Planets Don’t Have Orbits

I heard an argument forwarded by Andrew Hinton way back in Dublin at the Inteaction12 conference. The short form goes like this: “Users don’t have goals.” (UDHG for short.) Being a big believer in Goal-Directed Design, I thought the argument to be self-evidently flawed, but since it came up again as a question from a student at my Cooper U class in Berlin, I feel I ought to address it.

Are there, in fact, goals?

Given just those four words, it seems like it might be about users actually not having goals. But of course, goals do exist. If they didn’t, why would anyone get out of bed in the morning? Or do work? Or make conference presentations? If we didn’t have goals, nothing would be happening in the world around us. But of course we do we do get out of bed. We do work. We write blog posts. All because we have reasons which—for clarity—we call goals. This example illustrates that what UDHG really means that most people don’t have explicit goals.

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Design > Critique > Repeat

There’s a lot of writing out there on how to run a productive critique.

One of my favorites is by Jake Knapp of Google Ventures where he lays out nine rules to follow. For example, one great rule is to write it before you say it – this requires 5-10 minutes of silent time to look at the work and write down your initial reactions. It allows you to respond to the work individually – eliminating groupthink. Scott Berkun also wrote a great guide on setting up a critique and goes into the details of specific questions to ask and what materials you’ll need.

So you’ve followed the best practices and just had a super productive critique.

Now what?

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Your Flat Design is Convenient for Exactly One of Us

Illustration built on creative commons 2.0 Portrait of a Man by Flickr user and photographer Yuri Samoilov

I’m OK with fashion in interaction design. Honestly I am. It means that the field has grappled with and conquered most of the basics about how to survive, and now has the luxury of fretting over what scarf to wear this season. And I even think the flat design fashion of the day is kind of lovely to look at, a gorgeous thing for its designers’ portfolios.

But like corsets or foot binding, extreme fashions come at a cost that eventually loses out to practicality. Let me talk about this practicality for a moment.

In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman distinguished between two ways that we know how to use a thing: information in the world, and information in your head.

Information in the world is stuff a user can look at to figure out. A map posted near the subway exit is information in the world. Reference it when you need it, ignore it when you don’t.

Information in the head is the set of declarative and procedural rules that users memorize about how to use a thing. That you need to keep your subway pass to exit out of the subway is information in your head. Woe be to the rider to throws their ticket away thinking they no longer need it.

For flat design purists, skeuomorphism is something akin to heresy, but it’s valuable because it belongs to this former category of affordance: it is information in the world. For certain, the faux-leather and brushed-aluminum interfaces that Apple had been pumping out were just taking things way too far in that direction, to a pointless mimicry of the real world. But a button that looks like a thing you can press with your finger is useful information for the user. It’s an affordance based on countless experiences of living in a world that contains physical buttons.

Pure, flat design doesn’t just get rid of dead weight. It shifts a burden. What once was information in the world, information borne by the interface, is now information in users’ heads, information borne by them. That in-head information is faster to access, but it does require that our users become responsible for learning it, remembering it, and keeping it up to date. Is the scroll direction up or down this release? Does swipe work here? Well I guess you can damned well try it and see. As an industry now draped in flat design, we’ve tidied up our workspace by cluttering our user’s brains with memorized instruction booklets for using our visually sparse, lovely designs.

So though the runways of interaction design are just gorgeous right now, I suspect there will be a user-sized sigh of relief when things begin to slip a bit back the other way (without the faux leather, Apple). Something to think about as we gear up our design thinking for the new year.

The YotaPhone

This morning Dan Weissman interviewed me on NPR’s Marketplace about the viability of the 2-screen YotaPhone. (Americans will pronounce it like “Yoda” phone, and I suspect the semi-implied sci-fi connection will actually help.) The timeslot on NPR didn’t offer any time to expound on punditry, so here’s more on what I’m thinking.

The success of a new product in a mature market depends on many, many things. One of those is uniquely addressing an unmet need. Battery life is as yet one of those unmet needs. Until we solve some of those pesky constraints of physics and/or battery tech, we have to find ways to lengthen the utility of the phone within the constraints of existing power reserves. YotaPhone utilizes a second, e-Ink display on the “back” of the phone, and this helps battery life in two ways.


Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

But first, a paragraph of a primer: If you’re not familiar with the tech, e-Ink is an “electrophoretic display” where tiny transparent spheres can be turned black or white with a zap of a particular charge of electricity. (There’s a color version, but it’s more expensive and not as common.) The spheres are tiny enough to work as pixels, and that’s the basis of the display. It’s the thing driving Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, among other products.

First: Sipping from the battery cup

One of the great things about e-Ink is that it uses very little electricity, especially compared to the full-color, backlit screens that are on most smartphones. At a 20% battery warning, then, you could turn the thing around and instead of having a handful of minutes left, you could conceivably have hours of phone time left, as long as you stick to the low-energy e-Ink display. That’s pretty cool.

Second: Life after battery death

The other crazy nifty thing about e-Ink is that once the display is refreshed, it uses no power. What that means is that you can design the phone to display critical information as its dying act, and the phone is still useful—It doesn’t become a brick. About to lose battery? Have it display the most common/recent phone numbers you access, so you can make use of some other phone. Have it display the directions you’re currently following so you can get there. Have it display your electronic boarding pass for your flight. In each of these mini-scenarios, YotaPhone can extend the utility of the phone for its users past the battery life. (That said, note that I haven’t been shipped one to play with or test, and don’t know if this functionality is built into the phone. I’m just sussing out opportunities.)

The YotaPhone is not the first to employ e-Ink. The Motorola Motofone (note the rhyming name) was released in 2006, and it featured an e-Ink display. But the e-Ink was its only display. Motofone asked its users to downgrade their whole experience in exchange for battery life, which is not a concern for most of the use of the phone. Contrast that with the YotaPhone, which says that you can have the premium sensory experience of full color and brightness as long as the battery reserves are flush. AND it gives users an option to downgrade their experience when that becomes necessary, and that’s new.

Also note that there are other design challenges to having two screens at once, but these are for a blog post longer than this one. (Somebody hire us to design for this little guy, and you can get a really, really good answer to that question. :)

Here at Cooper we design around user’s goals, and mobile phone users’ goals are actually to have mobile access anytime and anywhere, implying infinite power. And if someday battery capacity and/or decay are simply “solved,” the YotaPhone will seem very much like an antiquated, stopgap solution. But until then, it seems like a very good stopgap solution to me, one that I’d personally find useful, and I suspect the market will, too.

UX Boot Camp with Marketplace Money

Old School Radio Meets the Digital Age

Take a look inside Cooper’s June, 2013 UX Boot Camp with American Public Media’s Marketplace Money radio show, where students explored the next horizon of audio programming—a paradigm shift from broadcast to conversation-based platforms.

The Challenge
Students rolled up their sleeves to help the show respond to the trend away from traditional radio by finding the right mix of alternative distribution platforms. Marketplace Money came equally ready to take a radical departure from their current format in order to create a new model that redefines the roles of host, show, and audience in the digital age. To reach this goal, students focused on designing solutions that addressed three big challenges:

  1. Engage a new, younger audience that is tech savvy, and provide easy access to content via new platforms, such as podcasts, satellite radio shows, and the Internet.
  2. Inspire audience participation and contribution. Facilitate conversations and inspire people to share their personal stories so that listeners can learn from each other.
  3. Design ways for the host to carry an influential brand or style that extends beyond the limits of the show and engage with the audience around personal finance, connecting with listeners in ways that are likeable, useful, and trustworthy, making the topic of personal finance cool, fun and approachable.

At the end of the four-day Boot Camp, student teams presented final pitches to Marketplace Money, and a panel of experienced Cooper designers offered feedback on their ideas and presentations.In the following excerpts from each day, you can test your own sensory preferences for receiving content as you see, hear and read how design ideas evolved at the Boot Camp, inspiring new relationships between people and radio.

Marketplace Money Class

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It’s Never Just a Website Redesign: Transforming Business Through Design

At Cooper’s UX Boot Camp, facilitated by Kendra Shimmell, Stefan Klocek, and Teresa Brazen, held between March 25th and March 28th at Monkey Ranch in Petaluma, CA, Fair Trade USA looked to participants for ideas around how to raise awareness of their mission and inspire consumers to purchase Fair Trade products.

Fair Trade USA enables sustainable development and community empowerment by cultivating a more equitable global trade model through certifying and promoting Fair Trade products. Their work benefits everyone from farmers and workers to consumers, industry and the environment, and yet only 20-30 percent of Americans even know what Fair Trade means. Why? The issues are complex, but as students dug into this problem they identified key factors behind this disconnect, including a lack of brand awareness of the business case for Fair Trade, low brand adoption, and limited Fair Trade product presence in stores.

From those explorations, the following goals emerged:

  • Motivate and inspire brands to adopt and evangelize Fair Trade practices.
  • Put more Fair Trade products in front of consumers.
  • Build “pop culture” awareness of Fair Trade to get more brands to buy into the movement.

To get there, student teams went beyond the initial concept of a website redesign and took on the bigger questions that lead to business transformation. For a look behind the scenes as the teams approached this challenge, check out the following video filmed during the Fair Trade USA Boot Camp, and read more to take a look at the Fair Trade USA ecosystem model and what the students came up with in the pitch decks that follow.

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5 Things I Learned From Cooper U’s Design Leadership

We are always on the look out for posts, articles, and other pieces authored by Cooper U Alumni. The stories that they tell are often an insightful glimpse into what lessons stood out to participants. We were delighted to find this blog post by Meg Davis (Extractable) that calls out so many of the tips and meaningful moments from Design Leadership’s curriculum. Take a look…

I recently had the pleasure of attending a two-day event hosted by San Francisco agency Cooper about design leadership. This discussion-based event covered great material about techniques for leadership and communication in the design industry. I would highly recommend this event to other design professionals who want to improve the effectiveness of their work.

Five insights stuck with me, and I’ve included concrete tips about how to live out these insights practically.

Be as intentional with people as you are with your work.

As user experience designers, we love researching people to find out their motivations for using web and digital products. We spend hours of primary research during each project, watching people use products in context of their work. However, we don’t put this level of attention towards our co-workers who we work alongside. If we took time to really understand and build empathy for the people we work with every day, we would understand what kind of pressures they face, what rewards them, what they need to make a decision, and what they need from us in order to trust us. If we can understand each team member’s skills and motivations, then we can leverage them to work better together. As the Cooper U team so beautifully put it, “Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up.”

Tip: At the start of each project, talk to each team member about his or her intentions for the project and figure out ways to support them, even in small ways.

Tip: Before going into meetings with your peers, understand and anticipate what they will need to feel engaged during the meeting and feel buy-in with respect to the work.

Read more about Meg’s experience on the Extractable blog

Meg Davis attended Design Leadership training in February. This course was created and taught by Teresa Brazen and myself. Learn more about this class or sign up for the next one here.

Want to share your Cooper U experience? We would love to hear about it. Send us a note.

Should you ditch your interface?

What if instead of designing explicit interfaces we aimed instead at eliminating them altogether? If instead of adding a screen we found ways to remove it? Wouldn’t the best user interface be the one that requires nothing of the user?

No UI, proposed here on the Journal by Cooper’s Golden Krishna, is interesting, provocative, and deeply flawed. Golden argues that no interface is best, and then explores ways strip it out. But this begins with a designer’s goal rather than the users’. First identify where users are helped or hindered by explicit interfaces: When hindered, eliminate the UI. But there’s many times when a UI really helps. When it does, make it great.

But where to start? Three questions can help you evaluate the user’s relationship with a task, product or service.

For any particular interface in the system:

  1. Does the user want or need control?
  2. Does the user get value from doing the work themselves?
  3. Does the user outperform technology?

If you can answer “no” to every one of these questions, then put in the effort to eliminate the interface. If you answer “yes” to any one of these you should focus on improving the interface so that it supports the user better. If it’s not unanimously “yes” or “no” carefully consider how design can meet the conflicting needs. Get to know your users well. Design a solution that’s as sophisticated and nuanced as their situation calls for.

Each of these questions helps you examine the relationship of the user with the technology. These are massively important considerations when advocating for the elimination of the interface; a product without some form of interface effectively doesn’t exist for the user. The UI is the embodiment of your relationship with it. No interface, no relationship. Sometimes this is exactly what you want. But people also value products because they bring something into their lives, or because they remove some obstacle from it. Every tool, game, or service gives people power, information, peace, pleasure, or possibility. Interactions with these should be awesome, helpful, supportive, effortless; and for this we often need a really great UI.

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The wrong projection

On a recent flight from Amsterdam to Houston, I turned on the “moving-map system” in the in-seat entertainment system and was surprised to see that though we were halfway through the 10-hour flight, the map made it look like we were minutes from landing in Texas. Sure, I had dozed the delightful doze of the jet lagged international flight, but had I actually passed out? Or had time slipped by that quickly? Shouldn’t we be somewhere over Greenland? That looks about halfway.

Then I realized that it was the map itself that was to blame. The arc was being true to the plane’s path across the map, but with a map as distorted as this one, it was bound to be confusing.

Like most cool things, this gets nerdy quick. See, when you try and take something that’s pretty much a sphere (the Earth) and fit it to a rectangle (the in-flight entertainment screen) you’re going to run into some deformation. There are many, many ways to crack this mathematical nut (the awesome site Radical Cartography lists 30) and each optimizes some things at the costs of others.

The designer of this system had chosen to use the familiar Plate Carrée projection of the Earth. It’s ancient, and quite familiar to travelers. It’s used everywhere. So certainly, it optimizes for initial use. At a simple glance, the traveler knows what he’s looking at.

But this projection, in forcing the longitude and latitude lines into tidy squares, severely squashes areas that are closer to the poles. The result is that—unless you’re traveling from one point on the equator to another—an actual straight line across the surface of the planet will appear on this map as oddly arced. What’s worse is that the arc won’t mean the same thing across its length. Nearer the poles it will be stretched and closer to the equator it will be squished, resulting in the weird, jarring experience of watching the plane zip to Ontario, and then crawl to the Gulf Coast.

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Interaction Design for Monsters

Whew. That was close. As every year, there’s a risk that we’ll be overrun with with zombies, werewolves, vampires, sasquatch(es), and mummies before the veil that separates the world seals tight for another year. But a quick tally around the Cooper offices shows that here, at least, we all made it. Hope all our readers are yet un-undead as well. While we’re taking this breather, we’re called to reflect a bit on this year’s interaction design for monsters.

Monsters are extreme personas

One of the power of personas is that they encourage designers to be more extrospective, to stop designing for themselves. Monsters as personas push this to an extreme. It’s rare that you’ll ever be designing technology for humans who can’t perceive anything, can’t speak any modern language, live nearly eternally, shape shift, etc. But each of these outrageous constraints challenges designers to create a design that could accommodate it, and often ends up driving what’s new or special about the design.

But then again…

Some of the constraints of the monsters are human constraints writ large (or writ strangely).

  • Juan wasn’t a useful person in and of himself, but his users exercised flash mob requirements of real-time activation and coordination. Are there flash mob lessons to learn?
  • Emily was fighting a zombie infection, but real-world humans are fighting infections all the time. Is there something we can use for medical interfaces?
  • Metanipsah has no modern language and a mechanical mental model, but most of us have mobile wayfinding needs at one time or another.
  • The Vampire Capitalists behind Genotone took the long view, reminding us of burgeoning post-growth business models.

So maybe they’re great personas after all, guiding us to great design because they’re extreme, just like the canonical OXO Good Grips story, where designing for people with arthritis led the design teams to create products with universal appeal.

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