Transparency or deconstructing opacity

Digital is not new, yet I still think of it as somewhat novel and about to transform the world as we know it. (By digital I mean the Web 2.0 incarnation, where the web evolved into an organic-like being, as opposed to the mechanical machine-like nature of Web 1.0.) And I’m still waiting. Sure, digital is becoming more sophisticated, softer and more pliable, clay-like, its nature is accelerative, predictive, replicative and transferral but it is not transforming our lives in the crucial areas that matter – out of control consumption and the associated patterns of environmental degradation.

Many things are changing, cars are becoming computers as are kitchen appliances, operating machines in hospitals, mobile phones … ubiquitous computing is here and for most of us it is happening as if by stealth.

But these are hardly examples of digital breakthroughs contributing to seismic paradigm shifts in the way we live. They are extenders, or prolongers, of the status quo and are solutions rooted in nostalgia for the carbon fueled intoxication of unsustainable living. What is the point of efficiency gains, acceleration, and increased productivity if the net result is increased consumption that cannot be sustained? A hastening of extinction.

Digital technology holds the promise to make things transparent. By transparency I mean the ability to see through phenomena. Digital technology allow us to deconstruct opacity, which is a good thing because an opaque world disempowers us. The flip side is that we may not like what we see, but it may just provide the motivation for meaningful behaviour change.

For example, we can use digital technology to ‘see’ air pollution, something that is ‘invisible’, and for a visual species things that cannot be seen somehow does not exist. If you can see something heading towards you, you have time to change course.

On the flip side I could argue that irrational concepts (unscientific) that are invisible, exert more sway over us than rational things (scientific proof) that are visible. And this is a worrying aspect of human behaviour.

Lean UX – the book

I finally got round to reading Lean UX – Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience on an 11 hour flight; which is enough time to re-read the book a few times as its only (a lean) 124 pages. The book provides great insight for mapping previous project experiences onto the Lean methodology, and to fine tune methods for future and current projects. On the last page of the book the authors make the following conclusion about Lean UX:

… it blends the best interaction design techniques with the scientific method …

This is important, because it is the part people don’t get about UX, even some describing themselves as UX professionals. From Wikipedia:

The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.

The key concept here is correcting and integrating previous knowledge. This is the point of experimentation and of Lean UX.

The aim is to establish shared understanding of a thing (by repetition) across a team or organisation by involving everyone in the experimentation process. And creating shared understanding is not as easy as may be assumed; in fact it can be very hard.

So what? Well, this is significant when you consider the extreme alternative of Lean UX – ‘blind design’. A product owner in a large financial app development organisation once told me that, ‘we don’t do user testing because we get feedback from users on the app stores after launch.’ This is classic ‘blind design’.1

The scientific method is not readily understood by those entering the UX field from creative (where the cult of the rock-star designer prevails) or non-science/research backgrounds. So if someone asks me, “What is UX?”, this is my response.

And then I’ll recommend this book.

1. I often hear that some products cannot be tested with users because there is a fear that ideas or IP may be stolen. I’m then reminded of what Ash Maurya writes in Running Lean: The first realisation early on was that building in stealth is a really bad idea. There is a fear, especially common among first-time entrepreneurs, that their great idea will be stolen by someone else. The truth is twofold: first, most people are not able to visualize the potential of an idea at such an early stage, and second (and more importantly), they won’t care. For any organisation attempting to incubate an agile start-up culture this is good advice.

From Jargon to Honesty to Openness

I’ve been dipping in and out of the Dare Conference live stream. The theme of the conference is People Skills for Digital Workers. Soft skills are considered an asset for people working in technology. Why? Design is no longer a solitary pursuit, in order to design effective modern web services teams have to collaborate across domains. In The Next Big Thing in Design is … posted on LinkedIn, Tim Brown writes:

In my book, Change By Design, I chronicle the end of Design with a capital “D” and the rise of “design thinking,” a more collaborative, human-centered approach that can be used to solve a broader range of challenges. Design thinking harnesses the power of teams to work on a wide range of complex problems in health care, education, global poverty, government — you name it. By taking this more expansive view of design, you’re able to have much greater impact.

Without effective communication complex projects are likely to fail or not reach its full potential.

I get this, but the Dare Conference made me question effective communication by introducing the concept of openness.

What is effective communication in a business context? Is it a good command of jargon, or is it simply being honest? Often things that are quite ordinary are overblown and distorted for maximum impact by not telling the ‘truth’ – the perfect pitch.

The conference is testimony to the fact that a growing number of people have the desire to tell it like it is, taking risk by being open and sharing their methods and experiences, both the good and the bad in public – as a form of catharsis to ignite personal growth. Honesty creates empathy in others and encourages them to do the same (if they’re human).

I call this phenomenon Open Process and consider it is similar to the Open Design and Open Source movements. Melissa Frost highlights a blog response by Josh Longwhere he explains why the idea of working in public appeals to him:

1. It makes you think clearly and directly. 2. It forces you to know what the hell you’re talking about. 3. It shows people how much you put into your work. 4. It’s a great way to document your work. 5. It’s a great way to give back and teach others.

I like this because it triggers learning by revealing things that are usually hidden – fragments can be insightful and trigger surprising thoughts more effectively than something that is ‘complete’. It also confronts the fear of not being perfect, of not having all the answers and owning up to it by having your peers look at your process.

This kind of openness and honesty (or authenticity) breaks down the divide between our personal and professional lives and it inspires trust. And it attracts people who think alike – and that’s the point – use honesty to scare away the wrong people and attract the right ones. The best things are created when people who think alike work together. (This, at least, is my summation of Laura Kalbag’s talk, My Secret is Honesty, one I particularly enjoyed.)

I’d then re-write the last line form Tim Brown’s quote by interchanging design with communication:

By taking this more expansive view of communication, you’re able to have much greater impact.

But like all things in life this approach has its own risks – but I believe in this case they are stacked on the good side.

From now on I’m going to err on the side of openness.

Responsive design and the art of being busy

You have worked in digital since 2010, you’ve come across responsive design and clients are asking about it and they are curious:

There is evidence that users are accessing our site on tablets and phones. Make our site responsive!

Now, imagine this from a big client – as big as they come. Their website has grown exponentially for a decade, and it is now heaving under the strain of what I call information bolt-on syndrome.

The site’s performance is poor and finding information is not unlike first time tourists venturing into Central London without an A to Z. Stakeholders have come and gone, digital strategies have changed course mid-way, and then re-aligned again, before finally being discarded altogether. As you probe, more worrying evidence comes to light: the development team is off-shore and don’t respond quickly, past decision makers have disappeared, information architecture and style inconsistencies abound, no UX has ever been done, there is no grid…

An expert review of the site soon resembles an archaeological dig where you unearth layer upon layer of design trends from epochs past, and it becomes clear that an overarching plan has gone by the wayside a long time ago.

Now fast forward to 2013. We are in the responsive epoch and the unfortunate site needs to accommodate this new trend as well. You are busy crafting your case, but then news arrives: the stakeholder you’ve been working with has just been replaced due to internal restructuring in the client organisation. She is re-applying for her position and if successful she may or may not be back on the project. But for the time being there is a new project owner and he as a different view, in fact things can’t be clearer:

Make the current site responsive, but don’t touch the content – then at least users will be able to start using the site on their mobiles.

You protest and argue that there is too much information to force upon a small screen, so you look for evidence to support your view and find it in Mobile Usabilitywhere Nielsen and Budiu write:

Simply using responsive web design to make the full site accessible on mobile devices often results in a substandard mobile UX.

I’m not arguing against making sites responsive. It is the right thing to do. But there are situations where a holistic approach is called for when making large legacy websites responsive.

In my view responsive design is ultimately a content strategy issue – but that only represents the tip of an iceberg. Brad Frost captures the complexity of responsive design’s latent issues in the image below from Beyond Squishy: The principles of adaptive design.

Brad Frost responsive design iceberg

It is about understanding what users are doing on mobile devices and presenting them with appropriate UIs where unnecessary features and content gets stripped out completely. Again you turn to Nielsen and Budiu to back you up:

But the most important point is that responsive design – if done correctly – does involve distinct UIs for each platform. After all, the entire idea is that the design adapts (or ‘responds’) to the capabilities of the user’s specific platform.

I would go further and argue that UIs need to respond to the user’s context of use more so than to a specific platform. Taking this view removes the viewport completely from your thinking and your focus is firmly on what users are attempting to accomplish within a given context. When you consider that mobile users will probably be disrupted when using their devices you take a different view on what may be useful to them. Once this is understood you can put your UI hat back on.

You are now more confident and suggest a step back from the code for the time being to investigate if there is room to revisit the IA, do a content edit, investigate performance issues, research what the analytics say, and address other inconsistencies that have accumulated over time before moving on to the code – in short, atone for past design sins. You may even suggest that it may be a good idea to find out what real users say. Failing to do this will result in merely giving the existing behemoth a false sense of security, and the end result will be a site that is unintentionally unresponsive.

This is naive I hear you say. The boss is already applying downward pressure on work estimates and won’t pay for what he deems unnecessary. You sat in a meeting where the boss made it clear that he does not care what users think. Stick to your guns nevertheless, because bringing the big picture into view is the right approach. And it makes business sense for an organisation to get their mobile strategy right, now rather than later. Being busy is nice, but even better when you are busy doing the right things.

Methods come and go, but principles tend to remain longer. So focus on design principles when other resources are under pressure. And question what people mean by responsive. Again Nielsen and Budiu sum op nicely:

… mobile versus desktop design differences go far beyond layout issues. With enough coding, these differences can be supported through responsive design. In fact, you could argue that a design isn’t responsive enough if it doesn’t accommodate all the salient platform differences.

The Hillman Curtis Theme

After reading MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer by Hillman Curtis, the book remained on my desk and I’d page through it whenever I needed inspiration. I often found myself thinking about Hillman’s story, about reinventing yourself, and not so much about the detail of the book. But one idea in the book struck a chord and I found myself thinking about it years later. It is the concept of ‘theme’ and I like his take on it.

Themes describe entire worlds. It lays down the ground rules for a place, and for participation in that place. A strong theme has the power to change people’s behaviour. People associate with meaningful themes.

Hillman Curtis writes:

Themes have that power. They can communicate so much deeper than literal messaging. As designers we have an opportunity to draw attention to theme through our designs. Every product has a theme, every company, every brand. Our challenge as designers is to challenge a given project’s theme and use it as a guide that will influence every design decision we make from the initial concept to the final composition. Without communicating a theme, our designs will simply be pretty pictures… a bouquet of roses with no note attached.

This has implications for user experience design. Understanding and clear definition of theme allows area focus. Themes are acted out by personas in dress, language, consumption and aspirations. Consider animals living in a desert, their entire being is geared toward surviving the desert theme.

So, I find myself asking more and more, “What is the theme here?” It is not always obvious and sometimes you have to look for it. And this applies to people and places.

But once I see it things start making sense.


I wrote this post before learning of his passing. Keep on reinventing wherever you are …