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. (more…)

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.