Previous month:
January 2009
Next month:
March 2009

11 posts from February 2009

Eleven Tips for Successful Photo Shoots


What's under the sink? A few paper bags from fancy shops. Coke cans, yogurt containers, and a few empty bottles of Alaskan Amber. Cleaning products like Comet and Pledge. A dustpan.

What's on the counter? Six coffee mugs in varying shades of yellow, green, and white. Brioche studded with raisins and ginger scones from Cafe Besalu. A trail mix of almonds, cashews, and cranberries sweetened with sugar. And let's not forget the big pot of black coffee, whose delicious aroma infuses the kitchen.

One of the most exciting things about taking part in photo shoots is the joy of physical making: the process of design on a much larger scale than a mouse and Photoshop. Your palette is the world, and your tool is the camera.

Scattered throughout Patrick's studio were all the ingredients for a series of highly planned photos, but that won't stop us from furiously working our way through all of the material that's on the props table, the racks of clothing, the refrigerator.

But all of this material can't be forced onto each photograph. You have to let the scene speak to you, and react as nimbly as possible to sound the right note in the shot.

Clothing gets cycled a few times. The laptop on the table is a bit too heavy-handed, so that goes out the window. We throw some boots in the corner so it looks like the model just sat down on the floor for a quick break. Hair is let down, put up in a ponytail, and blush is furiously applied -- all in the hope that each change will make the scene feel finished.

Though that probably isn't the right word. No photograph is ever finished. Each RAW file is just another slice of time, some feeling more complete than others in their level of expression. If you're quick on your feet and willing to discard your presupposed ideas through each shot, new opportunities emerge that can feel more potent and human. Just by creating a space to allow them.

How do you create that space?

Continue reading "Eleven Tips for Successful Photo Shoots" »

Don't Hit the Deck: Mitigating Risk in Your Design Contracts

Risk Over Time

While rock climbing this morning, I just couldn't get off the ground. The route, a 5.11- called something like "Slippery Nose of Death", started off with a smooth first-sized hold that resisted my varied attempts at sticking to the wall. That is, until I'd figured out a way to force my left foot onto a tiny toehold, prop my right foot against the faux rock face with a smear that could only keep me aloft for 3 sec -- whoops, there I am again: back where I started.

I'd like to try the route again, but I can't straighten my hands. Yet.

What do I love about rock climbing? It's physical problem solving. Pre-thinking each climb will only get you so far up the mountain. You need to fumble through climb after climb until you've internalized each move.

Over years of practice, muscle memory will guide you through a sort of flow that can feel (almost) effortless. Truly great climbers have an elegance and grace to their movements on the rock that belies thousands of hours spent staggering up different swaths of rock -- often in gnarly settings that would induce abject fear.

And then there are those who climb without ropes.

Call them daredevils or fools, but free climbers -- who are treated with awe in rock climbing magazines and equally fawned over and pilloried by the mainstream press -- are considered the true elites. Risking their lives with every ascent, they're pegging the tough routes at Yosemite while their lives literally hanging by a fingernail.

I can't imagine taking a risk of such magnitude. I need a harness and a rope securely fastened to an anchor, as well as a belay partner who is attentively watching and listening for any signs that I might need assistance. My belay partner is the guy or gal who's watching out for my well-being, making sure I don't "hit the deck," a.k.a. pancake out on the ground beneath our climb du jour. If I fall, they catch me through the system we've constructed to keep us safe.

Have you ever "hit the deck"? Maybe not as a rock climber. But you've experienced something similar -- like when a client tries to pull out of your signed contract after you've done the majority of the agreed-upon work.

Continue reading "Don't Hit the Deck: Mitigating Risk in Your Design Contracts" »

Thinking in Opposites... Or Not

Third Meridian

The opposite of picnic is... prison? And resurrection is... traffic jam?

Being illogical is probably the best thing you can do in a brainstorm. Or, to be more specific in my fostering of weirdosity: after you've exhausted the trough of ideas that make sense, there needs to be a point of departure where you seek out opposites.

Human beings have a tendency to find relationships between things whose meanings seem to be in direct conflict. The tension between those sparring words or images, and the ensuing friction in your mind, forms the sparks that ignite more novel concepts.

You aren't really playing with antonyms. You can see from even the barest examples that the idea of opposite is only a trick that we use to churn up concepts that initially seem far outside "the box".

Turn off your literal filter, start riffing off what's on the whiteboard or in your sketchbook, and see what new thinking takes form.

Three Iron-Clad Rules for Documenting Client Feedback


1. Put it in writing. Then send it to all parties to approve.

Take the time to document your meeting's action items and critical feedback elements. If you don't, you're going to forget details and nuances. And when consideration of those details is lacking in the next round, you're going to burn time and money in missed changes, confused requirements, and wonky client conversations where you waste valuable time righting the furniture.

2. Make sure they're unconditionally saying it.

If a client can't give you confident direction and just wants you to "work it out in the next round of creative," strive to turn the situation into a direction instead of a implication. This must be in writing and agreed upon by all parties. Don't just say, "Client dislikes green color, wants us to explore other options." Tack on the end of that sentence a discrete way to focus and narrow the comment's implications. Otherwise, you'll be doing endless rounds of creative tweaks that get you only inches closer to your project goals.

3. Be clear about where you're at in the project process.

You need to come to a common understanding of what you agreed to do out of every single meeting, and how it contributes to your overall project result as part of your agreed schedule and timeline. Put this in writing after each round of feedback and approval. Be clear about how their input is contributing to the final goal, and what value you're going to add with the next round of changes to reach that goal.

"'Experience Design' is a Bunch of Horse-s*$#" by Jon Kolko


This morning, I tripped over the following presentation by Jon Kolko (PDF) while reading through some of the blog coverage from Interaction'09.

Jon's presentation is one of the best articulations I've seen regarding why we should resist talking about how we design "experiences" for our clients, as opposed to interactions.

I know that many years ago, I would have been guilty as charged. Thankfully, I have now fully drunk of the IxD Flavor-Aid and can now be found browbeating my colleagues at work about how we can only reach so far into our audience's brains through our design deliverables...

Every Word Counts

Today's Menu

On the restaurant's Web site: penne pasta, seared oyster mushrooms, greens, basil, reggiano.

At the actual restaurant: penne pasta, winter greens, alfredo.

Not much difference, right?

Except that I was totally starving. I'd walked ten minutes out of my way in the bitter cold, just because this walk-up's food was totally killer. And they didn't say on their Web site the magic word: "alfredo."

I'm not a totally persnickety eater. I have no problem with a little cream on my noodles. They may have run out of ingredients and made a substitution in a pinch.

But what I thought I was eating for lunch wasn't exactly what I'd expected. I'd had in mind an olive oil-based sauce with shaved cheese on top... or maybe with a hint of tomato snuck into the pot while they were making a reduction.. and so on..

You've had this feeling too. This is exactly what happens when your copy on your Web site isn't precise.

Continue reading "Every Word Counts" »

Let's Play Audience Advocate

You Don't Say

I'm tired of sitting in brainstorm meetings where someone shares a perfectly good idea, and another person immediately uncorks the following: "Well, let's play devil's advocate..." and begins to blast that idea to shreds. That doesn't make your ideas tougher. It just kills them.

Instead of invoking the devil, think about your audience. We need to shift our frame of reference, in the context of our meeting, to make the call.

Here are some questions you can use to create context around your critiques and keep those great ideas on the table long enough to bring them to life.

Continue reading "Let's Play Audience Advocate" »

Interaction'09 | Day 2: How Should We Show Awareness?

I am not afraid...

This second day of the IxDA's annual conference was stellar. And I have few words to share, as I'm still processing the massive number of sessions that were crammed into the day. However, through the day, I copied down the following quotes from the presenters. If you've got your own favorites based on the sessions that you saw, add them!

Robert Fabricant, Frog Design

"Interaction design is not about computing technology. Technology is not our medium. Behavior is our medium.... Sustainability is a problem of behavior. Sustainability = our problem."

Nathan Moody, Stimulant

"Virtual keyboards suck."

Jon Kolko, Frog Design

"I saw this + I know this = Insight + design pattern = Design idea."

Michael Salamon

Instead of a quote, download his simple presentation about Gestalt at

Camille Moussette

Speaking about how to put together haptic and multimodal interactions: "Use the world to control the world." Don't think you have to go digital to sketch out an interaction idea.

Dan Saffer, Kicker Studios

The real shining star of today's presentations, just because it was such a needed kick in the ass for our profession. Dan had a long, long list of the things that we can do to show more awareness as interaction designers. I hope that video of this keynote is made available. Some of my favorite quotes:

Stop looking for the magic bullet.
Instead of "design thinking," let's think and make.
Stop fetishizing simplicity.
Don't forget that for most, the interface is the system.
Stop waiting for permission.
You already know everything you need to know to design the future.

Interaction'09 | Day 1: Please Confirm or Deny Your Involvement


Do we deny the overall state of the world in order to create things that fit people's immediate lives -- thereby confirming their behavior and point of view -- or do we urge those people to change their behavior so they don't need those things at all?

This is one of the major themes I've seen boil up from my first full day of the Interaction'09 Conference: this consideration (or denial) of fit.

Continue reading "Interaction'09 | Day 1: Please Confirm or Deny Your Involvement" »

Doing the UI Pantomime

Unifi In Progress User Flow

In my last 80 Works class, I asked the talented designer Scott Scheff to come as a guest. He brought a great exercise that has a lot of practical application for a group of designers looking to explore the nooks and crannies of an interface. Scott dubbed the exercise the "UI Pantomime," and it is a twist on a few of IDEO's role-playing methods.

The students were tasked with helping create the in-store experience for a "record store of the future" called Unifi. At this store, you could use an iPhone application as an adjunct to the shopping experience. The app would add the following to your retail browsing experience:

1. When looking at a CD, you could sample audio from the CD's tracks
2. When you purchased a CD in the store, you would automatically get MP3s of the CD tracks downloaded to your device
3. The application would also prompt you with related artists and featured artists (this week: Wilco)

After the students were briefed, we set them loose with about 30 minutes to work through the details of the interface through "UI Pantomime".

Here's how the exercise played out:

First 5-10 minutes: The students chose roles. One was the shopper entering the store. She held an eraser, which was a stand in for an iPhone. A second student played the interface of the iPhone app and had to act out what was happening within the interface. The shopper and the app then worked through the use cases we'd provided, while another student was responsible for documenting a rough user flow and UI ideas based on the conversation between the phone and the shopper.

Second 5-10 minutes: All the students stopped role playing/documenting the action and examined the user flow and user interface sketches, making refinements to screens based on the varying perceptions of each student.

Third 5-10 minutes: The students playing the shopper and the iPhone interface attempt to follow the user flow/UI sketches as documented. The third student observed the tension between the real-world interaction and the documented flow and recorded any new screens/areas that emerged.

Fourth 5-10 minutes: The students debrief and revise the flow and screens.

If this was an at-work exercise, this iterative cycle could continue until the final "performance" felt complete.

When watching the students work through this exercise, there were a number of aha! moments for all of us.

Working out user flows and UI designs on paper is never a substitute for living through one. When creating a user flow and UI, it's fairly easy to document and improve upon what already exists. But if you're making a Web app or site from scratch, you should try to find a way to "live through it". Acting the flow out in the physical world affords us a much wider range of observed behaviors, which helps us select the one that is most usable and human.

What may not be apparent as an issue to one designer can be immediately apparent as an issue to a group of designers. Moving from free-form improvisation to literal, documented flows causes powerful tension that immediately calls into question every detail you've documented to date. After only a minute or two of directly following along with the documented user flow and UI design, the students asking to break out of the exercise and revise the UI right on the spot. They immediately knew which details weren't right.

Great Web sites and applications require friendly dialogue. Acting out interfaces forced us to bring a conversational nature to our application design. Alan Cooper said rightly that we treat computers like people, not boxes of logic -- we expect a tiny bit of emotion to how we exchange information. One of the students joked at the start of the exercise that he didn't feel like he was acting like an interface... he was too human-sounding. I shot back that he was acting how a good interface should behave.

Give this exercise a whirl and let me know how it works for you. We'll be trying it again in our next class!