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 …

Beyond digital – affordance of everyday objects revisited

We are immersed in a world of usability issues. They are all around. From objects we use everyday in the home to the positioning of turnstiles at some of London’s tube stations.

Shower-tap control

My first bugbear is the shower control at the Oasis Sports Centre in Convent Garden. I use the outside pool in winter and getting under a hot shower quickly is a priority. The shower tap control mechanism consists of two rings, one controls water pressure and the other, temperature. Which is which is unclear to me and it takes a number of attempts to achieve the desired temperature. This is usually achieved after blasts of, either ice cold or, very hot water. After more than a year I have not yet achieved mastery of the mechanism. Am I slow at learning or is the learnability of the device weak?

In-flight entertainment remote control

On a South African Airways flight recently I found the remote control for the in-flight entertainment system practicality unusable. I struggled to turn it off, and once off, I struggled to turn it on again. I could not find any correlation between the symbols on the remote control and what was expected to happen on the screen. This annoyed me to the extent of vowing (unreasonably perhaps) to not use the airline again.


I’m not implying that either of these devices are deficient because I could not use them at first attempt. The problem could simply be me. The Frenchman in the adjoining seat on the flight to Johannesburg showed me how to turn the in-flight entertainment system off and appeared to be at ease with the remote control.

This troubles me slightly for as a user experience designer I see myself as someone who should be able to understand how things work. Should I not be skilled in decoding a designer’s intentions when using their inventions?

But this is liberating for it illustrates how we apply our mental models onto things around us. What I take from this is that as a designer I should be an observer first, and observing my own behaviour is a good place to start.

It would be revealing to get 5 people in a room to test these two devices. The results should be very interesting, if only to shed light on where I, as a designer, stand in relation to others, and whether it is unreasonable to regard myself as a typical user.

Complexity, Infographics, and Filters

A collection of apparent disparate thoughts on complexity, infographics and filters and a casual attempt to tie them together.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes:

For the ideogram is an inclusive gestalt, not an analytic dissociation of senses and functions like phonetic writing.

It reminds me of a remark by a journalist and ex-colleague:

As information goes digital, people are becoming more visual.

I’m not sure if this was her own observation or a quote. It sounds like something Marshall McLuhan may have said – clever, puzzling and provocative. I’ve never come across this statement again, but in my work as a designer I think of it almost every day. What does it mean? My interpretation is that in the digital age people will read less, and increasingly respond to patterns and abstract symbols in a direct and instant way as a means of understanding.

I’m hopeful to discover the author of this quote someday. I think there is something in it, especially when considering the appearance of infographics and icons on digital interfaces. I see it as a new hieroglyphics, the beginning of a meta-script for the digital age, understood by all.


The world is too complex to take in at a single glance. I get overwhelmed quickly when thinking about the issues we face, and our seeming inability to solve large scale problems: new models to address mass transport, food production, green energy, wealth distribution, pubic health, work life balance etc. Maybe this is the wrong approach. High complexity needs deconstruction to digestible chunks, or abstractions, that can be understood and manipulated, formulating solutions then becomes possible. We need lenses to deconstruct the immersive complexities that numb our senses and thinking.


Infographics provide a lens that we can use to digest complexity in a simplified and ‘aesthetic’ manner. The aesthetic appeal is perhaps key because of the challenging nature of some data sets. “Information is beautiful,” a new catch phrase, which seems an anomaly or a graphic designer’s obsession with beautiful surfaces perhaps. Data is a mental object, its beauty rests in the thinking patterns we invent to understand it. We now live in a world where we have tools to actively mine data, it seems that all this data is not making us smarter or enabling us to make better decisions. In a world of diminishing resources there should be no justification for making decisions not based on verified information that lead to real world improvements.


Everyday objects can be used as filters to explore complexity and to selectively filter information. For example, take the hardwood used on the neck of an electric guitar. Where do these trees grow? Are there communities and animals affected by cutting down trees that need more than a hundred years to mature? Mobile phones are interesting, considering there are more of them on the planet than us. What are the impacts of mobile phone related mining and manufacturing on communities, and the environment, from Africa to China? Every object we see exists as part of a complex web that extends far beyond us in both space and time.


We need more data visibility and ‘free’ knowledge to make better decisions faster. We live in a world were we need facts about the products we buy, for every product we use represents the end of a journey, traveling to the origins of those journeys you’ll more than likely end up in a troubled place.

My hope is that the start of the ‘visible data age’ is the beginning of such a world. The flip side is a world where databases are a new kind of ‘mineral’ and if old models are anything to go by …