More (or Less) complicated than you think

I had several interesting experiences yesterday.  In all of the cases, the subject of my work was much more or much less complicated than what I initially thought.  Some examples:

Case #1: I was working with an engineer who had a problem with CSS.  He is only loosely familiar with CSS, so he was freaking out.  He was proposing a massive re-architecture of the system.  I wrote down the one line of CSS for him and the problem was solved.  2 weeks of work or 20 seconds?  In this case, it was 20 seconds.  This exact problem yesterday happened twice with two separate engineers within 2 hours of each other.

Case #2: I had a seemingly small request to add a link to a help menu.  The task was simple and could be done at any time.  However, once we delved into the details, there were lots of use cases that had unsatisfactory experiences related with them.  Each turn to fix the problem was met with more and more depth and complexity, both technical and UX.  What seemed like a 15 minute solution turned into a “go back and do homework” exercise.

Case #3: A co-worker thought someone was mad at them.  They had been feeling bad for 6 hours about it.  Yuck.  Finally, they went to the other party and asked them about it.  Turns out it was nothing and there was no negative feeling in the first place.  It was just a mis-read of signals.  6 hours of negative feeling for something that wasn’t even there and took 3 minutes to fix.

Case #4: Lastly, I was watching a demo of something a new engineer developed.  He showed the functionality in one part of the app and started to close the window.  “Wait!” I yelped.  What about the 4 other sections of the app that would be affected by this change?  In each case, I could feel the room thinking, “Wow, I didn’t realize this one change was so complicated.  This is a big app.”  What he thought was a 5 minute demo took a half hour and uncovered many edge cases.

We are flawed machines, us humans.  We can not think that far ahead and we often mis-calculate the complexity (or lack thereof) of things right in front of us.  We do this every day.  I saw Barack Obama on John Stewart defending the last two years by saying, “If your point is that we didn’t solve healthcare overnight….then sure, that’s valid.”  How complicated do people think government is?  “Cut Taxes” and all will be well is pretty retarded.  Things are more complicated than that.  However, sometimes a simple change of language in a bill means the difference between legal and illegal for the supreme court.

One day, when we have computer implants in our brains or we scan our consciousness into a nano-bot swarm in a matrix, then we will be able to think ahead better.  Until then, just assume that it may be more (or less) complicated than you thought.

Following the Narrative

As we are getting close to finishing election season, I am noticing a very specific common experience.  The media is the number one victim of this.  They are “following the narrative”.  By this I mean that they have a hypothesis about the world and will do anything to support that idea.  Any new information that is the opposite of their expected outcome is ignored and conversely, any information that supports the narrative is pointed to as a smoking gun.

This is an awful way to go about the world.  If I had a nickel for every time the “truth” was the exact opposite of people’s predispositions, I would be a wealthy man.  Some people think TARP was 700 billion dollars and a terrible idea.  Turns out that most of it was paid back and it’s only 50 billion, plus it probably saved millions of jobs.  To take a more mundane topic, you may like a member of the opposite sex; but think they aren’t interested in you.  Every smile and frown will be viewed through the lens of your existing mental model.

Politicians play this narrative to the hilt (or get played by it).  If you control the narrative, then people will go along.  Once a politician is labeled “weak” then everything they do sounds weak.  Label them “corrupt” and everything they do has a bad smell about it.

If only our brains worked differently.  If only we could be more sensible and make decisions based on logic and facts.  If only…

Browsers vs. Searchers

There are two types of people in this world, browsers and searchers.

You see the search box and type in what you want and then look at the results.  The results are based purely on your input.  The thinking involved is primarily about what to search for.  Different search phrases will yield different results.  The amount of clicking is minimal and the system doesn’t need a hierarchy.  The down-side is that you may need to search several times to find just the right keyword.  Sometimes one search phrase is dominated by results that are not what you meant.

Browsers are different.  They like to narrow down their choices by clicking on a general link and progressively getting more detailed.  Each link down is more specific until you find your result.  Browsers do not like a million links available all at once.  They like to have simple choices and each one is splitting the result set in half.  They don’t want to think about input, they want you to give them 2-5 simple choices and they will narrow down from there.

Of course, no one is just a browser or a searcher.  I am searcher with general web information (Google), but a browser or many other kinds of systems.  Generally, depending on the system, I am either one or the other.

As a designer, you have to understand that the world is filled with different kinds of people.  You shouldn’t diminish browsing because you have a search box or vise-versa.  The most important aspect of a designer is Empathy.  You have to feel what it is like to want to search differently than you do normally.  You have to see all of the different and perfectly valid world views.

One common mistake is when people think “Browsers” want to see every possible link on one big giant JavaScript menu.  Browsers HATE this because it gives them too many choices.  They would rather make several simple choices than one big honking one.  If they wanted to scan through a hundred links they would have just searched.

One of the hardest design tasks for the browser audience is to figure out the information architecture / taxonomy.  Some items belong in more than one or or none at all.  In my experience, there is always a way to work it out.  Just make sure that each level has clear and unambiguous choices.

I find that many designers and certainly many business drivers make assumptions about their audience that don’t match up to reality.  Do a good job with your assumptions and you will gain real-world benefits from your website.

With all due respect

From Urban Dictionary

A term used by many people all over the world, to make the next few words coming out of their mouth, sound less offensive.

Example: With all due respect, your mom looks like a permanently aroused gorilla.

As a species, we often get angry at other people.  This is a worldwide phenomenon.  We get angry for lots of reasons.  The response to this situation is fascinating.  Some people just yell at their oponents.  Some get passive aggressive.  There are a host of defense mechanisms out there, take your pick.  The one I hate the most is veiling your anger with fake politeness.  Phrases like , “With all due respect” and “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” and “Please take this in the best possible way…” drive me nuts.

What is happening in people’s heads?  To me, I think they know, clearly, that they are about to be obnoxious.  Yet, the person doesn’t want to be considered rude, so they use this preface to make themselves feel better.  They are trying to give themselves the higher ground, even as they descend into the mud.

I did hear one interesting alternative usage.  There was a debate on NPR between two politicians.  One of them was a nut-job, plain and simple.  His opponent kept saying, “With all due respect, I think…”.  It’s a very similar usage, but the speaker was keenly aware of how he sounded to the audience.  He wanted to sound like the guy who was giving respect and paint the other guy as the one NOT giving respect.  So he wasn’t being particularly offensive after his preface.  He was, rather, trying to show how the other person was being a wackadoodle.

We go through these incredible contortions to convince ourselves (or the audience) that are nice people.  I don’t know if the world would be better if we told the truth:  I have no respect for you, and your mom looks like a permanently aroused gorilla.

The UX of Business Cards

I received a bunch of business cards at the conference and was thinking about them. Some of the cards had clever things on them that pointed you online. Others were plain white, classic and boring. Others were black, which made writing on them impossible. Some were oddly shaped and difficult to put in the stack of others. (I suppose they thought it would stand out, but I think it just invited tossing into the trash). Some were landscape and others portrait.

There is such a diversity of themes and approaches to business cards. It goes with the axiom that great creativity comes from strong constraints. I love seeing how different organizations approach this universal task. One of my favorite scenes in a movie is in American Psycho, where Jason Bateman is showing off his new business card.

A business card is an opportunity to stand out. Never let an opportunity go to waste. Use your business card creatively, but not obnoxiously. Here are the requirements:

  1. Must have room to write things on it. This is the most common missing feature in a business card.
  2. Must be shaped like other business cards. I know its cute and different, but not in a good way. It’s shaped wrong and begs to be thrown out.
  3. Not have your fax number. What is this 1988? You need something faxed? Seriously?? Scan it and email for crying out loud.
  4. Not overloaded. Some people put their psychical address, phone, cell, email, twitter, company url, blah blah blah. Keep it simple. Less is more. Websites and business cards need editing. Don’t put every single detail there. Don’t let the marketing department use your business card as a billboard for their messages.
  5. Stand out. Think different. Do it better. Study business cards and find the ones that you love. Steal their ideas.

Business cards is an art. Don’t treat it like a checkbox that has to be checked.

The UX of Marketo User Summit 2010

Of course, I have a vested interest.  I am the first hired employee and the head of UX for Marketo, but I feel I can be objective.  Well, just take it with a grain of salt anyway.

It was awesome.

Last year, we had about a hundred and fifty people.  I thought that was alot at the time.  It blew my mind that all these people knew what “munchkin” meant and were using words that I had coined in the spur of the moment.  The event last year was “home-brew” in that it clearly was a conference for a small well-knit community.

This year, I walked in and was a bit overwhelmed.  It looked like a professional conference.  There were professional signs with agendas and people pointing you in the right direction.  It wasn’t home-brew any more.  There were more people.  Alot more…almost 700 people!  All of them using Marketo.  Hundreds of companies!  I couldn’t possibly meet them all.  This was big-time.  I can hardly comprehend how this happened.

One co-worker said, “Is this us?” with a stunned look on his face?  How could our little company achieve so much?  How could we be so impressive?  Are we as cool as this makes us seem?  I need time to wrap my head around it all.

The first day was the training sessions.  I figured alot of people would skip this portion to focus more on the traditional “presentation” portion of the summit on the next day.  I was totally wrong.  The training sessions were bigger draws.  People were so animated by the product, they wanted to learn more and dig deeper into it with the experts.  I gave one training session, which worked out well I think.  The only down side was that internet access at the hotel was really spotty.  Too many people trying to use the internet at once, I suppose.

The keynote by the CEO was very inspiring for me.  I see the future he paints and truly believe it is logical and inevitable.  I am so proud to be part of the team that is bringing that vision to reality.  Another session I loved was Bill Binch and Jon Miller showing how Marketo uses Marketo in both marketing and sales.  They were two peas in a pod; a seamless continuity between marketing and sales.  Where else does that happen?  The amount of detailed “golden” information they disclosed was astounding.  I think everyone in the room was mesmerized.

The last talk by Avinash Kaushik was wonderful (as usual!).  He is funny and powerful, smart and evocative.  Everything you want in a speaker.  He challenges your thinking and brings you along to a new better place.  I think this was my favorite speech of his ever.

Everyone I spoke to was in love with Marketo.  Sometimes, I fear the worst and am paranoid about every flaw, every blemish in the application.  However, this was good to make me see that we are doing something very, very right.

Clearly, the next user summit is going to be more than twice as big.  I am going to re-live the same crazy sensation year over year.

Some things I would love to see for next year:

  • Genius Bar type of thing with the real support team.  People love our support staff and I wish they could have been there more of the time.
  • Panels.  I would love interactive sessions with people on bar stools.  Generally, I am a fan of this format.  One conference I attended had the questions ranked with votes online.
  • Avinash should see Marketo.  Once he understands what it does, I think he will be inspired related to B2B Marketing, analytics and nurturing.
  • More chairs.  I can’t stand up that much time in a row.  My back is not good.  Having areas to gather, SIT and talk would be golden.

Overall, it was a damned fine piece of work.  I am excited to be a part of Marketo for 2011.

The Power of Standard Interfaces

Imagine that Toyota (or some big car manufacturer) came out with a standard interface to the stereo system.  It looked like a tray above the center dash that could hold your cell phone or ipod or small device.  At the bottom of the tray was a removable interface.  You could plugin a iPod adapter or a Zune adapter or a blackberry adapter or a [to be named next year] adapter.  Toyota would sell different adapters but publish the protocol as open source.  Then everyone could sell those adapters for all kinds of devices.  People could innovate using the standard protocol.

Right now, there is Bluetooth, but it has significant limitations.  It’s hard to set up, prone to error and many devices (iPod!) don’t have bluetooth at all.  Besides the fact that car companies mistakenly assumed that people just want the phone to connect via bluetooth and not a wide array of other devices.  More importantly, the car companies have locked down the capabilities.  If they made an open API via bluetooth to many of the cars systems, then people would use that API to do interesting things.

In any industry, standard interfaces provide a rallying point for everyone to build an ecosystem around.  Standard railroad widths spurred the transportation industry. APIs have created a large community of plugins.  Standards create opportunities.

If you have a root system, consider how others might use it.  Build an API and let people at it.  You might end up with some bumps along the way, but in the end you will create opportunities that you will empower you.

Aikido for Resolving Disputes

Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba as a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit.” Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. This requires very little physical strength, as the aikidka (aikido practitioner) “leads” the attacker’s momentum using entering and turning movements.

I saw a presentation once that covered this, and I have used it ever since.  In the business world, disagreements and disputes arise all of the time.  Customers are irate, bosses are mad at you, co-workers are fighting over the issue du jour..  How can you deal with all of these issues?

Aikido is all about redirecting the force of your opponent.  So here is the first rule:

Always start by agreeing with your opponent.

This is critical.  You have to be facing the same direction.  Find common ground.  Agree on something, agree on anything.  The point is to be on the same side of the table.  Then, when you are side-by-side, the dynamic will instantly change.

First of all, most anger needs a target.  If there is no target, then the anger often melts away.  I was once on the phone with a customer who started off angry and I agreed whole-heartedly with her complaints, right away.  Immediately, she began to calm down.  Had I disagreed with her, the anger would likely have intensified.

Always understand your audience and your surroundings.  Agreement is the first step to progress.  Use the momentum of your opponent to focus on the right issues, not on just yelling at you.  There are other ways of demonstrating strength in unexpected ways.  Check out this Seth Godin article for some unorthodox, but effective techniques.

The UX of Twitter Tools Setup

Part of this post is just a test.  However, the setup process of Twitter Tools is insane now.  It’s not their fault.  Twitter has a ridiculous serious of complex hoops to jump through to get this stuff to work.  You have to put in all kinds of technical info.  The basic premise is simple.  I post a blog entry and I want it to change my status in Twitter and Facebook.  Not that complicate, in my humble opinion.

The Facebook plugin is pretty easy, no crazy setup.  But the Twitter one forces me to register an app with Twitter in their developer center.  There are secret keys and access keys and special urls.  Its nuts.

Well, hopefully it will work, but this is not a good user experience.