Good design enables people to do more.

Ryan Singer posted a series of tweets yesterday that all designers should read. The nature of Twitter is for these nuggets to fade away over time, but this wisdom is timeless.

Sometimes we toolmakers focus too much on taking away work instead of enabling better work. We make automations instead of instruments.

It's natural for programmers to focus on automation problems. It's imperative knowledge. That doesn't mean automation is where the value is.

Often what you need isn't an "easier way" but rather a way that gives you more leverage over things that matter. Totally different POV.

Programmers are also good at optimization. Just like automation, we mistake optimization for value. "It's what you already do, but easier!"

The most exciting projects are ones that take people to new places, not automating and polishing the routines they already have.

Can I make something that enables people to do something they never did before? That's exciting. Bigger than automation and optimization.

The "done" trap.

When was the last time it took you more than 2 weeks to ship a feature?

I've stopped using the word "done" to refer to software. Software is never "done." Features are never "done." There are always defects waiting to be found and fixed. There are always new features to add, and enhancements to make.

At D-I, we use the word "ship" to describe the point in time at which something is good enough to give to consumers.

Thinking about features as "done" keeps us from "shipping." "Done" implies that we can't revisit the feature to improve it later. "Done" implies perfectionism. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

It turns out, acceptance criteria are the key to avoiding the "done" trap. It's a type of contract. Before you start coding, you define the point at which you stop coding. When all the acceptance criteria is checked off, you "ship."

"Done" invites another feedback loop after the contract is met. We hear statements from stakeholders like this all the time:

Well, it meets our expectations, but now that we see it, it's not good enough.

or

How much additional effort would it take to add __ feature?

My response. "Ship it," and use the next iteration to make it better, then "ship" again.

Ship. Ship. Ship. Ship. Ship.

Whiny Toddlers and Product Roadmaps

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

― E.L. Doctorow

As a child I remember hating long road trips to my grandparents house, mostly because I couldn't wait to arrive. The 4 hours from Cleveland to Cincinnati seemed like days. The more excited I got to see Grandma, the more agonizing the wait became.

I've always been a chronic complainer. That must be why my parents always told me, with a faint hope of relief, to "take a nap, and we'll take a shortcut."

Software roadmaps can plague us the same way. We focus so much on the destination that we are distracted by what's happening along the way.

We strive to follow the path the crow flies, as direct as possible. But actually, the most successful trips are the ones with planned stops along the way.

I think a lot of us are afraid to aim for a point which isn't our destination - as if we would somehow confuse ourselves about where we are ultimately headed.

We can't predict accidents or traffic congestion. We might have an idea that downtown Columbus is slow between 6-8 am, but planning what lane we will be in at what speed is ridiculous. It's just too far out to know.

Maybe that breakfast burrito you ate before leaving was a bad idea and you have to make an unexpected stop for 15 minutes. Shit happens (pun intended), just course correct.

Break up your trips into predictable chunks. Schedule them into slivers where big problems cause minor inconveniences, not emergencies. Baby steps. Ship it.

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Even with 1,000 developers, Twitter can instantly test with real users

Matthew Panzarino covering the inteview between Kara Swisher and Dick Costolo at D11:

“I’m looking to the team. Within the framework of direction, we have almost 1,000 engineers at Twitter. I’m looking at those guys to create.” [...]

Speaking about speed and flexibility of changes, Costolo says that mobile developer teams at Twitter can roll out any experimental features they’re testing to 1 percent of users whenever they want. No legal, comms or CEO approval needed.

During my UX-Tour this year, I spoke on the importance of getting your customers in front of your whole team, not just your designers. This is an amazing way to accomplish that. Dick gives his team explicit permission to roll things to production just for that reason.

That 1% is a big number when you have 500,000,000+ users.

The Largest Obstacle Facing Google Glass

Dustin Curtis:

All fashion issues aside–and there are many, of course, because the device looks kind of ridiculous to the uninitiated–it is extremely unnerving to be conversing with someone who has a camera and microphone on their face, pointed directly at you, with the ability to record. In the presence of someone wearing Glass, you can never have privacy. I had anticipated a feeling of uneasiness, but after experiencing it, I was surprised by how much it bothered me on a visceral level.

White House petition on accessibility cannot be signed by the blind.

Donovan Slack:

The petition calls for the Obama administration to support an international treaty making more books accessible to the blind. So far, some 6,100 people have signed on since it was created May 23. But Danielsen said many more would have signed on had it not been for the web site issues.

Where by "web site issues" they mean CAPTCHA. Pathetic.

Flat design is less forgiving.

Jonathan Libov:

In short, flat design makes it easier for all designers to do decent work, and much more difficult to do amazing work. Amazing flat UI is quite rare and largely comes from an elite group — Christopher Downer of RealMac Software (the makers of the Clear app), Loren Brichter of Letterpress and a handful of others. I'll be generous and include Microsoft's Metro designers because, in spite of some severe usability issues on Windows 8, the homescreen is gutturally striking.

Jonathan's hypothesis is interesting. In theory, minimalist design is easier to execute on because it requires fewer tools and virtuosity. But, there's also much less to hide behind.

It's kinda like wearing a bikini on the beach vs. a turtleneck. You can't simply disguise those love handles anymore, you have to deal with them.

UX Tour 2013 Recap

I've spent the last 4 months on tour. I've spoken at private company events, tech conferences and meetup groups, all in the spirit of our mission at D-I. By the end, I spoke at 34 events in 13 cities all over the United States to nearly 3,000 designers, developers and product managers.

Our mission at D-I is to inspire companies to engage in better conversations with their customers -- to understand that great software isn't just features and specs, but rather an important piece of their users' lives.

While this tour was a solo venture, it was a team effort. I have an amazing supporting team here in Cleveland who managed the day to day efforts at the company. It's not easy walking away from the daily grind and leaving it in others' hands. But, my team proved to not only keep things moving, but to actively improve the company while I was away. I am so appreciative of how they stepped up to support me.

The topic was company culture and how it takes a team effort to create anything great. To demonstrate how you can use your culture as an advantage to exploit problems in big companies who lack a cohesive culture.

Here's a video from talk #18 in Cincinatti, OH. It was streamed and recorded by Gaslight Software. It was a great event, even if not one of my best performances.

If you visited me on tour, please reach out and let me know how it has impacted your business. I'd love to continue our learning, together, even now that the tour is over.

Read in the gaps.

Like many people, I developed a natural aversion to reading. There are so many ways to instantly satisfy our thirst for information. TV, blogs, magazines, the gossip column, YouTube all give us endless amounts of information to consume in bite size chunks.

About a year ago, I forced myself to read the stack of business books I had acquired. There were about 5 of them of particular importance, but I was intimidated by the sheer amount of content I had to get through before getting the payoff.

But it didn't have to be that way. Books are dense with information, more than any other medium I can think of. You can read a chapter of Thomas Edison's biography in 30 min and learn more than you would from a 1 hour documentary.

There is instant gratification in books, it's just disguised in an intimidating form factor.

Finding the gaps

My days are full of 3-5 minute gaps:

  • Waiting for my wife to finish her makeup before a dinner party
  • Arriving at a clients office a few minutes before our meeting
  • During TV commercials
  • While scarfing down lunch by myself.

I used to pick up my cell phone and watch people "FAIL" on YouTube, or flip through the endless blogroll of technology posts. Most of which are actually making me dumber. My time is too valuable.

Now, I pick up my Kindle and read.

I can read 10-15 pages in 5 minutes, and that adds up to a full book or more every 2 weeks. Solely by reading in the gaps, I can read 20 more books a year.

Through this little experiment. I've actually learned to love reading. I crave it. I stop by the library on the way home just to get a little alone time with a book, and it's remarkable the impact it's had on my life

Try this for 1 book

I've read more than 50 books in the last year. I make better decisions because of it. I listen to my team better because of it. I avoid problems I otherwise would have stumbled into.

Find a non-fiction book that is appropriate for your life right now. One that would help you find important insights that are immediately applicable. Carry that book with you and commit to reading it in the gaps till it's done. Then decide for yourself if it was time well spent.

This is the first piece of advise I give to entrepreneurs that I mentor. I've never met someone who thought it was a waste of time.

Rustbelt Refresh

Cleveland has a very active development community. It may not have as many people as larger tech hubs, like Chicago, Denver or San Fransisco, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in passion.

I'm really excited that Cleveland finally has it's own front-end developer conference. There are some great speakers lined up, a really cool venue and some great opportunities for social gatherings.

I'm looking forward to Rustbelt Refresh version 1.0, on May 3, 2013 at the Cleveland Public Library.

Early Bird tickets are on sale now for $125.


Disclosure: I'm not affiliated with this conference, though it is organized by two of my co-workers who I want to see succeed.

I'm speaking too, but that shouldn't diminish the ticket value much.

My 2013 UX Tour

I wake up each morning with a clear sense of why I have the job that I have. I'm on a mission to inspire myself and influence others to make the world more intuitive.

As the owner of a small design/development company in Cleveland, OH, I have the opportunity to work with 15-20 fantastic consulting clients a year, and even more customers on our products and training front.

That said, 15-20 companies a year is a really slow way to change the world.

So, I'm heading out on a tour to inspire companies to think differently about how they do design. To help transform company cultures to pay more attention to how their users feel.

You can follow my journey on this blog, and on Twitter. Or, even better, you can join me on the way.

Public events for February and March, 2013

If you are able to come, shoot me a message and we'll make sure to connect while I'm there.

Yes, Designers and Engineers Can Play Nice

Derrick Yo:

A product team works best when engineers and designers not only show empathy towards their customer, but each other. This has to be driven by the culture of your team.

[...]

Design optimizes for best possible experience for the user. And that includes even the most subtle changes that make a product feel “just right”. Engineering makes that a reality by ensuring that experience is flawless under all scenarios. Sometimes, that means having to make tough decisions of implementation tradeoffs.

I couldn't say it better myself. In fact, we've built our company around creating a culture of design collaboration. Whether that culture is in our own office or in the office of our clients.

We've found that a good company culture with lesser talent will regularly produce better designs than a bad company culture with a rockstar designer.

Creating a culture from failed policies.

A couple years ago I heard a story from Jason Fried of 37Signals about why work doesn’t happen at work. He observed that the most productive moments for his team were those where they worked for long periods of time without interruption. That being “in the zone” is like REM sleep. It takes a long time to get into that state and any interruption will wake you back up. At that point, you can’t just pick up where you left off. Being interrupted for 2 minutes actually causes a 30-40 productivity loss.

A few years ago, my partner Dave and I put a policy in place to prevent this from happening. We called it the no tapping on the shoulder policy. The idea was simple, very few issues are so urgent that they warrant an interruption. Instead of interrupting each other, we should send an email or put a note in Campfire. We agreed to hold each other accountable to this policy and over time this would correct our bad habits.

It was a miserable failure. In fact, we tried it several times over the years, and it never stuck.

Our company has grown a lot over the past year. As we added more people, this problem became worse. We’re in a big open space and it’s very tempting to interrupt your neighbor with a simple whisper (“psst”), or a hand wave over their monitor.

This escalated into a pretty annoying problem. Every time someone innocently broke the rule, they got a reminder from their coworker about what they had done. These little reminders started to make people feel guilty. And so, since nobody on our team wants to hurt anothers feelings, the reminders stopped. And once the reminders stopped, the policy was no longer enforced.

Our simple policy had good intentions, but actually caused more harm than good.

Policies exist to discourage bad behavior. They are reactive. What we actually wanted to do was encourage good behavior. We wanted a culture where people respect their own time and attention enough to also honor the time and attention of others around them.

So, I tried an experiment. I asked a simple question to the team one afternoon: “When you’ve got a serious problem to deal with, where do you go when work has to get done?” My theory was that this would get the team to understand what it looks like when each of their coworkers is “in the zone” and therefore would be more likely to recognize that state before interrupting them.

It worked. We haven’t talked about it since, and we’ve become more productive in almost an instant.

Policies

Policies are important. They certainly have their place in every business. We find them in employee handbooks and on the walls of break rooms. They exist to prevent and punish bad behaviors.

Policies are easy to create, but hard to enforce. The breaking of the policy can lead to swift and serious action, which is painful for everyone. So, they should only be used in zero-tolerance situations where disciplinary action is an appropriate response:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Gossiping
  • Taking new projects without a contract

Culture

Culture is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s possibly the most important aspect of a healthy work environment.

Culture is hard to create, but easy to enforce. It requires team buy-in. You can’t force a culture on anyone. Your team members must be willing participants.

Culture promotes good behavior, and polices itself with positive reinforcement when things go wrong. We’ve worked hard to create a culture that:

  • Promotes the respect of the families and friends of your coworkers
  • Keeps work at work and minimizes the need to call or email each other after hours
  • To not call meetings unless absolutely necessary.

What can you flip-flop?

If you want to instill a new habit at work, or want to correct some kind of behavior, try changing the policy into culture or vica-versa. You might be surprised at just how effective it can be.

How do the best apps handle...

UXArchive is a new type of pattern library from @abrodo and @nbarraille. It's a really immersive experience for discovering how our favorite apps handle common UX patterns.

It's just starting to grow, so doesn't have a ton of content yet, but I've already found it really helpful.

Fear, Manipulation and Loyalty

Most companies who advertise their products or services employ either a strategy of fear or manipulation.

Fear is a powerful motivator. When we are scared or nervous about something negative in our world, advertisers can play into that fear to sell a product.

You may remember a scene from Goodfellas, when Jimmy Burke intimidates his target into paying by sticking his head into a pizza oven. But, fear based advertising is not typically this nefarious.

Your dentist may sell you on toothpaste to cure your fear of cavities. Or, you may buy aspirin to just keep around the house in case a headache rares its ugly (err) head.

I have clear memories of a commercial from my childhood: “This is your brain... this is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” This is fear based advertising in its finest hour.

Manipulation is used to sweeten a deal. This includes things like double coupons, sale prices, rebates and other promotions.

Imagine 2 brands of chicken noodle soup, both seamingly equal in every way, but one is on sale for 50 cents less. It’s much more likely that you’ll buy the less expensive soup, since its a better value.

When I bought a new car earlier this year, the dealership threw in “free car washes for the life” to help close the sale.

Both fear and manipulation are valid, powerful ways of helping a sale along. But, these are just transactional motives. Once the sale happens, the incentive is spent. These strategies are not the basis for building a loyal base of customers.

Loyal customers choose to do business with you time and time again, even when other incentives and motivations try to distract them. It provokes a “we’re in this together” bond which is not easily broken.

Loyal customers are harder to earn, but easier and less expensive to keep. If repeat business is important, focus on building loyalty. But, if you just need this one transaction, building loyalty is probably way too expensive.

What exactly do you do for a living?...

I don’t have lots of memories of my childhood, but the memories at my grandparents house are particularly vivid. They lived deep in the country in southern Ohio. The kind of place where you’d have to drive an hour to get to after exiting the highway, and even once you arrived, you had to climb the long gravel driveway up into the woods.

At the top of the driveway was a quaint country home that my grandfather had built himself after he married my grandmother. They had a small grove of banana trees out back by the porch swing. Off to the right, past the well he “dug” with dynamite when my mom was a young child, was the red barn that housed his workshop.

His workshop was home to his small family business. The barn was a metalworking shop. It was full of workbenches, drill presses, angle grinders, sandblasters, and the like. It was impeccably clean for this kind of shop. I wouldn’t hesitate to eat a donut that was dropped under the milling machine, but then again, I’m not known for my ability to resist donuts under any circumstances.

Even as a young child, I had a clear understanding for what my grandfather’s career was. He made machines that made plastic strips for all kinds of different uses. Sometimes he sold the strips, sometimes he sold the machines. But, you could tell what he does just by looking at him.

30 years ago, you could tell what someone’s profession was by the kind of clothes that they wore. My grandfather wore flannel, a work apron, had a hands-free magifying glasses strapped to his temples and was covered in metal shavings.

But, if you asked my grandfather what I do for a living, he’d be perplexed. On any given day at our office, you’d see 9 people in blue jeans and t-shirts wearing headphones and staring at computers.

If you gauged what our profession was based on our appearences, you’d think we were monitoring the Matrix or hacking into CIA mainframes. (We’re not... though that seems like an awesome job.)

When you think about it this way, its perfectly obvious why my grandfather thinks I “work with computers.” After all, I spend all day working on computers and we have way more computers than we have people.

Flat Style Reduces Discoverability

Jakob Nielsen:

The Windows 8 UI is completely flat in what used to be called the "Metro" style and is now called the "Modern UI." There's no pseudo-3D or lighting model to cast subtle shadows that indicate what's clickable (because it looks raised above the rest) or where you can type (because it looks indented below the page surface).

Jakob is missing the point of one of Microsoft main design patterns in the “Modern UI.” That is, Everything is interactive.

In Windows 7, OSX, Gnome and other traditional window managers, it’s important to make actionable elements visually different from the non-actionable elements on the screen. We use lighting effects, subtle gradients and shadows, to make buttons appear “buttonized.”

But, in the “Modern UI” and many iOS applications where everything is actionable, this distinction isn’t nearly as important.

Sacrificing Usability for Innovation

Usability and innovation are always at a crossroads. While usability is largely about promoting sameness, making unfamiliar things work in familiar ways, innovation is about new ideas and new ways of working.

Windows 8 is clearly Microsoft’s newest innovation. From a design and interaction standpoint, its vastly different from Windows 7. From my interpretation, this is Jakob Nielsen’s largest complaint with Windows 8.

Des Traynor sums up my thoughts succinctly:

There's some insight in Nielsen's Windows 8 report, but the main vibe is: "Man who hates when things change, hates that things have changed"

While I’m not a fan of Windows 8, yet, I believe it has enormous potential over time.

(Personally, I think many of it’s design decisions are absurd. I can’t help but believe “desktop mode” was forced into the product by higher-ups who don’t want the monumental overhead of redesigning the Microsoft Office experience.)

That said, the Metro UI is actually really good. It’s falling apart at places, but those kinks will be ironed out over time. That’s the nature of new software.