Edge cases (part 1 of hundreds…)

What if their surname only has two letters?
Are we sure that button is big enough for translated text?
What if the user doesn’t have JavaScript on?
Can a colourblind user still understand that?
What happens when network connection drops?
Does this drag-and-drop work properly on a touchscreen?
What if a user receives an abusive message in this inbox?
“You have no friends.” What now?
Your server had a glitch: does the user understand what happened?
Is that target big enough for all users to tap?
What if the CDN takes a while?
Does that field work for people with non-binary genders?
Could someone just build a bot to get around this?
What if the browser is zoomed in?
What if they want to paste from a password manager?
Did you remember that for Amex the CCV is 4 digits long?
Have we tested with VoiceOver?
Wait, couldn’t this become a spam vector?
Does this even load on a 2G connection?
What if the user can’t point with a mouse?
We are stripping hyphens and parentheses from this telephone field, right?
Does that wrap okay?
Oops! They didn't mean to click that: what do they do now?
Doesn’t Apple hold the patent on that?

Exploring permanent roles

[Update, January 2016: my year is filling up, and a permanent role is now a less likely fit. I’ll announce any change to availability in due course.]

I’m starting to explore permanent roles. I’m interested in positions:

  • at design leadership level (Head/Director/VP);
  • based in London, preferably with a fully colocated team;
  • mobile-focused;
  • in an interesting and worthwhile consumer vertical (financial services, advertising, betting etc aren’t for me, thanks.)

I’m definitely happy to wait for the right permanent role. In the meantime, I’m also available for interim design management opportunities. Please let me know if you have something that may fit.

What “UX Design doesn't exist” means to me

Peter tweeted that there’s no such thing as UX Design. I agree. I haven’t gone by that label for years, because I don’t think it makes much sense as a title or framing for our work. Nor does it reflect my current interests. I wouldn’t use it in the title of my book were I writing it now. Opinions change; no big deal.

But to be clear, this doesn’t mean I think people who call themselves UX designers are worthless. Nor does it mean I think their work is worthless. The things UX designers commonly do are valuable. Please research users. Please prototype. Please test and iterate. (These activities aren’t the sole domain of designers either – everyone on your team has something to offer here.) 

I also think UX people are largely a terrific bunch too: insightful, analytical, strong systems thinkers. Now, I do think most are too narrow: I want designers who do all that and more. But my complaint is with the UX design label, not the activities. These activities happen in all good design: if you’re not trying to create positive experience then I don’t really understand what you are doing.

But it’s just metadata; the output is what matters. So long as you design better technology, I don’t really care what you call yourself.

AI and future user experience

Artificial intelligence is nearing genuine utility.

Exhibit 1 – a chess programme learned to play at International Master standard in 4 days. It did this not through brute force minimax (effective but not really intelligent) but via neural networks and self-correction over time. (This was the exact topic of my Masters’ dissertation – endless boring enthusiasm available on request.)

Exhibit 2 – OS giants are positioning predictive AI as central within their value propositions, viz. Google Now On Tap and iOS9’s Proactive Siri. They’re immature, but are clearly aiming to become connective tissue, bending to context and learning from rich user data. On wearables these agents become even more central, since physical input is constrained and context is richer. 

Exhibit 3 - I mentored at Seedcamp last week, and heard the phrase “machine learning” echoed in the majority of pitches. AI was the secret sauce, the differentiator. Now, these are early startups with a ton of thorny execution ahead of them – but it seems AI isn’t just for the big guns now. 

AI is becoming a cornerstone of user experience. This is going to be interesting (read: difficult) for designers.

1. No longer will products be fully deterministic. We won’t be able to enumerate every page, every response. Instead we’ll have to create frameworks / scaffolds / templates for AIs to deliver output through. These scaffolds may be sonic, tactile, and linguistic as well as visual.

2. The front-end engineer will no longer be the dominant manufacturer of user experience. Designers have become competent at working with front-enders to ensure UI quality, but now we’ll have to understand and partner with data scientists and deep back-end engineers too. Some stats knowledge and even some AI knowledge will probably be useful.

The role broadens once more.

[Inspired in part by recent conversations with Giles Colborne and Jai Mitchell.]

Available for consulting

Summer is coming to a close, and I’m emerging from semi-sabbatical. I’m now available for short-term or part-time consultancy from October 2015 onward.

I’m focusing on consulting rather than hands-on design. If you need help with design process, expert review, interim management, product strategy etc, let me know. More details on my Consulting page.

Visual Essentials: 50% off on 22 July

[Update: Tickets are now sold out; thank you everyone for your support. You can join the waiting list and hope for returns, but I’m also setting up new dates (at regular price). More details soon.]

I’m running my new workshop Visual Essentials for Product Design on Wednesday 22 July at Avanta Sackville St, London W1S 3AX.

I’m offering all tickets for this session at 50% off (£165 plus VAT) for this date. All I ask for in exchange is some feedback on the day, and optionally your help spreading the word for future events.

Hope to see you there!

Advice for people who aren’t exactly afraid of flying but aren’t exactly unafraid of flying either

[Like Craig Mod's post, but with a shade more neurosis.]

Routine is the key. Choose a decent airline, and downright insist on it. One of those Sir-and-Madam fading-glamour national ones tends to offer optimal predictability.

Collect frequent flyer points immediately: you might get the rare upgrade, but more importantly you'll probably get to choose your preferred seat (see below).

Fly business or premium if you can, of course. Check your flight a couple of weeks beforehand; if they offer you an affordable upgrade, grab it. Relief is valuable.

Get a bit drunk, if that’s your thing. It’s childish and unhealthy, but it does help. Just enough that you’d consider singing karaoke with good friends. Your fading-glamour airline should be good to dole out a couple of gins and tonic. Same drink every time, ideally: routine, you see.

Noise-cancelling headphones, drone/ambient music. No drums or vocals.

Craig is right: get to the airport embarrassingly early. But on top of that, check in everything you can. Minimal hand luggage. No see-through-bag hassles, no jostling for locker space.

Ignore the monitor telling you it's -70°C outside. Why the hell do they even do that?

Don’t kid yourself that a window seat will desensitise you. Pick an aisle seat close to the front (less fuselage flex) and look ahead.

Friends who wish you a safe flight don’t realise they just reminded you that flying might not be safe, something might go wrong and you’ll just be falling and falling and falling. Forgive them.

Trust in science and training and rationality. Like, there are people who are on these things all the time and they’re still alive and happy so, y’know: probability theory. The BA Airbus 319 has a bulkhead pattern of tiny notches if you want to visualise what 1 in 100,000 looks like.

The plane wants to be in the air, and it wants to be stable. It’s the natural equilibrium state: swimming in the air. Flying is only scary because the air is transparent. Imagine the air were blue. An ocean of buoyancy. Peace and happiness. Turbulence is just like a truck bouncing on a road. Little pockets of squelchiness, that’s all.

Text your wife (etc) as you board and once you land. Tell her you love her. Use emoji.

oh fuck what the fuck was that oh okay it’s just the drinks trolley

If you can sleep, then for goodness sake sleep, you detestable bastard.

Viewfinder

Don’t trust a designer who can’t take a good photograph. A smartphone shot is fine: never mind the f-stopping and ISO-juggling.

Just enough to demonstrate they can manipulate light, shape, contrast, balance, mood, gaze, proportion. Enough to prove they see.

[for the avoidance of doubt, this is not a good photograph.]

[for the avoidance of doubt, this is not a good photograph.]

It's not what you think

I started a “Lessons learned at Twitter” post, but I think there’s just one big one: It’s Not What You Think.

We all know Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Here’s my preferred extension:

Never attribute to stupidity that which is adequately explained by complexity.

To work somewhere like Twitter is to face perpetual speculation. A hundred bug reports from a hundred friends; press flattery in hope of a careless divulgence; the odd phishing attempt; daft exegesis of blog posts.

And, y’know, that’s fine. A minor downside of notability, compensated by big upsides. You adapt. You shred your sketches, turn on two-factor, and lean on your Comms colleagues: the company knows speculation assumes its own trajectory, and you don’t want to fuel more nonsense.

In my three years at Twitter, I found perhaps 95% of the speculation about the company’s motives was wrong. Laughably so, at times.

These theories always assumed commercial motives: Here’s Twitter’s Masterplan To Dominate Whatever in Proxima Nova Bold 36px. Some conspiracies originated from cui-bono sources that depict Twitter’s business model as evil for the benefit of alternative business models.

When the profit interpretation didn’t fit so well, the fallback was simple incompetence. If only they’d do whatever, they’d make billions. Why does no one in that idiot company stand up for users?

The truth was sometimes mundane, sometimes highly faceted, and frequently hidden in a blindspot only known to someone who’s worked at that scale. The hair-tearingly obvious option would harm another set of users. Or it would be too expensive: a simple lookup that becomes extortionate when run 10,000,000 times. Or it would open up nasty new spam vectors. Or it would suppress emergent user behaviour the team wanted to explore. Or it had already shipped as a small experiment, just not the one the press had seized upon.

Even the few commercially-oriented decisions were greyer from the inside than out. Twitter employs a few thousand intelligent people who excel at robust, eloquent, mostly civil debate. No opinionated employee will agree with every exec-level decision – the choice is then whether to fight to the death, or acquiesce and progress. This usually isn’t a tough evaluation: no point thrashing around once wheels are turning.

We shouldn’t give large companies a free ride. It’s no secret that Twitter has some problems, and it’s right they’re in the spotlight. But let’s also recognise that it’s furiously difficult to make products of global significance, particularly in juvenile companies. The corpuscles of even the most faceless megacorp are people: people who are talented, who are listening, who agonise over their work more than you’d believe, and are desperate to do the right thing. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t.

Our readiness to assume conspiracy by default is one of the 21st century’s saddest trends: perhaps it’s time to venture good faith.

[Disclosure: I still hold a small amount of Twitter stock. I proffer no advice on whether you should invest in the company yourself.]

Recipes

I like my martinis dry, and my team ratios approximately

  • 1 product designer to
  • 1 product manager to
  • 5 user-facing engineers, including a lead

The balance is important. Too much design and the mix gets sticky and saccharine. Too much product makes for a headstrong, imbalanced taste. Too much engineering and the acidity of velocity overwhelms everything.

Stir well.