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10 posts from March 2009

Want a Little Client Feedback?

I Heart Feedback

Whenever I receive client feedback, I think of stress tests for climbing ropes.

In a stress test, you tie a weight to the end of a rope, secure the other end of the rope, and drop it off a tall building. Then you see how far the weight can fall -- and how much force the rope can withstand -- before it snaps.

However, a rope doesn't just reach a instant breaking point. These ropes are designed to stretch and then bounce. The amount of flexion or "give" that the rope contains is a measure of its resilience.

A seasoned designer has a deep reservoir of resilience. This leads to a higher tolerance for change and ambiguity, as well as a certain level of professionalism around negotiating client feedback. At a certain point, you discover patterns in people's reactions and begin to anticipate them. This is a learned skill over a few hundred design projects. And through repeated stress -- not strain -- your tolerance increases.

But even with great designers, things like poorly considered client feedback can cause your design work to suffer. With that in mind, here are a few examples of how to triage client feedback to preserve a designer's resilience.

Continue reading "Want a Little Client Feedback?" »

Doing Less with More: The Elegance of Denovation

Denovate This

Are you looking to create the next killer Web site or app? Perhaps you should start by denovating.

Elegant Web experiences mingle utility with a spirit of "denovation" -- a word from Jeremy Alexis, who defines the term as "the attempt to simplify or reduce the number of products without reducing the service performed. Denovation provides a clear path to elegance."

Successful Web sites and applications, well-tended by humans, naturally lend themselves to a denovative approach. You can shed unnecessary or cumbersome features and pages to create a firmer focus on a user's greatest needs. Much like pruning a tree in order to preserve its health, a site whose growth is managed in this way can maintain its systemic and formal elegance over time.

Web sites and apps need to evolve as user behaviors change. In this fashion, the Internet conforms to the same natural rules as humans because these billions of pages are created by humans and fed by humans. So if we view elegant Web sites as being organic in nature, then we can read "denovation" as a form of natural selection. Features whose level of use fall at the very far end of the long tail should be pruned.

Reducing features also has an added benefit: you gain more space in which to evoke positive feeling, not cognitive friction. Can you imagine if they did such a thing with, say, Microsoft Word? I think the overall level of anger in today's society would drop substantially...

Is Your Website a Book, a Garden, or a Petri Dish?


I've worked with a ton of phenomenally talented user interface and interaction designers, and we are always struggling against the boundaries of the interface. In doing so, we've zigzagged our way through a lot of crazy territory. Along the way, we came to some hard truths about what does and doesn't work when structuring a Web experience.

I'm not talking about the programming necessary to build the appropriate Web site. I'm describing the three forms that Web pages most closely cleave to, from the information architecture and user experience onwards.

Much like in the film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, how the world systematically and naturally organizes itself is echoed in how we architect Web experiences from the ground up:

Web site as book: "Page model"

  • Organization echoes book/magazine content patterns formed by humans from natural ratios
  • Ideal for long-form content presentation
  • Fulfills user expectations through consistency and legibility
  • Most common site organization by a billion to one
  • Blogs, content sites, transactional sites, and most Web applications conform to this model
  • Information model hasn't changed much since Gutenberg

Web site as garden - "Physical world model"

  • Organization limited to how we treat objects in physical space
  • Somewhat flexible, but can only contain a limited amount of content in shaped zones
  • Fulfills user expectations through mimicry of real-world restrictions (gravity, reactivity)
  • Commonly applied to entertainment/marketing sites and Natural User Interfaces
  • Information model hasn't changed much since apes roamed the Earth

Web site as petri dish - "Molecular model"

  • Organized to support data in an exploratory/non-hierarchical way
  • Engineered for short-term exploratory usage patterns
  • Fulfills user expectations through novelty, reactivity, and ability to be reshaped
  • Most popularly used through data visualization, starting to bleed into marketing experiences
  • Information model hasn't changed much since the Big Bang

There is a constant tension and balance between these three types of systemic order. And they can mingle, but in a very constrained manner. Humans just aren't very adept at perceiving fundamental separations between text (words), physical objects (proxies for content), and molecules (metadata). If you go and play on, you can see why you can't click on little flying molecules while also reading a page from a book by Dostoyevsky. If you try to mush two or three of these Web site types together, chances are your user experience and page design are going to fail.

"The Elegance of Imperfection" in A List Apart


The following essay is from a series of writings describing the intersection between Buddhist philosophy and design.

Many thanks to the expert editorial staff at A List Apart for their guidance, including Krista Stevens, Erin Kissane, and Carolyn Wood. Ric Ewing and Mary Paynter Sherwin contributed critical ideas and insights to the final piece.


Everything I know about the elegance of imperfection, I learned from the white porcelain plate I bought in Kyoto.

What’s so special about this plate? Before it was fired, it was perfectly round, but the artist intentionally roughed up the edges. It’s elegant, enhanced by anything that touches its surface: a bright green pear, roughly chopped chocolate, a pile of toasted almonds. Today, this plate sits on the desk in my home office. It symbolizes a crucial lesson about craft: utility is not contingent on perfection of form. In fact, the lessons I’ve learned about crafting elegant experiences—from the creative brief to user interface design—involve abandoning the desire for perfection entirely.

There is an anecdote, told and retold through translated Japanese literature, of a Zen master who is staying with a priest at a temple close to Kyoto. The priest is having guests over that evening, and he has spent much of the day in the garden—shaping the moss, plucking weeds, and gathering up the leaves in tidy arrangements, all in order to achieve the state of perfection the temple builders had originally designed...

Continue reading "The Elegance of Imperfection" on A List Apart

Book Review: Subject to Change

Subject to Change cover


We’ve all had this reaction when encountering a product or service that just didn’t cut it.

Take, for example, the alarm clock next to my bed. There are two alarm switches side by side: one for me, and one for my wife. Invariably, every morning I hit the wrong switch and the alarm keeps sounding. By the time I’ve shut the thing down, my wife is wide awake. And she goes to work two hours after me...

I kept thinking about my alarm clock while I was reading the all-too-brief Subject to Change: Creating Great Products and Services for an Uncertain World. This book was penned by three current Adaptive Path employees, including their president Peter Merholz, and their emeritus director of technology, David Verba.

Adaptive Path (AP) is well known as one of the global leaders in providing product experience strategy and design services. As part of their overall business strategy, AP provides training and events to help educate designers, managers of design, and business executives on many of the topics of discussion in Subject to Change.

I have read and loved most of the other books written by AP staffers, such as The Elements of User Experience and Designing for Interaction. They have been formative, in every sense of the word.

So why am I comparing this book to my alarm clock?

Continue reading on The Designer's Review of Books

Find Out For Yourself


"If you want to study something, it's better not to know what the answer is."

I was reading the essay "Find Out For Yourself" by Shunryu Suzuki today when I was struck with a sudden thought: we can be better designers when we don't know what we're doing.

Many of us were attracted to the field of design specifically to make art. Then, somewhere along the way -- especially after having so much energy placed in making artifacts, not art -- our perception of what it meant to be a designer broadened. We became competent in creating specific kinds of artifacts. We mastered specific domains of expression.

But that didn't mean that we designed better artifacts. It's human insight that grounds and infuses design work that creates meaningful change in our society.

Making is not a direct substitute for generating meaning in design. But the process of making can lead to meaning, and our minds must be open to receive it. I've heard this described as "abductive" design thinking -- which in plain English boils down to being able to extrapolate solutions from limited information.

You can seek out that insight before creating your design, if you have the tools. If you don't, then you can start designing. But if you want to use your time wisely -- not efficiently, mind you -- you should practice agile design.

This is an excerpt from the final lecture for this quarter of 80 Works. Continue reading "Find Out For Yourself" on the 80 Works blog.

Starting a Disloyalty Program

Speak to the Cursor

I received my dividend check in the mail today from REI -- just as I was retiring my rock climbing harness. Talk about fortuitous circumstances. Right place, right time, right amount of free money to make the trip downtown worthwhile. It's like they knew exactly what I needed.

Then I walked into the store. There must have been hundreds upon hundreds of people just like me. The place was packed full of outdoorsy and not-so-granola types with their arms full of all those little things they'd been waiting until now to purchase. I almost balked at the very long line to check out, but it moved quickly. The woman at the checkout, Raven, thanked me for coming in and for being patient.

This scene was today. March 7, 2009. And it was only made possible because they'd sent me a check and held a sale.

When I got home, I read through the REI year-end report. Their earnings dropped from over $40 million dollars in 2007 to a bit over $14 million in 2008. That kind of shortfall is insane.

There are a large number of publicly-traded and private companies that are boldly suffering in the midst of structuring their businesses on extremely volatile business assumptions and premises. We're being told day after day and shown just how bad things really are. Perhaps your company or design firm has needed to lay off employees to gird themselves for potential failure.

As a result, we need to be honest with ourselves and our clients. We should be telling our clients what we can do to help them beyond fulfilling stopgap, immediate needs. It's time to stop being reactive and start being proactive through the downturn.

How can you start being proactive?

You're going to need to be a little disloyal when it comes to "business as usual" thinking around design business. You're going to have to spend less time worrying about business as usual and more time being present with your clients as people.

A lot of what I'll be talking about in this post is fairly self-evident. But in the midst of so much sturm und drang, it's worthwhile to remind ourselves of some of the fundamental ideas about working relationships that undergird our profession from a business perspective.

Continue reading "Starting a Disloyalty Program" »

Not Good Proposals. Great Proposals.

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With titanic battles happening nowadays over new business, it's crucial that you craft great proposals to win life-sustaining projects.

Not good. Great.

In the past, I've worked at agencies where proposal writing consisted of creating a laundry list: one final logo in the necessary formats, two rounds of client revisions, and so on. That worked fine when the money was flowing. Nowadays, the cost of entry is higher. Clients look at the deliverables, the price, and then start to haggle without mercy. Maybe that worked a few years ago. Not so much now. If you're bidding on a serious project for a new client, you need something a bit more... thorough. Be prepared to ante up with a great proposal.

Here's what to keep in mind when you write it.

Continue reading "Not Good Proposals. Great Proposals." »