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

Design process: optimize for the scarcest resource

In his thoughts on design process Kevin Anderson quotes a very interesting paragraph from Fred Brooks’s book The Design of Design:

The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you’re optimizing.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of web design over the past couple of days. What is the scarcest resource in web design projects — assuming it’s not money? I’d say that in most cases, the user’s attention is the scarcest resource online. There are just so many distractions, interruptions, and other things vying for attention (I mean, there are goat videos to watch, after all). What does this mean for the design process? Here are some examples:

  • On e-commerce product pages users want to know if this is the product they’re looking for. The design process should optimise for information about the product, price, and availability (delivery details).
  • For registration and checkout flows users just want to get through the process with as little friction as possible. The design process should aim to minimise the number of form fields that has to be filled out, and to remove as much clutter as possible to eliminate distractions.
  • For content-heavy sites, users want to know if it’s worth spending time on a article. So the design process should focus on surfacing the right content to help them quickly make a decision to stay or click away. The Great Discontent does a great job at this — each interview engages readers immediately, and gives them a lot of summary information right at the beginning of the article.

The examples above are pretty obvious, but each design problem will have its own unique set of challenges, so I think this should be an important part of any process. When starting a new project, try to work with the team to agree on what the user’s scarcest resources are, and how you plan to optimize for that.

(link via @retinart)

The thing that breaks us

It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.

Lou Holtz (retired American football coach, author, and motivational speaker)

I can’t stop thinking about this quote ever since I saw it on Quote Vadis. At some point over the last three or four years, life became pretty heavy. The pressures of two kids, a career, and a life that’s just public enough to invite some nastiness every once in a while can really wear you down.

So it’s easy to fix your eyes on the load. The weight, the texture, the uncomfortableness of it all.

And then I read Austin Kleon’s words of encouragement in his post On writing post-fatherhood.

You owe your kid food, safety, and love, but you also owe him your example. You give up on The Thing, and then when the kid grows up, he might give up on His Thing, too.

So don’t give up on The Thing.

The Thing in this context is writing, but it applies to so much more. It’s the dream you can’t let go of — the products you want to build, the lives you want to affect positively, the tiny dent you want to make in the universe. If we let the load break us, The Thing will never happen, and worse — our kids will watch us give up on what’s important, and maybe do the same.

I can’t let that happen.

Here’s to carrying the load better.

Don’t let user experience design methods die

Des Traynor did a great interview with Ryan Singer, Product Manager at 37signals. I’m a huge fan of Ryan’s, and I agree with most of what he says in the interview. But there’s one part I’d like to challenge a bit.

Answering the question “Did you ever consider techniques like personas or user journeys, or any of those UX design methods?” Ryan says, “That stuff is all terrible”. He then obliterates the use of personas before going into a bit more detail a couple of questions later:

The things that get called User Experience come from the agency world. It really seems to be like that. Every time you meet people who are doing all of these UX methodologies they come from the consulting world. My background isn’t in the agency world; it’s in the product world. The whole game changes when you don’t have the pressure of delivering to a client on time, or trying to convince a client that you’re worth hiring or worth sticking with.

For example, if you’re working on products, and you’ve got a really capable team that can prototype things in real code, of course you don’t need wireframes, because you don’t need to get sign-off on something from a client.

This is where I disagree. I started my career in the product world. I worked at big companies, startups, and now an agency. I’ve used (and have observed others using) these “terrible” UX methods very successfully. Ryan is extremely lucky to work at a company like 37signals where personas, user journeys, and wireframes are not needed. But that is evidence of how great the 37signals culture is, not that certain UX methods are useless. I think Josh Brewer said it best:

To get a bit more specific, here are just a few scenarios and contexts where using personas, user journeys, and even wireframing (which was pronounced dead again this week) can be really useful:

  • At large organizations, not everyone is focused on and has an understanding of what experience design is about. There’s often a lot of “I am the user” thinking going on, and an inability to see interactions from the perspective of users. In those circumstances, personas and user journeys in particular can be enormously beneficial to help the organization see their products from a user’s perspective. Personas aren’t prescriptive, they’re descriptive. You can’t identify a persona and then try to predict people’s behavior off it. But you can use personas to help focus development efforts on users, and help define what features are included in (and just as importantly, excluded from) the product.
  • At startups as well as large organizations, we’ve used user journeys effectively to guide the organization away from systems thinking that’s focused on internal structures and technologies, to user process thinking that results in the design a of much better experience. Once again, when you’re dealing with people who come from non-UX backgrounds, making this shift can be tougher than it seems.
  • At agencies, we like to help companies wherever we can. To do this, we say that user experience and user-centred design scales well. Therefore, running a task-based usability test in a controlled lab environment will get the best results, but if there isn’t budget, guerilla testing is better than nothing. Similarly, sketching interfaces and then building a clickable prototype for iteration is absolutely the preferred way to go. But lacking budget, flat wireframes for quick iteration is better than doing no iteration at all. We can’t be so idealistic that we’re not willing to scale down our processes when we need to.

So, just to reiterate my point. 37signals appears to be an organization that is in lock-step agreement about their vision and goals. This means that they can build prototypes in code, iterate on that together, and they might not need reminders about their user personas and journeys. That is a fantastic place for a company to be in.

But to call UX methods “terrible” ignores the fact that most of us work in organizations where building good experiences is only 50% design challenge. The other 50% is organizational challenge to get all stakeholders pulling in the right direction. And in the right context, UX methods can be extremely helpful to address both types of challenges.

Further reading:

Design process: capturing and sharing sketches

Here’s some great advice from Joshua Porter: when you’re in a design meeting (or any other meeting, for that matter), Always be capturing:

“Always be capturing” is about the habit of continuously recording the value from your conversation. For example: If you’re talking about a new concept, you should be sketching it as you talk so your team has a shared understanding and an artifact of the conversation.

Joshua gives some great tips, including taking photos of your sketches and uploading them to Dropbox immediately. We do this as well, except instead of Dropbox, we add the photos directly to a Trello card related to the project at hand (using the iOS/Android app). Those photos are then immediately accessible to everyone who works on the project:

Trello sketches

We’re increasingly using Trello not just to schedule our work, but also to make our thoughts and sketches immediately available to the team within the context of the task at hand. That’s something Dropbox can’t do.

Using personas for more effective client work

In my latest article for Smashing Magazine I discuss How To Sell Your UX Design Solution To Clients:

How do you convince clients to trust you with their valuable and much-loved product? In my experience, the best way to sell work to clients is to apply user-centered design not only to the work we produce, but also to the clients who commission that work.

We have to understand who our clients are, what is important to them and what their goals are. And then we have to deliver work that not only meets the needs of end users, but also satisfies the personalities within the company itself.

I go through three different “client personas”, and how we adjust our process slightly for each. If you’re in the business of doing client work, I hope you’ll find the article useful.

Choose work based on impact, not profit

Jason Cavnar wrote a great piece for VentureBeat called Why developers should start choosing conscience over profit. He urges us to be Makers, not Takers:

Makers choose their work based on impact and happiness. They recognize the truths in the work of people like Daniel Pink and Simon Sinek — that income does not generate happiness or enjoyment, nor alleviate sadness or stress. They concern themselves with doing work that is important. With thinking about what moves society forward. With jobs and startups and weekend hacking and open-source contributions to things that have a real-world impact. They introduce and push fundamentally new technologies.

It reminds me of Matt Gemmell’s Makers and Takers:

People who make things, or Makers, contribute something to the universe. Makers are people like writers, musicians, artists, architects, software engineers, carpenters, and the chap at the coffee shop who makes your morning latte. He has a skill, and he applies it to create something that makes your day a little bit better. […]

When I’m choosing who to spend time with, or seek inspiration from, or learn from, or adopt as a role model, I’m exclusively looking at Makers. The fire and water, rather than the mere pipework. The lightning, not the rod. Surround yourself with Makers.

And one more, just for good measure. Here’s Mike Monteiro in Design Is a Job:

I urge each and every one of you to seek out projects that leave the world a better place than you found it. We used to design ways to get to the moon; now we design ways to never have to get out of bed. You have the power to change that.

So there you go — some nice midweek inspiration.

The hype, benefits, and dangers of Big Data

A Readlist of all the articles referenced in this post is available here. Readlists allow you to send all the articles to your Kindle, read them on your iOS device, or download it as an e-book.

Despite the overly alarmist title, Andrew Leonard’s How Netflix is turning viewers into puppets1 is a fascinating article on how Netflix uses Big Data in their programming decisions:

“House of Cards” is one of the first major test cases of this Big Data-driven creative strategy. For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well regarded 1990 BBC miniseries. Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.

The article also asks what this approach means for the creative process, something I’ve written about before in The unnecessary fear of digital perfection, so I won’t rehash that argument here.

What’s interesting to me about the rise in Big Data approaches to decision-making is the high levels of inaccuracy inherent to the analysis process. Of course, this is something we don’t hear about often, but Nassim N. Taleb recently wrote a great opinion piece about it for Wired called Beware the Big Errors of ‘Big Data’, in which he states:

Big-data researchers have the option to stop doing their research once they have the right result. In options language: The researcher gets the “upside” and truth gets the “downside.” It makes him antifragile, that is, capable of benefiting from complexity and uncertainty — and at the expense of others.

But beyond that, big data means anyone can find fake statistical relationships, since the spurious rises to the surface. This is because in large data sets, large deviations are vastly more attributable to variance (or noise) than to information (or signal). It’s a property of sampling: In real life there is no cherry-picking, but on the researcher’s computer, there is. Large deviations are likely to be bogus.

He gets into more detail on the statistical problems with Big Data in the article, and his book Antifragile looks really interesting too.

Since I haven’t written about Big Data before, I also want to reference a few articles on the topic that I enjoyed. Sean Madden gives some interesting real world examples in How Companies Like Amazon Use Big Data To Make You Love Them2. But over on the skeptical side, Stephen Few argues in Big Data, Big Deal that “interest in big data today is a direct result of vendor marketing; it didn’t emerge naturally from the needs of users.” He also makes the point that data has always been big, and that by focusing on the “bigness” of it, we’re missing the point:

A little more and a little faster have always been on our wish list. While information technology has struggled to catch up, mostly by pumping itself up with steroids, it has lost sight of the objective: to better understand the world—at least one’s little part of it (e.g., one’s business)—so we can make it better. Our current fascination with big data has us looking for better steroids to increase our brawn rather than better skills to develop our brains. In the world of analytics, brawn will only get us so far; it is better thinking that will open the door to greater insight.

Alan Mitchell makes a similar point in Big Data, Big Dead End, a case for what he calls Small Data:

But if we look at the really big value gap faced by society nowadays, it’s not the ability to crunch together vast amounts of data, but quite the opposite. It’s the challenge of information logistics: of how to get exactly the right information to, and from, the right people in the right formats at the right time. This is about Very Small Data: discarding or leaving aside the 99.99% of information I don’t need right now so that I can use the 0.01% of information that I do need as quickly and efficiently as possible.

What I think we should take from all of this is that our ability to collect vast amounts of data comes with enormous predictive and analytical upside. But we’d be foolish to think that it makes decision-making easier. Because Big Data does not take away the biggest challenge of data analysis: figuring how to turn data into information, and information into knowledge. In fact, Big Data makes this harder. To quote Nassim again:

I am not saying here that there is no information in big data. There is plenty of information. The problem — the central issue — is that the needle comes in an increasingly larger haystack.

In other words: proceed with caution.


  1. Link via @mobivangelist 

  2. It’s interesting that the phrasing of both this headline and the Netflix one implies that companies are using Big Data to persuade us to do things against our will. But I can’t figure out if that’s a real fear, or just clever linkbait. 

Optimization points in responsive web design

Mark Boulton argues that we need to think further than breakpoints in responsive design, and also spend time figuring out the “optimization points”. From The In-Between:

I think we’re missing a trick for using breakpoints to make lots of subtle design optimisations. […] Content-out design means defining your underpinning design structure from your content, and then focusing on what happens in between ‘layouts’. This approach of optimising your design by adding media queries (I like to call these optimisation points rather than break points, because nothing is broken without them, just better), means you are always looking at your content as you’re working. You become more aware of the micro-details of how the content behaves in a fluid context because your focus shifts from controlling the design in the form of pages, to one of guiding the design between pages.

He shares some examples and also links to more resources on how to accomplish this. One good example of this subtle optimization approach is Responsive Typography, a concept by Marko Dugonjić where the size of the typography displayed on the screen is based on the viewing distance of the reader, calculated via webcam.

My phone isn’t better than your phone

I really enjoyed Michele Catalano’s Grimes, Pop Music, and Cultural Elitism, which starts with this quote from Clare Boucher (better known as Grimes):

I don’t see why we have to hate something just because it’s successful, or assume that because it is successful it has no substance.

It’s an article about our tendency to look down on pop music (and the people who like pop music), but it points to a much broader cultural phenomenon:

The elitism one shows when they dismiss pop music as vapid and those who like it equally vapid is a detriment to any open conversation. The defenders of pop – myself included – are often put on the defensive, made to offer up excuses as to why we like what we do. No one should have to defend their musical choices. No artist who worked hard to get where they are should be roundly dismissed because their music doesn’t fit some elitist standard.

This kind of elitism is something we all have to watch out for. I will probably never switch away from my iPhone, but that doesn’t mean that Android users are undiscerning losers. The best phone is the phone you like the best. That’s all there is to it. As hard as it can be sometimes, we have to decouple the things people like and don’t like from their value as human beings.

Whose basket is it?

In Yours vs. Mine Dustin Curtis explains his preference to use “Your stuff” as opposed to “My stuff” in interfaces. It might sound trivial, but whether we use “My” or “Your” reveals something about how we view technology:

After thinking about this stuff for a very long time, I’ve settled pretty firmly in the camp of thinking that interfaces should mimic social creatures, that they should have personalities, and that I should be communicating with the interface rather than the interface being an extension of myself. Tools have almost always been physical objects that are manipulated tactually. Interfaces are much more abstract, and much more intelligent; they far more closely resemble social interactions than physical tools.

The answer for me, then, is that you’re having a conversation with the interface. It’s “Your stuff.”

This echoes Yahoo!’s recommendations:

Labeling stuff with “Your” instead reinforces the conversational dialogue. It is how another human being might address you when talking about your stuff. Even with MySpace1, people say things like “I saw what you put on your MySpace.”

So MTN at least got one out of four right on this page:

MTN account


  1. I guess they haven’t updated this pattern in a while.