All posts by dpan

Essential Tools, According to UXers

Once upon a time, I asked this question…

And these fine people answered…

The Nexus of the Obvious

There is a certain scenario that unfolds in some designer/client relationships (or designer/anyone relationships) where an enormous and previously undetected misalignment between two parties suddenly becomes evident.

Here’s the scene, where I’ll use myself as an example so the rest of you can mock me if you like…

I’m walking through a basic prototype, which we have worked on for the last few weeks. I explain, “Here we’ll be showcasing X and Y.”

Things are generally positive as the client takes their time asking a few questions. I can’t put my finger on it , but something seems off. Then the client chimes in, “This looks great. I really like what you’re doing with X and Y. Can I ask a question? What happened to Z? That should be included here.”

“Sure, that makes sense, but Z is reserved for logged in users, so it’s not included here.”

“Right, but this service is part of the super suite of services, so we can’t show it unless you’re logged in, meaning that anyone that sees this will have Z.”

Wait, what?

“Oh… It’s part of the super suite? I thought it was on its own… so the whole experience is only for logged in users?”

“Yes. I thought you knew that.”

Are you serious?

“Oh… well… (blink)…”

Oh my fucking god, how did they not tell me this? 

“The rest of it looks good, but we really need to see Z. We might not have mentioned that thing about login, but that’s definitely part of this.”

“Oh, ha, heh, sure. I can definitely incorporate that immediately because putting this behind a login certainly affects how we’ll steer this interaction doesn’t it? Let me just make a note in Basecamp (frantic typing, trying not to look frantic).”

Sweating. Pulse rising. 

The client has that cool, office-appropriate smile. “Sure.”

And… scene.

This is the moment I call The Nexus of The Obvious:

  1. one person thinks a subject is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated
  2. another person thinks the same subject is so obvious that it simply must be stated

Misalignment, and hilarity, ensue during an awkward and inevitable moment where the unstated assumptions about what’s obvious are very suddenly exposed. No one ever thinks to bring up the obvious.

This is also a situation where, as a designer, you want to die, crushed by the volume of your own self-doubt. Where did I go wrong? How could I miss this? I can feel the cool hand of death wrapping its fingers around my throat. Sweat begins to bead at the hairline. Visions of my children becoming juvenile delinquents flash before my eyes as their incompetent designer of a father can no longer support them. Everyone in the room must be looking at me thinking, ‘Why are we paying this guy again?’

On the other hand, “Hey, client, what the fuck? You didn’t think it was important to tell me something so obvious about this project and your business? What is wrong with you?”

All kidding aside, the truth is this happens, but it is avoidable.

Learning the Business

Coming out of art school, I was one of the fortunate ones. A professor offered me a job in her shop as an all around junior designer/office manager. It was a great opportunity and I went for it. I didn’t make the most of it, though. I left the position after only three months.

When I was discussing my departure with my former professor, now boss, I lamented the fact that I didn’t feel like I was prepared to actually work as a designer. My college education prepared me to be an art director and I draw on those skills every day, but I was lost when it came to working through a client relationship, or working with business stakeholders.

In that conversation, I wished that the curriculum had included a class that I would have called “The Business of Design.” The class would have been an introductory business class for designers, walking art school kids like me through the mechanics of client services, product teams, sole proprietorship, basics of business taxes, and other business basics.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but this conversation I had with my old boss came back to my mind this morning when an article surfaced from the Wall Street Journal, highlighting top arts schools now provide classes for their students on the fundamentals of business of the arts and pairing students with funding sources like grants to get their early business ideas off the ground. The article focuses on artists and musicians, and my experience was in design, but the same rules apply.

On the one hand, the lessons you learn while fostering the business relationships necessary to your craft are the lessons that come with experience. These are best learned in the field. On the other hand, even an introductory course in business probably would have gone a long way in providing some much needed context for a young whippersnapper like me when I first graduated.


Finding Rhythm in a Day

I had a thought recently. If I strung all of my Facebook posts and tweets together and wrote them here instead, I would probably have enough content for a weekly newsletter, a daily blog post, and a self-published book in three volumes. Instead, I have spent the last several years pumping my thoughts into various other outlets. I figured I would give this blog some much needed love today.

This is a personal update (sorry, no UX tips and tricks today).

Some things remain the same, as they have been for the last year.

I’m still self-employed, working remotely. Right now, I’m working remotely with some pretty cool people in the midwest, designing apps for a big grocery chain. My wife is also still self-employed, keeping her clients happy. Our kids continue to entertain, inspire, and confound us.

But some things are new and significant.

Looking up at the tree behind the High Falls house

In about mid-February my mother-in law suffered a series of small strokes, leaving her nearly incapable of speaking. While still in the hospital, doctors began performing additional diagnostics, as is routine in the event of a stroke. They went searching for blood clots, but instead found pancreatic cancer, prolific enough to have spread to the liver and lungs.

We were all shocked, then mad, then confused, then depressed, then hopeless, then mad again, and sad over and over. Tears and bleary eyes and clenched fists at home, forced smiles and deflected conversations in social situations. Lots of plans went on the back burner. Then, after some time, the bizarre rituals that had entered our lives took their place as our newfound normality.

My sister-in-law left her apartment in Brooklyn and moved home to manage the new regimen of round-the-clock care. My wife travels to be with her parents every other week. On those weeks, I’m single-daddin’ it with my girls. Summer camps and activities have been rearranged around the rhythm of chemotherapy. For instance, we have all been staying at my in-laws this week. Next week, we’re all headed to the Massachusetts coast for some time at the beach at grandma’s request. The week after, we return to my in-laws. All in all, a three week trip together.

But an upside of sorts starts to shine through as you begin to appreciate what you have, seemingly more and more every day.

Mommy's hair salon

Some days are long. Others blow by like a car on the highway.

The sun rises. I’m awake. My wife is lovely. My kids are great. My work is satisfying. My family is strong.  My friends are caring.

The future is uncertain. There is no such thing as fairness. The greatest things in your life can be taken from you before you are ready, by something that you can’t see or fully understand. There is good and bad in this world and they often offset each other, but sometimes they don’t even come close, leaving an incomprehensible imbalance.

At this point we’re able to take it a day at  time, finding good days in the midst of tremendous uncertainty.

That got pretty heavy, so here’s an adorable cat gif.

A Reading List for Those Transitioning Into UX

One of the slides from my presentation, Getting from here to there..

One of the slides from my presentation, Getting from here to there..

I had the pleasure of giving a presentation last week for the NovaUX meetup on transitioning into UX. It went pretty well. The presentation was not recorded, but there is some information and reaction captured here, and I posted my slides here.

I promised the group that I wold post a UX reading list. So, here’s a set of books that should keep any budding UXer busy. This is, by no means, and ehaustive list, but I think it covers some key areas for an upcoming UX designer, or anyone looking to take on a greater understanding of user-centered product design and management. I have read almost all of these, but even those I haven’t read come with a high recommendation from colleagues. There are many, many more… so have at it!

Feel free to post any additions in the comments. I’d love to hear about any books that have played a role in your professional development as a designer.

Another one of the slides from my presentation, Getting from here to there..

Another one of the slides from my presentation, Getting from here to there..


To help with basics of UX and Design…

To help you with research…

To get to know content strategy…

To dive a little further into important UX concepts…

To learn how to make deliverables and specific types of design…


To get good at the overall process…





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.


  • 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.


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.


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:


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.