Friday, December 31, 2010

My Best User Experiences in 2010

As a UX designer, I am hyperaware that my experience is not representative of everyone else's. The things that delight and annoy me are not the same for you. The following is a personal recap of the products and experiences that left an indelible impression on me.

Memorable classes and events I’ve attended:

Creating a Mindset for Achievement presentation by Carol Dweck at BayCHI
“That resonates with me!” presentation by the amazing Nancy Duarte
Adaptive Path’s UX Intensive - Design Strategy with Brandon Schauer
“How to Think Like a Designer” Stanford class taught by Barry Katz, fellow at IDEO (read about classes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, 6)

Products/apps that delight me, educate me, help me discover things I like: is a Google product with a distinctly non-Google, fashion specific identity. It incorporates’s visual search technology to deliver a smart, stylish shopping experience. The power of Boutiques lies in (1) the effortless way I can provide feedback on what I like, don’t like, and why (2) the seemingly magical accuracy of product recommendations I receive based on just a few of my preferences (3) the high volume and consistent visual attractiveness of the product recommendations. If Boutiques catches on, Google plans to roll out similar products in different shopping verticals. Fashion and shopping competitors - watch out.

Facebook Login (Connect) on Etsy and Amazon are 2 of the best implementations I’ve used. Earlier this year I was the lead designer on’s Facebook Login experience. As part of our research, I fConected with dozens of sites to identify best practices. Personally, I found Etsy’s and Amazon’s experience superior because (1) they clearly communicated the benefits and addressed concerns upfront in their trusted brand voices (2) they delivered exactly what they described - relevant product suggestions based on friends and family’s Facebook likes. Both implementations helped me find holiday gifts that I had no idea even existed. Who knew there were cool LA Lakers and Depeche Mode handmade items on Etsy? My prediction for the future of shopping is that it will not be based on search, but will aggregate your location, likes/preferences, events and online activity to deliver a constant stream of relevant products that you validate to increase the volume and accuracy of the recommendations. Bring it on!

Quora is an A-List experience in UX/UI design, users, and the high caliber content they contribute. Some of my favorite questions of the moment include What’s the difference between UI design and UX Design? and Why is the such a stunningly short supply of designers in Silicon Valley right now?

Flipboard for iPad is my preferred way to consume Twitter. It elevates the content with beautiful typography and layout. It slows me down and lets me savor the words and ideas. It makes me want to sip a steaming cup of lemon ginger tea while reading. I just received a Kindle as a holiday gift. I haven’t had that kind of experience with it...yet.

Instagram for iPhone gives me 3 good reasons to look around and snap iamges (1) I can easily stylize my images to reflect my mood - edgy, nostalgic, playful (2) I receive almost instant validation from my Instagram addicted friends (3) it’s a stream of intimate visual storytelling from people I care about. No links. No articles. Minimal text. Just tiny, square, beautiful, shared moments.

Quotes that inspire me:

“To have an effect, you have to select.” – Jim Babbage quoting friend Kim Kavanaugh

“Anticipate the problems that your design solution creates and solve those too.” – Barry Katz 

“The barrier to change is not too little caring, it is too much complexity. To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution, and see the impact. But complexity blocks all 3 steps.” – Bill Gates on the benefits of using pictures to aid problem solving

“I fight for the USER!” – Tron

Design Thinking with Barry Katz at Stanford: Class 6

In the sixth How to Think Like a Designer class, Barry lead a discussion of the user research exercise that we participated in last week. We broke into teams of 2 and took turns interviewing each other about our work environment. We then identified key issues and brainstorm solutions. Some of the insights that came from the discussion of the exercise:

Be attentive to something that doesn’t fit. There's a tendency is to ignore the anomaly. It’s often the incongruous bits of data that that yield the greatest insights.

Make the most of your constraints. In class, we weren’t able to observe our partner in their work environment and we had limited time to conduct the interview. This is similar to real world professional practice, which is always constrained by time, money, technology. How do you know when you’ve dug deep enough? When you run out of time, money and/or technology (because technology is not available or does not exist). User research/interviews are a scalable procedure which can be applied over and over again throughout the course of the project.

Reframe the problem statement to discover the true issues Designers want to to be asked “what is your point of view on a wall?”, not “here’s a pile of bricks, build us a wall”. The danger of just building a wall without questioning why is that the solution may really be a window, not a wall. Around 2006, the DOE (Department of Energy) came to IDEO with a problem/question: why don’t Americans care about energy efficiency? User interviews turned into an inquiry into values which lead to the discovery: it’s not that Americans don’t care about energy efficiency, they just care about other things more – aesthetics (appearance of house and the appliances in it) and the safety and comfort of themselves and their family. The real challenge facing the DOE was to create energy efficient solutions that align with American values. The starting question presumed a set of values that was not correct. Read more about IDEO's process and solution here.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Design Thinking with Barry Katz at Stanford: Class 4 and 5

In the fourth and fifth How to Think Like a Designer classes, Barry invited an excellent guest speaker, Gabriel Trionfi, User Researcher at Facebook. Previously, Gabriel was a Human Factors Community Leader at IDEO. He has a psychology and theater background, which he taps into when conducting interviews and facilitating research. He's a warm, open, insightful guy - definitely someone I'd enjoy working with.

Gabriel talked about the state of most experiences, which by default, aren’t designed. When experiences are designed, not all iterations are accounted for (EX: most chairs are optimized for sitting, not slouching). Experience takes place within an individual - it's a psychological phenomenon. You cannot point to the experience you designed, but the thing that facilitates the experience. Designers can constrain experiences, increase the probability of an experience happening, but there's no guarantees. Ideally as a designer, you’re looking forward seeing how you can change what is, iterating to get people to the better experience, the optimal state.

Gabriel said the #1 thing a User Researcher does is to provide authentic, grounded, meaningful inspiration to designers. Inspiration is required for innovation. As a User Researcher, you need to have genuine insights about people and the opportunity to share those insights with designers to help them find a reason for the design to be. User Research is a set of practices that help you discover valuable insights.
User Research has many names and overlaps with multiple disciplines: ergonomics, need finding, human factors, usability, HCI participatory design. Believing in Human Centered Design doesn’t make you a User Researcher, or at least doesn’t make you a good one. (Note: Don Norman wrote a fascinating article about the Dangers of Human Centered Design). Design research is not objective. It is subjective because we intend to design something from the start. If you don’t pursue inspiration you aren’t doing it right. It's about change, fluidity, being reactive, following insights to an end vs marketing research, which is generally about how many dollars are associated with different types of users.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Design Thinking with Barry Katz at Stanford: Class 3

In the third How to Think Like a Designer class, Barry started by sharing a story about an inspirational visit to a cutting edge recycling plant called Green Waste in Palo Alto, CA. He asked the class to guess what the #1 working hazard was. Breathing/lung issues? Carpal tunnel? No. 95% of all the injuries are needle sticks. Even though the workers wear needle resistant gloves, it's not possible at this time to completely avoid needle sticks. This ignited an impromptu brainstorming - use magnets to pull the needles from the piles, put RFID tags in needles so they can be scanned and seen, create more stick resistant gloves, provide needle repositories on public recycling bins, and more. The ideas ranged from changing the needles, to changing how they're identified, to changing the way they are discarded in the first place.

How far up the chain do we go when we look for a solution? It depends on the careful defining in the brief. Design solutions can behavioral, technical, social or legislative. Defining a brief is an art. The client often comes to the designer with "This is my problem." The designer needs to say, "No. You think that’s your problem. This is the real problem." Guiding a client to the proper posing of the issue in the first place is often the most difficult part of the process.

Barry talked about the 7 year itch phenomenon in the industry. First people were all about design methods, then design management, now it’s design thinking. It’s a sign of a profession that is continually renewing itself.

We then resumed where we left off last week on the origins of design thinking:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Design Thinking with Barry Katz at Stanford: Class 2

In the second How to Think Like a Designer class, we explored the origins of design thinking:

1. Design history is the history not just of objects, but of ideas.

Primatologist Sherwood Washburn believed people don't make things. Things make people. Primitive tools have shaped our evolution.

The Historical Trajectory of Objects:

19th Century - the stand alone object is analog, mechanically straightforward, and operated by hands. Ex: Olivetti Typewriter
20th century - the plug in object makes no sense unless it's connected to electricity, which is both a restraint and an opportunity. Ex: Television sets
21st Century - the networked object opened up new product categories and made predecessors obsolete almost instantly. Ex: iPhone

The Historical Trajectory of Design Thinking:

In the 1840's, Henry Cole pioneered government recognition of design. He lobbied the British government for support for his campaign to improve standards in industrial design. He was appointed the first General Superintendent of the Department of Practical Art, tasked with improving industrial art and design education in Britain. He was also the inventor of the postage stamp and the Christmas card.

In 1851, Joseph Paxton made an important contribution to biomimicry inspired design in the Crystal Palace for The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations - the first World's Fair. The Crystal Palace could be considered the world's first horizontal skyscraper - revolutionary in its modular, prefabricated design and use of glass in a patterns that mirrored the structure of a leaf. Not only did he consider the architecture, but its use by thousands of people a day. He designed the wooden floorboards with slight spaces between them so dirt could be easily swept into the spaces below the floor. He then hired a huge group of boys to sweep the floors every evening, but soon realized that the bottom of ladies' dresses were doing the job.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Design Thinking with Barry Katz at Stanford: Class 1

I'm beyond excited about the new class I'm taking at Stanford! It's called How to Think Like a Designer taught by Barry Katz. Barry is a consulting professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, professor of Humanities and Design at California College of the Arts, and fellow at IDEO, a design and innovation consultancy that I've been a major fan of for years.

Just being on the Stanford campus is inspiring! The 12 week class is held in the Mechanical Engineering building adjacent to the beautiful Memorial Church. I arrived a few minutes before start time and was lucky to get one of the last seats in the back (some people sat on the floor). There must be 70 students ranging from mid 20s to mid 50s, more people than anyone was expecting. The interest and enthusiasm in the room was palpable. I'm among people who love learning and collaborating. I am home!

Barry gave an excellent overview of his experience, which included a fascinating history of the Stanford, CCA and IDEO. He told stories about innovative projects from each place, and observed an interesting switch in the undergrad/grad focus. In the past, students often received their undergraduate degrees in something general, like Liberal Arts, and then pursued a specialty in grad school. These days, more students get a specialized undergrad, then use their graduate studies to explore how they want to apply that specialization. He talked about the history of design thinking, including French industrial designer Ray Loewy who designed everything from locomotives to Lucky Strike cigarette packaging, and Nobel prize winning polymath Herbert Simon who studied human activity around human built systems. He also told us about the book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, which he co-authored with Tim Brown from IDEO.

Barry closed the class by revealing our semester long assignment: improve the experience of commuting. He said it's our responsibility and opportunity to define what commuting means. Immediately my mind kicked into high gear:

Commuting by car: improving comfort, safety (requiring driving tests more often, offering greater rewards for passing driving tests/traffic school, driving tips while you drive, rewards for staying at or under speed limit), multitasking, distractions from children and pets, traffic alerts, construction, alleviating boredom (new suggested routes to and from work to discover new things), parking (parking meters, paying remotely, app to avoid parking tickets), making use of traffic cameras to provide commentary/emotional feedback, weather conditions, sun in your eyes (a windshield that can dim, like auto-tinting eye glasses), forgetting your laptop at home.

Commuting by train/bus/subway: seat comfort, mobile phone use (etiquitte, accessibility), falling asleep and missing your stop, cleanliness/smell, temperature, transferring, lack of seating, accessibility, accommodating packages, using public transport to move something other than yourself (pets, sick people, bulky objects), meeting people, schedules, waiting shelters, advertising, educational opportunities while you wait, empathy for customers and drivers/conductors, tickets, exact change, loosing cards, over capacity, traffic, construction. Also commuting by taxi and car/limo/van service, special events, parties.

Commuting by plane: orientation and relationship to public transportation, shuttle buses, loosing your boarding pass, boarding order, safety assurances, meeting people (Virgin's seat to seat IM), frequent business flyer perks/issues, sleeping in airport when weather is bad, lost luggage, luggage flies to airport before you do, delays, updates, sleeping on plane, empathy for fellow passengers, lighting, food and drink, staying hydrated, circulation, time zone changes, odors, temperature, storage, lap belts, safety instructions, wifi, barf bags.

Commuting on foot/bike/motorcycle: navigation, addresses, parking, carrying laptop, number of blocks to surrounding destinations (California Ave), comfort, weather, relationship of cars to people/bikes, giving the right of way, blind spots.

I can't wait to collaborate with new people and apply my passion for design thinking to important issues we all share.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Becoming more...User Experience Design and beyond

I've been thinking about getting a Masters that will challenge and enable me to do more of what I love: help people feel smart, have positive experiences, and learn to do anything with a sense of fascination, ease and joy. One place that I'm looking into is the dschool at Stanford. I'm also inspired by 2 close friends who recently decided to get their MBA and MFA. Thank you for making me feel like I can do it too.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Your intelligence is in your hands

Last night I grew many neurons listening to Carol Dweck's presentation on Creating a Mindset for Achievement at BayCHI. Carol is a social psychologist, professor at Stanford and a leading researcher in the field of motivation. Her extensive research in young students' ability to learn and improve in the face of struggle is the heart of the fixed vs growth learning concept:

"I don't divide the word into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. I divide them into the learners and the non-learners." - Benjamin Barber

According to Carol Dweck, people with the fixed learning mindset:
  • Believe intelligence is a fixed trait.
  • Feel they must look intelligent at all times. They don't publicly question anything for fear of revealing what they don't know. They hide their mistakes and deficiencies.
  • Avoid struggle and challenge because they believe learning must be effortless. They think struggle is proof that they lack the ability to learn that subject or skill.
  • Compare themselves to people who achieve less as proof that they are intelligent.
The fixed mindset provides no recipe for recovering from failures. Fixed mindset learners easily give up, retreat to comfortable topics, blame others, or look for other people to feel superior to. Fixed mindsets are cultivated early in life by parents and teachers who unknowingly suggest the values of a fixed mindset mentality. They praise kids when things come easy, tell them they're talented and smart, and they don't reward struggle or effort as often.

In my own experience, I think back to elementary school art class, where students were though of as natural talents or not. The ability to draw was not presented as a learnable skill (most likely because the teachers didn't posses it themselves), so teachers had to give "A's for effort". However, the perception remained that either you have it...or you don't. I've often encountered this attitude around "being creative" as well, as if it's some kind of magical power. Though some people do seem to be more effortlessly able to draw and think "creatively", I certainly believe both are skills can be acquired and sharpened with practice. Turns out one of the biggest obstacles to leaning is simply believing you're not capable.

People with the growth learning mindset:
  • Believe intelligence is a malleable quality, a potential that can be developed.
  • Are always trying to learn, ask questions, and don't feel unintelligent for not knowing the answers. They capitalize on mistakes and view them as part of the learning process.
  • Enjoy the hard work of learning as well as the outcome. They're not singularly focused on grades or whether or not their answers are right. They care about understanding the answers.
  • Compare themselves to people who achieve more, aspire to their level, and believe with hard work, they can get there.
As a user experience designer, I've noticed that any time I encounter a product that feels effortless to understand and operate, it makes me feel smart. My goal is to help other people feel the same way. When it comes to products, users should be engaged by the knowledge or entertainment that your product provides, not by trying to figure out what it is or how to access it. Is that just catering to the fixed mindset? In this case, I don't think so. Removing struggle gets people right to the stuff they care most about. That's not just good user experience, it's good business.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How F8 made me feel

I just got home from the F8 Facebook Conference, and of course there's already thousands of recaps, predictions, warnings, praises and opinions flying on twitter, Mashable, TechCrunch, and blogs like this one by Jeremiah Owyang. What I'd like to share is my personal experience at F8.

Elated. Inspired. Energized. These are just a few things I felt at F8. I witnessed a major shift in the way we'll all be experiencing the world in the near future. And I'm not even taking about the actual sessions. Upon registering, I received a beautifully designed passport with a small rectangular token attached to it. I logged on to and typed in the number on the token, connecting my facebook identity to it. Whenever I entered a session, I tapped the token on a glowing scanner and it instantly created a post that says where I am. This worked for tagging photos too. My coworkers and I stood in front of a photo kiosk, a photo was snapped, and we tagged ourselves on the spot by tapping our tokens to the kiosk and touching our faces on the screen. And of course, the photo was auto posted to facebook. My first thought - when will we have permanent tokens subdermally inserted into out palms? With a swipe of your seemingly naked hand, you could potentially complete a credit card transaction, add shopping items to a list, bookmark an actual object or physical place. No more barriers between device and human. (For differing opinions on Facebook's RFID tokens, check out this post on Techcrunch.)

Here's some photos of the Facebook token, scanner and the larger than life screen that visualized patterns of everyone moving from scanner to scanner:

Here's the facebook presence token in my passport

Here's the glowing scanner - changes color when you've successfully connected

Here's the visualization showing people's movement patterns throughout the venue. Check out that "War Games" reference in the upper right :-)

One of the central themes of F8 was simplicity. Ahhh, simplicity. Everyone strives for it in their product. Many claim to have it, as if telling users something is simple on their home page makes it so. But facebook, they know how to do simplicity. Every session I attended used consistent language and visuals. At first it seemed a little repetitive, but then I realized - their united front made it simple and memorable. All the sessions spoke the same message, like a well conceived Presidential election.

There were 2 points in particular that to me, summarize their dedication to simplicity:

Simplicity by listening to users
Chris Cox, VP of Product, commented in his inspiring closing remarks that "the products were hacks". The team watched people "misuse" the product, then designed featured that enabled users to do what they wanted to do. He told the story of the early days before facebook had photo albums. The only place a user could upload a photo was their user profile, and they noticed some people were changing this photo multiple times a day. They looked at all the photo sites at the time - flickr, ophoto, kodak (to name just a few). There were so many things people could do with their photos on these sites. Sticking to their concept of being people-centric, they added just one main feature - the ability to tag people.

Simplicity by not listening to the users
In the "Designing for Social Web" session, Julie Zhou talked about some featured that users have asked for, such as the ability to see what friends have recently visited your profile. While this seems like a good idea on the surface, there's also a possibility that you could be seen as nosy, creepy, or just inappropriate if you keep visiting someone's profile. Another is the dislike button. Sure, there are things you really want to dislike sometimes, but instead you say nothing at all. What do these 2 things have in common? Facebook doesn't implement features that would potentially discourage people from sharing. The most important thing is that people feel comfortable sharing, and that action is as easy as possible. With the new soon to be ubiquitous like button, sharing what you love will become as commonplace as clicking a link.

One of the most important factors that has made facebook successful is their consistent adherence to a vision that works - making it people centric and keeping it simple. Their success also shows that these 2 things are the some of the hardest objectives to achieve, but when you do, you can change the world.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Four Keys To Fun

On Saturday I attended a fascinating talk by Nicole Lazarro of XEODesign about emotions and user experience. Here's the slides:
Four Keys To Fun BayCHI Slides
Some of the most standout ideas:

1. Good games create fun though the choices the user makes. Fun shouldn't be limited to gaming. Why not make boring and stressful tasks like banking, health care, and learning a technical skill more fun? Fun doesn't mean lack of seriousness. It can be surprisingly delightful and easy. One of the best examples of fun learning is the Head First books from O'Reilly. I read the HTML/CSS book and completed the crossword puzzles at the end of each chapter - and enjoyed it! The more fun a task is, the easier it is to complete, the more you learn, the more motivated you are to keep learning. Emotions improve memory recall and performance. Feeling smart is fun.

2. Some of the most popular games are not gender specific. Farmville and Rock Band tap into social emotions - chumminess, admiration, competition and bonding through reciprocity. I love the Rock Band experience because it's an exciting way to create fun memories with friends. We gather at my place to enjoy the music, work together to unlock new cities, save each other when we fail out, laugh when someone can't sing, and compliment each other on our song scores, "96 percent complete with most energy? Rock on!"

Nicole pointed out that games that are targeted at exclusively "male" emotions (schadenfreude, aggression, rewards) and "female" emotions (helping, complimenting) are leaving all the other shared emotions on the table. The most successful games tap into all the social emotions throughout game play and inspire people to come back for more.

3. Making a game (or any experience) viral means having a simple goal, ways to connect with friends, and social tokens that increase in emotional value with use. Of all 3, I believe maintaining a simple goal is the most difficult. What starts out as a singular idea often gets clouded by positioning new features as equal to the core activity. What's the one thing that people enjoy most about your game (or product)? Do that better than anyone, then propel engagement by making it easy for people to share that and reward each other.

Social tokens are virtual gifts, compliments, private jokes, or anything that makes you feel like you're making real connections with other people. From a Facebook "poke" or "like it" to the prop icons like "You rock" on Kaboodle, these one click social acknowledgements are frictionless ways to create repeat engagement. And they're fun too.