Artistic Freedom is Bull$#!+

Streetlights in fog

Streetlights in fog

The other day, a wonderfully well-intentioned developer said to me, “Designers shouldn’t be limited artistically. If designers are thinking about how we write code they’ll be less creative and they won’t have artistic freedom to make the best designs.”

Bless his beautiful heart, he’s wrong.

Let me just put this here, in case I haven’t said it enough times. UX Design is NOT art. User experience designers are often artists, but the concept that they need or should have artistic freedom is completely invalid. Let’s examine.

1.  Art is an expression of your vision.  User Experiences are not about YOUR vision, they’re about your users’ needs.

You have to be willing to put your own preferences aside as much as possible and cater to the audience. Otherwise, people won’t use your product.  And what’s the point in a product no one uses?  To be indelicate, it’s designurbation.

Let’s face it – we all have side projects.  Hobbies, personal sites, etc. Those are the place, arguably, to practice artistic freedom. Not on your poor users and developers.

2. UX design is science, and subject to being tested and measured. 

It’s not really artistic freedom anyways, if the metrics say that my arbitrary giant green text with the lovely fading background doesn’t convert. Metrics are king, after all, and to be a professional designer you need to submit to the measurement of and subsequent improvement on your work.

3. Users don’t notice most of the incredibly subtle things that designers are passionate about.

I have never seen a non-design user ask for greater text kerning, or wish that line were one pixel wide instead of three.  They just don’t care. It’s arrogant to think that one out of ten tiny details is going to make all the difference for the average user.  Now, don’t get me wrong – the aggregate of those ten is what makes the difference and it makes all the difference in the world.  But if for some reason you have to give up one, it’s not the death of aesthetics. It’s just a crack in the china no user is probably ever going to see.

4. Usually a scientifically sound and consistent approach solves the problem as well as, if not better than, a random and arbitrary but beautiful design.

The scientific method, in case you weren’t exposed to this a zillion times in school: Hypothesize, Experiment, Measure, Re-hypothesize, Experiment, Measure, etc.  Beautiful designs might or might not test well with non-designers. More often than not, actually, plain or sometimes even ugly designs win the day. Users like simplicity and clarity and there’s an elegance in plainness that often triumphs. You can’t know unless you test. You can’t win unless you are willing to change your designs to fit the results of the test.

5. Disciplined design is easier for a user to get used to, and creates a subconscious level of trust and enjoyment in the user.

Consistent interfaces are easy to learn. It’s just that simple. So even if you didn’t design the most beautiful perfect charming icon for that action, as long as the ugly button is consistent your users are going to be able to find it and use it.  Probably. Would it be better if it was consistent AND beautiful? Oh yes.  But the consistency thing is the key. And the only way you can have consistency is if you think about EVERYTHING and give it rules.

6. Disciplined design is faster, allowing teams to produce more without reinventing the wheel.

If my dev team knows that my leading will always follow a certain formula, they don’t have to spend time measuring pixels in my psds to see what the line-height will be.  If they know that I am always going to use a certain font, they can code it into base classes and forget about it.  If I always use the same conversion widget, which I’ve tested into and proven works, they will be able to modularize it.  Think of how efficient your teams can be, if you give yourself constraints.

7. Designers need to consider themselves servants, not presenters.

User experience design isn’t about showing off.  That’s why the geniuses aren’t household names – my aunt has never heard of Jony Ive or Dieter Rams or even Luke Wroblewski, that dynamo of UX mastery.  UX is about receiving information and turning it into knowledge, it’s about looking at the complex upside down and making it simple.  That’s why we are servants – our whole reason for existing is to get the hell out of the way and facilitate communication between humans and computers.  Not humans and designers and computers; humans and computers.

8. Designers can be happy working within constraints.

Constraints challenge us. Especially when they’re self-imposed, we love them.  Why else would someone decide to build a replica of a church using matchsticks? Why else would LEGO be so popular? Constraints let us stretch our muscles in a way that keeps us from getting lazy and complacent.  They make us THINK, and we’re all thinkers, we UXers.

Summing Up

I’m always wordy. The TL;DR is totally that while User Experience designers should have some freedom of judgement and aesthetic, more than a little is actually harmful to everyone involved. UX is more science than art, and should be approached with the rigor that the scientific method supplies.

Today’s Interesting Link:

Underscores – This is a fantastic framework for wordpress.  Regardless of your opinion of WP as a whole, who doesn’t love a framework generator that leaves you complete control of the look and feel?  It’s a great place to start.

 Today’s Usability Quote:

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein

Today’s Music To Design To:

Lindsey Sterling has a new album – Shatter Me.  It’s fantastic.  I’ve recommended her before, but lately I’ve had Shatter Me playing while I design and it’s total awesomesauce.  Think violin, with a strong electronic beat in the background, and occasional guest vocals that really blend perfectly. This is not your grandma’s violin, and Lindsey is totally not your grandma.  :)


Don’t be the weak link

A while back I wrote about Death By A Thousand Bugs, the slow degradation of user experience that comes from keeping all those little bugs around that are just too small to feel like they’re worth fixing.  There’s another kind of death, death by mediocrity, that I want to save you from today.

Have you ever stopped to think about the difference between a really great product that you love, and its competitors that you don’t love as much?  Odds are, it’s the small details. When a product team has taken the time to think about all the little things, not only does the product feel more polished, it’s easier to use, and it’s a more comfortable environment.  It’s like a house, where your hosts have thought to clean the grime out of the corners in the bathroom.  It’s just NICE.  The details matter.

What are details?  


From the corner radius on your rounded boxes, to the color of your dropshadows, to the way things respond when you click them, to the thoughtful predictions of user intent, there is no end to detail. I can’t list every detail of an application because they are truly, infinite.  Apple is a master of the details, though even they don’t think of every single one. Google, I’m sorry to say (as a very loyal user of their products) is not good at details in its UI.

Learn how to break things down.  There’s the normal view:  “Oh, it’s a page with a body, an aside, some ads and a call to action button”.  Then there’s the next level of attention:  “The body is 2/3 of the page and the aside is 1/3 on the left.  They are separated from each other by a colored border.  The ads all have borders and a label.”  Then there’s the next level: “Everything but the content responds when I mouse over it.  As I scroll new things appear.  All the borders are 1px.  Everything actionable has a drop shadow.”  And then you get really into the nitty gritty “The shadows are dark green instead of black.  There is a darker shadow on the most important thing.  Things that are meant to guide my attention are tilted at a 15 degree angle” etc.

This is, of course, a vastly simplified example.  But it’s important to see the progression – it’s like zooming in with a microscope on every single little element of every screen.  I like to start at the top and work left to right, top to bottom, but you can find your own method.  Think about the very atoms of what you’re looking at – and while you’re at it do your users a favor and ask if it really needs to be there.

Whose job is it to keep track of all the little details?

I can’t think a single person in a product team who shouldn’t be thinking of details.  There’s probably a funnel, with the product manager and designers thinking of the most details, but every person, from project manager to developer to QA engineer should be paying attention to these things and talking about them with the rest of the team.  If  designer misses the idea of putting helpful mouseover text on the icons, the janitor should be able to point it out and suggest it.  If the engineer notices that it would be neat if the eyes on the icon critter closed when the product wasn’t in use, they should be able to suggest it or even just build it.  How much you empower the people outside the “planning and design”  functionalities of the project is up to you.

I’d like to say that the product manager and designer should think of every detail, because detail is their job.  However, no one, two or ten human beings can think of an infinite number of things and I’ve already pointed out that details are infinite.  Even Apple misses things.  So the product manager should do their best and they should deputize every other member of the company to do the same.

You’ll find that certain people are really good at finding certain kinds of detail.  I’m really great at noticing visual design and interaction details, but I’m not always awesome at data details or QA details.  Because I like to set up tight all-way communications in my teams, I usually get the feedback that I missed a certain browser or resolution when I was QAing, and I actually keep a checklist.  Know where you’re strong, and offer that up to the team.  Know where you’re weak and find a workaround, whether that means trusting someone else to be strong there or making checklists or creating mnemonics or whatever works for you.

The user experience of your product is only as good as the least detail-oriented person working on it. Don’t be that person.

How can I train myself to think of details when I’m busy crafting the big picture?

That’s the easiest part.  There are some great blogs out there – one of my favorites is Little Big Details – and you can subscribe to them.  They only take a second to read each day, but they’ll change how you view the world.  While that’s happening, you can start asking yourself why all the time.  Why am I doing it this way?  Why do I like that?  Why did they do that?  Why should we do this?  You’ll start finding that the critical thinking will really improve your appreciation of everything you do, but it’ll also improve your understanding.  As a side effect, it’ll also increase your frustration with the world “Why did Safeway require me to choose payment method on the self-checkout screen and then again on the card reader screen?”.

Every time you see something you like, think about whether there’s an equivalent for your product.  Maybe the texture on the dashboard of my Prius (one of the many details that makes me love the car) inspires me to use a texture in the background screens of my app, just to make it feel more tangible or evoke a subconscious association.  Nothing in the world should NOT inspire you.

This doesn’t mean you have to stop thinking of things holistically.  It just means you need to become a more flexible human being.

When should we start fine-tuning details?

This is a prickly question, because details can mean scope bloat and creep if you’re not careful. It can lead to analysis paralysis if you don’t practice pragmatism and prioritize well.

Start thinking about your details from the very first moment you conceive of a project.  Carry over details from previous projects that you’ve already thought of and implemented. Bring in the dreams of idealism.  Polish starts from the very first second, as you build a smooth surface to buff later.

As you move through the production process, details get more and more expensive to design and implement.  Too much, too late, and you have experience rot before the product even goes live.  So try to make fine-tuning a part of your DNA.

If you’re willing, empower your developers to just Make It.  I’ve worked with some great developers who knew that thing could pulse when you mouse over it, and I happened not to think of it.  They just did it, and showed me, and I jumped up and down with delight.  Just remember to encourage communication loops; surprises are a bad thing.

If you have a deadline, or if you are on an agile schedule, treat the details like a constant improvement.  Do as many as you can before you push, and then queue up a list of new things.  Always be adding to the list, always be improving.  I’m an Agile fan, so this comes easy to us.  Waterfall shops will have a little more trouble with that, since it’s often “get it perfect before you hand it off and then don’t even think of changing it”.  However, even in a waterfall world, you can build relationships with the people downstream and upstream, and make judgement calls.  What doesn’t increase scope too much goes in, what does goes on a list for the next rev.

Get started today

Go.  Go now, my child!  Look at your website, your app, your product. Break it down to every atom of form and function. Find a friend who’s anal-retentive and ask them to do the same thing. Find someone who’s good at describing things and ask them to describe to you how it looks, how it feels, how it behaves. And then make EVERYTHING better.

You can do it, I believe in you.

Today’s Interesting Link: – Random is hard.  Like really, mathematically hard.  Let these guys do it for you.  They have so many fun toys, that you’ll find excuses for being random all the time. And that can’t be a bad thing.

 Today’s Usability Quote:

 “If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.” – David Ogilvy on writing, but fits design

Today’s Music To Design To:

Cirque Du Soleil has so many good options.  However, Dralion has everything I love – haunting vocals, varied tempos, and a wonderful mixture of exotic and familiar.  You can’t go wrong with Cirque, and maybe it’ll even inspire you to get out of the office and go see them.  :)

Dominate the Market, Not Your Users

PHoto of an orchidI work a lot in web application design. I also live in the bay area of California, so I’m surrounded by creative, colorful people and subcultures. So, every time I see a Submit button on a form, I twitch a little bit.

Let’s talk about language here. Language is the primary communication method we humans use. Secondary to language are visual cues, like “body language” in-person, color in visual medium, and audial cues like sound effects. Language is really freakin’ important when we want to get a point across, sell something, or build relationships.

Pay attention, lead generation and conversion designers and product managers. This is MOST crucial to you.

What is a user interface but a relationship between your company and all of its customers? Because of this, every single word in your interface is critical. Every single word builds your brand. So why, then, are so many great companies using the word “Submit” in their form buttons?  It’s domineering, vague, and cold. I can only think of a couple of companies that would want to vaguely, coldly dominate their customers and I’m betting yours isn’t one.

As best I can tell, Submit as a button label comes from the very earliest days of the web. When we started being able to write programs that captured user-entered information, and submit them to a server for processing and storage, we labeled the button literally.  It submits information from a source to a destination.  Back then, mostly only techies were doing this stuff, and maybe no one had thought it through from a user perspective. I don’t remember. Sadly, this established a precedent.

Then the WYSIWYG web editors came about, and they codified this behavior by having the default wording when you create a button be “Submit”. A bad habit was born and websites have been whacking their users over the head with it ever since.

Why do you make a form?  Because the user has information and you want the user to give that information to you. Bonus points to you if the user is highly motivated to give you that information – that makes your job easier. But after overcoming all their objections in order to get them to type stuff into fields on a page, you have a golden opportunity to build your brand, reinforce the message that got them to fill out the form, or reassure them about what will happen to their data.

Instead of saying “Submit to us, you dastardly supplicant!”, why don’t you say something descriptive and friendly like this:

  • Get your free account
  • Download your package
  • Buy now/Add to Cart/ Get One
  • Send to our secure servers
  • Preview your awesome thing
    or even just
  • Finish (if you absolutely can’t find something to convey the value they’re about to get when they click)

If you are using Submit buttons in your interface, you’re insulting your users, either by dominating them or by not caring enough about them to think through the little details. So spend the extra thirty seconds to think of a good button label – it’ll pay off in conversions, user loyalty and goodwill.

Today’s Interesting Link: – This is  one of my favorite websites to send people to when they say they’re interested in typography.  It gives you a font, and lets you choose fonts that pair well with it, then “send them on a date” to see if they’re compatible. At the end it explains why you were or weren’t right, and in the process of playing a game you learn more about typography than you would sitting through a class.

 Today’s Usability Quote:

 “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”  – Henry Ford

Today’s Music To Design To:

Halou has an album called We Only Love You, and I love it. It’s got energetic, creative beats and soundscapes, with airy vocals and sweet lyrics. It’s just ambient enough to serve as background music, or you can crank it up and let it drive you to design with circles and whitespace, crisp details and elegant simplicity.

Giving Feedback Without Your Ego

I often speak on the proper technique for giving and receiving critique, and the value of doing so.  As a writer and as a designer, I have occasion to be on both sides of that equation daily.  I am not exaggerating when I say that it’s a critical skill for any professional.

Why then, is it the case that so often when I see people ask for feedback, it seems like the majority of responses are snarky, unconstructive and poorly formed? It wastes the time of the person requesting feedback by not actually providing them any actionable data, and it wastes the time of the person giving the feedback, because they’re not winning brownie points, looking knowledgeable, or participating in a discussion which can  help them grow.

Let’s take this out of the realm of generalities and draw some specific examples.

There’s a great website called  They have such a wonderful concept.  They provide tools, some free and some low-cost, for you to do quick-and-dirty user testing.  One of my favorites is the Five Second Test.  I use this test regularly with my real users, but when in a pinch it’s wonderful to be able to put a design up on their website, have people look at it, and provide their impressions after viewing for five seconds.  Or it would be, if the audience weren’t comprised completely of other designers, who are just participating in these reviews so that they can get credits toward running their own tests.  90% of the feedback I get on the tests I run is snarky, unspecific and has nothing to do with the design.

As a second example, John Nack of Adobe recently wrote a post asking for feedback on an experimental interface.  I was one of the first to comment, and I gave what I hope is a constructive and useful critique.  I was really interested to see what other viewpoints might be out there, so I subscribed to the comments on that post.  And I was shocked.  Despite a friendly readership, the majority of the comments on the post are caustic, sarcastic, and non-specific.

Perhaps these posters are busy posturing, like puffed up walruses, and they’re not thinking about the fact that this is a valuable chance to interact with and learn from their peers.  They’re participating in some imagined primordial dominance contest  Or, perhaps they have forgotten the value of critique, both to the giver and the receiver, which they were almost certainly taught in design school.

Let’s all remember: A properly formatted critique benefits the person whose work is being evaluated by pointing out things that are not necessarily obvious to the designer/artist, and by providing a different perspective and potentially new ideas.  It benefits the person critiquing the work because it may point out tendencies or habits they have themselves, it may open a new and inspiring dialogue with a worthy colleague, and it may bring to light whole new design philosophies or techniques.  And don’t discount the value of networking – open dialogue with people who do what you do not only lets you learn to do your job better, it opens up doors to new jobs in the future. I love to recommend people who have shown me how good they are, and how easy they are to work with.  Everyone wins when there’s a good critique, and nobody loses.

For posterity, a good critique goes like this:

  1. The critiquer carefully examines the work.
  2. Critiquer starts on a positive note, by praising something.
  3. Next, (optional) is an overall impression of the work.
  4. Critiquer asks questions about the reasoning behind anything he/she doesn’t like.
  5. Followed by at least 3 actionable things to improve.  Note, I’m not saying “point out three problems”. I’m saying “point out three things to improve”. It’s a positive, constructive thing.
  6. Followed by at least 3 things that are great and shouldn’t be changed.
  7. Critiquer finishes with an optional recap of the overall impression.
  8. The artist listens silently, only answering questions, until the critique is done.
  9. The artist thanks the critiquer, and can discuss improvements as long as they’re not attempting to defend their work.  I use the rule that you can’t say no.  Even if you’re thinking no, you never say it or imply it because the point is to receive and internalize, not to debate.

As a design community, and I mean this inclusive of pretty much the whole planet, let’s spread the word of the constructive critique.  Speak up, constructively, to the people you see wasting everyone’s time.  Remind yourself to give and receive regularly. And let’s all try to leave our egos at the door.

Today’s Interesting Link: is a delightful blog in which artist Jessica Hagy publishes simple, insightful and funny drawings on 3×5 cards every day.  These drawings are almost exclusively graphs and venn diagrams, which often combine unexpected things to make a wry and useful point.  It’s the perfect example of “a picture is worth a thousand words” and I subscribe to it as design inspiration.

Today’s Usability Quote:

“The brainstorming muscle can get rusty just like anything else.  You get lost in operational realities.” – David Blakely, Director of Technology Strategy at IDEO

Today’s Music To Design To:

The Art of Noise.  Anything the Art of Noise does, really.  It’s ambient enough to be distracting, while energetic enough to keep your mind focused. Also, the variety of instruments, samples and sounds they use really lends itself to creating things from other things – I don’t know why.  I love derivative work, and Art of Noise is my go-to music for derivative work.


What you need to know, to be a UI Designer

Clearly, it is holiday time

Clearly, it is holiday time as I write this.

Not too long ago, jiatelin5 asked in a comment what books and lessons I recommend for brand new UI designers.  Since I get this question a lot, I thought I’d make it a post.

Becoming a UI designer is a lifelong process.  I’ve been doing it for 16 years and I’m still learning.  You need to have some soft skills, which I’ve described in a previous post.  In addition to these, you need to be very good at communicating, and you also need to have some technical and artistic skills.

The very minimum

  1. Learn HTML & CSS.  If you don’t understand how web pages work and how they are built, you can’t possibly hope to design them.  My very favorite resource for this is Code Academy, but there are also good books out there – don’t be afraid to buy the latest edition of HTML for Dummies.
  2. Learn Photoshop.  There are plenty of design applications out there, but if you only ever learn one, learn this one.  The reason: once you can use Photoshop, you can use any of them.  The bonus reason:  employers will search for this skill in your resume, and if they don’t see that you know Photoshop, they might not even consider you regardless of what you do know.  All the photoshop books and tutorials have their benefits, but feel free to check out Photoshop for Dummies – pick the edition that matches whatever version of Photoshop you can get your hands on.
    There is a great forum on the adobe website set up just for Photoshop newbie questions – check it out.
  3. Learn basic typography.  There are a lot of great articles for this, and some of my favorites are from Design FestivalSmashing Magazine, PSD Tuts and 24 Ways,   There are a lot of great books out there for typography too – start with The Elements of Typographic Style and move on to whatever holds your interest from there.
    The 24 Ways link above is particularly important because you need to understand vertical rhythm in order to design sites that make users comfortable.
  4. Learn basic color theory.  Unless you intend to be designing in black and white forever, you’ll need to understand when and why to use color.  Check out these articles: Color Theory For Web Designers,  Basic Color Theory.  Ignore anything you see about what colors mean because they will differ for each culture and demographic.  Red means one thing to the chinese, another entirely to americans.  It means one thing to older americans and another to teenaged americans.  So just forget all that temporarily.  Read The Principals of Beautiful Web Design.
  5. Learn about layout.  This is something you’re probably going to get instinctively, or never really get at all – but there are a lot of articles and books about it so even if you get it instinctively you need to read them to be able to explain yourself and make wise choices.  Start by researching Responsive Web Design and follow it wherever you want.  As long as you start understanding layouts from the responsive web design standpoint, you’ll be fine. Interactive Media Center has a pretty good approach to layout, although the site is a little dated.
  6. Get a feeling for producing UX deliverables.  At the very minimum, every UI designer needs to know how to make good wireframes, low-fidelity mockups and high-fidelity mockups.  Depending on where you go to work, you might also have to write styleguides or work from them, write specs or PRDs, or build prototypes.  Don’t just follow my links – google all these terms and read everything you can.  You’ll develop your own style and that’s just fine.  It’s awesome, actually.
  7. Learn about usability evaluation methods.  Even if you work in an organization where someone else does the research, you need to understand methodologies, when to use which one, and how to understand whether you’re making good designs.  It’s good to do customer requirement gathering before you start your design, and then evaluate your design afterwards – even if you’re just using budget, quick or halfhearted methods.  You can’t design in a vacuum unless you’re designing something only you will use.  Read Don’t Make Me Think and Website Usability: A Designer’s Guide and then keep reading other books that those books recommend.
  8. Learn the best practices for web design. Again there are hundreds of good resources, but my favorites are Smashing Magazine,  Jakob Nielsen (even though he’s controversial),  Bruce Tognazinni,  and Designmodo.  Subscribe to blogs and read them every single day.  Best practices evolve, so you need to keep up with the latest research.
  9. Understand the difference between designing web sites, web applications, mobile applications, desktop applications and experiences.  This could be a whole blog post of its own, so my recommendation to you is to google all of the above and come to deeply grok the differences.

Please keep in mind that this is just your basic “get an internship” level of learning.  You need to register for conferences, and get out there working and learn more.  If you can find an undergraduate program at a college, go for it.  Otherwise, look into cognitive psychology, computer science, and design courses.  If you have your baccalaureate already, see if your local college has an HCI or CHI or UCD program.

Good luck to you.  It’s a tough profession, but the world needs more of us.

Today’s Interesting Link: – I heart this page so much.  It’s MOST useful for the freelance or agency designer, but everything in here is helpful for in-house designers too.  It’s essentially a collection of things you need to explain to your clients, and ideas for how to explain them in friendly, clear ways.   It hasn’t been updated since May 2011 (sad face) but it’s still super awesome.

Today’s Usability Quote:

“Ideas are not so compelling that they just jump off a page.  You have to sell your story.” – David Blakely, Director of Technology Strategy at IDEO

Today’s Music To Design To:

I’m so embarrassed to say this: All of the Twilight movie Soundtracks.  Ok, stop laughing and listen – the movies are awful but the soundtracks are fantastic.  You get everyone from Florence  + the Machine to Bat for Lashes to The Bravery.  The tempo is just right and the songs are just innocuous enough to let you throw your own meanings onto them.  The best one is Eclipse, which I think was the third movie.

So, you want to be a UI Designer?

You’ve been thinking about changing careers? Or evolving your career? You’ve decided to join the glamorous ranks of the rich and famous, all-hallowed User Interface designers.

Oh boy buddy have I got some advice for you! Here are 13 things you’ll need to know to be successful:

  1. Be prepared: Everyone, and their cousin and their dog thinks they can do user interface design.  
    UI design looks easy.  It looks like art and common sense.  And honestly, that’s one small part of it.  However, because it looks easy, everyone you will ever work with will think they can do it better than you.  It’s ok.  Let them try, because sometimes non-designers come up with really neat ideas just because they don’t know what they’re doing.
  2. None of your perfect first-draft designs will ever go live. 
    Being a UI designer means balancing the needs of the user and the needs of the business.  If you’re lucky, you work in a company where this isn’t a big conflict.  But unless you are a one-person company, your designs will need to change to accomodate other peoples’ tastes and needs.  Don’t take this personally.
  3. Some of your designs will totally and royally fail.
    Be glad when this happens.  You aren’t a real designer until you have had a colossal failure.  Seriously.  I won’t hire someone who hasn’t failed.  The lessons it teaches you sting like hell but it makes you so much better.
  4. Pay attention to the small details.
    Every detail is important.  Every pixel counts.  Pay attention to dimensions, fonts, letter spacing, shadow directions – everything.  Look at every bit of every design with a critical eye because each iteration will be subconsciously used to measure your skill and worth to the company.
  5. Do one project, for a non-profit, for free.
    A lot of people out there will jump up and down and tear their hair out when they read this.  There’s a big stink in the creative community about “don’t work for free”.  I say that’s BS.  Pick a non-profit or charity.  Do some design work for them for free.  This gives you a chance to fill out your portfolio, lets you meet really nice people who can recommend you later (and will) and does some good for the world.  Everyone should volunteer.  Don’t listen to the grumpybutts who say you’re devaluing their work by doing yours for free.  One project won’t crash the economy.
  6. Be ready to explain every decision you make.
    You’ll be asked why you made something blue.  Why it’s on the right. Why it’s round.  Have a reason.  Don’t ever make arbitrary decisions.  It’s ok if, occasionally, you say “I can’t really explain it, but it just felt more aesthetically pleasing” – every once in a while.  But MOST of the time, you need to have a valid, logical reason.
  7. Ask yourself WHY often.
    When you finish a design, ask yourself why you made every decision you made.  Why did you make that font blue?  Why is that all caps?  Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” to yourself, but then don’t be afraid to make changes as a result.  If you can’t justify a decision to yourself, it’s not going to hold up for your stakeholders or your users.
  8. Get other opinions.
    You need to become used to being a collaborator.  You’re not a holy artist up on some mountain, working in isolation to create the golden idol of design.  You’re designing something for people to use, so you need to ask people what they think.  I’m not just talking about user testing – I mean ask people if they think that radio buttons are the best way to do that, or if they’ve seen something new and better.
  9. Get ready to lose some battles.
    Sometimes, no matter how right you are, you will get overruled.  When this happens, you have to think: how important is this?  I ask myself how many users will be affected, and how much it will affect the user’s experience.  Is it just not ideal, or is it truly bad?  Go to the mattresses to prevent something from being bad, but consider letting not-ideal go live, and then testing into the ideal design.
  10. Familiarize yourself with standards.
    Computers are confusing and complicated to a lot of people.  Make life easier for them by doing things in a standard way as often as possible.  Make life easier on yourself by using established design patterns.
  11. Make yourself some PSDs and use them.
    I have PSD libraries of widgets and elements I use often.  This is everything from a sample flash message to radio buttons to a grid template for spacing.  They save me immense amounts of time and repetition.
  12. Test like a fiend.
    If you’re ever not sure, test.  If you’re ever sure, test.  No matter how awesome you are, your users will show you that you don’t know as much as you thought you did.  Be humble and be prepared to let your users teach you.
  13.  Don’t take things personally.
    You are not a diva.  You are not special.  You are not granted some gift that others don’t have.  Also, your designs are not YOU.  If someone doesn’t like one of your designs, it’s not because they don’t like you.  Don’t take anything personally.  When you have a bad day, go home and grouse about it, and then let it go.

There are plenty of technical skills you should learn – html, css, javascript – and tons of art concepts to grasp – color theory, composition, balance – but those are all easy to learn. These 13 pieces of advice were hard won with fifteen years of greying hair. They’ll make the difference between a passable designer, and a really great one.

Today’s Glossary Term: 
The glossary term was boring me.  So, I can safely assume it was boring you too.  I’ve decided to stop doing terms, and if you miss them, I’ll be happy to start again.

Today’s Interesting Link: is a great blog that has tips for the working designer.  I love them because they grok the real world, and you should too.

Today’s Usability Quote:
“If something feels inefficient, it IS inefficient” – Jensen Harris

Today’s Music To Design To:
I don’t have an Amazon Affiliate account any more, so I’ll make my recommendations without links for the time being.  Enjoy!
dubnobasswithmyheadman is a fantastic album by Underworld.  It’s energetic, it’s magical, and it sneaks up on you.  You’ll find yourself in that space where you design without any thoughts… it just flows.  And, it’s great for imagining superhero battles in abandoned warehouses.  I’m just sayin’.

User Experience goes beyond your website

From time to time, I find myself inspired to remind a company:  User Experience is the ENTIRE experience your customer has.  It’s not just the clicks and pixels on your website.  It’s how your customer feels that you, as a company, feel about them.

With this in mind, there are a few rules you should follow on your website, even though they might seem counter to your business needs:

1.  Make sure it is easy to contact you by email and phone.  Make sure this contact information is displayed on your home page at LEAST.  Better is that it should be displayed on EVERY page of your website.  Most users will look to the footer of your site, so you can either put the contact info right there (best) or have a “Contact Us” link (not bad).
I know that there’s an objection to this because if you give customers a way to contact you, you’ll have to pay someone to answer emails and phones.  Expenses go up.  However, if you do NOT give customers a way to contact you, they will choose to do business with your competitor who has a prominently displayed 1-800 number.  Trust me on this.
By not giving them a way to speak to you, you are essentially saying “We don’t care what you, the customers, want or have to say.”

2. Make it easy to unsubscribe.  In emails, have the word “unsubscribe” be a link to an instant unsub. Don’t use some funky sentence that beats around the bush but makes marketing people feel comfortable.  Use the word “Unsubscribe”, because that is what users are looking for.
On your website, have an unsubscribe link in your megamenus or your footer.  My rule of thumb is that a completely new user should be able to find the unsub link within three seconds.
The objection to this is that if you make unsubbing easy, your unsub rate will go up.  I won’t lie; it might.  But honestly, the RIGHT way to get unsubs down is to improve your offering.  Make it better, and people won’t even look for the unsub link.
By making unsubscribe hard to find, you are trapping users into a subscription they don’t want.  They will resent your company, which does harm to your brand – and they will either delete your emails without opening, or set up a filter so they never have to see them.  Worst case scenario, they’ll mark you as spam.

3. Don’t make your users pay for basic support.  If they paid for your product, it’s in your best interest to give them basic support for free.  The more they use your product, the more they will want to buy the next version, and the more they will want to  tell their friends about it.  If they have a problem, and you don’t support them, then they will give up on you and tell everyone they know that your app doesn’t work.  This is most especially true in the first week of a user’s acquisition.

3a. A knowledgebase is not enough support.  Unless you are an open source application, then you need more than a knowledgebase.  You should have some version of live chat capability, a support phone number, and a good support ticketing system.  Don’t make your users rely on FAQs and poorly edited form answers to get help.

There are plenty more rules for making sure your customers have a good all-around user experience.  What are some of your favorites?

Today’s Glossary Term: 
Multivariate Testing – Everyone knows that A/B testing is when you show some of your audience one version of a page, and the rest of the audience another version of the page.  This is great for testing drastically different designs to see which one performs better.  Multivariate testing is what you use next – once you pick a design, you start to tweak things.  You will run five, ten, maybe twenty MV tests at once, changing a tiny thing here, a tiny thing there.  It’s a very rigorous, scientific test that allows you to learn that the combination of headline A with button color B and button placement C and image D works best for your audience.

Today’s Interesting Link: is a fascinating look at A/B tests and what did better.  The author of this blog has a great understanding of the fact that every audience reacts to things in a unique way, and there’s no best practice that works for everyone.

Today’s Usability Quote:“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.” – Albert Einstein

Today’s Music To Design To:
Have you heard the TRON: Legacy soundtrack?  The incomparable Daft Punk does classical.  And it’s brilliant.  It will totally put you in the creative mood.
Download the MP3 Album or Buy the CD

What a Technophobe Can Teach Us

“If it was easy, how would it work?”

I recently finished a usability study on the golden path of my employer’s website.   Our primary demographic is mothers, aged 25-45, who shop online.  Mostly, I test within this demo, though I like to include people from outside the target with every round of testing.

This time, I had the pleasure of testing with the mother of one of our founders.  She’s older, midwestern, and completely computer illiterate.  When I say completely, I’m not exaggerating.

And she was invaluable.

It’s important to test within your demographic.  You want to make sure that the people who are most likely to use your app or website CAN do so.  However, you should make sure to test AT LEAST your golden path on someone who’s completely unfamiliar with computers and the internet.

Why?  Because it will uncover all your assumptions.  For example, have you assumed that people know what the cancel button will do?  Have you assumed that people know how to enter their name in a form?  Have you assumed that people know how to choose a file from their computer?

You may not have to design your site to cater to a user who is that extremely novice – however, you had better THINK about the person.  It’s fine to make assumptions and draw lines, but it’s crucial that you know you’re doing it, and that you understand why.  After all, ubiquity is the holy grail of any brand – and if your app is ever going to be widely adopted you will eventually have to serve the technophobes.

Even standards (which I evangelize at every opportunity) aren’t enough if you’re designing for the whole planet.

It’s worth noting that your testing techniques may need to change for the computer-wary.  I recommend sticking to in-person methods, because if they’re illiterate already, figuring out a remote method is just going to make them uncomfortable.  Give extra reassurance, because they’ve probably never done anything like this before and they’re going to feel like a fish out of water.  And be willing to skip testing advanced features – just walk through the basics.  Advanced features are for advanced users, don’t whomp your novices with them.

One thing you’ll notice when testing with internet newbies:  when you ask them what they expect, or what they’d like, or how they’d like something to work they’ll draw a blank.  They have no experience from which to draw expectations.  Instead, I ask the question “If it was easy, how would it work?” and I get them to dream.

Test with technophobes.  They will teach you more than you can imagine, even if they aren’t the people you design for.

Today’s Glossary Term:
focus group – A method of gathering user feedback.  Gather 6-8 users in a room together, for an hour.  Have a list of questions for the users.  This method is great for learning how people talk about your product, how they feel about it, and how they interact with each other in regards to your product.  Focus groups are great for testing ideas and concepts, and not great for testing specific single interactions or detailed workflows.  Focus groups are a great way to gauge the social impact of your product idea, too!

Today’s Interesting Link: – this is a fantastic mental playground, and it gets the imagination going.  Where do you think user interfaces are going this year?  The next five years?  The next fifty?  How about five hundred years from now?

Today’s Usability Quote:
“If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research.” – Albert Einstein

Today’s Music To Design To:
You have to be careful when you’re listening to BT, or you’ll find you’ve designed something awesome and forgotten to eat, sleep or exercise for three days. It’s that kind of music; energetic, inspirational, and melodic enough to lull you into a creative coma. I highly recommend the album ESCM, which is available on CD.
Buy the CD or
Buy some of his MP3s

AJAX abuse hurts your users – and you

Sorry for the long absence, dear readers.  Life got in the way of my proselytizing.

However, I’m back and I’ve got a piece of solid wisdom for you:  AJAX is new and fun and exciting, and it makes things much more interactive and powerful.  But it’s also highly non-standard and therefore often unusable.  Just because you CAN do a thing, doesn’t mean you should.

Yeah, I know, sit back down and put your pitchforks away.  I’m not saying “don’t AJAX in your interaction designs”.  I’m just saying you have to THINK about it.  Think carefully, and look at things from your users’ points of view.

On the web, you get everyone from grandma to my 13 year old to Bill Gates clicking around.  I sincerely hope that you know the full range of users your site gets, and that you’re designing for the lowest common denominator (LCD).

Standards are crucial for LCD design.  On a Mac, the positive (moving on) action button goes on the right.  It’s always on the right.  Users can know to click the rightmost action to progress, without ever reading what the button says.  (And they do, trust me)  On a PC, it’s the opposite – positive action button always on the left.

The key is, ALWAYS.  People like to form habits, and they don’t like to think.  They like things to be consistent and comforting, especially if it’s new.  Humans want something to feel familiar, or they’ll resist adopting it.

So then we come to web standards.   Checkboxes are for when you can select multiple options.  Radio buttons are exclusive.  Cancel is your escape hatch.  Links are underlined.  These are the things that even grandma relies on, to help her as she wanders through our labyrinthine web apps and content portals.

The problem is, these standards are often clunky and inefficient.  Enter information in a form and click a button to apply it to your page.  Wait.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Yes, it’s tedious, and our users are always hollering at us to save them time.

Enter rich internet design patterns.  Regardless of the technology behind them, real or faked or kluged, these design patterns make our web browsing experience a million times more lively, responsive and dynamic.  Suddenly our users can drag and drop.  They can enter info and then hit the enter key to submit it.  They can update displays in real time with sliders and spinners.  OOOOH, shiny.

Except they don’t.  How many of the top websites out there use drag and drop?  Guess why?  Although it’s getting better, very few users on the web know they can drag and drop.  No standard has yet emerged to indicate what is draggable, and where the drop targets are.  The idea of submitting a form field with the enter key is just barely starting to get traction in the savvy crowd, so it’ll be years before my technophobic mother is comfortable with it.

So you have sites whose functionality is powerful, but whose usability is abysmal.  Take Remember The Milk, for example.  Don’t throw tomatoes; I know this site is a darling of efficiency buffs.  And sure, it’s efficient.  Once you’ve figured it out, you can zip through task creation and management like a whirling dervish.

But when it comes to metrics of ease of use and learnability, Remember The Milk scores ridiculously low.  Why?  Because they’ve plunged headfirst into AJAX design patterns without looking back.

The primary function for Remember the Milk is the adding and managing of tasks.  You want to add them, and then later you want to mark them as done.  This is your golden path.

To add a task, you click a small link in the upper right hand corner.  Then, you are given an editable text field, but that’s to the left and below where you clicked so you might miss it.  You type in the text field, but there’s no way to assign any details to the task – and there’s no button to save it.  You hit enter, and your task appears in the list – and then a second later it moves to the bottom of the list.  This is, needless to say, confusing.

When you mouse over any task, you see the details in a right hand pane.  This is great!  Except, you can’t get to them.   If you click on a task the right hand pane will “stick” – sort of.  Nothing tells you that the right hand pane is sticking on that task, and as you mouse over stuff on the way to it, it changes – so you have no way of knowing that when you get there, what you want to edit will be there.

To edit a task, you click a little icon to the right of what you want to edit.  Each item has a different icon.  Let’s try the golden path item: the date.  The icon you click is a calendar.  Great!  You click it, and you’re presented with an editable text field, which has a calendar to its right.  Well, everywhere else on the web, clicking on a calendar to the right of a text field brings up a little widget where you can click a date.  So you click that calendar icon, and poof! The text field goes away.  Turns out, that’s how you submit your changes.

I’ll leave off my criticism there.  RTM is a great app, and I do use it.  And I recommend it to people who are willing to take the time to learn it.  However, it drives home the moral of this post:

Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should.  Stick to standards and be sparing with your bells and whistles.

There are exceptions to this rule.  I’ve seen some rich internet apps which use all the bells and whistles but also let users do things the standard way.  I’ve also seen apps that give their users little pointers as they go along, using more RIA widgets that fly out and point to things.

Certainly, you can “flex” all those new muscles the internet is building us.  But for goodness’ sake, don’t beat your users over the head with them!  If you design a fancy AJAX interaction, make sure the standard “legacy” interaction is there too.  If you’ve got drag and drop, also allow clicking to fill that spot.  If you have a widget that changes stuff somewhere on a page, make that change apparent by using bright colors, animations, or callouts.  Treat your users as if they’re not psychic, and they’ll thank you.

Go gently into that rich internet, my chidren.  Go gently.

Today’s Glossary Term:
crowdsourcing – This is one of those buzzwords you’re hearing all over the place.  It’s a fantastically useful concept for designers and UE professionals, from two angles.   Its definition is literal – getting ideas, concepts, or even work from the masses.  Employ crowdsourcing within your own company to get interface ideas, or without to fill in gaps in your creative needs.  Or, join a crowdsourcing community and offer your services within the crowd – it’s a great way to drum up business.

Today’s Interesting Link: – We all love UI humor, and this one is a classic example of what happens when we’re not paying attention to what we build.

Today’s Usability Quote:
“Fail often to succeed sooner.” – Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

Today’s Music To Design To:
This is an oldie but a goodie – the Hackers Soundtrack.  Let’s leave off the complete unreality of the movie, it was relatively fun and the eye candy was good.  However, the soundtrack is a fantastic blend of mid-90’s alternative and electronic music, with some stuff that’s strongly relevant and even slightly edgy for today.
Buy the CD