UX Candidate Design Challenge – v1

When I interview someone, I usually give a written design challenge and spend about 20 minutes on it with the candidate.

Unfortunately, people weren’t doing very well.  So, I decided to upgrade my design test to v2 and try and make it clearer and easier to get good design out of people.  Of course, I am not going to show you the new v2 test! However, I will show you the one I just retired.


You are designing part of an admin interface for http://FranksJokes.com (made up site)

The public website is already designed.  It has 30 categories and many thousands of jokes.  Every joke is categorized and rated (1-10).

There is already a system in place where jokes are pulled in from different sources.  They come in fairly flat, just the joke.  They are put into an internal database to be categorized and rated by Frank. The system automatically acquires 200 jokes per day. 

Frank is the sole curator and need to process (categorize and rate) all of the incoming jokes.  Unfortunately, Frank is falling behind. He wants to get through the jokes much faster.

Design challenge

Design a new admin interface that helps Frank process jokes as quickly as possible.  Speed is the #1 criteria.  Saving every second helps. 


  • A joke can be in more than one category.
  • The types of overall categories are managed in a separate admin screen. (Don’t design)
  • Only existing categories can be chosen.
  • Ratings are 1-10. (more = funnier)
  • Frank will do anything you ask if it will let him go faster.

Infrequent User Stories

  1. Frank makes a mistake and needs to search for the joke and fix it.
  2. Frank edits the text of the joke to fix a typo.
  3. Frank deletes a joke because it is not a joke.

The biggest problem was that there were too many details.  My new design challenge is much simpler.

People made many kinds of mistakes, but here are a few common ones:

  1. Limited thinking Why only design a browser? Why not build a tablet or smart phone app?  What about speech recognition?  What about machine learning?
  2. Designing from fear. It’s hard to design if you are overwhelmed with fear and nerves.  Relax.  Just go for it and come what-may.  Don’t talk yourself into a bad design.
  3. Bad interaction design.  A radio button is round and a checkbox is square.  Don’t mix that up, or their behaviors.
  4. Seeing more than one joke at a time.  I have no idea why, but EVERYONE put multiple jokes on the screen at once.  Frank can’t READ more than one joke at a time so it seems 100% distracting from the task and 0% value-add.  Many people hid 90% of the joke and Frank would have to click to open it. This is definitionally slower than having the joke take up the whole screen. Drive me crazy how people would insist this is right, even though it is unhelpful at best.
  5. Writing words and not designing.  It’s a design challenge.  Stop writing requirements down.  You are just trying to avoid the design exercise.
  6. No search or progress bar or delete button or edit button.  All of the infrequent use cases were tosses on the floor.  Design is hard.  You need to incorporate all of the elements and capabilities.
  7. Slow motion.  I know it’s like Top Chef Quick Fires. I am judging on your ability to go really fast.  It’s not fair to slower thinkers.  Life is not always fair.

Hopefully my next design challenge will elicit more creativity and intellect than this one.


Ethan and Hillary Clinton

The Marketo 2014 Summit has grown to enormous proportions.  It’s doubled and doubled so many times that over 5,000 people packed into the Moscone Center this week.  It funny how much work goes into it and exhausts us, while at the same time fills us with enthusiasm and energy.  Our customers really are something special and the whole experience was fantastic.

On Tuesday, the keynote speaker for the summit was none other than Hillary Clinton.  I was lucky enough to have all-access passes, and decided to bring my son Ethan (14) along with me.  He has been active in school politics and I thought he would like it.

We sat in the front row, middle-seats.  Literally, the closest seats to the speaker in the whole room.  I even took some photos of Ethan standing on the stage.

Hillary was extraordinarily natural and authentic on stage. She gave a seemingly unrehearsed relevant and engaging talk.  She was not at all the person I experienced watching TV of the debates last election cycle.  I wonder if presidential campaigns just make people who are normally easy-going into wooden statues.  I was left with a very positive impression.

Afterwards, Ethan and I were luck enough to get out photos taken with the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State.  He was ready to say, “Nice to meet you.” – take the picture and move on.  She stopped him and asked questions.  What’s your name?  What grade are you in?  He was totally star struck and could barely answer.  We have a few photos, but this one is my favorite.

ethanHillary2The look on his face is priceless.  Like, “I can’t believe this is happening”.

This one is good too.


He told her, “I’m going to run for class president.  This will help.”  She said, “It better!”  (She is really quick on her feet.)

The whole day had lots of great moments, but this one is special.  I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to provide this moment for him. I hope he remembers it next time I tell him to stop playing games.



The Real World

  • What happens when you die?
  • What if all of this is meaningless?
  • Why do parents says to their kids, “In the REAL world, blah blah”?
  • What is the real world?
  • Does high school matter?
  • Should one go to college?
  • What does success mean?
  • Why won’t that other person like me?

My kids are wondering what is their place in this world.  What matters and what doesn’t.  I am doing my best to guide them to a place of happiness, but I am only 50% sure I am leading them in a positive direction.

In the real world, you have to earn money to pay bills so your kids can have nice things.  In the real world, you have a boss that you have to get along with.  In the real world, you have kids who struggle in school because of a bad teacher or schoolyard bully.  In the real world, you struggle.

But the kids have lives too.  They have no rights, can’t drive, can’t earn money. They are virtual slaves of their parents and teachers.  They have hormones raging and pimples and social terror on a daily basis.  Their lives are way more stressful than mine.  Their world is just as real as mine.

What if none of this matters?  God, I hope not.  I hope that I never die.  I hope that I can scan my consciousness into a nanobot swarm and live forever.  Please science, save me.  Save me from this “real” world.  I want to live forever in virtual reality.

Some people find this thought strange or crazy or scary.  I find it liberating and empowering.  There is a very real chance that we will live forever with modern science/medicine.  In a world like that, what would matter?

Science is my God and I will live forever in the kingdom of nanobots.  I will be able to create my own heaven-like reality.  Science will make heaven true.  And I won’t even have to die to get it.  Science is a sweet religion.

How to Give a Great Presentation

I’m giving a presentation at this year’s  Marketo Summit.  The topic is how to give a great presentation.  This creates a conundrum.  If the presentation is not great, then the content will be considered suspect.  How can one trust that the lessons are solid if the presentation wasn’t awesome?  It certainly puts the pressure on.

The funny thing is that so many of the tips are obvious, yet no one does them.  How many times have you heard to increase the font size?  Yet every presentation I see the font is tiny and unreadable.  Why do people jam pack slides with a ton of information?  It so obviously puts the audience into a stupor.

My hope is that I can help at least one person give significantly improved presentations.  I like to keep the bar low.  Ideally, this presentation will change the world as we know it.  All presentations after that day will be wonderful and delightful, clear and concise.

Maybe somewhere in between?

The Facebook Effect

There is a phenomenon that happens when you have lots of customers using your product and you suddenly change it.

They get mad.

Facebook is a perfect example.  Every time they change something, their user base erupts in turmoil and dissatisfaction.  Then an interesting thing happens about 2-3 months later.

They get used to it.

It’s amazing to me how angry people get and how quickly they forget.  Marketo is about to have a similar thing happen.  We are moving the primary navigation a little.  People will freak out and then get used to it.  However, during that period, it will be painful and awful.

Software has to evolve.  It can’t stay still without risk of becoming stale and un-maintainable.   Change is a necessary ingredient to managing an product.  This doesn’t make it any easier for the users.

I’m not looking forward to it.  The anticipation is the worst part.  I just want to get it over with.  I wonder if the Facebook designers feel this way?

Gaining and Losing with Progress

In my lifetime so much has changed.  In these changes, I have lost and I have gained.  Some examples:

As a teenager, I would stay for hours on the phone with my girlfriend. (When I was lucky enough to have one!)  The phone wasn’t a bother and the sound was crystal clear.  I could hear a pin drop.  I could whisper.  BUT, I had to stay in one room.  I was tethered to the wall.

Now, I have a smart phone.  I can check my email and instant message or text people.  However, if I put the phone to my head and have a prolonged conversation, it gets hot and uncomfortable.  Sound quality has also been degraded to barely audible.  We have gained flexibility and features but lost quality.

As a teenager, I worked at WaldenBooks.  I loved that job.  I loved being surrounded by books.  If you wanted a book that wasn’t there you needed to order it.  I also got many books from the library.  The experience of the bookstore or library used to mean interactions with other people, face-to-face.

Although Barnes & Noble is still in business, I don’t find myself going there very much.  These days, I use Amazon.com.  It has reviews and ships quickly to my doorstep. I can look for books in my pajamas from bed.  We have traded convenience for human interaction.

When I was young music was on a vinyl record.  It had to handled very delicately.  The album itself was big and had all kinds of neat artwork.  Opening up a new album was like examining a relic from ancient Egypt, you had reverence.

Then came tapes, a completely chincy experience in comparison.  Tapes were not revered.  Then CDs arrived.  They were higher quality sound, but the crackle of the LP was lovable, digital purity wasn’t.  Then came the MP3 and iTunes.  There became no experience of an album.  You bought a digital file and listened to it on your computer or iPod.  Then Pandora made it so you don’t even buy music, you just listen.  All of the experience was slowly stripped away.  We gained convenience of listening to music at the expense of the experience of a loved album.

Music Production
I just watched a documentary directed by Dave Grohl called Sound City.  Wonderful movie, highly suggested.  For decades the way to record music was to go to a sound studio and record artists onto tape.  Then cut the tape to mix the sound.  The experience of the studio is often cited as the most creative and fulfilling experience an artist can go through.  The camaraderie and creativity of writing and recording new music in studio must have been awesome to behold.

One section in the movie talked about software called ProTools. They said you could take the entire studio board and replicate it on a simple home computer.  This was wildly cheaper to do and put the power of music production into the hands of millions of people around the globe.  Unfortunately, the studios could not compete and had to shut down.  We traded focused centers of creativity for distributed access to sound engineering capability.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock in any of these circumstances.  Progress marches on and I am a progressive.  However, I think the elements we are eliminating were (are) good things.  I want human connection, quality and memorable experiences.  I want those things AND convenience, portability and flexibility.  I want it all.

Progress is sometimes a lop-sided deal.  Hopefully, we will regain some of what we lost…maybe with just a little more progress.


Cars with Character

Why do most cars lack character?  They look like they have all been designed by the same person.  All sedans look alike.  All SUVs look alike.  It’s a conspiracy to make us all into automatons.  Good little soldiers in our little boxes going to work in our cubicles and staring at rectangle screens.

Well, to be fair, there are a few cars with character.  You have crazy expensive cars like Ferrari and Aston Martin and such.  Plus classic cars from the 50′s and 60′s.  But what about the common man; is character only for the very wealthy?

There are some choices.  You have the Fiat, Mini Cooper and Smart Cars.  These are “clown cars”, very small and hundreds of clowns pop out of them (I think).  They have character, but very small interiors.  I have three kids and long legs.  What else we got with some leg room?

Honorable mention car with character: VW Beetle.

There are boxy cars like the Scion, Honda Element, Kia Soul and the Nissan Cube. Interestingly, the Honda Element has been discontinued.  Maybe the fact that they hadn’t updated the car once in 11 years might have contributed to it.

Anyway, I previously had a Nissan Altima Hybrid.  It looked like every other car and made me sad.  Plus it only got 29 miles to the gallon.  For a hybrid, that sucks.  It didn’t have a fancy display or any cool options. I didn’t like it.

So I decided I should be leasing cars anyway, not buying.  That way, I could get the latest, greatest electronics every three years.  I liked the Nissan Cube, although the Kia Soul was growing on me. I got this one.



It’s not an expensive car, so I was able to trick it out with lots of options.  It has lots of interesting details which (to me) give it some character.  The round windows and wrap around back are cool.  Nice sound system, drives fine.

On the downside, it has some space issues.  Like the steering wheel is a bit too far and the pedals are a bit too close, no matter how I arrange them.  Also, it probably wouldn’t drive well in snow.  (Not that I ski all that often)

Most importantly, it has a little character.  My plea to all car designers is to go out of the box.  Create cars that have character and differentiation.  Make something different.  I want to be inspired. I see concept cars all the time that are gorgeous.  Let me buy those!

I may be, but hope not, the only person who thinks this way.  I want cars to be more expressive.

UX = User Experience

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