ve combed through my books and through various improv websites to pull out rules I started taking for granted about 20 years ago and was surprised at just how much the regular practice of these rules has shaped my perspective when creating designs with a team or client.

Add new information

The follow on rule to “Yes – and” is add new information. Have a plan when you say “and.” You can’t move the scene forward without it. And there will be times that saying yes is very difficult. What the team or client wants is not always what you will feel is the best aesthetic, so delicately phrasing your yes’s is important.

So, if a stakeholder is telling you they want a monochromatic blue palette for their website, you answer “That sounds great – and we can use complementary color accents, like yellows or oranges, to highlight important calls to action.”

Don’t negate or deny

The opposite of “Yes – and” is “No – but.” When a project kicks off, don’t start with what the system limitations are, don’t start with the baggage of knowing that the experience needed will break corporate standard rules.

Negating is also referred to as blocking. Take time to think when your first reaction is to deny, negate, or block someone else’s ideas.

If your product owner says “we want to add social media buttons to this,” don’t tell her that’s a dumb idea. That’s a knee jerk reaction, with the operative word being jerk. Explore the idea. Think about what benefits social sharing may bring to the customer and the business.

Always check your impulses

Checking your impulses isn’t limited to cases where you want to negate or deny something. You also have to check your impulses to see if what you’re thinking aligns with the product goals. If you have design principles set out for your project, measure your impulse against them to see if it aligns with those principles.

You may have a fantastic idea, but if it’s not part of the goals of the project and doesn’t align with scenarios, personas or design principles, table that thought. Write it down for a future project where it may be a great asset.

Look beyond the words

If you’re designing experiences, you have either become or are becoming a keen observer of human interactions. Look at physical cues of people you’re meeting with. Is someone uncomfortable or unusually silent? Maybe they aren’t good at speaking out in a group setting, but if you chat with them afterwards they may offer you a wealth of insight you would have otherwise missed out on.

The same goes with usability testing. Don’t just look at how easily or efficiently the participant is getting through your flow, look at their body language. Look at their forehead – is the brow furrowed? Are the eyebrows raised? Are they tapping their feet nervously? Or are their shoulders relaxed?

Aside from just the physical, there may be underlying motivations for the way people are behaving. Try to get to the heart of the meaning behind their words and actions.

Never underestimate or condescend to your audience

Underestimating your audience is a diva move to make. That doesn’t mean you should throw around words like “affordance,” or refer to “Fitt’s law” with people who aren’t design professionals, but it does mean that you need to be careful not to talk down to them. Talking down to someone tells them that you think you’re better than they are. And guess what? You’re not.

We all have roles to play in our daily work, and one is not necessarily more important or more clever than the other. Give your “audience” respect, and you will get respect in return.

Work to the top of your intelligence

This is the flip side of not underestimating your audience. Don’t underestimate yourself. Working to the top of your intelligence means not taking the easy way out. If someone says “but that’s how we’ve always done it,” challenge the status quo.

Push yourself every day to do something better, to learn. Keep up with the blogs and articles about UX practice and theory. Engage your colleagues in meaningful, actionable discussions about the work you’re doing.

Trust your partners

Every project you work on comes with partners: front end developers, project managers, stakeholders, information architects. Trust them to do their jobs. They got where they are for a reason.

In return, you should expect them to trust you to do your job. If they don’t, then that’s an important conversation to have with your partners. Help them understand why they need to trust you.

And most important of all, trust yourself. Your experience and your expertise led you to where you are today. You need to trust in your own talent and skill. Because if you don’t trust in yourself, you can’t possibly expect others to trust you.

Do try this at home (or work)

With every new venture you have to start somewhere. I was petrified as a teenager trying improv for the first time. I can remember it very clearly. But now improv is second nature to me. Public speaking is not an issue. I was never a shy or quiet person, and improv has given me more confidence and tools to work with.

That didn’t happen over night. It happened with repeated practice. Take these rules and try putting them into practice in your daily routine. Three months from now, see what changes this has brought to your projects, clients and project teams. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

February 01 2013

01:00

The Power of Collaboration

A quote that I stumbled on during grad school stuck with me. From the story of the elder’s box as told by Eber Hampton, it sums up my philosophy of working and teaching:

“How many sides do you see?”

“One,” I said.

He pulled the box towards his chest and turned it so one corner faced me.

“Now how many do you see?”

“Now I see three sides.”

He stepped back and extended the box, one corner towards him and one towards me.

“You and I together can see six sides of this box,” he told me.

—Eber Hampton (2002) The Circle Unfolds, p. 41–42

Creating a Learning Resource with Aboriginal Students

My graduate school thesis project was to create a learning resource for an Aboriginal literature course for Aboriginal students at the University of Alberta. This effort was an interesting challenge since it involved me—a non-Aboriginal designer—trying to design for Aboriginal students from multiple cultural backgrounds.

While navigating the expected cross-cultural design issues, I met some wonderful people and learned a great deal about the importance of letting those with whom you design guide the research and design process.

This daunting task left me more than a bit intimidated at the end of the day. However, I felt from the outset that if I took the time to get to know my design partners and if I took the time to examine how they could guide me, somehow we could be successful.

The resource was to be a website representing Aboriginal literatures from multiple cultures to enrich the learning experience for first-year Aboriginal students. My final project was a prototype design that I then tested in paper form.

The learning resource is based on materials used in English 114: Aboriginal Literature and Culture, a compulsory, full-year Aboriginal Canadian literature course in the Transition Year Program (TYP) at the University of Alberta. The TYP program is for Aboriginal undergraduate students and is designed to prepare them for admission into one of eight faculties at the University. Some students have extensive contact with their Aboriginal communities and heritage; some have little or no contact. Most students are from Canada, but there are students in the program from all over North America.

Extra tutorial support is included in every class, to aid in the transition to post-secondary study. The material used in English 114 comes from Aboriginal authors from diverse communities in North America. Many different forms of literature are studied, including poetry, prose, and oral literatures.

Resource objectives

There were no specific learning outcomes created for the resource. It was simply meant to help students explore and appreciate the literature—particularly oral literatures—through video, audio, images, and text. Both teachers and students felt that commenting on and discussing works on the blog portion of the site was important. Teachers felt that the materials and the blog would help students become more engaged with the material.

“I found I wasn’t comfortable, until the end, talking to the professor because for me, the work I was doing was so personal I was afraid of criticism—to think I didn’t know what I was doing. I was kind of shy.”—Jesse, student

I spent many months completing a literature review. I didn’t find much research on visual design practice for multiple cultures and genres. I interviewed students, all the instructors, the teaching assistant, and many other academics and professionals working in Aboriginal studies. I also audited courses in Aboriginal literature and attended as many classes as possible for the course for which I would design the website.

There were some pretty clear needs identified for the course that the instructors, students, and I felt might be helped by the use of digital media. One of the biggest benefits centered on the importance of oral literatures. Audio and video files would clearly benefit the study of oral literatures when storytellers could not be brought into the classroom. Other benefits were to:

  • Help students refine independent research skills
  • Encourage communication between students and between instructors and students by creating a forum
  • Show media in class using the website
  • Give students the opportunity to access materials outside of class
  • Provide background materials to students who are unfamiliar with the material, benefiting students who hesitate to ask questions
  • Provide a more “low stakes” context for students to explore concepts raised in class
  • Allow students to seek out information
  • on their own and explore issues they might be too embarrassed to raise in class
  • Increase continuity between course sections and allow instructors to share resources
  • Allow instructors to check in more often on students’ progress
  • Give reticent students the chance to express opinions in the possibly less-intimidating forum
  • Use multimedia to demonstrate the “webbed” nature of the texts by allowing students to see how issues intersect

Some pseudonymous student comments about the course:

“I think there wasn’t enough visual stuff, personally. I would like to see the places described in the story.”—Sarah, student

“We did have some overheads, but we couldn’t make out the overheads.” —Trish, student

“ …when the author reads it you are like, wow, is that ever powerful, I’ve got tingles. You can hear their emotion and what they are trying to portray with the literature.”—Christine, student

“Video would be awesome—tone and facial expression are really important.” —Jason, student

Importance of Visual Design

I obviously can’t summarize here all the project complexities or discuss all the wonderful things I learned throughout this process. One aspect of the research, however, reinforced for me the power of collaboration in the design process.

Refining needs and features for the project was challenging, but my most daunting task from the outset was how to create a visual design to meet the needs of the university course, the multiple cultures of the students, and also reflect the literature studied.

Students and instructors also felt the resource had to visually represent traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture without using imagery that was specific to one culture or geographic region, but they also believed it needed to reference Western literary traditions because many of the authors on the syllabus referenced Western literary traditions in their literature. A daunting task to say the least.

Visual design is not of minor importance to Aboriginal cultures and the visual expression of those cultures.

While progress has been made, by various institutions, to foster understanding of Aboriginal cultures in Canada and the United States, images created by non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal designers found in mainstream media are not nearly as enlightened. Visual communication design creates effective communications that can “affect the knowledge, attitudes and behavior of people” (Frascara, 1997, p. 5). If designers can affect people with the communications they create, then they might be able in some way to prevent visual stereotyping of Aboriginal peoples and cultures.

It is easy to find examples of appropriation and stereotyping of imagery in mainstream media. Logos for the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago Blackhawks are some highly visible examples of blatant stereotyping, but more subtle examples also exist. The popularity of the “New Age” spiritual movement is one such example of cultural appropriation that furthers the misrepresentation of Aboriginal cultures (Hulan & Warley, 1999–2000).

“ …you just can’t have a dreamcatcher a wagon and a chief on every page. There is a lot more to Aboriginal culture.” —Jason, Student

“ …the fact that there’s a million different medicine wheels if you look on the internet, it’s almost like a cliché or something, even though it has real cultural worth.” —Rob, Instructor

The “Aha” Moment

My plan for the visual design process had been to conduct semi-structured interviews with students and instructors and begin collecting ideas for visuals. I had hoped that from there we’d have some ideas to start working together on creating some participatory design sessions.

However, each time I came to discuss the visual tone of the resource and what should be included, it seemed we ended up talking about placement of menus and what types of information were desired for the website. Looking at websites or thinking about them made it very hard to get away from talking about features, functionality, and content. Not that those factors were not critical to shaping the visual design, but I wanted to discuss the visual tone and symbolic references that users felt might be important to include.

My thesis supervisor suggested I try to move away from the digital medium into the print medium to avoid the focus on features. Why not look at some other medium? You’re thinking this is the big “Aha” moment right? Not yet…

My plan was to try a session with five students reviewing book covers from Aboriginal authors and discussing what visual design appealed to them. From my own training and experience as a designer, I selected what I felt was a representative sample of different visual styles: Illustration, photography, typography, and the like.

Throughout my research, a critical theme was the importance of the land and landscape to Aboriginal cultures. I had this information, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. Any specific references to a geographic region might exclude some students or authors referenced in the curriculum. Students were from all over North America and had connections to a huge variety of landscape—prairies, mountain ranges, coastal regions, arctic regions, rain forest… This project had to be respectful to the students, teachers, and Aboriginal literatures studied. Imagery was already a very sensitive topic, so omitting any particular region or any one group was far from ideal.

abstract landscape abstract landscape

abstract landscape abstract landscape

During our sessions, students gravitated to abstract images of landscape that employed natural color palettes. Interestingly, some students selected these images because they felt the images represented both contemporary and traditional cultures. Few if any students selected imagery that had specific symbolism. There was great sensitivity to the use of symbols, partially because they may exclude certain groups but also because there has been a long history of offensive appropriation of Aboriginal symbols. Most students seemed to gravitate to those images that suggested the land in an abstract way.

For example, the book Transitions was selected as both a contemporary and traditional portrayal of Aboriginal culture. One student thought that because the stones were constantly evolving and were part of the land that they were representative of the contemporary and the traditional. Another student mentioned that the industrial feel of the rock landscape suggested the contemporary but that the rocks also suggested traditional elements of the “Grandfather, the stones of the earth.”

Photography and landscape seemed most appealing to students.

Monkey Beach and Transitions: Photography and landscape seemed most appealing to students.

I had already been thinking about using natural imagery, but the problem seemed to me to be the suggestion of one geographic region. Abstract representations of landscape seemed to solve my dilemma. It was suggestive of some type of landscape, but it wasn’t specific. When students suggested a color palette of earth tones, images of landscape, and photography instead of illustration, I had my a-ha moment.

Screen grab of the learning resource Screen grab of the learning resource

Screen grab of the learning resource

I now had a direction for the visual design that was so simple yet would address a very complex issue. I could create an image that was respectful and addressed what was important to those involved but was universal enough not to exclude anyone.

Putting it all together

In the discipline of design—in sharp contrast to the modernist movement—there is a concern with how to tailor communications specifically to suit audience needs. McCoy (1995) calls this “narrowcasting” instead of “broadcasting.” With this concern comes the understanding that designers cannot make assumptions about cultural groups, even their own (Steiner & Haas, 1996).

I felt so incredibly challenged by this project not only because it meant I had to try to learn how to respectfully design with students and teachers from cultures that I was not familiar with but also because I could not understand how I could possibly design something that could be tailored to so many varied groups. My session with the students helped me realize how my own background led me to subconsciously dismiss the idea of finding some kind of universal solution since it would go against my own postmodern sensibilities.

Those sensibilities closed my mind to the possibility of universals that might be meaningful to the students and also be representative of the wide variety of literatures and cultures represented in the curriculum.

In short, without the different perspectives brought to the project by the students and teachers I was working with, I would probably never have come to the solution that I did. As I have moved forward with my career and my teaching and I see so many changes in the world of design, I think that more and more we may find ourselves in a position where we may have to challenge ourselves to find those universals. My takeaway from all this: try to practice a collaborative approach whenever possible to inform your work and allow yourself to see six sides of the box.

Works Cited

  • Frascara, J., (1997). User-centred Graphic Design: Mass communications and social change. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • Hulan, R., & Warley, L. (1999–2000). Cultural literacy, First Nations and the future of Canadian literary studies. Journal of Canadian Studies, 34.3–4, 59–73.
  • McCoy, K. (1995). Graphic design in a multicultural world. How 10(2), 146–151.
  • Steiner, H., & Haas, K. (1996). Design for the global village. Applied Arts, 11(3), 46–48 and 50–52.

June 08 2012

03:41

Flow, Mastery and Ease-of-Use

Recently the web design community has been eating up the secrets of game design. The Gamification trend merely borrowed simple game mechanics, from badges to progress bars. But now designers are looking more closely at core game design principles like design for flow and mastery, blending them with our old friend, ease of use. But how many of these techniques are relevant for more everyday sites, like ecommerce and productivity apps?

Flow is a concept popularized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It describes the ineffable state between boredom and excessive difficulty in which time disappears and you are pleasurably lost the execution of a task. In the game design community, it’s a well understood and desirable state that most designers strive to create.

Because this state is so desirable, both for productivity and for pleasure, many application (web and mobile) designers are starting to try to design for it as well. This is a daunting task. First, all humans are different. This means in identical situations I hit flow at a very different moment in the ease-to-difficulty continuum than you do. Secondly, flow is extremely easily to disrupt. Have you ever been in the middle of writing where words are finally flowing out, then been interrupted by a cat/child/roommate/coworker jumping into your lap? Did you lose the precious thread? Then you know exactly what I mean, as does the cat/child/roommate/coworker who got the brunt of your wrath. Thirdly (and perhaps most importantly) the application designer has far less control than game designers over challenge and skill, the two key levers in creating flow.

A more straightforward goal is to create the conditions for flow and to design to minimize interruptions. Designing for ease-of-use may be more than difficult enough, and designing for flow an unnecessary extra struggle. Just because something is wonderful doesn’t mean everything should have more of it (e.g. think of salt). For applications where users spend a lot of time in the app, designing for mastery is the better design goal.


Appropriateness of Flow


Consider your application. Is it used daily? Hourly? monthly? When it is used, how long does a session last? Flow can only be achieved in situations where mastery of the toolset is possible, and the user need not consciously think about what they are doing. They must be using the tools repetitively until they have acquired such a skill that allows them to work as if the tools were an extension of their body.

Most sites that are used irregularly, from shopping for cars to choosing a gym, will never be mastered by the users. Instead, they will be used only briefly to accomplish a goal. If you are a travel site aimed at consumers, it’s unlikely they are going to use your site over and over until they reach a zen-like state while doing price comparisons. Exceptions exist, sure. There may be the travel junkie who runs the flight costs endlessly and tweaks to find the cheapest ticket. But you probably want to optimize your site for the family planning the annual August outing first. Even that travel junkie is probably going to be plenty happy just to find a cheap ticket to Belize rather than luxuriate in manipulating the flight from Wednesdays to Fridays just to watch the prices fluxuate.

Conversely, word processing, numbers crunching, and alien shooting are all activities where mastery of the tool set increases the user’s effectiveness and enjoyment when using the tool. In such cases, flow is not only possible but desirable.


Ease-of-use


You have been hearing about “ease-of-use” for ages under the rubric of usability. For most web applications, from ecommerce to online banking, this is all you need. For applications where you need more than simple usability, such as photo editing or blogging tools, you still must get ease-of-use right. Even in games, where some tasks should be hard to accomplish in order to create pleasurable challenge, designers still make the fundamental usage easy. For example: seeing what level you are on, how many lives you have, how much gold/points/reputation you have is all bundled up in the HUD. HUD, or heads up display, is the bar that keeps your status in front of you in the same place all the time, so you can flick your eyes over to it to mark progress. This is a paragon of ease-of-use, and many productivity apps would greatly benefit from a HUD.


Mastery


Mastery is a common game concept; it’s what makes much of game play fun. Everyone knows that amazing moment when you suddenly are riding your bike perfectly balanced, playing a song on the guitar without watching your fingers fret, or typing your thoughts without trying to remember if you hit the Y with the right or left finger. You feel so powerful and in control! This is mastery.

In games, that elation is doled out across levels. As you master one complicated set of patterns in Dance Dance Revolution, you are spoon fed the next harder one, so each step of mastery releases its own high. Flow occasionally happens just as you are about to be gobsmacked by the next level.

To design for mastery, you have to map the user journey, and consider how to move them from one stage to the next.


Amy Jo Kim's player journey helps you decided what the key mastery points are
Image 1: I have always loved this diagram from Amy Jo Kim’s classic Community Building on the Web : Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities


Such a long user journey is not needed for every site. If you sell curtains direct to consumer, you may just need people to find and buy a curtain. Novice is as far as any user has or wants to go.

But if you sell curtains to interior decorators, you definitively want to figure out how to move them from novice to regular. Every site has its own user journey to plot out. Mastery is critical if “regulars” or “engagement” are in your strategy deck.

Once you know what the stages of the player (user) journey are, you can plan for mastery. For example, for Facebook mastery might be about moving users from novice to regular. Facebook wisely makes sure you are connected to your social network (finding people to connect to is hard!) and then can easily interact. A regular might hop on two or three times a day, check their stream for funny/interesting posts, respond to notifications for games and check for personal messages. A leader might help less tech savvy members of the family get on Facebook, and figure out how to upload pictures. An expert… well you know them. They run groups, have a business page, and generally get Facebook to do things you didn’t think it did.

With productivity apps like word processors, mastery appears when a user uses a keyboard shortcut to cut and paste rather than the menus. Users can get by without the advanced tools, but those tools are waiting, perhaps hidden, for when the user is ready to move a bit faster. If you have ever visited you accounting department and watched them use excel, you know what I mean.

But consider this: while both Facebook and Microsoft word offer power tools, this is completely different than Dance Dance Revolution which increases the difficulty of the basic activity each time you play. Just imagine what writing a letter would be like if every time you opened Word the buttons and menus were completely rearranged. (It’s bad enough when this happens once every year or two).


Flow





Image 2: Challenge vs. Skill


Finally, mastery leads to flow. If you followed the wikipedia link at the beginning of this article, you know now that flow is hard to achieve. An activity gets a little too hard, or a little too easy and it’s all over. One enters flow when the challenge level is appropriately matched with the skill level.

With most productivity apps, the challenge and skill are both provided by the user, and thus the designer has little control over flow, except to prevent or interrupt it. Let me illustrate.

I originally wrote this article in Wordpress. I use Wordpress a lot; even more than Microsoft Word. I could be considered a regular now. When I wrote my Eleganthack blog post, Why You Should  Speak, I was in a flow state. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and all I had to do was craft the sentences. Although two hours went by, it felt like 15 minutes.

But writing this post has been more of a struggle, even though I originally wrote it in Wordpress. I knew I wanted to write about why flow was a potential chimera, but I wasn’t sure why. I was writing at least as much to figure out my ideas as to express them. And I popped in and out of flow, stopping to check twitter, write an email, and even debug a Wordpress problem. The challenge of expressing myself kept bouncing between arousal and anxiety, only occasionally hitting flow. And there is absolutely nothing Wordpress could do to help me with it.

Wordpress could certainly kick me out of flow, though. If they popped up an autosave dialog, or the mechanism to allow me to insert a picture was too many steps, I’d lose my train of thought and flow might have been hard to recover.

In games you see more of a partnership between the designer and the user to create flow states. The user masters skills, the game monitors that mastery and ups the challenge. In badly designed games, the challenge will increase so sharply the user is thrown into anxiety and will quit. Or conversely, the challenge is insufficient and the user wanders away in boredom. Collision Effect is an example of an app often reviewed as being incredibly fun by experts, but having too steep a challenge curve for casual players. Boring games are a dime a dozen, and I’m sure you’ve uninstalled your fair share.

In excellently designed games, the game lets the user move between arousal and flow perpetually. In addition to Dance Dance Revolution, you have the wonderful Kinnect game Dance Central. World of Goo (iTunes, Android) has a terrificly smooth progression in difficulty, becoming deliciously hard at the end. And who hasn’t played (and gotten a little obsessed with) Angry Birds?


So: Design for Flow?


If you are a game designer, it’s a must. Pleasurable extended play relies on the player bouncing between the arousal and flow states (occasionally dipping into anxiety and resting in relaxation). But if you are an app or web designer, I recommend instead focusing on ease-of-use and mastery. Consider flow as you design, but only to make sure if the user manages to achieve it you don’t disturb it. Otherwise, you may find your software flung across the room, just like the cat who jumps on the keyboard mid-composition.

No cats were harmed in the writing of this post. Unless looks can kill.

Afterword: I cannot resist commenting on the state of relaxation. Many people find Farmville’s appeal completely incomprehensible. But the chart shows high skill and low challenge not as boredom, but as relaxation. I would argue that completely mastered skills work the same way, such as knitting or Let’s Create! Pottery. In the case of Let’s Create Pottery, you can move back and forth between challenges and relaxing unstructured creation once you have mastered the basic throwing and decorating skills. I think lazy relaxed play is much underrated in both the game and web design communities.

Christina Wodtke is continuing to explore the overlaps between game and web design, as well as what it takes to make great products at Eleganthack.

September 13 2010

22:19

So You Wanna Build a Library, Eh?

Modular Web Design book coverThe following article is an abridged version of Chapter 7 of Nathan Curtis’s 2009 book, Modular Web Design published by New Riders. The book’s first half addresses how to modularly break down your design, build it back up, and communicate in new and interesting ways. With those design techniques in hand, the book then drills into how to organize and build a library, teach it to others, and establish a process for maintaining it for an organization.


Legos are so freakin' awesome!!! Design patterns and modular components are effective techniques for designing and building long-lasting, consistent experiences. You may reach the point where you ask yourself “Is it time to build a library for our team?”

Many teams have realized incredible efficiencies, savings, and better design through design libraries and related standards. However, building a library isn’t trivial. It takes time and effort to get off the ground, can trigger significant and uncomfortable organizational change, and comes with an ongoing maintenance cost. In some cases, libraries are not the answer and yes, sometimes libraries fail. Nobody wants to invest the time, effort, and personal capital only to have nothing to show for it.

Therefore, precede any kind of library build out with a period of discernment. Before you dive, ask yourself and your teammates the following eight questions to gauge whether a library is right for you.


1. Why Do You Want Create a Library?

What is your primary rationale for building a library? What motivates you?
At the top of nearly everyone’s list is usually one of two benefits: efficiency or consistency. Some value speed through reuse: get design done faster, be more productive, save time, save money! Others see opportunities for governance and consistency, using the library as a baseline to sustain a design system over time.

Many teams have realized incredible efficiencies, savings, and better design through design libraries and related standards. However, building a library isn’t trivial.

Beyond efficiency and consistency, other benefits that drive teams include:

Memory: A destination to record and refer to all the design decisions made in creating a large-scale experience.

Portability: Designers come and go. Project priorities change. A library should make you more nimble in shifting resourcing and focus.

Vocabulary: Establish and promote common understanding that includes terms you use for items, page types, and even deliverables.

Authority: Provide a more credible resource on which to make design decisions, prioritize efforts, and easily refer to conventions.

Predictability: Have a foundation to discuss and more closely approximate the impact of a design decision.

Collaboration: Amp up collaboration in your organization to trigger conversations, share knowledge, and learn together.



2. Are You Building the Right Kind of Library?

When it comes to libraries, teams usually find themselves choosing between a library of patterns or components.

A design pattern is a solution to a recurring problem. Patterns offer principles to follow and avoid specifics like style, editorial guidelines, page location, and finalized code. Libraries of design patterns are ideal for teams that design many experiences, such as Yahoo’s team that designs products with unique visual systems that adhere to a larger, common brand.

A component is a chunk of a page design. Experiences can reuse components for navigation (such as header, footer, and local nav), content (such as video players and page titles), and more. A component library is ideal for organizations that have built a system of modular HTML and CSS, and these teams can complement the code library with a collection of reusable design assets for wireframes or comps.

Choosing between patterns and components may not be an either / or question. In fact, one team built libraries for both patterns (for example, Tabs) as well as components (for example, tabbed product details, tabbed content module, tabbed search results, and so on). Other teams have hedged their bets by embedding aspects of one approach into the guidelines and spirit of the other, most commonly via pattern-like guidelines incorporated into the more specific component definitions.

Consider a pattern library if your team has:

  • Many design systems that are intentionally different or will not be reconciled into a single component library.
  • Capability to document patterns more specific than public libraries like Yahoo Design Patterns, welie.com, and ui-patterns.com.
  • Known opposition to prescriptive approaches, but a willingness to use common guidelines.

Consider a component library if your team has:

  • A specific visual design system, including grid(s), layout, color palettes and typography.
  • Many reusable components (page “chunks”) within that system.
  • Diverse groups across an organization that must work together using that system.
  • Interest in and capability of sustaining that design and code system across groups, projects and time.
  • Strong, centralized influence to create, deploy, and maintain a library (or plans to centralize influence via a library).
A comprehensive library of design standards doesn’t end with design patterns and modular components. A team could consider … include the design frameworks espoused by Robert Hoekman as well as common standards like page types/templates, editorial standards, a style guide, and more.

Finally, a comprehensive library of design standards doesn’t end with design patterns and modular components. Instead, a team could consider expanding their repertoire to include the design frameworks espoused by Robert Hoekman as well as common standards like page types/templates, editorial standards, a style guide, and more.


3. Is Your Experience Ready for a Library?

Ok, so you’ve got dreams of efficiencies, consistency, standards, and more. However, just because you’ve built a website, that doesn’t automatically imply that you should build a library. In fact, there are plenty of websites for which a library won’t net any benefit. You should take a long, hard look at your design system to ensure it warrants a library.

Scale: Libraries can be invaluable to large, distributed teams supporting many products or a site with thousands – or millions – of pages. On the other hand, if you are a small and tight-knit team constantly communicating across cube walls, then there’s no need to codify standards. Heck, there’s no need to document anything at all – just get real and build stuff.

Relevance: Rarely do experiences of any scale contain no reusable elements. However, some site areas – like an e-commerce checkout or an account management portal – may be unique, built once, and not duplicated again short of a redesign. Why standardize something that’s never reused?

Stability: Be careful not to standardize an experience too soon. A design system should stabilize before you invest in codifying layouts, grids, typography, patterns, and components.

Disparity: Instead of one simple set of grids, styles, and reusable chunks, you may have multiple, distinct design systems. Do you merge them into one library? If now, is it worth it to create distinct and potentially overlapping libraries?



4. Is Someone Ready to be a Librarian?

Just because you’ve built a website, that doesn’t automatically imply that you should build a library.

Building and sustaining a component library takes an evangelizing advocate. That person may be you, or someone you manage or work with. Almost always, the librarian wears many hats:

Leader: You’ll promote a new way of thinking, shepherding participants into common practice and evangelizing the techniques, benefits, and spirit of the library.

Target: You’ll be a lightning rod for the library, and even the cause of controversy in a design organization. Others may point to you as the standards police that constrains them from being creative.

Writer: You’ll be an author, or at least a contributor and reviewer of other’s contributions, for items like guidelines, library cheat sheets, and blog posts.

Teacher: You’ll teach principles and basic fundamentals about what’s where and how to use it. Help requests can be disruptive, and you’ll have to be patient, determined, and flexible.



5. Is Your Design Team Ready for a Library?

A library can transform how a team operates. Gone are the days where every project is a blank canvas where a designer creates a creative and original work of art. Instead, designers are equipped with helpful starting points as a framework in which to operate. Those constraints can be simultaneously welcome and controversial.

Above all, your team will have to overcome the misconception that a library is about constraining innovation. You want to – you need to – stop reinventing the wheel. Templates with grids, libraries, styles, and pre-made page chunks don’t turn designers into robotic automatons. But designers often react that way. You’ll have to convince designers that library starting points can focus creativity.

Other team attributes that influence library readiness include:

Size: How big is your design team? The larger the team, the more likely techniques, styles and deliverables vary. Libraries and templates can get your team synched up and communicating more consistently.

Overlap: How much do designs contain overlapping patterns and components? If your team is designing towards a common experience, a library can be a key part of a holistic strategy.

Distribution: Is your team spread out geographically? Standard design assets can mitigate impacts of reduced face-to-face collaboration.

Adaptability: Will your team be able to adapt to design practices that involve a library?

Stability: How stable is your team? Do designers come and go often? Learning library details is an investment with a return that increases the longer each designer uses it.

Advocacy: Do you have team members that are jazzed about or knowledgeable of reuse? Are they willing to be partners or champions?



6. Is Your Organization Ready for a Library?

Your team will have to overcome the misconception that a library is about constraining innovation. You want to – you need to – stop reinventing the wheel.

You’ll need to have a pitch that explains the library in simple and concrete terms. What is it? How does it work? What does it mean to me? These questions hint at the profound impacts a library can have:

Workflow: Design libraries impact at least two critical workflows: how you produce a solution for each project and how you maintain assets, guidelines, and documentation across projects.

Collaboration: Do key team members – such as engineers and designers – have a common foundation to communicate on?

Documentation: You got to make it easy for people to refer to, find, learn, and integrate reusable assets into their own practices, whether via a component ID annotation on a wireframe, a PDF’s link to online documentation, or consistent HTML comments in your code.

Timing: When change is in the air, there may be opportunity to insert a library into the discussion and approach. Can you time the expansion of your library to dovetail with when your experience are already undergoing significant change?



7. Is Management Ready to Support a Library?

None of your planning and efforts will matter if you lack management support. They must vocalize a public belief in your effort as well as pony up time, money, and resources. It’s your duty to communicate a plan – and the return on that investment – to sell your management on why a library matters.

Unfortunately, even when the library is otherwise a good idea, management support sometimes wavers in instances like:

Lack of Priority: It can happen to the best of teams. You get your top talent together, you start roughing out a framework, and then projects hit. You get distracted. It’s up to management to carve out sufficient time for you, or else the library becomes stale and ineffective.

Insufficient Hardware and Software: It’s up to managers to ensure that designers have the right hardware and software installed so they can use the design assets. My confusion turned into empathy when I sat at a designer’s desk and watched for TEN MINUTES as the software tool launched on his out-of-date laptop. My query of “This is unacceptable. Haven’t you asked for an update?” was met with “You can only ask so many times” and a shrug.

Leadership and Evangelism: Ensure management is on message. Prep them with simple ways to communicate library value and help them avoid undermining you with explanations like “the library is another good idea, but if it doesn’t work for you, shouldn’t disrupt your own personal approach if you feel your way is more effective.”

Background Support: Public declarations are important, but so are the back-channel efforts. Your managers need to open doors to connect you with key players and partners. Knowing what doors to open is a two-way street, so help your managers understand the obstacles and why you need help.



8. So, Are You Really Ready to Build a Library?

Take a deep breath, because you’ve got a fun ride ahead.

So, your design system is stable, you’ve got some champions backing you up, and you know just what your organization needs. You are ready to put yourself on the line. You believe.

Then take a deep breath, because you’ve got a fun ride ahead.

Creating a UX library diagram
Diagram of How to Create a UX Design Library (PDF)

Up next, you’ll want craft a plan and read all you can from all the best authors and online resources. You then discover, organize, and prioritize what goes in your library. You’ll setup a platform for managing your catalog and publishing your standards. You may even equip one or more software tools with a library of reusable assets so that your team can create better design and deliverables, faster.

It’s time to build a library.

August 18 2010

06:25

Emotional Design with A.C.T. - Part 1

As UX professionals, we strive to design engaging experiences. These experiences help to forge relationships between the products we create and the people who use them. Whether you’re designing a website or a physical product, the formation of a relationship depends on how useful, usable and pleasurable the experience is. Ultimately, we form relationships with products and services for the same reasons we form relationships with people:


  • Pleasurable products are attractive and make us feel good. Attractive people can have the same effect.
  • Usable products are easy to interact with and easy to understand. Good conversationalists are the same.
  • Useful products fulfill our needs in a way that leaves us emotionally satisfied in the long term. Long-term relationships can fulfill our physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.

In a previous article on Boxes and Arrows (Design for Emotion and Flow), I talked about the importance of balancing users’ emotional states to command attention and create flow: the mental/emotional experience where all the user’s attention is totally focused on an activity. The total engagement of the flow experience is highly immersive and encourages user loyalty. The experience of flow during interaction can be seen as one of the foundations for the formation of an ongoing relationship.

In Part 1 of this two-part article, I’ll be discussing how emotions command attention. Then, we’ll dive deeper to explore how design elicits and communicates emotion and personality to users. Emotions result in the experience of pleasure or pain that commands attention. The different dimensions of emotion affect different aspects of behavior as well as communicating personality over time. In Part 2, I’ll introduce a framework for describing the formation of relationships between people and the products they use.



Defining “Affective Design”

Some time ago, a friend offered me a ride home after work. I got into her SUV and sat down, ready for the short ride. After a few minutes, an annoying beeping sound started. “Oh,” she said, “You’ll need to fasten your seatbelt to make that irritating noise stop.” Grudgingly, I did up my seatbelt and the noise ceased, but the beeping had accomplished its purpose; I fastened my seatbelt.

This is an example of affective design: design that’s intentionally created to capture the user’s attention, triggering an emotional response that will increase the likelihood of performing a certain behavior. The emotional response can be conscious or unconscious. For example, a brightly colored button will attract users’ attention unconsciously by affecting the degree of arousal (i.e. physical stimulation). And the behavior could be any action, from clicking a button or signing up for a newsletter, to making a purchase online.

To make the unpleasant sound in my friend’s SUV stop, I had to perform a particular behavior. In this case, the stimulus was the unpleasant beeping sound, which triggered my annoyance and led me to fasten my seatbelt. With your latest web app, the stimulus is likely visual, rather than auditory, but the energy that it commands is the same. One thing these stimuli have in common is that they demand and command your attention.



Attention

Attention has been described as psychic energy.1 Like energy in the traditional sense, no work can be done without it, and through work that energy is consumed. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) named the mental/emotional state where all our attention is totally focused on an activity “Flow”. Flow is a highly engaging experience, and strong emotional engagement demands and narrows the user’s attention. In order for users to accomplish their tasks and attain Flow, we need to capture and hold their attention by managing the design of their emotional experiences.

The products we design need to attract users based on how they look and sound, persuading them (via their feelings) to approach or avoid. They also need to converse with the people using them. The way these products interact should persuade users to take particular actions in predetermined sequences, while also affording users a feeling of control. If we’ve done our jobs correctly, the result is that users will commit and transact with our system; they click the button, subscribe to the newsletter, make the purchase or book the flight.

These events mark the formation of a relationship between the user and the product or application. Each experience with a company’s products or services shapes the user’s relationship with the company’s brand. In order to build positive brand relationships, companies need to effectively manage the user’s emotional experiences during every encounter with their products or service channels. As we’ll see, the consistent expression of a particular emotion is perceived as a personality trait, and our personality traits determine the relationships we form.



Dimensions of Emotion

To understand how emotional expression becomes personality, we first need to understand emotion itself. All emotional or affective states can be described in terms of two underlying dimensions: value and arousal. “Value” judgments are judgments of good vs. bad. We tend to base these conscious judgments on whether something is pleasant or unpleasant.

“Arousal” has been used to refer to the unconscious activation of the body, the brain or a particular behavior.2 It has been defined by levels of anxiety vs. boredom,3 and we can measure it by monitoring heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and skin conductance. To simplify it, you can think of arousal as the level of stimulation or activation. When we combine these two dimensions of emotion (i.e. the conscious & cognitive, and the unconscious & physical) we get a circular model of emotion.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Affect Circumplex (Van Gorp, 2006 adapted from Russell, 1980)3

Because arousal is largely unconscious, it provides an especially powerful channel for designers to command attention and influence behavior. For example, large images, bright saturated colors and high contrast all increase arousal levels. Increasing the size of an image and moving anyone in it closer within the frame will increase arousal levels.4 When the level of arousal increases, the focus of attention narrows and goes to whatever is causing the stimulation. A good example of this is a stop sign, which uses a bright red to command attention within the busy visual environment of the street.

During the product development process, there is often a disconnect between design, marketing and usability for this very reason. Visual designers and marketers are often focused on increasing arousal through the attention grabbing emotional-impact of bright colors and large images, while usability analysts are focused on controlling arousal and reducing negative emotions by ensuring task completion.



Dimensions of Behavior

Each dimension of emotion affects a different aspect of behavior. Value affects whether we approach (i.e. pleasure) or avoid (i.e. pain), while arousal levels influence how motivated we are to do either. Both pleasant and unpleasant objects and experiences can increase arousal levels. For example, fear and excitement are both high arousal emotions. The level of arousal also affects how intensely we experience a given emotion, and the more intense the emotion, the more attention is demanded. Arousal also affects our level of motivation. Low anxiety or boredom results in low motivation, while higher anxiety results in higher motivation. This continues to an optimum level (i.e. the balance of Flow), after which motivation and performance decrease, while anxiety increases.


Figure 2: Behavior & Motivation Circumplex (adapted from Russell, 19803 ; van Gorp, 20064)

In the case of the annoying sound in my friend’s SUV, the value of the noise was negative (i.e. unpleasant). This unpleasant feeling creates the urge to avoid. If the volume of the noise had increased, or the rate of the beeping had sped up, this would have unconsciously increased arousal levels, further increasing my motivation to avoid the noise or make it stop.

This is a very simple example within the relatively controlled context of a vehicle, but what happens when the context becomes more layered or complex? What happens when the design is visual and interactive? As we’ll see later, that’s when simple emotional expressions are perceived as personalities.



Emotion and Personality

Humans are such social beings that we perceive the expression of emotion in everything, including products, objects and websites. Because products usually remain the same, any perceived emotional expression becomes a perceived personality trait over time. The person who appears down or sullen the first time you meet is expressing an emotion—sadness. When that same person appears sad the next 20 times you meet, he or she is likely to be seen as “depressed”. When it comes to products and websites, we can think of a personality trait as the long-term expression of a particular emotion. Take a look at the video below to get a better idea.


Figure 3: American Express Video

As human beings, we assign personalities to objects, interfaces and websites based on the way they behave and appeal to our senses. Even though we consciously know that computers and media are not animate and do not have feelings, we still respond socially and automatically when viewing, interacting and evaluating them.5 It has been suggested that products should be viewed as “living objects with which people have relationships.”6 Through the relationships that are formed by using products, people can be made to feel happy or sad, angry or passive, relaxed or anxious, proud or ashamed, and motivated or demotivated.



Personality Traits and Relationships

Like perceptions of emotion, our first impressions of personality are based on the information received by our senses (i.e. sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch). These impressions are formed quickly and unconsciously. With websites and applications, personality is inferred from the use of language, user prompts, sounds, navigation, proportions, layout, contrast, color, images and fonts that comprise the formal properties of the design. In fact, these perceptions of personality are so automatic and unconscious, they occur regardless of whether the people experiencing them believe they are appropriate. Other, more conscious decisions about personality are based on how the object we interact with behaves over time.

In human relationships, personality traits are an important part of attraction and conversation. They shape our relationships by determining who we like and what we expect from those we encounter. They also influence how well we get along with others. In this respect, perceived personalities in products and websites are no different. Unlike us, however, product personalities can exist in fictional worlds and be controlled by designers so that they appear at particular times and places. They can often be simpler, more consistent and more easily identifiable than real personalities, reducing uncertainty and promoting trust.5



Dimensions of Personality

Although human personality traits are complex, psychologists have grouped product personalities into a small number of categories that have a similar character. They’ve identified two major dimensions of personality that are readily assigned to products, computers and interfaces by users: dominant vs. submissive5 and friendly vs. unfriendly.7

Figure 4

Figure 4: Personality Circumplex (adapted from Reeves & Nass, 19985; van Gorp, 20064)

Take a look at the simple objects below. Are they expressing emotion? As static objects, any emotions they’re expressing will remain consistent over time. If the major dimensions of personality are friendliness and dominance, which object do you perceive to be friendlier? Which do you perceive is more dominant? Check the comments people left below the photos. Happiness is associated with a friendly demeanor, pleasure and approach behaviors, while sadness is associated with unfriendliness, pain and avoidance.


Figure 5: Objects Displaying Personality – (photos courtesy of Jim Leftwich)



Designing Personality: Dominant or Submissive?

Dominant visual features could be described as angular, straight, cold/cool, dark, silver, black…with a heavy base. Submissive visual features could be described as round, warm, light/lucid, soft/delicate, golden.8 When a personality is not represented with overt dominant visual or interactive characteristics, the tendency is to describe it as more submissive. Of the two sites in Figure 6, which site is more dominant and which is more submissive? Which site is friendly and which is unfriendly?


Figure 6: Martha Steward and WWE – Submissive and Dominant Designs

Notice which one of the sites above you’re more naturally attracted to. Which one do you feel more compelled to approach or avoid? Which one naturally grabs more of your attention? How well do these sites match the likely personalities of their target audiences? Generally speaking, you can attract the user by presenting a visual personality that is similar to his or her own. When it comes to attraction, we’re attracted to things that look similar to the way we are, or the way we’d like to see ourselves.



Friendly or Unfriendly?

Friendly visual features could be described as positive, while unfriendly visual features could be described as negative. Friendliness is not only determined by what is said, but also by how it is said (i.e. the tone of the conversation). Our tendency to assign and characterize personality based on conversation is easily recognizable in the example below. This example uses contrast, visual weight, , color value, size and typography to alter the meaning that is conveyed by the words. The content conveys the message, but the look and feel change how that message is interpreted, altering the meaning.

Which of the statements below would you rather hold a conversation with? Which one do you feel more compelled to approach or avoid? Which one naturally grabs more of your attention? When it comes to conversation, someone has to lead, and opposites attract.


Figure 7: Personality and Meaning4


Similar or Complementary?

Similarity is the theory that people are more attracted to those with personalities similar to their own, over those who display different personalities.5 Complementarity is the theory that people are attracted to people with personalities that complement their own level of dominance or submissiveness (Markey 20079; Personality Research10). It comes down to the old question of whether relationships work better when people are the same or opposite? And the answer is yes.

When it comes to personalities, different things stir our emotions at different stages of a relationship. Researchers found that Similarity takes precedence early in relationships, playing a vital role in initial attraction. Complementarity becomes more important as relationships develop over time.11 People in long-term relationships are more satisfied when their partners are either more or less dominant than they are. Two dominant persons may experience conflicts as both attempt to lead, while two submissive individuals may lack initiative, as neither is willing to lead. (Markey 20079; Wikipedia 200912)

Generally speaking, interaction between the system and the user should be complementary, where the user takes up the dominant role, while the product, interface or service takes on the submissive role. These roles might flip in the case of a guided tour, or an application where the system is guiding the process or has an air of authority.



Conclusion

In Part 1, we learned that emotion commands attention. We also learned that affective design is a term used to describe design created to intentionally capture the user’s attention and trigger an emotional response that will increase the likelihood of the user performing a desired behavior.

The value dimension of emotion influences our behavior (i.e. whether we approach or avoid), while the arousal dimension influences how motivated we are to do either. Emotions influence different aspects of behavior, and their expressions are perceived as different aspects of personality over time. Value influences the perception of friendliness, while arousal influences the perception of dominance.

Emotions, Behavior & Motivation and Personality
Figure 8: Emotions, Behavior & Motivation and Personality4

And finally, we learned that customers are attracted to things that they perceive have a personality similar to their own. Over time however, they prefer to interact with things that take up a role which is complementary to their own.

Useful, usable and pleasurable experiences help facilitate the formation of relationships. In Part 2, we’ll look at the different ways people experience love to get an even better understanding of how relationships form. Then, I’ll introduce a new framework that describes how to systematically provide experiences in the different ways that are necessary to form relationships.


Citations

1Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

2Cacioppo, J. T., and Petty, R. E. (1989). The Elaboration Likelihood Model: The Role of Affect and Affect-laden Information Processing in Persuasion. In A. Tybout and P. Cafferata (Eds.), Cognitive and Affective Responses to Advertising (69-89). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

3Russell, J. A. (1980). A Circumplex Model of Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161-1178.

4Van Gorp, Trevor, J. (2006). Emotion, Arousal, Attention and Flow: Chaining Emotional States to Improve Human-Computer Interaction. University of Calgary, Faculty of Environmental Design, Master’s Degree Project.

5Reeves, Byron and C. Nass. (1998). The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6Jordan, Patrick, W. (2000). Designing Pleasurable Products. London: Taylor & Francis.

7Desmet, Pieter, R. (2002). Designing Emotions. Pieter Desmet. Delft.

8Wellman, Katrin and Ralph Bruder, Karen Oltersdorf. (2004). Gender Designs: Aspects of Gender Found in the Design of Perfume Bottles. In D. McDonagh and P. Hekkert, (Eds.), Design and Emotion: The Experience of Everyday Things. New York: Taylor & Francis.

9Markey, P.M.& Markey, C. N. (2007). Romantic Ideals, Romantic Obtainment, and Relationship Experiences: The Complementarity of Interpersonal Traits among Romantic Partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(4), 517-533.

10Personality Research. (August 1999). Interpersonal Complemetarity. Retrieved December 19, 2009, from Personality Research.

11Vinacke, W. E., Shannon, K., Palazzo,V, Balsavage,L., et-al. (1988). Similarity and Complementarity in Intimate Couples. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 114, 51-76.

12Wikipedia (2010, January 2). Interpersonal Attraction. Retrieved March 18, 2009, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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