Format for things that need format, freedom for those that don’t

In our ever-so-digital world, it’s hard to think outside of the standard formats and metaphors that are presented to us. Presentations require slides, and so our presentation tools use slides as their metaphor. Emails require big and small blobs of text, and so the tools allow for that. The hard part, I find, is knowing when and how to ditch the metaphor.

Sometimes it’s good to structure your presentation with a bunch of blank slides and one or two diagrams sprinkled in. Sometimes the format of the meeting should be to come up with the end-goals first, rather than diving in to solve individual problems. And it’s even ok to pop images and videos into email, as long as they support the point.

Don’t try to mold everything to a particular format. Think about the medium, the message, the inputs, the expected outputs, and most of all, the people. And consider all of this all the time. Before every email. Before every presentation. Before every conversation.

From here on, that’s my goal.

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.

HCI Students’ Questions: Answered (Part 2)

Let’s take a crack at a few more questions from HCI students. I’m going to give a real thorough answer to one question, and knock out a few more with a simplified response. If you haven’t done so already, check out part 1 of this article.

  1. What are professionals & hiring managers looking for in a designer?

    This is a topic that’s particularly near and dear to my heart at the moment. I’m in the process of hiring Interaction Designers and User Researchers at GrubHub as we speak. There are a number of things we’re looking for, including:

    • Writing Skills – Good writing is an indication of an organized mind. If you are unable to throw together some specifically tailored prose explaining why it would be great for us to work together, getting to the interview stage is a non-starter. If you’re not comfortable with your writing skills, practice! There will never be a better place to learn to write than while you’re in school. Take some classes that require lots of writing. Oh, and have someone read over your application materials before you send them in. It would be silly to get rejected from a job you really want just because you made a few typos.
    • The ability to speak in-depth about your past projects – By the time I’m talking to someone on the phone, they’ve impressed me with great application materials and personal history. The phone interview is your chance to start talking about who you are and what you’ve done. I want to know that you’ll be able to communicate with coworkers who may or may not understand what your job is all about. If you can’t explain the stuff you’ve already done, how can I expect you to explain the stuff that is yet to come?
    • Proof that you’re motivated (and excited) – Yes, the job application process is the time to go above and beyond. If you’re asked to write a paragraph, add a little visual diagram. If you’re asked to write a little code to do X and Y, throw in a little Z, just for flair. Prove why you’re going to be awesome to work with.
    • An understanding of the technology you’ll work with – No, you’re not expected to be an engineer (unless you’re applying for an engineering job), but you will be expected to communicate with engineers on a detailed level. If you’re applying for a web startup and you have never touched CSS, it’s time to start learning. Once you’re comfortable with that, teach yourself a little jQuery for good measure.
    • User-Centeredness – Not only should I be confident that you can sketch, build wireframes, do a little coding, and lay out page that doesn’t make me cringe, but I should also be confident that the users that my company caters to will be at the forefront of your mind. If you’re not asking questions about users during the interview, you’re doing something wrong. Questions about the user research methods we currently employ should be asked, as should ideas about what else we could be doing to assess and improve our users’ experience. That’s the whole job, in a nutshell.
    • And, of course, knowledge of all the methods you should have studied in school – This is not a test, but yes, the basics should be there.
  2. What did you learn at school that you use at work?

    Everything. Literally, everything I learned at school I’ve used at work at one point or another.

  3. What can students do to get the most out of the program?

    Everything. Don’t sleep too much. Get to know your peers and professors. Learn what kind of designer you are. For that matter, learn what kind of person you are.

  4. What do you wish you learned in this program?

    Sometimes I wish I learned more about how to actually implement things. In the end though, that’s something you can learn on the job or after school is out, so I don’t have many regrets in this category.

C’est tout for now. Enjoy!

HCI Students’ Questions: Answered (Part 1)

This weekend I returned to my design roots and met a ton of Indiana University’s current HCI/d students.

A room full of designers
A room full of designers

I was pleased to be a member of the Alumni panel and was impressed by the questions that the students asked. I was so impressed, in fact, that I think many of the questions they asked are worth answering for myself and others. I’m going to try to do my best to provide some answers to these questions. I’ll do a few questions each day for the next few days. Let’s give this a shot.

  1. How you you describe HCI/design to people?

    Easy: HCI is the academic field that studies how people interact with machines in their environment. Design is about making things that fit well into peoples’ lives. So, HCI/design is all about making machines that fit well into peoples’ lives. Not necessarily an elegant explanation, but it does the trick.

    Outside of academia, people talk much less about the field of HCI, though it tends to be an impressive moniker when you bring it up. Professionally, I am more likely to talk about User Experience than I am about HCI. And I often leave out the whole concept of design when speaking with some audiences. Many people think of the term design as making things pretty, or relate design to fashion. That’s not the way I think about it, so I often avoid the topic altogether. Business stakeholders want to hear that you’re going to make systems that are easy to use and enjoyable, so as long as you can do that, you’re golden. Be aware of the words you use, and be mindful of your audiences’ interpretations.

  2. I have my masters degree (in HCI), now what?

    Now the fun begins! Consider your degree a starting point, rather than an end goal. Once you’ve earned the degree, it’s time to start thinking about your next goals. You’ll have to reassess these goals throughout your career and life, so make sure you plan on doing that early and often. Even the people you consider to have “made it” are constantly adjusting. You should too.

    Your degree in HCI should open some doors for you, but don’t expect it to work magic. You’ll still have to work hard every day to prove your worth. My dad used to say to me (warning: baseball analogy ahead), “Josh, you’re only as good as your next at bat.” I like that. It means that you’re only as good as the next opportunity that is provided. You can never rest on your past successes. Keep getting better with each project. But while you’re at it, make sure to realize that you have a long career ahead. Make sure you enjoy it.

  3. How do you personally stay up to date with design?

    This question was originally asked in the context of academic papers and journals, and I have to admit that I’m pretty out of sync when it comes to those publications. The first problem I have with them is that they’re expensive. It burns a little bit that I would have to spend $19 to read a paper I wrote. But I guess the publishers have to make money. That’s why I tend to read more books than articles. I get more bang for my buck when I’m buying a whole book, and my employers do too.

    In particular, I like to read the books published by Rosenfeld Media. They’re typically pretty dense, but aren’t so long that I can’t give them a quick read over a weekend. They’re nice summaries of a topic, and they go much deeper than many blogs. I also geek out on books by other publishers. I’d estimate that I read 5-8 industry-related books per year.

    Of course, there’s also plenty to read on the internet. These days I follow Hacker News pretty closely. There are often articles posted there that cause me to think deeply about design. I get a lot of other random articles from the people I follow on Twitter. In fact, looking at recommended articles has replaced my addiction to Google Reader.

    I also try to attend conferences, but that gets tough sometimes. Conferences are fun, but they’re costly in terms of the amount of time away from work, as well as the pure cost of attendance.

More to come soon…


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!

The Best Feature: Fun

Sometimes, you just want something to feel right. On the site I help design, that often means adding a lighthearted aesthetic. Implementing this aesthetic comes down to the details. Check out the icon below, taken from Groupon, everybody’s favorite $1.35 billion website:

Taken from Groupon - Who is this?
Taken from Groupon - Who is this?

Who the heck is that woman? And why is she the face of an icon? Answer: Why not? Most people probably never question this image, but it adds a level of “interestingness” to the page. My bet is that it’s just a picture of someone who works at Groupon…or perhaps it’s Rapunzel. We may never know.

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 –” So, is sending me a birthday reminder? Is it from their forum? Is it from an internal group at Intuit (the owners of

Let’s ignore the first question, and just assume the email came from, 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 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 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.

In Everything, Find Purpose

It really is as simple as that. As a software developer, business analyst, or even project manager, you will find yourself tasked with designing user interfaces no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Clients will tell you how they want it to look and act, others on your team will provide input, and at the end of the day you’ll have to come to some decisions. This process may not prove all that difficult, but I want to provide you with a handy trick I use when assessing whether a UI design decision is the right move. Ready for this? Here it is:

Look at each decision you’ve made, and simply ask, ‘Why?’

Links should be blue, you’ll decide. Next action: Why?

Each time we use the word MagicTouch in a headline, it should be followed by an ® symbol. Next action: Why?

A client will say to you, “I think it will look better if this text is center justified, rather than left aligned.” Next action: Why?

Stopping to ask why? will force you and others to think about the actual intended use of a feature. It will push you to think about user behavior, instead of random decisions. And most of all, it will teach you that you actually believe in what you’ve designed, because you’ll know you’ve thought it through. If at any point you can’t answer the Why? intelligently, you’ll know you have some rethinking and potentially redesigning to do.

This concept should be applied outside the world of design, as well. When you come to a decision, it’s never a bad idea to test it out with a well thought out Why?

In the end, it’s all about finding purpose. In everything, find purpose.

And with that message, I would like to share the news that I have decided to move on from ThoughtWorks. My time here has been tremendous and purposeful, but it is time for me to go try something new. If you read my blog via ThoughtBlogs, I invite you to subscribe to my RSS feed, because it likely won’t be displayed here much longer. Thanks, ThoughtWorks. I’ll miss you.