The Expertise Trap in UX Critiques

From an article in TNW about the UX of posting and commenting on LinkedIn:

As haphazard as lots of the design is, there does appear to be a goal: driving up in engagement. That makes sense, but where the real joy comes from is the batshit way this is approached.

The article highlights two features ostensibly designed to drive engagement: LinkedIn’s canned responses, which, according to the author, have produced “a terrifying world filled with reams of identikit comments that come across as inhuman and deeply insincere,” and its “add hashtag” feature. Most of the article focuses on the latter.

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Ahead of the Game

My family and I like board games. A few have become favorites that we play time and time again. However, we especially love learning new games. I’m often the one who reads through the rules to explain them to the rest of the family. When I do, I inevitably think of my work.

Much like an information environment, a board game is a little world. You inhabit that world when you play. You’re asked to make decisions between choices that are only relevant in that context. You do so towards achieving particular objectives and following particular constraints.

When you read the rules, you’re inducted into that world. You learn about the game’s theme and goals, and distinctions that only make sense in that context.

Consider the introduction to the most recent game we learned, called Planet:

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The Causes of Inconsistent Navigation Structures in Product Families

Yesterday I published a new post on The Architecture of Information. It’s about the importance of maintaining structural consistency across a family of products.

Specifically, I wanted to put in writing an example I’ve used when talking about this stuff: the location of the “Sync to Furthest Page Read” button/link in the Kindle user interface. Bottom line: this is an important feature if you use Kindle in several devices concurrently. However, the way you access it depends on what platform you’re using. That can be frustrating. If you haven’t done so already, please read that post.

What I didn’t cover there is why this sort of inconsistency creeps into product families. (I’m focusing The Architecture of Information on examples, and not on speculating about how they’ve come about.) That said, writing yesterday’s post made me revisit my interview with Christian Crumlish. In that conversation, I asked Christian about the sources for this type of inconsistency, and even brought up the same Kindle example. This was part of his reply:

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The Informed Life With Nataly Restrepo

Episode 42 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with food designer Nataly Restrepo. Nataly works as a food and beverage innovation consultant for restaurants and producers of consumer goods.

I asked Nataly on the show because I wanted to learn to learn more about food design. This is how she explained it:

food design actually is everything — like every designed action — that improves our relationship to food. So, it can be from a product and service, a business model, an object… everything that you can design that has an aim to improve our relationship to food.

In other words, it’s a holistic practice that strives to coordinate the work of various other professionals — chefs, architects, industrial designers, etc. — towards creating a coherent experience centered on eating.

As with many other such “big picture” design disciplines, I was curious about the degree to which clients understand the value that food design can bring to their business. She confirmed that this is a challenge:

It’s always very difficult to sell this approach because it’s something that can be very intangible sometimes, because you’re selling an experience, you’re selling that concept that obviously can be translated into tangible things, but it’s like a second part of the process. First you have to understand the vision and the superior meaning that you want to create, and it’s not always easy for the owner of a restaurant or the managers of a chef to recognize the value. But it’s starting to become easier.

I enjoyed this conversation with Nataly; I hope you get value from it too.

The Informed Life Episode 42: Nataly Restrepo on Food Design

Worth Your Attention

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Re-thinking Digital Note-taking

Note-taking is central to my work. Every day I sketch ideas, capture meeting minutes, annotate bookmarks, draft new posts, etc. I’ve done this for a long time using both digital and analog notebooks. However, over the last couple of years, I’ve started feeling constrained by some of my tools. In particular, I’ve realized that I can create the most value when I can quickly spot patterns to generate insights, but the way I’ve been taking notes doesn’t lend itself to sparking new connections.

My primary note-taking tool over the last eight years has been OneNote. I started using OneNote because I wanted to hand-write my notes digitally, and Windows tablets were the only viable way to do so before the Apple Pencil came along. When the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil appeared, I left Windows tablets behind (one less OS to maintain!) but kept using OneNote. While the iPad app doesn’t have as many features as the Windows version, it’s close enough for my purposes.

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Starting The Big Picture

Brass plaque that reads "Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy"
Plaque above the entrance to Disneyland. Photo by Cburnett via Wikimedia.

I’ve designed digital experiences for over twenty-five years. In that time, I’ve worked with many different teams. Some have succeeded, while others haven’t. Often, success comes down to leaders who can articulate the vision and direction for the project to bring clarity and alignment. I call this “The Big Picture.”

The Big Picture doesn’t have to be an actual picture; it could also be a description, with words. (Such as the plaque above.) That said, a clear diagram can move mountains. For example, one such (simple!) diagram helped save Apple from near-death at the end of the 1990s.

Many design and product teams still work without seeing The Big Picture. More often than not, they’re beset by conflicts with other groups, duplicated effort, mis-prioritization, and more. Most of these folks are excellent professionals. But lacking clear direction, they end up working at odds with each other.

That said, The Big Picture doesn’t need to come from the top. Anyone can explain their understanding through drawing. They can then show the picture to others and ask clarifying questions:

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Startups and the Big Picture

The Daily podcast interviewed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and The New York Times published an article with highlights from the conversation. This caught my eye:

Twitter was founded without a plan, Mr. Dorsey said. “It wasn’t something we really invented, it was something we discovered. And we kept pulling the thread on it.”

The unraveling was “electric,” he said, as the small, localized platform he built for friends to share updates on their lives morphed into a global social network. In the process, though, Mr. Dorsey said he now believes that he made a critical mistake: not hiring experts to help him understand the potentially far-reaching importance of apparently small design choices.

“The disciplines that we were lacking in the company in the early days, that I wish we would have understood and hired for,” he said, were “a game theorist to just really understand the ramifications of tiny decisions that we make, such as what happens with retweet versus retweet with comment and what happens when you put a count next to a like button?”

Without this expertise, he said he thought that the company had built incentives into the app that encouraged users and media outlets to write tweets and headlines that appealed to sensationalism instead of accuracy. At the time, he noted, he struggled to envision the app’s potential social implications – and what those design decisions might mean for “how people interrelate with one another, how people converse with one another.”

This is an excellent example of what I mean by “not seeing the big picture.” But it’s unrealistic to expect small startups to think about second- and third-order effects; most are trying to survive. They’re focused on the immediate next step, and then the one after that. The “unraveling” is a stochastic process.

And yet, early decisions are hard to undo later. Structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel. So, teams must consider the structural implications of their work. It’s unrealistic to expect nascent Twitter to have hired a game theorist, but perhaps they could’ve consulted with an information architect? (But then, if they’d caught these problems early on, would they have ever become Twitter?)

On another note, I was encouraged by the mention of how Twitter’s incentive structures foster sensationalism. Alas, there’s no acknowledgment (at least in the highlights article; I haven’t heard the full interview) of the role Twitter’s business model — selling the attention of its users — plays in all this. That seems like the more challenging problem to solve.

Jack Dorsey on Twitter’s Mistakes – The New York Times