Category Archives: Product Design

Video: Putting Humans at the Center of Design

On March 22, 2016, I spoke at TEDxYDL in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This is the video of my talk. The script that I basically used is below.

Look at this door. How do you use it? You push it. What if you didn’t read the sign, or can’t read it? The design suggests that you should pull it.

And there’s this guy. It’s a microwave. Do you know how to get it to heat up a plate of leftovers? Well, it doesn’t work like any other microwave you’ve ever used. No microwave works like any other microwave you’ve used.

And websites can be pretty bad, too. This site does a pretty good job nowadays, but 16 years ago, they had a bit of a problem finding a place to stick all those tabs at the top.

There’s a lot of stuff in this world that’s hard to use. Websites. Computer software. Hospital bills. All those remote controls you’ve got lying around. These things that are hard to use make you feel like a fool. If you only take away one thing from the next few minutes, it’s this: It’s not you. It’s the design. These things should have been designed better

My job is to try to make things like doors, microwaves, and websites easier for people to use.

Nowadays, my job title is “user experience architect.” And the work I do is called “user experience design.”

Let’s unpack those terms.

The user experience is the sum of all of the actions people take and feelings they have when they’re using something. This could be a website, or a computer program, or a phone, a car, a can opener, a building. Anything. The user experience is made up of every part of using that product: the words, buttons, colors, the box something came in, the customer support hotline. Everything.

Now, user experience design is based on going out and seeing how people actually use websites or whatever your product is, or how they’re going about their lives without your product, and then using that information to design or redesign a user experience that meets their needs. It puts humans at the center of design.

Let’s look at an example. I was working on a page where people would read journal articles when they were doing some kind of research. We brought regular people into a lab to test this page and find out how easy it was for them to use, and we interviewed people about how they do research, and a pattern emerged: the most important action people want to take on this page is to download a PDF copy of the article. How do you do it on this page?

Of course, if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it eventually, but if you’re not used to this website, you have to look around for it. The link is small and mixed in with other stuff. That’s why, when we had the chance to rebuild the page, we streamlined it. We made the things people wanted to do bigger, and tucked away the stuff they didn’t use somewhere else so they wouldn’t get in the way. And, of course, after the redesign people found it easier to find that download PDF button.

Designing stuff based on human capabilities isn’t just a matter of making sure you don’t get annoyed by doors and websites, though. It can be a matter of life or death.

In Stockholm a few years ago, they tried something different from other cities to make their roads safer – they started with the assumption that people aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. And that it’s the designers that are responsible for designing a road system that prevents people from dying.

For example, intersections with traffic lights have a lot of dangerous, high speed accidents when people run red lights. In Stockholm, they took dangerous intersections and replaced them with roundabouts, forcing people to slow down and pay attention. Rather than just hoping that everyone would see the traffic light, they changed the way the road worked so you couldn’t have the high speed accident.

They committed themselves to designing a city based on human needs and abilities – and it worked! Stockholm has the safest roads of any major city in the world, and are a model for other cities.

Designing to meet human needs and abilities also means designing things to accommodate a range of disabilities. When we design products and the physical world around us, we can’t leave people out, so we have to make sure our designs are universally accessible.

Let’s take blindness, as an example. There are people that use the Internet just by listening to it. That means a page like this kind of sounds like this

When it’s read out loud to you. To design for people who can’t see, you have to make sure your website makes sense to people that can only hear it.

People that really specialize in the accessibility part of user experience design gain a deep understanding of the technology and design techniques that support people with a range of different disabilities—not just blindness.

Taking this approach to design isn’t just good for people. It’s good for business. A study by Forrester indicates that “the top 10 companies leading in customer experience outperformed the S&P index with close to triple the returns” and “every dollar invested in UX brings 100 dollars in return.”

That’s fantastic.

In the end, the most important thing for you to remember from this talk is that:

It’s not you, it’s the design.

Technology, services, organizations, and society should be designed to meet human needs and capabilities, whether those people are young, old, using something for the first time, distracted, or have disabilities.

When you’re having trouble using a website or a microwave or reading your hospital bill, it’s not your fault. The people that made those things should have done a better job. Design matters. And so as we shape the world with the technology and the society that we build, it is imperative to put humans at the center of the design.

Fraggle Rock and Product Vision

Fraggle Rock is a show about the the interconnectedness of all things in the the world. Created by Jim Henson, almost all of its characters are puppets of some kind. It aired from 1983 to 1987 on HBO (and various other channels), and ended with a trio of episodes that are among my favorite endings on television.

I would like, perhaps surprisingly, to talk about Fraggle Rock in relation to product design.

What am I talking about when I write “product design?” I use the term broadly, covering the design and production of, well, practically anything. In my life, that means working on a product team that is responsible for some aspects of a very large, complicated website. We have embraced lean startup methodology, meaning that we are on a cycle of quickly thinking of design ideas intended to advance some sort of business goal, validating them with actual evidence, and then deciding whether to advance them to production.

Fraggle Rock is, of course, a product that was designed and produced by a large group of very talented people. As a user experience professional, I collaborate with a large group of talented people to build websites. It’s a rather facile observation to say that there are similarities in how people come together to work on big projects.

While I think it would be fascinating to dig into the history of how it was made over the course of four seasons and pre-production, but what I would like to focus on here is how its creator, Jim Henson, gave the show direction before turning it over to the people that would make it.

Fraggle Rock was created by Jim Henson’s production company, which had previously created The Muppet Show and were ready to take on a new project.

This new show came together as a production of British, Canadian, and American television companies. They intentionally set out to create a show that could be easily localized to different countries, in different languages; to that end, they planned for the bulk of each episode to feature puppets that could be dubbed over, and for a few minutes of segments featuring a human that could be filmed in each country.

Although Jim Henson himself wouldn’t be involved in the day to day production of Fraggle Rock, he still set the direction for the show. Given the material circumstances of the show—that it would be made with the very direct intention of localization in different countries—he challenged the product team to make a show that would stop war.

This is a detail that I absolutely love. Because how can a show about puppets end war? Clearly, war is still with us. But a vision doesn’t have to be something that you can reach. Maybe it’s better if it’s something that’s always going to be beyond your grasp, because it is in trying to achieve that vision that you do something great.

The creative decisions about the show fell into line with that vision—it became a show about conflict resolution and the interconnectedness of things in our world between the different levels of scale (in this way, it is a great embodiment of “as above, so below”).

With any product, “what are we trying to do” is a great starting point. What’s your product for?

“User Testing is a Qualitative Activity”: A Common Mistake

Every now and then, I hear people say that “user testing” is a method that only generates qualitative data. There are two problems with this statement.

First, we are not testing users. We are testing the usability of the product in question. It is usability testing, not user testing. In an age where “user experience” has superseded “usability,” we may want an even better name for this method, but it is most definitely not “user testing.”

Second, usability testing is a perfectly good way to gather quantitative data. It just so happens to also be a very good way to get qualitative data.

When you conduct a usability test, you can quantify the number of errors that happen during tasks (and categorize them for even cooler measurements), completion time, whether or not participants completed the test, and you can collect task-level and test-level survey data.

Usability testing generally takes place with small sample sizes (on the order of 6 people or so), and this isn’t a barrier to descriptive statistics. You just have some big confidence intervals around your averages, but you can just acknowledge that in your reporting and decision making and get on with it.

I do understand thinking that quantitative data gathered from usability testing isn’t so helpful if you’re taking some kind of lean approach to product development. You’re moving quickly and treating usability testing as a more generative activity. Maybe it would be worthwhile to draw a distinction between these activities.

Research Underpinnings for Design Best Practices

I had a conversation recently about the research behind why we do things like put the “Login” link in the upper right corner of the navigation bar, put search boxes in the main navigation, repeat navigation items in the footer, that sort of thing. In other words, what’s the research behind some of the best practices we use for laying out websites?

Well, I didn’t have a good answer for that, and after doing a little poking around, I couldn’t much in the way of material to back me up. Sure, I could find articles that told me what the best practices were and that it’s important for me to adopt them, but nothing that mentioned the evidence suggesting that best practices were, in fact, the best. They worked because everyone was doing it, and our websites should be consistent with users’ expectations whenever there isn’t a very good reason to do otherwise.

I really do feel that this is a reasonable argument, but for all I know, we may have all converged on the absolute worst place to display a “Login” link.

More Thoughts on UX and Product Management

I came across a couple of articles recently exploring the connection between user experience and product management.

First, Phil Dahnke over at UserZoom, they talk about how UX is everyone’s responsibility, particularly product management, in Can you be a successful product manager without UX research? One paragraph in particular stands out to me:

A successful Product Manager will champion the user and strive for a shared vision amongst the UX, UI and design teams based on their customer and user research. Sometimes this means changing direction and deviating from previous plans based on user feedback. Simply relying on the UX team to know what’s best for the product users can result in efficient products users might not like.

Or, to put it another way, the concerns of a UX specialist are a subset of the product manager’s.

Here’s another article: Is UX Part of Product Management, by Adrienne at Brainmates. Rather unsurprisingly, Adrienne comes down on the side of “yes.”

These articles are in the same vein as Eric Ries’ Lean Startup, which positions product management as the key role in understanding and acting on information about users. Or, to put it another way, to do the thing that the UX field has proposed as its main value proposition.

It’s food for thought about what sort of career trajectory you should take if you’re in UX and very interested in taking on more responsibility for building products.

“What to Build” vs. “How to Build It”

I’ve been thinking lately about how UX is usually brought in to answer “how will we build it?” questions, but not “what will we build?” questions.

“What will we build?” questions deal with the matter of finding out what users’ needs are and connecting those needs to something the business can actually do. Getting the right answer to this question means that the organization doesn’t spend a bunch of time building the wrong thing—building something that, no matter how well designed, doesn’t meet anyone’s needs. The user experience field offers some great tools for learning about users and answering the question of “what will we build?”

Of course, this question is usually answered long before UX is involved.

Instead, we’re usually involved at the point of “how will we build it?” This question assumes the matter of what to build is already settled, and instead all that’s left to do is figure out what the design should be. UX can offer value here, obviously. The problem is that we’re usually pigeonholed into answering only that question, even when it turns out that we’re working on a feature that should never be built because the design problem was framed wrong from the beginning.

The effort to push UX earlier into the design process is an effort to get closer to the “what will we build?” question, but part of the problem we face is that there are already people who “own” that question, and our effort to provide more value can look like a challenge to them.

I’m not sure what to do about this, yet, though. Just pondering it.

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.

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.

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.

The Terrible Experience of Getting an American Passport

To get to UX Lisbon, I needed to get my first passport in years and years. It turns out getting a passport in the USA is a process that they manage to screw up at almost every step.

For starters, I can’t do this online. In 2015. The idea that I can’t access a wide range of government services from a computer, at my convenience, is ridiculous. No, instead I had to leave work early and show up between 9:00am and 3:00pm. Apparently the township clerk office provided these hours because they had to wrap up the paperwork before the postal service picked up the mail. Because they couldn’t hold the paperwork overnight. Because… well, there’s no real reason for that. The clerk said “because that’s the policy” which is basically another way to say “because screw you, that’s why.”

I filled out this paperwork by hand. Which means that when this physical form arrived at some office, someone had to type it in before they could use computers to check to see if I’m some sort of enemy of America. The clerk also had to take my picture, and print it out, and staple that picture to the form. Because… that’s a thing we’re doing in 2015? I mean, the thought that there are devices that will take pictures and then send digital copies of those pictures anywhere is crazy, right?

I also had to include a copy of my birth certificate. The one copy I have – a delicate, worn piece of paper from decades ago. A forgeable scrap of paper that somehow proves that someone with my name was born in the USA. Because… what, it’s impossible to keep these records online? Somehow, Amazon can figure out if I have an account but the USA can’t look up in a database to find out if I’m a citizen.

To top it all off, I had to write a great big check for over a hundred dollars for the privilege of filling out this paperwork. Because obviously funding government services through a system of taxation would just be bizarre, am I right? Oh, wait, I do pay taxes. A lot of them. For all sorts of garbage that I find morally repugnant. I just don’t pay taxes for some person sitting in an office to type in the data from my paperwork, I guess, even though we wouldn’t even need this person to type the data if we did this online, which we would in a sane system.

So, to summarize: We can spend trillions of dollars to wage disastrous imperialist wars overseas, but we can’t figure out how to make a system that would make life easier for Americans and not actually hurt anyone.