Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Should Tech Designers Go With Their Guts — Or the Data?

Photo: Ariel Zambelich / WIRED
For many tech companies, design is no longer subjective. Instead, it’s all about the data. Analytics click and hum behind the scenes, measuring the effectiveness of even the tiniest design decisions. This constant data-stream plays an increasing role in determining what new products we will use and what forms they might take.
When it comes to the future of design and technology, the uncomfortable question we bump into is: do human design instincts even matter anymore?
In the design world, there’s always been a dichotomy between data and instinct. Design departments — think Mad Men – were once driven by the belief that some people are gifted with an innate design sense. They glorified gut “instinct” because it was extremely difficult to measure the effectiveness of designs in progress; designers had to wait until a product shipped to learn if their ideas were any good. But today’s digital products — think Facebook and Google — glorify “data” instead; it’s now possible to measure each design element among hundreds of variations until the perfect outcome is selected.
For designers, this influx of data can be frustrating.
Designers who thought they were hired for their good taste will quickly get discouraged in a culture where tech companies meticulously test 41 shades of blue. Imagine convincing a team to trust your gut instincts when cold hard data says you’re wrong. How do you simplify a crowded homepage when the data scientists agree it’s ugly, but tell you it signs up customers faster?
From my perspective working with over 80 product teams, data is important … but there’s no replacement for design instincts built on a foundation of experiences that include failures. As engineering and design become ever closer collaborators, the biggest challenge is to make decisions through a careful balance between data and instinct.
Design Instincts Matter…
One of my first projects at Google was to design the “Google Checkout” button, which would soon go on to help people quickly purchase goods and services around the web. Designing a button is usually easy, but this one had a unique requirement: Customers could choose between several checkout methods, so our button needed to attract attention on a busy page.
With each wave of design feedback, however, I was asked to make the button bolder, larger, more eye catching, and even “clicky” (whatever that means). The proposed design slowly became more garish and eventually, downright ugly.

To make a point, a colleague of mine stepped in with an unexpected move: He designed the most attention-grabbing button he could possibly muster: flames shooting out the side, a massive chiseled 3-D bevel, an all-caps label (“FREE iPOD”) with a minuscule “Checkout for a chance to win”.
This move reset the entire conversation. It became clear to the team in that moment that we cared about more than just clicks. We had other goals for this design: It needed to set expectations about what happens next, it needed to communicate quality, and we wanted it to build familiarity and trust in our brand.
We could have easily measured how many customers clicked one button versus another, and used that data to pick an optimal button. But that approach would have ignored the big picture and other important goals.
While it’s tempting to make design decisions based on the data we have at hand, the best teams recognize that some goals are hard to measure. Data is incredibly useful for incremental, tactical improvement, but it must be tempered by another factor: our instincts.
…And Instincts Are Made, Not Born
Following one’s instincts is sometimes a bad idea. A quick look at Apple’s infamous round USB mouseor Segway’s first weeks should be enough to warn designers and business leaders alike that having too much confidence in one’s “design instincts” can be dangerous.
No designer is born knowing exactly what their customers will want, or how people will behave when faced with a novel design. Instincts are learned. And they’re best learned by paying attention to the world around us. Luckily, the human brain is an incredible pattern-matching machine that develops and hones our instincts every time we’re exposed to a new design and the data about whether it worked.
Designers constantly pay attention to the world around them and notice when experiences fall short. We notice when door handles signal you should push, but require you to pull. We notice when the font on road signs change. We notice that little button on our phones that’s just a bit too hard to find while driving.
Trust me: paying this much attention to the details can get annoying. Not just for designers but for those around them, too.
But there’s a benefit to being so aware. Whenever designers notice something is difficult, we mentally dissect why that’s happening, what design was involved, and how a different design might solve the problem. Each time we do this, we’re slowly building our design muscles — what people commonly refer to as “instinct.”
Still, this introspection only gets us so far, because the audience for our designs are often different than ourselves: older, younger, bringing other cultural contexts or expectations, different in other ways.
Even when designers think they’re exactly like their users, there’s one sure difference: Designers are experts in using their own product, while new users are seeing and experiencing the product for the first time. Since there’s no way to unlearn what one already knows, it’s essential to do research to see the world through users’ eyes.
Watching customers use a product through user research is the absolute best way to develop design instincts and avoid mistakes. And user research is really just another stream of data — one that’s qualitative and messy, but still extremely valuable. Strong product teams develop habits that strengthen everyone’s design instincts. One of the best habits to build is a cadence of user research every few weeks.
The Goldilocks of Instinct-Driven and Data-Driven Design
When the whole team watches customers struggle with their designs, it’s possible for everyone — from engineer to CEO — to possess brilliant design instincts. Just don’t let these instincts run the show. The trick is to recognize situations when teams should dig for data, and when they should let instincts shine.
Curious about customer behavior? Use data. When it comes to digital products, web and mobile analytics tell us exactly what customers do. Even if customers say they would never, ever, ever buy rainbow suspenders for their avatar, we just never know what people will do when we’re not watching. Better to trust the data and see what people actually do rather than trust what they say they’ll do.
Making decisions about product quality? Use instinct. To build quality into a product, you have to pay attention to hundreds of details like crafting clear help content or moving that button 3 pixels to the left. None of these small changes individually would prove worthwhile with data. But taken together, they create an overall impression of quality — a halo effect that improves a product in many ways. So when wondering how much time to spend on the details, designers should trust their instincts.
Deciding between a small set of options? Use data. There’s nothing like an A/B test for making an incremental, tactical improvement. When trying to pick the just-right words for a homepage header, there’s little to be gained in arguing over the right copy. It’s better to test a few versions and pick the right one based on data. The key is to measure the metrics that really matter to the business longer term (such as signups, purchases, or user retention) instead of just measuring clicks.
Concerned with long-term impact? Use instinct. A good reputation takes years to build, but just one bad experience can destroy it. So when balancing between tactical easily measurable goals like more clicks, and long term goals like trustworthiness, it’s essential to listen carefully to one’s instincts. And if those instincts need a little boost, get curious: go out in the world, talk to people, and gather data.
It’s common to think of data and instincts as being opposing forces in design decisions. In reality, there’s a blurry line between the two. After all, instincts are built by observing the world around us, and those observations are just another stream of data. Statistics help us summarize and understand the hard data we collect, and instincts do the same for all the messy real-world experiences we observe. And that’s why the best products — the ones that people want to use, love to use — are built with a bit of both.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Exploring Visual Trends In Contemporary Graphic Design

  Trend List may look like a rather plain-looking website at first sight, however, it turns out to be a real treasure for any designer — Web folks included. It contains a collection of posters, books, catalogs, magazines and album covers. What makes it even more comprehensive is that Trend List also tries to spot when and where a trend has arisen and how it has developed over time. With new additions being made almost every day, the site is definitely worth bookmarking to check back every now and then.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Make Your Side Projects Wildly Successful: Treat Them Like Experiments

I used to let fear of a failed side project keep me from trying new things outside of my normal workload. Or worse, I constantly had ideas for side projects but never actually started any. My day-job was comfortable, so I didn’t want to fail at something new. But, the truth is, I wasn’t pushing myself and I certainly wasn’t growing. My skills stagnated.
Meanwhile, I noticed exampled of other creatives tackling side projects and wildly succeeding at them (and sometimes the “side” projects would take over their day jobs). Tina Roth Eisenberg’s (Swiss Miss) side projects (TattlyCreative Mornings and Studiomates) helped her put client work on hold indefinitely. Jessica Hische’s side project of drawing drop caps and posting them online led to several jobs/clients (including The New York Times, Penguin Books and Google). Seeing others succeed on the side, I wondered if I had the chops to do the same.
Side projects can be scary. There’s more of us in them so they hit closer to home. This can make them difficult to start or follow through on. But it’s also important to be our own client sometimes, and have side projects that push new skills, flex our creative muscles, and give us testing grounds for new and innovative ideas. I knew I needed to start doing them as well, if I wanted to really see what was possible.
Side projects can be scary. There’s more of us in them.
To get over my own fear of failure with them, I started picturing these ideas as simply being experiments. Experiments don’t “fail”—they simply prove or disprove a hypothesis. For example, despite my day job as a designer I had the hypothesis that I could also write an e-book. I then simply started writing. I didn’t focus on the outcome, how the book would be received or what others would think of it. I figured, “let’s give this a try”.
Framing my side project as an experiment didn’t sound as bad. Experimenting is the only way to prove something, to get that nagging idea out of your head.
Here are few tips I use to frame all of my ideas for side projects as experiments:

  • Focus on the task at hand, not the end result. Focus on the process to allow serendipity and personal exploration to take over. Otherwise you might inadvertently alter things with a subjective idea of how you want it to turn out, rather than what would be best for your long-term learnings.
  • Don’t create your experiment and judge it at the same time. Creation and judgment are very different thought processes and can interfere with each other, and must be done separately. Experiment with exploring every idea completely first (writing it down, drawing it out, actually trying to do it). Only then move into editing, curating, and judging to get to best version of the idea.
  • Break the experiment down into the smallest tasks possible. Then, focus completely on each small task. Only at the end do you tie all those tasks together. This helps you avoid the fear of things being too big or overwhelming to accomplish and lets you slip in your side project around your weekly primary responsibilities.
  • Remember: these are experiments. Not full-time business ideas.First figure out how to run the experiment using the least resources as possible. What is the core or essence of your idea that you can prototype quickly? Get that prototype in front of as many people as possible before pursuing it more. Fail fast.
  • Don’t repeat yourself. The same experiment can’t have a different result unless you change the variables. If you experiment with an idea and it doesn’t work, you need to change things up or move onto a new idea. There’s no point doing the same experiment over and over, hoping for something different to happen. If you want a different outcome, you have to change your experiment up a little—refocus for a new audience, try a different medium, or try experimenting with a new idea completely.
Some of my own experiments have led to great results, like selling thousands of copies of a book I’ve written (writing, for me, started as an experiment in creative expression). Some only proved that there wasn’t a market or opportunity for an idea, and several apps I made didn’t sell a single copy. But I keep experimenting with new ideas, always keeping one simple rule in mind:
Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.
— Rule 6, Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules
By framing the side projects I’ve done as experiments, I’ve had both the confidence to pursue them and the ability to judge them less harshly when they didn’t work.

How about you?

What’s your side project? How has it helped you develop new skills?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hel­vetica is not always the answer

Fifty years after the Yves Saint Lau­rent and his part­ner Pierre BergĂ© founded one of the most pres­ti­gious fash­ion houses on the left bank of Paris, and four years after the pass­ing of its founder and name­sake, its ready to wear line is being rebranded. This line will no longer bear the name of its founder, but will bear an updated, mod­ern look, to go with its new, Amer­i­can design stu­dio and its new cre­ative direc­tor, Hedi Silmane.

The his­tory of YSL is an inte­gral part of its brand — its inno­va­tions have helped shape ele­gance and style in ways no other fash­ion house has. YSL was the first fash­ion house to use black mod­els, pop­u­lar­ized sil­hou­ettes inspired by the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and helped glam­or­ize women’s cloth­ing items taken from menswear like pants suits, tuxe­dos, safari style, and leather jack­ets. The French painter Adolph Mouron Cas­san­dre cre­ated the inter­lock­ing “YSL” and word­mark, and it has been the logo for the com­pany since its incep­tion. The cus­tom let­ter­ing is sim­ple, strong, and dis­tinc­tive, veer­ing nei­ther to the fem­i­nine nor mas­cu­line, with an ele­gance that fit its place in fashion’s history.

Hedi Sil­mane has made quite a few waves as the company’s cre­ative direc­tor. For one, he has moved the com­pany away from Paris and to Los Ange­les, a move that shocked the indus­try. The brand’s French roots are part of its her­itage and appeal, so it’s not dif­fi­cult to under­stand why the move elicited such a reac­tion. The new rebrand­ing fur­ther divorces the brand from its French foun­da­tion and story, mov­ing away from both “Yves Saint Lau­rent” and “Saint Lau­rent Rive Gauche” with its new name. The two-​​word, stark, white-​​on-​​black, mod­i­fied Hel­vetica word­mark resem­bles the logos of very Amer­i­can brands such as Alexan­der Wang, Marc Jacobs, or Proenza Schouler. No longer does it evoke the pres­tige of its ground-​​breaking founder, nor does it carry the heft of its sto­ried successes.

Per­haps leav­ing that weighty rep­u­ta­tion behind will allow Sil­mane to cre­ate firsts of his own for the brand, but I’m not sure that this rebrand­ing will be able to reach the same iconic level as the inter­lock­ing YSL. With its easy-​​to-​​read for­mat, inof­fen­sive lines, its busi­nesslike air, its function-​​over-​​form, Hel­vetica was just not the right font for the inno­va­tions and cutting-​​edge fash­ion we hope to see from Sil­mane. It’s also too omnipresent in this time and place, draw­ing more on acces­si­bil­ity (which its fel­low users of Hel­vetica such as Tar­get, Amer­i­can Apparel, and JCPenny have made a part of their brand) than the aspi­ra­tional qual­ity we’ve come to asso­ciate with fash­ion houses like YSL, Dior, Chanel. The full details of the rebrand­ing will be revealed this fall, but I will con­sider it a mis­take if Sil­mane makes so much of this brand­ing new that it loses its ties to YSL’s history.

What do you think of the new logo? In what direc­tion do you think YSL is headed?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wonderland. A short documentary on creative commerce.

“In Spring 2013 we set out for a month to make a short educational piece providing a glimpse of what it is like to work in the creative industry. The idea was born out of our own questions and struggles on how to deal with things that may seem out of your control.”
An insightful look into the minds of creative professionals.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Is This The Future of The Airline Website?

I always wanted to recreate the online travel experience. FI did just that with exceptional results. check it out. Exciting stuff!

Read more here

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

97-Year-Old Grandpa Creates Incredible Art Using MS Paint

By Erwan Xiao, 24 Jul 2013

97-year-old Hal Lakso is proof that anyone can create something great, no matter the limitations. Also known as 'Grandpa', Lakso creates incredible art using Microsoft Paint on Windows 95. He was first introduced to the software by his family, long after he retired. Lakso, a former graphic designer, draftsman in the Army and typographer, now suffers from severely impaired vision. However, the ability to magnify on his computer has allowed him to spend up to ten hours a day working on his digital paintings.
His work, described as a “collision of pointillism and 8-Bit art”, has recently been on show in an art exhibition. Prints of his work can also be bought on his website.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I was going through my hard drive and found this pattern I designed a while back. I thought I'd share it. Loving the color scheme - which is part of my branding. Vibrant red yeah!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Art of Guerilla Usability Testing

The post The Art of Guerilla Usability Testing appeared first on UX Booth.

Guerrilla usability testing is a powerful technique. Designer Martin Belam describes it as “the art of pouncing on lone people in cafes and public spaces, [then] quickly filming them whilst they use a website for a couple of minutes.” Let’s skip the pouncing part and instead focus on its subtleties, including how to obtain and share feedback with our team.

I recently worked on a quickstart project in which my team was asked to build a responsive website in a short amount of time. We were given very little time to code (let alone conduct research) for the endeavor, yet by employing guerilla usability testing along the way we collected feedback on the brand position. Eventually, we aligned our designs to both customer expectations and business goals.

Once a week throughout the project, we tested different kinds of prototypes to bring the business’s ideas to life. For example, while mid-development, we sketched a mobile version of the site on index cards and did a quick assessment. This revealed navigational problems (which guided us to rethink a key point in the customer journey) and even ended up shaping a bit of the brand’s media material. What’s more, guerilla usability testing opened our stakeholders’ eyes so that they challenged their own, innate assumptions about “the user.”

We iterated through our design ideas using lo-fi techniques like paper prototyping. Sketch by Chris Cheshire.
The bottom line? Guerilla usability testing presented itself as an easy-to-perform technique for refining the user experience. It helped us validate (and invalidate) critical assumptions at cheap cost and with rapid speed.

Breaking it down

It’s hard to see the magic that guerrilla usability testing affords and not want in on the action, right? Here are some basic questions to consider before getting started:
  1. What shall we test?
  2. Where will we test?
  3. With whom will we test? and, of course,
  4. How will we test?

What shall we test?

One of the best parts about this kind of testing is that it can be done with almost anything, from concepts drawn on the back of napkins to fully functioning prototypes. Steve Krug recommends testing things earlier than we think we should and I agree – get out of the building as soon as possible.

Test what the product could be so as to shape what the product should be. Even loosely defined UI sketches can be a great way to evaluate a future product. In fact, recent research shows that lower-fidelity prototypes can be more valuable concerning both high and low-level user interactions.

Where do we test?

Where we conduct tests affects how we perform and document our work. For instance, if we’re testing a new mobile app for a retail chain, we might go to the store itself and walk the aisles; if we’re working on “general” office software, we might test it with coworkers in a different part of the office; etc. The point is: let context drive the work.

With whom do we test?

When designing for the mass market, it’s easy enough to ask friendly looking strangers if they have a couple minutes to spare. Public spaces and shopping centers present some of the best places to do this on account of the sheer amount of foot traffic they receive (as well the relaxed nature of the environment). With more specific user sets, however, it’s useful to target subjects based on their context (see above): a mixture of location and behavior.
Coffeeshops are great because you’ll often find test subjects from varying cultural backgrounds and different age ranges.

How do we test?

Testing is fairly straightforward: have participants talk aloud as they perform tasks. Use the think-aloud protocol to test overall product comprehension rather than basic task completion. The key is to watch customers fiddle with a product and silently evaluate its usability. As Sarah Harrison explains, “Observing users is like flossing–people know they’re supposed to do it every day, but they don’t. So just do it. It’s not a big deal.”
Always start with open-ended, non-leading questions like:
  1. What do you make of this?
  2. What would you do here?
  3. How would you do [that]?
By answering these kinds of questions, participants tell a loose story in which they explain how they perceive a product. Along the way, we can generate ideas for how to improve things in the next iteration.

Employing the technique

Guerrilla usability testing is very much about adapting to the situation. That said, here are some helpful hints that I find consistently work in different international contexts:
  1. Beware the implicit bias. While coffeeshops are a great place to find test participants, focusing on people who frequent them introduces bias to our work. Simply acknowledging this implicit bias can help designers neutralise subjective experiences and account for individual differences. Remember to target different genders and be fair in who you approach.
  2. Explain what’s going on. Designers should be honest about who we are, why we’re testing, and what sort of feedback we’re looking to receive. Oftentimes, it’s best to do this with a release form, so that people are fully aware of the implications of their participation – like if it’s going to just be used internally versus shared globally at conferences. These sort of release forms, while tedious to carry around, help establish trust.
  3. Be ethical. Of course, being honest doesn’t mean we need to be fully transparent. Sometimes it’s useful to skip certain information, like if we worked on the product they’re testing. Alternatively, we might tell white lies about the purpose of a study. Just make sure to always tell the truth at the end of each session: trust is essential to successful collaboration.
  4. Make it casual. Lighten up tests by offering cups of coffee and/or meals in exchange for people’s time. Standing in line or ordering with a test subject is a great opportunity to ask questions about their lifestyle and get a better feel for how a test might go.
  5. Be participatory. Break down barriers by getting people involved: ask them to draw – on a napkin or piece of notebook paper, for example – what they might expect to see on the third or fourth screen of a UI flow. This doesn’t have to be a full-blown user interface necessarily, just a rough concept of what’s in their head. You never know what you’ll learn by fostering imagination.
  6. Don’t lead participants. When you sense confusion, ask people what’s going through their head. Open them up by prodding, saying “I don’t know. What do you think?”. People in testing situations often can feel as though they are being tested (as opposed to the product itself), and therefore can start to apologise or shut down.
  7. Keep your eyes peeled. It’s important to encapsulate passing thoughts for later analysis. Ethnographic observation is one good way to capture what you were thinking of during tests. Don’t get too hung up about formalised notes though, most of the time your scribbles will work just fine. It’s about triggering memories, not showing it off at an academic conference.
  8. Capture the feedback. A key part of any testing process is capturing what we’ve learned. While the way in which we do this is definitely a personal choice, there are a few preferred tools available: apps like Silverback or UX Recorder collect screen activity along with a test subject’s facial reaction. Other researchers build their own mobile rigs. The important part to remember here is to use tools that fit your future sharing needs.
  9. Be a timecop. Remember, this isn’t a usability lab with paid users. Be mindful of how much time you spend with test subjects and always remind them that they can leave at any point during the test. The last thing you’d want is a grumpy user skewing your feedback.

Sharing the feedback

Conducting the tests is only half the battle, of course. To deliver compelling and relevant results from guerilla usability tests, designers need to strategically decide how we’ll share our findings with our colleagues.

When analysing and preparing captured feedback, always consider your audience. The best feedback is the kind that understands stakeholders and kickstarts important conversations between them. For example, developers who need to evaluate bugs will have different needs than executives who want to prioritise new features.
Next, when delivering feedback, align it with your audience’s expectations. Try editing clips in iMovie or making slides in PowerPoint. Your co-workers are probably as busy as you, so an edited down “trailer” that highlights relevant results or a bullet-point summary along with powerful quotes is always a good method to keep people listening.

Go guerilla

At the end of the day, guerilla usability testing comes in many forms. There’s no perfection to the art. It is unashamedly and unapologetically impromptu. Consider making up your own approach as you go: learn by doing.
Note: Thanks to Andrew for providing lots of feedback on early drafts of this article.

Related reading

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Advice from a former Apple director who coined the term ‘user experience’

June 6, 2013  |  by Taylor Soper

Having worked on Apple’s User Interface Technologies and introducing the term “user experience” to company execs in the early 90s, Mitch Stein knows a thing or two about how humans interact with computers.

“The term ‘user experience’ is more than just aesthetics to me,” Stein said. “We have relationships with our technology. User experience is not just eye candy — it promotes a positive relationship between humans and technology.”

Stein spoke earlier this week at the Hacker News Meetup in Seattle, sharing insight from his time Apple, where he managed key portions of five OS releases and projects like Finder, Installer and Chooser. Stein also spearhead numerous UI and architectural innovations at places like IBM, Adobe and Oracle.

“I like to work where the atoms meet the bits, where real world and technology meet,” he said. Here’s a few tips from Stein, whose InfoPortal Prototype was once featured at the “Workspheres” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Know the creative cycle: Assimilate, Innovate, Iterate
“This is key. First, assimilate: You don’t ask the user what they want — you go out and live with them and literally become the user. You do it with a wide-angle lens. You do it not just to tackle the problem you think you’re solving —you need to understand the culture they live in, what motivates them, that sort of stuff. I know that sounds touchy feel-y, but it really works. 
Once you have that, you go back and take everything else into consideration: business, competition, materials, make vs. buy decisions, potential partnership opportunities. At this point, you can start innovating. That’s where the magic happens. 
Once you do all that, you damn well better go back and show the folks and see if they go “wow, that’s cool,” or not. That’s the iteration phase. Then, like the shampoo bottle says, it’s lather, rinse, repeat. Everything is a cycle.”

Failure isn’t an option — it’s a requirement. The trick is to fail faster and learn from it.
“Failing is required. The two most dangerous people in the world are those who have nothing to lose and those who have one big success and think they are hot shit and they can do no wrong. I respect people with multiple successes. Those people are open-minded and have learned from their failures. 
In a company where failure is not tolerated, the innovators and people willing to take risks get frustrated or fired. People who are left are just afraid of their own shadow and they cannot do anything but incremental progress because they are too scared. Actually, at one point, one of the companies I was at had monthly parties called “Fail Party.” We would make fun of and celebrate the kind of people that had the guts to do stuff. It was to show everyone that as long as you learn from your mistakes and get benefit from it — even if it’s to learn that you shouldn’t do anything like that in the future — that’s totally acceptable.”

Key UX areas of focus and important traits of excellent UX practitioners  

Stein’s top UX areas of focus:
  • Personalization
  • Cognitive resonance (sense of place)
  • Context
  • Scalability
  • Assistance
  • Integrated Information Access
Stein’s most important traits of excellent UX practitioners:
  • Empathy
  • Diverse experience and interests (empowers associative thinking)
  • Ability to deal with uncertainty and managing risk (not avoiding it)
  • Profound laziness
  • Balance of confidence and open-mindedness 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

How I love Marks & Spencer!

Check out the beautiful tea packaging.