An illustrator friend was telling me over dinner recently how she was struggling to put together her portfolio. As anyone who’s ever had to create one knows, it’s a big, complicated effort. There’s lots of strategizing about the story you’re trying to tell, lots of visual design to create new samples, and a lot of revising old projects to bring them up to your current standards. So it wasn’t surprising that she was running into trouble motivating herself, day after day, to keep working on what can seem like an endless uphill climb.
A few weeks before that dinner I had seen Dean Karlan, professor and development economist at Yale, speak at a conference called PopTech. Amongst other things, he spoke about using economic incentives to change patterns of motivation - decreasing the cost of virtue and increasing the cost of vice. His personal example: making an agreement with a friend to hand over $100 if he ordered dessert, thus increasing the price of dessert to $108 from $8.
So while we were at dinner, that talk was still floating around my brain, and I decided to see if we could make something concrete out of it. I asked if she’d be up to put money on the table. She said a friend had offered to make a contract already - if she didn’t finish a portion of the portfolio in the allotted time she had to hand over cash. According to her, it didn’t work in practice. The friend didn’t force her to give up the money when it came down to it, and the whole thing felt awkward.
We decided to try a different, more direct approach:
The results, in her words:
A few things [happened] — I really accepted the deadline as a real thing and not something I could violate (like a weak agreement with myself). Once I believed I would certainly be getting a finished piece at the end, it made me excited to get started.
A few times I hit a wall or got discouraged that it wasn’t looking good, which is what always happens, and that’s where I usually give up and start over or start a new project or just go watch tv. But since I really wanted to get it done by Friday, I forced myself to push through those blocks. I didn’t have time to start over so I needed to be more decisive and resourceful. So that was different this time.
Another interesting result was that even though I had less time to finish the work (less than with no official deadline), I mixed in lots of skill building activities like plein air painting, watching art tutorials and learning new tools. I’ve been meaning to do more of that, but since it was less important than portfolio work, I put it off. This week I felt more free to do those things.
Large, unstructured, intimidating, deadline-free tasks can be the enemy of forward progress. And as we procrastinate, as we watch ourselves fail to get things down both large and small, it can be hard to get out of the negative spiral. I think what mattered most here wasn’t the money, but the fact that there was a structure and a social commitment, that I was more deeply invested in her success or failure, that she owed something to not just herself, but someone else, and that there was a clear metric of what we both set as the goal.
And just in case it wasn’t already clear, she finished the three pieces we agreed to in just five days.
I’ve been doing more product management than design lately, which I generally enjoy, but it’s also a very different role within a team than what I’m used to. Primarily, I’ve been struggling with the disjoint that can arise between product management, design, and engineering, or to put it another way, product management cast as an overseer/director and design/engineering as “maker” roles.
One facet of this - there’s a common concept within some project processes of a PM-type as “product owner”. Basically the one who lays claim to what this thing we’re making should be, and who dictates whether the current form has or has not yet actualized that. The way the rhetoric around this goes (and this is not inherent in everyone or even most people who do agile, just in some of the theory), product manager generates stories, implementation team makes them happen, loop back to product manager who then accepts or rejects said stories.
That’s all well and good at a large company, where there’s a ton to oversee and direct and work may be more planned. But at a startup, I don’t think it should be that way. I think the product manager, designer, engineer should all be sitting next to each other, specs should happen beforehand as well as on the fly, design should inform product, product should inform engineering, and feedback shouldn’t wait till the next sprint review. If there are positive relationships among the team, this shouldn’t be a problem and no one should be stepping on anyone’s toes.
Basically, I prefer to work as a PM the way I’d work as a designer. Collaboratively with my teammates, iteratively as we make new discoveries, and flatly, as we all share equal ownership in shipping an awesome product. In my mind, I prefer to recast the PM not as an owner, but as a service role, providing direction and support when needed, getting tactical things in order, listening to problems and solving them if possible, and if there’s nothing else to do, getting his/her hands dirty in design and engineering. I recently saw a quote from a speaker at Pop!Tech that captured this notion well for leadership, but I think it applies to all forms of management, coordination, and team direction:
”The first job of a leader is to define reality, last to say thank you and, in between, to be a debtor and a servant.” — Max DuPree
This is how you create emotional connections between people and your product/brand/company. You add subtle, small elements that remind everyone that everything is just made by another human being living another human life who likes and deals with probably a lot of the same human things.
A friend of mine was talking about how her approach to sales [and I think it’s pretty common] is just to befriend people, to drop a sympathetic note if she knows that a contact has been working really hard instead of only pushing to close. Same idea could be applied to product design - try thinking of the people who interact with your products as friends, and then see how that changes what you might make.
I’ve had evernote for a while now, maybe a year+. Just started using it again for a new research project, and just e-mailed a note to myself for the first time. Their e-mail back was a perfect example of information just exactly when you need it - didn’t know about the tips, was new to e-mailing notes even after a year of usage, but not new to evernote in general, and so the feedback they provided was super-focused and brief. Good thing to keep in mind in UX design - when does a person need new information, when are they open to receiving that information [not always the same], and through what channel can you best provide that information? And that this doesn’t just apply to a slick tutorial [often the worst place to provide lengthy information if the user just wants to jump in], but to continuing education and support as the person grows and engages more with your application.
Really like the visual design on find friends. For me brings up associations of personal, hand-bound journals, physical address books/planners, worn wallets, and old maps (color scheme), without explicitly overdoing any of those metaphors. It’s hard to definitively say what it looks like, which is as it should be as there are few real-world mental models of location tracking that should be tapped. But the app still uses familiar design elements to convey notions of personal, private, relational, etc.
Edit from April 2012: all the above might still be true, but I could do with a bit less mock-leather texture in my life (apple might have played that one out).
Edit from Nov 2012: I was tempted to remove this post as I really disagree with my past self on this one - but I’ve decided to leave it up as an example of how design ages. Intense skeuomorphism, perhaps even past skeuomorphism to just abuse of metaphor, starts out looking quite nice, and ends up seeming pretty off once the pendulum starts to swing back to flatness and minimalism. Maybe it’s that way for any design that goes out of style, but it seems all the more true that designs that mimic our physical world remind us more of their own decay.
Sometimes the FB Connect permissions copy reminds me of the tone used in the “threat level orange” airport security announcements. It’s pretty threatening - “access my data at any time” - when in reality I would guess the most common use case for this particular permission setting is to let you stay logged in to a mobile or web app without going through the FB connect login flow every single time.
Yes, technically that app can then look at whatever other profile info you’ve authorized at any time. So they could look at your birthday, or your e-mail address [if authorized] or, maybe your time zone at any given moment. Odds are they won’t, and odds are if the language weren’t as it is the majority of people wouldn’t care. I definitely understand the need to address privacy concerns, worries about irresponsible or malicious apps, and the desire to be extremely transparent. But that can be accomplished in a clearer, more user-friendly tone. Say, provide examples of common use cases for this permission, or even, as a tiny example, sub in the phrase “offline” [“access my data when I’m offline”] for the more intimidating “any time.” Lots of ways to wordsmith the various permissions so that using FB connect is not just a big, scary threat to your data, and maybe more importantly, your social presence.
There are so many apps in the app store? How do you get people to find yours? —
From my Mandarin teacher. And that of course, is one of the key questions. From what I’ve heard and personal experience, unless you’re launching on a new frontier platform [i.e. first one on Bada in Spain, Windows Phone launch app], lots of possible answers [and lots of people working on this problem]. The main thing is not to rely on the app store as your main marketing venue, but rather as just a point of distribution. The field of dreams strategy probably won’t work. Whether you then use PR pushes, cross-platform promotional strategies, cross-app advertising, targeted niche marketing, attempts to get featured for using new functionality, viral strategies, etc. depends on the app category and situation. From the user’s standpoint the app store is set up for search far more than browsing [especially after the top apps which are generally dominated by games]. Every so often I’ll hear from someone who just went skimming through apps out of boredom, but not the most common thing.
Sidenote on mobile marketing + UX: I suspect there are very few fans of the “like it? review it!” alert, though that’s entirely a hunch. Seems to have fallen out of favor in the past year thankfully.
Best account stats ever. Just started playing around with things, but Urban Airship already gives me the impression that they’re really dedicated to a positive customer experience.
Observational Skills workshop -
From last year, but I’ve never cross-posted it over here. As part of my time at Catapult Design, we put together workshops on various foundational product design and engineering skills. Mine was on basic observational research skills - it’s a quick read and the exercises can be applied within organizations to get the conversation started. There are more of these on Catapult’s blog [www.catapultdesign.org/blog] in case you’re looking to use any of this within a budding design team. Most applies to UX as well, though potentially with some tweaks.
The purpose of an app is for convenience, not for beauty. — A friend in Atlanta. I know lots of people who would disagree with her. I think it varies depending on whether the app is necessity/task-based or more “frivolous,” but I suspect we habituate to appearances faster than usefulness,