The Pi-shaped Designer

On my way to lunch, I noticed a little Twitter conversation between Christina Wodtke and Steve Portigal.

For a long time, there was talk of looking for designers, engineers, or other creative people that were “T-shaped,” a shorthand for “good at a lot of things and great at this one thing.”

For UXers, this came to mean being great at one of the core facets of the UX field, be it Information Architecture, User Research, Interaction Design, Content Strategy, etc.* All of us need to be functional in all of these disciplines, but it pays to have a focus in one of these areas.

Increasingly so, the UX field is turning its attention towards what Jared Spool likes to call “unicorns,” people who are particularly strong in two areas: one of the UX disciplines and front end web development. There is an increasing appetite in the job market for people who carry both of these types of skills. There’s even the forthcoming Unicorn Institute that will crank out a new super-charged breed of UXers who have UX and coding chops.

So now we’re in a place where the UX talent market seems to be gradually shifting towards this double-layered skill set. The Unicorns are not T-shaped, they are instead “?-shaped” With a wavy level of competence in a variety of skills, but two deep skill sets: a UX discipline and development skill. This combination provides the 1-2 punch of designing and building, or at least designing and more realistically prototyping the design. We can argue the nuances of process and deliverable fidelity, but the fact remains that the “?-shaped” is in many ways representative of a future vision for UX.

Will there still be t-shaped designers? Of course. We need specialists, but as the UX field expands to include more people, the role will evolve as well.

*Before you get mad at me, yes, I think front-end web development can be called one of the UX disciplines because of its direct impact on the user. But humor me for the sake of this conversation, and consider a chasm between design skills and coding skills, would you?

Getting Voice Commands To work, Talking to a Googler

No time to blog. Short update.

Slight improvement. It turns out that the Twitter Glassware app can cause a conflict with voice recognition. Unfortunately, I had to call the Glass helpline to figure this out. Before doing so, I spent 20 minutes talking to myself in halted and frustrated voice commands. After de-activating the twitter app, I can now perform rudimentary voice commands like “take a picture” which is nice, I guess.

Next step, how do I get pictures off of my glass and onto other things? And how do I send an image to someone?

I actually had to call the Glass hotline and talk to a Glass representative in Mountain View, CA to get it resolved. It just goes to show how hard it is to have a product experience set up from the release. More on that another time.

 

Google Glass Day 1: Not a great start.

So, my Google Glass arrived today. I’m pretty excited about playing with it ands really digging into the UX implication of this kind of interface.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 9.20.06 PM

 

Google Glass is supposed to respond to a set list of voice commands. Once you have it on your head, you activate a sort of voice command prompt by saying “OK, Glass.”  At that point, the screen will prompt you with a variety of  options for what you can do with it. The idea is that you can take a picture and share it with your network. Something like this:

  • Ok, glass.
  • Take a picture.
  • Share with Facebook

That’s the idea, at least. My experience went something like this:

  • Ok, glass.
  • Send a message.
  • Send. A. Message.
  • SEND. A. Oh fuck…
  • Ok, glass.
  • Send a—damnit.
  • Ok, glass.

or…

  • Ok, glass.
  • Ok, glass.
  • O. K. Glass.
  • OK. GLASS.
  • Damnit.

And nothing happened. For now, I’m going to assume I’m still getting the hang of it. Unfortunately, I don’t know what other stuff I’ll do with this to get it to work. I anticipate that it will “sense” what I’m trying to do, or start to understand my voice, but that remains to be seen. Without voice commands… the word “useless” comes to mind.

Also, in the realm of me being an idiot, I can’t really use this thing because I wear glasses. I knew this was a factor going into it, and I’m ordering contacts so I can play around with this in comfort, but it’s still laughably awkward. I have tired it with my glasses, and I was able to get it set up and get it to turn on. I also tried it without my glasses to see if the bone-conduction microphone would work better if the Glass was seated better on my head. No dice.

I’m hopeful that this will get better, but it’s a disappointing start.

Apple Interfaces, Defining UX, and I Didn’t Procrastinate

Jotting down a couple thoughts to test the old Press This Chrome extension, so here’s a little brain dump.

I spent a lot of time in a recent session of my UXD class talking bout the definition of User Experience vs User Experience Design.

The user experience is the way someone feels and acts when they are using a product. I talked a lot about how UX Design is the practice of rendering your intended use of the product to meet a user’s needs

…it’s a work in progress.

Today, I had another thought about it,

UX Design is the practice of aligning the strengths of the product with the needs of the user.

It’s a little more concise. But maybe it’s missing one of the points that I was really trying to push on to my students: even if you’re the UX designer on a project, the user experience isn’t really yours, it belongs to–and comes from–the people who interact with the product.

This also came to mind when I came across this article using the 30th Anniversary of the mac as a moment to reflect back on some of Apple’s wise product design decisions.

Apple has the Mac to thank for its next generation of devices | Apple – CNET News.

As the company has pointed out at its product introductions over the years, its stubborn commitment to match tailored user interface experiences to devices has been shown in the iPod‘s click-wheel and the iPhone’s multitouch display. Indeed, unlike Microsoft, which is pushing hard to conflate laptops and tablets, Apple sees its user interfaces as a defining difference between them.

Apple is revered for their commitment to user experience, but this quotation speaks to that point in an important way. In some ways, Apple didn’t always stick with what they knew best. They went with the interface devices that worked the best, even if it wasn’t based on what they had done before. Moving from the click-wheel to the multi-touch screen is a jump that many other product teams wouldn’t be willing to make and I think this level of innovation is what helps Apple standout.

This now concludes our test of the Press This Chrome extension. This is only a test. Had this been a real blog post, I probably would have procrastinated and never written it. 

Preparing to Teach

There are less than two weeks before my UX class starts at General Assembly. I have spent some time combing through the decks created by previous instructors, plotting out the curriculum, making changes here and there, conferring with my trusty ally, Max. I’m trying to figure out what are the things that I want to change, improve, and to keep.

The core curriculum is very strong, so there’s a great foundation to build on. And I don’t want to do too much building–I want to keep what’s there–but I think there are some things I’ll be stressing a bit more.

We’ll be meeting for two hour sessions, twice a week, for twelve weeks. So, let’s make them count.

A Little More Content Strategy & IA

I thought the curriculum was a bit light on these topics, focusing instead on a little more visual design. I’ll be tweakign this a bit, introducing enough IA to be practical, going juuuust a little bit down the rabbit hole.

LeanUX

Most of the students have expressed that they want to work on a software team or, they currently work on a software team but want to do more UX. What they may or may not realize is that this will mean that they need to approach UX as a an Agile practitioner, which changes the way you work. Lean UX offers a good bridge between the more traditional approach of cultivating high-fidelity deliverables and the iterative nature of discovering and delivering UX insight as quickly as possible.

Guests

They don’t know it yet, but a lot of my friends are going to get a tap on the shoulder, and email, a phone call, asking if they can participate with the class. Some of my fine colleagues are more qualified to speak than I on some of these topics, and I intend to use that to my advantage.

the existing curriculum called for one guest speaker that will basically teach the class for one day. We’ll do that (if I can get the person I want for that day) but I also want to have a lot of other guests, sitting in with us, commenting on the curriculum and exercises. I want students to see that third-party validation that yes, this stuff is valuable outside the classroom.

Personal Growth

You have to start somewhere. I’m really going to impress on students the fact that your skills will not improve with age, they will only improve with work. And this means that we need to start each unit of the class with an empty mind, willing to take a swipe at things, but undeterred when something doesn’t work out.

Take it from the super-awesome Ze Frank and his description of how he attacks new things…

I run out of ideas every day! Each day I live in mortal fear that I’ve used up the last idea that’ll ever come to me. If you don’t wanna run out of ideas the best thing to do is not to execute them. You can tell yourself that you don’t have the time or resources to do ‘em right. Then they stay around in your head like brain crack. No matter how bad things get, at least you have those good ideas that you’ll get to later.

Some people get addicted to that brain crack. And the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed. And they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals. And everyone’s clapping for them. But the, but the, but the, but the bummer is most ideas kinda suck when you do ‘em. And no matter how much you plan you still have to do something for the first time. And you’re almost guaranteed the first time you do something it’ll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person who’s still dreaming of all the applause.

Safe Harbor

Finally, a good portion of students are taking the class in an effort to learn certain skills that they can apply to a certain project. In many cases, this means a startup. Or, they’re taking on a project related to their job.

This class will be a safe place for design experimentation. We’re going to show you the ropes, but I want you to run with what you learn. This class is the perfect place to do something terribly, because you can work with fellow students to make it better.

Let’s Do This

So, with that, I’m headed into the Bat Cave to start prepping lessons.

 

 

The Nexus of the Obvious

I have had this idea rattling around in my head for a couple weeks. That’s already too long to think about something before sharing, so let’s see if it still makes sense.

Over the course of my design career, whether it’s in-house or client services relationship, I have noticed a common point in the discovery process. It’s similar in all the projects. For the sake of conversation, I’ll refer to this in the context of a client/designer relationship, but it could certainly apply between a designer and any stakeholders they may work with.

There is some information that the client knows, that is so intrinsic, so fundamental to their business that they assume, maybe even subconsciously that I must know it already.

I’m usually in the process of showing a design and we can all agree that it’s getting there, but it’s still off the mark–something just isn’t working. Over the course of the conversation and critique, they realize I don’t know this fundamentally obvious thing and they say something like “We have this [piece of critical information], would that be helpful?”

At that moment, I’m thinking, “this is so fundamental to what they do, it’s obviously something that they should have told me, maybe even before we started!” but I end up saying something like “oh yes, that would be wonderful. Let me make sure I understand [obvious thing]…” and conversation continues.

Then there’s usually an awkward moment where they realize that they didn’t brief me on something so fundamental, and where I realize that I really should have been able to ask basic, reality check questions during the discovery phase.

I call this The Nexus of the Obvious, where “the thing that you thought was so obvious that you didn’t even think to tell me because I obviously should have already known it” becomes “the thing that I obviously needed you to tell me.”

A Million Things

It’s obviously been far too long since I’ve posted anything here. Some updates:

MAG7

I’m still freelancing with MAG7 and it’s going great. Most of the projects I have worked on so far are still hush-hush, but it’s been pretty great. My colleagues are doing an awesome job running the show. In may ways, I think freelancing is best for me.

dpan.co

I put together a little site. It’s nothing, really, just something I set up with Foundation a couple weeks ago. It’s a goal of mine to take on more code skillz so while the site itself isn’t much, it’s really an excuse for creating more opportunities for HTML practice. Most of my work these days is more strategic, so I have to manufacture opportunities to mock anything up in HTML. I don’t see myself being some kind of code genius, but In the near future, I want to roll in my blog, build out a portfolio, and maybe some other knick-nacks over time. We’ll see.

Teaching

I’ll be teaching a class on User Experience Design through General Assembly. I’m really looking forward to it. The curriculum is already in place and I’ll have another designer to work with on the class, so I think I’ll be able to put my own spin on it and make something good happen. There’s an info session for the class this Thursday, 11/7.

Speaking

I’ve fallen a little behind on my personal goal to take on more speaking. The summer was a bit of a turbulent time, so I figured I would internalize a bit, focus on getting work done, and just generally simplify my working life. Well, that happened. And now I’m ready to get the ball rolling on speaking again. I’m taking notes, looking for things that I can turn into talks.

Writing

Part and parcel with more speaking, I want to also get into a better habit of writing. I’m thinking that I can use my blog as a means for regularly focusing my thoughts and from that will spring forth some array of speaking topics. Lots of ideas–the hardest part for me is just the discipline of getting focused.

Personal

On a personal note, I have a couple extended family members that are dealing with pretty significant health problems, so that sort of ups the degree of difficulty on the life-o-meter. That, plus other stress, has me gaining back about half of the weight I lost over the summer. Trying to stay level-headed, get focused, and get moving in a positive direction… once I finish this pile of Halloween candy.

5by5 | Quit! #37: What I Really Wanna Do Is PAINT

5by5 | Quit! #37: What I Really Wanna Do Is PAINT.

Really enjoyed this recent episode of QUIT! from 5by5. Moises Chiullan and Joel Bush jump in with one of my favorite topics.

There’s a struggle between the potential of your career and the current reality of what it’s like to deal with the people and things in your life that depend on you. Being married with two kids, I can identify with this.

And to be clear, I don’t really want to quit UX to paint. Maybe when I’m old.

The Girls Football Game

I find my self becoming more and more sensitive to gender issues these days. Chalk it up to having two unreasonably precocious daughters. 

I was watching a little football this weekend with my #1 buddy, my 5yo daughter. She caught me off guard with an obvious question.

“Daddy, where is the girls football game?”

At that second, every gender conflict for the last 30 years flashed before my eyes. It’s hard explaining the construct of gender differences and double standards in society to a 5yo when you have spent the last five years telling that 5yo that she can be anything she wants.

I told her that when grownups play sports, the men and the women play separately because sports are something you mostly do with your body and men and women have different kinds of bodies–just look at how different Mommy and Daddy are. I also told her that there are other things like science, or art, or reading that you do with your mind and anyone can do those as much as they want whether they’re a boy or a girl.

I don’t feel like this was a perfect answer, but it’s the best I could come up with on the spot. Empathy, clarity and context can be hard to manage on the fly.

And where is the girls’ football game? The Lingerie Football League? Fuck you.

Fortunately for us, the 5yo has a pretty good notion that there are other badass sports for women out there, due mostly to my peripheral involvement with the DC Rollergirls and her own experience playing soccer. Also fortunate for us, 5yo is a badass and will do whatever she wants.

This exchange over football was just a little anecdote until the next day when this stain Pax Dickinson shows up in my Twitter feed. Watching him get called out by the likes of Anil Dash, I knew his demise was imminent. But what sticks in my mind is that he’s another unfortunate example of an undercurrent of misogyny that lurks in the tech industry. To be clear, I definitely give my esteemed technical colleagues the benefit of the doubt here. Most of the engineers and designers I have worked with are indeed men and they have been nothing but professional.

The truth is that when our daughters go into a field like software engineering or design they need to be armed with an extra set of skills. Our daughters need to know how to identify, manage, and sidestep these sexist little pricks that they will inevitably encounter in their careers. Sadly, that’s the playing field. I like to think that we’re becoming a more equitable and just society, and that the tech community is trending in that direction, too. I like to think of it as a work in progress, but that’s like saying a glacier’s path to the sea is a work in progress.

I’m not worried about the 5yo in this regard. She’s a firecracker and force of nature and a dynamo and a charmer and a wrecking ball all wrapped into one. I’m more worried about anyone that tries to cross her. But that doesn’t mean I’m not keeping an eye out for her.

Yes, I’m Independent Again

I worked at LivingSocial for a year and a half with a fantastic design team. I learned a ton. We did good work. And we had awesome lunches

I knew I would miss that crew a lot, but I decided to move on in a different direction. While I was looking for a new gig, I was open to just about anything, whether it be startup, established, in-house, or agency. During that time, I reached out to my friend Brent for advice. He made a really good case for why I should jump in with his freelance collective, MAG7, as a Senior UX Architect (although we don’t really have titles). This, for me, really offers the best of both worlds: the flexibility and self-determination of an independent working model but mitigating some of the risks by getting support when you need it from other colleagues.   

One thing I have been very happy with is the immediate diversity of the work. I’m already working on a mobile app for a startup, a redesign for an online reviews site, and I’m angling for at least two new projects within the next few weeks, either a large site redesign or a LeanUX-specific staff augmentation effort, depending which way the new business winds blow.

Something’s missing, though…. Oh, yeah, I forgot to announce it here on the ol’ blog-o-matic! Done.

Want to work together? Let’s get in touch.

Everybody is Wrong and Nobody is Wrong

During the very early days with a new client, I try to get as clear a picture as possible of the client’s objectives for the project we’re going to work on together and how it will affect their business. I’m also trying to map out any pressures, political or otherwise, they encounter through their own organization that relate to this project. But maybe most importantly, I’m trying to get a sense for their mindset and how they’re approaching this project, our relationship, and most importantly, their customers.

A lot of the time, I’m working with organizations that are in the early stages of launching a product, whether they’re early-stage startups or more established companies who are pushing new products. Whatever the size of the organization, I’ll sometimes hear a certain phrase–a certain way of describing customer behavior–that sends up a red flag: 

“Nobody does X.”

“Everybody does Y.”

When I hear the world defined in such absolute terms, I know we have an uphill road ahead of us. In my experience, it demonstrates a lack of understanding and empathy when it comes to your customers.

The product experience is the momentary comingling of the product’s interactions and the context in which the user can engage with it–and that can be hard to pin down. If the team is not directly engaging the people using the product, listening to them, prodding them for information about the product, then they probably don’t have the raw materials they need to move the product forward with any level of confidence.

Sometimes, I consult with a company that is exemplary in this department–really empathizing with customers, listening to their needs, and maintaining a level of comfort with the ambiguity associated with people’s interaction with technology. And this is evident in a simple change to their language.

“Most people who use the product do X.”

“Our best customers do Y.”

“We would like to get more people to do Z.”

In the early stages of a product, it’s a smart move to embrace a level of ambiguity while the problem set is still being addressed and some of the early hypotheses are being worked out. A team that’s working toward a truly innovative product, will be create a new context for how people engage the product. It will not be absolute.

It’s good to identify and understand trends and tendencies associated with people using a product. Reconstitute this understanding around a real, approachable persona, and you have something you can work with. Because once you speak in the language of the absolute, you’re usually headed down a dangerous path and it can be hard to climb out down the road.