What are you, a billboard?

When I was in middle school, I really wanted this Nike T-shirt. It said “Just Do It,” in big black and red letters up the front and down the back, and I thought it was just the coolest. I vaguely remember someone I admired wearing one just like it, and I clearly remember all the cool kids at school having them. In fact, I can clearly recall all the cool kids having Nike shirts, and Umbro shorts, and Adidas shoes (Sambas, if I remember correctly). They all dressed like they were going to/coming from indoor soccer practice all the time.

As I started to work in Brand Design, and learn more about marketing, I remember thinking that the real brilliance of Nike’s brand was not the performance or aesthetic qualities of their products; but that they had convinced the world, through associating their brand with top-performing athletes (and therefore the cool kids who wanted to be just like them), to pay them for the privilege of advertising their brand on our bodies.

In the 1990s Nike’s brand was so pervasive that all you really had to do to mimic it was set some type in Futura Bold Condensed, and you were off to the races. Come to think of it, that probably explains a lot of my font choices in college…but I digress.

I think about this every time I see design recommendations based on, or that heavily leverage, someone else’s Design Language and/or Front-End Framework; which happens a lot. I’ve worked in companies that choose to build on top of Bootstrap, or Material Design (or both, and have a turf war over which is better). I’ve worked with designers and developers who refuse to break a rule set forth by Apple’s or Microsoft’s Human Interface Guidelines. I’ve advised entrepreneurs who have tied their brands so closely to platform conventions that you would never know that their iOS and Android versions are the same product.

This leads me to my point…

There’s great danger in using someone else’s Design Language/Front-End Framework/UI Components in your product interface. It is often overlooked by proponents of such shared frameworks that those things are equal parts User Interface Convention and Brand Expression. When you use them, sure you get the benefits of a tried-and-true UI component (probably saving yourself time and money and risk), but you also extend Google’s, or Twitter’s, or Apple’s, or whomever’s brand expression into your product at the expense of your own.

There are, of course benefits to using these things, not just in the time and money you save not having to build them yourself, but in Usability. Platform conventions are a valuable thing. If you want your product to feel familiar, and align to the choices they already made by choosing that platform, you should follow them. Universal (or nearly universal) patterns reduce the amount of cognitive energy users need to use your interface, and that’s generally good. Your designs should acknowledge Jakob’s Second Law.

Like many things in Design, the goal should be to strike the right balance between competing goals. In this case, between making things familiar enough that they’re easy to use and expressing enough of your own brand that people can tell the difference, and you can build brand equity through the interface.

In this way shoes might actually be a good metaphor. It’s pretty rare that a shoe comes to market that makes you confused about how to use it. They all have pretty straightforward design conventions and that makes them easy to use. But, it’s also pretty rare that you would confuse the products of any of the major brands with one another, because they all have unique brand attributes that help us differentiate them from one another. This is how your experiences should be designed as well.

Predictable behavior

One of the things UX/product designers do is predict the way people will use things. It helps us prevent errors and usability problems. It’s one of the core skills of a good designer, and one of the problems we must solve first; before we decide what it looks like, or how it will make you feel. I mean…unless you’re a bad designer. Then you design things for how they will look in the pages of your favorite design magazine (if those are still even a thing), or to placate your most opinionated stakeholder. I guess it depends on whose validation you crave the most.

Anyway. I digress.

We should be designing things based on how we expect they will be used. It seems simple enough, but it’s this very basic idea at which we fail again and again, especially when we design online systems. We consistently fail to predict, and design for, people using the systems we design inappropriately.

It occurred to me this morning, as I was reading yet another exposé detailing Facebook putting its thumb on the scale in order to avoid receiving criticism from right-wing media pundits while listening to a podcast wax comically about the nudity police on Instagram; that this failure is not a failure of design to predict the behavior, but a failure to accurately calibrate the idea of “appropriate.”

Or, said another way; the problem is not that we can’t predict the behavior and design for it, it’s that we don’t agree that the behavior is inappropriate.

In this example, we seem to all be aligned on the idea that online services that allow children to have accounts and post content should not allow nudity, but we’re not aligned on whether or not we should allow that same platform to be used to spread hate speech, organize domestic terrorism, or manipulate people’s emotional health.

When you think about it, especially considering the problems that a platform chooses to fix, versus the ones it chooses to fix (or fix poorly); what they are really telling you is which uses of their platform are appropriate or inappropriate. Or, at least they’re telling you which behaviors they’ve decided aren’t deal-breakers because they’re important to their most opinionated stakeholders.

If you want to go quickly…

There is an almost certainly apocryphal proverb that goes something like, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” and I think of it often when trying to take on large/complex projects, because I see this thinking get a lot of teams in trouble.

One of the things we have to do when we, as designers, take on large projects is integrate complex sets of requirements; but that’s really hard to do with the “two-pizza teams” favored by adherents of this particular folk wisdom. Those teams are designed for speed, because (let’s face it) speed is almost always a requirement. That isn’t a bad thing. The longer a project goes on, the more likely it is to fail or get cancelled. Speed is a determining factor for most projects. The fault lies not in prioritizing speed, but perceiving it as a binary, and as a constant.

So, what do you do when you need to go quickly and go far?

I propose you oscillate between going together, and going it alone. Or, to keep things in the realm of apocryphal proverbs, you oscillate between Two-Pizza Teams and It Takes a Village. Recognize that there are times to go fast, skimming the surface and plowing through (or skipping off) surface-level disruptions; and times to slow down, sink in, and roll with the waves a bit. I know. My metaphors are all over the place.

This requires that you spend your time building a coalition of people who trust you and understand that there will be times that you will need their attention, and times when you don’t. There will be times when it seems like you’re ignoring them, and times where you will be joined at the hip. There will be times when you are asking them to weigh-in, and times when you are asking them to butt-out.

It takes an enormous amount of trust to get that last part to be okay; but that’s what it takes to do the big stuff quickly and well.

This, for what it’s worth, is why I end up being a proponent of facilitated collaboration methodologies like Design Thinking. At the points where you need to get input from that coalition, a well-designed workshop (or series) is a great way to get what you need from those people, while setting the ground-rules for asking them to get out of the boat so you can start going fast again.

No, it’s not all “User Experience.”

Update: Upon re-reading this post, I decided that I was being a dick. So, I'm editing it, to be clearer, and less of a dick.

Last night, I had a simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating conversation with a group of designers that I know through AIGA. It was the night before the national conference started in earnest, and the hotel bars were chockablock with excited designers from all over the country; gathered to get inspired, network, and engage in group catharsis.

Clients/Developers/Stakeholders (people who are not Designers), as it turns out, really do be like that sometimes.

The conversation was a free-wheeling exploration of the relationships between all the various design disciplines and what makes them “the same” and different. What was frustrating about it was the obvious lack of context of one of the participants, who kept insisting that “everything is UX” and then talked about something specific to graphic design. More specifically, graphic design within the context of advertising.

At some points in the conversation, another participant and I would be having a side-bar about design history, engineering, computer science, design thinking, Design Thinking™, or whatever, and find ourselves saying exactly the same thing as the main conversation, only to hear it punctuated with “That’s what I’m saying, it’s ALL UX!”

Except here’s the thing: It’s not.

What we were discussing is Design. All design has (and should be produced for) users, and all users will experience that design, but that doesn’t make all design User Experience (UX) Design. UX design is its own discipline, which is made up of sub-disciplines, with skills that specifically support the intended outcomes of UX Design.

Each of the various disciplines has facets of their execution that place emphasis/value on domain-specific concerns that would be useless in the other disciplines. For example, the selection of paper stock is mostly irrelevant to UX. The understanding of Human Factors/Usability is mostly irrelevant to print designers. There are even sub-disciplines that cross over, but the nuance of their application distinguishes a UX Designer from another type of Designer with the same core skills. A motion designer who is fantastic at designing for advertising might be completely lost when creating animations to aid usability.

There are, of course, overlaps in our understanding; because these are adjacent disciplines. Being able to select type combinations and judge their legibility is relevant to both. Even within that similarity, there are distinctions because of the technology being used to produce the end results. Understanding those limitations is key to the success of the execution.

As I’m writing this, I recall various points in my transition from mostly doing print and brand work to doing 99% UX work, and the ridiculous number of times my print-based judgments of the overlapping parts of the two disciplines failed me. The more I think about it, the more I can see how my early judgment that these things were “the same” led me astray.

No, it’s not all UX. It may all be Design, but even in the similarities, there is nuance. It’s not the same at all.

Support for IE[-3] has ended…

The site I work on at work gets requests like this pretty often:
“When will you support Internet Explorer [version number way lower than 11]?”

And, the answer is, “Never. A very small part of our users use IE[-3], and the cost would be prohibitive.”

And their answer to that is typically something like, “Our IT guys won’t let us install Chrome or Firefox or upgrade windows and get IE[n].”

At first I felt bad for these people, and told my bosses that we could support IE[-3], gave them an estimate for how long it would take to do, and told them how it would affect the design. After all, as a long-time Mac user, I used to get these “you’re a second-class netizen” messages all the time, and I know it’s frustrating. But now…I don’t feel bad at all, and here’s why:

From Microsoft’s website, “Windows Internet Explorer [-3] is also no longer supported, so if you use it (or any other browser) to surf the web, you might be exposing your PC to additional threats…”

This is IT’s job, right? To keep the technical resources running and safe? No one thought it was a huge surprise that XP was discontinued (and along with it IE[-3]), and they gave us plenty of warning. Computers and OSes have a predictable useful life. Upgrades should be planned spend.

If you’re using IE[-3], the web sucks for you. You’re not seeing most of the cool (and useful) new stuff that people are making. Supporting your out of date browser means we can’t make as many cool (and useful) things as we want to, because each one takes twice as long. Selfishly, I like making cool stuff. Not selfishly – The 80% of users who are using modern browsers are better served by the stuff we make using modern techniques.

What you’re asking for, when you ask for support of your out-of-date browser is that we slow the pace of creating cool (and useful) things for everyone, to accommodate the pace of your IT staff not doing their job (or you not wanting to have a conversation with them about it, which I’m sure is often the case).

When viewed through that lens, I no longer feel bad for these people. I will not be their enabler. Talk to your IT staff about getting you the tools that you need.

UX isn’t as important as User Experiences

In the past few years UX has become a big part of the conversation about design and its benefit to business. It had previously been a relatively small corner of the design universe, mostly concerned with how information is organized, how a user gets from Point A to Point B inside your application, and what form fields they’ll have to fill out (and how) once they get there. It is now a growing discipline that seems like it will consume all aspects of product and service design.

UX becoming important to business is not because business suddenly came to understand that what we were doing was important, but because UX slowly drifted into a holistic design discipline at around the same time that businesses finally became aware that products aren’t as important to people as experiences.

Spending vs. Wasting Time

I frequently have arguments with people about wasting time “re-doing” things they spent time on already. They’ll say things like, “I know this isn’t the best solution, but if we change it now, we will have wasted the time we spent making it.”

Here’s the thing. You’ve only wasted that time if you never learn from it and fix it.

If you spent your time making something that isn’t very good, and has little or no value, then you have wasted it. If, however, you spend some more time making a better, high-value, thing, based on what you learned, then it was only a small investment in the resulting high-value product.

Crazy Visionaries and Faster Horses…

I am particularly fond of the misattributed (or completely fabricated) Henry Ford quote,

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It’s spirit is something I identify pretty strongly with…that the market is incapable of thinking beyond the horizon. Buyers and users have a really hard time conceiving of anything that isn’t pretty similar to something they’re already familiar with. Steve Jobs also said something similar (and mostly true),

“…people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This creates conflict for me internally, because at my heart, I am a human centered designer. I solve problems for people, and I want them to use and enjoy and find value in the things I create for them. Their input (the user) is critically important to the creation of valuable design. So, how do I reconcile this belief that people/the market are incapable of conceiving of radically high-value solutions to their own problems?

Easy. I don’t.

There’s a world of difference between solving a problem in a way that users can’t have seen coming, and spending your time, money and resources solving a problem that doesn’t exist, or solving it in a way that won’t be accepted. There’s also a world of difference between studying a user and their needs, and simply asking them what they want. It is in that difference that these ideas become not just strange bedfellows, but amplify each others effect.

Effective study of a user’s needs and behavior gives you the background to design exactly what they want, even if they don’t know it yet. Studying the user doesn’t need to raise the probability that you’ll create something mundane. But, not studying the user does raise the probability that you’ll create something that doesn’t solve their problem.

What Henry Ford (allegedly) understood about his users is actually born out in that quote. “Faster Horses,” tells him what problem he’s solving. The value he as an innovator brings to the market is that he solved the root problem in a novel way.

Ignoring your user does not make you a Crazy Visionary, it just makes you crazy. Your value as an innovator does not come from the ability to invent completely previously un-thought-of things from whole cloth, it comes from the ability to solve real problems for real people in meaningful ways.

Who wants crazy visionaries anyway? I would much prefer cannily sane ones. 😉

The Virtues of Being Expensive

How much to charge is the thing about which many designers I know, myself included, have the biggest doubt. We don’t (mostly) doubt the quality or value of the work, or our ability to complete it and exceed our client’s expectations…we just don’t know how much to charge. Here’s my advice:

Charge More. Here’s Why:

1. It’s an interesting (and useful) piece of consumer psychology that people value the things they pay a lot for more than things that they pay less for. They are more likely to be certain that they made the right decision if they chose to spend as much as they could conceive of.

1.1 An interesting corollary – For many, the fear of choosing a good or service that doesn’t fit their need far outweighs the fear of spending too much money. Spending more is almost like an insurance policy against fault. After all, no one is going to blame you for hiring the best attorney in town, no matter how much she charges. Even if you lose, it’s not your fault.

2. People are less likely to waste something valuable. If they’re paying you a lot for your time, they’re less likely to waste it by making you sit through unnecessary meetings, making needless fear-based changes, and making you interpret meaningless twaddle like, “It just doesn’t pop,” or “I want it to be edgy.”

3. It weeds out the cheapskates. People who don’t think the thing you do (in my case, design) is worth what you’re charging won’t hire you…and that’s worth something. To illustrate, let’s look at a client of mine as a case study:

For the last year, I’ve been working with a company to brand a luxury shaving cream. Early on I was convinced that they were going to underprice their product, so I assembled a case for raising it. I ended up recommending that they price their product at $32/8 oz. tub (which is enough to last me for over a year). In the end, they were scared price it above the traditional English creams, which normally sell for ~$30 for a 5.3 oz tub, so they priced it at $27.50.

Now that it’s been on the market for a few months, the reviews have been rolling in, and they’ve been overwhelmingly positive. Most of the reviewers compare the product not to the $30 English creams, but leapfrog them and go straight for the $60-80 French and Italian stuff.

Sounds good, right? Mostly, yes.

Remember when I said the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive? Note that I didn’t say ‘Universally Positive.’ There have been a (very) few people who have reviewed the product negatively. They’ve criticized it, principally, on price. Their reviews routinely go something like, “I don’t know how they can charge $27.50 for this when I can name a half dozen shaving creams that are better, for half the price.” They then rattle off a list of much cheaper products that aren’t really fair comparisons, and clarify their primary concern even further: Price.

The error my Shaving Cream People made here, in my opinion, is pricing their product low enough that a cheapskate can rationalize it as a good value. (Which, it is. I’ve been using my tub for 4 months, during which time I would have normally used 4 $8 tubes of Neutrogena junk, and mine is still about ~70% full.) If they had priced it at $32 as I recommended, or at $40, as my analysis revealed would have been a reasonable $5/oz. for a Luxury Shaving Cream of this caliber, the chance that the people (or person) who have negatively reviewed it would have bought it all would be much, much lower.

Of course, it’s not a mistake that is unique to my Shaving Cream people. It’s a mistake I see all the time, and have been guilty of myself. People assume that pricing is all about competition, and they a low price is an edge, but pricing is a blade that cuts both ways. Lowering prices attracts consumers that don’t understand the value of your good or service. PC manufacturers have successfully run their industry into the ground by consistently lowering prices, which forced them to lower quality, which lowered consumer expectations, which lowered the value of their brands, lowered the perceived value of their products, and lowered the amount of money people were willing to pay for them, which necessitated further lowering of prices, ad infinitum, until no one can make money off the damn things anymore. If big companies with armies of MBAs, like HP, Dell and IBM can make the same mistake, it’s hard to ‘blame’ a small business for underpricing.

Pricing, however, is about much more than figuring out what people are willing to pay. It’s also about Positioning, which is to say it’s about figuring out how much which people are willing to pay. It’s as much about understanding who you want to buy your product as it is understanding who you don’t want to buy it.

I’ve told people frequently that every time I take on a cheap project, for whatever reason, they require the most effort, make the most revisions, and are the least interested in participating in the process than any other clients. The reason is simple, and it’s the same reason, regardless of the good or service: Perception of Value.

Some consumers, no matter how much you try to ‘educate’ them, will never understand the value of your good or service, because they don’t value whatever additional value you offer over your competitors, and they never ever will. So price high enough that they won’t consider hiring you (or buying your product) in the first place.

Let them scoff…and then leave you the hell alone.

Playing Chicken

Almost everything worth doing is scary as hell. It’s like playing chicken.

That’s why you need a plan.

If you don’t have a plan you have to make important decisions in the moment that you are least capable of making them well – when impact seems imminent.

That’s a great way to lose at a game of chicken.
Or screw up an ad spend.
Or make a website that sucks.
Or create a brand that no one cares about.

The plan is SO important that it’s become the focus of my business, much more than the artifacts that are created to support the plan…because it doesn’t matter how awesome the artifact is, if the plan sucks you’re going to lose your game of chicken. You’re going to flinch and waste the resources you’ve already devoted to the development of the artifacts.

You lose.