The Humble Designer

One of the (arguably few) benefits that comes with having some gray hairs is the maturity to reflect on what you have learned over the years, and how you have learned it.

The early years of my career were not distinguished. I lacked direction and was not particularly interested in developing myself. I eventually woke up around eight years in. Those lost years often give me the uncomfortable feeling of playing catch-up all the time.

For the last 15+ years I’ve worked persistently at personal and professional development. I cringe now when I think of the younger me; the lack of interest both in my profession, and in others. It is this same sense of shame which helps me feel more qualified to answer a question I am asked increasingly often: what qualities make for a successful career in design?

For the last few years, the answers I’ve given have been, simply, humility and curiosity.

For the purposes of this piece I’ll restrict the definition of ‘design’ to the field of human-centred design. But I firmly believe these can apply to any number of disciplines.

As a junior designer, it’s easy to feel pressure to have all the answers ready and waiting. This tends to be reinforced in meetings as the question “So, what are we going to do?” comes up. Heads turn to the designer. “Well? You’re the designer – what’s the answer?!” is a question to haunt designers throughout the early years of a career. The subsequent scramble for easy answers can lead to any number of tragic outcomes.

A humble designer has the ability to say “I don’t have the answers. But I know the questions we should ask.”

Two books in recent months have left a huge impression on me: Humble Consulting and Factfulness. To my great delight, both books stressed the importance of both qualities.

‘Facfulness’ is a compelling and optimistic look at how much the world has improved during the 20th and 21st centuries, and how far humanity has developed. Very much against the current zeitgeist of everything appearing to be awful, it supplies data which undeniably shows that life is getting better for the majority of humankind. We are far from utopia, but the book stresses the importance of dealing with facts to understand the world around us.

“Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity. Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.”

In ‘Humble Consulting’, Edgar Schein presents humility as a strength in approaching complex challenges, and something which nurtures the kind of collaborative relationships required to achieve breakthroughs and desired outcomes. Early in the book, Schein describes three types of humility, one of which – Here-and-now Humility – “results from our being dependent from time to time on someone else in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to. This will strike some readers as academic hairsplitting, but it is the recognition of this third type of humility that is the key to humble inquiry and to the building of positive relationships.”

The humility to accept that you don’t know – and the curiosity to fill the gaps in your own knowledge – makes you not just a better designer, but a better colleague and a better professional; one more capable of working within a team to achieve shared goals.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The casual arrogance that comes with partial knowledge is ruthlessly conveyed in the early peak of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Knowing where you sit on that continuum, through a capacity for self-awareness, is essential. The best designers will know themselves to be somewhere in the dip, but working hard to ascend the other side.

I’ll listen to anyone with an opinion on the qualities of a good designer. There’s room for all kinds of approaches and skillsets. However I will say this: the absence of humility and curiosity may not deny a designer a successful career. But absence of those qualities will deny them a truly fulfilling one.

Voice interface is still overpromising and underdelivering

Cortana speakerAround 15 years ago Flash technology was in the ascendancy. One of the odd conventions to emerge at the time was the ‘Flash intro’. Very often, to build your anticipation for the website awaiting you, you would be entertained with what was essentially an opening title sequence. And if you were really unlucky, on the other side of it was a website fully rendered in Flash.

What you wanted was content; what you got was an extended journey through a designer’s ego trip (and yes I should know, I was one of those designers). The basic premise of a Flash-built website was that tricking out the interface would make for a better user experience. That assumption turned out to be wrong.

With Siri, Alexa et al entering our lives, our interfaces now have personalities. If a digital misunderstands our requests we are likely to learn about it through a witty quip. TV ads featuring virtual assistants often make a particular show of droll one-liners emanating from the device.

But as Neilsen Norman Group research shows, voice interfaces are falling far short of user expectations. It seems that priorities need to be reassessed.

A little less conversation

As part of a project last year I began designing for command line interface. With no previous experience, a terminal window or console can be a daunting place. Initially I was puzzled why user prompts and feedback in this world were so clinical and abrupt. Why would command line users not want to be addressed in a more human fashion? The answer lies in task efficiency.

Command line interface evolved from single-line dialogue between two human teleprinter operators. Over time, one end of the human-human dialogue became a computer, and the conventions remained. These interfaces provide users a more efficient method of performing tasks. In short, command line users are just like the rest of us: that is, trying to perform a lot of tasks in as short a time as possible, without surplus dialogue or clutter getting in the way.

This method of working is totally in keeping with our tendency towards ever more concise communication. Email is on the wane due to the long, unwieldy threads it encourages. The rise of chat apps such as Slack is due in large part to the tendency towards more concise messages. We’re making less mobile calls, opting instead for text messages using abbreviations, acronyms and emojis.

Many rivers to cross

As designers we are not always trying to mimic a conversation. We are creating an exchange which delivers for the user as efficiently as possible. To re-cast all human-computer interactions as conversations is to misunderstand our relationship with machines and devices.

The obstacles to success with voice UI are many. Users need to think more than once about the commands they give. They are required to speak in a manner that often isn’t natural for them. Even relatively simple queries may need to be broken down into smaller questions before reaching anything like the right answers.

When barriers are placed between a user and the outcomes they want the end result is predictable: they will simply opt out. A report from The Information suggests that only 2% of Alexa speakers have been used to make a purchase from Amazon in 2018. Additionally, 90% of the people who try to make a purchase through Alexa don’t try again.

We are still some distance away from the dream that voice UI promised. Perhaps this is voice’s Flash period, where the user needs to work hard to access the content they want. And I’m willing to bet that most frustrated users would be willing to trade every ounce of their virtual assistant’s sassy responses for just a little more efficiency.

The fact is that voice UI is still pretty hard work, no matter how hard Siri or Alexa try to entertain us.

Empathy, deconstructed

Psychology is just one of many areas designers can sometimes stray into for guidance or assistance. Anything which reminds us that we are flawed humans, attempting to design useful things for other humans is a good thing.

Carl Rogers’ Person-Centred Therapy (PCT) makes for interesting reading for the modern design professional. Rogers’ innovative approach, now over 50 years old, ran counter to the remote and detached forms of psychotherapy prevalent at the time. Specifically, PCT contains a number of principles that align with key qualities of effective design thinkers and problem-solvers.

The approach features three core conditions, each of them with direct relevance to the creation of positive user experiences.

One of Roger’s core conditions is unconditional positive regard (UPR). UPR is “the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does”. Substitute person for user and you have a pretty good foundation for user-centred design. As design luminary Don Norman has put it, “what we call ‘human error’ is a human action that … flags a deficit in our technology. It should not be thought of as an error.” Which sounds like UPR in so many words.

Another condition is congruence; “the willingness to transparently relate to clients without hiding behind a professional or personal facade”. The parallel in design might be a desire to facilitate top tasks, and present easy paths to goals without the clutter of marketing or sales to present obstacles.

The essence of user-centred design is appreciating users as humans with needs, goals and limited time on their hands in which to achieve them. And why must we humanise the user? In order to practice the human quality of empathy – coincidentally the third of Rogers’ core conditions.

There are increasing amounts of lip service given to empathy in our professional & social feeds. It sounds worthy and is difficult to argue against. What we don’t often see are answers to questions about how to leverage it, how to make it practical.

The imperative of empathy for designers means identifying with others enough to create something which, no matter how small, makes their life easier. UPR has huge relevance; as designers we should demonstrate a positive regard for whatever our users’ motivations and needs might be. To create meaningful product experiences which connect users with their goals, it falls on us also to treat the pursuit of those goals and associated needs with respect.

Good design demands empathy and insight. UCP provides some simple ground rules for beginning to flex that empathy muscle.

UX Bookclub Belfast, Feb 2018

This time round we had Donna Lichaw (@dlichaw) talking about her book The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products that People Love.

Donna has a background in screenwriting, and carried over the idea of mapping out story from the world of film as she transitioned into products. In the book we’re offered examples from film & TV (Back to the Future and Breaking Bad fwiw), then examples of how that transposes to design.

The storymapping model ©2018 Donna Lichaw

The storymap always follows this pattern (above), the challenge is then to populate the story with the most critical elements of the user experience. N.B. Although Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ is referenced, that isn’t the central model or focus of the book.

Examples of effective application of the technique included Donna’s own experience with FitCounter, where rate of retention during onboarding doubled, despite extending signup from 5 to 15 steps! Another example given is the signup experience of Twitter during it’s major growth period.

During Q&A Donna suggested storymapping was another tool that could work alongside more traditional methods; in practice I anticipate it will take significant buy-in from an early stage, right across the team. Potentially it might impinge or negate completely many accepted UX practices. For instance, some terms that Donna makes use of might be a formula for ambiguity in the UX vs agile conundrum, not least the definition of “stories” itself.

That said, Donna didn’t get caught up in semantics; the book is simply advocating for increased shared understanding, using story – in a holistic sense – as the agent to establish clarity for project goals. It’s a relatively short read, and makes a compelling case for storymapping to bring something fresh to product discussions. It’s but a short step away from experience mapping and traditional user stories; a consolidation of disparate elements under the banner of story.

If you have time, this is an excellent video of Donna’s presentation at Mind The Product in London, 2016.

Check the resources Donna has provided on her website.

Donna Lichaw appears at UX Bookclub Belfast

A quick history of UX Bookclub Belfast: started around 10 years ago and hosted by an agency named Front. They were acquired by Monotype in 2012 at which point myself and few others took up as organizers, until early 2016 when it ran out of suitable venues… and interest. FF to late 2017 and we held the first rebooted bookclub (now with added Meetup.com!)