On Rules and Barbarism

Students often want to know if they’re doing things the “right” way. They want to learn the “standard” way of making sitemaps, wireframes, storyboards, etc. Many are anxious about doing these things “wrong.” I tell them that although there are best practices, there are no strict rules for many of these things. The purpose of making any design artifact is to clarify and communicate intent. What’s “right” is what best articulates what they’re trying to do.

Recognizing what’s right requires practice, and that takes time. As professors, we aim to provide feedback so students can improve over time. Still, I suspect it’s no comfort to answer the question of how to do things “right” with “it depends.” Speaking with a student this week, I thought of a good analogy for what I’m trying to get across: Orwell’s six rules of writing.

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Consider the Frame

A product may be redesigned for various reasons: competitive pressure, integrating an exciting new feature, a change in leadership, etc. Some of these reasons (such as the new feature) are integral to the product’s content. Others (such as the change in leadership) are part of the frame around the product. As a force in influencing the project’s direction, the frame can be as powerful as the challenge’s substance.

A metaphor for the frame’s power: Late last fall, I decided to lose weight. Coincidentally, my family needed to replace some broken bowls. I realized that IKEA sold bowls similar to the ones we use at home, but smaller. I bought some of the small bowls and started using them — along with a smaller spoon — for my breakfast. These subtle tweaks helped me trick my brain into eating smaller portions. With patience, exercise, and mindful eating, I eventually lost the weight.

Was it all thanks to the smaller bowl? No. But the bowl made it easier. My eyes measure the amount of food relative to the size of the bowl. Using a smaller bowl led me to see my “normal” portions differently. Food — the substance of the meal — is framed by the bowl. Smaller bowl = more food, even if the portions are actually smaller. The frame around a problem changes how we see the problem. When undertaking a design challenge, consider its frame along with its content.

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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Caring as a Core Design Principle

Bruce Mau, in an interview for The Creative Factor:

Being a designer, what you really signed up for is caring. I did a lecture for the Cooper Hewitt about their collection. When I looked at the collection, I thought, What do all these disparate objects have in common? I realized the common denominator is caring. What makes a design product different from other things is that people care more about the user as an individual, not as a consumer, but as a citizen.

Once you care about a person, you can’t not care about their context, right? You can’t have a healthy, vibrant person in a toxic community. And by extension, you have to care about their environment. You can’t have a thriving community in a toxic ecology.

We shift the idea of what design is about from the object and the immediate outcome to life itself—life-centered design, which is an understanding that we are not the center of the universe.

That’s really is it, isn’t it? The quality of the work will be completely different if designers truly care about the people they’re designing for.

Note this isn’t about being “user-centered.” It’s about understanding that our “users” exist in societies and ecosystems. If the thing we design serves user and business needs, but compromises their contexts, then it’s no good. Alas, we focus too much on the design of the parts and not enough on the whole. We value craft over philosophy – even though we, too, live in the same societies and ecosystems.

This interview is in support of Mr. Mau’s new book, MC24. I’m finding much inspiration in its pages; it’s a good salve for these dark times.

Bruce Mau: We Change By Slowly Changing Everything

Structure Changes More Slowly Than Look-and-feel

Jeremy Burge on Twitter:

This comparison offers a great illustration of a design principle we covered in the fourth edition of the polar bear book: structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel.

Visually, these two screenshots look quite different. But they express the same conceptual models: a file/folder metaphor (and object-container relationship), windows that set aside portions of the display, a menu across the top of the screen (with the same menu items, even), etc. These structural constructs have endured for decades.

However, their presentation has changed as technologies and public tastes evolved. The original Macintosh featured a 512 x 314 pixel black-and-white display, which imposed many constraints on the system’s visual style. As computer displays became more capable, designers had more leeway with the presentation layer. This is the system in the early 2000s:

Mac OS X Aqua user interface.
Screenshot from Wikipedia.

Again, very different visually — but the underlying structure is recognizable. A user from 1984 would have little trouble learning the newer version three decades later.

As I’ve mentioned before, digital products don’t change uniformly; they manifest pace layers. Changing visuals is cheap; changing the underlying structures is expensive. Users accept visual changes more readily than structural changes. As a result, designers and stakeholders must take greater care when changing the structure of digital products.

Do You See the Big Picture?

Seth Godin, writing in his blog:

If you experience lousy service or poor quality, it’s probably not solely the fault of the person who talked to you on the phone, dealt with you at the counter or assembled your product.

It’s the boss.

The boss didn’t design the system properly, didn’t align incentives, didn’t invest in training. The boss isn’t thinking hard about hiring the right people. And the boss isn’t listening.

I’m glad to see someone with Mr. Godin’s prominence highlighting the benefits of having a systemic perspective. Many people still think of the products and services they interact with (or worse, manage) as though they exist on their own, in a vacuum.

Of course, they don’t: All products and services are manifestations of systems that influence their performance. The front-line customer experience is the outcome of such a system. To improve the offering, improve the system. But you can’t improve the system if you don’t see or understand it. You must make it tangible to make it “real.”

Design can help: systems mapping and modeling are established practices. What’s needed is for “the boss” to understand that design doesn’t start with giving form to products/services. Instead, it’s a holistic practice that can bring coherence and alignment at a much deeper level – if it starts at a much earlier stage in the process.

Are you “the boss”? Do you understand the systems you’re participating in or creating? Do you know the degree to which your products/services are enabling such systems? If you lack visualizations that help you understand these systems, ask yourself: what do I need to do to see the big picture?

Systems design and the front line | Seth’s Blog

Making Apple’s Ecosystem More Coherent

This post appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Last week, Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference (or WWDC.) At this annual event, the company announces significant changes coming to its software platforms (including iOS, the iPhone’s operating system.) As with many other such gatherings this year, WWDC 2020 was held online. But that’s not what interests me most about this year’s event. Instead, I was intrigued by the steps Apple is taking to bring coherence to its ecosystem.

Apple is in a unique position in this regard. The company makes operating systems for a variety of computing device form factors: phones (iOS), tablets (iPadOS), watches (watchOS), TVs (tvOS), and personal computers (macOS). Apple competes with other companies in each platform segment, but no other company has strong contenders in every platform segment.

All of these Apple platforms have “family resemblances.” A first-time Apple Watch user will find details and interactions that are reminiscent of what she’s experienced on her iPhone. This makes the system more learnable and pleasant.

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Gaining Clarity in Times of Uncertainty

Professors Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung writing in the Harvard Business Review:

Feeling uncertain is not a natural state of being for us — it signals to the brain that things are not right. The brain then seeks out information to resolve the uncertainty. This desire for resolution is why feelings of uncertainty lead us to process information more systematically and deeply in the hope of finding answers.

But the coronavirus pandemic leaves us in a quandary: Our natural instinct is to try to resolve our intense feelings of uncertainty, but there is so much uncertainty around the virus and its effects that a quest for complete resolution is futile. So what can we do?

They answer with cognitive and emotional tactics for coping with three types of uncertainty:

  • Probability
  • Ambiguity
  • Complexity

The tactics are presented in the context of how we can cope as individuals, but they also apply to teams. Faced with uncertain choices, and no obvious prospects for greater clarity, teams and organizations may become paralyzed.

This is an area where strategic design initiatives can help. Design research consolidates understanding; it generates information and insights that bring cognitive (in the form of data) and emotional (in the form of commitment) clarity to teams.

When More Information Leads to More Uncertainty

Design in the Post-pandemic World

Description:

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world. Businesses are scrambling to serve their customers in a new reality. Many companies are looking for new ways to provide value over digital channels and having to do so in a context of great uncertainty.

We’re not returning to the pre-pandemic world. Many of the changes we’re making now will be with us for a long time. This moment is an inflection point, a unique opportunity to shift the ways we work and create value. As designers, we must ask: What is our role in bringing forth new realities? How might new solutions better serve human needs?