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

2013: the year of social network quitting

I can’t shake this feeling that this might be the year that quitting social networks goes mainstream. We’re not even through January, and already the posts are flooding in. Here’s Brent Simmons in Brave new network: Why I hope Apple never releases a smart watch:

I want to stay human, in other words. I want to like things in the thousand different ways there are to like things, rather than just click on a Like button. I want to say and think things that take more than 140 characters.

I want to not take a photograph, because no picture, no matter how beautifully filtered, can express what it’s like for one person to walk in the woods alone. I need to remember.

And here’s Keri Maijala in Why I’m not on Facebook:

I felt bad about myself after browsing Facebook.

I get that Facebook is like a reverse funhouse mirror that makes everything look better. It’s a sublimely distorted world filled with families and trips and drinks and straight white teeth. And I was just as guilty of perpetuating that myth, carefully choosing photos and crafting updates that supported how I wanted to be perceived: Happy, healthy, independent, adventurous, courageous, and with straight white teeth. Only half of those things are true. And ultimately, I found I felt depressed after browsing Facebook.

Or as Alex Charchar said on Twitter recently, we’re starting to get bored by our distractions. I think that’s a good thing, though. Boredom leads to creativity.

The similarities between making coffee and developing software

I know I just wrote about coffee, but this one is too good not to link to. In Coffee and the Art of Customer Happiness Mathias Meyer writes about the similarities between making coffee and developing software:

Baristas are geeks, just like we are. They love talking about the latest toys, about which espresso machine is better than the other, they compare paper filters with cloth, and they take detailed notes on the different aromas of coffee when they’re cupping it.

The craft of coffee making is quite fascinating, both from the perspective of precision and customer care.

Mathias discusses familiar topics like metrics, continuous delivery, and custom vs. off-the-shelf software, and what the art of coffee can teach us about each. Great article.

(link via @bb)

American Airlines brand identity, and collaborative outrage

Original American Airlines logo designer Massimo Vignelli comments on the redesigned logo:

Styling is very much emotional. Good design isn’t—it’s good forever. It’s part of our environment and culture. There’s no need to change it. The logo doesn’t need change. The whole world knows it, and there’s a tremendous equity. It’s incredibly important for brand recognition. I will not be here to make a bet, but this [new logo] won’t last another 25 years.

Dustin Curtis on the redesign:

It is too bad that such a great, enduring identity was placed into such careless hands. […] After forty-six years, one of the finest corporate brands in history has been reduced to patriotic lipstick.

Paul Ford, last December, in The Emergence of Crowdsmashing Logos and Rebranding:

People don’t like their stories messed with. You expect a certain continuity, and when the opposite happens—Dylan going electric, season two of Friday Night Lights—you react out of proportion to external measures of the offense but very much in proportion to the internal anxiety and anger you might feel. […] It’s not just that some lines and colors have changed—possibilities have been taken away. No wonder people want to go to their windows and yell “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take gradient blends anymore.”

For the first time, the question “I wonder who else hates this?” has an immediate answer, and people who see the arc of their lives flattened by bad branding can find each other and grieve over the lost logotypes of youth.

I’m not saying I like the American Airlines rebrand. But boy, does the response once again show how the Internet is an incredible tool for collaborative outrage.

The impact of technology on kids and their development

I desperately wanted to dismiss Sherry Turkle’s answer to the question What should we be worried about? as alarmist, but she makes a terribly convincing argument about the impact that technology has on kids and their development. After discussing the issues in detail, she concludes:

Thus my worry for kindergarten-tech: the shiny objects of the digital world encourage a sensibility of constant connection, constant distraction, and never-aloneness. And if you give them to the youngest children, they will encourage that sensibility from the earliest days. This is a way of thinking that goes counter to what we currently believe is good for children: a capacity for independent play, the importance of cultivating the imagination, essentially, developing a love of solitude because it will nurture creativity and relationship.

The essay echoes Nicholas Carr’s thoughts:

We don’t like being bored because boredom is the absence of engaging stimulus, but boredom is valuable because it requires us to fill that absence out of our own resources, which is process of discovery, of doors opening. The pain of boredom is a spur to action, but because it’s pain we’re happy to avoid it. Gadgetry means never having to feel that pain, or that spur. The web expands to fill all boredom. That’s dangerous for everyone, but particularly so for kids, who, without boredom’s spur, may never discover what in themselves or in their surroundings is most deeply engaging to them.

But perhaps Stephen Hacket said it best — and most succinctly — in Why I Don’t Play Games on my iPhone:

Boredom isn’t a bad thing. But strangling it with Angry Birds probably is.

What users really care about

In his introduction to a very interesting user research case study on the MailChimp blog, Gregg Bernstein writes:

Here at MailChimp, we’re realists—as much as we love email and all the things you can do with it, we understand that building a campaign is a task, not a life event. You want to get in, get done, and get on with things. Duly noted.

The post goes on to explain how they managed to shave an average of 32 seconds off a core email campaign creation task at MailChimp. But it’s that opening sentence I’d like to dwell on for a bit.

I wish more companies understood this crucial point. As designers and product managers we obsess over every detail of our product, but it most likely makes up a minuscule part of our users’ days. Unless you work for Facebook or Twitter users don’t wake up wondering what new features you’ve released, how your conversion rate has changed over time, or what awards you’ve won. They care about getting a task done, and they care about nothing getting in their way — they care about getting on with their lives.

Yesterday The Onion published an article that is such a spot-on commentary on how we’re mostly ignoring this reality. From Internet Users Demand Less Interactivity:

Tired of being bombarded with constant requests to share content on social media, bestow ratings, leave comments, and generally “join in on the discussion,” the nation’s Internet users demanded substantially less interactivity this week.

Speaking with reporters, web users expressed a near unanimous desire to visit a website and simply look at it, for once, without having every aspect of the user interface tailored to a set of demographic information culled from their previous browsing history.

Exactly. We’re in an environment where too often products and functionality are shaped by who we are and what’s technically possible, not by what user needs call for. XKCD called us on it years ago, but we’re just not listening:

University website

The solution to this problem is to get out into the world and understand how our products and services fit into the lives of our users. How we can help them accomplish their tasks more effectively. Mark Hurst summed this up well in his post What is a career in user experience really about?:

Good user research isn’t a matter of learning the steps of some trendy methods, as though one were just following a cookbook. Instead, good UX work requires a genuine interest in observing, listening to, and learning from other people: primarily the customers themselves, but also the organization that owns the product. That observation, and that listening, must stem from a genuine human interest in people.

We can all do with a shot of humility about our products. We might think what we’re making is a gift to humankind that deserves proper respect — and we absolutely should be proud of our work. But a bit of human empathy will show us that most users have only a passing fly-by relationship with our products. That’s ok though. Understanding how our products fit into people’s lives realistically will help us to improve that fit and (hopefully) become indispensable to them. That’s our job as User Experience Designers.

The problem with Facebook’s Graph Search

Steve Cheney wrote an excellent analysis of Facebook’s new search tool in Graph Search’s Dirty Promise and the Con of the Facebook “Like”. The problem? Most “Likes” on Facebook are bought by ad agencies, not earned organically. The result:

One direct effect of all this passive liking is an ugly messy data set with a bunch of implicit signals… that are wrong. What happens when your girlfriend types in “restaurants in San Francisco” into graph search and P.F. Chang’s gets spit out because it’s the most-liked restaurant.  Was a bad Chinese chain the kind of serendipity you were looking for on your date? Didn’t think so. 

I also like Ariel Seidman’s take on the challenges Graph Search will need to overcome in Can we make that search box bigger?:

Consumers think in terms of I got a job to do. What product will I hire to do this job? For restaurant searches I hire Yelp. I need a flight to Chicago I hire kayak. I need to start looking for jobs I’ll hit LinkedIn or Indeed. Each of these have their own experience, community, privacy expectations, and detailed data. As BranchOut has shown people do not want Facebook to be the place to manage their professional life, they have hired a different product for that job.

I know I tend to be too skeptical about this kind of stuff, but Graph Search just strikes me as another solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.

Coffee, design, and the nature of craft

I’ve lost count of the number of people who sent me Julian Baggini’s excellent essay The art of coffee last week (I guess my Instagram feed makes my feelings about coffee pretty clear). It’s a truly great article, going far beyond coffee to the essence of craftsmanship, and the things we value. Here’s Julian on the “perfection” of Nespresso capsules that is hard to match consistently by human baristas:

Surely we appreciate the handmade in part because it is handmade. An object or a meal has different meaning and significance if we know it to be the product of a human being working skilfully with tools rather than a machine stamping out another clone. Even if in some ways a mass-produced object is superior in its physical properties, we have good reasons for preferring a less perfect, handcrafted one.

And further on:

There is plenty that we should happily allow to be mechanised, for the obvious benefits that brings. But there is plenty else we will continue to prefer to be handmade, because what matters is not just the result, but the process by which you get there. Humans are imperfect, and so a world of perfection that denies the human element can never be truly perfect after all.

The article got me thinking once more about the concept op craft as it relates to design and related fields. In 2008 Alan Cooper brought the discussion about craft in design to the forefront with his IxDA keynote An Insurgance of Quality1. He argues as follows for the value of craft in Interaction Design:

Best to market, particularly in high tech, comes about only through craftsmanship. And craftsmanship is all about quality. The goal of craftsmanship is to get it right, not to get it fast. The ultimate measurement of craft is not speed. It’s quality. How good is it. It’s a pure measurement. And a delightful measurement. Craftspeople do it over and over, until they get it correct. And in their training, in their apprenticeship, they build things over and over, learning how to do things correctly, so they can bring enormous expertise to create successful products, and thus the training of craftsman is a long and drawn out personal process.

In Craft in Interaction and Service Design Peter Merholz uses Instapaper as an example of an app that practices this kind of dedication to quality:

Instapaper shows the power of approaching experience design as a craft, as opposed to some kind of massive organizational process. As Marco hones his craft, he is able to evolve the experience over time. Too often companies launch something and then move on to whatever’s next. Instapaper shows what happens when you go deeper and deeper and deeper into something. Unlike Microsoft or Adobe, who simply tack on features with every new release, Marco, instead, refines the design, honing it, polishing it, like his app is some jewel. I’d love to see companies approach service design the way Marco has. It would require a fundamental shift in how they work, but the results could be quite beautiful.

Unfortunately, we live in an environment where most software isn’t designed in this way. In The Thread Dmitry Fadeyev discusses what usually happens in design projects:

The designer’s creative instinct often tries to express itself outside of this frame [of focusing only on conversions] and just as often gets shot down by project managers and marketers who disregard all aesthetic value apart from that which drives higher conversions. Three things are killed in the process. […] The second is the pleasure that people receive from coming into contact with beautifully crafted goods, especially works that infect the viewer with an emotion that the maker wanted to communicate.

It becomes clear from these articles that one of the essential elements for developing one’s craft is time. Time to do things over and over, to make mistakes, to learn, to fail, to try again, to get frustrated, and to become exceptional through small victories. But as I wrote in Who has time for that?, that’s just not how business works these days. Most companies work more the way DHH advises against in Your life’s work:

Working people to death to ship any one feature or product is a poor strategy, as it reduces the capacity to ship the next feature or product (burn out, build-up of bad rush practices). It’s far more important to have a system for shipping that improves over the long term than one that heroically manages one monster push.

So how can we change this, and convince both our fellow designers as well as clients (internal and external) of the value of craft in design? We’ll have to start with design schools, of course. In Craftsmanship Jon Kolko notices a dangerous trend he sees in most schools:

Based on my experience reviewing portfolios from recent business school graduates, I would argue that one of the most fundamental failings of “design thinking” education is the lack of craftsmanship. Students don’t appear to learn a honed, tacit, and careful “innate” sensibility for making, and simultaneously, they don’t appear to have developed an intimate understanding of the medium they are responsible for shaping. Instead, they are equipped with a toolkit of methods.

But we also have to be convinced ourselves that craft is important — that it has real business value because of the way it connects with people. We have to be convinced that it matters when a designer’s personality and care shine through in their work. We have to believe that people buy things not just because of the way they work, but also because of the way they were created. To drive this point home, I love Frank Chimero’s call for us to care more in his essay The Particle:

We should care more about our craft because we’re granted an opportunity to contribute to the world. We should care more about our audiences because they are the ones who give our work value. We might think that design work is about you or about me or anyone else who makes it, or maybe about the things that we make and the artifacts we produce, but don’t let this way of thinking fool you. The things we make are all just excuses to speak with one another and to help one another. We are all linked, and the things that we make for each other strengthen the invisible threads that tie us all together.

There is a part of me that will always design for the joy of making it, but I now understand that the point of it all is not for me to enjoy myself, but for the ones using whatever I make to have some sort of wonder when doing so. We are in service to those that use what we make, to the ones that listen to what we say.

This is a difficult task. We live in an age of data-driven design. Our challenge is to listen to the data and automate improvements as much as possible, but without losing the human element that we all crave so much. Let’s train ourselves to be design baristas, not just machine button-pushers who produce the same perfect, boring comps on every single project.

I’ve created a Readlist of all the articles mentioned in this post. You can send the articles to your Kindle or your mobile phone, or download an eBook. If there’s interest in this kind of thing I’ll start doing it more often, so please let me know with a quick tweet if you like this idea.

  1. It looks like the video for the keynote isn’t available any more, but here is a pretty good summary by Beau Smith

Movie UIs through the years

Preston de Guise wrote a very interesting post on how Sci-Fi interfaces have changed over the years. He concludes as follows in The changing face of computers on screen:

The shift was profound yet entirely subtle, something that a lot of people wouldn’t have really noticed at all – we shifted from portraying computer hardware to portraying computer software. […]

At some point, fiction and the future aligned, and the way in which computers were presented changed to being all about the interface – the software. This was of course just holding up a mirror to society in general: since computers have been around, their usage model has been undergoing a significantly powerful evolution from being a specific tool to being a general purpose piece of equipment; the logical continuance from a “piece of equipment” is an appliance, and that’s the era we’re starting to straddle into now, thanks in no small part to interfaces such as iOS.

Preston includes some great movie screenshots to make his case, so it’s definitely worth reading the whole article. For more, check out the collection of movie UIs in Ridiculous User Interfaces In Film, and the Man Who Designs Them. And here’s a highlight reel of Mark Coleran’s UI work in various movies:

Coleran Reel 2008.06 HD from Mark Coleran on Vimeo.

For bonus points (and if you don’t mind random pagination and small white text on a grey background), check out the Top 10 Worst Portrayals of Technology in Film.

Another benefit of sketching in UI design

There’s a benefit of sketching and paper prototyping that I haven’t thought of before. Joshua Porter recently wrote an article called What Jerry Seinfeld can teach us about interaction design, and this is one of his points:

Works in low fidelity. Jerry writes his jokes on a yellow pad with a blue pen, and authored every episode of Seinfeld in long-hand in this way. This is like the sketching stage of UI design.

Why write/sketch instead of type/wireframe? Well, there might be a clue in the way Jason Snell talks about writing on the iPad:

Using the iPad slowed me down and got me to think about what I was writing in a way that using my trusty MacBook Air never would.

He likens it to the difference between writing with a pen vs. writing with a keyboard:

Writing with pen and paper felt appreciably different from typing. My mind would try to race ahead, but my pen could only go so fast. I ended up considering every sentence, every word choice, with greater care simply because I couldn’t dash it out and move ahead.

So maybe that’s why there’s so much value in sketching with pen and paper as well. Lines are imperfect. You can only go so fast. Making a mistake can be costly if it means you have to do it all over again, so you take your time to consider design options.

I’ve slowly started moving away from wireframes, and instead now prefer a workflow that includes several rounds of sketching, followed by prototyping in Axure. I think I get better results that way, and maybe the reason is that sketching slows down the mind just enough to do better work.

Who has time for that?

Andy Budd’s most recent contribution to The Pastry Box Project got quite a bit of traction yesterday. This part, in particular, seems to have struck a chord in our corner of the Internet:

Good design takes time—more time than most of us are allowed. […] Sadly we see too many potentially amazing designers stuck by the glass ceiling of time. So they settle on the first solution that looks viable and are never allowed to sweat the details. They are forced to rely on 1% of inspiration without the benefit of perspiration.

So this is the dirty little secret in our industry. The best designers and developers rarely have more talent. They simply have more time.

This rings true, but I’d like to expand on that and say that it’s not just a problem in our industry. Things have become very, very fast all around us, and our impatience has reached remarkable levels. We pirate movies because we can’t wait 1 minute for the anti-piracy warnings on DVDs to play through (oh, the irony). We microwave pop tarts for 3 seconds because we can’t wait for them to finish toasting. Brian Regan has a pretty funny standup bit about this (the microwave thing starts at 2:35):

Frank Partnoy sums up the consequences of our addiction to speed very well in Wait: The Art and Science of Delay:

The essence of my case is this: given the fast pace of modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly. We don’t, or can’t, take enough time to think about the increasingly complex timing challenges we face. Technology surrounds us, speeding us up. We feel its crush every day, both at work and at home.

Yet the best time managers are comfortable pausing for as long as necessary before they act, even in the face of the most pressing decisions. Some seem to slow down time. For good decision-makers, time is more flexible than a metronome or atomic clock. As we will see over and over, in most situations we should take more time than we do.

We should take more time than we do, yes. But we don’t. Because business doesn’t work that way. Technology doesn’t work that way. And, most of all, release schedules don’t work that way.

We all know the saying Fast, good, and cheap — pick two. We live in an environment where everything has to be “fast”, so we’re inevitably left with choosing between “good” or “cheap”. And guess which one we end up having to choose most of the time…