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About Emily

Emily Campbell is a designer and product strategist. She focuses on creating a powerful attachment between people and digital products in a way that solves human needs while meeting business objectives. She is currently a design specialist on the design transformation team at InVision, and works with teams and companies to grow and mature their design process.

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The woman who gave the macintosh a smile

Susan Kare, the woman behind the original Macintosh iconography, is being awarded the AIGA medal today for her contributions to design. With our endless set of advanced design tools that allow us to manipulate pixels on the screen as if they were real, fluid things, her work is both impressive and refreshing. Her icons, constrained to 32x32px grids, are timeless, and continue to communicate volumes despite their references to ever irrelevant technology (floppy discs?). The images of her sketchbooks offer constant inspiration.

Chroma, by Ben Thomas

I am in love with the saturated style of this photographer. Don’t these just scream summer?

Kanye West is back on Twitter and basically wrote a self-help book

This week I followed Kanye West’s Twitter feed after he started posting truisms and gems of advice on creativity, mindfulness, and being true to yourself. Seriously, I want to print these out and paste them above my desk.

On social media as a creative tool

I’ve been trying to share more of my authentic self on Twitter, lately. It doesn’t come easy to me, which is strange because I am very comfortable with myself and expressing my personality in person. Anyway, as I dig into that, I was inspired by this collection of creatives sharing how they use Twitter as a tool. As an aside, I connected my feed to the Watson Personality Insights service from IBM and was impressed by the results (though I think it tells me I need to express more of my cheerfulness online).

Results of Watson Personality insights report

Follow me at @elou

Teach kids creativity. Ultimately, machines will be better at coding

We need to rethink the way we teach our children and the things we teach them. Creativity will be increasingly be the defining human talent. Our education system should emphasize the use of human imagination to spark original ideas and create new meaning. It’s the one thing machines won’t be able to do.

This was a refreshing perspective. In the rush to teach everyone to code, I’m not sure we’ve stopped to think about the roles humans will actually be playing in 20 years. Creative thinking allows you to adapt to new environments, adopt to skills, weather adversity, and find compassion for others. Love this advice.

Designing systematic colors

This deep dive into creating color systems is heavy but fascinating. I want to walk through each of these steps using a past project of mine to see where I could have improved and adopt this process into my workflow. (Bonus: I’ve bookmarked this video of Diana Mounter discussing color systems at Github I plan to watch this weekend).

This album of vintage Airstream photos

I’ve always loved the idea of renovating an old airstream and driving around the country in a nostalgic attempt to connect with bygone days of Americana. Honestly though, it was the outfits in all their polyester glory that caught my eye in this collection. I want.

Vintage 1970s Airstream Photos

Strength in flexibility

Living with 2 rowdy toddlers and 2 even rowdier pups, I’ve developed an unconscious habit of softening my knees anytime they are horsing around.

I’ve only recently become self-aware of this. If I’m standing around chatting and a child goes flying by, my immediate instinct is to widen my stance and relax my knees without even pausing my conversation.

In movies, before a crash, the pilot will often say, “brace for impact.” But parents, skiers, gymnasts, and anyone used to or expecting to take a hard hit to the legs know that tensing up and bracing the body before a blow can do more harm than good.

Flexibility, combined with a strong foundation, makes us more resilient. The next time you’re facing a tough situation, feeling threatened, or standing your ground, pause. Consider whether flexibility may help you around the conflict.

The ability to adjust to conflict instead of trying to fight it will only make you stronger.

Designing for Humans

There is a growing trend throughout the web community to embrace an understanding of behavioral science, and to apply its tenets to our designs. This progress helps us walk the delicate balance between providing an emotional and pleasurable experience for our users and communicating content and information through clear, intuitive patterns.

When the web was first developed, it functioned as a large database, a means of transmitting information from one server to another. Its design was, inherently, mechanic, and placed little emphasis on experience or enjoyment. However, its usefulness as a computing tool was quickly surpassed by its potential to connect. The act of browsing the web grew from a personal, targeted experience (one person looking for specific information) to a multi-user and multi-use phenomena (countless people across the globe exploring a myriad of information and interactions).

Today, the web is a primary means of communication, information-gathering, and enjoyment. Its users have as many interests, limitations, and characteristics as they have faces. I cringe when I hear web design referred to as a facet of “Human-Computer Interaction”, or HCI. Computers are mechanical and thus unable to elicit emotional responses to their users’ needs. If we inject a personal element to our designs, then we can provide an emotionally-driven interaction that is more than just a series of inputs and outputs.

When designing for humans, we recognize the innate differences that each person embodies while accounting for the absolute similarities that all humans share: a sensitivity to group dynamics, emotional stimulation, positive feedback, and familiarity.

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A willingness to fail

What is it about our culture that some people are so keen to fail while others aren’t? The ability to cast off from the shore with the full ability that you may sink is a trait many envy. I envy it.

In Silicon Valley, failure has become somewhat of a badge of honor. A startup founder who was willing to move on his idea, though it didn’t gain traction, still holds value to venture capitalists and the industry at large.

The reality is, it’s not the failure that’s impressive, but rather the willingness to take a risk, to expose your brainchild to the evaluation of your peers (and complete strangers) and put it all on the line. Those people who are confident enough in themselves and their skills are willing to risk having nothing in order to have it all, and more importantly, to make something that matters; something that lasts.

I struggle every day with my fear of failure. I find myself afraid to speak my mind, share my thoughts, write a personal blog post, embark on my own. Working for a startup has eased that. I’m better at sharing ideas that may fail. In fact, many of my ideas do fail, but that makes the ones that stick much stronger.

As designers, we have to see failure as an opportunity. We must be willing to expose ourselves to criticism and change. To know that version A-L may not be accepted, but version M will be phenomenal. By being willing to fail, we are constantly pushing ourselves forward.

The empathy paradox

Empathy is so hot right now.

Whether you’re a user experience professional, visual designer, marketer, developer, empathy is the new skill to have. Unfortunately, like most buzz words that become jargon, the value of the word is being lost in the noise.

What really is empathy? The first definition that may likely come to mind is “the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Much like its cousins, sympathy and mindfulness, its a skill that requires emotional intelligence and awareness.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. By empathizing with our users (clients, colleagues, etc), we are able to create more meaningful experiences, and therefore better designed products. However, there’s a paradox to empathy: The more we think we know another’s needs, the less effort we make to find out what their real needs are.

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What do top UI designers do differently?

Yesterday, I was asked to answer a question on Quora: What do the top 1% of user interface designers do differently than the other 99%? I think the original poster was assuming that the top eschelon of UI designers use different tools or techniques in their practice.

However, I see expert UI design differently. Those designers who really meet their mark and set the bar are not the ones posting pixel perfect mocks to Dribbble that would create horrible usability issues in practice; rather, the best UI designers are the ones who create interfaces so intuitive, so simple and clear, that the design itself really fades from view.

So I answered the question in kind:

  • They talk to the people who are going to be actually using their product
  • They hear criticism and feedback as an opportunity to improve things for the user and NOT as a personal knock
  • They are tied to an outcome, not the design itself, and they realize that the first 50 versions of their design may get scrapped before the 51st is accepted
  • They iterate on small things instead of feeling forced to recreate the big picture
  • They don’t follow trends blindly
  • Most of their work happens in sketches, on whiteboards, through conversations, and only a small piece of it concerns whether something will look nice on their portfolio
  • They allow data to guide their design, but they are not afraid to question the conclusions that are drawn from it
  • Most importantly, they see design as a process that involves multiple people and inputs – they lack ego and embrace empathy.

What do you think?

This excellent UX quote spoke to me

I stumbled upon this great article,  Slaying 5 UX myths for the good of mankind, and was blown away by the reality (and humor) of this quote:

Gone is the view of humans as rational beings who make decisions based on logical reasoning. Embrace instead humans as they are, turning to intuition when too tired to read, making poorer decisions when grumpy and who want to buy from you because you have a pretty smile and you like cats.

Can I get an “amen”?!

When I was studying economics, one of my biggest gripes was the idea that we could make large-scale policy decisions based on perfect models and the false notion of the “rational individual.”

Well, let’s face it folks: people are not rational. That’s why news about Kim Kardashian gets more attention than children starving in Darfur. It’s why we continue to vote for politicians who work against our own interest. It’s why we eat junk food, knowing full well its negative effects on us, because we like it.

And when you’re done reading this great article (which you should), follow it up with Never Ask What They Want — 3 Better Questions to Ask in User Interviews.

You’ll thank me later.

The pre-processor isn’t the problem with your CSS

There has been a lot of bashing on pre-processors lately, and rightfully so. Sort of.

Certainly, these tools, such as SCSS and LESS, can result in excessive bloat and specificity issues in their generated CSS. Lyza Gardner struck the nail on the head in A List Apart this month:

Pre-processors have a way of keeping us at arm’s length from from the CSS we’re building. They put on us a cognitive burden to keep up on what’s evolving in CSS itself along with the tricks we can pull off specific to our pre-processor. Sure, if we’re intrepid, we can keep on top of what comes out the other end. But not everyone does this, and it shows.

But when it comes to pointing the finger, we should be looking at the author, not the tool he uses.

Pre-processors caught on largely because they made it easier to create scalable CSS that paralleled the structure of a pattern library. They made it easier to track variants off of a single element without duplicating any code or requiring additional class names on a single HTML element.

When used correctly, they make coding CSS – and more importantly, maintaining a large CSS code base – so much easier.

To truly take advantage of the strengths of pre-processers, we have to be aware of their limitations and weaknesses, plan accordingly, and think ahead. You could say the same thing about HTML, Javascript, image use, etc. Like any tool, a pre-processor is only as strong as the person who wields it.

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Designer: It’s what you do not what you’re called

As designers, we spend far too much time analyzing how to refer to ourselves. “Product designer, UX/UI designer, visual designer, full-stack designer, lead designer of products”…do any of these really tell you about the person behind the title? If you saw a resume with one of these titles at the top, would it shape your expectations?

My bet is, no.

For example, I have reviewed countless resumes for people heralding themselves as a UI/UX designer because they have worked with wireframes. Often times, these individuals have never once spoken to an actual user or conducted any user research.

But can you blame them? Read any job description for designers, and you’ll think you can only be hired if you can conduct research, generate content, formulate an app’s infrastructure and key interactions, test prototypes, design the whole thing using the latest trends, and then launch the product with CSS, HTML, and Javascript.

It’s no wonder designers are forced to market themselves as the full package, even if it’s just to get a foot in the door. Plus, descriptions like these contribute to imposters syndrome. Your company may be missing out on the perfect candidate because he didn’t think he fit the full description of what you were seeking.

As an industry, I think it’s time we take a step back and just embrace the title “designer”. That, in of itself, expresses so much.

A designer is a problem solver; a thinker; a doer. They are someone who can navigate complex ideas and processes and help define a clear way to manage them. And they have core strengths and weaknesses, too. But I would get more from someone saying “I am a designer that focuses on visual design and product interactions” than if they just said “I’m a UI/UXer.”

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the phrase “less is more.” The same holds true in this case.

Someone trying to describe themselves as a unicorn through their title often fails to match my expectations going in. On the other hand, I would not shortchange someone who simple called themselves “a designer.” I would feel confident that she could understand the core values behind UX research, content strategy, or interaction design, even if they weren’t familiar with the nuances and deliverables associated with that field.

A designer is a problem solver; a thinker; a doer. They are someone who can navigate complex ideas and processes and help define a clear way to manage them.

It’s time we rid ourselves of the debates over who we are and what we do. Be a T-shaped designer, find the area you love, focus on it, cultivate your skills, but expose yourself to other areas too. Don’t be afraid to try new things, like illustrations and mobile app design.

When you’re applying for your dream job, proudly say, “I am a designer” and own it. Own your strengths, own your weaknesses, but know that you can

User Types: The Tourists and The Explorers

User research is paramount to a well-balanced design process. It helps us create and implement interfaces that adhere to the needs and expectations of our users. But how do we adjust for different behavioral patterns amongst that group?

People tend to fall into one of two categories – thinkers and doers; cautious and impulsive; perceptive and decisive. Neither of the two is ‘better’ than the other, but they absolutely are distinct.

In a past life, I was a multi-day raft guide on the Colorado River. Almost all of the people on my trips fell into one of these two groups. Some of my passengers wanted a controlled experience. They wanted to know where we were stopping every day, which rapids we were hitting, what we were serving for each meal, and detailed information about all aspects of the canyon itself. Other people wanted a more adventurous trip. They tended to be the ones who wanted to try and row my boat, who ran up the side hikes in front of the guide without waiting for interp, who came prepared with a swath of information that they had looked up, and who wanted to define their experience for themselves.

These two types of visitors, both unique in their own right, also shared many things in common. Namely, they still required a guide to get them down the river. They still needed assistance, but they looked for it differently. The latter group would ask which way to go and then take off to explore independently, while the former stuck close to the guide for step-by-step instruction. But they were on the same journey.

I refer to these two groups as the tourists and the explorers, respectively, and they did not leave those distinctions behind when they left the trip.

Like my passengers, your users will generally separate into these two groups. One will look for detailed walkthroughs and guidelines while the other will jump right into the interface and start playing around. However, both require a clear and intuitive interface with useful navigation and action-oriented user flows. That’s the common denominator.

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Empathetic Design is Honest Design

Content first. User experience design. These terms are tossed around daily by eager commentators.

The new trend of “flat design” has been founded on the premise that realistic elements on a web page diminish the experience for the user by presenting a dishonest representation of what the page presents: digital content. Or, as opined by the good folks at Layer Vault who take distinction for naming the trend,

designing honestly means recognizing that things you can do with screens and input devices can’t be done with physical objects — more importantly that we shouldn’t try copying them.

This distinction is well-meant, but fallacious. In attempting to justify their decision to break away from the trends of unnecessary realism and skeuomorphism, the writer asserts that realistic design is dishonest. It is not. When done incorrectly, realistic design is bad design. When done correctly, it translates lines of code into a rich experience for the user, one where actions are intuitive, interfaces are beautiful and interactive, and content communicates on a level unobtainable by mere text. When done correctly, it is honest.

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