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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Maybe offices aren’t so bad, after all

Jamie Hodari makes the point that the recent blowback against office spaces (and open office plans) might be slightly overblown. She asks, Is Working Remotely Sapping Your Creativity?

A creative work life requires social relationships and serendipitous interactions. It requires contending with ideas you don’t agree with. It requires getting up and moving around. As a result, it’s becoming increasingly clear that for many people, working at an office isn’t a relic of a pre-digital age, but a vital element in reaching their creative potential.

Bumping into coworkers, chatting in hallways, sitting down over lunch, a day at the office results in dozens of interactions everyday. The result, shown both anecdotally and in statistics, is more creativity and greater effectiveness. For instance, in one study tracking the behaviors of a sales team of a pharmaceutical company, “when a salesperson increased interactions with coworkers on other teams . . . by 10%, his or her sales also grew by 10%.” Cross-functional, seemingly spontaneous interaction facilitated greater effectiveness on the part of workers–something that would not have been possible had sales representatives been working from their homes.

The business of design

Christina Wodtke writes about the intersection of design and business in Why Design Needs Entrepreneurship (and Entrepreneurship Needs Design). This is a particularly nice summary of the three major startup handbooks in high circulation these days:

Steve Blank said you should talk to your customers as you develop your offering. He said there were no answers in the building, you must go out into the world if you want to make something people want.

Eric Reis said you should build small things, test them, learn, then build the next thing until you find successes.

Alex Osterwalder said you should look at all aspects of the business and design them collectively to assure a successful ecosystem. While all three hold a distinctly user-centered design approach, Osterwalder is the first to state it unambiguously, using design tools and innovation games throughout his book and calling them that. It is a designed book, in every sense of the world, and it was written in collaboration with a group of beta readers.

All three, at their hearts, are user-centered designers. They just happen to design business.

This is a great call for designers to care more about the business of design.

Easy with the onboarding

Some interesting perspectives from Dharmesh Shah in Why Your Startup Should Ignore Your Onboarding Experience (For Now):

Great user onboarding makes users say, “WOW, this is awesome,” and recognize that your product is a must have experience. But these WOW moments don’t come easy. And the mechanics by which you onboard users is just a small part of whether or not they fall in love with your product.

The more substantial part of the equation is the value your product delivers to your user: something in their life that must get easier, faster, cheaper, more productive, more fun, etc. because of using your product. Otherwise, why would they switch?

And that’s the difficult part to create. That’s the part that requires customer development and experimentation. It requires you to test your assumptions, to pivot, to try new things.

His recommendation is to do completely manual onboarding at first—contact every new user to find out why they starting using the product, email users who become inactive, etc. It might not scale, but it provides invaluable feedback at the inception of a product. Once you get to about 100 active users, Shah believes you know enough to create a great in-app onboarding experience. Food for thought!

Usability testing note-taking and analysis

David Travis has a good overview of collecting and analyzing usability testing data in How to record and analyze user research observations. This definition of an observation is particularly important:

Here’s the golden rule: an observation is a record of something you see or hear. Novice researchers often treat their opinions on what they like or dislike as observations. But your opinions aren’t observations — and neither are suggestions for new features or insights on how to fix usability issues. Don’t try to interpret the things you observe or fit things into a solution. That comes later.

The best observations come from watching real users do real tasks, and being as true as possible to the concrete details of what you see. You can either do this in the wild (with a field visit) or simulate actual use in a lab environment (with a usability test).

When making notes, just jot down observations, don’t try to solve the problem right there. The only thing I would add to David’s advice is that I try to mark important observations as I start to notice trends throughout the day, like so:

Usability notes

Now, if I could only figure out how to read my own handwriting, that would really help.

The product manager is not The Boss

Good thoughts from Martin Eriksson on how the PM is not The Boss. From Product Management is a Team Sport:

The bottom line is that everyone in the company owns the product, and its success or failure lie in the hands of everyone who touches it. A product manager’s job is to lead the team to tackle the product challenges together, to get the best out of everyone on the team when building the product, and to provide a gentle hand to keep it all consistent and going in the right direction.

How to get more into Lean UX

Ben Melbourne’s UX Designers: Why are we Wasting Time? is a great post on lean methodologies and Lean UX in particular. Of course, I especially like this point:

No amount of text or slides will ever replace the richness of observing your target audience first-hand. Take your client/team out in the field with you, or you’re greatly reducing the value of your research. Seeing a user point out the flaws in your product is the quickest way to convince a CEO to drop his pet feature.

Why do we work?

I’ve been thinking about the topic of my latest A List Apart column for a while, but I was just too scared to write it. I mean, what right do I have to talk about work and privilege? But I ran the idea by my amazing editor, and since she was really supportive and enthusiastic about it, I went for it.

So I wrote Why?:

Why we work—and what kind of work we do—is a function of our privilege and our history as much as it is a function of our choices and our dedication.

I hope you enjoy reading it, and take something from it. This one took a while to get right.

UI design and the abundance of choice

Aaron Shapiro makes some interesting observations in The Next Big Thing In Design? Less Choice:

Technology has revolutionized the way we live our lives and do business, but it has done a terrible job reducing the stress of so many decisions. Industry by industry, great digital design has eliminated middlemen from the economy and put users in control, making it fast and easy for us to determine what we want and purchase it directly, whether on a computer or over a phone. Now, with unlimited opportunities for decision-making, we have essentially made ourselves the middlemen in our own lives.

The enjoyment, and even fetishization, of the beautifully designed experiences we rely on to make these decisions has distracted us from our original goal of simplifying our lives. We’ve forgotten that the ultimate purpose of an interface is to make things simpler.

That last sentence is interesting. “We’ve forgotten that the ultimate purpose of an interface is to make things simpler.” I understand and agree with the sentiment, but the statement got me thinking about how I would define the purpose of a user interface.

In the context of modern UI design I would probably want to adjust that statement a little bit to say that, “The ultimate purpose of an interface is to enable users to accomplish their goals within a system easily, in a way that also fulfills pre-defined business goals.” I’m sure there’s lots to argue about and disagree with in that statement as well, but it’s an interesting thought process to go through.

The rest of the article goes a little too deep into #NoUI territory for me. I’m more with Cennydd on that one:

But there are still some interesting examples. Well worth going through.

Placebo UI buttons

Chris Baraniuk looks at the futility of things like traffic signal buttons in Press me! The buttons that lie to you:

Some would call this a “placebo button”—a button which, objectively speaking, provides no control over a system, but which to the user at least is psychologically fulfilling to push. It turns out that there are plentiful examples of buttons which do nothing and indeed other technologies which are purposefully designed to deceive us. But here’s the really surprising thing. Many increasingly argue that we actually benefit from the illusion that we are in control of something—even when, from the observer’s point of view, we’re not.

Kids, technology, and nonverbal communication

I’m not usually one to freak out about kids and technology use, but Bruce Feiler makes some interesting points in Hey, Kids, Look at Me When We’re Talking:

Dr. [Clifford Nass, a communication professor at Stanford University] told me about research he was doing that suggested young people were spending so much time looking into screens that they were losing the ability to read nonverbal communications and learn other skills necessary for one-on-one interactions. As a dorm supervisor, he connected this development with a host of popular trends among young people, from increased social anxiety to group dating.

That’s pretty alarming.