Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
Sean Madden makes some interesting points in American-Centric UI Is Leveling Tech Culture — and Design Diversity:
Just as user-centered design transformed technology in the 1990s and early 2000s, cultural fluency needs to transform it today: user experience (UX) design that’s familiar enough with a user’s cultural background to meet him or her halfway.
Cultural fluency demands abandoning the idea that functionality is a universal language, and that “good UX” is culturally agnostic.
He goes on to give some examples of this cultural bias:
Consider the use of gestural interfaces in a world where gestures mean very different things in different cultures. Or using scrolling for timelines when time horizons (among other culturally sensitive dimensions) represent different values to different societies. Even the idea of touching our screens is a culturally sensitive UX action.
We see this not just in how people use products differently, but also how we interact with them during the user-centered design process. Last year I started working on a talk called The challenges and opportunities of user-centered design in developing nations. Somewhere along the line I ran out of steam with it, but I still think it’s an important topic. For example, a usability lab in an office full of Macs and giant screens can be quite intimidating to users if you’re doing research on low-end phone usage, so that’s something you have to account for. Even our user-centered design methods need to be user-centered, but it’s unfortunately something we tend not to pay much attention to.
Craig Mod’s newsletter is one of the few emails I always look forward to reading. In the most recent one Craig gives some advice for people in their 20s:
To the younger folks reading now: If you’re willing to live in that small apartment, forgo that fancy food and expensive clothing, and uphold a semblance of disciplined and focused work ethic, you can probably hack more experience into your life than you’d imagine. [...]
The emotional textural quality of my memory of life then is so intense because it was a period of only the ephemeral. Those years can only reverberate in my gut because there is no material thing upon which to place those feelings. No physical token to help me remember. It’s a period of my life where I learned to walk a city (because it was cheaper than eating through a city, or five-star hoteling a city), learned to find great pleasure in the night-sounds of one piece of town winding down or the stirring of another the dawn following.
His thoughts brought me back to my own story, and the similar circumstances I was in when I first moved to the US years ago. I moved into my first apartment with only a blow-up mattress I borrowed from my then-fiancé, and a coffee machine she bought me as a housewarming gift. I bought my first chair for $20 at a Salvation Army store, and since I didn’t have a car I had to leave my passport with them so I could borrow a dolly and push the chair back to my apartment (what a sight that must have been to passers-by).
But you know what? It was an amazing time. It taught me not to take anything for granted. It taught me how to really get to know a city (on foot — always on foot). And it taught me the value of working hard, and always keeping an eye out for things to make me laugh, especially when it’s not going well.
Starting from the bottom of a mountain teaches us that there’s more to life than standing at the top. What matters is the people you’re with and the conversations you have and the lessons you learn — not how far up you go. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be ambitious. I’m just saying that as long as you enjoy the views with those who give your moments meaning, who cares where you’re standing?
Clive Thompson takes on the “social media is bad for teens” narrative in Don’t Blame Social Media if Your Teen Is Unsocial. He discusses some findings by Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd:
What she has found, over and over, is that teenagers would love to socialize face-to-face with their friends. But adult society won’t let them. “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other,” Boyd says. “They’re not allowed to hang out the way you and I did, so they’ve moved it online.” [...]
The result, Boyd discovered, is that today’s teens have neither the time nor the freedom to hang out. So their avid migration to social media is a rational response to a crazy situation. They’d rather socialize F2F, so long as it’s unstructured and away from grown-ups. “I don’t care where,” one told Boyd wistfully, “just not home.”
Thompson and Boyd are joining a growing number of authors who push back against the notion that technology makes us stupid, social media is bad for us, etc. I’m currently making my way through Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. It’s really great so far, and I’ll write a full review when I’m done, but his core argument comes down to this:
What are the central biases of today’s digital tools? There are many, but I see three big ones that have a huge impact on our cognition. First, they allow for prodigious external memory: smartphones, hard drives, cameras, and sensors routinely record more information than any tool before them. We’re shifting from a stance of rarely recording our ideas and the events of our lives to doing it habitually. Second, today’s tools make it easier for us to find connections—between ideas, pictures, people, bits of news—that were previously invisible. Third, they encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing. This last feature has many surprising effects that are often ill understood.
Also consider Jason Feifer’s impassioned rejection of Sherry Turkle’s doom-and-gloom ideas1 in Google Makes You Smarter, Facebook Makes You Happier, Selfies Make You A Better Person:
Turkle imagines that any interaction with technology somehow negates all the time spent doing other things. She also imagines that we must devote ourselves in only one way to every task: At a dinner table, we are only serious and focused on conversation; at a memorial service, we are only mournful. That is not the way we live. It’s never been the way we live. And that’s the beauty of technology, which Turkle cannot see: We can use it for all purposes, to express joy and sadness, to have long conversations or send short texts. We made it. It is us.
I’m coming around to the idea that online connections are as real as “IRL” connections2. We’re just going through a reframing that happens every time a new technology comes along, and that’s ok. I also think we need both sides of the argument — pessimists as well as optimists — to help us work through it all and find our middle ground.
In Snow Fail: Do Readers Really Prefer Parallax Web Design? Eric Jaffe reports on a recent study done at Purdue University by graduate student Dede Frederick:
“I’ve read from many blogs how people say it’s going to attract users and create so much of a better user experience,” Frederick tells Co.Design. “I thought it was going to be superior to a typical website in every aspect.”
As it happens, the parallax site was only superior in one sense — fun. None of the other survey measures indicated a significant difference in user experience between the two sites. Parallax didn’t even edge the standard site in questions about visual appeal (although participants did think it looked slightly more “professional”). Frederick also discovered one critical disadvantage of parallax: test participants who suffered from motion sickness found the style disorienting.
This doesn’t mean parallax scrolling can’t be used well, just that we shouldn’t jump on every new design fad without understanding its usability impacts first.
I’m a big fan of the recent move away from user stories to job stories to design better products. Alan Klement provides a good overview in Designing Features Using Job Stories. That said, I’m worried that personas are on the verge of extinction as collateral damage of this evolution. We can’t let that happen. Alan explains his issue with personas as follows:
The biggest and most pertinent problem with Personas is this: Personas are imaginary customers defined by attributes that don’t acknowledge causality.
These attributes, generally in the form of demographics, do not bring a team closer to understanding a customer’s consumption, or non-consumption, of a product. The characteristics of a Persona (someone’s age, sex, race, and weekend habits) does not explain why they ate that Snickers bar; having 30 seconds to buy and eat something which will stave off hunger for 30 minutes does explain why.
The problem with this argument is that it refers to marketing personas, which are generally not very useful for design. Marketing personas are usually based on segmentation data, and ends up being mostly about demographics that cluster similar groups of users together.
But we shouldn’t confuse marketing personas with design personas, which are specifically created to guide the development of product features. How are they different? Well, first and foremost, design personas are based on needs, goals, and dimensions that have a direct impact on their interaction with the product. In other words, they incorporate causality, which takes care of Alan’s gripe.
For example, below is a design persona for a short-term loan company. There are a few things to note:
- There’s very little demographic detail — just enough to help us get to know this persona. Most of the persona is focused on their goals and needs, and what they want to accomplish.
- Note how causality is all over the story and the goals — Monde needs a loan now for an urgent need. This is very different from someone who just wants some money for a new TV.
- The key to these types of personas are the dimensions, or in this particular case, the loan drivers. Note that for Monde, the monthly instalment is not important. What’s important is that she gets the amount she needs to pay for her travel. For the persona that just wants a TV or some new shoes, this is different. For that persona the amount is less important — what’s most important is whether or not they can afford the monthly instalment.
My point isn’t that job stories aren’t necessary. On the contrary, I think job stories are much better than user stories for product design. But job stories are a valuable augmentation to design personas, not a replacement for them. There is still a huge amount of value in personas. They have names and faces, so the whole team can picture them. As opposed to a mythical “average” user, they are solid people we can imagine using our product to achieve their goals. This is helpful because by focusing on individuals that are closer to the edges of the experience, instead of the average, we’re able to cater design for a larger portion of the user base.
In the documentary Objectified, Dan Formosa from Smart Design says, “What we need to do to design is to look at the extremes. The middle will take care of itself.” As an example, he talks about how they once designed garden shears specifically to cater for people with arthritis. They knew that if the shears worked for that “user”, it would work well for everyone. That’s the power of personas.
I understand and agree with the concern that personas can sometimes be oversimplified caricatures of users that don’t take specific situations and actions in consideration. Without proper research personas also tend to be be shallow and not very useful. But those are dangers that are easy to avoid. Remember that personas aren’t prescriptive, they’re descriptive. You can’t identify a persona and then try to predict people’s behavior off it. But with solid research and analysis you can use personas effectively to help focus development efforts on target users, and help define what features should be included in (and just as importantly, excluded from) the product.
As a side note, in addition to the job story format I also sometimes like to use what I call problem stories. These are like user stories, except that they incorporate “triggers”, which takes causality into consideration. The format I use for problem stories are:
User has problem when trigger.
For example, a Product Manager on a financial services product might have a problem story that states, “Investors are not able to submit supporting documents online when they need to make changes to client portfolios.” That becomes a statement of the problem that needs to be solved through product improvements, and a good way to develop features by focusing on user needs.
All this to say that job stories (and problem stories!) are great ways to guide product and feature development. But if we use them to replace design personas, we’ll be throwing tons of useful context and understanding out along with it.
I’m always looking for ways to make our workflows more efficient, often to the frustration of my colleagues. I admittedly make them test out way too many tools. But I think I finally found a winning integration that everyone can get behind. First, a bit of background.
We use HipChat as our group chat and IM tool. We have a general room where we all hang out (but I’ll be honest with you, it mostly contains gifs), and then we also set up dedicated project rooms where we discuss project-specific issues. We use Trello to track our tasks and progress on projects. I love Trello, but I wanted to find a way to turn HipChat into the canonical record of what happens on our projects. For that, I turned to a service called Zapier.
Zapier is a tool that connects the web apps you use on a daily basis, and move data between them. Think of it as If This Then That for business use. We have quite a few Zapier automations set up, but my favorites are the ones that post a message to HipChat whenever something specific happens in Trello.
The first step is to set up the connection between Trello and HipChat. To do that, start with this Zapier automation: Create HipChat Alert from new Trello Activity.
Now, the problem is that this default integration posts a message whenever anything happens in Trello, so it gets overwhelming really quickly. I only want to post a message to HipChat when (1) someone creates a new Trello card, or (2) when someone moves a card from one column (like To Do) to another (like Doing). Trello’s API documentation isn’t very clear, so it took quite a bit of playing around, but I eventually figured out how to make it work. The trick is that you have to create some custom filters to weed out the non-essential stuff. So, once you’ve set up the basic automation, here’s what to do.
To send a message to HipChat when a new card is created in Trello, add the following custom filter:
And then use the following variables for the HipChat message:
To send a message to HipChat when a card is moved from one column to another, create the following custom filter:
And use the following variables for the HipChat message:
The result looks like this in HipChat:
I like this message format because it lets you know who did what, and it also links directly to the Trello card if you’d like add a comment or look at other activity.
This integration basically turned HipChat into a dedicated project news feed, which I find extremely useful. If you only work on one project at a time this whole thing might seem like overkill, but we often have 3 or more projects on the go, so it’s great to enter a HipChat room and immediately be able to get a sense of what’s going on.
So, give Zapier a try. Even if you don’t use HipChat and Trello, I’m sure you’ll have fun playing around with the services you do use.
‘Tis the time for introspection, and this year we all seem to wonder about the future of online publishing — and in particular, what role the personal blog will play going forward. Jason Kottke kicks us off with The blog is dead, long live the blog:
Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids. [...]
The primary mode for the distribution of links has moved from the loosely connected network of blogs to tightly integrated services like Facebook and Twitter.
Even though I don’t want to believe Jason, his words ring true. And that bugs me, because I really like this site (which I haven’t called a blog for a long time, but hey, semantics). After a few days of overthinking things, Frank Chimero came to the rescue with Homesteading 2014, in which he explains his plans for his own site going forward. The whole thing is worth reading because it’s a great summary of the problem with endless content streams, but here’s the key part:
I’m returning to a personal site, which flips everything on its head. Rather than teasing things apart into silos, I can fuse together different kinds of content. Instead of having fewer sections to attend to distracted and busy individuals, I’ll add more (and hopefully introduce some friction, complexity, and depth) to reward those who want to invest their time. [...]
So, I’m doubling down on my personal site in 2014. In light of the noisy, fragmented internet, I want a unified place for myself — the internet version of a quiet, cluttered cottage in the country. I’ll have you over for a visit when it’s finished.
Count me in. The strategy resonates with me, and besides, I don’t want to see the “blog” die.
The VCSO team did a great interview with designer and illustrator Kyle Steed about his recent trip to Israel. I love Kyle’s view that what makes VSCO Cam great is all the ways it’s decidedly not Instagram:
It’s like this, you can’t just slap a b&w filter on a crappy photograph and suddenly it’s Ansel Adams, that’s foolish thinking. But this is where the majority lives I believe, in this make believe world that if they add enough filters and effects to their photo, then they’ll make the “pop” page. Note: Please don’t get me started on the popular page.
And yet another reason why I love the VSCO Grid, there are no likes, comments or other superfluous information that only adds hot air to a photographers headspace. Jerry Maguire said it best: “Fewer clients. Less money.” which could be translated in this case as: “Fewer followers. Less comments.”
Khoi Vinh wrote a great essay exploring What Streaming Music Can Be. He starts by describing some of the things that made buying CDs and albums a meaningful experience:
This is all trivia, to be sure, but it’s the kind of stuff that used to be such a meaningful part of owning music — and that makes one a fan for life. Having a record in your collection meant that you could spend time poring over its liner notes: familiarizing yourself with the names of musicians, producers, engineers, and managers; memorizing lyrics; and studying photos of musicians’ faces, stances and attire. These were the intangible qualities that made music more than just a service, but something to be collected.
But Khoi doesn’t just want streaming music services like Spotify and Rdio to copy the days of physical liner notes. Instead, he makes some suggestions on how these services can use metadata in fascinating ways to add meaning to digital music.
I’ve been a happy Spotify customer for a few months now, but everything Khoi says in his post makes sense to me. I’ve discovered some great music — and some great albums — but I tend to listen to those albums a lot less than when I used to buy CDs. The turnover is just too fast — there’s always something new to discover. And I’m hungry for it, incapable of resisting the lure of the next great song.
Apart from the missing metadata, there is something else that bugs me about streaming services (and digital music in general). Janko Jovanovic discusses this in the context of eBooks in his post Digital and physical, but it’s just as applicable to digital music:
When I buy a physical book, it starts to live a life of its own. After reading it for days or weeks, the book changes. It’s not brand new anymore. Edges of papers lose their sharpness. The cover becomes slightly bent and you can tell it was read just by looking at it. When I put a book on a shelf it becomes a part of the space I live in and it continues to change over time. This transience and decay of things around me remind me that I should use every moment of my life since I will go through the same lifecycle as that book. [...]
All digital goods, be it ebooks, software, documents or images give me a sense of permanency and immutability. They are sterile. And that sterility prevents me from getting in touch with transience and gives me a sense of timelessness. Which is just an illusion.
I’m not going to end my Spotify subscription, but I do miss glancing over my CDs, observing the wear and tear of albums that have gone through so much with me. Those CD covers become more than the music they contain. They become reminders of a life well lived. And I do fear that I’m losing that now that I mainly listen to my (admittedly awesome) Spotify playlists.
Kontra explores a particularly egregious style of “content marketing”-style advertising on CNN’s website in his post “You Might Also Like”. He concludes:
Will these advertorial deceptions and misdirections move from the ad wells around the periphery of the page into the news delivery itself? Will there be product placements within news sentences? What follows that? Is the “mainstream media” management about to capitulate on long-held principles because it’s unable or unwilling to pursue any other strategy but the race to the bottom of the advertising barrel? Is there anything more precious than credibility to a news organization? If not, why is Time Inc. poisoning its own well so nonchalantly?
Contrast CNN’s approach with The Information, an online-only publication that just launched with a price tag of $400/year. Most people believe it won’t work, but I think Hunter Walk makes a good point in $400 for The Information Is About What’s Missing, Not What’s There:
For me the value in The Information is not solely in what they’re providing but what they’re leaving out. The ~two articles a day are both interesting. Because they’re not playing a page views game, they don’t need to overload me with 25+ posts every 24 hrs. The site is spartan because they don’t need to worry about IAB units. A small number of writers building their beats give me the chance to see each journalist’s style distinctly, not settle into some random byline slot machine of varying quality.
It’s sad that we have to pay not just to have a distraction-free reading environment, but also to reduce the amount of information we get to something more manageable (and focused on quality over quantity). But that appears to be the new world of publishing.