Subjective and Objective

The other day someone told me that typography was subjective.  It set me off on a rant about how it wasn’t.  I tried to explain about how typography affects reading and changes your mood.  Different fonts will create different feelings in the reader.  I tried to explain kerning, serifs and other typography topics.  It was lost on her.  She just thought it was all subjective and her opinion was as good as someone who created fonts for a living or a designer who used various fonts for decades.

A great designer knows the qualitative difference between different designs.  It’s not subjective, but rather an objective evaluation of multiple criteria.  Certainly some designs are optimized for one audience and sub-optimal for another.  Also, there is the personality of the designer that is imbued into any design.  Still, there are rules of what works and what doesn’t.  There is a reason comic sans is hated.

When people try to say some decision is subjective, they are denying the expertise of people who spent their lives studying the details of that topic.  They are trying to make everyone equals.  This technique is used to great effect to eliminate the expertise of designers and allow people who have not studied the craft to make decisions because they have “power”.

This is the number one reason that many designers hate their jobs and why testing has become so popular.  With testing you can (if you have statistical confidence and if you design the experiment properly) have an answer to the question, “Which is better?”.  I have learned much through my time at Intuit testing different designs.  The most important of which is that most people don’t design their tests properly and will often make spurious conclusions.  Additionally, most designs that are entered into the test fail to be quality designs.

Of course, not all experts are equally good at their craft.  Take this example from Amadeus the movie.  Salieri composes a march that he thinks is really good.  Mozart hears it and immediately thinks an area could be better. (1:56 in the clip)

Mozart is not being subjective.  He understands music as a master.  He knows that is is objectively better.  So does Salieri!  It isn’t subjectively better.  Music has rules.  And so does every craft in the world.

Good APIs Make Good Partners

The art of making great APIs has become a key skill in a technology organization.  Whether it’s the protocol or the naming scheme or the functions or even the error logging, the API has a UX of it’s own.  Make a bad developer UX and you will have fewer technology partners.

You can see great API thinking in companies like Google and Salesforce. (Just to name a couple) They spent enormous time on them including robust documentation.  The result is a huge developer base.  On the flip side is Microsoft, who once owned the developer community, now has limited APIs for many of their cloud products including Microsoft Office 365.

When you have great APIs, then partners will be creative and come up with value-adds that make people want your product.  When you don’t then you are left alone in the market place.

One mistake I made was not to insist on REST as the format for our APIs.  We use SOAP instead.  This is getting fixed now, but we chose the wrong technology many years ago.  That has yields many years of lost developer opportunities.  Well, Captain Hindsight told me that.  And I should have listened…in hindsight of course.

Spend time on your APIs and you will reap the benefits.


By the way.  I propose the year 2020 to be the Year of Hindsight.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?


The UX of the Nissan Keyless Key

Nissan has a standard key fob system.


You don’t need to take it out of your pocket.  I love this system and find myself confused when I am in a car that requires the key to manually be inserted into the steering column.

It is good, but has some terrible flaws.  If someone knows the person who designed this, I have a few bones to pick.  Thusly…

Pocket Alarming
Notice the alarm button.  It is no harder to press than the lock button.  When I have it in my pocket while seated and then get up, it will often trigger the alarm.  This happens frequently because my desk is in range of the car at work.  This means I set the alarm off for no reason and create sound pollution.  All they need to do is make that alarm button be a tiny bit harder to press.

When you lock the doors with the key, the car makes a short honking noise.  It’s trying to tell you, “Yeah, it’s locked.”  However, if a door is ajar, then it will not make the noise.  Absence of feedback is not feedback.  I want a different noise.  Something that sounds like “Something is wrong!”  Like “Wah Waaaahhhh” trombone or “nyghhhheah” buzzing.  When you walk away from the car, there should be no doubt that locking the doors worked.

Additionally, when you press the handle button (which works because the key fob is in your pocket) and a door is ajar, will lock the door, but not lock the door that is ajar.  In other words, it’s a partial fail and needs active audible feedback.

Valet Holder
When I drop my car off at a garage, you leave the key with them.  The Altima has a spot to put the key, but the Cube doesn’t.  If it does, I certainly can’t find it.  Having a spot for the key is important.  Last time I couldn’t find the key when I got the car back.  The key slipped under the seat and I had no idea where it was.  What a pain!

Every thing has lots of little design elements.  You get them all right and it’s delightful.  Get them wrong and it’s annoying.  Do I blame the whole car for the faults of the key fob? Damn right I do.  And so does everyone else, even if it’s unconsciously.  Little things make big differences.

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 (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?

UX = User Experience

%d bloggers like this: