Keurig: Bad, Wasteful, Unethical Design

Shortly after I started working at my current job, we replaced the old school drip coffee machines with Keurig machines. For those unfamiliar with them, Keurig makes coffee machines that let you insert a little sealed plastic cup into the machine, press a couple of buttons, and have coffee emerge. Cleanup is as simple as throwing a little gob of plastic into the trash.

The Keurig people have built the skill of making a cup of coffee into the device itself, making it easy for people to get consistent results. Not good results, mind you, but consistent results, which is something that we know people care about. Plus, you get coffee that seems fresh, made just for you! And you get to exert choice over what kind of coffee you put into the machine. You get custom made coffee and the ability to choose (within the constraints of the system, of course). Just make sure you only buy Keurig brand coffee cups. They frown upon you using off-brand coffee.

Of course, Keurig, besides making terrible coffee, is super wasteful. Granted, you waste less coffee using this system. Generally speaking, people have no idea how much coffee to use when they’re brewing it (this is the skill that Keurig builds into the artifact). But you are using a bit of plastic every time you make a cup of coffee and tossing it in the garbage afterward (these cups can’t even be recycled). Keurig coffee is not exactly an ethical choice.

Should a UX person participate in making a product like the Keurig machine? Should we make products that devour natural resources and create unnecessary waste, and terrible coffee to boot? In a perfect world: No. We don’t live in a perfect world, though, and living in society means choosing which compromises we’re going to make.

The discussion of sustainability in UX is thought-provoking but, I would say, not really relevant to most people’s lives. UX people don’t often get to participate in discussions of what to build; we’re usually brought in to help figure out how to build it. Without the ability to influence what gets built, we’re left with two choices: Participate or starve.

So while I’d love to live in a world where Keurig doesn’t exist, I wouldn’t blame any UX person that was involved in building it. If it’s any consolation, though, the design of the Keurig machine is so bad that I can only conclude that there isn’t.

Ignite UX Michigan 2015 is Just Around the Corner

Not much longer now until Ignite UX Michigan 2015! We’ve got 12 great talks lined up this year. We’ve moved from Conor O’Neil’s to Live so we can try to accommodate the crowds we’ve had in the last two years. I’m super excited.

The two most important things about Ignite UX Michigan are that it is a free event and that we promote diversity in our list of speakers. Being a free event has meant that getting sponsorship has been important, and once again we have some generous support from companies in Southeast Michigan. Diversity is an ongoing project and I welcome feedback and, better yet, help in making that happen.

This year’s event is also taking place about a month earlier than in 2013 and 2014. That’s because, starting in 2016, we’re moving permanently to March-ish. That timeframe will probably be a better fit for involving students, although it’s going to make for a tiring sprint. It’ll be worth it, though.

If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it to the event! It’s free and awesome.

Improving the Ignite UX Michigan Speaker Selection Process

For the third year in a row, we’ve made it through the speaker selection process for Ignite UX Michigan. As before, it’s kind of a heartbreaking process. Having been rejected from every conference I’ve pitched a talk to for the last 2 years, and having been accepted by two out of dozens, I can sympathize with the people that we can’t fit into our lineup. Being involved in the selection process also really drives home how good all of these proposals are.

We’ve used the same basic selection process three times. It’s designed to be as fair as possible, but the concept of fairness, unfortunately, depends a lot on how you define it. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can make it more fair next time, and how to further the goals of the event.

What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

The two highest priorities for Ignite UX Michigan are:

  • Being a free event
  • Having diverse speakers

The speaker selection process doesn’t have a lot to do with the first priority, freeness, but it obviously is highly relevant to the goal of speaker diversity. Diversity pretty much has the dimensions that you’d expect—gender and race. Closely related and of great importance to me is diversity in terms of “do you see this person speaking at conferences all the time?” The UX field sure has an in crowd. On the plus side, if you’re disappointed to miss one of the headline speakers at a conference, you can just catch them at another conference later on in the year. You always see the same people speaking. On the minus side there may be some other voices in our field that would be really good to hear from.

Of course, there are more aspects of diversity than what I’ve just discussed, and they’re important ones, too. Something dear to my heart that we can’t address in Ignite UX Michigan is class diversity

The scariest part of taking a stand and saying that diversity is important is that, once you start worrying about it, you see the ways that you can and do fail. The work is ongoing. I’d love to talk about what we can do to get better.

The Current Selection Process

Well, how can our process let us down when it comes to diversity? To get people to propose talks, we make public announcements about the submission process, and we try to encourage specific people to propose talks, but it’s obviously very likely that there are plenty of people that just never get the message in time. That’s already a limiting factor—we’re more likely to get proposals from people that are plugged into the community. To a large extent, we get what we get, and the most practical idea I can think of for increasing diversity at this stage would be to just keep engaging with the community to try to spread the word about our event.

Then, we feed all those proposals into the selection process. I would characterize the process that we have used for the past three years as not specifically promoting or detracting from diversity. The process is:

  1. The 12 highest-rated talks are selected, with the following adjustments:
  2. We average the ratings for each talk
  3. The reviewers fill out the survey. For each proposal, they rate it from 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest vote in favor of a talk. Each proposal is rated separately (as opposed to ranked against each other). The reviewers are volunteers who do not know who proposed talks, insofar as trust people to be honorable about this.
  4. The facilitator creates a survey that lists the titles and descriptions of all of the talks. This survey doesn’t include the names of the people that proposed talks and, in a perfect world, has no way of identifying who submitted the proposal
    1. Although people can submit more than one proposal, we only take one talk per person
    2. In 2014, a talk I proposed was selected, but I didn’t want to take the space of another speaker, so we chose the top 13 instead
    3. In cases of a tie, the proposal with the lowest variance wins

Why choose this approach? Well, we want a diverse set of speakers, true, but we also don’t want to have a speaker selection process where we use our judgment to hand-pick our lineup. Using judgment risks us choosing who we know, and that’s how you end up with the same people talking at every conference. So we use the blind-review-with-math approach, and hope that 1) our pool of proposals is diverse to begin with and 2) that an impartial selection process will produce acceptable results.

Possible Improvements

I’m interested in improving the process, I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m not sure exactly what the best approach would be. Some ideas that have come up are:

  • Apply weighting to proposals:
    • Like, if you spoke at the previous year’s event, your proposals get a not-insurmountable penalty—the logic being that good proposals will still get accepted, but it’ll be a bit less likely.
    • Apply a bonus to people who have never spoken at a professional event before (or never spoken at a national conference)
  • I am strongly reluctant to start asking people things about themselves, like gender, but we could:
    • Set aside a certain number of speaking slots for students
    • Have people classify their talk into one of X categories, and then have a certain number of slots for each category
    • Of course, neither of these things necessarily help with diversity, but the student thing is perhaps promising
  • Instead of using low variance as a tie-breaker, instead use high variance—this means that we’d favor the talks that people disagreed on
    • Along those lines, we could fundamentally reimagine the review process so that diverging opinions is a primary factor

This is tricky but important stuff. When we started Ignite UX Michigan, we didn’t even know if people would submit talks. Our process was something we came up with after we got more proposals than room for speakers and an attempt to come up with something relatively fair. How can the selection process promote the goal of diversity? I’d love to get more ideas and, perhaps even more importantly, find people that are interested in helping us get better.

The Myth of the Shortage of UX People

There’s this pernicious idea out there that there’s a glut of UX job openings and a shortage of UX people to fill those roles. To pick just one article on the subject, let’s take a look at UXmatters’ “Why Is It So Hard to Find Good UX People“. It has such gems as:

“It is so hard to find good UX people because they’re scarce!” exclaims Tobias. “There just aren’t a lot of people out there who are actually UX people. There are not that many people coming out of the right college programs—for example, CMU, Bentley, or Clemson—and those few get hired right away.”

Or about about this:

“The first problem that I’ve observed is with the supply to demand ratio: there is so much UX work out there that those with UX experience get snapped up very quickly,” replies Cory. “Because of the supply and demand issue, I’ve seen employers who end up lowering their required number of years of experience. It’s simply too hard to find UX professionals who are super experienced. However, employers do not always recalibrate their expectations to match a UX person’s years of experience.”

I fully agree that there is frequently a mismatch between what employers are looking for (or think they want) and what they can realistically get, but that’s not exactly a UX-specific problem. What gets me is this idea of a “supply and demand issue.” I’d love to see some numbers on this, because from where I’m sitting, there isn’t any such thing.

Instead, I see an environment where UX people looking for full time work have to scour the landscape, looking for those openings. I see recruiters and hiring managers so swamped with applicants that they don’t even have time to reject the ones that they interview. And if you’re going to treat people in the community with such disrespect, it’s clear that you’re not really concerned about your ability to find more UX people. I see that searching for job openings in a single area produces just a couple of jobs at any given time, and the chances of one of those jobs being full time is slim.

Maybe this is a Michigan thing, and in other places there really is a shortage of UX people. I guess if that’s the case, I would encourage some of these companies that are hurting for UX people to come check out Michigan.

Why I Don’t Use Facebook’s Messenger App

Once upon a time, on those infrequent occasions when someone would message me on Facebook and I wasn’t sitting at a computer, I could pick up my phone, pop open the Facebook app, and read and respond to the message.

I miss those days.

Last year, Facebook broke the messaging feature into its own app and took that feature out of the Facebook app because… reasons. Apparently Messenger is a “better experience?” I wouldn’t know because I haven’t used it. I’m not in the habit of filling my phone with every single app I can get my hands on. Storage is at a premium and I care a lot about how I organize my apps.

I can say that my experience of using the Facebook app declined greatly. As if it’s not enough that you can’t read and reply to messages in Facebook, the Facebook app knows when you’ve received a message, and it shows you the first several characters of that message, and there’s a notification right in the interface to tell you that you have an unread message. You just can’t read it.

Can someone explain to me how this is an example of good user-centered design?

Removing this functionality is a naked example of business driving design decisions. All it has done is drive me to using the web version of Facebook when I need to respond to messages in a pinch, but, mostly, it just means I don’t using their message feature as much anymore. Good job, Facebook. It’s nice to get a reminder that although good design can seem so obvious, it’s still an uphill battle.

ConveyUX in February 2016

It looks like I’ll be going to Seattle in February 2016!

I’ll be teaching a workshop on Web Analytics for User Experience at ConveyUX. It’ll be an iteration on what I taught at UX Lisbon. Who knows what an extra year of thought will produce?

I really value these opportunities to share what I know about the topic of using web analytics for user research. It’s an important tool for us to have in our toolkits, but it’s outside the comfort zone for a lot of folks in the user experience field. However, it’s nothing we can’t handle!

This will be my first trip to Seattle, so that’s a bonus. I’ve often wondered if the Pacific Northwest is for me, so this trip will help answer that question.

Thoughts on UX Lisbon 2015

A few weeks ago, I went to Portugal for the first time to attend UX Lisbon. It was a good conference, and not just because I gave two workshops there!

The conference had three days—the first and the third consisted solely of half day workshops, and the second day was a continuous series of talks. I gave my analytics workshop on the first and third day. It was exhausting but worth it. You get things out of teaching that you just don’t get any other way. I had the chance to do a lot of thinking about how to present the material and that’s going to pay off soon.

The lineup of speakers on the second day was great. I find that lately, I want to see short talks that will provoke thought rather than practically useful talks, because there just isn’t that much room to impart practical information in 30-60 minute timeslots. Lisa Welchman and Josh Seiden kicked off the day with two solid talks. I wasn’t familiar with Lisa before the conference and information governance is at a nice intersection of being super interesting and super important. The downside of a talk like this, and other ones that call for us to engage in changing the world, is that they assume a level of power that you rarely see in the world of UX.

I had the chance to see a short talk by someone from Facebook, talking about how they managed the transition of forcing people to download Messenger, and how disabling a feature in the Facebook app was actually an improvement for users. I politely listened—there’s no sense in heckling someone when they’re giving a talk.

Why Ignite UX Michigan?

Why have Ignite UX Michigan? Because diversity is important.

When you look at UX conferences, you see a lot of the same people headlining, over and over. There are more people that are worth hearing from in our community, and we’re not going to hear from them unless we make an environment where it’s possible.

Making an environment with more voices means extending opportunities to speak to more people, obviously. While Ignite UX Michigan doesn’t have that far of a reach, what we can offer is an opportunity to gain experience speaking, to try out one’s ideas on an actual audience. I would love to see Ignite UX Michigan as an early stop on someone’s speaking career.

User Researchers Are Important

“Usability testing doesn’t have to be done in labs, doesn’t require experts, and doesn’t have to be expensive.”

So says Greg Nudelman in his article for UX Magazine, “How to Perform Your Own Lean Mobile Testing.” And, all right, yes, it definitely does not have to be done in labs. It does not have to be expensive. But with regard to experts….

Well, garbage in, garbage out. A bit of user research is better than no research at all and this Nudelman guy is right that you shouldn’t give up on research if you don’t have the expert researcher. What he minimizes, though, is the risk of research when you don’t know what you’re doing. And getting bad data can be worse than no data.

What Nudelman would have you believe is that his five tips for mobile usability testing is all you need to get started. I’m sorry, but it’s not that simple. It takes training and practice to create experiments that actually answer the right questions, to work with research participants, and to effectively analyze the data. And conducting bad research runs the risk of giving user research a bad reputation when that bad research leads people down the wrong path.

What really gets me about this article, though, are passages like these:

Over 3000 years ago, people believed that the priestess of Oracle of Delphi was the only person who could deliver enigmatic prophecies from the mouth of Apollo. Today, many people believe a similar myth: that only a professional usability researcher can deliver the straight dope from the mouth of customers.

Please direct me to some of these people that hold user research in such high esteem. It would be very exciting to get taken that seriously.

Don’t get me wrong: having a professional usability researcher on your team is just fantastic. However, limiting your testing to a few hours done through this one “official channel” is contrary to the entire spirit of user experience work. The entire product team is responsible for the experience your customers will have with your product.

I’m not really clear on how having the entire product team invested in the experience of users is incompatible with having a specialist on the team to facilitate the research. If expertise doesn’t matter, why have experts of any kind? Or is there just something particularly un-challenging about user research?

It’s true that some UX teams have separate designer and user testing roles. However, in most highly functional UX teams, the roles tend to be much more intertwined: everyone fully participates in user research to the best of their ability. Furthermore, user research is not treated as a separate activity to be undertaken only by the exalted usability researchers, but instead, it becomes the center of the design process and the focus of the entire team.

Again, please direct me to these people that feel that researchers are worthy of exaltation. Seriously, I don’t understand the need for this tone. Any good researcher wants the entire team to be involved in research. The role is not to take over research and conduct it in isolation, it is to facilitate this important part of product development in the context of the team.

Imagine the same article, but substitute “developer” for “user researcher.”

Terms of Service for a Survey

I recently got asked to take a satisfaction survey after staying at a hotel on the way back from UX Lisbon. The hotel stay was great. The satisfaction survey… well, the survey itself wasn’t so bad. But the odd thing was that before I could submit the survey, I had to check a box indicating that I accepted their terms of service.

survey TOSYes, that’s right, there were terms of service on that survey. Apparently, I couldn’t answer any of the questions with plagiarized material. Or give them any abusive answers. Or else… I guess they’d deny my use of the survey?

It’s just such a weird concept. If you take it seriously, it’s at odds with the idea of doing research, because when you’re doing user research, you want… well, you want to find out what people are thinking. Even if they’re super upset. So weird.