A Day for Fun
Here are some bits and pieces that came in while I was away. FYI: the photo at the top is Glenorchy, an incredible place I stayed in New Zealand.
(You'll have to wait to the end of this post to learn why I posted a picture that has zero value to anyone but me.)
These are in no particular order:
A marvelous optical illusion (thanks to my co-hort Eric Freeman for the pointer)
Moo Tube Kind of Web 2.0, but for cows. You'll just have to see it.
Blog of Macromedia's John Dowdell (I've been listening to this guy for the last decade)
I gave a keynote at the Training Director's Forum a week ago, (where I took the Flamingo pic) and it was a fantastic experience for me. A thank-you to the wonderful folks from VNU (hi Julie!) for inviting me and hosting such a productive (and fun... wine-tasting-as-team-building-exercise rocked) event. If you're involved in the slightest way with adult--especially corporate--learning/training, you should consider attending the Training Conference they put on (I've been and it was so worth it).
A highlight for me was meeting a woman I deeply admire, Ann Herrmann from Herrmann International, developers of the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument. I'll say a lot more about that in a later post, but for now--I've been using the HBDI for the last ten years, and it's been the single most important tool for us when creating the Head First books. (I'll describe how and why in a later post.)
Jason posted about a quote by Douglas Coupland in Douglas Coupland agrees that meetings are toxic. This was especially funny for me because I started reading his latest book JPod, which has one of my all-time favorite lines (from a character sitting in a marketing meeting):
"John BlackBerried me: I CANT FEEL MY LEGS"
(and this gem from the cubicles: "we're having a contest--we're trying to see if there's any way to hold a knife and walk across a room and not look psycho.")
The comments to my previous dog sign post are both interesting and funny (check out the gender discussion), but this one from DL got me:
"a future archaeologist might come up with the theory that the sign belonged to a temple in a dog worshipping society and that acolytes had to be accompanied by one or two dogs to proceed along the path."
One thing I'm learning from this "exercise" is that even a seemingly simple idea can become slippery once your past the first glance. In a new (and coincidental) twist, when I went out for my morning run (on that same trail) today, the rangers were posting a new sign with a dog on it, announcing that as of August 1, all dogs off-leash must be wearing a special tag. And how do you get the tag? You pay $15 to attend a little class and watch a video! Fortunately, your dog does not have to pass a voice-control test, or Clover and I would be screwed.
And finally, to test my theory that nobody reads to the end of my rambling, today is my birthday. And I got a very fun gift--this blog is mentioned (with a screen shot and everything) in my birthday (June 19) print issue of BusinessWeek magazine. It's mentioned in two places, one as a favorite blog by one of their Top 25 Innovators, Claudia Kotchka from P&G, and in a separate page about innovation blogs. We're honored. We're horrified.
Exactly one year ago, I was lying in the middle of a street 90% certain I was going to die. It's been an amazing year, although not the easiest--I had cancer surgery (not a big deal), some new brain complications, and made the very tough decision to go back on anti-seizure drugs (which thankfully have improved a lot since the last time I was in this spot).
1) Live with passion
Thank you all for giving me such a wonderful year.
Oh yes, The reason I posted pictures for no benefit to you is because it's my birthday and I can do WHATEVER THE HELL I WANT ; ) Tomorrow, back to thinking about what's in it for you.
Do your graphics say the wrong thing?
If a picture really is worth a thousand words, which words? Graphics are usually the best tool we've got for sending a message--instructions, sign, marketing, entertainment, interface, etc.-- but what are we doing to make sure the person viewing the image sees the message we intended?
The picture above is a sign posted at a local trailhead. What does it mean? (Getting it wrong, by the way, means a $50 fine.) It's supposed to mean, "Each human can have no more than two dogs under their control." (this is a leash-optional trail) And while most people could--after cocking their head to the side--figure it out, I have to laugh about what else this sign says like:
"You can have a German Shepard, and an Old English Sheepdog, but SPRINGER SPANIELS ARE STRICTLY PROHIBITED!"
On a trail it's no big deal if you get it wrong or need to take a few extra moments to study it (or read the accompanying text, if there is some). But... imagine situations where it's a lot more important--where the consequences of misinterpretation are serious, and/or time-to-getting-it is scarce. Or imagine a situation where the person viewing the graphic is simultaneously bombarded with so much info that even the smallest bit of cognitive overhead means trouble...
So, what went wrong? How can we make it better? [UPDATE: for this sign, text really WOULD work fine. But the idea here is to practice on something simple.] The exercise is this: assume that for some reason you CANNOT use words, and have to convey the message that "a person can have no more than two dogs under voice/sight control (i.e. off-leash). Here's one idea I had for and a few simple suggestions. I'm hoping the information and/or graphic designers will jump in to improve on or extend what I've done...
Use only one breed of dog in the graphic. Or better yet, use an abstract representation of a dog rather than a specific dog type.
Having three different dogs is misleading--it makes it appear that the breed of dog matters, when the sign is about the quantity of dogs per person. Having different dogs suggests that there's something relevant about dog breeds (which in some contexts is true--some of the most aggressive breeds are banned from parts of Colorado).
Differences in an image are interpreted as meaningful information. If two things represent the same idea, make them the visually similar. Conversely, if two things represent different ideas, make them different!
User interface: if two buttons on a website are blue with round corners, they'll be interpreted as having some common function. If one of them is a navigation button and the other is a transaction button, there's a problem.
API design: if two methods in two related classes have a similar naming scheme, they'll be interpreted as performing a similar action. One of the worst examples I can think of in J2EE is ejbCreate() method--which means "create a new object" in Session beans, but for Entity beans, "insert a new record in the database and, oh yeah, pull an existing object from the pool..." It would have been easier to remember what ejbCreate() does for entity beans if they'd given it a completely different name... even an arbitrary name (although ejbInsert() might have been nice). Having two different behaviors with the same name means cognitive load because your brain wants to find the pattern between the two matching names...
In the dog sign, using three different dog pictures/breeds introduces cognitive noise that the viewer's brain will try to process as a meaningful distinction.
Include a person in the graphic (especially an abstract representation of a person).
The trailhead rule is about the relationship between dogs and people. It's not about the quantity of dogs--it's that each person cannot have more than two dogs.
Include the context! Show all relevant relationships, and if necessary, draw attention to the key concept.
In code samples in our book, rather than using code snippets, we reproduce the code in which that snippet matters, but draw attention to the key pieces by screening back the for-context-only pieces and bolding/highlighting the new or relevant piece.
The sign should have an "X" through three dogs, not just one, and show that one dog is OK and two dogs are OK (per person).
Think about what a sign/graphic is really supposed to say--if spoken--and try to "say" that same thing visually, in the least confusing way. In this case, the sign is supposed to say:
* A single individual can have one dog, or two dogs, but not three dogs.
So, the sign should show a picture of a person with one dog as OK, a person with two dogs as OK, and a person with three dogs as NOT OK.
The numbers on the side, "1, 2, 3" should go away (or be placed to the right of the dog images as reinforcement). And if the numbers are used, the "3" should ALSO have an "X" (or NO symbol) through it! In the current sign, the number "3" is bigger and bolder than the other numbers (what's up with THAT? And why is the "2" bigger than the "1"? There's no difference between one and two dogs...), but there's nothing to indicate that "3" is NOT OK.
Do not "say" something that isn't true. Whatever the brain sees first is likely to stick, so any attempt to qualify or make exceptions or explain what's on the sign in a way that conflicts with the image is a problem.
A shop window that lists hours of operation, then lists the exception underneath:
OPEN 7 AM to 7 PM
(Sundays Noon to 5)
In our books, we try not to show code or a process that's wrong without putting a big ol' warning over the top of it or right next to it. We want the learner's brain to see the code and the big flashing lights at the same time, processing them as one image--the image we want to stick. We don't want the wrong or untrue thing to take hold in their brain, and trying to undo it with a later exception or caveat or warning doesn't always work.
TWO MORE PRINCIPLES (not related to the dog sign):
Think about the implicit information conveyed by color, and exploit that (or at least don't violate it). For example, look at the following two images--one with the blue rectangle on top, and the other with the brown rectangle on top.
Does one of them feel a little...off? Even if you don't consciously notice it, your brain feels the difference. We're more used to seeing the blue sky above the brown earth, and the brain perceives cool, less saturated colors as "higher" while perceiving warmer, more saturated colors as "lower".
Trying to convey numeric or spatial relationships using color might cause cognitive dissonance if you represent a "higher" thing using brown, and a "lower" thing using light blue. On the other hand, you can use this hard-wired color perception to add a second layer of info to give the viewer one more chance to "get it" the way you meant it. Because of color blindness, or problems with different displays, etc., we try to avoid using color as the sole info channel, but color makes a nice way to add another channel that viewers will often feel rather than consciously think.
CLARITY TRUMPS STYLE:
Although the best designers can be both clear and stylish, instructors don't always have that luxury. My favorite worst-case example comes from (where else) Sun, where the graphics/editorial department "prettied up" some of the graphics from one of the technical course books. The problem was... the graphics they "improved" were actually UML diagrams, where just about everything in the image means something.
For example, in UML the difference between a closed and open triangle is HUGE! But the non-technical designers thought the open triangles looked unattractive and decided to fill them in. They also took the squares and rounded the corners and, well, if you're a programmer, you get the idea of just how bad this was. The "new and improved" graphics now conveyed something completely different (or nothing at all) than the originals. But I'll be damned if they didn't look nicer on the page... ; )
[Disclaimer--I'm guilty of some really bad graphics myself, both in the blog and my books, so I don't get to be all graphicker-than-thou] What about you? Any bad signs or graphics you can point to? Any before-and-afters? Cheers!
[I'm back but only for two more days, then I leave again for two weeks. Thanks to everyone for continuing the conversation.]
Intuition: it’s not what you think.
You might feel intuition is the best way to understand the problem of designing an interface. You rely on your intuition, you trust it, maybe you even feel that it’s the source of deep insight and creativity.
But you’d be wrong.
Intuition is really your first impression, that little bubble of apparent understanding that comes unbidden in response to a situation. When we build our UIs, intuition is often what guides our initial work. “Ah this one…it’s child’s play,” we think to ourselves. And it’s too often where we stop.
Turns out you can’t quit with just the translation of intuition into an interface. That’s the point of user testing – you’ve got to watch your pride and joy actually be used by real people in real situations. It’s not enough to have a brilliant, intuitive idea that you think will work. (After all, it’s intuitive, isn’t it?) You really have to watch someone else trying to solve a problem with the child of your intuition. You have to put the test users under a bit of stress, so that the natural beauty of your interface design isn’t the thing they’re noticing and appreciating – they’re focusing on the work itself, and not the tool.
Great user interfaces might spring from an intuitive understanding, but they’re crafted by hard work; honed by carefully removing everything that doesn’t add to the tool’s value, deleting anything that gets in the way, or whatever it is that causes confusion.
Making the user interface “intuitive” is often our highest goal when we do our professional work.
But what does that mean, exactly?
Mostly it means that people can quickly understand the UI, or that they get the feeling the UI disappears in their work. In psychological terms, the interface has great “positive transfer” from other skills or it has a great “flow” character. That is, if you can drive a Toyota, you can drive a BMW – that’s a great positive transfer experience. If you can move smoothly from task to task without many bobbles, that’s a great flow experience.
And sometimes it’s the case that intuition informs both the design of positive transfer and flow; but just as often that’s not the case as well.
At this point in my career I’ve seen thousands of user interface ideas: they pour unendingly from the minds of software developers. I love ‘em all. Look at them all trickle by in the thousands of wildly creative and inventive ideas.
But as a consequence, I can no longer look at an interface with a fresh, unbiased, open mind. I'm corrupted. I’d like to think that I can still see an interface as though for the first time, but I can’t.
What’s more, you probably can’t either. If you’ve been working in the software field for any length of time, you’ve grown accustomed to the look and feel of tools that wear their development history on their sleeves. A command line might feel natural to you, but there’s no positive transfer for anyone who hasn’t already spent thousands of hours working with one. The same thing is true of many of our prized productivity tools – even knowing where to look in a busy GUI is a skill that comes only with a lot of experience in the trenches. There’s nothing natural about a GUI in the least.
(Repeat this after me: “There’s nothing natural about it in the least.” Good. Repeat every day until you reach satori.)
As interface designers we often achieve our greatest successes when the interface disappears, and getting to that point is what makes us professionals at this game – our willingness to go beyond our personal intuitions and see what really works for our target audience. Great user interfaces are ultimately about creating something that’s ego-less, something that works well for people who are not you and not just the same as you.
Now that’s intuitive.
Mosh Pit as Innovation Model
"Professionals" in any field come in two flavors: Knowledge Sharers and Knowledge Hoarders. The hoarders believe in the value of their "Intellectual Property"(IP). The products of their mind must be carefully guarded lest anyone steal their precious ideas. But let's face it--if our only "strategic advantage" is our ideas, we're probably screwed. Or as CDBaby's Derek Sivers put in in this post:
"It’s so funny when I hear people being so protective of ideas. (People who want me to sign an NDA to tell me the simplest idea.)
To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions."
Yes, there are some crucial exceptions, but for most of us, It's our implementation, not our idea that matters. Even those who create something revolutionary are still synthesizing... still drawing on the work of others, and making a creative leap. But even a big-ass gravel-hauling leap is still a leap, not a physics-violating idea that shimmered into the universe from nothin' but air.
It's how we apply those ideas.
How creative we are.
How useful we are.
How brave we are.
How technically skilled we are.
How we anticipate what our users will love.
How we learn from the ideas and work of others.
And from our (my co-authors and myself) perspective, it's not about our ideas, it's about what the ideas can do for our users.
Even if we are the only ones to have a specific new and protectable "idea" (unlikely), the moment we reveal it, everyone else will have it too. The barrier to entry today is way too low to use "intellectual property" as a main advantage. And all too often, we think we have a unique idea only to find that others are--independently--doing the same things.
I've found some wonderful discussions about this on other blogs (by people willing to share their ideas). The following are some snippets from recent and older posts on the topic:
Open Source Creativity from the wonderful-go-read-it-now Martini Shaker blog for creatives by Jeremy Fuksa:
"I used to work with a creative director who was (is) terribly paranoid about giving away trade secrets or any type of creative advantage to competitors. Now, if any of the things that he worried about were truly proprietary processes or special trade secrets that would be one thing… albeit very tinfoil hat-ish. But, all these “secrets” he was worried about...anything he was scared about losing control of was freely obtainable information in the first place. It just so happened that others in our area didn’t obtain that information as voraciously as I do."
"Case in point: I had an old colleague IM me to refresh his memory on how to add alpha channels into a Photoshop document. This CD got all freaky on me because I was “giving a competitor trade secrets and an unfair advantage.”
Jeremy's post pointed to another by Steve Hardy's Creative Generalist (another terrific blog). Steve's post linked to Mark Cuban's post, which talks about how Mark believes his "knowledge advantage" comes not from, say, buying, stealing, or inventing some incredibly new IP, but from relentlessly seeking out and consuming the same information that's freely "available to anyone who wanted it."
An Information Management blog, by Karl Nelson, has a post titled Open Source Knowledge that includes:
"A few years back a professor I had talked about the shelf-life of knowledge. His point was that information goes stale quickly, especially in the technology world. There isn't much value in keeping it locked away. The value, in the information and knowledge space, is in sharing what you know."
"The conclusions many advisors draw are that they must be careful about giving away the store... The truth is, expertise is like love: not only is it unlimited, you destroy it only by not giving it away."
This is not a none-of-us-is-smarter-than-all-of-us thing (which I hate). This is about each of us being smart at different things. Not as a "team", but as individuals with our own self-interests. If I help you, and you help him, and then he helps her, and she helps... and so on, sooner or later someone in that chain-reaction does something I benefit from directly or indirectly. It works in open-source software, where developers are practicing the idea of "code it forward", and all contributors utlimately benefit (as do the end-users of their work). Why should it be so different for many of the things-that-aren't-code?
It's also brainstorming on an impossibly large scale. And what's the worst that can happen?
A few weeks' back, I gave the closing keynote at Webstock, and I wanted to include slides (and quiz questions) on what went on during the conference. But what struck me the most during the week was how all these professionals gave away so much of their "secret sauce." How they helped their direct competitors--those fighting for the same clients and jobs--become better. In the end, I believe, everyone there recognized the benefit we all get in pushing the world forward, one user experience at a time.
And we'll get there a hell of a lot quicker if we stop guarding our knowledge like a jealous lover.
Our success is not about what we think up, but rather who we think about.
Issac Newton said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." That was just fine in a world where knowledge doubled in half-centuries, not mere months. To make progress today, it's more like, "If I have seen further, it is by being thrown up by the mosh pit of my peers." And we all get a turn.
[Related link: Bill Kinnon on The Generous Web (he's been thinking about this a lot lately. I'm a fan.]
User delight and the guy-from-the-train phenomenon
One way to delight users is with the guy-in-the-unexpected-context phenomenon. You know the story: you take the same train to work every day. One Saturday afternoon you're in a cafe when you spot a familiar face at the next table. "Hey, it's the guy from the train!" you think, with a smile. Then the guy from the train notices you, and his eyes light up. You start a lively conversation moving from weather to espresso to geopolitical forces. You exchange URLs.
The thing is, you took the train with this guy for the last 18 months and never gave him a moment's thought...until you saw him at the cafe.
That's the power of unexpected context.
Even if you don't talk to the guy, seeing him in a completely different context is enough to make your brain light up. A feeling of delight. And it's that feeling of delight we (and our users) love.
[Disclaimer: common sense and logic apply. Say you're at a bluegrass concert and see the last person you'd expect: your ex-boyfriend, clearly on a hot date. This is the same ex who told you he'd start taking hostages if a banjo was involved. Not all out-of-context surprises are delightful.]
The unexpected context can be a Big Deal, like an airline letting you make a change to your flight without slapping a huge change fee on you and--much weirder--giving you a refund credit if your new fare is less than your original flight. You expect this kind of treatment from Nordstrom's. But in the context of an airline?
[See JetBlue change rules]
Any company with way over the top customer service (for that domain) is giving its users an unexpected, delightful surprise. Something to remember. Something to talk about. But even the subtle out-of-context surprise can trigger some neurons and brain chemistry. A reference to one movie slipped into the dialogue of...another movie. An easter egg hidden in a... logo (like the FedEx one). A bud vase in a...car. It's not about the thing--it's about the context in which that thing is expressed.
Some examples, big and small:
Context: Wine bottle label
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The label is a cartoon...by Hugh from GapingVoid
Context: Geek Conference
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: Delivered on a cruise ship and turns out to be less expensive than attending a similar conference held at a hotel.
[See Geek Cruises, which I recommend]
Context: A Microsoft guy giving a conference presentation
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: He's a Really Nice Guy! With kids even!
Tony Chor was a highlight for many of us at Webstock, myself included, who weren't expecting someone quite so fun, down-to-earth, approachable, and, well, cute. Then again every employee of Microsoft I've actually talked to seems to be a Really Nice Person.
Context: A technical business presentation
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: It's informative and entertaining
[If you have a chance to catch Damian Conway or Joel Spolsky give a presentation, don't miss it!]
Context: Geek/Tech discussion board
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The people are friendly. No question is too dumb, no answer too lame.
[See Javaranch, where a simple (but heavily enforced) "Be Nice" policy is responsible for the success of this programming community with more than a half-million unique visitors each MONTH. You read that right.]
Context: Sales-tracking software purchase, direct from the publisher
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: Not only do they get the software to you the next day--after you plead that it's a birthday gift--but the first time the birthday guy launches it, a Happy Birthday song is programmed in the start-up screen!
[True story--developer Gregg Sanderson went way beyond expectations first by getting it out within, like, minutes after I called... but he also managed to (unrequested) modify the start-up screen resource of his Market Master sales support software. And when a magazine a few months later did a write-up on the software and wanted a quote from a customer... who do you think Gregg had them call? A person (me) who still raves about the experience almost 15 years later!]
Context: Car dealer
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: Fresh-baked cookies brought to your door a week after buying a new car.
[That happened to my father, after buying a new Honda. When some random guy walked up the steps with cookies, the last thing my father expected was a "How's the car and thank you very much and here's some cookies to show our appreciation" thing. In the US, Girl Scouts, not car dealers, bring cookies.]
Context: Rock concert--successful indie band
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The lead singer calls out the names of long-time regulars from the fan message board who said they were going to be there.
That happened to my daughter at a Travis show in Denver.
Context: Travel Trailer
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The interior could be in the museum of modern art. (Or at least an IKEA store...)
That's what Airstream did when they got the award-winning modern designer/architect Christopher Deam to design a line of CCD Airstreams. This wildly-successful approach has Airstream singlehandedly enlarging the travel trailer market by orders of magnitude. Where one typically associates (accurately, as the demographic data shows) RVs and travel trailers with, well, retired grandparents... the average CCD buyer is around half the age of the traditional trailer/RV purchaser.
Celebrity Airstream owners include Tom Hanks, Andy Garcia, Tim Burton, Sean Penn, and Matthew McConaughey, who travelled in one more than 8,000 miles to promote a movie.
[Apparently others share my Airstream lust, including Peter Davidson's Alumnium Obsession (which mentions the latest special edition model, a surf-inspired partnership with QuickSilver). FYI, I really like Peter's blog.
And I try, every day, to not be jealous of Web Standards Mistress Dori Smith , whose frickin' office is this 1957 Airstream.]
Context: Geek Conference, pre-show tutorial
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The only charge is a donation to charity.
[That's what the Rails guys did with their Rails Guidebook. While I'm here, you are considering the European Rails Conference, are you not?
Context:Off-the-shelf software packaging
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: There's a special edition t-shirt inside the box, which has a special slot just for the shirt.
That's what a now-extinct multimedia authoring tool named mTropolis (an appbought and killed by Quark) did. The surprise of opening the box (back in the days when software came in those hard cases) and finding a slot for the discs, a slot for the manual, and--what's this??!--a slot with a t-shirt was such a treat. Those t-shirts became very special to those of us who had them.
Context: Company that creates Business Presentations
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: Their website includes a main menu choice for "Staff Tattoos"
Way past edgy Missing Link is the opposite of what you'd ever expect from a company that does, well, PowerPoint. If you can call it that. Their 'tude-rich slogan is, "Don't hire us because we're fun and interesting. Hire us because you're not." I love these guys for not "selling out" even the tiniest bit, by acting more "corporate professional". They even swear. On their blog. Right there in front of God and prospective clients and everyone.
And finally, back to that bud vase. Such a simple thing. But something special for those passionate New Beetle owners, including the ones who figured out how to mod it to light up.
A few tips for out-of-context user delights::
1) Take an attribute that's normal and expected in one domain, and use it where it would not be expected.
(Example: VW bud vase, Stormhoek wine label, t-shirt in the mTropolis box)
2) Take an attribute in your domain that's expected, and do the opposite.
(Example: the Missing Link business presentation guys, and how they've turned the "professionalism" attribute on its head.)
Bonus points if that opposite thing is also something that lets users off the hook (i.e. reduces guilt). Example: the apartment building with the "Dogs Required" sign.
3) Do something completely out of character.
(Example: the Bryan Texas water quality report)
4) Combine two things that nobody would think to combine.
(Example: GeekCruises, the Installation Skateboard Shoe + Art Gallery)
5) Blow a stereotype
6) Add "meaning" where it's not usually expected
(Example: Webstock conference. Think about the name, and the slogan "Code for Freedom". If I hadn't been there and spent so much time with the organizers/visionaries, I would have assumed it was just a marketing ploy. It wasn't. They meant it. Many attendees and speakers left that conference with not just renewed but new motivation and energy for improving user experiences in a way that really does help the world. Nobody who saw Darren Fittler's accessibility presentation, for example, walked away unchanged.)
7) Care about detail in the smallest of ways, and without using it as a marketing tool!
(Example: the HP calculators who've had tactile feedback forever. They didn't have to do it.)
8) "Sex it up" by adding beauty and/or sex appeal where it's not expected.
[And wow -- I'm still sifting through the amazing and wonderful comments y'all left on my "what makes a popular blog post, and Dan's two posts. What a treat for me to come back to, after being completely off-the-grid for almost two weeks.]