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

Know thy (entire) audience

Lauren Chapman Ruiz shares an interesting viewpoint about the role of empathy in design in Inside the Empathy Trap. The issue is that we can’t just have empathy with one person, we need to have an understanding of a wide variety of goals and needs:

When we design, we pursue a broader type of empathy. As a colleague once said to me, designers need to identify with the whole user base. User-centricity is about the ability to recognize that there are a number of personas, each with different goals, desires, challenges, behaviors, and needs. We design for these personas, recognizing that each has different goals they’re trying to accomplish and with different behaviors in how they go about achieving them.

This is another good argument for why personas aren’t dead — they help us to keep our entire target audience in mind without getting overwhelmed.

The trough of social media disillusionment

As usual, Frank Chimero manages to capture what a lot of people in our neck of the woods are thinking in From the Porch to the Street. It’s an interesting, considered lament about how Twitter has changed, but it’s this part in particular that caught my attention:

Have you heard of evaporative social cooling? It says the people who provide the most value to a social group or organization eventually burn out and leave, undermining the stability and progress of the group. Most of my internet friends have been on Twitter since 2008, so they probably fall into this group. How much more is there left to say?

The linked post is Xianhang Zhang’s The Evaporative Cooling Effect, a broad article from 2010 that covers the design flaws in most social platforms. It’s definitely worth reading the whole thing — I’ll just quote this interesting way to classify different online communities:

There are two fundamental patterns of social organization which I term “plaza” and “warrens”. In the plaza design, there is a central plaza which is one contiguous space and every person’s interaction is seen by every other person. In the warren design, the space is broken up into a series of smaller warrens and you can only see the warren you are currently in. There is the possibility of moving into adjacent warrens but it’s difficult to explore far outside of your zone. Plazas grow by becoming larger, warrens grow by adding more warrens.

It feels like Twitter started as a warren and morphed into a plaza, which is where most of the current discontent is coming from — “This isn’t what we signed up for!”

Going even further down the rabbit hole, Zhang links to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s 2007 piece Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs, which has some further interesting thoughts on how to create healthy online communities:

My own theory of Internet moderation is that you have to be willing to exclude trolls and spam to get a conversation going. You must even be willing to exclude kindly but technically uninformed folks from technical mailing lists if you want to get any work done. A genuinely open conversation on the Internet degenerates fast.

It’s the articulate trolls that you should be wary of ejecting, on this theory—they serve the hidden function of legitimizing less extreme disagreements. But you should not have so many articulate trolls that they begin arguing with each other, or begin to dominate conversations. If you have one person around who is the famous Guy Who Disagrees With Everything, anyone with a more reasonable, more moderate disagreement won’t look like the sole nail sticking out. This theory of Internet moderation may not have served me too well in practice, so take it with a grain of salt.

On Twitter there is no way to exclude trolls — there are just too many of them. So there is this huge problem that inevitably appears once a community grows sufficiently large:

  1. Conversation moves from small warrens to large plazas.
  2. Many people loiter in the plaza and are only there to make trouble and ruin it for the rest of the community, and since it’s a public space there’s no way to chase them away.
  3. The people who created the original culture of the community leaves, and before long the broken windows theory kicks in and the plaza falls into disrepair.

All this to say that designing effective online communities is much more difficult than it might have appeared at first. We couldn’t see into the future when Twitter became a thing, so who knew what would happen once the growth monster grew too big? It reminds me of Gartner’s 2014 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies:

Hype Cycle

I think we’re firmly in the trough of disillusionment with social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I think we’ll get through it, but it feels like we’re all waking up right now going, “Wait, that’s what this has become?” We can — and will — do better. But it’s going to take time.

Wells Fargo: a big, lean company

I was a little reluctant to click on Greg Satell’s How Wells Fargo Learned To Innovate Around the Customer. First, it’s on Forbes, which has become virtually impossible to read on mobile devices because there’s so much blegh on the page that’s not related to the article. Second, whenever you see people talking about “The Customer”, you should be sceptical. There is no average “user” or “customer”, so this kind of thinking usually results in defining an impossibe target market:

Target market

Image source: Tom Fishburne.

That said, despite my fears, the article is quite good. It discusses how Wells Fargo uses ethnography in their business, and there are also signs that they don’t operate like a large, slow-moving corporation at all:

However, it is not just internal processes that have changed, but the culture as well. Ellis’s bankers don’t sit in cozy offices, quietly examining financial statements (nor does Ellis himself), but work in open cubicles designed to promote collaboration. They are constantly iterating, experimenting and testing.

This part, especially, surprised me:

Perhaps most importantly, they are not limited by a long range plan. There is no “five year death march” toward a transformation that will never happen—or be outdated by the time it does. Instead, their purpose is to improve their customers’ businesses and adapt quickly to shifts in technology and the marketplace.

I’d love to see more detail on how Wells Fargo remains lean despite being such a large company. If this is really how they operate, it’s encouraging proof that big doesn’t have to equal slow and tired.

Seek first to understand, then to defend your design


Alvin Hsia’s What I Learned In My First Year as a Product Designer is a good refresher and reminder about what’s important when working with others. This point is worth discussing further:

Make a deliberate effort to cultivate empathy for other team functions and be able to explain your designs to whoever it is you’re talking to, in their terms. It’s ok to use design jargon as long as you’re able to educate others on what the impressive-sounding words you use actually mean. Break down how your designs fit into the context of what they do and/or company goals. This requires you to get inside the mind of people in a variety of functions and gain a basic understanding and appreciation of what they do and can manifest itself in many ways.

Two books were a really big deal when I was in high school. The first is Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Everyone was reading this thing. I was obsessed with the book, and even read all the prequels and sequels — although the only title I can remember is First Things First, because it just seemed way too obvious to me at the time. I even bought the Covey Daily Planner™ (or whatever it’s called) and kept it up religiously. Paper — how cute.

The other book that was a big deal is To Kill A Mockingbird. I must have read it 10 times as part of English class. Up to then, most of my reading was confined to a very limited set of prudish Afrikaans authors. To Kill A Mockingbird was different. It awoke in me an obsession with words and reading that I’m thankful for to this day.

I bring this up because both these books — as different as they are — have served me well over the years in my career. All because at their core, they have the same theme: empathy. I’ve long forgotten the 7 habits — except for one:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

And I don’t remember much from To Kill A Mockinbird, except for this passage:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

More than 20 years after reading the books, these are the phrases I can’t get out of my head, especially if I’m tempted to get frustrated when someone doesn’t “get” the reasoning behind one of my designs. Instead of going into defensive mode, I’ve learned to hold back and simply say: Tell me more about that. Trust me, this is a magical, powerful phrase. It shows that you want to understand, that you don’t know everything, that your only desire is to make the product better. It breaks down aggression, it improves communication, it teaches you things.

I’m not perfect at this — I admit that I sometimes still lose my cool. But whenever I have the wherewithal to seek first to understand, then to be understood, I come out the other side a better designer. And I think that’s worth sacrificing a bit of pride for.

If you’re a business that would like to reach Elezea’s audience, have a look at my sponsorship opportunities.

Be polite

Everyone is posting about this today but I don’t care because it is really that good and it wins all the points on the Internet today. Paul Ford in How to Be Polite:

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

I wrote something slightly related (and, let’s be honest, not nearly as good) a while ago for Smashing Magazine: Making A Better Internet.

A product team worth fighting for

I nodded along vigorously to Cap Watkins’s The Fight:

What I’ve come to realize in the past two years is how important it is to find a company and a product worth fighting for. To find a team that is dedicated to delivering the best product they can, despite the bumps, the frustrations, the exhausting moments along the way. Hurdles and failure are totally unavoidable. Having a resilient team around you working on a product you all believe in will make those hurdles easier to clear. They’ll turn failure into a learning opportunity. Great teams working on products they’re passionate about will back you up when you’re exhausted and cover for you when you’re frustrated.

When you find a team like this, hold on for dear life.

The problem with “fighting” disease

Dhruv Khullar describes The Trouble With Medicine’s Metaphors:

The words we choose to describe illness are powerful. They carry weight and valence, creating the milieu in which goals of care are discussed and treatment plans designed. In medicine, the use of metaphor is pervasive. Antibiotics clog up bacterial machinery by disrupting the supply chain. Diabetes coats red blood cells with sugar until they’re little glazed donuts. Life with chronic disease is a marathon, not a sprint, with bumps on the road and frequent detours.

Khullar goes on to discuss in depth the use of military metaphors in medicine, such as the common saying “We’ll fight this together,” and why it can be counter-productive.

Our (current) design process

Design process

Allan White describes Our Product Design Process:

Our design process at HealthSparq is — just like everyone else’s — itself a work in process. We have ongoing debates about the tools and techniques we use to execute on each phase. Parts of our process (for example, a new pattern library that integrates directly with our apps) are being rebuilt and aren’t fully useful yet. It was very constructive to have this discussion, and to have a framework to build upon moving forward.

I’m posting this here because we started a design and development blog where we plan to share some of the things we learn as we go, and I think this one is particularly useful since it includes (what I think is) a really great visual of the design process we agreed on as a team. Head on over and check it out…

Agile & UX, still not sitting in a tree

I like the work Growing Agile does, so I clicked on Karen Greeves’s Agile & UX: What’s wrong with working one sprint ahead? with great interest. I’ve been struggling with this issue myself, but I’ve just never come across a better way to integrate UX and Agile, so I was very interested in their viewpoint. The post definitely got me thinking, but I have some issues with their objections. In the interest of letting you in on the thought process, I’m going to take some lines from the post and explain why I don’t agree1. Let’s start with their main concern with UX working one sprint ahead:

The main issue with this is one of focus. If the UX designers work one sprint ahead of the rest of the team, then the UX designers and the team actually never work on the same stuff at the same time. This means they are never focused on the same thing.

This is (partially) true, but isn’t it also true for individual developers on the team? They’ll be working on different stories. That’s the reason we have standup meetings: to make sure that those individual tasks work together to finish the whole.

I say it’s only partially true, because people can focus on more than one thing… So while the UX team is working on the next sprint, they can still be available to help with changes and questions on the current implementation work.

It doesn’t make sense to have the same standup meeting because you aren’t working on the same stuff.

Again, very few people are working on the same stuff. And this is actually an opportunity for the UX team to highlight any issues they have that developers can help them with.

It’s harder to help each other out because you are focused on finishing different stuff.

I don’t really get this point — we should be able to shift focus, and helping each other in different contexts often produce better results. Isn’t that the principle that code reviews are based on as well?

The people working ahead consider their deliverable some interim artefact, not working software, so there is a handover of both knowledge and responsibility.

In our context the UX team’s deliverable is working software in the pattern library, which uses the same frameworks and environment as our front-end developers, so that they can keep going seamlessly. So it’s possible to solve this problem.

People don’t see themselves as part of the same team, so you end up having a UX team and a dev team. This inhibits collaboration and communication.

I don’t agree with this point, either. We’re always going to have different skills on teams. Product Owners have different skills than the development team too. In fact, I think it can increase collaboration if developers are asked to provide input while the UX team is working on an upcoming feature.

The people working behind aren’t involved in the decision making that happened without them and as a result they don’t understand the reasons for certain design choices, this often leads to assumptions, and rework.

This doesn’t have to be the case. We have developers involved from Product Discovery all the way through prototyping, testing, and final specifications.

I’m not advocating writing code before an UX work has taken place. I’m saying the whole team should be involved in that work. Obviously the UX designer(s) take the lead here, but everyone on the team needs to see users use their product and understand the user journey map.

Ok, on this we agree!

In each sprint the whole team should set aside time to look at UX designs for the next sprint, as well as usability testing whatever has been completed.

I agree with this, and it’s how we work. But where I’m confused is that this still means that the UX team is working one sprint ahead of development — they’re working on “UX designs for the next sprint.” The only difference from how it’s usually done when UX and Agile works together, is that it formalizes the time that developers spend on being involved in the UX process.

If I understood that correctly, then it turns out we agree after all, and maybe this post wasn’t necessary…

  1. This is an important discussion, and I think they add valuable points to it, so please don’t see this as some kind of takedown attempt. I know (and like) Karen and Sam, but I also believe in public, respectful disagreement. So that’s my disclaimer! 

Narrative mapping for UX design

I really like the James Buckhouse explains in is article Story Map:

Halfway between a storyboard and a treasure map, it bundles the value and functional flow of your product with the delight people might feel at each step in your product. It sketches the UX flow without locking it down, and it delivers the gist of an idea and the emotional gestalt without prematurely belaboring the details.

A story map depicts how your product works and why it matters—but crucially—it does not explicitly spell out the final design, UI or in-the-weeds UX logic. It does, however, hold the product vision and works as a rubric against which the team can make better and faster decisions.

The article has some great examples worth looking at. As a big customer journey mapping fan, this is definitely something I want to try out.

I have one quibble though, and that’s with the name… “Story mapping” is already a very well established process in Agile development. Here are just a few articles about it:

Semantics are important, so my suggestion would be to simply use a synonym: