Category Archives: Product Design

“User Experience” Is Not a Thing You Can See

When did people start using the phrase “user experience” when they really mean “design?” As in “I’d like you to show me the mockups of the new user experience” or “that website recently came out with a new user experience.”

I mean, seriously.

In a sense, though, I suppose that in changing the design, the experience of the user is, of course, different. But the user’s experience is a property that emerges from the user’s interaction of a bunch of things that includes the actual design of the artifact. Unless someone has gone to the trouble of not just redesigning the website, but also the user’s browser, computer, environment, senses, and brain, to name a few things, then you can’t really go see the new user experience.

And really, how can you ever “see” a user experience just by looking at a picture or by clicking around on a newly designed website.

The best I can figure is that it’s yet another case of buzzwords gone horribly wrong. There is an increasing sense that “user experience” is important—that it’s important to design for good user experiences, to have user experience professionals kicking around the office. Somehow, maybe, that got reduced to “user experience = design.”

But it’s as annoying as saying “user testing.”

The Refrigerator that Made No Sense

As time goes by, I get more and more interested in how to design for entire experiences beyond a computer screen. A place like Disney World, for example, invests a lot of time and energy to ensure that little is left to chance in the experience of visiting their theme park. Similarly, architecture is fascinating to me because our buildings are, in a way, a huge interface for us to interact with.

Recently, I stayed at a motel. It was run down and kind of terrifying, like an ecommerce site that didn’t quite work right and looked like it was 10 years old. It offered a lot of amenities, but those amenities weren’t quite right. My favorite were the refrigerator and microwave. Having these things in a hotel room is awesome. You get to bring food with you on the road, save it, save your leftovers, eat them later. It’s great for thrift and for not wasting food.

Both of these devices were plugged into an outlet controlled by the lightswitch. That is, when you enter the room and turn on the light, the refrigerator comes on and the microwave starts beeping because it wants you to set the time. So, you get a great choice if you want to keep that refrigerator running: You can sleep with the light on, or you can get a ladder and unscrew the light bulb in the light, or you can push around the refrigerator and plug it in somewhere else. All of these choices are great.

I’m sure the logic behind this decision was to save power. If no one is in the room, why run those appliances? But it lead to this weird problem as a user of the room.

Spotify Updates, Queue Still Weird

Recently, Spotify released a new version of their OS X desktop app. It is prettier than the last version, but in ways that I have a hard time articulating. I think that they went over the fine details and made things like contextual menus look better, as far as font as spacing goes.

If it had just been a facelift, I could have gotten on board with it, but, wow, this is a company that is aggressively testing how far a valuable service will get you.

Their queue functionality has long been problematic, due to a model that baldly makes no sense. You can click “play” on the first track of an album to queue up the whole album. If you then pick another album and “queue” it, it will insert every track of that album after the currently playing song, thus splitting up whatever album you happened to be listening to. You also can’t remove items from your queue once they’re there, without clicking “play” on another whole song. This instantly clears out your queue. This is less user-unfriendliness and more like outright belligerence toward users.

Meanwhile, they hid the queue; instead of putting it in the nav menu on the left, it’s buried in the bottom of the screen as an inscrutable icon. Very close to the volume bar, which has lost its affordance and instead just looks like a decorative horizontal bar until you hover over it. (Although, truth be told, I’m curious how far context and relying upon an idiom that users may have actually learned will work out for this particular design choice).

Fundamentally, it just doesn’t feel like Spotify gets the concept of albums. Not just with regard to queues – managing albums is atrocious if you want to collect a large set, and the way that singles – actual, single songs rather than EPs – are treated as independent albums is bizarre. It’s clear that they weren’t thinking about how to handle albums until the beginning of 2014.


822AC9AD-DD61-4F3A-AF99-9536802B1C3CA couple of times a week on the MacBook Pro (or Apple keyboard), I accidentally hit F4, come face to face with the incomprehensible screen full of unorganized icons, and back out quickly.

As I researched this post, I learned that this feature is called Launchpad and that it has something to do with the (anticipated?) convergence of desktop and mobile operating system experiences. I guess when you combine Launchpad with the Dock is OSX, it’s kind of like the way iOS organizes apps.

But, wow, when you first encounter Launchpad in an uncurated stated, it is an incomprehensible jumble. I guess it’s organized according to the order in which things were installed. How is it useful in a world where people tuck everything they need into the dock? It’s not like the average person uses that many different applications.

As part of my research, I settled down and tried to organize Launchpad, which was a nightmare of awkwardly holding down a button on my keyboard and moving icons around. Icons that didn’t want to move between the multiple screens of Launchpad. And sometimes I just had to touch the Option key once, and sometimes I had to hold it down. By the way, some icons are deletable, and most are not, which meant that I just kept shoving applications I barely use into one big folder.

I suppose that means I’m using Launchpad the wrong way – after all, it’s clearly meant to be a place where you keep every single program on your computer. In the end, I used the first screen to hold icons for all the applications I actually use on a regular basis, and left everything as a jumble in the next 3 screens.

It’s not like I’m going to start using Launchpad, anyway. I use Quicksilver and just type what I want (if it isn’t already open).

A Discontinuous Experience with Outlook

Sometimes (maybe often?) I wish that my desktop wasn’t treated as a completely separate platform from the iOS I use on my phone (and occasionally on an iPad).

As I continue to find better ways to deal with email, I recently tried out Microsoft’s Outlook, which they recently acquired from another company and rebranded as theirs. It does some good work – it has the ability to hide messages until you want them back, but it seems to cooperate with the labeling system I put in place for my email. It also has a nice distinction between “important” emails and “not so important emails”.

The problem actually comes in when I want to use this Outlook on my laptop. It turns out Microsoft’s Outlook for the web is actually just their free email service, corresponding to Google’s Gmail and Yahoo!’s Yahoo! Mail. It doesn’t even seem to work the same as the iOS app.

What the heck, Microsoft? You snared me with this clever little app, and then when I try to continue the experience on my laptop, you try to get me to use the latest version of Hotmail. We live in a world where people move across devices. Your product lineup needs to recognize that.

Learning to Use Inbox

I’ve been trying to use Google’s Inbox for the last few days, without much luck. It’s kind of a similar situation to Mailbox, a few months back.

I’m really on board with the idea of reimagining email, though. My conclusion at this point is that the design of this rather similar apps is that they just don’t work well for me.

The thing is, to really make use of either of them to their full ability, I have to go into Gmail and turn off all the filters that automatically sort most of my messages into folders and bypass the inbox. I also need to think about a new model of handling the “to do” emails. I don’t typically think of my personal* emails as “do now” or “do in a week.” Mostly, they are “do this as soon as you have the energy to do it,” which means that my emails stick around in the inbox or relevant folder, marked unread, until I can handle them. Also, in the past year I really started using Evernote for many things, including keeping track of tasks. I hesitate to open up another source of to-dos.

The ability to make email disappear until I’m ready to handle them sounds really cool, but it’s just not the way I’ve worked – I generally don’t have specific dates where I think I can deal with them.

The bundling capability in Inbox also looks pretty cool but, again, I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on my email through heavy use of folders (or labels, if you will).

What I really want to do is try out Inbox for my work email. That’s where I always have emails that I want to follow up with at specific times and have a continuous stream of topics where I can’t really predict how I’ll want to support them. Maybe one day.

*As it turns out, “personal” actually means “personal-for-fun and personal-for-all-professional-activities-outside-my-job.”

Learning to Use a Mouse

Late last year, I was involved in usability testing and encountered something I did not expect to find. Multiple participants were completely defeated by Apple’s Magic Mouse.

Specifically, they couldn’t figure out how to scroll. This problem was compounded by the way that scrollbars vanish by default in more recent versions of OSX. To top it off, the default scroll direction recently reversed in OSX, meaning that even if these participants learned how to use the Magic Mouse, they kept scrolling the wrong way.

I didn’t expect to be helping participants learn how to use a mouse in 2014. Twenty years ago, usability texts discussed how you might find test participants that don’t have computer experience (meaning you might have to train them) and of course the older someone is, the more likely it is that they’re not experienced with computers. And I’m just coming at it from the perspective of usability testing in the USA—of course there are places in the world where people don’t use a mouse.

But we were working with American college students, and Apple made them feel stupid. I like the Magic Mouse, overall. Having the scrollbars vanish doesn’t affect my workflow. And I spent a couple of days training myself to use the new scrolling direction. For someone used to Windows or older versions of Apple’s computers, or someone that just uses a laptop all the time, walking in off the street and trying to use this lab setup was challenging and distracted them from the test tasks.

I’m not sure what to do about it yet. I’m not ready to say that we need to screen people or offer a short training session. I did go back and change the scroll direction, restore the scrollbars to always displaying, and get another mouse with a scroll wheel. Doing these things solved the immediate problem, but I’m just not sure what the long-term implications are.

Practical Skills and Built-in Knowledge

Years back, I joined Tim Keirnan for his Design Critique podcast to talk about shaving technology. Learning about the evolution of the straight razor, safety razor, and finally the cartridge and electric razors that most people use now was what kickstarted my interest in the ways that we build knowledge into our artifacts.

When you use a straight razor—that is, a very sharp knife—you must take care of the blade, keep it honed, and hold it at a precise angle and move it in specific ways. Without the knowledge of how to use the razor, you have a suboptimal experience.

The safety razor has a lot of this knowledge built into it. It’s built to hold the blade at the right angle. Rather than maintaining the edge of the blade, the blades come sharp and are discarded once blunted.

As our artifacts become more advanced, we build more knowledge into them. More people are capable of doing more because of the spread of the knowledge. We lose the need to learn as many skills, though, and to understand the way our devices really work. Overall, I think we’re better off, but it’s interesting to keep in mind what we lose.

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.