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

Meeting organizers: you’re responsible for our attention and focus

Dave DeRuchie makes a strong case that we need to put down our phones and get rid of distractions in meetings:

When you accept a meeting invitation, accept that your attention and focus for that time is also blocked. Avoid distractions that take your focus from the subject matter at hand. Be more connected to what you are doing by being less connected.

There’s another way to look at this. See, we’re distracted in meetings because we don’t find them that valuable, so we try to fill the time with multitasking activities that we feel do add value. So if this becomes a thing – if we agree and communicate that a meeting blocks out not just our time but also 100% of our attention and focus – well, that places a huge burden of responsibility on the meeting organizer. If you’re going to arrange a meeting, and you expect everyone to pay attention without distraction, you’d better make sure that it’s a meeting worth having – agenda, solid outcomes, everyone contributing, etc. Otherwise we’ll come after you and demand our attention back.

The pursuit for perfection

I love this line from Sweet Maria’s Coffee Library:

Espresso is fussy. It is the pursuit for perfection by a person who is driven by minutiae.

It’s not just Espresso that’s fussy. Design is fussy too. So is writing, drawing, painting, or any other creative pursuit you can think of. It is all “the pursuit for perfection by a person who is driven by minutiae”. And this pursuit is usually undertaken by unreasonable people.

Speaking of coffee (a huge passion that’s pretty hard to merge with a blog on design and technology), I guess this is as good an excuse as any to post this recent photo, taken at Melissa’s Food Shop in Cape Town:

the-manual-melissas.jpg

 

Remember, always read the manual.

Innovation: it’s complicated

Fabio Sergio wrote a slightly rambling but very interesting post called The Myth of the Brand New Innovation Myth. He takes on some recent opposing views on innovation and creative thinking. Should you listen to customers or not? Should you work in an environment where you can do your thinking alone, or collaborate? Sergio’s point is that (surprise!) it’s not that simple:

I don’t think there is an archetypal, simplistic image of what type of personality or process best fosters innovative thinking, or even what type of physical working environment can best support a creative culture. That view of the world is too polarized. In my experience there is no single specific behavioral trait, methodological approach, or carefully-selected set of contextual factors that guarantees success in the ability to think differently and translate that thinking into success in the market.

He goes on to say that the truth doesn’t lie in any of these extremes, but somewhere in between:

That said, there is indeed a common trait in the typical way creative thinkers approach challenges: they can comfortably hold opposing thoughts in their heads and get to work. [“¦] Informed intuition. Controlled chaos. Abductive analysis. This is often the mindset of successful creative, innovative thinkers: seeing opposites and apparently contradicting goals not just as a potential for dissonance, but as an opportunity for dynamic harmony.

It’s a much more balanced and realistic view than some of the other black-and-white proclamations of truth we’ve been seeing lately.

Wake up and start producing

Clay Johnson wants us to write 500 Words before 8am:

Starting your day as a producer means that your information consumption has meaning: the rest of the day means consuming information that is relevant to what it is that you’re producing. Waking up as a producer frames the rest of your habits. You’re not mindlessly grazing on everyone’s facebook’s statuses. You’re out getting what it is you need to get in order to produce. Waking up as a producer is procrastination insurance.

“Procrastination insurance.” I like that. This is tricky when you have a 2-year old that you want to read stories to in the morning, and you also need to get a run in before work. But there are other ways to apply this principle. I write most of my longer pieces at night when the family is already in bed. This is not ideal, but I do most of the planning in my head early in the morning while doing other tasks. I also tend to do a lot of design work in the shower – it’s uninterrupted time to think about a problem and come up with possible solutions. Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I choose to view this morning thinking time as part of producing and providing focus for the day to come.

Smashing Magazine, and the community that sustains me

In what still feels like a dream that I’ll someday wake up from, I’ve been extremely privileged to become a contributor to Smashing Magazine. I haven’t written about it here before because I’m not really a fan of meta posts, and like I said, I’m still waiting to wake up and discover that it’s not real. But I do want to express a few thoughts on the experience so far, and acknowledge some of the people who make the magazine happen behind the scenes.

The opportunity to write for Smashing Magazine fell in my lap out of nowhere. One of my favorite designers and writers, Francisco Inchauste, contacted me out of the blue after reading some of my articles here on Elezea, and asked if I’d be interested in contributing to a new UX area on Smashing that he was starting up. I tried to play it cool, but really, how is that even a question? Of course I jumped on the opportunity, and so far it’s been a fantastic learning experience.

I am extremely impressed by the editing process at Smashing Magazine. It not only results in great content on the site, but it provides extremely valuable feedback to writers to help us get better at it. The first step is usually a discussion between Francisco and I about the idea for the article, followed by 2-3 drafts that he gives feedback on. Once Francisco is happy with the draft, each article goes through two blind reviews by people in the industry who are usually experts in the topic you’re writing about.

The feedback that comes from Francisco and the team of reviewers is always smart and constructive, and results in better articles across the board. To be honest, I feel like I get more out of the process than Smashing does. I get to hone my writing skills – all they’re getting is an article! But hey, as long as they’re ok with that deal, I’ll take it.

So, on to a brief summary of what I’ve written about so far, and some of the things I’ve been thinking about for the future. In my first two articles (part 1, part 2) I talked about the organizational challenges of doing user experience in large organizations, and how we can work better together. In The Data-Pixel Approach To Improving User Experience I shifted gears and applied some of Edward Tufte’s data visualization principles to web design.

I am currently very interested in the connection between architecture and web design. I’m trying to read up on architecture as much as I can, and I continue to be struck by the similarities between the history of architecture and the current arc of web design. In Designer Myopia: How To Stop Designing For Ourselves I tried to scratch the surface of that, but there’s still so much more to be said. I really believe that the history of architecture can tell us a lot about the future of web design, and I hope to explore some of that in upcoming articles.

My next article cued for publishing is also the first one inspired by my 2-year old daughter, so I’m particularly excited about seeing that one come out. I want to thank Francisco, Vitaly, and the entire Smashing Magazine team for giving me the opportunity to write for such a great publication, and making me feel part of the Design community that sustains me every day.

It’s about the thing you build, not the technology you use

James Hague in Don’t Fall in Love With Your Technology:

Don’t fall in love with your technology the way some Forth and Linux advocates have. If it gives you an edge, if it lets you get things done faster, then by all means use it. Use it to build what you’ve always wanted to build, then fall in love with that.

I know I’m in danger of that with iOS, Mac OS X, and my new-found love affair with text files and Markdown. Hoping that knowing I have a problem is indeed half the battle.

Clear: doing for To Do lists what Dropbox did for file syncing

I can only imagine the miles and miles of chaotic complexity that designers and developers had to wade through to arrive at the simplicity of Clear – a new To Do list app for the iPhone. As I started playing with the app, Rebekah Cox’s definition of design kept popping into my head:

Design is a set of decisions about a product. It’s not an interface or an aesthetic, it’s not a brand or a color. Design is the actual decisions.

And the decisions that Clear made are as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen. I can picture the endless, difficult meetings and arguments that must have happened to decide what features to include in the app. Should we have Projects and Contexts? No. How about Due Dates and Filters? Nope. Well, why not!? Because Clear is a prioritized list of tasks that is fast and easy to edit. That’s it. Nothing less, nothing more.

It reminds me of the Quora thread on why Dropbox became so popular:

“But,” you may ask, “so much more you could do! What about task management, calendaring, customized dashboards, virtual white boarding. More than just folders and files!”

No, shut up. People don’t use that crap. They just want a folder. A folder that syncs.

But let me stop gushing for a minute and step back a bit. Clear (which is getting quite a bit of attention) is absolutely fantastic as a way to view and prioritize a simple list of tasks, but it’s not a replacement for hardcore task management systems. Omnifocus will remain the application I use for all my work projects, and it’s always open on my Mac and iPad during the work day. But Omnifocus is hopeless overkill for simple tasks like “Make a car appointment” or “Get coffee at the store”. And that is the gap that Clear fills so effectively.

Clear is focused on two things that make it vastly superior to other similar apps:

  • Speed. It’s really fast. When it starts up you can instantly start typing. This is crucial to quickly capture that all-important thing you don’t want to forget. I still die a little bit inside every time I see the “Optimizing database” message while I wait for Omnifocus to start up.
  • Effortless editing. It’s completely gesture-based – no chrome, no fluff, no fancy visual design. You tap, you type, you swipe, you close. These gestures are easy to learn and intuitive:

clear-1.jpg

 

Francisco Inchauste calls Clearan app for the future“, and I completely agree. It feels different, but it feels right. And despite its (appropriate) lack of visual extravagance, it has an attention to detail that reminds of the meticulous design of Path. For example, when you create a new list and there are no to do items in it yet, you get a random quote about getting things done:

clear-2.jpg

 

I’m trying hard to find something negative to say about Clear, because every app has room for improvement. But at the moment my judgment is slightly clouded by how impressed I am with this team. It’s so hard to resist the temptation to build an app that tries to solve every problem for every person in the world. These guys walked through that fire and emerged on the other side probably bruised and battered, but also with a flawless app for listing tasks and editing them quickly. Want more in your To Do list app? Shut up and go buy Omnifocus.

It’s time to find your voice

I’ve been following the recent back-and-forth about blog comments closely, since I have the same question about this blog: should comments be turned on or off? I even mentioned recently that I’m going to turn comments off for a while and see how it goes.

Matt Gemmell is driving/documenting the debate in the most articulate way, and his recent post on pseudonyms is another example of that. Even though the conversation now mostly appears to have run its course, it occurred to me that the root of this debate is related to what Paul Ford calls the fundamental question of the web:

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

The Internet gives people this idea that if they can’t respond directly to something someone else said on a web site, their fundamental right to be consulted is violated. And that’s just not true – we don’t have a right to be consulted on everything that happens around us. What is true, however, is that we all have a voice, and that finding that voice is extremely important for our own development.

So the thing is, we’re having the wrong discussion. We shouldn’t be arguing about whether comments should be turned on or off on a blog. What we should be talking about is how all of us can spend more time finding our own obsession and voice, and how we can share that with the world. Tom Standage argues that writing is the greatest invention:

It is not just one of the foundations of civilisation: it underpins the steady accumulation of intellectual achievement. By capturing ideas in physical form, it allows them to travel across space and time without distortion, and thus slip the bonds of human memory and oral transmission, not to mention the whims of tyrants and the vicissitudes of history.

So forget about comments – it doesn’t matter whether you have them turned on or not. The real question is which one of the many available options you’re going to choose to start writing and owning your voice.

 


Update: Reader Greg Mathes asks in an email, “What’s so important about finding our own voice?” To answer, I’d like to quote Clive Thompson in The Art of Public Thinking:

The process of writing exposes your own ignorance and half-baked assumptions: When I’m writing a Wired article, I often don’t realize what I don’t know until I’ve started writing, at which point my unanswered questions and lazy, autofill thinking becomes obvious. Then I freak out and panic and push myself way harder, because the article is soon going before two publics: First my editors, then eventually my readers. Blogging (or tumbling or posterousing or even, in a smaller way, tweeting) forces a similar clarity of mental purpose for me. As with Wired, I’m going before a public. I’m no longer just muttering to myself in a quiet room. It scarcely matters whether two or ten or a thousand people are going to read the blog post; the transition from nonpublic and public is nonlinear and powerful.

World IA Day: A lack of UX purpose (and what we can do about it)

I flew up to Joburg this weekend to speak at one of the World IA Day events that were happening in 14 cities around the world. The bulk of the talk was about Customer Journey Maps, and specifically how we used the technique to help us prioritize our roadmap at kalahari.com. In this summary post I want to focus primarily on the topic I started the talk with. It’s about a particular gap I see in current UX work, and how Information Architecture is uniquely positioned to bridge this gap.

In 1955 David Ogilvey wrote a letter about his copywriting habits, and among other things, said the following about campaign work:

I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.

It seems that ther’s unfortunately plenty of UX work out there that jumps straight into wireframes without first understanding the design problem, as well as the purpose of the solution. Purpose – the reason for which something is done or created – often appears to be missing (*cough* Color.com *cough*). And this is where I believe Information Architecture can come to the rescue.

There are plenty of definitions of IA to choose from, but I like this one in particular by Peter Morville:

I like it because it brings into focus the idea that at its core, Information Architecture is about a unique way of seeing the world. A way that is essential to build successful user experiences.

I love the example Dan Klyn’s uses in Information Architecture is a Way of Seeing. You have to read the whole thing to appreciate it fully, but in short, he tells a story about having to deal with some pretty severe back pain recently. After visiting an MD who only gave him a prescription for Vicodin and some exercises that didn’t help at all, he ended up at a Chiropractor who was able to sort out the problem in just a few days (after taking an X-ray to help diagnose the problem). When asked why the MD didn’t originally take an X-ray to get to the root of the problem, the Chiropractor replied that it wouldn’t have mattered if she did:

Even if the MD had taken an X-Ray, she would not have seen what I saw. Show us each the same image and we see different stuff.

It’s this different way of seeing that makes the IA profession so crucial right now. IAs specialize in looking at a vast amount of information and making sense of it in a way that is credible, consumable, and relevant to users (and the business). Where most of us only see Navigation, they know that part is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath it lie activities like Information organization, Information relationships, and IA research that all work together to give IAs their unique view of the world.

Within this large toolset that IAs have to choose from to do their work, Customer Journey Maps stand out as the one technique that can be most effective to bring purpose back to our UX work. As UX Matters defines it:

Customer journey maps are documents that visually illustrate an individual customer’s needs, the series of interactions that are necessary to fulfill those needs, and the resulting emotional states a customer experiences throughout the process.

These maps are important as a way to find UX purpose because it accomplishes the following goals:

  • It provides a common understanding within an organization about customer needs, product strategy, and business goals – i.e., the product’s reason to exist.
  • It’s an excellent product prioritization tool.
  • It’s a guiding light for design, always bringing the project and the process back to the customer journey and the purpose of the product.

There are many different ways to approach these maps, but I find the Adaptive Path way the most effective. It places a strong focus on user research, and forces you to think about the implications of the journey map, and how it can integrate with and guide the design process.

So, that was my story at the conference. Thanks to everyone who came out! Here are the slides from my talk:

 

The exhaust of our digital lives

Frank Chimero provides another eloquent take on frictionless sharing (automated posts in news feeds, like what song you’re listening to on Spotify):

The less engaged I become with social media, the more it begins to feel like huffing the exhaust of other peopl’s digital lives. It’s a bit of a weird situation: all that’s needed is a simple filter to prioritize manually posted content over automated messages.

He doesn’t explicitly say this, but the point in his post is clear. Automated content shows up in your stream not because it adds value to the network, but because it’s good Marketing ROI for brands.