The UX of the Big Boss Talking to You

I’ve heard this story many times.  The big boss is right in front of you.  Normally, you never see him up close.  You are in the middle of the organization somewhere and he is the leader.  You start to feel butterflies in your stomach.  Then, he asks that incredibly insightful question:

How’s it going?

Arrghhh.  What do I say?  What does he mean?  Is he asking about the TPS report?  I have been having trouble because of the ink in the printer.  I should say something full of wisdom.  I should hit the nail right on the head.  Give a good answer!  Don’t say something stupid!  Maybe he wants to know about the Jets!  Or my thoughts on the economics of the stock market.  Or should I just say, “Good! and You?”

Finally, you decide to talk about the thing that was most on your mind a few minutes before the boss came over.  He smiles at you, nods and moves on.

This is the moment when you say, “Ugh.  I am a complete moron.”

I just did this yesterday.  I’ve heard of people doing this to captains of industry like Jack Welsh or the President of the United States.  It’s common, we all do it.  I wish that made me feel better but it doesn’t.

Sometimes they ask a specific question, like “How are those TPS reports?  Did our improvements work?”  I hate this worst of all.  You are put on the spot to give a good answer.  Your mind races to all the possible issues, you are in the weeds.

My advice, which I often forget to follow is to keep it simple and buy time.  Say “I think it’s [good/bad/mixed].  I can’t explain why on the spot, but if you want, I can gather my thoughts and come to you later.  Listen to what the boss is saying closely.  Find out their point of view. Most of all, engage brain before mouth.

Buying a Car, the Maximizer Way

This was the most stressful purchase I have ever made.  Buying a house was nothing in comparison.  My jaw is aching…throbbing.  Hopefully, it will subside now that the battle is over.

Why was this purchase so stressful?  Because we tried to Maximize vs. Satisfice.  Read The Paradox of Choice for more detail.  Basically, in my first few days of looking, I saw the Cube and said to Katie, “I am going to lease this.”  (Satisficing is getting the first “good” option) She argued with me, so we ended up Maximizing instead (looking at every option).  I am not saying I blame her for my jaw hurting.  I am saying that Maximizing sucks.

In the end, we bought (not leased) a new (not used) 2009 (not 2010) Nissan (not Toyota) Altima (Not Cube) Hybrid (not regular) with leather seats (not cloth) and a 7 year warranty (not 5).

In the end it went down like this:

Nissan Cube. I sat in it and felt comfortable.  I felt at home.  It wasn’t a great car, in fact it was cheap and flimsy.  But it was cute and I liked the visibility and spaciousness.  The color was black, not my favorite, but whatever.

Nissan Altima Hybrid.  This was a much nicer car.  Leather, lots of buttons, bluetooth, etc.  I sat in it and felt sort of like I was sitting in someone else’s car.  Like when I sit in one of my mother’s cars. (She drives well).   It was a hybrid and Katie and I both believe in eco-friendly purchasing.

So the Altima was more more money, but had more benefits like federal tax credits and special money back.  Probably the Altima would hold its value better over the long term as well.  When we boiled it down, it looked like they would be (over the course of 6-10 years) roughly the same cost to us, especially if we sold it down the road.

So the question became: If they cost the same, which car would we take?  Although I loved the Cube’s feel, the Altima was objectively and significantly a better car.  I thought it 60% nicer.  We took it.

This raises an important UX point:  I literally was wrestling with a cheap flimsy car versus a nice fancy car only because the cheap car was more fun.  That is critical.  Fun can increase the perceived value of your product or service significantly.  In this case, it made the Cube 50% more valuable to me.  If the Altima was only 40% nicer than the Cube, we would have purchased the Cube instead.

The role of design in an organization should be to add fun/wow/awesome to the product or service.  They are increasing value of the product.  We don’t test this enough or talk about it enough.  This stuff has real economic benefit.

Now that the purchase is done, I want to hate the Cube because I am not going to have it.  Boo Cube!  Black was a stupid color.  Flimsy!  Hopefully, if I say this enough, I will start to believe it.  Hopefully, I will learn to love the Altima.  I have only driven it a tiny bit, but I will do a more specific review later, when I have a picture.

The Curse of Knowledge

Made to Stick has a great concept called the Curse of Knowledge. (Highly recommended reading)  Here is a summary of the curse:

Imagine a song (not Happy Birthday) in your head.  A common familiar song.  Then ask someone listen while you tap out the song on your desk. See if they can understand it.  They almost always fail.  Why?  They can’t hear the music in your head, they just hear morse code from your desk.  People teach in the same way.  They know all the details of the subject matter as they know the music in their heads.  However, the audience doesn’t know about all that history.  They just hear you speaking.  Teaching fails when you overestimate your audiences ears.

Symptoms of the Curse include:

  • OMAGOD Overuse of Meaningless Acronyms Given to Odd Details.
  • Florkiness – Overuse of domain specific or internal names that new people do not understand.
  • MetaData – Overuse of vague, meaningless terms
  • Smurfing – Using a single term to mean multiple things.
  • The Weeds – Inability to zoom up and see the forest first.  They jump right into the weeds.
  • Dicken’s Syndrome – Charles Dickens got paid by the word.  (Close enough)  Long prose is an awful way to explain something.
  • RTFMRead The F**king Manual.  Or Wiki.  When people can’t take the time to explain they use this cop-out.

There are tools to combat the Curse.  Here is a short list:

  • Simplify – Use common terminology and start with the highest level basic concepts.
  • Create a baseline of language – Establish general nouns and verbs of what is going on.
  • Use Analogies.  Like a car or a plane.
  • Interact and confirm learning. Make sure they are with you.  Ask them to explain it back to you in their own words.  Most people nod their heads when asked if they understand because they don’t want to be embarrassed.  This is human psychology.  Don’t assume people understand anything.
  • Draw a picture.  Like this:

The Curse of Knowledge is bad and has these effects:

  • Slows new employee indoctrination
  • Makes a company less productive and profitable because people don’t understand the details
  • Reduces recruiting effectiveness because you can’t explain things
  • Makes Sales harder because you can’t explain things
  • Hurts the ability of leaders to lead because people make faulty assumptions

Don’t underestimate this blight on humanity.  Fight it in your organization.  Do your best to learn to teach better.  Teaching is part of learning.  I hope this post will help some of you teach better.

THe UX of Rock Band 2

It aint cheap, but plunk down a bunch of money and you can have a new xBox with extra controllers, a cooling fan and a brand new Rock Band 2.  Our 3 boys are between 5 and 10 years old and have never practiced an instrument.  Katie is musical, so I am hoping they inherit her skills.

It took a while to unpack and set everything up, but once it was ready, the game was pretty intuitive.  We practiced guitar and drums first, just getting a feel for how it works.  It was pretty cool how the kids were getting the hang of it quicker than I was.

They insisted on trying an actual song.  We tried Modest Mouse, Float On.  All of the settings were set to “easy”.  Surprisingly, we didn’t suck as much as we thought.  The kids rocked it.  Even the 5 year old was pretty good on drums (with my help).

The graphics were spectacular, but really, you don’t look at any of it.  You star at the little colored bars that you have to match.  Generally, you focus like a laser and try to keep the beat.  It’s easy to get lost.  Buying more songs is a bit expensive but easy to do.  The entire ecosystem is strong.

Unexpectedly, I was sweating and exhausted at the end of the first song.  It’s hard work to stay focused for that long.  Pressing the drum kicker with your foot is really tiring on your legs.  I literally had to catch my breath after the song.  I don’t think I was breathing.  I have new respect for anyone in a band.  This is not easy.

I truthfully believe that Rock Band 2 will bring joy of music to kids who use it.  It will make them want to join a real band.  It will teach them rhythm and how to follow the beat and how to concentrate on the music.  It will teach them the right body motions.  Most of all, it will teach them to rock.

The interaction design is gorgeous.  The details have been thought through by real musicians and game designers.  A+.

The UX of the Christmas

On NPR they were interviewing a humanist rabbi from Harvard.  He pointed out that, for most people and most aspects, Christmas has nothing to do with religion.  Nothing in the bible talks about trees in the house and lights and presents and Santa Claus.  Clearly much of this tradition has to do with Europe and not the Biblical settings.

Sure, some people go for the manger, but there is nothing in the bible that insinuates a December 25th birthday.  Christmas traditions, are most of us know are have Pagan roots.

Although Christmas seems like a Christian tradition,  there is another way to think about it.  In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year when the days are short and it’s cold.  Cold and dark, these are the recipes for human depression.  We have a very real reaction to such input.

So what would Darwinistic thinking say about this fact.  We help ourselves survive by developing traditions that make us feel better and happier.

We put lights in the house, and evergreen trees (not the sleeping ones with no leaves outside).  We exchange gifts and sing songs and make up stories.  We do this as a group to remind ourselves that we are not alone.

This is the true meaning of Christmas.  It’s dark and cold and we want to make ourselves feel better.  You don’t need God or Jesus or anything to do this.  You just need to make it a fun time.

Merry ChristmahanuKwanizkah from me and the Flying Spagetti Monster.  Make it fun!

The UX of a New Car

I am not a “car person”.  I see people all the time comparing this horsepower and that alloy rims and the other sunroof.  I wish I could converse with them, but I just don’t care enough about cars to get into it.  I appreciate a nice car as much as the next guy, but there are just too many factors to deal with.  Katie and I are considering a second car and the choices are overwhelming.

Buy vs. Lease. I’ve looked at buying guides online and feel more confused than before.  Which is better?  Which choice will I regret?  I don’t know!

Brand. Generally speaking, every brand has almost the exact same car as the competition.  I understand the difference in quality between a Honda Accord and a BMW, but seriously, 4 doors, 4 wheels, seats 5.  Does the fact that it looks “slightly” different, or feels “slightly” different make a real difference?  I just don’t care.

MPG.  Hybrid cars are quiet and get great gas mileage.  However a VW TDI Diesel gets almost as good mileage as the Toyota Prius. The Nissan Cube gets 30 mpg.  Does it matter between 30 and 40?  Not really.  I want to vote with my pocketbook, but really, I want a plugin.  I think I could use so little fuel that I would never ever have to fill it.  (I live 2 miles from work, but it’s a treacherous bike ride. Someone just got killed the other day.)

Form Factor.  SUV, Cross-over, Sedan, Compact, Sportscar…the list goes on and on.  How am I supposed to decide this?  They all look fine!  I would get used to anything.

New vs. Certified Pre-Owned (A.K.A. Used).  The have warranties now for used cars.  A used car is alot less money than a new car.  Is it worth it?  I have no idea.  It’s just one more choice on top of a million choices.

Cost. $15,000?  $25,000?  $50,000?  More?  Seriously, there are cars for every single price range.  How do you decide what budget to limit yourself?

And the rest. You want the extra cup holder package?  iPod integration, Bluetooth? Sun roof? Power nose cleaner? Stick shift? Automatic? Automatic stick shift?  Arrrghhhhh!

It’s a miracle anyone can decide anything at all.

My solution: I am going to lease something cheap.  A new car, around $15,000 that seats 5 with automatic transmission.  I am hoping it has a radio built in.  So that narrows it down to about a billion choices.  Ugh.

The UX of Office Moves

I remember when Kokopelli (company I ran from 1994-2002) moved offices.  It was a short move just across the street.  While we were checking it out, we looked out the window and there was our crew waving at us.  I almost started crying.  The new space was extremely nice and very big.  At Marketo, we moved twice in 3 years. Here at Adchemy, we just moved into new offices today.  It never ceases to fill me with pride and excitement.  The smell of new desks and chairs.  The unfamiliar orientation of everything.  Where is the bathroom?  Which was is that conference room again?

One of the biggest changes is proximity.  People who used to be so close I could play footsy with them, now I have to take a long walk to find them.  They can’t hear me when I sneeze.  (And I sneeze loud).

I am still getting the hang of the chair.  It’s pretty comfortable, but I haven’t melded minds with it yet.  I plan on stringing up some Holiday LED lights above my desk.  I think it will give the area a nice creative festive look.

It’s like being a kid exploring a new house.  Everything is different and cool.  Soon, the feeling will fade and it will just be “the office”.  It will get more and more crowded until we have to move again in a few years.

I’m addicted to new stuff and moving is the ultimate “new”.  I love it.

The UX of Clickable Prototypes with Napkee

For the past few months, I have been using Balsamiq and loving it.  It doesn’t have everything I want, but it has plenty and the design is charming.  I am sketching designs very quickly and effectively.  However, last week I had a new challenge. There were a series of sketches that strung together to form the overall workflow.  The engineer didn’t understand what clicked to what.  So I thought, a click-able prototype is needed.

My first try used Napkee, which is an add-on I bought for Balsamiq for the sole purpose of creating click-able prototypes.  It transforms the Balsamiq mockups into HTML or Flex versions.  neither of which worked for me.

HTML Version
This version mutilates the design of the Balsamiq.  It creates real HTML out of the sketchy source.  I definitely do not want this.  I want the sketchy look, just click-able.  I think they went WAY overboard on how functional this is for a use case that makes no sense.

Flex Version
This version stays true to the original sketches, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to turn it into a web page.  I tried opening the project in Flex Builder 3 and 4.  Why can’t it just output an HTML page embedded with a SWF?  That would work fine for me.  I wish this is what it did.  I will email them and see what the deal is with that.  It somehow works, but I can’t figure it out.

Missing jQuery ImageMap Version
I did this one manually, but I wish Napkee or Balsamiq would take my cue.  First, you save your Balsamiq sketches to PNG files in a folder.  Then I downloaded a free image map tool called from SilverAge Software called Handy Image Mapper.  Not the best tool in the world, but it did the job.  I miss Homesite with it’s built in version.  Webuilder 2010 doesn’t include this.  Anyway, I then created a different image map for each one of the mockups and saved them on the page with a different CSS class.  I whipped out my jQuery and wrote this:

//When the page loads
$(document).ready(function() {

  //How awesome is jQuery? Attach events to the AREA tag?!
 $("AREA").click(function () {

   //What was the area pointing to?
   //I made them all point to the fileName.png of the mockup
    var targetImg = $(this).attr("HREF");

    //What is the class, which maps to the proper MAP definition
    var targetMap = $(this).attr("class");

    //Main is the single image,
    //We change the source to the right mockup and then
    //Change the USEMAP attribute to match the mockup
    $("#main").attr("src",targetImg).attr("USEMAP", targetMap);

    //Don't actually click anywhere
    return false;


This is a tiny piece of JavaScript using jQuery.  Napkee should export all the images and use the definitions of the links in Balsamiq to create USEMAPs.  Then this little script would do all the work, swapping out the image and changing the map to the right place.  This is what I wanted, and what I think most people want from a click-able Balsamiq prototype.

I will send this post to them and see what they can do.  It seems this method is WAY easier and much better for the experience.  I hope it works.

Biography vs. Science Books

Since 1995, I have only read non-fiction.  I am not suggesting that everyone do this.

The non-fiction books I read fall into two categories: Biography/History and Science/Theory.  Some bio/history books are fantastic, like Robert Caro’s books about Lyndon Johnson or Robert Moses.  He is my favorite author with a ridiculously high Pulitzer prize average per book.  These books are true stories that capture your imagination the real time and place.  Some biographies are not as good, like Che which is boring me to tears.  On the science/theory side, the books have a particular bit of knowledge they are trying to convey.  There is no story.  It’s just a logical proof of the concepts.  Guns, Germs and Steel or anyMalcolm Gladwell book are good examples of these.  Sometimes reading this sort of book you say, “OK, I get it.” and then you have to read another 250 more pages proving their point even further.

Science books teach me a tremendous amount about the world in which we live.  How people think, what makes a good presentation, why capitalism doesn’t work anywhere except the west.  All of these subjects can be taught.  However, I can’t read these non-stop.  I was about to start a new science book called The Political Mind, but I just can’t do it.  I need a story.  I think I want to read Andre Agassi’s autobiography or maybe a Pulitzer prize winner or national book award winner.

The problem is that Christmas is right around the corner and I imagine I will be getting some books.  So I just have to wait 10 days.  Maybe, I could watch some TV in the meantime.  Discovery Channel or History Channel?  Or maybe 30 Rock on Netflix?

Book Review: Predictably Irrational

I just finished Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational.  It was a very good read and I recommend it to anyone looking to understand how people think.  The author is a behavior economist and scientist.  Basically, that means he does tests to see how people act in the real world.

For example: How much to people cheat?  Usually they cheat a little, even if they have the opportunity to cheat alot.  If you mention the ten commandments before the exercise, they will cheat alot less.  If you abstract the cheating by 1 level, the cheating skyrockets.  The end result is that you can eliminate alot of corruption in governments by focusing on this abstraction and making the cheating more blunt.

The kinds of insights in the book lead me to believe that we are hard wired to react in predictable, yet irrational ways to many of life’s challenges.  What job do we pick, what friends to do we associate with, what cars do we drive…We are slaves to our subconscious.

This helps with understanding what User Experience Design is.  Our jobs are to understand how people really react to stimulus and to design the system to accentuate the positive outcomes and minimize the negative ones.  his book provided insight into how to test and how to think about this topic.  I enjoyed it very much and give it a strong thumbs up.