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May 07 2013


Intention vs. Interpretation: What Matters?

Both interaction designers and information architects want to design objects with a singular meaning. It’s a noble, albeit impossible goal. The best we can hope for is to create more consistently meaningful experiences. To do that, designers must better understand the interplay between designer intention and user interpretation: the ways that we can influence – but not dictate – user interpretation.

Consider the design of a voice-based interface. Because users can say what they mean in any number of ways, there are many situations for which designers cannot account – especially in the first iteration. Designers proactively create a set of interactions that users might accomplish, but the diversity of “common” speech patterns prevents a more prescriptive, task-oriented solution.

Clearly those designing voice-based interfaces intend for users to accomplish something. So how might designers shape their interpretation? To better answer the question, let’s examine some problems encountered defining “design” and then borrow some thinking from literary studies. Finally, we’ll explore how these considerations affect the everyday work of information architects and interaction designers.


The word “design” is problematic. Colloquially, we tend to think of design as the purposeful creation of some thing – a physical object, an experience, or even a conceptual argument – whereas etymologically, we can trace “design” back to Latin. There, it connotes purpose, choice, and designation.

If we push the etymological boundaries a little, we might think of it as the deification of an object (de-), or the association with god-like qualities. The designer is an intelligent creator that crafts things according to his/her intention. A final perspective points to the designer as someone who sets meaning elsewhere. Intention is so powerful here that the designer does not even consider variation in interpretation; the designer’s intention is the final meaning.

The problem with all four of these interpretations is that they are incongruous with the principles of user-centered design. User-centered design holds that user experience – to say nothing of designer intent – is the most important element of a design system.


In order to reconcile the disparity between intent and interpretation, it’s useful to borrow from literary critics, those with a long history of interpreting things (albeit from a textual perspective).

In 1946, critics W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published a paper called The Intentional Fallacy arguing that “[the] intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” Instead, they believed that the only reasonable factors that could serve as the basis of critique were direct-textual material (e.g., the work itself), indirect-textual material (e.g., inferences), and contextual material (e.g., history). In other words: a literary text should be judged on its content, its merit, and history’s perception – not intent!

Contemporary HCI researcher Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza stands on the other side of the fence. Working within the realm of semiotic engineering, she sees a direct relationship between a designer and user, one facilitated by a “designer deputy.” To de Souza, a designer communicates intent through an interface. The user then interprets that interface to accomplish certain goals. It’s a one-way conversation.

Although their opinions diverge, both Wimsatt/Beardsley and de Souza’s are both “correct.” How can that be? The former – a critic’s perspective – concerns works of art, whereas the latter – a researcher’s perspective – deals with objects of utility.


For better or for worse, web design provides avenues for both art and utility. There are certainly elements of a bank’s website that are more artistic than utilitarian, for example. And, as such, we need to recognize that the interplay between designer intent and user interpretation is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy.

Don Ihde, a philosopher of science and technology, ruminates on this in his essay The Designer Fallacy and Technological Imagination (2008):

[T]he designer fallacy is ‘deistic’ in its 18th century sense, that the designer-god, working with plastic material, creates a machine or artifact which seems ‘intelligent’ by design – and performs in its designed way. Instead, I hold, the design process operates in very different ways, ways which imply a much more complex set of inter-relations between any designer, the materials which make the technology possible, and the uses to which technologies may be put. Ultimately I am after a deconstruction of the individualistic notion of design which permeates both the literary and technological versions of the fallacy.

Ihde goes on to suggest that the most interesting use cases are the unanticipated ones. Designing a utilitarian system demands a level of intentionality, a very narrow definition of success. Art objects, however, have a more ambiguous aim. They’re designed such that emergent properties create results, which in turn creates more emergent properties, more results, and so on.

As designers, we must accept that intention, at the very least, cannot be the central focus of a successful design output. Any object is always more than merely an object. Context gives it meaning. While our intention may affect the “in the moment” relationship to an object, later examination leaves much more room for emergent meaning creation.


Because meaning created through emergent systems has the potential to regenerate itself ad infinitum, those of us designing experiences must exhibit care for how intentionality effects that meaning thusly created. I emphasize care, here, in a manner close to the way Heidegger might – as for him, concern is not the same as keeping in mind, but rather entails a specific way of being. Interface designers must concern themselves with both intention and interpretation.

Designers create systems of meaning. Artifacts are only physical manifestations of our intent. Once users put those manifestations to use, though, our original intent is no longer relevant. Associated meaning is now part of peripheral thinking about these objects.

Insofar as the designer can influence the creation of meaning after the initial interaction, we must think of the design object not as the end of our process but rather, in a strange sense, only the beginning. No interface – no object whatsoever – is valuable in-and-of itself. Value is derived from user interpretation before, during, and after the interaction.


As the complexity of technological systems continues to grow, designers need to consider novel, long-form approaches to their design problems. Considering both intention and interpretation throughout the design process provides clients a more well-rounded approach, one that blends theory-based hypotheses with practical validation (or invalidation).

To that end, we might consider the following questions:


Giving more consideration to our intentions as designers puts us in a better position to create their manifestations.

  1. What are we assuming?

    Intention is shaped by the assumptions we make. Being aware of these – and working to validate (or invalidate) them – helps ensure that our intentions as a designer do not conflict with those of our users.

  2. What’re our design principles?

    Design principles frame a team’s approach. Enumerating goals, listing requirements, and brainstorming user stories are all statements of intent. Clarifying these helps us focus on defining aspects of the solution rather than better framing the problem.

  3. What does our work affect?

    Even when creating something relatively simple, like a landing page or the information architecture for a small website, the things we design have an impacts far beyond their initial experience. Think in terms of systems. How is the element we’re designing affecting all the other elements in the system?

  4. What else effects our user’s perceptions?

    No design solution is an island. As user-centered design (and the emergence of an experience-driven economy) has successfully proven, solutions conceived without consideration of context rarely succeed.

    Context, especially the boundaries between them, heavily influences interpretation. Knowledge of context helps mediate the ambiguity that different environments create.


The next step – often overlooked – is to examine how users interpret those manifestations; to consider the direct, indirect, and contextual interpretations of our work.

  1. What is the direct textual material we’re designing?

    These are the “content” comprising our interfaces: physical objects, screens, images, buttons, text, audio clues, etc. Look at the actions they afford. Do they match our design intentions?

  2. What is the indirect textual material?

    How do users interpret our objects? What inferences are they making? Are they interpreting the artifacts in the same way as we are? Alternate, unintended interpretations are not necessarily a bad thing; they can often lead to new opportunities and angles.

  3. What are the contexts in which this product is used?

    How are contexts different? What are the effects of these differences? Think about your design object not as a static thing but rather a piece of a larger system of meaning, one that is constantly in flux. Objects are interpreted in vastly different ways according to the contextual spaces in which they exist. Contextually-aware design works to understand the differences between situations—cognitive, geographical, emotional, informational, etc.—and create products that fit within these differences. A thorough understanding of intention and interpretation is necessary to achieve this end.

But what does it all mean?

The systems we design are becoming increasingly complex. As technology continues to afford new behaviors and incorporate new sets of data, designers have a multitude of potential solutions at hand. Advances – such as context-aware systems, natural user interfaces, and pervasive computing – will change user- as well as designer-behavior. With new intentions and many-more interpretations to consider, designers have a responsibility to re-examine this critical divide.

The post Intention vs. Interpretation: What Matters? appeared first on UX Booth.

March 22 2013


A Q&A with the Speakers of This Year’s IASummit

“The way we find information, the devices and interfaces we use to find it, and the methods behind it all create frustration, joy, and affect the lives of everyone we know.”

Information Architecture plays a vital role in uniting our individual passions and, every year, the IA Summit brings together speakers from all aspects of user-centered design to discuss it. This particular year, we had the opportunity to digitally “sit down” with a few presenters before the event to get their thoughts on information architecture, best practices, and the future of our continued collaboration. Regardless of whether or not you’re able to attend, the ensuing discussion can help all of us think more critically about our craft.

We’re also in the position to give away a ticket to the IA Summit to one lucky reader. Read below for details as to how you might win!

Experience design seems to be increasingly focused on smaller things: micro-interactions, ubiquitous technologies, mobile, etc. Do you think this reduces or increases the scope of our work?
David Farkas David Farkas: It enlarges the scope by leaps and bounds, falling under the old adage of “constraints foster innovation.” The more things we focus on, the more constraints we have to lend shape to our solutions.

It also provides more opportunities to fail. Where the web started as static pages with an information-centric purpose, it was easy to understand the risks of a seemingly finite space. As interactivity and technology have progressed, the opportunity to design good (and bad) solutions increases. The same opportunities exist across new technologies, environments and verticals. While we understand the limitations of one area of experience design, the opportunity to discover, explore and fail in others is ever growing.

Andrew Hinton Andrew Hinton: I don’t think mobile and ubiquitous computing (or micro-interactions, for that matter) are “smaller things” so much as they are specific aspects of a whole experience.
I do think that, in the broader conversation, there’s a tendency to focus on parts at the expense of the whole. But that’s just a human quirk. People tend to grab hold of specific memes more readily than higher-level, system-wide stuff (which is complex and requires more abstraction). Information architecture concerns itself with that wider point of view: how contexts connect.
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Brad Nunnally Brad Nunnally: It reduces the scope of our work. Many teams now focus on micro aspects of an overall user experience rather than the bigger picture. We need to start asking “Why does X need to happen and how do people want to accomplish it?” We have to rise above micro solutions and start designing the overall experience.
What led you to present on your topic of choice? Is your presentation more of a summation of your current thinking or is it a sort of rallying cry for where we should head as a profession?
Lauren Colton Lauren Colton: I first heard about Plain Language in law school and fell in love with the idea of streamlining communication for a stronger message. Although clients and I sometimes have to consider the usability and accessibility aspects of language. I’m ultimately trying to convince people to not be afraid of their words. Language is how we make friends, run governments, and build the technology that improves lives.
Nir Eyal Nir Eyal: I spent several years at my last company working in, and studying, advertising and video gaming. These two industries depend upon what I unapologetically call “mind control.” My talk will be a call-to-action for interaction designers to understand and apply what those who create habit-forming products have known for years.
David Farkas David Farkas: My presentation – “The F Word… Fail” – is a rallying cry for our profession to be more comfortable with admitting, discussing, and sharing failed projects, code, discoveries and experiences with each other and our clients.

The idea came out of my MidwestUX talk on “Interaction Design through Mixology.” Much of the post-presentation conversation centered around how I document my failed experimentations. It was a crystallizing moment for me: Where have I kept them? Why aren’t they available? Over the following months I researched my own and others work identifying the gap in knowledge in our field isn’t solely in academic or mentorship programs but exists in our fear of failure, or more importantly our resistance to openly discuss it.

Karl Fast Karl Fast: I’m speaking about the big challenge of small data. This is a reaction to the assumption that big data is inherently more complex, more interesting, and more important than smaller data. Big data is complex, interesting, and important, of course, but that doesn’t mean small data problems are simple, boring, and unimportant.

Look at the information in your life: the paper piled on your desk, the photos on your computer, all the stuff in your Evernote account. These are small data problems. They are messy and pervasive; something everybody has to deal with. The conversation around big data implies that we’ve solved small data problems. We haven’t.

Kel Smith Kel Smith: Both, really. The experience of designing for the digital outcast is something I’ve been exploring for the past several years (soon to be released as a book by Morgan Kaufmann). I’ve been inspired by how people with disabilities are increasingly relying on “grass roots” self-sufficiency as a way to successfully navigate their lives, and I believe there are lessons that we can all take from their efforts.
Designers seem to simultaneously ask “why?” and “why not?” of their clients. How does motive and/or intention factor into our work? And at what point might our work with government, healthcare, and other institutions become unethical?
Nir Eyal Nir Eyal: At some level, design is about manipulation. I’ve written on this topic before: how a designer can better decide what is worth working on from a moral perspective. I ask them to consider two things: First, “Would I use the product myself?” and second, “Will the product help users materially improve their lives?”
Karl Fast Karl Fast: Like any profession, UX designers believe our work has value; that we create positive change in the world. We have good motives and positive intent. Therefore, we naively assume our work must be ethical. Yet UX work is always coercive at some level. We deliberately design things that make people buy more, that persuade people to click ads, and so on. These are not inherently bad things, but they’re not inherently good either. Our work is not neutral. It has an ethical dimension, even if it’s not something we talk much about.
Kel Smith Kel Smith: I’ll speak from the point of view of healthcare. No authentic examples of unethical design practices come immediately to mind, likely because the industry is so tightly regulated that very few renegades are able to slip through the cracks.

The only case where I could consider a health design practice unethical is, obviously, when patient’s wellness is at risk. As we approach a new phase of healthcare that supports greater interoperability and an emphasis on quality of care, I think we’ll see new practices emerge that force us to reconsider how the patient experience is manifested through systemic or experiential constraints.

What are the biggest obstacles we’ve overcome as a profession? Along the same lines, what are challenges you foresee for our profession in the coming years?
Karl Fast Karl Fast: When Marissa Meyer was hired as the CEO at Yahoo, the headline in the New York Times was “Mayer Hopes to Brighten User Experience at Yahoo.” This headline was unthinkable ten years ago. Today it doesn’t seem unusual. So the biggest obstacle we’ve overcome is fragmentation. We have loosely assembled these pieces under the UX banner and, on the whole, it’s been a good thing for the field.

Looking ahead, a big challenge is the deep contextualization of UX practice. Take healthcare, for example: A typical UX role is improving the hospital website. Compare that to the much broader notion of patient experience design. Some people are moving in this direction, and I think it’s a positive trend. If this continues, maybe we’ll start hearing less about information architecture or interaction design, for example, and more about patient experience design (for healthcare), student experience design (for education), and citizen experience design (for government).

Andrew Hinton Andrew Hinton: Generally, I still get a sense that practitioners are impatient with complexity, and want to make everything too simple and concrete, too quickly. The zeitgeist right now is all about “making stuff” without much thinking, analysis or modeling. The assumption seems to be that if you’re working through a problem with any level of abstraction – analyzing, modeling – then you’re not making anything yet. This is horribly wrong-headed, and leads to a sort of blindness to big, complex, systemic challenges, and an over-focus on problems that can be tackled with a quick prototype. Meanwhile, the world is getting even more systemically complicated. We need to embrace complexity, then tame it.
Brad Nunnally Brad Nunnally: I’d say the fact that business executives and directors are including designers more and more during the initial conversations of a project is a big win. The results of this shift can be seen in the number of new products being released with a high level of design quality.

This new respect and desire for our skills also presents us with new challenges. Business leaders now see the value of design, but they need us to communicate that value back to them in terms they understand. If we don’t step up, then the success we are seeing will be short lived.

What book(s) are you presently reading? How else do you keep up with the accelerating change in our industry?
Lynn Boyden Lynn Boyden: I’m rereading Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting; of all the books on my shelf of professional literature, this is the one that not only bristles with post-its, but that I have returned to the most frequently during my 13 years of professional practice. It offers not only techniques for problem solving, but also for managing clients’ expectations, dealing with resistance, and other ways to get your expertise used. On my desk for the next read is Mike Montiero’s Design is a Job; everyone I respect who has read it insists it’s the best book about practicing IA that they’ve ever read.
Lauren Colton Lauren Colton: To keep up in the industry, blogs are a great way to stay informed. Smashing Magazine, UIE BrainSparks, and ZURBlog are some of my favorites. But as quickly as technology moves, the shape of a great sentence and the strategy behind an engaging message both come down to people. Copyblogger and Grammar Girl have great nonfiction blogs, but since what you read shapes what you write, I’m always reading novels too. (Recent favorite fiction includes the Dud Avocado, Snowdrops, and Reamde.)
Nir Eyal Nir Eyal: The last great book I read was Addiction by Design by Natash Dow Schull. I try and keep up with change in our industry by specializing in my area of focus, behavior and habit design.
Brad Nunnally Brad Nunnally: I’ve recently taken a deep dive into collaborative facilitation and workshops. The skills addressed in books like Gamestorming, Visual Teams, and Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It Notes allow me to work with business stakeholders in ways they may not be used to and help to drive future direction and strategy.

Books only help me keep up with the the design industry so much, though. The other side of the equation for me is attending conferences. Events like the IA Summit, Interaction, WebVisions, and SxSW are key to my own professional development. The first IA Summit I attended back in 2009 taught me more than two years of being a practitioner.

Many thanks to our friends at the IA Summit for helping us put this interview together as well as the speakers for their time in answering the responses. High fives all around!

See you in Baltimore?

Oh, one more thing. If you’re itching to join these (and a bunch of other) speakers at the IA Summit and haven’t yet bought your ticket, you’re in luck. We’ve got one to give away.

To win, simply let us know who you’re most looking forward to seeing/meeting and why in the comments below. Be sure to follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave your twitter handle in your comment so that we can contact you to claim your freebie.

Finally, entries must be made by midnight, tonight. We know that’s short notice, but we’d like to give the winner some time to arrange for their own hotel and travel accommodations. Please be aware that we can’t provide those!

Good luck, everyone. We can’t wait to meet you in person (@andrewmaier will be there) in two weeks.

The post A Q&A with the Speakers of This Year’s IASummit appeared first on UX Booth.

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March 21 2013


A Chat with Bill Gribbons, Part 2

Design and education are both hot-button topics these days. So when the opportunity to interview Bill Gribbons – head of the Master’s Program in Human Factors and Information Design at Bentley University – presented itself, I didn’t hesitate to take part. Earlier this week, we published the first installment in my two-part interview series with Bill. The second part, in which I ask questions more directly related to design education, appears below. Enjoy!

Students say you’re a professor with “list of people” to whom you want them to attend. Is that true? Who comprises that list?
More or less! I’ve always admired Don Norman. I knew Don before he became a very successful consultant, and he’s one of the greatest cognitive scientists of the 20th Century. He’s a brilliant man who started in the academic world as a researcher.

Dan Arielly also makes my list. Are you familiar with his book, Predictably Irrational? He’s down at Duke, and he’s lectured at MIT as a visiting professor.

And Malcolm Gladwell, of course.

Another guy, Nicholas A. Christakis wrote a book called Connected. In it, Christakis gives a full history of not just why social networks exist, but how we create communities, societies, and cultures on top of them. It’s all centered around meaning and our desire to belong.

Gladwell’s critics say he offers “pre-packaged common sense.” But isn’t that just good information design? He makes things more accessible, which –
– that’s exactly what I was going to say. And there is a brilliance in that. Anybody who criticizes him is just jealous they didn’t think of it before.
It also gets back to a kind of “universal design thinking:” What he says may be commonsensical, but nobody has articulated it as well. It’s as if, once an author tells a story the “right” way, it enables a broader, shared understanding?
I think that’s the brilliance of Arielly, too. He takes something like behavioral economics – something that’s about as dry as it could possibly be – and makes it accessible. He even made it fun! And I don’t think he cheapened it, either. He didn’t compromise the integrity of it; he just made it accessible.

And is it Stephen Johnson who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From? That’s a big one as well. He looks at design and innovation historically.

Online learning sites such as Code Academy and Udemy threaten the business model of universities and graduate programs everywhere. What do you make of those?
I believe that about 90% of higher education will eventually migrate online. The asynchronous nature of it is a big win.

Unfortunately what students lose when they study online is that “connection,” that sense of community. Students learn as much – or more – from each other than they do from books. The modern university’s job is to facilitate connection. You can have your blogs and such, but the sense of community around them is simply not the same.

That’s ultimately why we have two campuses, one here and one in San Francisco: We want students to feel included and involved regardless of where they study. Next year we’re bringing thought leaders such as Nancy Dickenson (former head of UX design at eBay) to the West Coast. That way it doesn’t matter where students decide to study; they’ll join a community with a shared purpose.

Many graduate programs partner with various corporations in order to expose students to real-world problems. How do you determine (1) which problems to share with students, (2) which problems to send to Bentley’s Design and Usability Center, and (3) which problems to tackle yourself?
So, we’ve actually had clients on the West Coast for years who have been partnering virtually with our students here. Our job when engaging potential clients is to triage, to figure out the nature of their problem. If their problem represents a design exercise then we partner them with a design class. If it’s research, we dig deeper: Is it a problem that’s out there that’s failed and needs forensics or is it something more basic?

Nancy teaches a leadership class, so there we partner with companies in the valley who are looking at organizational issues. She and her students work within companies who are struggling with integrating user-centered design into their company culture.

But at what point does the line dissolve? Every interesting, exciting project I hear about has an element of the unknown. I recently found myself offering “business consulting” even though I myself identify as an interaction designer, for example. At what point do students work for pay and at what point should students pay to work (or “learn”)?
I think there are times when you can work from home I think there’re times when you need to be out there observing and learning. It’s got to be a mixture.

Of course you’re going to have educational institutions that will dig their heels in and “be brick and mortar” – that’s all they know. I also think they’re going to be other places that will go completely online. Students will have to find the work on their own time. Ultimately, though, the goal – the value – is in community: learning from and contributing to it.

Universities have to preserve community. And Bentley’s been pretty successful in this regard: even our students who have graduated from the program come back to participate. So we’re constantly creating workshops outside of the classroom, and graduates of the program frequently return to give back.

Then how do you price the program? Do you price it based on what it takes to run the program – the bare minimum – or do you consider the value you add by teaching a philosophy or maintaining the community?
Our tuition and fees are pretty much based on the institution’s price.

When alumni come back to the program, it’s free for them to participate in the workshops. But nothing in this world is “free;” alumni pay for it with their time. They often hire other students or offer internships. They’re inevitably building reputations. So while it’s not free, it works for everybody. So long as everybody stays together.

I sort of asked you “Why San Francisco” once before, but my guess now is that you’ll say “the more locations we have to facilitate community, the better.” Is that correct?
Yeah. What I’d like to do if we’re around long enough would be to create a hub in Europe somewhere. There’s a lot of interesting, different kind of thinking going on in Europe around this.
I’m interested in the difference between, say, what you guys and what a company such as IDEO offers a client who is looking to build a product. Is a consultancy’s model that different from a school’s?
IDEO is sitting at the top. It’s hard to suggest anyone would compete with them, really, because of this. They really nailed it. They go into Proctor and Gamble and work with the whole organization, you know?

So I think you carve out wherever there’s a market opportunity. We’re not working at that high of a level. Most of Bentley’s work is product related. Sometimes, if we’re contacted early on we might build out the research that will fuel many products, so sometimes the research spreads across many products. On the whole, though, our work tends to be smaller in scale than someone like IDEO.

Final question, then. This one is a bit more broad. User experience fits into an interesting niche between qualitative and quantitative data. Your team is known to be data-driven; how do you measure customer experience?
I think that’s a big shift in the field. We’ve historically been very qualitative, and we’re becoming increasingly quantitative.

Qualitative data is always going to be there. And, particularly on the innovation front, field research and interviews give us the raw materials to gain the insights that fuel innovation. You can analyze analytics all day long and it’s never going to tell you where people are coming from. You’ll never innovate out of that.

Remote methods of data gathering – what we’re doing today looking at very large data sets versus what we could do in the usability lab ten years ago – provide a different kind of insight. Bill Albert (who runs the Design and Usability center) and Tom Tullis (the VP of user experience at Fidelity) have a book called Measuring the User Experience. They teach in the program as well.

We’re seeing more and more of our students taking statistics, too. This is a cultural shift. Many students have traditionally come into the program more qualitatively oriented. So this is changing the profile and the makeup of the profession. I love students that come along saying “I love math” because I think there’s a place for both.

So do you, personally, lean more qualitative or quantitative?
I’m more qualitative. That’s the part I love. And that’s what I tell my students: at the end of the day, do what you love. If you love getting insights from data, go quantitative. Myself, I like the connecting to people. It makes me happy.

That’s why I love teaching, and you shouldn’t do something that’s not natural for you. You won’t be happy, and you won’t be good at it. The good thing about this field is it gives you the opportunity to do both.

Around here the clock struck 1pm, marking the end of our time together. Although I thanked him profusely for his time and attention then, I can’t help but reiterate the sentiment: Thanks so much, Bill, for sharing your wisdom with us.

Readers, what do you make of the future of design education? Do you get everything you need from books, blogs, eLearning sites, universities, and/or conferences? How do you stay current? And what advice do you offer those looking to learn? Sound off in the comments, below.

The post A Chat with Bill Gribbons, Part 2 appeared first on UX Booth.

March 19 2013


A Chat with Bill Gribbons, Part 1

When it comes to establishing oneself as a design professional, few issues are more contentious than the role of higher education. Some believe it’s necessary. Others suggest alternate routes. The truth is, of course, that the value of a degree depends on what a student’s looking for. When combined with hands-on experience, masters programs can help students find their way in an otherwise vast, inaccessible profession. What’s more, these programs themselves potentially raise the bar for the future of professional education. And who wouldn’t want that?

So, there I was: my cab had just dropped me off in front of Bentley’s Campus just outside Cambridge, MA. The air was crisp and chill. The sun was high. Lots of students were hurriedly making their way to lunch.

I was soon greeted by a bright smile from a calm-yet-busy-looking lady named Joanna. She led me through a few quaint, old, New-England-style buildings where I eventually met Bill Gribbons, the head of the Master’s Program in Human Factors and Information Design (MFHID). Bill is a UX designer through and through, having worked in our industry for over 30 years. Although he talks quickly on the phone, in person his affect is warm and his tone is considered.

Suffice to say, our hour-long lunch flew by.

What follows is a transcript of what can only be described as the kind of lunch we all wish we could attend on a weekly basis: one in which a curious student is able to pose questions to a knowledgeable master. Bill’s in such a unique position that I also couldn’t help pry a bit with regards to the role education plays (and will continue to play) in our work.

Overall, I was both humbled and honored to take part in this interview and walked away more than a little inspired. Enjoy!

Hey Bill, thanks so much for taking time away from the classroom. You explained to me on the phone that one of the focuses of the Human Factors program at Bentley is to prepare students for work in industry, which leads me to ask: What do you make of the huge proliferation of independent consultants and consultancies in the UX world?
Thanks for making it out, Andrew! With regards to independent consultants and consultancies: The market is huge right now. So even our Design and Usability center here – in which we hire professionals as well as students to work with outside clients – grows about 30% a year.

Most of our clients have internal UX teams but they simply can’t handle the workload. They outsource it because they don’t want to take on the full time equivalent.

And while hiring an in-house designer has its merits, I find that high-level, strategic consultants can offer a more objective, broad-based perspective with regards to a business’s products or customers. Businesses think they know what’s right but they’re often too close to their problem. They have blinders on.

For someone to walk through the door (and I‘ve been doing this for 30 years) and just “see” the solution? Clients love that. User experience designers offer fresh perspectives on incredibly diverse industries – much more than just traditional tech, where we more or less grew up. Today, we contribute to retail, healthcare, publishing, and education spaces… it‘s really an exciting time.

I agree; it’s actually why I work as a freelance consultant myself! One of the projects to which I contribute has a big accessibility component which, as I’m sure you know, closely relates to the concept of Universal Design. Do you believe that Universal Design encompasses User-centered Design? How do you see the relationship between the two?
They have to be seamlessly integrated. So, this has been a problem I‘ve seen for some time and it‘s the reason that localization and Universal Design are key parts of our curriculum at Bentley. Twenty years ago, we thought of localization as a separate group –
– kind of like usability engineering, right? Didn’t we used to separate that out as well?
Exactly. As though international people were more drastically “different” than other kinds of users. But that’s not correct. Good design has to have a cultural component to it, just as we have to give consideration to people who have physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, whathaveyou.

The problem that businesses here in the US have is that, particularly on the localization front – because we such a large, domestic market of potential users – we’ve felt that we could just start our businesses locally and then expand over time. That’s an “add-on” mentality. When you talk to businesses overseas – in Israel or Germany, for example – they build a global product from day one. That’s where we’ve got to go as an industry.

I believe that a large part of being a user-centered designer is being humble, admitting that I don’t know a subject area, that I don’t know my users best, etc. Do you think it’s possible to be a master in a field where we have to constantly admit our ignorance? Are you a “master” at UX design?
I always stress to my students that, after 30 years, I still consider myself a student. I say “the day you stop being a student, you should retire.” Because, again, we’re studying one of the most complex things imaginable: human behavior. How do you create something that maps to that behavior, in a natural way, and also delivers value? And then, particularly because of the idiosyncratic behavior you see out there, how do you accommodate larger populations? How do you deal with that? You’re never going to master it. And once you feel as though you have, you’re in trouble.

Students at Bentley learn about users alongside teachers.

I learn as much from my students as they do from me. For example, we had a couple of students that applied from architectural backgrounds. I asked them in individual interviews “What are you doing here?” to which they responded “We’re interested in the experiences that people have as they interact with a physical space.”

That’s when it clicked. How many times have you been lost in a museum? Or lost in a hospital? They’re never laid out as intuitively as we think they should be. You see the benefits of this cross-disciplinary approach when you visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C, for example. It’s not a museum, it‘s an experience. From the moment you walk in, they give you a card and you’re basically a person taking part in a story.

These exhibits started so small, though! I remember some of the simple, “immersive” experiences I had in museums as a kid, but what you’re talking about sounds as though it’s on a much grander scale. Like a Disney-World-sized scale?

That’s the nature of it: continual rediscovery.

Experience design grows in fits and spurts. There was a period about three years ago when the national library association brought me in to speak. I started a nationwide tour, speaking at library events about the experiences they create. Libraries are at a crossroads where they’re questioning their identity: are they even relevant in the digital age? They’re literally talking about the experience people have in the library.

Another example – one that finally made me say “This is it. UX is everything…”

Dr. Gribbons continues.

One morning when I picked up the phone to answer a call from one of the largest bathroom-fixture manufacturers. They said “We want to talk to you about your consulting business“ to which I replied “I think you”ve got the wrong guy. I think you’re looking for an industrial designer.”

They start telling their story “No, we’ve done the industrial design thing. Twenty years ago, all we had to do is create faucets where you turn the handle and the water comes out. We built world dominance just by having a functional product. Then we woke up one morning and that wasn’t good enough to compete in the marketplace. That’s when we brought in industrial designers: people wanted things that were not only functional, but things that were beautiful…”

As I’m listening to them, I’m thinking “Wow, this is really tracking what went on in high tech. In the eighties and early nineties, things were just very functional, they just had to ‘work’ Then usability came along and products not only had to work but be easier, more pleasing, and all of that. Eventually that wasn’t enough and that’s when user experience took off.”

They finish telling their story saying, “We’ve since regained our dominance – we’ve got beautiful, functional products – but we feel as though we can’t compete anymore.” They said, “We’re at a point where we literally want to create the bathroom experience.” And that’s when I thought: “That’s it. I can retire now. If I’ve done the bathroom experience, I’ve done it all.“

But that’s what sells.

The end of the story is that we live in an “experience” economy, one where we expect things to be very powerful and deliver tremendous value. Over time, we expect things to be even more beautiful and deliver better and better experiences. And that’s true of everything thing in life, from relationships to products. What pleased us five years ago will not please us today. Although it drives manufacturers and producers crazy, it’s what fuels innovation.

Part of working in this field, in my opinion, is teaching people to have higher expectations of the things with which they interact. Was teaching students of design a natural progression for you?
I’ll be honest with you: I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction doing this. We’ve got 150 students in the program right now, and every year we watch them go out and do great things.

And I feel our students are really shaping the profession. We turn out more graduates here than anywhere else. Watching their contributions – and how their lives improve based on going through the program – gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

But ours is a profession that’s sort of grown up in practice, you know? It’s never been codified, per sé, like engineering, medicine or law. These fields also grew up in practice but eventually they were codified and accreditation was offered. This is a big point of contention in our field. I think that 80% of the people in our field, myself included – even though I’ve got academic credentials – grew up on the job. If we as design professionals don’t get our act together – if we we don’t produce high-quality curricula and graduates – we risk our ability to shape the future. We simply can’t continue to force students to learn on the job.

As you and your students shape our future, where do you see that future headed? UX Design has come to the fore as a consequence of ubiquitous, networked technologies. Do you believe that these technologies are a necessary component of what we do?
I believe in an appropriate use of technology. Many times, in the final analysis of a problem, the solution isn’t related to technology all; it’s something more human.

We were examining a water project last year in developing countries in which “just digging a well near a village” wasn’t enough. The wells were sabotaged by local villagers after they were installed. Researchers couldn’t figure out why. It seemed as though they solved the problem; they had the technology of drilling the well and pumping the water and all that.

What they discovered is that, in relieving women villagers of their six-mile walk – six miles each way – carrying kilos of water on their head, they had also relieved women of the only time they had away from the men in the village. The final recommendation, then, included ideas for a micro-financing program and/or an educational program for women. At the end of the day, this solution wasn’t very technical, but it created value: women valued their time alone.

Ultimately, our work is not about providing people what they say they need or even what we think they need. If we listen carefully enough, we’ll know that customers don’t necessarily want “a faster horse” – as Henry Ford is often quoted as having said. They just want to go faster. Users just can’t step outside of the box that technology often prescribes them.

This gets back to what you were saying about being a lifelong learner: We simply have to realize that that box is ever expanding, right?
I once worked with a manufacturer of self-service checkout aisles, like those you might see at your local supermarket. There’re a lot of stories, now, about how stores are removing these aisles because of the backlash they’ve received from customers. People say it’s poor customer experience.

So we researched the aisle’s origin. Before the first one ever launched, the companies producing these kiosks never talked to customers. They only talked to store owners. So the product was built around business requirements, not user requirements.

This led us to conduct the first user research. We never heard from the users “Wow, I really want to checkout my own groceries and put them in the bag myself and pay the same amount of money.” What everyone said was “I don’t want to wait in lines. I don’t want the inconvenience of shopping. I want to get out of the store. If I could avoid the store altogether, that would be great.”

So here they were, telling us exactly what they wanted; they just didn’t know how to design the solution. That’s where our job begins.

Somewhere around here, the waiter cleared our table. Dr. Gribbons, Joanna, and I made a break for the dessert cart. I ordered coffee and he got a green tea (reputably the drink of all UX masters).

This Thursday, we’ll publish the second half of my interview. Check back then to hear how students have reacted to the MHFID program as well as where Dr. Gribbons believes design education is headed in the next few years.

In the meantime, if you’ve got any questions of your own regarding higher education or if there’s something specific you’d like to ask Bill Gribbons or Nancy Dickenson (the program’s San Francisco co-chair, and former head of UX design at eBay) just leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to ensure they see it!

About our guests

Dr. William (Bill) Gribbons

​ Dr. Gribbons is director of the Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design and Founder and Senior Consultant of the Design and Usability Center at Bentley University. He has devoted the past twenty-eight years to helping students and clients create human-centered and value-driven user experiences

Nancy Dickenson

​Nancy Dickenson has been a leading user experience expert for more than 25 years. As CEO of FirstGiving, Nancy brought an integrated, user experience approach to strategic planning, team building, and executive management, and as the head of eBay’s Global User Experience Design and Research Team, she spent 5 years leading over 150 user experience professionals. Nancy is now coaching user experience professionals, consulting with clients, and teaching. She lives in San Rafael, California.

The post A Chat with Bill Gribbons, Part 1 appeared first on UX Booth.

March 12 2013


Everywhere All at Once: An Interview with Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Print design is not web design. This we know. And a design that works well for the web may not translate to mobile and handheld devices. True, true. But is there a way to ensure that content – the “stuff” around which design orbits, after all – can be communicated effectively regardless of the medium in which it’s presented? This isn’t a problem limited to visual designers; it affects the entire organization. Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s new book, Content Everywhere charts a path away from the web’s previously popular, one-size-fits-all approach.

The motto guiding NPR’s API is abbreviated COPE: “create once, publish everywhere.”

Now, there’s an idea. Wouldn’t it be nice to publish everywhere, rather than once for desktop, once for mobile? Once for this app, once for that one? Robust content frameworks such as COPE challenge the rather simplistic notion that designers can create templates beforehand, into which content is added after. They come from a place where content strategists, information architects, and visual designers – the entire organization, really – work together in preparation for publication; where content is viewed as a system, rather than a two-dimensional “deliverable.”

Sara’s philosophy frees content from its container.

And the book bringing this idea to a broader audience? Content Everywhere by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. We jumped at the chance to read it and, afterward, implored her for an interview to better understand her perspective. What, exactly, is the ethos guiding this movement? And how does she see it affecting content strategy as a profession?

We don’t blame you if you’re just as fired up as we are. And if you haven’t had a chance to read the book just yet, don’t worry: we’ve got details on how you might win a copy after. Enjoy!

Hey Sara, thanks for taking the time to chat! What inspired you to document your understanding as a book? Are there other mediums you’ll use to share Content Everywhere, well, everywhere?
It all started in the summer of 2011. I’d long been thinking of the content I worked on as a system, not just a series of pages. I was pretty involved in decisions around content structure and architecture simply because I wanted the content to work – to be more usable and easier to find. I’d never formalized any of that thinking, though, or really even considered that it might be something other content strategists weren’t doing.

Then Ethan Marcotte’s book came out and I realized the time was right. Responsive design makes it nearly impossible not to deal with content in a substantial, deep-dive sort of way. So I wrote some blog posts and started to talk about this stuff when I was subsequently approached about writing a book.

Of course, I’ve given conference talks and workshops about this idea (I try to keep my Lanyrd up-to-date); I’ve written articles where I can. But one of the most important ways I spread this thinking is simply by bringing this ethos – that content is a system, and that we have to change not just templates but our practices—to everything I do. It’s changed how I tackle projects, talk to and educate clients, and collaborate with project teams.

So how would you say this notion intersects with other user experience design concerns: findability, accessibility, aesthetics, etc.?
Clear, purposeful content is also well defined, structured, and organized. This benefits everyone. Metadata and content chunks make content easier to find because they enable things like faceted search and also give you better deep linking – not to mention more ways that you can jigger your internal site search engine to give more relevant results. Clear labeling of content – according to what it is, rather than big blobs of text – tends to aid accessibility as well.
In order to “chunk” content you’ve proposed content modelling, a process frequently employed by information architects. As content strategists take on tasks such as content modeling, where do you see the line between IA and Content Strategy?
I don’t. That’s not to say that they’re the same discipline – or that they’re interchangeable – but content strategists and information architects have many shared concerns and practices, and I don’t see a problem with that. In fact, we should share concerns. You can’t have too many people on a project who care about content. You just have to be willing to cede control over some of the things you could do, but the other person might be better equipped for – and vice-versa.

I’d also like to point out that information architects adopted content models from database developers in the first place. It’s not like any one discipline has a lock on them. In fact, precious few IAs – or content strategists, for the matter – are currently using them, and that’s a shame, because they’re really a great, cross-disciplinary tool. I suspect it’s because we’ve placed a lot of priority in recent years on interaction design (IxD) rather than IA. IxD is an important discipline, to be sure, but lovely UI patterns alone won’t solve the problems so many sites have: content that’s buried, lost, disconnected, and generally difficult for users to find and use.

Many of the things for which you advocate – metadata, for example – feel poorly handled by today’s basic, off-the-shelf Content Management System (CMS) software (such as WordPress). Do you believe that architecting and maintaining a robust system of content necessitates that companies build their own CMS from the ground up?
I specifically don’t advocate for any one technical solution in the book, because I don’t think you can make decisions about how to store and publish content until after you’ve figured out (1) what you’re doing, (2) why you’re doing it, and (3) what sort of content structure and systems you’ll need to support that. Well, that and the fact that I’m not a CMS expert.

WordPress works great for lots of small businesses, and it works fine for my oft-neglected little blog. Many startups operate with no CMS, but they also often have tremendous engineering resources at their disposal and don’t really publish that frequently. It works for them to hard-code copy changes. But for the sorts of organizations and content challenges I’m talking about – in industries like media, higher education, nonprofit, and government – a CMS is pretty critical.

Some organizations do well with completely custom CMSes. NPR, for example. They’ve built lots of structure into their CMS interfaces, so their content can easily make its way into the NPR API. They’ve also invested in their CMS’s interface, so writers and editors can focus on their job rather than getting an overwhelming desire to walk out into traffic every time they log in.

But you can get structured, reusable content out of many, many existing CMSes – from open-source options like Drupal to enterprise-style products like Sitecore and Vignette. Their features and benefits (and drawbacks) vary, but they’re all capable of being configured to support many things for which I advocate: metadata, content modules, and the like.

The problem is that, quite often, CMS purchasing and configuration decisions are made by an IT person with a checklist rather than someone with deep knowledge of the content being managed. The content crowd is oftentimes too daunted by the technical bits to try to poke their nose into the conversation.

What I want is for content people to see that CMS decisions affect the success of their work, and to get comfortable enough with the vocabulary that they can be an advocate for users, and for the content itself, when CMS decisions are made. We could talk all day about the flaws with the CMSes that exist on the market: crummy code, bad text editors, broken user interfaces, baffling configurations. But they’re not going to get better unless people like us understand enough to know what to ask for.

So what advice would you offer designers, writers, architects – or even developers – who want to make content strategy part of their wheelhouse?
Content strategy, at its best, is more than the high-level goals and messages or the copy on a few key pages; it’s being able to design and work with your content as an interdependent system of assets, and about keeping that system of assets functional even as the site grows and changes. This means understanding both the big picture and all the little details that might stand in the way.

For writers or editors interested in doing more strategic work, this often means pulling off the blinders and looking at a broader scope. For example, you might be used to assessing the narrative within a single story, adjusting structure and pacing to make it work. In content strategy it’s the same skill, but you’ve got to apply it a plane or two higher: how does this individual piece affect the narrative of the broader content system, and where does it fit? Is every piece of content serving a purpose, or are some things just filling up space?

For people who come from design, UX, or development, there’s often the opposite gap to fill. While you might be used to thinking about systems, you might not be used to getting really, really close to the content that will go into that system – or considering how that content might change the way you design the system in the first place.

Wherever you come from, getting strategic about content demands that you can do both – even if you’re always going to be stronger in one side than the other.

Final question! With so many noteworthy books coming out recently, it’s almost impossible not to wonder: what’s next? What do you think is the next big thing for content strategy?
The more we tackle content, the more we realize just how many of our problems start not on the website or even in the CMS, but in the very way our organizations are structured.

So many people imagine content as living in “their” sections and belonging to “their” department, rather than thinking of it as a system of information another human (who almost certainly does not give a damn about said department) has to find their way through. And it’s hard to blame them. If your job description has always been tied to checking “content tasks” off a list, then that’s how you’ll see your role. We have to show people at all levels of an organization, C-level on downward, that they need to think of the web as more of an organism than a repository.

The problem of silos isn’t new – it’s been coming since the internet started fundamentally changing both the way people live and what they expect from organizations. But the problem of disconnected companies is now impossible to ignore, because it’s being exposed, often painfully, by mobile and multichannel. If we want our content strategy work to be sustainable – to last once daily operations take over – then we’re going to have to keep unsnarling these messy organizational issues. There’s no other way.

Closing thoughts

Many thanks, again, to Sara for sharing her strategies with us. If you have a question that wasn’t answered above, please ask it in the comments below – we’ll do our best to make sure Sara sees it!

Want to get bust some silos and create great content for your company? Head on over to and purchase Sara’s book with discount code UXBOOTH.

But if “free” sounds better to you, you’re in luck. We’ve got five books to give away courtesy of the fine folks over at Rosenfeld Media. To enter for a chance to win, simply follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave a comment below. Be sure to include your twitter handle and tell us a brief story about the content strategy (or lack thereof) at your current organization. What problems have you solved? What problems might Sara’s book help you solve? We’ll randomly draw five members in the next week, and contact you over Twitter. Good luck!

About the Author

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is an independent content strategist, writer, editor, and the author of Content Everywhere from Rosenfeld Media. When she’s not helping clients embrace flexible, mobile-ready content, she’s serving as the editor in chief of A List Apart; contributing to the Pastry Box Project; and speaking at conferences worldwide. You can reach her at

The post Everywhere All at Once: An Interview with Sara Wachter-Boettcher appeared first on UX Booth.

February 19 2013


In Defense of In-house Designers

If you’ve attended some of the major user experience design conferences over the past few years, you may have noticed a pattern: many presentations are geared toward (and given by) agency designers or freelancers. The same can be said of the design articles written: most concern themselves with newly built sites, site-wide redesigns or storefronts rather than the maintenance of large, established websites.

This makes for an extremely one-sided perspective.

The thought pervading most UX blogs, conferences, etc. seems to be that every designer works at – or should want to work at – a design agency. Perhaps it’s because agencies have more opportunities to work on projects that involve sweeping redesigns or new builds. Or maybe it’s because college programs often suggest internships at them. Whatever the case may be, agencies can actually be very harsh environments for designers.

For one thing, many are focused on sales and profit margins. As Andy Budd (co-founder of the design agency, Clearleft) puts it:

“The agency world is filled with middlemen, preventing makers from driving projects. It’s full of sales people motivated and incentivised by winning business rather than producing quality work.”

So what of the alternative – the stalwart, corporate design teams?

Many successful, “big” companies have chosen to make UX a core competency. Google’s first tenant in their Ten things we know to be true, for example, is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” When talking about their Doodles, Google makes it clear that while they began with freelance artists, Google made the choice to employ an in-house group of illustrators.

It seems as though the designers comprising successful, corporate, design teams are at least on par with their agency counterparts. Why is it, then, that in-house teams are often overlooked, both by their own, internal teams as well as UX agencies and freelance designers? And what can we do about it?

An image problem

Sometimes the biggest roadblock facing in-house designers are the prevailing attitudes within their own company. Pharmaceutical-giant Merck’s Creative Director, Bob Calvano, recently said in an interview:

“Part of [the challenge] is making [executives] feel and believe that we have the capability in-house: [that] we have the talent in-house and we have the technology in place.”

He then generalizes:

The blanket statement may be that in-house teams don’t always get the credit … that the outside agency or design studio may get. We’re trying to dispel those beliefs by explicitly showing the quality of work we do in the capability presentations, showing what … creative looks like.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude at Merck isn’t unique. What Calvano says resonates with my own experience over the years: Business partners tend to automatically give more credence to the word of a design-agency account executive simply because that executive comes from a company specializing in design.

Part of the allure of account executives is that they’re different. They offer a unique perspective at companies where designers (and, in turn, design thinking) make up a relatively small part of potentially thousands of employees. Cathy Fishel corroborates this in her book, In-House Design in Practice:

“You have to remember that designers are often viewed with suspicion because people [in the corporate world] don’t understand what we do…”

So, short of stapling a resume to our foreheads, all we can do is work hard to build trust with our business partners. This is where company culture – and empathy – play a pivotal role.

It’s all about people

Does your company value its members’ or customers’ positive experiences more than the size of their executives’ bonuses? Does it have clearly stated core values and a mission that it truly follows? Is it innovative and willing to risk failure in order to find success?

It might sound as cheesy as this photo looks, but: whether in-house or out-of-house, collaboration is the key to success.

A user-centered design culture is brought about when companies foster both collaboration and mentoring. When designers collaborate with the various members of the project team – including non-designers – they have the opportunity to whiteboard together and bounce ideas off each other. They’re able to see experiences from several different perspectives.

In-house UX designers can also stay with a design effort throughout its entire lifecycle. This is often unheard of in the consulting world and affords a level of business (and user) knowledge that those outside team likely won’t have the time to experience.

And yet, however enticing, the benefits of in-house UX design are seldom recognized. Take the perspective of one author when comparing design agencies to in-house designers:

“Unlike in-house designers, agency people will usually come with fresh and innovative ideas, so even if a company has an in-house department, they might rely in an agency at some point in which they would like to change how things are being done.”

To assume that in-house designers don’t have fresh and innovative ideas is to grossly underestimate the experience and knowledge of the designers who intimately know how a product or service was designed.

Take control

So how might in-house designers work against this stereotype?

Fishel suggests we start by practicing a little bit of self defense; that we relinquish control:

[E]veryone likes to ‘be creative,’ to get involved with what we do. But you often find out that what they really want is control. If you can show people that you are still listening to them and what they do, no one gets freaked out.

Next, we might find an executive champion (not unlike Merck’s Creative Director). This is a great way to start an open dialog about the talent available in-house. When talking about the future of the initiatives for promoting his in-house design team, for example, Calvano says:

[O]f course, we’re going to continue doing dog and ponies, but have them be very strategic. I don’t want to set up outside the cafeteria and hope people stop by. I want to invite the strategic folks, the key stakeholders and have meetings where we have the biggest potential for business growth.

Short of Fishel’s suggestions, in-house designers might follow Cennydd Bowles and James Box practical advice in their book Undercover User Experience Design.

Agency designers, for their part, need to build awareness and understanding of the talent hiding inside of corporations. Those consulting with a large company can start by asking to meet – and subsequently champion – the in-house design team. As we’ve seen, an experienced in-house team can offer a wealth of insight into their product or service.

Finally, in-house designers need to be more visible. If the stigma surrounding their work is ever to change, in-house designers must submit proposals to conferences, attend conferences themselves, blog, tweet, and write articles on issues unique to their work.

Together, we can make our voices heard, spreading knowledge that’s otherwise hidden away behind the grey, cubicle walls of some faceless corporation.

The post In Defense of In-house Designers appeared first on UX Booth.

August 21 2012


The Difference Between Information Architecture and UX Design

Information architects form the blueprints of the web

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

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

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

Information Architecture concerns structure

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

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

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

User Experience concerns emotion

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

UX designers turn ordinary experiences into exceptional ones

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

The Fundamentals of Experience Design

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

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

Being easy and cool

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

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

It’s the difference between Wunderlist and Clear.

Between Sketchbook and Paper.

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

It’s all in the approach

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

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


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

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

August 14 2012


Journey to The Heart of UX Design: Debunking Myths

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

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

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

Do you remember Volkswagon’s Fahrvergnügen campaign?

The road less travelled

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

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

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

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

The danger zone

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

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

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

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

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

To theyself, be true

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

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

March 13 2012


Invisible Armor: Protecting Your Empathy at Work

Sitting in my cube one day at work with a deadline looming overhead, I was desperately trying to concentrate and couldn’t sit still. I cleared my desk, adjusted my chair, cranked as much soothing music as I could find, but nothing was working. Did I drink too much coffee? Wait, I haven’t had caffeine in over five years…

Out of total desperation I got up, walked around the office, and parked myself in the first empty conference room I could find. As soon as I sat down and opened my laptop my head was clear. I got my wireframes done in record time. This stark contrast – between the jackhammer at my desk and the 2001-Space-Odyssey-like womb in the conference room – truly amazed me.

An empty conference room

Wait a minute, I thought. My cube-mate is going through some pretty intense personal issues right now…could that be affecting me? I quickly googled “picking up other people’s vibes” and was introduced to the fascinating world of empathy.

Voldemort didn’t have it

Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.” It’s clearly a quality that – beyond being inherently human – is necessary for user-centered design. Designers must learn to naturally pick up on the unsaid. This, in turn, allows them to successfully read others’ needs and wants and have them reflected in their design.

However, there’s a dark side to empathy that is rarely discussed. UX Booth’s own Andrew Maier explains in his article about reducing noise, that “although office environments are designed to encourage creativity, their inhabitants can occasionally hinder it”.

“Sometimes we can become overwhelmed by empathy at work,” adds Judith Orloff, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life.” She stresses that “in the workplace, empathy has both an upside and a downside. People who are extremely empathic and sensitive need to be aware of both.”

The key, she says, is to pinpoint if you are a super sensitive person (or empath, as she terms them) and “be aware of the ways this wonderful trait serves you in the workplace. But be extra careful to protect your emotional and physical health, because empathetic people are, by definition, more vulnerable and open than their peers.”

All this talk of empathy may have you wondering if you’re an empath yourself. I know I did. If so, you’re in luck! Here’s the self-assessment test from Dr. Orloff’s book:

  • Have I been labelled by coworkers as “too emotional ” or overly sensitive?
  • If a coworker is distraught, does it affect my mood at work?
  • Are my feelings easily hurt when a supervisor or peer delivers negative feedback?
  • Am I emotionally drained when I have to work closely with others, and do I require time alone to revive?
  • Do my nerves get frayed by office noise, machine noise, smells, or excessive talking?
  • Do I prefer working quietly and off by myself?
  • Do I overeat or need a hour hour cocktail to deal with work-related stress?

Corporate tsunamis

Ok, so: thanks to an unpleasant alcohol intolerance, happy hour cocktails are out of the question. Other than that, though, I checked every single box in Dr. Orloff’s self-assesment. I guess I am an empath! This revelatory experience made me realize that I sorely needed to find a way to carry peace and quiet with me everywhere I went.

Nowadays many companies are working hard at harnessing empathy during turbulent times, as Dev Patnaik, author of “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy” explains. Humans have an intrinsic and sophisticated way of stepping into someone else’s shoes, but he maintains “the problem with business today isn’t a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of empathy.”

Overworked employee

Related talks of an “empathy deficit” in our country point to our overly connected and financially stressful lives as the culprit. Patnaik says that “for many of the world’s greatest companies, it’s an ever-present but rarely talked-about engine for growth.”

My invisible armour

In my search for the right technique to achieve “mobile peace,” I came across a set of meditation classes from a Bay Area school called Psychic Horizons. They seemed simple enough. Their Foundation Classes are organized around five basic premises, the first one being “You can separate yourself from all the influences around you.”

A rose

This was music to my ears. There, I learned about grounding, centering, and setting energetic boundaries. For boundaries, the instructor recommended we visualize a rose (or any everyday object outside of our space) and imagine that that rose serves as an energy-catcher. This allows you to process the good “stuff” you pick up from others, but not the bad “stuff.”

Dr. Orloff calls this “shielding yourself,” and offers up a similar technique in her article “How to Stop Absorbing the Energy of Others.” She suggests you imagine an envelope of white light (or any color you feel imparts power) around your entire body: “think of it as a shield that blocks out negativity or physical discomfort but allows what’s positive to filter in.” She also recommends to walk away, practice vulnerability and meditate.

The day after the boundaries class I eagerly put what I learned into practice, imagining roses all around me. Upon walking into the office I did a quick inner checkup to see what I felt, and lo and behold, I felt calm, quiet and peaceful. I did not feel the typical stress that accompanied me only while I was physically in the office. And that helped me tremendously to get my work done, even amidst the angst around me due to corporate layoffs.

Suit up

Invisible armor isn’t all roses, so to speak. There are many shielding techniques out there, some as simple as crossing your arms or standing slightly sideways in front of someone who is particularly upsetting to you. Another involves going outside and touching the ground with your bare feet.

Yvonne Perry, a metaphysical teacher, poses that just like an electrical appliance needs grounding to operate, our bodies need to connect to the earth from time to time in order to function properly. “When you are grounded, you feel deeply connected to yourself and at peace with everything around you”, she states in her book “Whose Stuff Is This? Finding Freedom from the Thoughts, Feelings, and Energy of Those Around You.” Perry also offers up an interesting psychological perspective on why some people become empaths in the first place: “many empaths grew up with parents who were emotionally volatile.” Therefore, they learned to pick up on subtle shifts in energy to avoid conflict, she says.

The fact is that everyone has empathic abilities – whether they admit it or not – and that given the right environment those abilities can become your most trusted ally. As Dr. Orloff says “if you can find the right balance it will only bode well for your company and career.” Harnessing empathy has definitely become an ally for me, enabling a level of focus that I wasn’t able to reach before. Now, lets all go running barefoot in the park.

February 14 2012


What the Demise of Flash Means for the User Experience

Adobe’s decision to cease development of the mobile Flash platform and increase their investment in HTML5-related efforts created perhaps the final piece of conclusive evidence that HTML5 is the current go-to technology for creating ubiquitous user experiences regardless of device.

While there’s been an abundant amount of discussion on what this means to developers, there’s been a lack of focus on what this means to the overall user experience (UX). If HTML5 thrives where Flash struggled and becomes the dominator in the choice for new mobile and desktop technology, will users benefit from the transition? Yes, as long as designers and developers do their jobs right.

Different stroke for different folks

Apples and oranges. The question is, which one’s Flash?

It might seem strange to compare Flash and HTML5 at all, since they are so inherently different. Whereas Flash is proprietary, HTML5 is continually developing through open source collaboration. If Flash is a seasoned monarchy, then HTML5 is the wild wild west. It’s important to note that there are tons of applications and sites in which Flash and native apps will remain the preferred choice of implementation. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t explore the major differences between the two in order to discuss the gaps that HTML5 can fill where Flash is lacking.

Flash, by nature, is a control freak. It demands browsers have the latest plugin, or it will be sure to let you know if it’s unhappy with your version – perhaps even go on strike until you upgrade. It thrives on presenting a consistent, desktop-centric experience of typefaces and layout, and never bothers to worry about changing the user experience based on device nor the context of what you might want to do on that device. But Flash has had years to evolve from the land of bouncy ball demos and splash screens to the product for creating some fantastically innovative interfaces.

By contrast, HTML5 excels at giving users a delightfully inconsistent experience on any device through the concepts of “graceful degradation” and “progressive enhancement.” Both concepts are designed to provide users the best possible experience each browser allows for, whether a content area displays a static image in Internet Explorer 6, or a fully functional HTML5 video in Chrome. Since desktop browser usage runs the entire spectrum of worst- to best-case scenarios, this way of designing user experiences can help ensure that all users get the most bang for their buck out of their browsers. Gone are the days of being forced into creating identical experiences based on the best performance of the worst browser.

Those who advocate web standards also support the important role HTML5 plays in responsive web design, or the systematic display of content, tasks, and layout, depending on whether the user is viewing the site on a mobile or desktop-sized browser. The reasons why people view the same website on a mobile device versus a desktop is often very different. For example, a user viewing a site for a restaurant while sitting at their office desk could likely want to view a workflow more supportive of exploring the menu, reviews and other content that would help decide if it’s a good place to eat. On the other hand, a user viewing the site from the passenger seat of a car might want to quickly find content based on the assumption that they have already decided to eat there, such as directions or the phone number.

Challenging the status quo

Because creating a single HTML5-based responsive website can be less costly, less time consuming and more accessible than creating several different native mobile apps, responsive web design is rapidly gaining popularity among clients, as well as winning the hearts of users. Additionally, more than 90 percent of all smartphones and tablets are HTML5-enabled, which means that all the benefits of HTML5 can be utilized today to provide impressive mobile websites. Now, we just need to get designers on board.

As designers, we tend to gravitate toward a single, static, pixel-perfect prototype we expect to look as similar as possible in all circumstances. Sound familiar? More often than not, we design more like we’re making a Flash application instead of an HTML5 site.

It’s a huge step for a designer to start thinking about swapping percentages for pixels, conditionally showing advanced HTML and CSS markup and shifting content and task flows around depending on the user’s browser type and width. However, HTML5 on mobile devices is expected to surpass desktop Internet browsing within a few short years, so the sooner designers start to leave the land of 1024×768 pixel perfection and embrace inconsistency for all its glory, the better the user experience will be.

Keep Pushing the Envelope

Is this the future?

Despite criticism of HTML5 not being ready for mainstream use (especially in the areas of video, 3D and high quality animation), creating a delightful user experience in HTML5 is possible today for the right type of site, and it’s been fun to watch the progression and growth that the community outputs on a daily basis. At any given moment, you can find hundreds of sometimes-useful, sometimes-downright-odd demos on the web that at best demonstrate a sub-par HTML5 version of what Flash has been accomplishing with more elegance and less effort for years. When can you ever see a user benefitting from an HTML5 hot-pink “Sticky Thing” and why are people bothering to make stuff like this? They bother because just for a little while, they free themselves from the constraint of requirements, solving the problem or telling the story.

In pushing the envelope of discovering new ways to interact in HTML5, we are capturing the spirit of what we should never lose in Flash, which is to embrace new and engaging interactions. One day in the near future, we will experience a world where useful offline Internet browsing, bufferless video watching and universally-accessible 3D and animation-intensive interactive experiences exist on the browser and operating system of your choice. For now, we are able to enjoy a few leaders in the front of the HTML5 inspirational pack, and hopefully we all can be excited to be part of a new evolution of user experience.

Ready to get started?

The good news about getting started with HTML5 is that you can start small and gradually work your way to more complicated interactions and designs. Making or upgrading to an HTML5 site can be as minimal as simply using HTML5’s doctype (google’s home page uses it) or as complicated as designing and developing for a javascript-powered, animation-intensive site. Whatever your commitment level is, understanding the potential that both HTML5 and CSS3 have to offer is a great way to begin changing the way you think about creating web-based user experiences.

Additional Reading

  • A Book Apart’s Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte and Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski – delightful reads for developers, designers, and “devigners”
  • Dive Into HTML5: Free ebook from O’Reilly Media
  • HTML5 Doctor – Valuable resources such as the HTML5 Reset Stylesheet
  • CSS3Pie – Make IE6-9 render CSS3 properties
  • Modernizr – helpful feature detection tool to help you support a truly graceful degradation
  • html5rocks – Demos, presentations, tutorials, and even a code playground

October 19 2011


In Search of Search: Discussing Analytics with Lou Rosenfeld

Aside from being online, nearly every website is a unique endeavor. Likewise, its content, its structure, and its users, too, are all markedly different. For this reason, those of us who design websites rely on pattens to provide a consistent experience. One pattern that’s changed relatively little – at least from a user’s perspective – is search. Sure, Apple recently broke new ground with Siri, but the premise remains the same: queries and results come out.

Book Cover for Search Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your Customers, published by Rosenfeld Media.

Simple, right?

Simple, that is, unless you ask Information Architect Lou Rosenfeld. In his new book, Search Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with your customers, Lou argues that we could all benefit from taking a closer look at that deceptive little box.

Search queries are gold: they are real data that show us exactly what users are searching for in their own words. This book shows you how to use search analytics to carry on a conversation with your customers: listen to and understand their needs, and improve your content, navigation and search performance to meet those needs.

Conversations, indeed! In celebration of the book’s release, we asked Lou for a dose of the SSA medicine. But instead of conducting the traditional interview, Lou suggested we provide some raw search data from UX Booth and analyze the results, together. Eagerly, we agreed.

Read on for some insights into the search logs of UX Booth based on simple techniques that you can start employing today. Finally, for those of you who like to dig deeper, you can even win a copy of the book just by sharing the results you garner from analyzing your own websites. See all the details, below.

Hey Lou! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. Before the interview, we sent over the top ten queries made on UX Booth. Do you mind telling us what you make of them?

Hey, Andrew, yes; thanks for having me and thanks for sending these my way.

To start, it’s worth mentioning that I do know a little about you and what you do, and I also know a little about analyzing search queries. But really, none of this is required to get started. The biggest thing is to just get your hands on some queries, and just look at them; you don’t need any kind of special training.

In the past three months, it looks like your highest search terms were “mobile,” then “home page,” “e-commerce,” “forms,” and “navigation.” Usually what you see is a very steep drop off as you move from the most frequent [query] on down. So we see a short head and a sort of hockey-stick-shaped curve — that’s called a ZIPF distribution — that levels out into a long tail. “Mobile,” for example, may be 2 or 3 times more common than “home page.” We all know mobile is big. I don’t think anyone is going to be very surprised by that.

What might be interesting, though, is to look at variations of mobile—synonymous— and see how they compare. For instance, when we talk about mobile in the context of phones, we also use the word “cell.” I think it’s a pretty good assumption here that people are talking about mobile design, or design for mobile devices. Do they also use other terms, like “cell design,” “portable design,” or anything like that? You start thinking about these things, start thinking “hmm, well this is obvious and, yet again, might people be using different search terms when they’re thinking mobile?”

Oh, wow, that is interesting. It’s probably a good idea to go back over our existing articles and highlight variant terms for the topics that they discuss. What about your thoughts about the term “homepage”? We seem to get that a lot.

Are they looking for “homepage design,” or are they actually trying to find your homepage itself? Now, it’s possible it’s the latter; people do a lot of things you don’t expect them to do, and the data suggest that in spades. For example, people used to sometimes enter searches in URL address fields and URLs in search boxes! I’ll bet if you went further down into your long tail you’d see a lot of URLs showing up there.

Just so you have accurate coverage of the “homepage” term: add up the query ‘home-space-page’ and then some variations such as ‘main-space-page’ and even “mainpage,” as a single word. Once you include variant terms, or synonyms, the clusters might sort out a different way. It’s possible that more people are interested in home page design (with its variants) than mobile design. The same could be true about “e-commerce.”

And why do you think people do that—searching for home page and main page? Does that suggest they care more about homepage design as a collective than, say, mobile design?

Analytics can only tell you what happened; it doesn’t really give you any information beyond that. We don’t have the users in front of us to say, when you typed “mobile” or “homepage” or whatever, what exactly did you mean? Were you looking for the homepage or looking to learn homepage design? But we can get some indicators.

If we look at a term like “homepage” in the context of a session, we might see that it’s pretty common that people type “homepage” and then follow that up with a refinement by saying “homepage design,” “homepage branding” or something else where they’re qualifying their interests further. Session data—where you can actually see how it worked from first search, where they’re at their laziest and most terse, on through one or more iterations—can tell you a lot more.

What I always try to do with clients is to get this data into a really simple Excel spreadsheet. Don’t worry about affording Tea Leaf or Omniture, whatever the most expensive ridiculous analytics tool is, because even those tools are going to give you a few generic reports. What you care about is what emerges from your own analysis, as well as what types of things are important to your organization. The analytics data often fuels metrics, which then fuel your own KPI (key performance indicators). But if you don’t have any ad-hoc ability to play with the data and come up with your own reporting and your own metrics, you can’t really tie it back into your own KPI.

Long story short, try to get the data into a database (like Excel) where you can play with it, learn things, and come up with more custom types of analysis that make sense for your organization.

Looking at our internal searches, our numbers are pretty low. Most come from “organic” search results such as Google. How is this problem addressed within the discipline of Site Search Analytics, when the vast majority of searches on some sites originate, well, offsite?

Keep in mind a couple of things. Sure, a lot of people are coming on through organic searches like Google; the truth of the matter is that they still may need search once they’re on your site. If I find my way to a really good article on UX Booth and I want more like it, you must support contextual navigation at that point…but you won’t know all the types of contextual navigation you ought to have. In effect, what users are doing when they run a search on your site is establishing their “desire lines” or “desire paths” when they’re in a certain content. Pay attention to what kinds of searches originate from certain types of content.

For example you may have a certain set of related links from book reviews at UX Booth. It would be really interesting to look at all the types of queries that originate from all your book review pages; it would be really interesting to look at the types of content known to Google as “book reviews” and see the types of navigation you might want to build in based on what people are searching. The assumption here being, of course, that if they didn’t see a link here for what they want to do next, they’re going to ask for it in the form of search.

It’s useful to think about search as something more specific—not just an overarching thing that gets people around the site from the main page. It’s really part of contextual navigation. You can also apply the same approach to not just important content types, like book reviews, but if you have a handful of really useful articles or book reviews—content that you know is high traffic. You can also see what types of searches are originating from your most popular content. You’ll learn quite a bit about what people want next, and you’ll be able to support them effectively.

Thanks for your insight, Lou. It looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us! Turning the discussion around for a second: I don’t think you identify strictly as a site search analyst, right? You identify as an information architect. Are these two things symbiotic, you think?

It’d be foolish not to do site search analytics if you’re an information architect. The problem is that a lot of people’s understanding of IA concerns navigation of very much the top-down variety. But there are so many other ways to ensure findability. I don’t understand why anyone whose job is to ensure that information is findable wouldn’t look at search data unless there was simply no search tool on the site they work on.

Everyone’s brain responds to search data, so I always do exercises with my workshop students where I make them look at it. There, everyone sees the rich array of types of insights you can get. We’re designing for all different levels, but we often don’t force ourselves deep into the data like this. When we’re forced to, we’re going to see so many different ways to use this data. It’s just amazing how great our brains are at doing this.

Thanks so much for taking the time to analyze UX Booth, Lou! We’re certainly the wiser for it.

In case there was any doubt: there’s tons more useful information just like this in Lou’s new book, Search Analytics for Your Site. And just to get you started on your own, we’re giving away four copies to readers.

Now you try

Normally, we don’t have many requisites when it comes to winning books from UX Booth. You simply leave a comment and win. This time, though, we’d like to try something different, and it involves opening your copy of Google analytics and a conducting little bit of research on your own. If you’re not already familiar with web analytics, mosey on over to our handy beginner’s guide and meet us here when you’re done. Go on, we’ll wait.

Once you’ve installed and launched it, take a look at your most frequent queries. What’s the oddest query you’ve found, and what do you make of it? Post your thoughts—and your twitter handle—in the comments below.

And, okay okay, if you don’t have a copy of Google Analytics, you can still enter just the same. Just let us know where you plan on using Site Search Analytics in your work and we’ll be happy to oblige! Again, please provide your Twitter handle along with your comment. Entries will be accepted for the next week, after which point you’ll be contacted on Twitter if you’ve won. Thanks for reading and good luck!

About the Author

Lou Rosenfeld

Lou Rosenfeld is an independent information architecture consultant, and founder and publisher of Rosenfeld Media, a publishing house focused on user experience books. He has been instrumental in helping establish the fields of information architecture and user experience, and in articulating the role and value of librarianship within those fields.

Related Reading

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September 27 2011


Seductive Interaction Design: A UX Booth Book Review

When talk builds about making seductive interactions, it’s nice to have people like Stephen Anderson giving us his two cents. Here are my two cents on his two cents.

When I started studying for my degree in Interactive Media Production, I had never heard of UX and neither, dare I say it, would’ve any of my lecturers. UX wasn’t something that was covered during my 3 years of study. Even as I entered into the fabled World of Work, I’d heard very little of usability, and it seemed most job roles called for designers or developers.

I then began working for a larger agency that had just created a brand new UX team which was tasked with making usable websites. After a few years of success, the team then expanded and begun to employ specialists within the UX, employing UX practitioners, UX consultants and UI designers. This change seemed to bring about a shift of focus from making websites not only usable but also enjoyable to use.

Let’s get seductive

The point I’m taking forever to make is that the web design industry has evolved at a rapid rate. It went from building websites to compete with your competitors to making websites usable and accessible, and now to what we see where information architects, UX designers, interface designers, interaction designers, and all manner of different specialties falling under the umbrella of User Experience.

This explosion of specialists has prompted the industry to flourish, and the knowledge base within it is growing by the day. It now seems to be a given that a website being published today will be usable; however, the new focus is on making websites seductive.

Stephen Anderson has written a wonderful book called Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experience that looks at some excellent examples of websites employing seductive design, which doesn’t stop at merely pointing them out, as Stephen explains: “…the actual examples will soon be outdated (or imitated), but the reasons these ideas worked in the first place won’t change.” This is why the book is such a success—it’s not just a book full of examples. It delves into the fundamental psychological theories behind exactly why each of the examples work so well.

That said, Anderson has a warning for anyone who thinks they can just copy these examples and expect them to be a success:

“Adding ‘playful’ elements on top of a frustrating experience will only complicate things.”

It’s all a game…or is it?

It’s always great to be in a position to think about how you can seduce your audience into loving your website or application, but you must first be sure that you’ve got the basics sorted.

One very famous example that gets dissected in the book is the now infamous LinkedIn progress bar. This idea of “gamification” has blown up since their success and it seems that every site has some aspect of gaming added to it at the moment. However, gamification shouldn’t just be added to a site without understanding exactly why certain elements work. There also needs to be a great deal of consideration around exactly what you are “gaming.”

“A game first has to be…engaging…without the points and the badges that get so much attention; a simple reward schedule…however addictive…leads to frustration if people don’t enjoy the activity being reinforced.”

The important point to take from this is that the activity you are trying to add game mechanics to must be in demand by your audience, else any success you see will be short lived. It’s not possible to make a success out of something that is failing through gamification alone—you must solve the underlying problems, which goes back to the earlier point about getting the fundamentals right before looking to seductive interactions.

One important element that Anderson highlights is that the language used in your website needs to fit the personality of the brand. He points out that a lot of forms online today seem to forget that people are being asked to fill them out, and the language being employed is that of a computer and not a conversation between two people.

Role play makes everything better…

There is an excellent, and seemingly obvious (once pointed out), role play exercise that tries to draw attention towards the language being used during a form process. Anderson recommends that you actually have a conversation with someone as if you were asking them for the information that the form is requesting. The technique is excellent at helping you find areas where the language could be friendlier and it also does a good job of highlighting the areas that could pose a problem to the person using the form.

Seductive Interaction Design is an excellent book for people looking to gain a basic understanding of psychology and how these theories are being applied to modern day websites and applications. However, and Steven also quotes these books, if you want an even deeper understanding of psychological theory, I’d highly recommend Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

Another recommendation I’d make with this book is that you should go and buy the Mental Notes card deck that Anderson created last year. It is an excellent set of cards that summarizes 52 UX theories and are a handy reminder to have with you.

As an end note, I’ve read a few books on Kindle for iPhone and been disappointed with the way it had been converted. However, that isn’t the case with this book. It’s a great conversion and the screenshots have been positioned exactly where you would want them. Having it on my phone means that I will always have it handy whenever I need it. So if you pick it up, don’t be worried about ebook quality.

So what about you? Have you read any books on seductive design lately? Sound off in the comments; we’d love to hear your thoughts.

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September 20 2011


Design for Transcendence

Transcendent design takes us above and beyond the initial experience.


Transcendence is simply a word. We have a shared understanding of it, but the context that resonates with me is when design goes beyond ordinary limits to ultimately impact our behavior on a mass scale.

What design has to do with transcendence might strike most people in our community as either pure hyperbole or just the crazy ramblings of a UX designer waiting on an statement of work to be signed (er, maybe it is the latter). After all, as UX designers, it’s hard to imagine our wireframes causing someone to levitate or go through stigmata (though it’s easy for us to imagine a wireframe making someone want to be crucified).

While it’s critical that we target specific behaviors for our design solutions, it’s equally critical that we don’t fixate on those insights—after all, even if they are gleaned from such practices as contextual inquiry, they are ultimately just well founded assumptions. We need to allow for thinking that transcends methodology, something that enables the design to delight anyone who interfaces with it. That’s transcendent design.

Transcendence Enables Meaning

Let’s start with the meaning of the word transcendence. The fact that we have a shared understanding of it but that it connotes something unique to me is not unlike experiences we come across in UX design, or for that matter, any media or art. With all experiences there is an inter-objective reality that serves as a starting point—an agreed meaning between people, but then something happens to meaning where it ultimately evolves into the pure subjective reality of the individual.

Products are uniquely individual to the person using them. Whether that product is as broad as Facebook or as highly focused as a trip booking engine, the meaning is not inherent in the product itself, but in what psychological and emotional connections the individual draws through the product. The “experience” is cumulative, personal and residual. Our jurisdiction as designers can never exceed this space of shared understanding. We cannot make emotional connections for people or instill memories or contexts for them. We can only find the greatest common denominator—a mythic space in which these personal meanings are drawn.

In UX design, meaning can never really exist on a mass level. The significance of something, the ultimate expression of meaning, can only exist at an intrinsic personal level. As UX designers, we can only set the table—and define where that table lives. In other words, we can conceive of an environment for the attendees to have a magnificent dining experience—just not conceive of the experience itself. And we can focus on contexts so that our guests can find their way to the table and have a subjective takeaway, and hopefully return again and again.

In the traditional design processes, the burden of defining the product begins to rapidly encroach on our ability to sketch and experiment. Designers feel compelled to define the known design problem before having the chance to “transcend” towards new paradigms. Product definition can still begin early in a transcendent model but really only spikes after sufficient exploration of all the possibilities.

More than just persuasive design, which focuses on changing individual behaviors, transcendent design would look to identify an experience that can “transcend” the minutia of relativity, and ultimately impact anyone who uses the product. This notion runs almost counterintuitive to our user research sensibilities, which focuses on such audience segmentation activities as identifying contexts, deploying tribal marketing, long tail thinking and so on. The question “who are you designing for?” pervades every experience design thought process for good reason. We must consider these things, but not at the expense of a potentially innovative and meaningful individualized experience.

The design principles that emerge from strategic analysis should only go so far as to maintain focus, but never should they eclipse the possibility for the unexpected to occur. If we adhere to them too closely we may eclipse the ability to transcend the ordinary limits of design. When we give ourselves the latitude of untethered thinking we increase the possibility producing an experiential magic in our products.

This Sounds Scary. Why?

I’ve met many a UX designer who believes there is no mass audience, that experience can never resonate across tribes or psychographics. Within our discipline there is a scientific mentality—we research data, we observe behaviors, we deduce patterns and then we make a recommendation grounded in sound rationale. (Of course, those of us who toil on the agency side know that very few clients are willing to pay for this research).

It’s visually striking, sure, but has it really affected Pepsi’s bottom line?

But these tactics are not meant to be ends. Reaching people in context is a starting point, and their experiences are simply an end point. The body of UX design exists in the broad imagination in between. Yes, you may get socially conscious Gen-Y people to vote on a good cause in a Pepsi Refresh campaign, but what if that campaign exceeds the audience it intended? And it has, which I would say that’s a good thing (whether Pepsi’s bottom line has been impacted is another story).

Transcendent design poses the question to our community: Who are you without use cases and scenarios and personas? Without it we are simply creative. All our deliverables are just tools with which to creatively synthesize the connections between insights into what’s hopefully a vision for new paradigms. We are risk takers; we are people who can balance out our concern for the user with a vision for mass impact.

Transcendent Design Already Exists

Just as we can acknowledge the remote thickets of subjectivity, we can also cultivate the domain of things that bind us together–things that appeal to a common mythology.

Let’s look at a hypothetical family’s visit to the Seattle’s Space Needle. The father may be going because he feels he has to hit the major landmarks of a short trip with his kid. He’s stressed out with the child’s whining about needing a bathroom, his head buried into his Lonely Planet Guide so he can find how to get to it. His child may have other goals; he may be thinking, “Why do I have to go to that strange looking tower in the sky? It looks ugly I’d rather go to Gymboree or Disneyland.” (UX designers reading this should already thinking about how to reach these people in their contexts.)

When the family gets to the top of the Space Needle, something happens; some great democratizing force of tranquility. The majesty of a panoramic view of the sparkling Puget Sound renders them silent. The father may be thinking about how he’s so happy he can afford to treat his children to travel experiences. He may be feeling simply grateful. His child may be marveling at human engineering. He may be thinking about how mankind could build such a thing.

Together, they share an experience that has somehow transcended their personal contexts. The designer simply and rightly assumed: create a manmade object that delivers something unique, transcendent and undeniably impressive. Everyone, regardless of their gender, tribe and religion leaves the Space Needle with both a common “experience” and a personal one.

A Transcendent Design Case Study: Netflix

If it’s the common experience that we must focus on, it must be awesome and undeniably original. It must unify and go beyond the expected.

Generally, one could argue that transcendent design in digital media usually involves a UX innovator humanizing a new technology on a mass scale. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, was an engineer at heart. When he acquired a big late fee for misplacing a video and was afraid to tell his wife, Hastings came up with the idea for Netflix. Certainly, everyone prior to 1998 could relate to this problem. We all rented videos at the video store. And we all had late fees.

Hastings dreamt of a broad design that allowed people to subscribe and order DVDs to return at their leisure. No one, regardless of his context or demographic, could deny the new system was better than the last.

But transcendent design didn’t stop at the inception of Netflix. The company continued to transcend the expected—creating streaming video on-demand for a monthly fee, and by designing a refined recommendation algorithm that allows the product to intelligently suggest titles the user would never have discovered through conventional search.

If Hastings had allowed himself to slog through audience segmentation studies would Netflix have ever been born? Would he have started the company if he didn’t feel on a personal level the problem he was trying to solve? Of course, Netflix is also famous for the personalized algorithms that deliver amazingly accurate recommendations based on user behavior. But this came only after thinking of a disruptive business model that people renting from their local Blockbuster didn’t even think was possible.

As designers, perhaps it’s safe to assume that we are not always that different from each other. If the idea is transcendent enough, focusing on our differences won’t articulate it. Only by looking at our similarities can we find the right vocabulary for a transcendent design.

Bringing Transcendent Thinking into the Experience Design Process

Many UX designers have eclectic backgrounds—we might even be accused of being dilettantes. Where I work, I sit across from someone that used to be an underwater videographer. Across the room, there’s an abstract painter. Almost all the UX designers I’ve met are very interested in human beings and harbor a creative impulse to tell a story through design. Too often, the UX designer is framed to clients as the egghead who comes in after the Creative Director to clean up the design and have it “make sense.” And all too often have I met the UX designer who feels underutilized as a creative partner.

Leveraging transcendent thinking is well within our wheelhouse. We are not here to simply solve problems but to imagine experiences for which problems don’t yet exist.

Regardless of the design process, we can integrate questions into our workflow that can help us embark on an imaginative undertaking:

  • What makes this product change the behavior of a mass audience (perhaps something that ties together the various audiences you’ve identified in your user research)
  • What aspect of this product is limited by context?
  • Are we telling a story through this channel that can’t be told more effectively through another channel?
  • If we didn’t create this product, would it matter to the people we’re designing for?
  • What are the archetypal human conditions this product will solve? (i.e. “it will restore love into your life,” etc.)

It’s hard to push for ambition and innovation if the culture of your workplace doesn’t really share those values. But life isn’t about just having a job. If you believe experience design can impact millions of people then push for it any way or work somewhere else. But if we ask these questions we can always move the needle on the UX spectrum closer to innovation and imagination. We can also show that our value is more than in just being brought in to “clean things up,” but to make things that never were.

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September 06 2011


Recruiting UX Ain’t Easy – A Headhunter’s Tale

UX is booming, and many organizations are looking for a few good UXers.

Knowing your stuff isn’t necessarily enough to land your dream job. Those in charge of hiring UX professionals are concerned with a number of other factors; don’t let it catch you off guard.

Note from the Editor: Though we recently discussed the ins and outs of UX job hunting, it’s not everyday we get to hear things from the perspective of the recruiters. Here, Ad Carpenter of the recruiting agency iDream Talent tells it like it is.

Hunting for UX talent is nothing short of finding a needle in a haystack. For the past three weeks, the iDream Talent team hunted high and low for talented User Experience professionals (e.g. UX practitioners, researchers) that fit the personality profile and technical expertise sought after by our clients. New to the industry, we operated by utilizing many of the same resources available to any company looking to hire UXers: LinkedIn, Facebook, personal networks, referrals, job boards and postings, alumni networks, career service centers. We had trouble finding what we were hunting for. A lot of trouble.

Why was it tougher—scratch that, toughest—to find a UXer compared to other positions we recruit for (specialized dentists, web designers, etc.)? When we do find candidates, nany never respond. Others make outrageous demands for what they think they deserve in their next position, without any knowledge of the marketplace or the supply and demand of talent. But of all the scenarios we encountered, two things became painfully apparent: job boards aren’t working and UXers are bad at marketing themselves.

Bold statements? Definitely. Is there truth to them both? Absolutely.

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

Job boards are no longer working. In the words of a former professor of mine that headed Signals Intelligence at the National Security Agency, job boards are a perfect example of the increasing problem of “signals versus noise.” In the Information Age, we are suffering more and more from too much information (indigestion) versus too little (undernourished). With job boards placing your resume into a large and ever-increasing database, it is harder for recruiters and hiring managers to find the “signals” (the right candidate) among all the noise (the thousands of applications we’re not looking for). Want to stand out? Job Boards are probably not your best bet.

Second, recruiters and businesses are shifting their paradigm from an “either/or” type of recruiting to an “and.” In the past, whether head hunters and recruiters were searching for physicians or web designers, an individual with expertise and experience trumped personality and the importance of culture almost every time. Thanks to Jim Collins (and his book, Good to Great) and several other authors and researchers, businesses now understand that the personality and the so-called culture-adding ability of an individual significantly impact profitability, productivity, and sustainability, among other healthy characteristics of a successful organization. We’ve hence moved from recruiting expertise or personality to demanding expertise and personality.

For UXers, this means that it’s not enough to cite the laundry list of programs you know or the several projects you’ve successfully completed in your field. We want to know more: who are you? How do you influence others? What makes you come alive? Do you have a pulse and personality?

Believe it or not, more and more of our clients now require that a candidate pass the “Vacation Test” before we submit them as a viable choice. If they are not someone you’d like to spend a few days on vacation socializing with, then you do not pass Go, regardless of your expertise and experience.

Differentiate Yourself

With that said, we’re left with the natural question that UXers must face: how do I market myself better and get great career opportunities?

Keep your options open. Take an active approach to your professional development by constantly looking for new opportunities. Individuals that actively form relationships with recruiters will be at an advantage to their peers. Recruiters, while seldom UX experts, hold a unique 10,000-foot view of the industry, of changing business needs, and of how your job may change in the upcoming months and years. Maintaining contact with them and asking what you can do to remain competitive will put you far above the crowd. Consider it an extra resource and take advantage of it—it’s free!

But maybe keep your porcelain rabbit collection on the hush-hush.

Show some personality. Are you a little weird and nerdy? Have a secret hobby like collecting Star Wars figurines? Take time to feel out the recruiter and when appropriate, use humor and your humanity to engage the recruiter and hiring manager. Take time to uncover their interests and tie in your own. Rather than word-vomit the list of applications, programs, and knowledge you’ve ascertained, add some flavor to the conversation by reminding us that you, too, are human. Lists are forgotten, but stories and details tend to stick.

And that’s how I see it…

In short, UXers face a great opportunity to differentiate themselves from their peers when it comes to career development, advancement and landing that dream job. While the first inclination may be to hit up the job boards and list your expertise, personality, relationships with recruiters, and leveraging your networks will remain critically important. If you’re top UX talent with a great personality, recruiters are hunting for you.

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August 02 2011


Playing UX Matchmaker

Creative designer-type seeks smart, open-minded entreprenuer. Must possess a respectable budget, a reasonable capacity to trust in the judgement of others, and also be willing to commit to a long-term relationship after one week of ‘discovery’—erm, dating. Serious offers only.

Ahh, love. It appears in such varied forms, does it not? Although it’s unlikely that anyone scanning the local wanted ads would come across such a curious article, it does make you wonder… what comprises the “ideal” UX client? And because it’s such a difficult question to answer, I’d like to take a moment to ponder it further.

Is your ideal client:

  • A small, mom-and-pop shop, a promising dot-com startup, or a corporate behemoth? Why?
  • Do they have a design culture that’s ill-defined or one that’s well-defined? Would you rather work under a creative director? Again, why?
  • Finally, do you enjoy the idea of working for a company that takes risks? or, perhaps you’d like to work with one that’s a bit more calculated in its approach? Once again, why? why? why?

While we’re at it, too, it’s probably a good idea to consider these questions in reverse. That is, what determines the “perfect” UX designer for a would-be UX client? Being practitioners ourselves, it’s easier to create a more-or-less comprehensive checklist of the “do yas” or “don’tchas” surrounding UX design.

For those looking to hire a UX designers:

  • Does it matter if the designer in question is a “no-name” designer, an up-and-coming designer, or a UX Unicorn? Why?
  • Do they need to possess a strong visual aesthetic or style?
  • Should this designer strictly lead by example, learn as she goes, or do both?
  • Can the designer you seek draw straight lines (read: wireframe)? Is it okay if she can’t?
  • Finally, do you prefer a designer who goes with their gut or one that methodically tests their designs?

Because a designer’s clientele represents their work just as much as designer’s work represents her clientele, neither side should rush into things. Beginning any design engagement by establishing long-term, tactical goals as well as strategic ground rules helps both designer and client alike manage their partner’s expectations and weather (what often appears to be) a most uncertain storm.

UX portfolio: hot or not?

And yet we commonly sell ourselves short in this regard. In a day and age where window shopping for designers is literally a mouse click away, we often cut to the chase and show a little skin: hiding behind the veil of the “digital portfolio.” My question is: why?

Well, to begin with, the model is clearly consistent with client expectation. Most people don’t know what UX design is, after all – they mistake it for graphic design or visual design – and giving people pretty pictures of pretty websites makes the complicated practice of UX design at least look simple. Isn’t that what we’re all about, anyway? Simplicity?

There is one catch, however; one that becomes all too clear when you take the time to consider all of various the questions one might ask before engaging in a design relationship. Portfolio sites alone don’t exhibit how a designer thinks. This is big problem for UX designers because what we do design depends largely upon how we think.

Given enough time, anyone can push pixels, sketch interactions, or generate a decent site map – all of which might comprise the contemporary user experience designer’s toolkit. People that do these things in a vacuum are known as wireframe monkeys. The true talent comes from design thinking (if you’ll pardon the catch phrase): managing the pixels thusly pushed, the wireframes thusly sketched. Sharing not only what you do but how and why you did it that way differentiates you and engages the right would-be clients.

Both Whitney Hess and Jeffrey Zeldman agree: telling the world how/why you did something is infinitely more important than just showing them what you did. Their weapon of choice for espousing these thoughts is, not surprisingly, their own publications. So the lesson to all designers is this: when it comes to design, sharing your thoughts and/or opinions on design is not only a considerable alternative but a preferred one.

Perceived Complexity from Dan Ritz on Vimeo.

UX Designer Dan Ritzenthaler’s portfolio site,, contains a large collection of videos that don’t just highlight projects. Instead, they convey Dan’s pragmatic approach.

Pop the question(s)

Almost weekly, I’ll receive an email from a up-and-coming user experience designer who simply wants to get better at their craft by working with “more established” clientele. To them, I would advise: ask and you shall receive. Put your name and your thoughts online. It’s the only way you’ll convince potential clients that you are, in fact, their design soul mate.

If the questions that I presented at the beginning of this article weren’t enough to get the ball rolling, here are a number of tips for UX Designers looking for better clientele as well as clientele looking for better UX designers.

For UX Designers

  • Open a dialogue. If you’re truly in the business of designing for people, you have to talk to those people – this goes for both users and stakeholders. Without their insights, without knowing what they need, you can’t properly do your job.

  • Don’t have an image-heavy portfolio. It’s tough, if not impossible, to take a screenshot of an experience. Unless you’re keen on showing off your illustration skills, skip the bulky images and save that space for explanations of how you work and how you think differently.
  • Explain what you don’t do, and why. If a project sounds like it’s probably outside of your range of expertise or experience, simply say no. Turning down work might seem difficult, but will be better for you, the client, and the users in the long run.

For those interested in hiring

  • Know what you’re looking for. Far too often, those looking to hire a user experience designer don’t understand what the job title actually entails. They either sell designers short or look to them as a godsend. Neither view is healthy. My suggestion is to find a UX Design publication and get up to speed on who it is you’re after.

  • Know who you’re hiring, not just what you’re hiring them for. Pay attention to the way the designer/firm you’re looking at approaches problems. You’re not looking for someone to simply crank out a redesign, are you?

  • Conduct a portfolio review. Determining whether or not a user experience designer can successfully design isn’t a matter of simply looking at a series of screenshots of past work. Dig in to their portfolios. Examine the approaches they’ve used during projects. Note difficulties and the ways in which they were overcome.

In summary, we as UX designers have an image problem. That of course is no secret. But the time in which portfolio sites alone won or lost jobs is over, especially when it comes to the work of prudent user-centered designers. Playing the role of UX matchmaker is difficult to do, but if, as an industry, we’re willing to ask the difficult questions of our clients – indeed, our business partners – up front, we’re much more like to have a happy, promising future together.

I’d like to thank Andy Budd, Peter Merholtz, and Carl Smith for contributing their thoughts to the research I did for this article

Related Reading

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February 24 2011


A Simple, Usable Review

Back in September, I saw Giles Colborne—author of the book Simple and Usable—give a talk on the reasons why he’d written the book. It was a great talk. Amongst other things, Giles raised an issue that I hadn’t previously considered: by writing the book he placed himself at the forefront of the so-called simplicity movement. As a consequence, Giles subjected himself to a life of simplicity for fear of being labeled a hypocrite.

Alt Desc

My copy of "Simple and Usable", slightly dog-eared from regular use.

In writing this review, I’ve inadvertently done the same. I’ll endeavor to make it as simple as possible!

First impressions

When I first thumbed through Simple and Usable, I wrongly assumed that it was a relatively light read. I hadn’t so much judged a book by it’s cover, but more by its size and layout. In a way, the pacing and scope of Colborne’s “Simple and Usable” greatly reminds me of Steve Krug’s seminal “Don’t Make Me Think” in that it epitomized the subject.

Speaking of, Steve Krug has previously stated that he endeavors to write books that are “short enough to read on a long plan ride.” This is a point that Colborne obviously took note of. Steve says he does this for two reasons: (1) if it’s short it’s more likely to be read, and (2) readers needn’t learn everything in one go. In this way, Krug’s books do a great job of focusing attention on one thing at a time.

I managed to read “Simple and Usable” within the space of 2 return train journeys to London (a total of just under 8 hours).

Credit where credit

According to Giles, a book that did inspire Simple and Usable was Selling the Invisible, by Harry Beckwith. In his talk to the UK Usability Professionals’ Association (UK UPA), Giles says it was the layout of “Selling the Invisible” that he truly admired and wished to replicate in his book. And I must say, it works beautifully.

Alt Desc

"Simpler than a bike, until you try to ride it."
example of how Giles uses imagery to enrich his message.

Each pair of Simple and Usable’s nearly 200 pages is comprised of a full page of text accompanied by a full-page image. The images aren’t just decorative, though. Instead, they focus readers’ attention on a single object that is then explored by the accompanying text. Upon closer inspection it’s apparent that a lot of thought went into the selection of each image.

In my opinion, authors often include photos, cartoons, diagrams, what-have-you in an attempt to visualize or simplify an idea that is in reality far too complex. The resulting piece tends to detract or confuse the original subject matter. In Simple and Usable, Giles does the exact opposite: all visuals are well considered and enrich the narrative.

Not that kind of simplicity

A couple of years ago, I heard Don Norman talk on the subject of complexity at UX London; a subject he has since turned into a book “Living with Complexity.” When I first heard about Giles’ book I wondered if there would be conflict between these two luminaries. Thankfully, Simple and Usable deals with the true nature of simplicity: stating very early on that simplicity is not about removing all semblance of complexity. It’s about making a system simple for its intended audience.

“Designing simple user experiences often turns out not to be about “How can I make this simpler” but rather “Where should I move the complexity?”… The secret to creating a simple user experience is to shift complexity into the right place, so that each moment feels simple.”

Giles Colborne, Simple and Usable

Dealing with complexity

Its a common misconception that in order to achieve simplicity, one cannot have complexity—that these are mutually exclusive ideas. Giles surmises that that isn’t the case. Instead of removing complexity altogether we must understand where should live. This concept is eloquently summarized by Larry Tesler in his Law of Conservation of Complexity:

Every application must have an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is: who will have to deal with it?

Larry Tesler

as well as a related quote by Paul Jacques Grillo:

“Simplicity does not mean want or poverty. It does not mean the absence of any decor or absolute nudity. It only means that the decor should belong intimately to the design proper, and that anything foreign to it should be taken away.”

Paul Jacques Grillo, Form, Function and Design

Strategies for simplicity

The bulk of the book centers around four strategies for simplicity. Each strategy (or heuristic) is explained in the context of redesigning a TV remote control, complete with corresponding benefits and challenges. By book’s end, Giles invites readers to take up the cup, allowing for a new level of interaction with the book. He even provides downloadable templates on the website as well as a place to share your solutions.

Alt Desc

I must admit I haven’t taken up the challenge, but I did find myself consciously trying to solve the problem as I read through the book. Each chapter introduces new ways to approach problems backed up with a wide range of examples. Using the consitent, omnipresent example of a remote control grounds the book in every-day life and no doubt appeals to every UXer who’s stared at a remote and wished it was designed better.

My verdict

Colborne wanted to write a book on a subject he loved. In Simple and Usable, it’s clear that he did just that. I found the book easy to read, hard to put down, and a great reference point to back to time and time again, so much so that it’s lived in my work bag for the past 3 months since I finished it.

Simply put, it’s a book you have to read.

Simple and Usable, published by New Riders and part of the ‘Voices that Matter’ series is available to buy now from Amazon. Alternatively you can find out more by visiting the website

February 08 2011


It’s About People, Not Devices

This post is part of a series authored by the speakers of the upcoming UX London conference. As media sponsors, we’re proud to provide exclusive introductions to the topics that will comprise the event!

We live in exciting times. Times of innovation, invention, and rapid change. Technologies that were unthinkable years ago are now commonplace. Close to 1.5 billion people worldwide use a computer, but that figure pales in comparison to the 4.2 billion (75% of the planet) who use or have access to a mobile phone.

If you’re new to mobile design (and most people are), you may be looking for guidelines or best practices to inform your work. When you find them, they will most likely sound something like this:

  • Mobile is different from traditional (primarily desktop) computing.
  • The desktop is about broadband, big displays, full attention, a mouse, keyboard and comfortable seating. Mobile is about poor connections, small screens, one-handed use, glancing, interruptions, and (lately), touch screens.
  • You may spend hours seated in front of the same computer, but mobile context is ever-changing. This impacts (amongst other things) the users’ locations, their attention, their access to stable connectivity, and the orientation of their devices.
  • Desktop computers are ideal for consumption of lengthy content and completion of complex interactions. Mobile interactions and content should be simple, focused, and should (where possible) take advantage of unique and useful device capabilities.
  • Mobile devices are personal, often carrying a wealth of photos, private data, and treasured memories. This creates unique opportunities, but privacy is also a real concern.
  • There are many mobile platforms, each with its own patterns and constraints. The more you understand each platform, the better you can design for it.
  • And then there are tablets. As you may have noticed, they’re larger than your average mobile device. We’re also told they’re ideal for reading.

Designing for mobile without an understanding of these key differences can lead to all sorts of problems, including clumsy interactions, high latency, poor usability, and more than a few missed opportunities to create that “long wow.” The problem however is that while these unique mobile characteristics are correct, our very concept of what constitutes a mobile device (and therefore mobile behavior) is constantly evolving.

The evolving mobile device

Of course, mobile devices are still smaller than a traditional computer—but some now barely so. Sure we use mobiles on the go, but is that our only (or even primary) behavior? Mount an iPhone on a MoviePeg, and you can comfortably watch a full-length feature (possibly even still “on the go,” in a train for example). Pair an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard, settle in with a cup of coffee, and, depending on the task, your experience can be strikingly similar to that on a Netbook or desktop computer.

How you interact with a mobile device is also changing. Manipulating a touch screen one-handedly isn’t nearly as simple as tapping physical keys or using a navi-pad or joystick once was. Glancing is now interspersed with moments of full attention as you perform a succession of gestures with little or no tactile feedback. And if it’s cold, remember to pack some sausages. Not surprisingly, some people just don’t want a touch screen. Conservative estimates indicate close to 100 Android devices were announced or released in 2010. All included a touch screen but about 30% of them also sported some sort of keypad or trackball.

As marketers and designers, we readily group products into categories—tablet, smartphone, eBook reader—but are these devices as similar as they first appear? Even the choice of materials can impact your perception of a device—and therefore its usage. The Kindle is larger than your average mobile phone but small and thin enough to fit into the back pocket of your jeans. Both the device and the screen feel weightless, with a texture reminiscent of velum or fine paper stock, while the iPad, Galaxy Tab and countless other ‘tablets’ are coddled in cases and shields—carrying the Kindle feels effortless.

And what happens to behavior when the “mobility” of a device is a mere technicality? If many mobile platforms develop as their creators intended, we will soon see them on all manner of devices including cars, televisions, and home appliances.

“RT @opera Overheard at #CES: “I’m pretty sure my coffee maker doesn’t NEED apps.”

Even more potentially disruptive are products that mediate between one device and another using combinations of software, sensors, and technologies such as Bluetooth to create new and unique experiences. Snapstick for example, enables you to instantly stream web pages and video from your phone to your TV. According to the demo, “you don’t need a mouse, keyboard, trackpad, or remote control.” I’m not completely sure how interactions designed for desktop computers translate when streamed through a tiny touch screen proxy into a widescreen TV, but you can bet the experience will be affected in unexpected ways.

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.”

Douglas Adams

Changes in behavior are rarely obvious or dramatic. Products enter the marketplace destined for one use, and are gradually adapted for another. These new behaviors combine and spin off products of their own. And these in turn affect future behavior once again. This has always been the case, but technology both amplifies and distorts the process. Technologies are adopted by one group but completely leapfrogged by another. Changes happen in weeks instead of years, and are replaced just as quickly by “the next big thing.” Mature behaviors eventually emerge, but they rarely resemble the blue-sky thinking and marketing copy of the early days.

“Technological revolutions have several interesting properties. First, we tend to overestimate the immediate impact and underestimate the long-term impact. Second, we tend to place the emphasis on the technologies themselves, when it is really the social impact and cultural change that will be most dramatic.”

Don Norman

Does the device even matter?

It may appear contradictory to the guidelines described at the beginning of this article, but we are approaching a time where the actual device will no longer matter. Many of these devices have already stopped being phones—nor do they resemble what we traditionally think of as computers. Instead, they are a blank canvas, connected through networks and APIs to endless other users, devices, and possibilities.

“One of the interesting estimates is that there are about 35 billion devices connected to the Internet. Soon, there will be so many that we’ll stop counting.”

Eric Schmidt, Google

When designing products for these devices, observe user behavior, follow emerging best practices, but don’t be afraid to question current assumptions around use cases, context, and behavior. Create opportunities for your product to live beyond the device, context, technology or form-factor it may have been intended for.

Remember as well that the most ubiquitous of technologies, the common thread throughout many connected devices, is the browser. Browser-based experiences may not always be as sexy, but they are often far more capable of adapting to different contexts. In times of rapid change, adaptability—rather than features—may be your product’s greatest ally.

“Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.”

Pablo Picasso

January 25 2011


Thoughts on Corporate User Experience

Recently, I was asked to share my opinion on the subject of “Corporate Interaction Design.” Veiled as a fairly innocuous research project, the students asked questions like “Do you recognize current trends in Corporate Identity?” and “Which parts of corporate identity will be of primary importance in the foreseeable future?” Well, “to be honest,” I told them, “I really don’t know.” Truth be told, I still don’t. But ever since, I’ve had the questions running though my head—what do I think?

Like most designers, I’m a passive thinker, which means that even if I didn’t exert a lot of energy in immediately answering questions, I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about my answers after the fact. The questions that these students asked resonated with me in particular because, at one time, I worked as a computer science intern at a major US corporation. During that internship, I saw firsthand a number of design travesties that I’ve since explored in my professional work, including: design after development, landing-page politics, design by committee, etc.

Flash forward to nearly two years ago. I’m chucking along as I read Dustin Curtis’s cutting (read: brilliant) letter to American Airlines. I’m subsequently unsurprised by what I read in the response from their UX Architect. And in short, I feel vindicated. This interchange aligns with my experience: most corporate “cultures” tend to hold back the efforts of well intentioned designers. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” turns into “Even if it is broke, we’ll need to confirm that everyone understands why it’s broken and how we could possibly fix it before we begin to entertain a solution.”

Then, last month, Kristina Bjoran writes an article with eye-opening (but nonetheless unsurprising) research results: bad interaction design—even if its provided by world-renowned brands—is still bad interaction design. Users respond independently of their brand associations. Here, they have no allegiance.

Which leads me to conclude that, yes, I too don’t care whether a design comes from the head or the heart; whether it’s backed by Coca-Cola Corporation or by a local lemonade stand doesn’t matter to me. My experience with “corporate” design could be described as a touch jaded but, on the whole, I regard recently redesigned websites such as Delta and Bank of America with the same bemused curiosity that I approach all websites of their stature. In other words, I expect a lot from professional design.

Corporate design vs. expectation

In general, I think a user’s experience of a thing is colored by their expectations of that thing. If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, chances are, people expect it to be a duck. If it turns out that it isn’t a duck, that isn’t a bad thing, per se; it just means that now that it has someone’s attention it has to do something with it.

Which makes corporations all the more curious. In one sense, people expect great things from corporations. And in another, people tend to get quite the opposite, as so eloquently evidenced by Dustin Curtis’s letter. The corporations that are most successful tend to pull a “sheep in wolf’s clothing” routine. Apple, JetBlue, Netflix, Amazon, etc. are all corporations in the strictest sense, but where others disappoint, these companies delight and surprise. In other words, these corporations don’t fit our expectations of “corporations.”

That’s counterintuitive, though. Corporate America is the proverbial “land where dreams come true,” is it not? Shouldn’t we expect the same for the corporate user’s experience?

In theory, if an entrepreneur is lucky enough to imagine, design, build, market, and sell something—anything—boundless joy awaits him/her and, potentially, customers alike. But where capitalism giveth, capitalism taketh away. Yesterday’s largest corporations have to contend with issues of supply chain, labor management, efficiency, politics, etc. Running a successful, mature corporation requires that executives simultaneously juggle a huge number of variables that affect their bottom line. Inevitably, the cost-benefit analysis of “user experience” doesn’t add up, so it’s the first thing to go.

This doesn’t describe all corporations, of course. Consider Apple, everyone’s favorite experience-conscious corporation. In late 1983, what was then Apple Computer ran an otherwise obscure television commercial attacking their larger, “big brother” competitor, IBM

In terms of units sold, the efficacy of this ad was dubious at best. But this video did one thing remarkably well: it told the world that the Apple experience would be different from 99% of the other experiences out there. In a marketplace saturated with crap, the difference Apple promised in 1983 was exciting. Today, it still is.

Finding your Zag

The concept of difference as a marketable trait is nothing new. In his 2006 book Zag, world-renowned brand expert Marty Neumeier essentially says that being different is absolutely necessary. Throughout the book, he walks budding entrepreneurs through the various reasons why this is true. To designers, though, the logic is simple: in a world made up of countless brands and icons, fashions and fads, and marketing copy galore, how does someone—anyone— stand out? By being different, of course.

I’ll save you the book report, though. Instead, I’d like to use Marty’s thesis to frame a larger question: if today’s most successful companies must be different, then why not yesterday’s? What should consumers think about “established” brands like Pepsi or Coca Cola? Especially when it comes to the digital space? or how about American Airlines? Why are so many of today’s biggest companies, well, pedestrian?

It’s a question of trust

There are many things that large corporations can do to combat negative public perception of their brand—namely, improve their user experience! As earlier illustrated, most large corporations have a basic product/service that makes money. Throughout their routine operations, these companies must go the extra mile to objectively improve their supply chain: reducing costs and saving on time and labor.

But what these companies make up for in dollars, they can lose in customers. To bring the process full-circle, corporations must listen to their customers and improve the more subjective parts of their product’s experience. UX Designer Whitney Hess detailed a fantastic example of this early last year, when Dominos Pizza decided to rebuild their pizza from the bottom up:

Dominos isn’t not alone. More recently, JetBlue launched a campaign to bring honesty and integrity back to the business of airline travel. Rather than focusing on themselves, though, JetBlue’s slogan now proclaims: “You above all.” What does that mean to unassuming customers?

Stock photography is notably absent from JatBlue’s latest advertising campaign You Above All. Instead, CEO Dave Barger says the company’s emphasis is on “humanity.”

With all of the “honesty,” “integrity,” and “humanity” being bandied about, it can certainly feel that today’s corporations are being more than a little bit disingenuous. After all, every corporation can’t be about me, can it?

Actions speak louder

While some corporations feel the need to document their process and openly tell customers that they’re improving their experience (pardon the mess, we’re under construction), others start from a more humble place. Google’s corporate user experience manifesto, for example, clearly shows that they care about the people using their software, but they don’t plaster that fact on their homepage.

Which brings me back to one of the last, most telling responses I gave to that survey:
In my mind ‘corporate’ tends to mean means cold, but also well–orchestrated.
I expect the corporations in my life to have things under control. If I message the event manager of a hastily-prepared after party, I can reasonably expect some delay. When I message the company that’s managing my company’s holiday party, I expect something completely different. At some level, it’s all about trust.

Abstracting away the details, the word “corporation” is great for getting things done, but it also bring with it qualities that are difficult to empathize with. All that most customers want out of their perceived experience with a “corporation”—not to be confused with the product it sells, mind you— can actually be summed up in the Three Laws of Robotics. If, here, we replace “robots” with “corporations”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Ironically, were corporations to act according to the laws of robotics, consumers might find these entities are less self-interested and the more customer friendly in all of their interactions.

Related Resources

January 06 2011


Questioning Authority: Our interview with Colleen Jones, author of Clout

Book cover for Clout: the Art and Science of Influential Web Content, published by New Riders.

As far as user experience designers are concerned, 2010 can be easily summed up in two words: Content Strategy. Never before has such a relatively new discipline received such widespread press. Sure, if you were one of those designers “in the know,” you’ve probably read an article or two about Content Strategy on A List Apart. But the rest of the world didn’t have a clue…until now.

Today, companies of all sizes don’t just mention Content Strategy, they’re starting to practice it! Content is all the rage—and the pervasive question? “How do we create content that users will care about and act on?”

Fortunately, one content strategist has the answer. Colleen Jones is the principal of the Atlanta-based firm, Content Science. Leveraging over a decade of experience, Colleen helps her clients figure out, first, how to prepare their digital content strategy and, second, how to make their content work for them. In other words, she helps her clients attain clout.

In her new book, Clout: The Art and Science of Content, Colleen shares her most sagacious advice in just over 200 pages. How she did it, I just don’t know. In this interview, I dig in deep: asking Colleen questions about her new book, her prior consulting experience, and what her forthcoming clout means for the future of Content Science. Read on to learn more about the author and find out how you could win a free copy of Clout!

Hey Colleen! Thanks so much for taking part in an interview for UX Booth readers. To start, could you tell us a bit about yourself, including your role as the owner of Content Science?
It’s a pleasure! I’ve been tackling content and UX challenges for 13 years, now. After long stints at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Cingular Wireless, I began contracting on my own. In early 2010, I started Content Science. We work with many of the corporate headquarters, niche brands, and government agencies here. Atlanta has quite a few startups, too, and we advise them about the UX of their digital products.
That might sound like a very diverse background, but I’ve found the variety to be really, really helpful. I know what it’s like to be on the “client side” and have to live with content, technology, and design decisions for a long time, not just a project. I also have learned how to understand context, or the situation, quickly. I’ve worked on websites, IVRs, mobile devices, applications, kiosks, and just about anything interactive. And, I know first hand what it’s like to balance organizational goals, many stakeholders, and user needs. Throughout it all, I’ve made some mistakes and had some successes. So, I share my best lessons learned about content in Clout.
I imagine that writing an entire book about Clout was a very difficult process. Most notably because my experience with the web points to a meritocracy: the more positive work you do, be bigger your reputation – your clout – becomes. Yet this approach is, like most things of substance, easier said than done. How did you determine which characteristics inspire clout in today’s audiences and, more importantly, the crucial steps in which content novices could go about attaining it?
You’re right, it was difficult. I worked very hard to make the book easy to read but also meaningful and thought-provoking. I think people hear some confusing advice about influencing online. My goal was to end the confusion with advice grounded in solid principles. I included insights from my experience and principles of rhetoric as well as psychology. I also talked to persuasive design expert B.J. Fogg of Stanford University, who graciously let me reference his work on influencing behavior.
I think it’s interesting—and, at times, frustrating—that clout is not only about the positive work you do. As a simple example, you can create awesome content or an awesome product, but if no one knows about it, your organization will not achieve clout. So, awareness is very important. But, how do you make people aware of your awesome work without annoying them? It’s tough, but Clout offers principles to help.
And, in a survey I conducted early on about the book, I knew that readers wanted examples and case studies. So, I spent much time talking to people with all kinds of organizations such as Newell Rubbermaid, North Carolina State University,, Grasshopper,, and more to help show those crucial steps. The result is Clout has more than 150 examples and case studies.
Indeed, I found it difficult to put the book down! But, now, I’m curious: out of those 150 examples, what are the takeaways? What elements of content strategy constitute a “working knowledge” for today’s internet professionals? Creating any sufficiently complex website require close collaboration between a group of professionals. As a consequence, any particular team member needs to understand how their work relates to the website as a whole, including its content strategy. So what’s the foundation?
You make a great point about collaboration. I would say that three elements of content strategy are essential: analysis, editorial, and architecture. You need analysis to understand your content and your situation, or context. That’s what drives your strategy. Then, you need editorial to turn analysis into ideas, calendars, workflow, and quality content. You also need architecture to plan how your content is structured, how it’s displayed, and where it will be delivered, such as a website and mobile devices. Then, you need analysis again to decide whether you’re getting results. If not, then you need to adjust editorial and architecture.
Much of the advice you give in the book is especially valuable to those who are new to the web in terms of content creation. Did you write this book especially for these people (bloggers, content creators at startups, etc.)? Most beginners haven’t heard of a content audit or a style guide. I ask this question because – back when I lived in Atlanta and attended the local Blogger meetup – conversations about blogging inevitably tended towards what would otherwise be described as content strategy and clout.
Clout has layers, like an onion. If you’re new and want only basics, you can peel those off easily. For example, if you’re deciding whether to spend money on SEO tricks or better content, you’ll learn I think you should spend it on better content and why. If you’re more experienced and want to dig into deeper topics, you can. For example, the idea of as an influential media property raises some interesting questions about freedom of the press. The book mentions them but doesn’t make you analyze them in painful detail. I promise that Clout doesn’t make you cry like an onion can.
Also, Clout can help people who you might consider to be content experts, such as journalists or technical communicators. The book shows how their talents are needed in surprising new areas. In a way, I hope this book gives them some deserved career juice as content strategists.
Finally: now that your book is complete, what are your future plans for attaining and sharing clout with a broader audience? Writing this book certainly brings clout to your consultancy. Have you considered lending it to any of the ailing parties you mention in your book? For example: the ad industry or the health industry?
For the health industry, I just learned that CDC ordered Clout for training. That’s a very encouraging start.I’m hopeful for the advertising industry because many advertisers and publishers seem ready for a change. Those parties need to speak more, but I’ll help move the conversation forward. Also, Peter Merholz and Karen McGrane have sparked interesting discussion about how UX fits into all this. I added my two cents in a recent blog post.

For the technology, design, and marketing communities, I’m reaching out in 2011 more than I ever have. For example, Tim Jones of North Carolina State University and I are speaking at the O’Reilly Where 2.0 conference about content and location-based services (LBS). Most talk about LBS is social and technology, and we’re going to bring content into the discussion. Wish us luck!

Realistically, it will take more than a book—and many more people than me—to create lasting change in these industries. But, I’m doing all I can to be a catalyst and won’t stop anytime soon. I’m excited about the growing content strategy community around the world, too. It’s bustling with talent, ideas, and accomplishments. Count on hearing and seeing much more from this community in 2011!

Closing thoughts

Thanks again, Colleen, for taking the time to share your thoughts with our readers. If you’ve got questions for Colleen, feel free to ask them in the comments below!

About the book

Results. Everyone wants them, whether to sell more products, spread good ideas, or win more funding. In our busy digital world, the way to results is influencing people on the web. But how? An ad campaign won’t cut it. A Twitter account doesn’t guarantee it. Manipulative tricks will backfire. Instead, you need quality, compelling web content that attracts people and engages them for the long haul. Clout explains the key principles of influence and how to apply them to web content.

Don’t want to pay? How does free sound?

Holiday spending got you down? Well, consider this our present to you. If you’d like a free copy of Clout delivered to your home or office, you’re in luck! As it turns out, Peachpit has generously offered to give three books away to our readers. To enter for a chance to win, simply follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave a comment (with your twitter handle) below describing what you’ll do to earn Clout in the new year. We’ll randomly draw three members within a week of this post and contact you over Twitter. See you in the comments!

About our Guest

Colleen Jones

A veteran of the interactive industry, Colleen has guided or supported strategic initiatives for global brands, government agencies, boutique brands, and savvy startups. She has presented about content strategy, user experience, and interactive marketing around the world. Colleen is Principal of Content Science, a content strategy and UX consultancy and can be found at @leenjones on Twitter.

January 04 2011


The Relevance of User Experience: Using Every Opportunity to Impress Users

Is it possible to calculate the ROI of great design? What about the cost-per-acquisition of a customer sold on User Experience? There are no second chances for first impressions, and even the smallest opportunity is a chance to “Wow” users. What you do with that opportunity can spark a chain of events that can make or break your business.

Worth Doing Right

Many a startup dream has been shut down before ever truly starting. Once it is discovered that there is someone else with the same idea – months or even years ahead of you, your efforts can seem simply pointless. Even if their product looks rudimentary you imagine them already developing all of your ideas, ready to own the space and the users.

Pete: You mean like Mr. Skin?
Ben: Who’s Mr. Skin?

There is such a thing as "first mover advantage" – however, in the fast moving tech world there are many examples of companies losing that advantage, or simply being beaten in the long term by startups willing to accept a "best not first" approach.

For every new web technology company there is an equal and opposite competitor. Many variables can factor into who makes it and who doesn't. Often, however, it simply comes down to the User Experience.

Mint vs. Wesabe

Mint vs. Wesabe

Wesabe and Mint both set out to change the way people managed their personal finances. Wesabe launched first, but was quickly overshadowed by Mint's meteoric rise. Just two years after launch, Mint was sold for $170 million to Intuit, and shortly after that Wesabe shut its doors for good. In a recent blog post, Wesabe's co-founder Marc Hedlund provides a detailed and candid account of why they lost. Although he doesn't concede a better design, he does admit that Mint had the better overall user experience. While Mint had simply licensed the technology to aggregate the financial info, Wesabe laboriously attempted to do this in house. Mint was able to focus their resources on what ended up mattering the most: user experience so good people told their friends.

Reddit vs. Digg

Reddit Vs. Digg Trends

Steady decline for Digg, slow growth for Reddit.

Digg launched in 2004 with a minimalist layout and a core group of users. Over the years there were buyout rumors, site design & voting algorithm overhauls, shifts in management, and layoffs. As time went by it became clear to many users that Digg had lost the magic it once had. In comparison, Reddit, founded in 2005 and purchased by Conde Nast in 2006, has retained its minimal design, unobtrusive advertising, and loyal user base.

Facebook Vs. Myspace

Neither Facebook nor Myspace can claim the title of the first social network, nor are there drastic differences in their base functionality. Myspace launched first in 2003 with promotions including flashy parties in Hollywood clubs. Their platform allowed for users with no technical knowledge to customize their pages with HTML templates which could be obtained from sites catering to this new cottage industry. Facebook, launching in 2004 as an ivy league only network, slowly expanded to allow other colleges, high school students, and eventually everyone to the network. Facebook relied entirely on the word of mouth spread by its users. While Myspace allowed its users to create garish sites, Facebook made a name for itself with its consistent user experience and simple designs.


The iMac is often noted as saving Apple, and it did mark the beginning of the revitalization. For your consideration, however: the iPod. It was definitely not the first mp3 player, and it wasn't even their first foray into consumer electronics. However, the gambit worked. What was different?

  • The product worked. Users loved it.
  • The product was interesting to and usable by a larger audience.

It also introduced new users to the "it just works" mantra. iPod owners became iPod Touch owners, who became iPhone owners, who are now becoming iPad and Mac owners. Apple was able to reach a large enough audience that the iPod became synonymous with mp3 player to many users, and later, sell to a market segment that didn't know of smartphones before the iPhone. By capitalizing on a best not first strategy, the combination of marketing and critical mass reached the large, profitable group of non-tech savvy users.


Perhaps one of the best examples of the power of superior User Experience, Google launched itself into an already crowded search market without a single dollar allocated for advertising or PR. The experience spoke for itself so well that word spread on its own, and Google was able to extend their innovation and success in search into additional products.

While I don't particularly think of myself as a fanboy, I do however, know the feeling. I have to admit that there was a time period when I was a emphatically enamored with GrandCentral. As soon as I got past the digital velvet rope, and into the private beta, I was sold. My friends probably grew tired of hearing me try to drop its list of features into casual conversation. Google bought the company, & eventually changed the layout and turned it into Google Voice. The new layout was similar to Gmail – which I had never really used enough to see what all the fuss was about. I knew my tech friends had been touting its virtues for awhile, but I really didn't understand what could make it that much different. Google Voice made me more comfortable with Gmail, and it wasn't too long before I was a convert, routing all of my email addresses through either Gmail or Google Apps. Google Voice also drove me to Android where I became further entrenched. I think Chrome sold me on its own. Obviously I was familiar with Google search, and used Adwords & Analytics at work. The net-net though, is that Google successfully parlayed their opportunity to sell me, and before I knew it I was using their products all the time, and recommending many of them to friends.

Planting Seeds

Obviously, the stickyness is part of the plan, as well as attracting the core audience first, whose opinions will be trusted when they make recommendations to their friends or employers. Tech is no different than any other industry, and new products will always attract the bleeding edge users first. The trick is to make the product great – so that they like it, blog it out, & talk about it at dinner parties. When they tell their mothers about your product, you can pop the champagne.

How do you calculate the ROI on this type of marketing? Is it possible to attach dollar figures to a passionate user base? Advertising was novel at some point. How many generations ago? The current generation, their parents, and their grandparents have all been market segmented and advertised to since the day they were born. Is it really a surprise there is a backlash? To continue getting past the noise, marketers have to be increasingly brilliant. What if that energy was channeled making the product great enough that it makes product evangelists out of average users?

The Relevance of User Experience

The concept that you can find what you are looking for on the Internet is now ancient. A bit of perspective for fellow late 20s dinosaurs: there are voting age adults who have never known a time when they couldn't find anything they ever wanted to know instantly. Currently the only novelty felt when you find exactly what you are looking for is when you have to filter out all the blogspam and Squidoo pages first. The natural progression is in the relevance of User Experience, and creating products so good that they aren't just recommended by the people on TV, the users themselves are the advertisements. With the facilitation of social media we are increasingly paying more attention to what the people we care about, care about.

One of the subjects in college that I was surprised to find fascinating was Operations Management. Equally surprising was the amount of statistics (and thusly Calculus) used in forecasting. I love looking at large sets of data for patterns, and being able to take the correct course of action based on the cold hard facts. I have to imagine large companies utilize these calculations to chart their course. However, its undeniable there is something romantic about the idea that with a clear vision of a great product, and a hunch that if you can motivate a core group of users, you can eventually reach millions of users who love your idea too. Movies aren't made about decisions reached by committees and pie charts after all.

Even Microsoft

Recently it came to light that Microsoft did something very un-Microsofty with Windows Phone 7: they scrapped years worth of work and started from scratch. Similar to the timing of Apple's iMac and iPod products at the turn of the millennium, their decision was reached while recovering from less than stellar product launches, & steadily declining market share. Coupled with the fact that we are either in the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end of the personal computer era, & it seems to make it obvious that status quo will no longer cut it. I would love to look at the data that went into this decision though. It may very well have come down to the gut instinct of one man, and its very possible that next to licensing QDOS its the most important decision they have ever made. They had to see the writing on the wall: the smartphone market may only end up being as big as every person on the planet, and you get one chance to either impress them, or blow it.

Binary Scale

The world moves quickly these days, and it can seem a little callous if you aren't willing to keep up. When faced with a deluge of resumes recently, one company implemented a new application procedure: applicants were now given the opportunity to leave a 2 minute long voicemail stating why they were right for the job. Your life. In 2 minutes.

Companies and politicians can no longer afford a two or three sentence pitch, they need 2 or 3 word microscripts. If you are a startup, your entire core competency needs to fit in a tweet, & starting with the very first impression, your experience should give your users something to tweet about.

In closing, a recent epiphany I had when thinking about software UX: its all ones and zeroes. Every single bit of it. All we are selling is what you do with it, and how.

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