The Inscrutable Google Docs Plus Button

Google DocsI find the aesthetics of Google’s Material design attractive (even if it’s not my favorite thing ever), but it takes some getting used to. What really caught me recently was the “make a new document” button in Google Docs.

When it comes down to it, it’s not the symbol itself that’s a big problem—I can make sense of a plus sign as something that adds another doc.

Mostly, it’s the placement of that button that gets me. The last iteration of Google Docs put the button in the upper left corner. With the redesign, it migrated to the opposite corner, so that was one change that threw me off.

Another part is that the button changed from a notice-grabbing, contrast-ey red to the same blue that everything else in the interface is. I guess they’re relying the contrast of blue against grey rather than a nice red that pops out of the page as a whole.

Lastly, Google changed from a text label to a plus sign. The plus sign makes enough sense when you think about it (although, as an aside, I’m skeptical of just using symbols rather than labels). Without the color and sensical placement of the button, though, there was no reason for me to think about what the plus sign meant. It wasn’t even that I found the button confusing—I simply didn’t think about it until I realized I didn’t know how to create a new document.

Does UX Need Professional Organizations?

Does the user experience field need professional organizations? I’m not sure.

I put a lot of time into my local UXPA chapter (back when it was just the UPA), and more recently I’ve worked with the international UXPA. I did so to help myself network, but also because I take professional development pretty seriously. Of course, there was also an element of doing good for my local community. in the 2000s, Southeast Michigan had a vibrant and highly active UXPA chapter that put on 6-10 meetings per year and participated in local conferences.

As I write this, I’m getting ready to go to a holiday mixer organized by the local UXPA, ACM SIGCHI, and STC chapters. It’s an informal event, in that it consists of showing up and trying to take over part of a bar, and one thing I look forward to is talking to some of the other locals who have been or who are active in our local professional scene.

I expect the major topic to be the same problem that we’ve had to address for the last few years: What the heck are we doing?

Our CHI and UXPA chapters can’t find officers. Without officers, there aren’t enough people to plan events, which usually involves soliciting speakers, finding venues, and figuring out how to provide food. Our local chapters are solely funded by registration fees for events, so without putting on events, there’s no income, making it harder and riskier to plan further events.

It could be that the world has moved on and there simply isn’t as much of a need for the old organizations, with their concept of membership and formal titles. A key feature of Michigan’s UX professional scene is that the UXPA and CHI chapters covered the entire state, which consists of multiple clusters of UX people living and working at least an hour’s drive away from each other. It could be the case that it’s easier in 2014 to get UX-related training and to meet your neighborhood colleagues without spending a couple of hours on the road. It could be the case that there are more readily available infrastructures for organizing your own events, like Facebook and Meetup, than there were 10 years ago.

Given these factors—and note, these are just the ones I could think of on the spot—it could be the case that there just isn’t a need for formal organizations anymore, and that UX professionals will find ways to get together. Speaking as the co-chair of Ignite UX Michigan for the last two years, it would have been practically impossible to organize that event without the infrastructure of the UXPA and CHI chapters. They have large mailing lists built up over several years, and they have bank accounts—something that’s super helpful once you get into the world of sponsors and having assets owned by an organization rather than an individual.

It seems like at any given time, there are only so many people in the world with both the energy and the time to take on volunteer work with existing organizations or founding their own or just doing their own thing to organize professional activities. Over the last few years, those people haven’t been involved in our legacy organizations, but they’ve been busy nonetheless. Lately, Michigan has seen more localized groups and a mixture of formal and informal meetings.

I suppose I come down on the side of “these institutions are worth saving.” I’m sure that at least part of the reason is that I have invested my own time into the local UXPA chapter, but I also know that formal institutions offer remarkably useful infrastructures for building large and sustainable events and, through volunteering to help plan events, an opportunity for those who find networking painful and false to do so in a structured and slightly-less-painful way.

Software and hardware, mind and body

When we designed software or websites for desktop computers, it was easy to think about the user interface in isolation from the hardware the user would actually use. When smart phones broke out into the scene, we were (once again) reminded that the software user interfaces we design exist in physical devices that allow us to interact with the software.

The software is the mind or spirit, and the hardware is the body. When you think about them in isolation, you miss the emergent properties of the whole. As it is with humans, so it is with our digital devices.

As a user experience designer (or whatever the job titles happens to be), it’s all too easy to focus on the spiritual side of the device. This makes sense, because for practical purposes, most of us don’t influence the hardware side. But our software or websites do exist in glass, metal, and plastic bodies and I imagine we will want to be more mindful of this in the years ahead.

How Smart Should a TV Be?

An article on the Verge last week got me thinking. “Bring back the dumb TV” argues that the apps in TVs will always be worse than the experiences you’ll have using external devices that plug into a TV, and that the optimal TV is just a collection of inputs.

And… yeah, I can see the point. When I look at the apps I use in my TV, there’s the painful Amazon app, the painful YouTube app, and the completely adequate Netflix app.

One huge problem is the lack of keyboard. Typing by using a d-pad to navigate around a QWERTY keyboard on the screen is a bad, bad experience. From that perspective, the YouTube app got a whole lot better once I connected it to my iPhone and iPad, and used those devices to select videos.

If I could do that with Amazon, it would get a whole lot better, but the pain points in the Amazon app—all of their complete misjudgments about how people would watch TV shows—is a whole other blog post.

Then I consider the Netflix app. It doesn’t wow me, but it works okay and most importantly, it has been noticeably updated during the time I’ve had the TV. If apps that are installed on my TV can improve, then there’s no excuse for not improving them.

To get, at last, to the point of that Verge article: I like not having a bunch of stuff plugged into my TV. I don’t want to keep buying new stuff and accumulating more devices. Planned obsolescence is deeply uncomfortable. I like being able to use the same remote control to operate my TV and all of the services I use to watch content on the TV (although if I already have the iPhone, it’s nice to use that, too).

On the other hand, while software can be upgraded, the hardware is not getting any newer. Theoretically, there could come a day when my TV is not up to the task of using things like Amazon or Netflix. Also, to the best of my knowledge, I can’t go out an install new apps for new services. When the Amazon/Netflix/Hulu-killer comes out, I’m kind of out of luck.

It’s hard to say what I’ll want some number of years in the hypothetical future. For now, though, I’m pretty satisfied with my smart TV, all things considered.

Conflicted Over UX Professional Certification

I don’t know how to feel about certification for user experience professionals.

This topic seems to come up regularly year after year. The main reason seems to be so we, as a profession, can exert some kind of quality control over the wave of new UX people surging in to fill the (mythical, as far as I can tell) glut of UX jobs. It seems likely to me that it is also a way for organizations to try to exert more control over the field.

The idea seems to be that having a concept of certification will increase the status of our profession. The model is something like doctors or lawyers, where the specific job you have doesn’t make you a doctor or lawyer. Rather, you are one just by virtue of having the certification from your professional association. I can’t wait to see the first user experience professional get disbarred from practicing UX for breach of ethics, forced to do UX in dark alleys.

All that said, I don’t really have strong feelings on the matter. The interesting thing to me about the idea of certification is the opportunity to bring an explicit ethical component to our profession. Dark design patterns are widely derided. What if it was explicitly part of our professional ethics that we not try to trick users?

That’s an easy enough ethical matter. What about harder problems, like participating in making unsustainable products or working on products that enable the abuse of people like businesses that use the new “sharing economy” model?

Spotify is a Lesson in Product Trade-offs

If Spotify didn’t offer such a good service, I can’t imagine wanting to use their app. From a user experience perspective, I want every touchpoint that the user interacts with to be the best. From a product management point of view, I’ve got to admit it makes sense to make the app just good enough.

I imagine a lot of my dissatisfaction with the app comes down to running it on an old iPhone 4S. When I’m waiting for the app to start up, I contemplate making a sandwich or something. When I tap on an album and wait for it to load, I get the urge to kill time by checking my email, then remember that my phone is busy loading a list of songs and a piece of artwork, so I’m stuck waiting. When I try scrolling for the fifth time in a row because the app has become unresponsive, I curse the slowness of my phone.

I would also totally believe that some things are genuinely hard to program. Spotify forgets what I was playing within a few minutes of me pausing a song. When I use Spotify in my car, it seems to fight with Apple’s Music app for control. I would believe that interacting with iOS’s built-in music-playing functionality is hard.

But all that said, why does it have to connect to whatever it’s trying to connect to before I can start using it? Why can’t they optimize loading time?

There are also user interface problems. Why is it that when you shuffle a playlist, shuffle stays on when you play an album? Why is it so hard to find the control to turn off shuffling? Why can’t I just search within the albums I’ve saved instead of everything in Spotify’s collection? Why does the iPad app lack the functionality of the iPhone and desktop app? Or, at least, seem to lack the functionality?

Nonetheless, I’m a Spotify customer. Despite all these problems, the service is exactly what I want, so I put up with their apps. Food for thought when it comes to making choices about products.

Reflections on Ignite UX Michigan 2014

It’s been over a week since Ignite UX Michigan 2015. This year’s event was a humbling success. We counted at least 140 people at one point, which is an incredible number in comparison to the local professional events I’ve worked on in the past.

There are some things that could have gone better—most notably, we need to get better at recording videos of the event. We lost the last four videos, and overall the quality is pretty poor. We’ve also got the problem of not enough space (which isn’t such a bad problem to have, all in all). That means there are definitely some things to think about for next year. Can we find a dedicated AND experienced person to record vidoes? Can we find a bigger venue with a cash bar and A/V equipment, and how much will it cost? And how are we going to pay for all this new stuff?

Besides trying to work out those two issues, some other issues for next year:

  • Should we start asking people to register? Being a free event is one of the two most important things about Ignite UX Michigan.
  • When should the next event be? We’ve held it so late in the year because of a desire to give UM students a chance to speak. That said, most of our submissions come in at the last minute. Maybe we don’t need to keep submissions late so open, and moving the event earlier will get us out of the way of Midwest UX and Ignite Ann Arbor.
  • Should we try to raise money to get more food out there for people to eat?
  • How can we maintain or even increase the diversity of our speakers?

That last question is going to occupy a lot of my brain. Giving more people a chance to speak is the other foundational idea for the event. I first thought about it when Jared Spool’s traveling UX Thursday show came to Michigan in 2013. Setting aside the quality of the speakers (which was high), it rubbed me entirely the wrong way that the event’s advertising positions it as featuring “local superstars.” The idea that some people are stars and those are the people worth hearing from is corrosive to our field. Good ideas can come from anyone, including people that haven’t spoken before.

I think it would be bad for Ignite UX Michigan to only feature people that have not spoken at our event before, but that has to be balanced against letting it be dominated by the same speakers year after year. That wasn’t a problem this year and I doubt it will be next year, but there’s nothing to prevent it from happening.

Speaker selection consists of a round of blind voting. The review committee reads the titles and descriptions and gives each talk a 1-10 rating. The talks with the highest averages (and least variance, if there’s a tie) get selected. Should we start weighting the results for different factors, like never having spoken at our event?

Of course, these are problems and questions for the new year. For now, it’s nice to take a break for a few months.