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5 posts from January 2010

Reducing the Variables

Reducing the Variables

It's eleven in the evening, and the energy rush provided by the soda and pizza has begun to wane. The whiteboard is full of sketches detailing dozens of solutions to a particularly thorny piece of website functionality… but none of them seem to fit the client's need perfectly. The whole team is exhausted, but there are still at least twenty yards to sprint until the ideas in our minds make sense in some sort of material form.

When you're trying to solve really big UX problems—ones that hundreds of other designers have probably expended thousands of hours considering—you'll spend a good deal of time retreading similar ground to those of your peers. It's tempting to choose what seems like the most appropriate large-scale solution based on what you've seen out in the market, then fill in the details as you go. In some projects, that's the right approach to take.

But in these kinds of situations, it's very important to ask yourself: Am I trying to uncover some capital-S "Solution" to a big problem when actually I should be taking a series of small steps towards a subtle, more constrained approach? Am I pursuing the holy grail blindly instead of determining my path, each step forward, as I move towards that same big solution?

Often, you need to take each of those short steps, or iterations, before your smaller solutions add up into one that feels big (and appropriate). So if the task before you seems insurmountable, and you're totally stumped, change the problem's constraints. Throw out larger concerns, at least in the short term. You need a smaller box, and fewer variables to solve for (at first).

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The Blind Man and the Cheeseburger: Form and Interconnection in User Experience Design

Cheeseburger Cupcakes by KateDW on Flickr

Have you ever watched a blind man eat a cheeseburger?

Before I skipped town for the holidays, my wife and I tried out a new sandwich shop down in the Ballard Blocks. After ordering and sipping at our iced teas, I noticed that the man next to me, distractedly chatting away with his family, had a folded white cane by his side. The waitress set down his gourmet burger, including sweet potato fries with aioli on the side. Out of the corner of my eye, I couldn't help but watch as he ate.

First, he patted with his left hand to find the top of the burger. He used his right hand to enclose the bun and patty. Slowly, he brought it to his mouth for a bite. Freeing up his right hand, he patted the plate for fries and ate three. Resting the sandwich, he then fumbled a bit before acquiring his beer and taking a healthy sip. The worried expression that had consumed most of his face during those first moments of eating had turned into a smile of deep satisfaction.

Between the beer, the burger, and the fries, he was continually reacquiring the position of each object in relation to his hands and his mouth. As he grew comfortable with the position and taste of each thing, he started to become more adventurous. Those first savored bites turned into a messy ballet. He began dipping the burger into the aioli for the fries, which required holding the stainless-steel ramekin. He also couldn't control how much of the sauce ended up on the burger (which ended up daubing his chin). As he finished the fries, he moved his hand around the plate in a clockwise motion to locate those last stray, delicious tubers. And he carefully managed how much was left in his pint of beer, so he could chase the last bite of the burger with a healthy swig.

As our waitress left our burgers in front of us, I couldn't help but reflect on how I would eat my impending meal, and what elements truly composed it.

We could talk here about the latent usability of the cheeseburger, but that's an easy argument to wager. If you suffer from a visual disability, of course it will cost you more time to fulfill the same interactions over the course of a meal. We've felt the very same feeling in using a poorly architected website, where we fumble about for minutes for what seems, in our minds, to be a very simple goal: match the idea in your head to what's on the screen. You need the food in your hand before you can put it in your mouth.

Since I could see all of the ingredients on the plate before me—and understood how they all fit together into a set of graspable objects—I could plan out at some level of detail how I would eat them, from first to last bite. It took about twelve minutes for the blind man to eat his burger, while I could make mine vanish more quickly.

Those are nice things, if I care about being more efficient, not getting ketchup on my sleeve, or admiring how the dark diagonal burn marks demonstrating how our veggie-burgers had been char-grilled.

Since I can see the cheeseburger, there must be some added meaning to the food that changes my perception of how it tastes. There's also the notion that slowing down the eating process, whether through self-will or eating in pitch darkness a la Dans le Noir, causes us to appreciate the nuances of what we taste. That environment may force you to acknowledge taste without the influence of sight, but how I understand the notion of "cheeseburger" or "fries" in that environment, as I consume them, is no better or worse than the blind man as he reaches for what comprises his lunchtime meal. Even if he and I are splitting the same cheeseburger, it will never be the same cheeseburger.

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Creating a Risk Assessment

Too Many Problems

When taking on projects with hairpin-turn deadlines, high levels of technical complexity, and large cross-disciplinary teams that function across silos within a large organization, designers often have to assume a great deal of risk. This risk is often codified in a series of contingencies that serve as part of a proposal, and take on the form of laundry lists such as:

  • Our firm will receive collated feedback from client within 24 hours of each provided deliverable
  • Our firm will require access to the hosting environment for initial testing by back-end development at the start of the project
  • Our firm will hold to the specified feature set provided in this estimate; any changes in the agreed-upon scope will have an impact upon timeline, budget, or both

While these itemized lists are valuable in defining client/designer boundaries, they don't do a great job of describing what happens when said boundaries are violated—either by the designer or by the client. We rarely dive into the nitty-gritty details of how badly things can actually go wrong until we've signed the contract and started work.

But there should always be a time slotted into project kickoffs where you sit down and put together a risk assessment.

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The New Decade of Design Thanking

Design Thanking

This will be the new decade of design thanking.

Not thinking. Thanking.

After hearing John Thackara speak last year, it really sunk in for me that design as a thankful or generous gesture—without any measure of expected reward or large-scale impact—is the huge gaping weakness within our profession. Taking small-scale actions on a day-to-day basis requires a kind of personal behavioral change that is very hard to sustain without some kind of feedback loop (or paycheck). We get lost in the work and not in the people that make it meaningful.

At the same time, I've struggled with the term "design thinking" as an end-all, cure-all to the world's ills—mainly because it can obscure the effort to convert thought into action, and action into profound, wholesale effect. We could spend lifetimes piling up all of the time spent thinking without giving voice to our thoughts.


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