summing up 77

i am trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. i am unable to show you what it will be, but i can show you some of the pieces and why they matter to me. if you are building a different puzzle, it is possible that these pieces won't mean much to you, maybe they won't fit or they won't fit yet. then again, these might just be the pieces you're looking for. this is summing up, please find previous editions here.

Design machines, by Travis Gertz

There’s a lot of hubris hidden in the term “user experience design.” We can’t design experiences. Experiences are reactions to the things we design. Data lies to us. It makes us believe we know what a person is going through when they use our products. The truth is that it has no insight into physical mental or physical ability, emotional state, environmental conditions, socioeconomic status, or any other human factor outside of their ability to click on the right coloured box in the right order. Even if our machines can assume demographic traits, they will never be able to identify with each person’s unique combination of those traits. We can’t trust the data. And those who do will always be stuck chasing a robotic approach to human connection.

we often don't know our users. we don't know how they feel right in that moment, what problems they have, what solutions they're looking for. and this ignorance often leads us to design robotic experiences in a one fits all approach. and the truth is, we are designing boring, predictable and repetitive websites and digital products. an exuberance of data and patterns leads into mechanical and repetitive interactions with our users. we have to design better systems, we have to provoke and establish human connections in our technologies. or how else will we prove that we are better than a machine?

Intuitive Interfaces, by Jef Raskin

The term "intuitive" is associated with approval when applied to an interface, but this association raises the issue of the tension between improvement and familiarity. As an interface designer I am often asked to design a "better" interface to some product. Usually one can be designed such that, in terms of learning time, eventual speed of operation (productivity), decreased error rates, and ease of implementation it is superior to competing or the client’s own products. Even where my proposals are seen as significant improvements, they are often rejected nonetheless on the grounds that they are not intuitive. It is a classic "catch 22." The client wants something that is significantly superior to the competition. But if superior, it cannot be the same, so it must be different. Therefore it cannot be intuitive, that is, familiar. What the client usually wants is an interface with at most marginal differences that, somehow, makes a major improvement. This can be achieved only on the rare occasions where the original interface has some major flaw that is remedied by a minor fix.

you probably heard about often cited quote/joke that the only intuitive interface is the nipple. it's been around for quite some time in the ux/hci community. and it is funny, cute and completely wrong. no technology is intuitive. it is all just familiar or unfamiliar at first. what we want though from technology are interfaces and interactions that feel familiar, learnable and evident. an interface should teach us in ways we can get better, allow us to have new ideas and solutions to things and speak to us in ways we can understand. this doesn't mean that technology should never challenge or surprise us, it definitely should. but it should also grow together with the user.

on discoverability, by yours truly

if there is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen and the interaction is numbed with no feedback by the devices, what's left? the interaction gets reduced to experience and familiarity where we only rely on readily transferred, existing skills.

it strikes me as quite interesting that we spend a huge part of our time developing digital products on static visual traits without thinking about how and where they are being used. but digital products are not just isolated tools, they are always used within an environment. and that environment has work collaboratively with our users. in order to achieve that interaction elements have to be discoverable. too often though vital elements are concealed in the user interface.

on discoverability

i recently stumbled on a bunch of videos by clubinternet, exposing people who have never used a smartphone to google. their task was to search for photos of their favorite actress. you'd guess there are not many products out there which are easier to use than a google search box. well, watch this:

while i can't deny a slightly humoristic touch, this video has troubled me. touch interfaces have improved drastically in recent years, and even allow non-tech savvy people to successfully interact with digital devices. nevertheless i always felt that they are not the goose that lays golden eggs. you see, we are actually just moving objects below a screen made of glass. what other object in the world behaves like this? i am of the opinion that there has to be a better way to interact with devices. in the words of bret victor:

I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade.

Is that so bad, to dump the tactile for the visual? Try this: close your eyes and tie your shoelaces. No problem at all, right? Now, how well do you think you could tie your shoes if your arm was asleep? Or even if your fingers were numb? When working with our hands, touch does the driving, and vision helps out from the back seat.

Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It denies our hands what they do best. And yet, it's the star player in every Vision Of The Future.

To me, claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It's obviously a transitional technology. And the sooner we transition, the better.

but this is not the only problem touch interfaces have. maybe it is because of the way we move objects below a screen of glass, maybe it is because a screen does not give us a tactile feedback and maybe we need something completely different. but touch interfaces lack discoverability. like almost all digital products of today's time and age. interaction elements are concealed in the user interface, buttons are disguised in text, input fields are not obviously marked as such and interaction elements don't give feedback. we probably can tell what elements we can interact with based on our experience, but there is now way to tell just by looking at the screen. this issue is amazingly well summarized by don norman and bruce tognazzini:

Today’s devices lack discoverability: There is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen. Do you swipe left or right, up or down, with one finger, two, or even as many as five? Do you swipe or tap, and if you tap is it a single tap or double? Is that text on the screen really text or is it a critically important button disguised as text? So often, the user has to try touching everything on the screen just to find out what are actually touchable objects.

the truth is this: if there is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen and the interaction is numbed with no feedback by the devices, what's left? the interaction gets reduced to experience and familiarity where we only rely on readily transferred, existing skills.

with our digital products we are building environments, not just tools. yet we often think only about the different tasks inside our product. we have to view our products in a context of how and where they are being used. our products are more than just static visual traits, let's start to see them as such.

summing up 76

i am trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. i am unable to show you what it will be, but i can show you some of the pieces and why they matter to me. if you are building a different puzzle, it is possible that these pieces won't mean much to you, maybe they won't fit or they won't fit yet. then again, these might just be the pieces you're looking for. this is summing up, please find previous editions here.

Normal Considered Harmful, by Alan Kay

Normal is the greatest enemy with regard to creating the new. And the way of getting around this, is you have to understand normal, not as reality, but just a construct. And a way to do that, for example, is just travel to a lot of different countries – and you'll find a thousand different ways of thinking the world is real, all of which is just stories inside of people's heads. That's what we are too. Normal is just a construct – and to the extent that you can see normal as a construct inside yourself, you've freed yourself from the constraints of thinking this is the way the world is. Because it isn't. This is the way we are.

some very interesting points on the challenge of real innovation. this talk is probably best summarized by acknowledging that all understanding begins with not accepting the world as it appears. and this is very much true for the tools and products we use and create ourselves. alan kay's idea is quite big, and it is almost too big an idea to see and it is very hard to actually see it. part of the problem is that we have to make a distinction between the computer and computing as a technology and computers as a medium. only then we can come up with better ideas and solutions.

When U.S. air force discovered the flaw of averages, by Todd Rose

The consensus among fellow air force researchers was that the vast majority of pilots would be within the average range on most dimensions. After all, these pilots had already been pre-selected because they appeared to be average sized. The scientists also expected that a sizable number of pilots would be within the average range on all 10 dimensions. But they were stunned when they tabulated the actual number.

Zero. There was no such thing as an average pilot. If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.

By discarding the average as their reference standard, the air force initiated a quantum leap in its design philosophy, centred on a new guiding principle: individual fit. Rather than fitting the individual to the system, the military began fitting the system to the individual. In short order, the air force demanded that all cockpits needed to fit pilots whose measurements fell within the 5-per-cent to 95-per-cent range on each dimension.

every time my clients talk about the user, or the average user i get an uneasy feeling. you see, there is no average user. and every time you design your product for an average user you similarly designed it to fit no one. so how do we get out of this dilemma? the first approach might be user research done right (jobs to be done is an interesting approach), the latter might be products which adapt to the user's current level of knowledge and experience. the idea here being quite simple: user experience is a moving target. and as we use a product and improve our understanding of it, the user interface should adapt and improve as well.

The Surrender of Culture to Technology, by Neil Postman

Every technology has an inherent bias, has both unique technical limitations and possibilities. That is to say every technology has embedded in its physical form a predisposition to it being used in certain ways and not others. Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral or adaptable. In other words each technology has an agenda of its own and so to speak gives us instructions on how to fulfil its own technical destiny. We have to understand that fact but we must not and especially we must not underestimate it. Of course we need not be tyrannized by it, we do not always have to go in exactly the direction that a technology leads us toward going. We have obligations to ourselves that may supersede our obligations to any technology

i see neil postman as one of the best media and technology critics of our time. his basic gist is quite simple: we have to become aware of the environments we live in and how we and our understanding of the world adapt to it without being aware of the process. in his talk he poses the following seven questions, with the argument that questions are more important than answers. because answers change over time and different circumstances even for the same person, while questions endure:

  • what is the problem to which a technology claims to be a solution?
  • whose problem is it?
  • what new problems will be created because of solving an old one?
  • which people and institutions will be most harmed?
  • what changes in language are being promoted?
  • what shifts in economic and political power are likely to result?
  • what alternative media might be made from a technology?

summing up 75

i am trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. i am unable to show you what it will be, but i can show you some of the pieces and why they matter to me. if you are building a different puzzle, it is possible that these pieces won't mean much to you, maybe they won't fit or they won't fit yet. then again, these might just be the pieces you're looking for. this is summing up, please find previous editions here.

Pernicious Computer Traditions, by Ted Nelson

The computer world is not yet finished, but everyone is behaving as though everything was known. This is not true. In fact, the computer world as we know it is based upon one tradition that has been waddling along for the last fifty years, growing in size and ungainliness, and is essentially defining the way we do everything. My view is that today’s computer world is based on techie misunderstandings of human thought and human life. And the imposition of inappropriate structures through the computer and through the files and the applications is the imposition of inappropriate structures on the things we want to do in the human world.

ted nelson is one of the founding fathers of personal computing and the man who invented hypertext. recently, i've been reading and watching a lot of his stuff and his rebellious view on the current state of computing is particularly interesting. technology is shining back on us and the abstractions we created hurt and limit us. this view is actually quite similar with marshall mcluhan's basic premise "we shape our tools, and our tools shape us".

The Physical Web, by Scott Jenson

You can see this pattern over and over again, we kind of have the old, we slowly work our way into the future, revolve it and then something comes along and scares us and pulls us back to the beginning. So there are two critical psychological points to this shape of innovation, two lessons I think we have to learn. The one is the fact that we have this familiarity, we will always borrow from the past and we have to somehow transcend it. And we just need to appreciate that and talk about that a little bit more to see what we're borrowing. But the other one, I think is also important, is this idea of maturity, because it forms a form of intellectual gravity well. It's like we worked so damn hard to get here, we're not leaving. It kinda forms this local maximum and people just don't want to give it up. We feel like we had somehow gotten to this magical point and it was done. It was like here forever and we can kind of rest. And you can never rest in this business. I think it's important for us to realize both of these two extremes and how we want to break out of this loop.

the two lessons here, that we'll always borrow from the past, and that maturity is an intellectual gravity well that is hard to escape from are very important to grasp and understand. it kinda explains and goes very well together with ted nelson's view above. we get comfortable with what we have and won't give it up lightly. but we have to reconsider our mature designs in order to be able to innovate.

The Web's Grain, by Frank Chimero

We often think making things for the web is a process of simplifying–the hub, the dashboard, the control panel are all dreams of technology that coalesces–but things have a tendency to diverge into a multiplicity of options. We pile on more tools and technology, each one increasingly nuanced and minor in its critical differences. Clearly, convergence and simplicity make for poor goals. Instead, we must aim for clarity. You can’t contain or reduce the torrent of technology, but you can channel it in a positive direction through proper framing and clear articulation.

this inspirational reflection takes us back to reinvestigate how we see and use the web and what our role in creating innovating experiences across the web should be. what would happen if we stopped treating the web like a blank canvas to paint on and instead like a material to build with?

summing up 74

i am trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. i am unable to show you what it will be, but i can show you some of the pieces and why they matter to me. if you are building a different puzzle, it is possible that these pieces won't mean much to you, maybe they won't fit or they won't fit yet. then again, these might just be the pieces you're looking for. this is summing up, please find previous editions here.

Douglas Engelbart Interviewed by John Markoff

Q: Let's talk about the future and what got lost. There were some ideas that got taken away and turned into commercial products, whole industries. But i think i've come to understand that your feeling is that some things didn't get taken away. Tell me about what still needs to be done.

I think the focus needs to be on capabilities that you can drive. Take the business of cost of learning and set it aside until you assess the values of the higher capabilities you can go after. It seemed like there was some level that got set in the early seventies around "it has to be easy to learn". And with all due respect to all the human computer interface guys that's just to me as we'd all still be riding tricycles.

A big part of that is the paradigms we use. One example is the "book paradigm" that's just built into everybody's sort of pragmatical outlook. That's the way you read and study. And you say well no wait, that is just a way an artifact that they call printing and such produced things that would help you do that. We got brand new sets of artifacts now, so let's change our paradigms, let's see what we can do. And that is what I started doing in the sixties.

today's ubiquitous graphical user interface has its roots in doug engelbart's groundshattering research in the sixties. many of the concepts he invented were further developed at xerox parc and successfully commercialized in the apple macintosh, whereupon they essentially froze. twenty years later, despite thousand-fold improvements along every technological dimension, the concepts behind today's interfaces are almost identical to those in the initial mac. this is a very interesting interview with one of the fathers of personal computing which touches on many points of this development.

Moving from Critical Review to Critique, by Jared Spool

I ask teams whether they do critiques. “Oh, yes. All the time,” they tell me. However, when I ask them what it is they do, it’s basically a meeting where someone’s work is criticized for what it’s missing. It’s a meeting where people who haven’t given the design problem or solution much thought, until that moment, rip apart the work of someone who has. These critical design reviews are miserable experiences. Everyone completely dreads them. The experience makes them feel like crap. And then it’s time to schedule another one.

What makes a critique different from a critical design review is we are not there to find flaws. We’re there to learn from the design and to explore where it works well and where it could be improved. In a well-run critique, we explicitly separate out the discussion of “What are we trying to do with this design?” from the discussion of “Does this rendition accomplish it?”

this article has made a tremendous impact on my understanding of what makes a critique worthwhile, particularly at engagements at my clients. to me there is still the notion that between many teams, be it design, product and development, there seems to be mismatch in understanding, and a lot of headaches coming out of it. critique however is an important part of any design process and the feedback you get through a well-run critique is tremendously helpful to create a better product, make better decisions and work together more efficiently.

The Internet of NO Things, by Roope Mokka

As technology keeps developing faster and faster, all the technologies that are now in a smartphone will become the size of a piece of paper and be available for the price of a piece of paper as well. What we have to understand is that when technology gets developed enough it disappears, it ceases to be understood as technology; it becomes part of the general man-made ambience of our life. Look around you, there are amazing technologies already around us that have vanished. This house is a very typical example of disruptive technology, not to mention this collection of houses and streets and other infrastructure, know as the city, invented some thousands of years ago. Houses and cities are technologies. Our clothing is a technology, the food on the tables is the end product of masses of technologies. These are all technologies that have in practice disappeared: they are on the background and nobody (outside of dedicated professionals) thinks of them as technologies.

with all this buzz about the internet of things, i find it refreshing to talk about what comes after the internet of things. arthur c. clarke once famously remarked that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. i really like this idea of how technology disappears after it has been established.

summing up 73

i am trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. i am unable to show you what it will be, but i can show you some of the pieces and why they matter to me. if you are building a different puzzle, it is possible that these pieces won't mean much to you, maybe they won't fit or they won't fit yet. then again, these might just be the pieces you're looking for. this is summing up, please find previous editions here.

How the internet flips elections and alters our thoughts, by Robert Epstein

We have also learned something very disturbing – that search engines are influencing far more than what people buy and whom they vote for. We now have evidence suggesting that on virtually all issues where people are initially undecided, search rankings are impacting almost every decision that people make. They are having an impact on the opinions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of internet users worldwide – entirely without people’s knowledge that this is occurring. This is happening with or without deliberate intervention by company officials; even so-called ‘organic’ search processes regularly generate search results that favour one point of view, and that in turn has the potential to tip the opinions of millions of people who are undecided on an issue.

we all run interesting experiments in and with our products in order to make them more usable, behave more efficiently and make them better. this is a chilling essay based on proven research and featuring some really interesting experiments and examples in which big players such as google and facebook are creating massive influence over people’s behaviors and opinions – without any of us really being able to detect that it’s happening. the issue of invisible algorithms is a very important one. it is important in order to know how we are being affected ourselves as well as how we can use these strategies responsibly for our products & services.

Responsive Web Design: Relying Too Much on Screen Size, by Luke Wroblewski

Don’t assume screen adaptation is a complete answer for multi-device Web design. Responsive Web design has given us a powerful toolset for managing a critical part of the multi-device world. But assuming too much based on screen size can ultimately paint you into a corner.

It’s not that adapting to screen size doesn’t matter, as I pointed out numerous times, it really does. But if you put too much stock in screen size or don’t consider other factors, you may end up with incomplete or frankly inappropriate solutions. How people interact with the Web across screens continues to evolve rapidly and our multi-device design methods need to be robust enough to evolve alongside.

this is what i preach my clients for years. everybody seems to be always hyping this new technology or this new feature or that new paradigm. but in the end this only goes so far. what is important is that your product or service runs well in the ecosystem it will be used in, not the one it was designed for, be it a website, an application or a mobile app.

The Web of Alexandria, by Bret Victor

Whenever the ephemerality of the web is mentioned, two opposing responses tend to surface. Some people see the web as a conversational medium, and consider ephemerality to be a virtue. And some people see the web as a publication medium, and want to build a "permanent web" where nothing can ever disappear. Neither position is mine. If anything, I see the web as a bad medium, at least partly because it invites exactly that conflict, with disastrous effects on both sides. For people who have grown up with HTTP and URLs, it can be hard to see anything wrong with them. The tendency is to blame individual behavior – "You should have mirrored that data!" "You shouldn't have put those photos online!" But the technical properties of a medium shape social practice, and if the resulting social practice is harmful, it's the medium that is at fault.

how can you call the web a publishing medium when your bookshelf can just vanish? on the other hand, how can it be that deleted content still emerges from the deep sea of the web? the web is a single, increasingly complex infrastructure which has been adopted for mutually incompatible purposes. more importantly however bret victor made me realize that there’s so many ways we limit ourselves with technology.

summing up 72

i am trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. i am unable to show you what it will be, but i can show you some of the pieces and why they matter to me. if you are building a different puzzle, it is possible that these pieces won't mean much to you, maybe they won't fit or they won't fit yet. then again, these might just be the pieces you're looking for. this is summing up, please find previous editions here.

When We Build, by Wilson Miner

When we design this new generation of digital tools for this ecosystem's screen, we have a longer horizon ahead of us than just the next software platform or the next version of a technology. We have a longer lineage behind us than just the web or software design or even computers. Steve Jobs said the thing that separates us from the high primates is that we're tool builders. We make things, we make things that change our lives and we make things that changed the world. This is a long and long lasting tradition. We shape our tools, and our tools shape us. We're a product of our world and our world is made of things. Things we use, things we love, things we carry with us and the things we make. We're the product of our world but we're also its designer. Design is the choices we make about the world we want to live in.

this is an exceptional talk on media and human perceptions. as more of the tools we live with every day become digital instead of physical, our opportunity – and responsibility – as designers is increasing. currently we are in a unique position to shape the tools we will use in the next century, and to define how those tools will shape us, create and dictate our behavior. the gist is extremely relevant for us right now, as our way of thinking, our opportunities and our technology are highly dependent on the quality and potential of our tools. highly recommended

Why I can’t convince executives to invest in UX (and neither can you), by Jared Spool

I’ve been pitching our services for 23 years and I’ve never once successfully convinced an executive of anything.

Our success has always come from projects where the client team, including the senior management, already understood the value of great user experiences. I haven’t convinced them because they didn’t need convincing.

You can’t convince a smoker to quit smoking. They need to just decide they’ll do it. On their own. When they are ready. It’s the same with executives. Neither I, you, nor anybody else can convince an executive to invest in user experience.

this article hits very close to home for me as i often had similar experiences. in all successful pitches i rarely pushed for ux, but almost always took a step back and found out what executives were already convinced of. at large they have something they want to improve, be it related to revenues, reducing costs, increasing the number of customers, increasing sales or making their team more effective. good user experience can help with each of those things. but there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution for any of these. however, once you start talking about what executives are already convinced of, things get much more easy. how can you argue with a customer who is struggling checking out a product on your website or one not being able to use the app you provide? once you are no longer trying to change their focus, you're playing directly into their main field of attention.

on ditching css frameworks and preprocessors, by yours truly

What if I were to tell you...CSS is already a framework for styling HTML, and that by actually taking the time to learn it, one can make significantly less shitty websites that are actually responsive, don’t require a quad-core with 8GB of ram just to render, and that another front-end-developer who isn’t hip on whatever flavor-of-the-month bullshit framework can actually be able to maintain it?

in this short post i try to make a point on how ditching existing css frameworks and preprocessors is the first step towards a modern, bloat free web. in my opinion you will save time and money in the long run by reducing abstraction, being able to update it easily and avoiding extra cruft, and of course the latest css modules specification will make those frameworks and preprocessors superfluous in the medium term. i'd be very interested to hear about your comments and experiences on this topic!


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