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

A View from a Different Valley

A couple of months ago I got an email from the wonderful people at A List Apart, asking if I’d be interested in starting a regular column on ALA. I believe my response was something to the effect of “1,000 times yes!!” How could it not be? I’ve been reading ALA for such a long time, and I really enjoyed the one time we’d worked together before, on an article called Usable yet Useless: Why Every Business Needs Product Discovery.

In an effort to figure out where to take the column, my editor asked me what kind of topics I’m interested in. I sent back a response that I was pretty sure would make her delete the email and step away from her computer very slowly. Here’s what I wrote:

  • My background is in sociology. My PhD dissertation was about social network theory — the real, mathematical kind, not what the phrase “social network” has since come to mean. So I like thinking about how our networked society is changing us. I’m much less interested in the “Google is making us stupid” view, and much more interested in the positive side. Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think comes to mind immediately. (When I grow up, I want to write like Clive)
  • Following on from that, I like thinking about what parenting means in this new era. As I’ve been thinking about what my next side project should be after the book, I’ve toyed with a site for tech-oriented dads with young kids. What are the products they should be interested in, how do we teach our kids about technology and that it is not to be feared, but also not to be abused, because it is not neutral (see What Technology Wants. When I grow up I want to write like Kevin).
  • And again, following on from that (at least in my weird head), how does Sci-Fi culture play into all of this? (I know, weird, but stick with me). Our science fiction has become increasingly dystopian. The last positive science fiction series was probably Star Trek TNG. So what do our visions of the future tell us about living (and designing) today?

To my surprise, my editor didn’t freak out, and instead encouraged these topics. So we came up with the column name A View from a Different Valley. A column about technology, but from a perspective we don’t always expect. My first article for the column is called Work Life Imbalance, and it came out last week. It’s about the blurring lines between work and life:

There is a blending of work and life that woos us with its promise of barbecues at work and daytime team celebrations at movie theaters, but we’re paying for it in another way: a complete eradication of the line between home life and work life. “Love what you do,” we say. “Get a job you don’t want to take a vacation from,” we say—and we sit back and watch the retweets stream in.

I don’t like it.

I don’t like it for two reasons.

And this is, of course, where I ask you to read the rest if you’d like to find out why I don’t like it…

I’m really excited about this column, and hope to keep it going for quite a while. Thanks again to ALA — they’re awesome people. I like them a lot.

What 11 technology books tell us about our moment

Monica Guzman spent the summer on a tech book binge. She read 11 technology books to get a sense of our current technological moment. In the short article How my summer tech book binge changed the way I think about tech she explains some of the things she learned:

Tech serves us best when we create rather than consume. Where [Nicholas] Carr saw the worst of tech’s impact, Clive Thompson, in “Smarter Than You Think,” saw the best. One difference was that Carr — in arguing, for example, that the rise of short, fast media makes our contemplative muscles weak — all but ignored how tech boosts creation. It’s a common oversight: We’re transitioning from a world where public creation was difficult to one where it’s a cinch.

The same goes for public collaboration. Great things happen when we swirl together and build. Think Wikipedia. Blogs. The Internet itself.

This is, if nothing else, a great reading list.

[Sponsored post] Wearable Tech Hits the Road, the Waves and your Wardrobe

This post is sponsored by Rackspace Digital, the digital marketing infrastructure specialists.

In recent months, wearable tech has shown signs of emerging maturity. Not only are wearable devices getting smarter and more powerful, they’re also becoming more practical and beautiful. As batteries and sensors continue to get smaller, and with Google releasing the Android Wear operating system back in March, a slew of new wearables will hit the market before the end of the year. Smart watches, glasses, shoes, shirts, even jewelry. According to ABI Research, 90 million wearable devices will ship before the end of 2014. Here are a few of the new arrivals.

Riding Big Waves and Big Data

Rip Curl, an Australian company and an iconic brand in surf wear, is currently trialing its own smart watch with 200 surfers around the globe. Some surfers, like zealous runners, want to track all their stats—from the number of rides to top speeds, miles paddled and time spent in the water. Due to hit stores mid-September, the GPSSearch will be the world’s first GPS-powered surf watch. It uses satellite positioning and other sensors to obtain data and measurements that are then processed in the cloud using a cutting-edge database service. All the user information can be synced to an iPhone, iPad or desktop for visual analysis.

Google Maps in Your Shoes

Indian startup Ducere Technologies is launching a pair of “smartshoes” known as Lechal shoes. The shoes connect to your smartphone with Bluetooth, using vibrations and Google maps to alert you when you need to make a turn. The left or right shoe vibrates depending on which way you need to turn. Not only is this a boon for runners or walkers in an unfamiliar city, it also has big payoffs for the visually impaired. Reportedly, Lechal shoes have already received 25,000 orders, even though the company won’t make them available until the end of the year. The shoes will cost between $100 and $150.

Making the Wearable More Wearable_

While Under Armour and Omsignal are leading the way with making smart shirts with built-in sensors for tracking workout data, there’s a new plan to take over the rest of your wardrobe. Ministry of Supply has launched a new line of men’s dress shirts using the same technology that NASA has implemented in its spacesuits for temperature regulation. The shirt absorbs heat when you’re hot and releases it back when the temperature dips. The good news is that it looks like a real shirt, not a space shirt.

Wearable Experiments, meanwhile, has released the Navigate Jacket for both men and women. A companion smartphone app stores destinations and feeds them to your jacket, turn by turn. LEDs and vibrations on the sleeves ensure you never make a wrong turn.

And finally, if vibrating jackets aren’t your style, consider the latest in wearable tech from Cuff, a manufacturer of smart jewelry. Now available for pre-order, the bracelets, necklaces and key chains come in a variety of styles and finishes that look more like accessories than tech hardware. Each piece of jewelry uses a small component called a CuffLinc that acts as an alert system. Using Bluetooth technology, the CuffLinc will sync up with a smartphone app to handle alerts and push notifications that can be customized for a personal network of friends and family.

Sponsored via Syndicate Ads

App circulation

I’ve done quite a bit of writing here on architecture and design (see this, for example), so I really enjoyed Melissa Mandelbaum ‘s Applying Architecture to Product Design: Lesson 1 – Circulation:

As an architect, I learned circulation systems including stairs, hallways and elevators are very important in helping people navigate buildings. Similarly, as a product designer, I’ve learned circulation systems such as list menus and tabs are necessary for helping people navigate products.

She goes over some really great examples of helping people “circulate” through an app. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

[Sponsor] Tiles for Wireframes & Flowcharts V2

My thanks to Greg Heade for sponsoring Elezea this week to promote his excellent wireframe stencils.

If you use Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks or Omnigraffle, you’ll love volume one and volume two of Greg Heade’s tiles for wireframes and flowcharts. These stencils are 100% vector-based and editable, and it allows you to put together page layout and flowcharts quickly so you can focus on adding the details — not drawing the skeleton.

These tiles include standard layouts like home pages, product pages, and error pages, but it goes beyond that to give you a framework for shipping and payment flows. These are an invaluable resource — so check his store out!


Sponsored via Syndicate Ads

Avoiding undiscoverable features: examples and tips

I need to tell you about a conversation I had with my 4-year old daughter this morning. You’re going to have to stick with me, because despite the potty talk this is going somewhere, I promise. The backstory is that lately she’s been forgetting to wipe after going to the bathroom (this is the type of stuff you’re here to read, right?). So when she got up this morning, this happened:

Me: “Did you go to the bathroom?”

Her: “Yes.”

Me: “Did you wipe?”

Her: “Oh… no. I don’t think so…”

After a few seconds of silence, she said something that’s pretty obvious, but hasn’t occurred to me before as the cause of the problem:

Her: “The toilet paper is behind me so I forget. We should put it in front of me so I can see it.”

Well, of course. Mystery solved. See, a few weeks ago I accidentally broke our toilet roll holder (yes, I’m pretty sure this is the kind of thing you come here to read…), and since then, we’ve been putting the toilet roll on the back of the toilet. And that was the cause of my daughter’s sudden “forgetfulness” in the wiping department.

This immediately made me think of product design, and in particular, the all-important principle of recognition vs. recall:

Showing users things they can recognize improves usability over needing to recall items from scratch because the extra context helps users retrieve information from memory.

It also reminded me of a great story Marco Arment once told in Right versus pragmatic. You should read the whole thing, but the gist is that at a previous job people kept dropping trash at the door before they left the bathroom (what is it with me and bathrooms today?), despite increasingly passive aggressive signs being put up by “management” to please throw trash in the bins. Here’s Marco’s illustration of the problem:


Source: Marco Arment

The solution that worked in the end? Put the trash can by the door. Seems obvious, but it still took them quite a while to figure it out. Instead of trying to change behavior — or to get people to remember to do something they’re not used to — they put a trash can where people are already throwing stuff, and that solved the problem.

Ok, enough with the bathroom examples. I recently had a discussion with a health plan who has a tool for their members to find doctors who are in their network. They mentioned that they get a lot of customer service calls from users who complain that they can’t search by a doctor’s name. This frustrates the health plan because the interface clearly lets you do that. But when you look at the interface you can see why they are having this problem. Here’s the home page:

Provider search

Can you see where to go to search for a doctor by name? Not sure if you guessed it, but you have to click on the “Advanced Search” link under the Doctors icon:

Provider search

Here’s the point of all this. Just because a feature is in the interface, it doesn’t mean users will find it. Just because an option is in a menu, it doesn’t mean users will know how to access it. And just because the toilet paper is somewhere in the bathroom, it doesn’t mean my daughter is going to find it.

The lesson is pretty simple, but there are enough everyday examples out there that it’s something we should continue to remind ourselves of. The next time you design an interface, say this to yourself over and over: If I want people to use toilet paper, I should put it where they can see it.

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.

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