Creativity & Happenstance

“I love systems and despise happenstance.”
— Massimo Vignelli

Vignelli was a modernist designer of the old-school. This quote is from his manifesto, The Vignelli Canon (downloadable for free here).

In Vignelli’s view the goal of design was not the pursuit of beauty or self-expression, but the forensic application of guiding principles to every project. He saw design not merely as an intellectual process but as a severe, ascetic discipline. Using Swiss grids and a limited type palette – often only a single font per project, usually Helvetica – he constructed rigid, scaleable systems to drive every design decision, leaving no room for exploration or accidental discovery.

This approach led to a body of work that is austere, finely-balanced and entirely predictable. When function is the driving design principle – as to a New York subway rider – it’s perfect.

For everyone else, it’s a little bit boring.

Designers traffic in two main commodities: ideas (the concept phase) and execution (the design phase). Some of the best ideas arrive accidentally. This is why creative teams engage in blue sky thinking by brainstorming in caffeinated groups, looking for happy accidents by smashing disparate thoughts together like particles in a collider until something interesting pops out.

The same is true for execution. For every good idea there is an unlimited number of possible design solutions, and most of them you haven’t thought of yet. This is why designers engage in unguided “design exploration” by trying a lot of things quickly, throwing stuff at the wall – figuratively, but sometimes also literally – to see what new sparks emerge. Organized chaos is simply part of the process.

Happenstance is how new things are born. If your toolkit is limited to Helvetica and a Swiss grid, you can make a very effective design system – but you’ll miss out on the magic of discovery.


Strange Days

“These are unprecedented times.”

Everyone likes to say this, lately. Unprecedented. A fine word, but hardly anyone used it. Now they say it a lot. Usually, in any Zoom meeting, someone throws out unprecedented. In just a few weeks it has become as overused as giving you a heads up or let’s circle back, phrases that make us think about doing mean things to project managers.

People used to make smalltalk about the weather. A safe topic, easy to find common ground, but also entirely redundant – no one disagrees when it’s cold out. Now they discuss the global pandemic and how we live in “unprecedented times”. Equally bland and just as redundant.

Because of course things are unprecedented. Twenty years ago we barely had a functioning internet. Now my smartphone has enough processing power to plot the trajectories of comets. With the rate things are advancing, isn’t every day unprecedented? By comparison the pandemic is barely unprecedented at all. When it comes to pandemics, humanity has endured much worse.

This is true: the world is changing faster today than we’ve ever seen – and perhaps will never again move as slowly. The rate of change has become so normalized, it takes a global health crisis to surprise us.

It shouldn’t. These are strange, incredible days, and the pandemic is the least of it.


Fuzzy People

People are fuzzy around the edges, and so is their behaviour.

Users aren’t a very reliable source of hard data. They have ideas, but often no more than one or two. They have needs but may not know what they are. They think they know what they want, but they probably don’t. And they can rarely imagine things that don’t yet exist.

“If I had asked people what they wanted,” said Ford, “they would have said faster horses.”

They are a good source of soft data, however – although gathering soft data from fuzzy humans requires more indirect methods: observing them in their natural habitats, empathizing with their worldviews, and asking indirect questions – including why a lot – to get to the root of the problem we want to solve.

Taking into account the human factor is an integral part of design research: you have to frame the question correctly to get to the right answer. Building a better mousetrap won’t help if the mice have started a colony in the basement.


Every Good Idea is the Child of Failed Parents

Nobody strives to fail, but when it comes to ideas, constructive failure is the price of success.

In start-up culture they call this “failing fast” – the quicker you fall on your face, the more you learn for the next iteration. In design thinking, feedback loops (also called design cycles) do the same job.

When I worked at Microsoft ideating on interface concepts for non-standard models like touchscreens or control-at-a-distance using voice or motion activation, feedback loops were a process imperative. Teams iterated quickly, sometimes in the same room, and regrouped as often as every hour to review thinking, discuss emerging ideas and plaster every surface in coloured post-its. Tight design cycles drove the project forward fast – the brightest ideas of the early morning might be a distant memory by lunch – with the shortcomings of any explorative thread quickly made apparent through immediate feedback that informed the next iteration.

The benefits of this consensus-based process are easy to see: good ideas are afforded a stay of execution that allows them to survive at least one more loop; bad ideas are discarded and take no more of anyone’s time.

Embrace constructive failure as a necessary procedural factor of creativity. Reaching “success” too early deprives the ideation process of invaluable future feedback loops.


No Problem is a Blank Canvas

Design thinking as a discipline involves a duality that is hard to avoid: a careful balance between the needs of the user, who is the source of the problem, and the business, which finances its solution.

It’s easy to blue-sky a solution to an interesting problem (“if airlines simply replaced seats with VR pods, the problem of uncomfortable plane travel would be solved!”) but if the solution isn’t commercially viable – not to mention technically feasible – then it’s not much of an answer. Without taking in account practical constraints, no-limit design thinking is a classroom exercise – effective for emboldening creativity, but only a stepping stone to real innovation.

True, human-centric design functions inside the boundaries of real-world constraints, while still addressing users’ needs, motivations and behaviours. The right solutions are found where the two worlds intersect.


Reactive Filter

It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.

Steve Jobs said this originally, in reference to the way that users are a poor source of quality information about their needs. Most of the time they don’t know what they need, misidentify what they need, or lack the language to articulate either way. If you leave it up to the users to make UX decisions, this happens. It bankrupted the company.

We try to minimize client interference in the design process by synthesizing their explanations and ideas into a creative brief everyone can agree on. But it’s not a very reliable process.

I noticed a pattern of behavior common to clients early on in my career: even if they couldn’t explain exactly what they wanted, they knew what they didn’t want as soon as they saw it. You quickly learn to resist doing high-fidelity work early in any project, because you must first get through the reactive filter: the meeting in which you present work and the client says, “That’s nice, but what I was thinking was…”

Listen carefully to what comes after these words, because most of the time it’ll be worth more than anything in the creative brief. Why? Because it’s much easier to react to a point of reference, even if it’s wrong, than to imagine something from nothing, and the output from that reaction is just as illuminating.

This is not a shortcut to avoiding design thinking – you must still define the problem properly before presenting early, or the reaction to your work, whether positive or negative, won’t yield useful intel.

Entire projects cannot be run this way. Use the reactive filter to establish boundaries early on, then direct the design process from there.


The Problem With Playing It Safe

Thinking too rigidly about user experience can make us blind to new opportunities.

An age ago, back in 2004, I was working in Amsterdam designing a website for Philips. User experience as a practice was still relatively new. There were rules, but they were different depending on who you asked. Best practices were a nice idea, but they weren’t very consistent. And that meant that everybody, and nobody, was right 100% of the time.

Our UX guy on the Philips project was a contractor – I’ve quite forgotten his name – and he was of the mind that things should be done just so, and any deviation would be a mistake. Thinking about it now I guess that makes sense: if you bill yourself as an expert in a field nobody knows anything about, you better at least be confident.

Of course, at the time I disagreed. I was an unruly, ego-driven designer, so I disagreed with everything. But in this case, my reasoning was sound: in my view the user experience discipline was too young to have all the answers. We were dictating behavioural patterns to users while knowing scarcely more than they did. And more importantly (to a designer, at least) we were missing opportunities to innovate on the UI side by allowing ourselves to be constrained by rules that were unbaked at best, and outright guesses at worst. Dogma seldom breeds insight.

It didn’t sit right with me, but I had to admit that my opinion was no more valid than his. And letting the process be driven by design would’ve been the tail wagging the dog, so we forged ahead, despite the UX field being in such turbulent flux that by the end of the project all our supposed best practices were obsolete anyway.

I’ve never forgotten that discussion, and I still maintain that the laws of UX, even as well-established as they are these days, can still be wilfully bent. Purists will point breathlessly to some high-profile case study (“Amazon changed the corner radius on their Buy Now button to 2px and it saved them $300M!”) but these are effects that are observable only at scale. For most everyday purposes, the rules, within reason – though not without good reason – can be challenged. It’s how innovation happens.

It is a mistake to dictate terms to users based on an overly-confident UX model, or to assume UX as a practice is fully baked. We should not be afraid to engage users on unfamiliar terms, or to ask them to follow new patterns. Their behaviour outside the sandbox can help us discover new ways to solve old problems.

How will we know if we aren’t willing to take risks?


How Strong Branding Transcends Language

If your brand aesthetic is strong enough, not even a foreign language will keep you from being recognized.

Where I live, in the United Arab Emirates, Arabic is the official language. English is widely spoken but Arabic is part of the cultural fabric and local heritage, and that means any international brand looking to trade here must find a way to reinvent itself in Arabic script.

For many small brands that’s as simple is converting your name to Arabic and making new signs.

At the other end of the scale, more sophisticated brands will spend to have their logo recreated in a script custom-designed to match its Roman character counterpart. Fedex is an excellent example – the famous arrow now points the opposite way, as Arabic is read right to left.

Though few are as obvious, I noticed many international brands have such well-established visual languages that it was possible to identify them from the Arabic alone, finding clues in icons, colours, context or artifacts of typography that survived the transition. I started a collection so I could play a game of name that Arabic brand with friends back home.

A few fun examples after the jump.

Continue reading “How Strong Branding Transcends Language”

Breaking Mental Models

When it comes to using a product, people rely on mental models – for better or for worse.

The mind draws on prior experience to create expectations which guide behaviour. We did this last time and it worked, so that’s what we’re doing this time, too. Mental models reduce cognitive overhead because you don’t have to make a series of decisions more than once – just retrieve a successful outcome from memory, and use the same template.

The base example of a mental model is one that every web designer learns to respect from day one:

Put the logo in the top left, and make sure it links to the homepage.

People expect this, and if they don’t get it then certain things might happen. They might become irritated at your brand, with its stupid logo sitting up there all non-linky and such, which is bad. At the very least they’ll wonder if your web designer is incompetent – not much better.

But just because a mental model exists, doesn’t make it mandatory. You can conform your UX to users’ existing (presumed) models, but you can also teach them new ones – if you have the courage. When Blockbuster said people come to the video store to rent a movie, it’s all part of the experience, nobody disagreed. But Netflix started mailing discs instead, and almost overnight the entire movie-watching population completely changed its behaviour.

Challenging mental models comes with risk, but the rewards can be considerable. When fresh thinking yields innovation, entire markets can shift fast.

Personally I wouldn’t recommend you move your logo link from the top left, though.


Reactive Solutions & the Anchoring Bias

Over-focusing on the first thing we learn stops us from seeing other, better solutions – and it happens whether we like it or not.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy and natural to generate impulse solutions to problems as they arise. This is human nature. We’re so good at it that it happens without effort, and it makes us susceptible to the anchoring effect: a cognitive bias that makes the first answer we come up with crowd out everything that comes after.

This can be especially problematic when it comes to design thinking. There are large numbers of ways to solve any design or UX problem, and it’s much too easy to fixate on the first one that emerges. Any idea you come up with will seem like a good idea – to you.

Avoiding irrational attachment to early ideas – I call them reactive solutions – is precisely the purpose of brainstorming with more than one person. Leave it to one guy alone in a room, and the scope of possible solutions falls dramatically. This is also the reason why team play is an essential element of UX and design practice: one mind alone simply isn’t enough to cover all the angles.

To avoid reactive solutions and the anchoring bias, keep these points in mind:

Make UX strategy and design thinking a social exercise. When designing for interactivity and people, it makes sense that the best ideas will be generated by people interacting.

It’s nearly impossible for the first idea to be the best. Unless you somehow catch lightning in a bottle, the quality of solutions will increase in direct proportion to time spent. Put in the time, get better results.

Think first; design later. Especially for visual designers, our brains tend to run straight for the canvas, making any hare-brained idea seem better than it is. If you have to move to the design phase to make a point, you’re probably making the wrong point.


User Needs & the Availability Heuristic

“People don’t want quarter inch drills. They want quarter inch holes.”
— Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business School

What people say they need probably isn’t what they really need.

It’s easy to confuse process with result, because people like the idea of taking action more than pausing a moment to ponder abstract outcomes. Doing is easier than thinking.

This makes users notoriously unreliable sources of information about what they need. It’s human nature to automatically generate a solution to any problem that presents itself, and the first one that comes to mind then tends to dominate our thinking. This is a version of the availability heuristic: the tendency to place greater value on information that comes to mind quickly. And if you ask a user what he needs, I bet you a box of Timbits he’ll make the same mistake.

To properly understand a user’s needs, forget tools, the mechanics of the process and the functional requirements document. Features and functions are products of the solution, not its drivers.

Instead, probe the user’s motivations for a more complete understanding of the problem. Simple task completion might be the wrong success metric if the motive is less tangible, like proving your worth to a team or avoiding becoming a bottleneck in a production pipeline.


The User Experience of Hotels

The principles of user experience are now quite widely known, yet still lacking in some of the most obvious places.

Any customer service-oriented business is also in the user experience business. Bars, restaurants and other hospitality-based enterprises should be especially aware of this. Organizations who engage with customers over extended periods of time – airlines, for example – have even more reason to develop and deploy rock-solid user experiences. But, almost universally, they do not.

Why not is a mystery. The basic principles of user experience are very simple: understand who your customers are; know what they want to do (or what you want them to do); and design pathways to make those things easy. A simple plan, but in the real world, somewhere between theory and execution, it all goes off the rails.

Hotels make for excellent case studies in this area. Whenever I travel and visit a hotel, I assess the user experience, because I can’t help it. Somewhat pessimistically, I don’t expect the UX to measure up, and I am usually right. The question is, by how much will it fall short?

Continue reading “The User Experience of Hotels”
Categories: UX

Test Against Scenarios, Not Problems

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an experiment to find the meaning of life yields a famous answer that cannot be understood without asking: Uh, what exactly was the question?

Clarity is critical in user testing. Testing sessions often include pointed questions like: “If you wanted to change the language to French, how would you do that?” Testers are wondering if the user will think to look in a certain place for a way to complete the task. Here is a problem, they are saying. Solve it.

However, giving a user a problem to solve is less useful than outlining a scenario and letting them frame the problem themselves.

From the perspective of the user, when asked for an answer, she must first be sure she understands the question. This happens on different levels. Subconsciously she might say to herself: But I don’t speak French. Why should I change the language? Consciously she might wonder: Is the solution somewhere unlikely? What is the question getting at?

The example above is very simple, but as tasks become more complex, understanding the syntax and intent of the question becomes a problem in itself. It introduces a level of uncertainty that clouds the purity of the test: even if an answer comes readily to mind, she must then reconsider her understanding of the question, to see if the two match. Solving someone else’s problem is much less intuitive than solving your own.

If the tester frames the question as a scenario, rather than a problem, that uncertainty evaporates. “The website is in English, but you speak French. What will you do?”

The difference seems trivial, but in user experience trivial things matter. Now the user can frame her own problem (I need to change the language) and then begin working on the solution. She already knows she understands the problem, because she articulated it. This approach yields more authentic test results, since in the real world we don’t have annoying UX testers asking us leading questions. We identify, and solve, our own challenges.

Categories: UX

Everyone is Their Own Personal UX Guru

“I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

This quote is often attributed to Bill Gates, but given the magnitude of his achievements it’s hard to imagine him using it as a guiding philosophy. Something being difficult to imagine doesn’t make it false, of course, but in this case the true source was Frank Bunker Gilbreth Sr., an engineer and one of the first true usability experts. And he was talking about bricklaying – a task one might reasonably think much less-nuanced than inventing programming languages.

Either way, is it true that a lazy person will find an easy solution? They might, but easiest doesn’t mean best, and lazy solutions cut corners. Lazy people are not good for business.

Given the choice, though, most people will at least look for a more efficient solution, because it’s human nature. All of us have the same innate tendency towards the path of least resistance because less work means more play. We are experts in the subject of our own personal user experience because we optimize our lives towards efficiency. That’s not lazy, it’s smart.

To design the easiest path to a goal, don’t ask how a lazy person would do it. Ask how an efficient optimizer would do it.

Categories: UX

Who Are You Building That For?

We build products for ourselves or for customers, and the difference isn’t always clear.

When I started out as a designer we knew (in theory) that we were making websites for clients, so they could make money from customers. But, from the vantage point of experience, it’s easy to see that we were really making stuff for ourselves: for kudos, money, reputation and further opportunity. Form always trumped function. Before design was usability-driven, it was ego-driven. It seems absurd that we ever thought otherwise, but Jakob Nielsen, and his Bauhaus-like functional idealism, was right all along. We’re sorry, Dr. Nielsen.

Perhaps it mattered less in that age. In the mad rush to dominate the internet, websites back then had shorter lifespans. Big brands were content to spend vast sums to be seen as innovators, and if we didn’t get it right we’d do another one next year anyway. And even if we’d asked the right questions, would there’ve been enough data to provide useful answers?

Perhaps not, but these days there certainly is, and we should be smarter. Secondary motivators – awards, reputation, money, social likes – will always exist, but usually as goals at the end of the wrong path.

To uncover the primary motivator, ask the primary question: who are we building this for?

Categories: UX

Good Branding is Mind Control

More than anything else, branding is a means of influencing the way people think.

Jeff Bezos is widely quoted as saying: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” But here’s the unfortunate truth: more often than not, nobody talks about you when you’re not in the room. People talk about themselves, mostly.

A better way to say it is your brand is how other people feel when they think about you. Substitute ‘you’ for your logo, your face, your product or any representative of your company.

How do you feel when you see a parking enforcement officer lurking near your car? Parking enforcers have a poor brand image. It’s very effective, but not in the way anyone would want.

How do you feel when you see the Amazon delivery man coming up the street? Probably a sense of low-level excitement caused by a tiny hit of dopamine, because he is bringing your stuff. Assuming he doesn’t throw it across the porch, he is the temporary custodian of an exceptional brand image – one that persists even when he’s not standing outside with a box.

Looked at this way, it’s easy to understand why the most successful brands (and their aesthetics and messaging) are rooted in behavioural psychology. Understanding how people think is the first step to getting them to think about you – and to think the right things about you.


Consistency is Not Conformity

When a company fosters uniqueness among its people, the result is a unique brand.

Until 1995, IBM was notorious for an unrelenting dress code that tolerated no disparity. Respect your customer and dress accordingly was the driving adage, and that meant dark suits and ties, without exception. Unsurprising – until the 80s, men wore suits to work for most non-industrial jobs anyway. 

Things changed when tech exploded. Workplaces became dramatically younger – partly because young minds find better traction on emerging advancements, and partly because pioneers like Microsoft sought to distinguish themselves from the stodgy old guard. These days, in many fields, dress codes are an artifact of the past. Trendy, lifestyle-friendly work environments are designed at great expense to attract and nurture talent. Company culture is a brand value. So are diversity, individuality and freedom of expression.

In the corporate world of the 70s, order and conformity were a means of controlling brand image. Suits were a professional imperative, and no one would’ve dared to assert differently. These days we know better. Suppressing individuality leads to other problems: dissatisfaction, resistance and productivity loss. Even without knowing why, most people understand the importance of their own personal brand. Being unique is part of being alive.

This is true for corporate brands too. Consistency of appearance, behaviour and values are desirable brand attributes. But conforming to rigidly-defined ideals is counter-productive, leading to inflexibility, tunnel vision and a failure to be agile, pivot, fail fast or adapt quickly – all traits of successful young companies in the digital age. Brands that can live up to their vision and values without resorting to militant conformity will naturally find resonance with new customers, because individuality is a highly-valued quality.