On Risk and UI Design

Most designers and businesspeople are reticent to stir the pot when they’ve got a good thing going. When you’ve got thousands or even tens of thousands of people visiting your site each day, why take the risk of making a potentially shocking change? It makes little sense, right?

Well, that certainly makes sense if you’re working for an already established consumer web product (like the Googles and Amazons of the world). But for the up-and-comers like you and me, most users are yet to see the site or tools we’ve built when you think of the long-term. Keep this in mind when that angel on your shoulder is keeping you firmly planted on the side of safety. Give that devil the nod and try out a little risk. It could be well worth your while. I know I know I know, it’s trite, but this is totally true:

I’ll refrain from Justin Timberlake scenes from here on.

My point is a little different, though. Here’s what I’m thinking: Just because you’ve found a model that works doesn’t mean it is the only way forward. You already know this intuitively if you’re doing your job as a designer, but at the same time taking the leap is scary. I say go for it. Go for it, measure it, and change it back if you have to. Yes, people will complain, but most of the people who will use your site don’t even know you exist yet. Fancy that.

While you’re fancying, go order yourself some pickup or delivery.


Who needs form fields? Now that we have the contenteditable attribute, any element can be editable. Here’s all you have to do to make a field editable:

<div contenteditable>This is editable content. Go ahead, change it.</div>

Which acts just like this area (click the text to edit it):

This is editable content. Go ahead, change it.

Pretty cool, right? Remember though, you’re not in a form, so you’ll need to submit changes with ajax, or save them locally in the browser (Local Storage, anyone?). Either way, this is pretty nice.

I also heard a rumor that in HTML6 they’ll include the contentedible attribute, so you’ll be able to eat elements with ease.

Generate Loooooots of Ideas

Sometimes people think there’s one obvious answer to seemingly vexing design questions. Plain and simple: this is wrong. Your gut instinct might be telling you that there’s only one way to go about solving a problem, but this is an incorrect assumption. When you try, and I mean really try, you’ll find many answers to your issues.

When designing a feature for a website, for example, I typically recommend 3-6 options before choosing a “winner.” When designing a whole system of features, it’s helpful to at least think of one alternative. Sometimes the obvious answer wins, most of the time it doesn’t, and all of the time you’re better off for having thought deeply about a problem before jumping to conclusions.

There are a few reasons why you might generate lots of design ideas before settling on one:

  1. Generating many ideas forces you to get your ideas out of your head and onto the some paper. At the very least, this will help you understand what you are thinking.
  2. If you’re working with others, generating ideas will help to flesh out exactly what the “obvious” answer is. (Hint: it typically isn’t the same for everyone.)
  3. You’re bound to think of some really cool solutions when you’re forced to think hard about a design problem. You’ll impress yourself with your creativity. Sure, some of your concepts will be less feasible than others, but that’s ok. Just generate, and worry about implementation later (though not too much later).
  4. It’s a fun process, and I’m all for fun at work.
Lots of ideas, on paper
Lots of ideas, on paper

A few tips & tricks

  • Just get ideas out, don’t judge them – Trust me, at some point you’ll feel a strong urge to think something like, “naaaw, that idea will never work…”. Get over it, and while you’re at it, stop being so negative. Just get the ideas on paper, and leave all the judgement to your future self.
  • Don’t think every idea has to be hugely different, just focus on little changes – Maybe you won’t generate whole new ways of thinking about your topic, but will think of a million little tweaks you could try. That works! Just go with it.
  • If it becomes really difficult, stop – This should go without saying in many avenues of life. Seriously though, if you can’t think of any more concepts, you’re done. This does not, however, give you license to quit early. Sometime concept generation takes a little practice.
  • Don’t worry if your sketches are more like scratches – As long as you understand them, it doesn’t matter one bit.
  • Use a 6-up template to guide your designs (PDF download) – This 6-up is from Leah Buley and it’s straightforward enough. Print one out and give it a try.

Have fun generating!

Please, Stop Sending Purposeless Emails

This afternoon, I received what one would think is an innocuous email:

Happy Birthday, joshe!
Happy Birthday, joshe!

However, there are so many glaring mistakes in this email, it’s hard to choose where to start. How about this, I’ll start with two simple questions:

  1. Who sent this email?
  2. Why was this email sent?

The first question is relatively hard to answer. I’m not sure I’m aware of a person or group named, “Personal Finance, Personal Budget and Budget Tool Forums – Mint.com.” So, is Mint.com sending me a birthday reminder? Is it from their forum? Is it from an internal group at Intuit (the owners of Mint.com)?

Let’s ignore the first question, and just assume the email came from Mint.com, the entire company. Now we have to deal with the second question: Why was this email sent? There is no content that I couldn’t have lived without in order to continue to have a good relationship with Mint.com. In fact, there’s a bunch of bad content in the email: First, today is not my birthday. This note came a cool 2 weeks early. Actually, this message is post-marked with a 2009 send date…so it’s 50 weeks late. Second, they called me “joshe.” That’s not even my real name. I just can’t think of a single reason I should receive this message.

So now I’m assuming the email was sent in error. And now that I’m thinking that Mint.com has made an error, I’m left to wonder what kind of other errors they could be making with my personal finance data.

Folks, my message here is simple: be careful with the emails you send out on behalf of your company. Email seems cheap, or even free, but every email you send has a cost to your users. Don’t send out birthday reminders. Don’t send value-less messages that have no calls to action. Oh, and please choose a sent-from name that makes sense to people outside your organization.


Ask Stupid Questions

Here’s some advice you wouldn’t expect. If you really want to know how a person understands something about the world, consider asking a “stupid” question. You know, a question that you surely should know the answer to. For example, if a user says that it would be great if your website were “faster”, you could ask something like, “So, what do you mean by ‘fast’?” I can almost guarantee that the answer will surprise you. First, the person will probably look at you a little silly, but keep a straight face…they’ll give you an answer within a few seconds.

The point here is not to make yourself look stupid, rather, it’s to get at a basic understanding of how the world works from another person’s perspective. With regard to the example above, I’ve heard lots of responses to the “What do you mean by ‘fast’?” question. For some people, especially those with a technical background, “fast” means that pages appear quickly when you’re clicking around on a site. For other people it means that you’ve got some problems with your workflow. These people feel silly clicking all over your site to get things done, especially in comparison to those new cool Web 2.0 sites they’ve used.

So if you have a feeling in your gut that you don’t understand where someone is coming from, don’t be afraid to ask a “stupid” question. Get back to basics, it’ll help you see the world through the eyes of another.

Am I the only one who gets lost at Target?

Target Logo

Every other weekend or so I take a trip to my local Target store to stock up on necessities. Let me start by saying this: I love Target. For the most part I have a wonderful experience there…well, except for one section: the toiletries area. For some reason, I can never find the things I’m looking for in this section. Yesterday it was shampoo. I looked for minutes and could not locate my Pert Plus. The visit before it was my face wash. And before that it was the soap that I like.

My question is, does anyone else have this problem in this area of Target? Or is it just me? If it’s not just me, then perhaps Target is ready for a little reorganization.

Assuming it is a problem others have as well, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to reorganize this section of the store based on the needs of shoppers. First, I would want to do some user research, likely by bringing people into the store and asking them to find the things that they would normally buy. This would yield a few different results:

  1. We would confirm whether others can find the products they’re looking for, and assuming it is still an issue
  2. This would shed light on navigation patterns through the aisles
  3. So that we could restructure the contents of the aisles

In effect, this is a little like what I do every day. Of course, I’m sure the people at Target work hard to make sure items are as easy to find as possible. I just wonder if they’re doing any contextual research to find solutions. It’s important to see people in the act of finding items…be they real items, or links on a webpage. Otherwise the solutions are based simply on theory. And when I’m desperately trying to find my Pert Plus, that’s not good enough.

You should see my sketchbook

It is truly one of my favorite design “tools:” A good notebook. Personally, I like the full size Moleskine models, but whatever you can manage to carry around will work best. I carry mine everywhere with me, always with a pencil attached.

Check out these notes, if you dare, which preceded my recent talk with Jeff Patton at Interaction08.

Sketchbook pageHere’s a first page of general notes about what could happen during the talk.

Sketchbook page 2
The crux of my thoughts here is that many Designers, Interaction Designers included, don’t really tend to think about software development methodologies in their day-to-day life. Thus, they may need a little brush-up on what a development methodology is, with some examples.

sketchbook page 3
Still, it’s important for IxDers to understand why software is developed the way it is in their organization, and to be a stakeholder in this process.

Sketchbook page 4
The prevalent development methodology in use today is waterfall. It should probably look familiar to most designers & developers.

Sketchbook page 5
With Agile Methodologies, we have the opportunity to get our software working, and out in the real world quickly. This allows our concepts to see the light of day, so that they can be improved upon. Of course, these methods do have their drawbacks…

Sketchbook page 6
Some snapshots of what agile methods look like.

Sketchbook page 7
So, the big question is whether Interaction Design methods can fit within the Agile Context, or vice versa. The answer to this is complex, but I think the talk covered the topic well.

Back to the point — Sketching really helped me sort out these topics in my head. Sure, it took longer than just bullet-pointing out a PowerPoint…but I was able to visualize my thoughts, and look at them later with clarity, and pass them on to others to digest. Visualizing my thoughts really helps my process, and maybe it’ll help yours too.

How do you visualize your thoughts?

The Potential of Bathroom Air Dryers

save towelsIt’s a really nice bathroom sign. It really is. But seriously, can we do something about the air dryers in this country?

I appreciate the fact paper towels are a complete and total waste of resources, but the hand dryer situation is…well…out of hand. If those things could blow just 2 or 3 times harder, then they might actually work as intended.

My point is simply that signs on walls are all well and good, but its the design of the experience that determines success of a campaign. A huge proportion of people would indeed use air dryers, if they just did their job as expected.

Who’s with me? And who’s ready to build a new air dryer?

Seeing fewer choices

Chase See Fewer ChoicesAlternatively titled: On Covering Your Ass

Check out that picture on the right. That’s from my credit card’s website. My favorite part is the red link on the bottom that proclaims, “See fewer choices.” You know what that option is? That’s a designer or usability person saying to the team, “Hello team, we have heard from users that there are too many choices on the screen.” Then the usability/design person recommends that we prioritize the options on the screen and progressively disclose them so that only the most used choices will be shown up front.

Then someone on the team shouts, “But we can’t remove links that are already there! Users will haaaaate that! Maybe we can just put an option to ‘See fewer choices,’ that way we can make everyone happy!” The designer/usability person shakes their head in disapproval. What the team did in is take the easy way out. Rather than analyzing user needs on a deeper level and getting an understanding about what choices are valuable at each point in time, they simply put a link to “See fewer choices.”

Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Building usable tools is about more than giving the user exactly what they ask for. It’s about designing for needs…needs that the users themselves can sometimes be blind to. It’s about thinking deeply about problems, and crafting creative solutions based on data (that has been gathered from the real world of the users).

Let’s work a little harder to make better software, shall we? I shall. Who’s with me?

Taxi-cab confessional

I almost missed my flight this evening. Nearly every Sunday for the past few months I’ve taken a flight to Raleigh, NC. This flight is preceded by a trip in a taxi from my house to the airport.

Except tonight it didn’t go as planned.

As routine turned to complacency, I wasn’t alarmed when the cab wasn’t there 5 minutes early…nor was I alarmed that it still hadn’t shown up 10 minutes late. Then 20 minutes late. Finally at 23 minutes late I picked up the phone.

Me: Um…I ordered a cab for 7:15 and I just wanted to check the status of my ride.

Operator: Oh, he should have been there a while ago. Let me contact the driver.


Operator: Yeah, he’s right down the street. You should go outside…he should be there any minute.

Me: Great! I’ll be out there.

…10 more minutes pass…

Me: *Muttering* I better call again… (This time was same as before, just with a new operator.)

Operator: Yep, my system shows that the driver is right up the street. He should be there any minute.

Me: Great! I’ll be out here. (I don’t know why I’m endlessly positive with people in service industries. I have patience well beyond my needs…)

Eventually Karen noticed that I was still outside and offered to drive me to the airport. I took her up on it…and it’s a good thing I did. The cab never showed.

But why did all this miscommunication occur in the first place? Perhaps it has something to do with the communications systems that the cabs are using. This technology is a likely culprit. If you look around at the driver’s seat in any cab in the US, you’ll find that it’s a mess of wires, screens, and sounds…and this is before you take into account the fact that the driver has to drive. Of course the driver says he’s right up the street…that’s how he gets the operator to leave him alone, so he can get to his destination/talk on his mobile phone (by the way, who do these cab drivers talk to on their phones all day? My guess is that they talk to each other. It couldn’t be their family members…could it?).

All of this is turning into one big rant. The point is, a cab driver’s seat holds endless opportunities for innovation. It is ripe and ready to be tapped. So, somebody, please (pay me to) do some ethnographic research and redesign this workplace. I’m sure us regular taxi riders would benefit immensely.