On travel

I was twenty-seven before I boarded an airplane. As a boy, our family holidays in Wales and Cornwall meant that my GCSE French could only be unleashed on the occasional orchestra tour: memories of sweltering coach trips on which someone always forgot their viola.

But this year – and I suppose this is my 2011 retrospective – I’ve visited five continents and spent a quarter of the year overseas. I’ve visited places I always dreamed of and perfected my security choreography: belt, laptop, liquids in under ten seconds.

The disorientation of travel is humbling. I have to learn the customs, the new machines, and the subway maps. I queue in the wrong places, and walk down the wrong roads. I learn to say sorry in a dozen languages. It’s a valuable lesson that mental models are created the hard way.

It’s also fascinating to see how other cultures interact with each other and with technology. Johannesburg’s barbed wire and Tokyo’s vending machines left a particular impression. Travel reminds me that not everyone has a MacBook and fast WiFi. This year I saw some amazing applications of mobile technology: people making do with the tools they have, routing around infrastructure problems rather than blaming them.

Travel also gives me space to think. For all their bustle, airports and hotels are also places of disconnection. However much I try, I can’t work or sleep on planes, so I take the opportunity to read, or squint at forgettable films. And although a hotel bar and a late night can be fun, I’m often at my most productive after I’ve exhausted the local TV channels and set about something that’s been on my list for weeks.

But perhaps the happiest aspect of travel is that it helps us appreciate what we have. The delicious Heathrow relief of finally being able to express myself with a full vocabulary. The coolness of my pillow on my jetlagged, unshaved face. The more I travel, the more I love this petty, depressed country.

I’d hate to become weary of travel, or so privileged that I see it as a burden. Nor do I want to become one of those terrible bores who travels a lot and wants you to know it. So next year I want to travel less but better. I want to learn the character of the places I visit, not just collect the sights and the hurried snapshots.

Cennydd Bowles
What bugs me about content out

Recently there’s been much talk of “content out”, the idea that web design should be inspired by the qualities of the text and images of a site. It’s a healthy idea, but like any slogan, it is open to misinterpretation.

The web design industry has only recently afforded content its rightful status. We were wrong to relegate content to the role of a commodity – something we could pour into beautifully-crafted templates. In our rush to rectify this balance, we mustn’t overcorrect and deprecate the role of truly creative design.

From an algorithmic perspective, the idea that style and substance are separate is appealing. It allows us to code markup and stylesheets independently, and fits the logical mindset shared by so many techies. But it’s a falsehood. Style and substance are irretrievably linked. Like space and time, they are neither separable nor the same thing – there exists no hierarchy between them, no primacy. One informs the other. The other informs the one.

It’s impossible to perceive content and presentation separately. The two combine to create something more valuable: meaning.

The same content, with very different meanings.

Some of the best-known examples of the content out design principle are blogs from today’s leading digital lights. These sites feature expert typography, harmony and balance. They are undoubtedly beautiful. They also look terribly similar. Book design is the dominant aesthetic, meaning that the content does indeed shine. However, individuality surfaces only in esoteric flourishes. The people who have made these sites are diverse and bold, but these qualities often struggle to surface.

It’s a mistake to let content drive design, just as it was to let design drive content. We mustn’t let the pendulum swing too far. If we are to go beyond mere information and style to create meaning, the two must be partners, feeding from and influencing each other.

Until we see more diversity in the sites that espouse a content out approach, I worry the movement could be too simply characterised as one of minimalism – or worse, faddishness and elitism:

The idea that content can act as the interface is noble. But sometimes you need interface. The interactivity and responsiveness of the digital medium means it excels at interface. Text can often suffice, but it possesses limited affordances. It conveys information and gives instructions well, but it’s poor at conferring mental models, creating subconscious emotions, establishing genre, and suggesting interaction capabilities: things crucial for brand-driven sites or functional applications.

Overly-literal interpretation of content out could create a web of homogeneity. A web that conveys little that a book could not, save for hyperlinks and videos. A web that fails to take full advantage of the digital medium. For all our talk of breaking free of the print design mentality, content out risks reducing the capabilities of the digital medium, in favour of fetishising the craft of print design. That would truly undermine the intent of the approach.

Cennydd Bowles
Enter title here

Today I changed my signatures, my profiles, and my label to “digital product designer”. It was a move I’d planned for a while, but during what became a day of contemplation for the whole industry, I decided the time was right.

I no longer see sufficient distance between what’s labelled “visual design” and what’s labelled “UX design” to limit my specialism. The rhetoric of designing experiences no longer works for me. For now, this new label encapsulates my desire to work on things that people find valuable (as opposed to things that advertise value elsewhere), whatever the channel.

But no big manifesto; it’s a personal choice. They’re just words. Let’s see where they take me.

Cennydd Bowles
“Why aren’t we converting?”

A friend from a successful e-commerce site got in touch recently. He’s been steadily redesigning the site, with the help of an external design team. I know the company he’s working with. They’re good. But he hadn’t yet seen the bottom-line rewards he’d hoped for, so he asked for my thoughts.

Here’s my response, edited for confidentiality. Perhaps it’ll be useful to others, and I’d also love to hear any suggestions you have.

From: [xxx@yyy.com] to Cennydd Bowles
The site looks a million times better, but unfortunately our conversion rates have actually dropped. There is certainly noise in the data and an increasingly competitive environment but […] do you have any idea why our conversion rate would be worse?

From: Cennydd Bowles to [xxx@yyy.com]
The short answer is “I don’t know for sure”. The long answer is, well, a lot longer and needs me to talk a bit about the nature and philosophy of design. Please bear with me.

Design is inherently less predictable than most other product fields, since it closely involves emotion, comprehension, taste and all those complex, deeply human attributes. That means that design is a gamble. A good designer will improve your odds, but there’s always a chance that their hypotheses (which, after all, is the most any designer can provide) will prove to be false. A solution that works in one context may fail in another. Because there’s not this replicability of process, there can never be scientific ‘truth’ in design; experiments, observation, and iteration are the only way forward.

Much to the design community’s chagrin, sometimes “good design” doesn’t provide the commercial benefits we all expect. Sometimes “bad design” performs better. If I knew why, I’d be a millionaire by now :) I’ve been bitten by this myself – design changes that were “better” by all recognisable theory and good design practice performed worse than the original design. It’s frustrating for all concerned, and embarrassing for the designer.

Figuring out the cause can be difficult too. Introspection of design doesn’t tend to work well – barring major usability problems, it can be tricky to isolate specific points of a design that cause certain actions. The design as a whole has a certain irreducible complexity. So sometimes these surprises just happen, and it’s hard to diagnose the cause. Does that mean design is a poor investment? No. But I would say that it can be riskier than, say, marketing or SEO, which are more linear: generally, put more in the funnel and more trickles out of it.

However, I do suggest seeing user-centred design as something wider than just a means of optimising a conversion rate. While there may not be a noticeable uplift in any specific metric, the raw material of design is frequently intangible: trust, loyalty, engagement, etc. These things are much harder to measure, but they still make themselves felt indirectly in other metrics: support costs, referral rates, customer retention, and so on. Separating the effect of design from these long-term figures is, of course, pretty much impossible, but the long-term aggregated data makes it clear that the effect is genuine (see Apple, etc). Strong design also gives you a better platform to innovate from, and all that good biz school stuff.

But all this philosophising doesn’t answer your question, and I appreciate that the pressures of the bottom line mean you’d hope for a more realisable output for your investment. So let me take a stab at some more direct suggestions:

Natural dip

There’s always a performance dip after releasing a new design, no matter how good or bad it is. This is probably because existing customers’ mental models of how things work have been broken, and it always takes a little time to reestablish those patterns. What can be surprising is the length of this pattern – I know of a company that allows six months to pass before they evaluate the success of a redesign, so the smoke has truly cleared. This particular organisation has a very high number of users, so the effect is naturally prolonged, but do make sure you’re confident there’s still not a temporary effect lingering.

Details

The things that could make the difference in a design might be the little details. I don’t know exactly what your designers gave you, but check to see whether you’ve overlooked small points that might reduce friction. The easiest way to do this would be to ask your designers to run a quick review on what you’ve put live, to make sure it’s working the way they expected it to.

Usability testing

The major problem with metrics is obviously that they tell you what, not why – hence the existence of this email, I suppose. A well-designed round or two of usability testing would give you qualitative data that should help you understand the sticking points. If your designers have already done this, it might be worth asking for the videos so you can go over them yourselves. (I’m not suggesting they’d underreport anything – just that the time pressures of a project mean details can slip under the radar.)

If you haven’t done any face-to-face testing or don’t want to, it might be worth throwing the site into a remote usability testing programme like usertesting.com or usabilla.com. You’ll get some cheap feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. The feedback can sometimes be variable, but as an extra source of data to investigate an issue they can be useful.

Other data

Are there other data points that might guide you to the answer? e.g. have complaints gone up or down? About what? Have you seen a conversion drop among just a particular group of customers, or particular groups of products? (As above, it’s often the existing customers who have to adjust the most, while a new design is often targeted mostly at attracting new customers, who convert well.)

Analytics config

I’ve heard of a surprising number of companies that have reprimanded their designers, saying “Hang on, what’s happened…?”, only to finally admit that their analytics software was looking at the old URLs and conversion funnels. Once or twice that’s even happened only after they’ve spent thousands of pounds to fix the non-existent problem. So it’s worth triple-checking everything is in the right order there.

I wish I could be more specific but for the reasons given that’s inherently quite difficult. What I can assure you of is that that the effects of great design will make themselves felt throughout your business, even if those effects are indirect.

Cheers,
Cennydd

Cennydd Bowles
Editing tips for designers

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Most designers will recognise the quote, but it’s a shame so many fail to follow its advice in their writing. Good writing conveys information more clearly, of course, but the reader isn’t the only beneficiary. Writing also makes us better thinkers. Even a talented wordsmith must first clarify his thoughts and eliminate ambiguity to make a convincing argument.

Editing is integral to this thought process. Yet we often overlook it as the unglamorous relation; perhaps it doesn’t flatter our mental model of the creative scribe giving birth to a masterpiece.

Designers know well that we often miss problems until we review our intended solutions. Similarly, we may think we have a clear argument until the blank page forces us to find the right language to describe it. Therefore, just as we appreciate the power of iteration in design, we should embrace the power of editing. In essence, editing is critique for the written word: review, question, revise. Like its design counterpart, it involves attention to detail, viewing the problem from many angles, and even the familiar outflanking death-spiral: “Why is this section even here? Why am I even writing this piece?”

Here are a few tips I’ve found useful when bringing the iterative mentality to the written word.

Read lots

The best writers are inquisitive readers, just as the best designers are attentive users. We need only look at our terminology to see the parallels: “design vocabulary”, “design literacy”. So a good writer reads incessantly. Absorb different styles and approaches: quality, trash, everything. Find writers whose style you admire, and consider what attracts you to their style. Find writers whose style you loathe, and again consider why. Deconstruct their language to understand better how to use it in useful ways.

Make every word matter

Every wasted word is an unnecessary design element. In fixed-length pieces, you lose space to tell your story, but even in open pieces an unnecessary word distracts the reader’s focus, diluting your message. The data-ink ratio isn’t just for graphics.

This rule applies at many levels in parallel.

  • If a word doesn’t notably improve a sentence, remove it.
  • If a sentence doesn’t notably improve a paragraph, remove it.
  • If a paragraph doesn’t notably improve a text, remove it.

Screenwriters know that every line, page and scene should either

  • advance the storyline, or
  • provide depth to the characters and setting so that the storyline can advance later.

Adopt a similar mentality.

Cut adjectives and adverbs

Superfluous adjectives and adverbs are the staple of the pedestrian writer. It’s easy to see why: they appear to add spice to bland text. But adjectives and adverbs are often mere props, and editors I’ve worked with tend to slaughter them without mercy. This can be alarming: without this seasoning, where is my flavour going to come from?

The answer? Replace your adjective and adverbs with richer nouns and verbs.

  • “Apple’s auteur”, not “Apple’s demanding CEO”.
  • “The barman snarled”, not “The barman replied gruffly”.
  • “An environmental obscenity”, not “A dreadful environmental accident”.

Memorable nouns are the nodes in your story. The static components; the space; the architecture. Nouns form mental models and associations: Apple’s leader is talented, painstaking and difficult.

Lively verbs describe the interactions in your story. The dialog, the motion, the time. They drive the text, giving it momentum and feel.

A broad vocabulary – a happy by-product of regular reading – will help you choose better nouns and verbs, but don’t be ashamed of a good thesaurus too. However, the most convincing language may not lie in synonyms but in creative parallels that help the reader to make unexpected associations. So use your inventive, lateral instincts to think of descriptive metaphorical words. A lothario might ooze across the dancefloor. A face mightmelt into tears.

Active, not passive

Active verbs encourage vigorous writing. It’s dogmatic to decree the passive a sin, but you should have a good reason in mind if you use it. Scientific writing rewards use of the passive – presumably to discourage the appearance of individuality (and hence subjectivity) within the scientific process – but non-scientific writing needs individuality. So rephrase passive sentences by focusing on the subject of the sentence – the thing or person that’s doing something. Then rewrite the phrase, putting the subject first and choosing the verb that correctly follows.

  • “Designers overestimate the power of research”, not “The power of research is overestimated by the design community”.

Easy targets

Kill these redundant phrases on sight:

  • “blah blah blah is that” – for example “One such issue is that…”
  • “In my opinion” – It’s obviously your opinion, you’re the writer.
  • Clichés – The Comic Sans of writing.
  • “As X, we Y” – “As UX people, we must have empathy”, and so on. A well-targeted piece doesn’t need to remind its readers who they are; so know your audience and address it directly.

Prepositional phrases

From the Longman Guide To Revising Prose:

“One of the factors that limits and warps the development of a theory of composition and style by teachers of the subject is the tendency to start with failed or inadequate writing”

Here, we have a string of prepositional phrases (phrases beginning with “in”, “of”, “by”, “with” etc) linked by a non-descriptive verb “is”. It’s easy to inadvertently chain together these monster sentences, but they’re a clear warning sign of overloading. To untangle the knot, follow the same principle as for passives: identify the subject first, then the natural verb. Split into multiple sentences if you like. Here’s one way to rewrite the sentence above:

“Teachers tend to start with inadequate writing. This limits students’ understanding of composition and style.”

(Note the apostrophe. If you’re not certain of the rules of apostrophes, learn them now.)

Singulars and plurals

Look at the subject of your sentence, and make sure that your verbs and pronouns match.

  • “The user (singular) might not understand why she (singular) needs to enter her password”, not
  • “The user (singular) might not understand why they (plural) need to enter their password”.

English has no gender-neutral singular pronoun. Cater for this by alternating gender where appropriate – just don’t change someone’s gender mid-paragraph.

For added bonus points, remember that in British English, companies and teams are usually plural: “Microsoft have released an update”. In American English, they’re singular: “Microsoft has released an update.” (Also note the placement of punctuation around inverted commas. The idiosyncrasies of global grammar.)

Occam’s Razor

In short, choose the simple explanation over the complex one. Again, a sentiment we recognise in design, but it should also apply to language. Simplify, simplify. This doesn’t spell the end of rich verbs and nouns – instead, use Occam’s Razor to eliminate redundancy and buzzwords:

  • “Use”, not “Utilise”
  • “Quickly”, not “In a timely manner”.

The design industry is, of course, as ridden with jargon and gobbledygook as any specialist group.

  • “Make the logo bigger”, not “Increase the visual hierarchy of the masthead brandmark”
  • “Make it obvious what to do”, not “Expose the primary function of the interface”.

The Plain English Campaign offers a range of free guides that can help those with a jargon affliction.

Vary pace

Just like music, language has a tempo. An album of songs at the same speed quickly becomes boring, so use different sentence lengths to vary the pace of your writing.

The paragraph on the right mixes long, detailed sentences and short, punchy ones. Different sentence lengths give rhythm and variety to your writing. So mix it up.

Proofing your work

Some people say writing should be like speech. I don’t agree – I believe writing presents more scope for density and precision – but a writer must find her own voice.

However, the common tip of reading your work aloud is definitely helpful. It will help you to draw out clumsy phrases, and show where you need to quicken the pace or elaborate on a point. Some swear by reading their work backwards, from the last paragraph to the first. Other suggestions include proofing on paper, or changing the typeface to force you to re-parse the text.

What works for you?

For further advice, I recommend Austin Govella’s (More) tips for writing well.

Cennydd Bowles
Writers’ ego

I’m scrawling on a book. I’ve convinced myself that if I don’t make notes now, my thoughts will evaporate. But still it feels like sacrilege – like taking a dump in the Sistine Chapel. Is a book a relic, or a canvas? Is this defacement or annotation? Outside of religion and the inverted Y-axis, I can barely think of a more divisive issue.

My mind turns to the fate of the books I write. I want them to be nurtured and handed down through generations. Kept in natural light and controlled humidity until a far-future fingerprint releases them for 25th-century superbeings. But I also want my books to be abused. Ripped, dog-eared and spat on. I want broken spines, corrections and appalling profanity. I want them to be discovered in dusty charity shops and used to prop up poker tables.

I want my books to be loved.

Cennydd Bowles
Simple harmonic motion

Knowledge work is a pendulum. Think. Do. Think. Do. You can use other labels – act/reflect, execute/measure – but gravity is the same everywhere.

Oscillation is a natural part of every system, of course, but let’s look closer. Here’s the speed at which a pendulum travels, superimposed on its motion.

  (The mathematically-minded will recognise this as the modulus of the first derivative: |d(sin θ)/dθ|, i.e. |cos θ|.)

(The mathematically-minded will recognise this as the modulus of the first derivative: |d(sin θ)/dθ|, i.e. |cos θ|.)

At the point of largest displacement – when you’re deepest in a particular phase – you’re actually at a standstill. Only when swinging from one phase to the other do you reach your top speed.

Cennydd Bowles
Why personas should use real photos

A quick opinion about personas, prompted by a question from a friend.

When choosing a picture for a persona, use a real photo, not a cartoon. A cartoon doesn’t add life to a persona; it drains life from it.

It’s easy to think that the deliverable itself is the persona. It’s not. Your deliverable should create a shared mental model among your team; that is the persona. Mention a persona by name and you don’t want people to remember the paper stuck on the wall. You want them to remember a lifelike person. Only then can the entire team have a stable, realistic reference point for design discussion.

A cartoon doesn’t create this realistic mental picture. Viewers have to fill the gaps between the drawing and the reality, and tend to fill it with something close at hand – an extension of themselves (see Understanding Comics), or a crude stereotype. Therefore a cartoony persona often creates a rubbery, clichéd representation of a person, easily bent into whatever shape is needed to use as false evidence.

(Most people already have this mental model of users anyway, so your efforts will have been wasted.)

That’s not to say cartoons are useless. I use them often in high-level sketches to represent users we don’t yet know enough about. I’ve also used them to extend an existing persona, particularly when illustrating how a specific persona uses a product through a storyboard.

The storyboard isn’t photorealistic, so it follows that the protagonist should be hand-drawn also. But I only use this shorthand once the team has grown to know and love a photorealistic persona; that is, once the mental model has been established.

Cennydd Bowles