Book Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

When I am teaching art to kids, they frequently ask me “Is this right?” or “Is it done?” or “How do I know if it’s good?”. My answer to them is always the same – you’re the artist, you tell me. Only the artist can know when art is done, and only the artist’s heart knows when it’s right. The kids usually react one of two ways – they’re either relieved to have complete freedom, or they’re horrified at the lack of judgement.  I can tell a lot about the kids and about their parents, by those reactions.

User experience isn’t quite the same. It isn’t art.  It’s right when it’s easy, it’s never done, and it’s good if the users are delighted at the end, and if the business wins too. I like to say that UX is 50% science and 50% art, but it’s probably more 75/25.  We user experience designers rarely experience artistic freedom because we are not serving ourselves.

At the same time, it is the UX person’s job to become as expert in the field as possible, so that they can make split-second decisions. Companies, especially those who haven’t had a UX person before, are very critical of a UX person who isn’t right with these split-second decisions.

This is where Malcom Gladwell’s Blink comes in.  Blink talks about the difference between conscious deliberation – the gathering of data, weighing and analyzing, and then choosing a course of action – and instinctive judgement.  Gladwell explains that instinctive judgement can be much, much more powerful in the right circumstances and coming from the right person.

As UX designers, when we’re called on to quickly decide whether a form field should be a dropdown or radio buttons (both valid choices for most circumstances) our subconscious processes a million pieces of experience stored in our supercomputer noggins, and spits out an answer.  Gladwell says this is a great use of instinct – it’s that primal reflex built into us since the dawn of time.  We look like we’re pulling it out of thin air, but in reality we have processed this and our split judgement has an answer at the ready.  This is “thinking without thinking” in Gladwell’s world.

However, the business world has taught us not to trust ourselves.  We second-guess, we think everything needs deep analysis, and we don’t know how to explain our instincts.  So we back up and question our experience, and this leads us to either 1) go with a HiPPO’s snap judgement, which they trust more than we trust ourselves or 2) wind up in analysis paralysis, working on a project for 3 months that should take 2 weeks.

I’ve been there. Gladwell describes a ton of other people who have been there too.  Careers are won or lost on the ability to trust snap judgements. Industries are built around the snap judgements of experts.

In Blink, we are shown through anecdotes and real-world examples just how amazing the instincts of experts can be. There’s a strong distinction there:  Gladwell is clear that you must be an expert in your field before your instincts are to be trusted. No one would ever ask me to make an intuitive diagnosis of a car problem, and I would never ask a sign language interpreter to choose the best interface for building engagement.

Gladwell also goes into the need for deeper analysis and examination of data.  He says that instinctive judgement should not be the only thing relied on.  It should be a data point. His contention is that, unlike what we have all been trained to believe, instinct is as strong a data point as data is.

I recommend this book for anyone who has ever questioned their instincts, and that’s all of us.  It’s good at reinforcing the lost confidence in our mind’s subconscious processing power.  And it will reinforce to you that it’s ok to put that problem down, walk away, and do something else while you let the wetware in your head work out the solution for you.

Blink was published in 2005 and is available on Amazon in just about every format.

Today’s Interesting Link:

CSS3 Animation Cheat Sheet – I love this, it’s so clear and beautiful and it’s fun at the same time.  It’s the perfect example of what a cheat sheet should be.  It shows you examples of all of the CSS3 animations and if you like it, you can just add their stylesheet to your work and boom! You can call them by name.  Saves time if you want it to, or gives you inspiration.  You choose.  😀

 Today’s Usability Quote:

The key to good decision making its not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter. – Malcolm Gladwell

Today’s Music To Design To:

Vicious Delicious by the Infected Mushrooms.  I’m pretty sure this is good for just about everything, because the Infected Mushrooms are energetic, electronic, melodic and evocative. it makes you want to dance, so don’t blame me if you find yourself swaying and bopping in your chair.


Don’t make your users repeat themselves

There are basic principles and pillars that make an app usable. The very most basic is “Follow standard practices whenever possible.” Directly following that, I think, is:

Don’t ever make your users enter the same piece of information twice.

Image from

We live in the digital age of computers. One of the primary functions of computers is REMEMBERING things. If a user has ever entered something, you should remember it and carry it with them, across pages, across functions, even across applications if need be. If you want to be successful, you should be customer focused. If you are customer focused, the value proposition of saving information for a user and prepopulating forms or shortening workflows for them is fairly evident.

We have all had the experience of having to fill paper forms out in triplicate for government organizations. We’ve also had the experience from the meme above and been impatient.  Why would you put that on your users, when a few lines of code can avoid it?

I once worked for a fortune 500 company where 12 different applications (And a team of 5 people working in tandem) were required to order a single product. The tools were all built by different teams in the company, with different backends and different data output. They didn’t share data between themselves, so at each step, the user would be required to export data and then (in the best case) import it to the next tool.  Sometimes the user had to enter the data manually, and they would literally print it out and set it next to their monitor so they could type it in exactly the same.  I am not kidding you.

Probably, you’re not doing anything quite that bad.  If you are, hang your head in shame, and then fix it.

But you might be asking them for their name in one place, and then for first name and last name somewhere else.  Parse that bad boy out.  Maybe your phone system uses the phone number to look up the customer to see what tier of support they qualify for.  Then make sure your CRM is tied into the phone system so that when the customer is routed to the appropriate representative, that rep has the customer’s info and doesn’t have to ask for it again.

Google’s autocomplete is a prime example of this principle in action.  When you’re typing a search into the form, Google will autocomplete first with things you’ve searched for before, then with the most likely guess.  This is also one reason that Facebook sign ins are so popular – you use Facebook to sign up for a site and your info is there without you having to enter it in the new site. It’s like magic!

In the end, remembering things is probably one of the easiest tasks you can ask your software to do.  As users become more comfortable with computer interfaces, they will begin to expect this basic courtesy, as surely as we expect someone to respond “hello” when we greet them.

Today’s Interesting Link:

SVGeneration – This site is so much fun your head might explode. It’s got a ton of wonderful, tiled backgrounds that you can customize and then generate as SVG files. Go ahead, try not to get addicted. You’re welcome.

 Today’s Usability Quote:

It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.  – Thomas Sowell

Today’s Music To Design To:

Silent Shout, by the Knife. With a mysterious, slightly dark groove, this is synthesizer-based music that manages to be futuristic and uplifting and tickles your creative bones in all the right places.  The vocals even have that sort of airy but ominous feeling that lives somewhere between german synth pop and Lords of Acid.  Seriously, it’s worth a listen.