Complexity by design

I spent an agregiously short period of time yesterday trying to decide where to buy home insurance. The policy had just expired and a house fire spurred me into action.

Our current broker was recommended to us by my mother, apparently we had a relative working there, and she seemingly told everyone else I know to go there too. Unfortunately, my whole experience with this company has been sub-optimal. Poor service is the norm.

I inquired with other companies and the coverage and costs are all similar. Looking at the details of these policies, 50 + pages for our current one, requires more patience and time than I have. So relying on hopes and prayers, I gave up and decided to stick with the devil I know.

Since everywhere in the downtown is a 5 minute walk I thought I might drop in, as I also now need coverage for our office. Unfortunately, unknown to me, due to COVID they are appointment only. A call to the office reveals the account manager was on holiday and the operator sent me to someone already on the phone. And so I wait for a call back, so I can give them more money.

Insurance, like taxes, feels like it has been created with such complexity that only those with means or a great deal of time can afford to truly understand its workings.

Toilet UI

When I was in Tokyo and had to make a pit stop I was confronted by this interesting array of choices for what one would assume were to flush the toilet; sometimes the most obvious affordances are best, but for those who have a sense of adventure, pressing the wrong button might lead to surprise and a story to tell. Unfortunately, I could read the characters and was familiar with similar toilets in Taiwan so in this experience I was denied the discovery of something new.

Cognitive empathy doesn’t require a face, or a person’s preferences and demographics, but rather the underlying reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles. Replace demographics with a person’s inner thinking, and empathy will follow.
Indi Young

The cycle for creating a deep understanding of people is necessarily separate from the cycles spinning around your software, products, and services. People need to be understood in the context of their own internal world, not in the context of a product or service.
Indi Young


I find the lack of capitalization in place names on this T3 transit schedule page annoying – the typeface they used, Poppins, I find irritating as well. The let’s make what should be capitalized, lower case, was a trend in the late 90’s I believe and it had the misguided intention of making websites seem more “friendly.” It also made them harder to read. The shapes of letters and the shapes they make when combined into words can significantly affect our ability to understand text.

Grammarly popup

This popup I encountered this morning is certainly worthy of the Reddit group Asshole design. Clicking on the more attractive or wellformed close button brings you to the ad page. Nothing like tricking people into viewing your product to both increase conversations and hate for your company at the same time.

Don’t Give Up

This song by Peter Gabriel will serve as my theme song for tomorrows marathon (as it has served for all my long runs). I don’t take anything on my person when I run, so I’ll likely start chanting the words over and over in my head whenever my legs turn to lead.

I’m seeing an increasing need locally for the same kind of design education I experienced and helped provide throughout my time in Taiwan and China. Not just theory and strategy, which I love, but artifacts creation – like wireframes and prototypes. Maybe there should be not just a learn to code movement here, but a learn to create and communicate your ideas movement of some sort as well.

Interactive Prototyping, Part 1
Wireframes and prototypes enable you to present your design concepts and show a Web site’s or application’s basic functionality to your stakeholders and clients

The Art of Observation

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Design Leadership for Introverts

When people paint a picture of what a leader looks like, it often looks like this: A leader commands the center of attention. A leader is outgoing, talkative, and dominant. A leader is able to deliver charismatic speeches, rallying large audiences at a drop of a hat. A leader is the ultimate salesman; people hang onto their every word, waiting for their next one with bated breath.

A leader is, in essence, an extrovert. I’m not saying this is a BAD way to lead. I’m saying this is not the ONLY way to lead, and certainly not all the time.

Which begs the question: If we can accept that the world desires extroverts, how can we as introverted designers and design leaders operate successfully within it?
Tom Yeo – Design Leadership for Introverts

I don’t have the answer, but the article by Tim Yeo attempts to answer it. Most of the advice seems geared towards corporate environments, which I have come to loath, but his advice on networking, which I also loath, works well for me. By making every conversation a potential user interview I am able to overcome my natural social awkwardness. But generally, like the recent StartUp Zone event, I just don’t care if I network or not, which I realize is likely not a very healthy attitude.

But articles like this tend to only focus on one form of leader, the frontman, but there are many other kinds – one doesn’t have to be at the front of the room to drive forward ideas, thoughts, or strategy. If your team is running well everyone has a voice and it just then becomes a matter of roles based on interests, talents and competencies. I’ve never been a General but I feel I make a competent Captain.

Links on form design

Website Form Usability: Top 10 Recommendations by Kathryn Whitenton, Nielsen Norman Group
Design Better Forms — Common mistakes designers make and how to fix them by Andrew Coyle
Sensible Forms: A Form Usability Checklist by Brian Crescimanno, A List Apart
Better Form Design: One Thing Per Page (Case Study) by Adam Silver
20 Guidelines for Usable Web Form Design, J.A. Bargas-Avila, O. Brenzikofer, S.P. Roth, A.N. Tuch, S. Orsini and K. Opwis, University of Basel
Avoid Multi-Column Forms by Jamie Appleseed, Baymard Institute
Placeholders in Form Fields Are Harmful by Katie Sherwin, Nielsen Norman Group

Prototyping life decisions

“So prototyping is a great way to go through your life because nobody knows the answer”

My first year on Prince Edward Island is coming to a close and it’s time to make some decisions as to what to do going forward – leaving has even been discussed. It’s spring and change is in the air.

I have come to loathe any kind of self-help advice and feel that for the most part change does not come from an online “guru” or in the pages of a book, but from deep within. I feel somewhat the same towards productivity methods, which used to be in vogue, and after studying most have come to realize that no tool or technique is going to remove the dissonance you feel from having to finish some aggravating task, so you can click a check button.

The best advice I have ever received has been deceptively simple, and likely means nothing to anyone but myself. My trumpet teacher would always advise to ignore the problem, in this case a consistently missed note, and focus on (a correct) process. My mother would simply say when I faced a problem, everything will work out in the end. She wisely kept the part as to whether the result would be positive or negative ambiguous, thereby assuring that she was indeed correct. I believe it was in an email conversation that John Maeda advised me that when facing two possible paths, choose both. I’ve since realized that doing everything is only possible for people like John Maeda.

Lately I have been faced with some hard choices. My technique to date would seem to be let the problem rest and the solution will emerge.

I have in part been doing the following:

Instead of long-term plans or goals for the future that can shut us off from what is happening right now, Tim Minchin advocates for the ‘passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals’.

‘Be micro-ambitious,’ he says. ‘Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you … you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams.’

When you don’t know which step to take, a small step can allow you to see what new opportunities appear.
How to figure out your next step

Which I found by accident when admiring the websites aesthetic, which is more or less similar to mine.

Essentially I have been trying different things over the past year to see what might work (prototyping). But the problem has still been festering, so I sought out help from a fellow advisor at the StartUp Zone, thinking that her expertise might be able to help. But recently after reviewing some material on design thinking, inspired in part by a recent design meetup, and my own need to introduce the techniques to others, I realized that I have the skills needed to solve all of these human wicked problems – design thinking. When I introduce an agile UX process to people, which is very similar to design thinking processes, I often tell people that this is how I live my life, short iterative bursts with time for reflection in between. But somehow I forgot about this when needing to make decisions about what’s next.

When big decisions arise, rather than leaping into the unknown on a gut feeling or a guess, you can apply design thinking: ask questions, seek feedback, prototype yourself by undergoing relevant experiences and exposing your assumptions to reality. … What you should do with your life is probably the most wicked problem there is, but design thinking and prototyping allow us to make the most refined choices we can.
How to Make Better Life Decisions through Design Thinking and Prototyping

Dave Evans overviews this idea in his video, To Make Big Life Decisions, Use Design Thinking and Prototyping.

I don’t have any one resource that I have relied upon for learning about Design Thinking, it wasn’t talked about much in my circles until a couple years ago, but I have read The Ten Faces of Innovation, Service Design: From Insight to Implementation, Sketching User Experiences, and Change by Design. Many colleagues liked The Human-Centered Design Toolkit but I have only given it a cursory glance.

Over the course of our 12th month here I’ll be using with more vigour the various design thinking techniques – sticky notes et al – to try to come to a thoughtful answer to what changes in direction I will be making for the next coming year.

Keeping good records

I’m in the midst of rewriting my resume for use by “some government agency” as part of my involvement with the StartUp Zone as a product specialist. Though not yet confirmed, I may also be looking for work, so it’s a necessary exercise in an effort to communicate who I am to strangers.

Of course it’s not enough to say you did something, you also need to show some evidence to back up your claims of being “critically engaged in bringing in over $xxm in business in xx years time”. This leads to one of my greatest errors in all but the most recent years in Taiwan and China – poor records of the work I participated in or completed.

I’m not sure how important the projects I worked on 10, 15 or 20 years ago are in terms of explaining myself today, but if pressed I have scattered evidence to back-up my claims. Some screenshots, some early portfolio work, and in some cases the complete project files. What’s most important is not a pretty picture but a detailed accounting of the thinking behind each project. What I remember might be enough, but I’m not confident my memory is good enough to remember exhaustive details of a website redesign from 18 years ago.

The most forward thinking people I worked with kept a detailed account of each project of importance – above and beyond what is needed for reporting. Some wrote bullet point records, others wrote extensive case studies replete with progress shots. This is a good idea and something I learned much too late.

In an effort to protect myself, in one of my last engagements I would record every meeting, phone call and all the work I had done for any particular project. It was that kind of office, where you always had to prove you’re worth. But despite the stressful environment, the positive outcome was a fairly detailed accounting of what role I had, my thinking and what activities were performed. It’s also invaluable to be able to go back and see the research, and literature reviews that were recorded.

I’ve gotten lazy with my reporting this past year and haven’t really kept great records. This is something I hope to work on before the weather turns warm (judging by the current weather it may stay winter-like for some time) and I want to spend as little time stuck inside as possible.

Theatre of innovation

Ideo breaks its silence on design thinking’s critics

I’ve been a leading actor in many a department or companies attempts at innovation – by my very nature I created conflict, as is bound to happen when you insert someone of a different culture, language, and values into an existing group of people. Conflict is a great thing until senior management see short term lapses in productivity, then they put initiatives on hold and say, “we aren’t yet ready”.

We never used the term design thinking, but we certainly used many of the methods contained within. To me it just seemed like a new way to frame what many had been doing all along.

“We get a lot of the materials that look like innovation, or look like they make us more creative,” Hendrix says. “That could be anything from getting a bunch of Sharpie markers and Post-its and putting them in rooms for brainstorms, to having new dress codes, to programming play into the week. They all could be good tools to serve up creativity or innovation, they all could be methods of design thinking, but without some kind of history or strategy to tie them together, and track their progress, track their impact, they end up being a theatrical thing that people can point to and say, ‘oh we did that.’”

I found myself in a corporate innovation workshop last week hosted at the Startup Zone and led by a very talented “workshopper” from Halifax. The first activity naturally involved sticky notes which led me to posit on twitter as to how did we innovate before the sticky note came along. Sticky notes have seemingly become a necessary magical artifact whose very use will cause creativity to appear out of thin air. In many design teams I have visited, the sticky notes are left on the walls for months as some kind of design happens here badge. Having said that, for some reason I still carry a pack with me whenever I carry my backpack – one never knows when you might have to break out the sharpies, which I also carry, and lead an ideation session.

So as with many things I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to some design jargon, but not so much so that I would turn down an opportunity to hold a series of workshops this summer on this very topic. It’s not been finalized yet but they should be held sometime in July.

Café barbershop menu

While I didn’t have the opportunity to sample their lattes or get a hair cut, I do appreciate the look of the signage in a cafe/barbershop that I visited in Quebec City last week (we could nitpick about weighting and categories). It’s a good concept really – drink a nice cup of coffee while getting your haircut. Most salons I visited in Hsinchu have this feature but the coffee was almost always poor and the timing imperfect. Inevitably your cup would end up getting hair in it. The Humble Barber in Charlottetown attempts something similar with beer on tap, but it doesn’t really work, and who in their right mind wants to get inebriated during the day (there is work to be done!). The benefits that I could see in Quebec are a stronger sense of community, like the barber shops of old, where you get people hanging around for longer periods of time – preferably talking. Unfortunately, the reality is, most would just take advantage of the generous seating and free wifi to stare at their various devices. Thats what they were doing in Quebec.

The February report

I’m going to be updating the “what I am up to now” section sometime over the weekend but first I thought I might note the challenges over the past month. Here are the top three.

  • Volunteering. This was one of my goals for moving back home, volunteering my time with organizations that might be a good fit for my experience and in return, other than the satisfaction of helping others, having a greater connection to the community. Generally this has not worked out. My impression thus far is that you need to be as aggressive in finding a volunteer opportunity as you might a job (perhaps this is my inexperience showing), many of my emails have gone unanswered and PEI Newcomers in particular seem disinterested. It could also be that there may be no need for volunteers in the organizations of which I am familiar. What I have done instead is to connect to people on a more personal level and offer to help them as I can. This has worked on a couple occasions thus far.
  • I started this month in a Product Specialist role at the StartUp Zone. I do genuinely like helping people and sharing the successes and failures I have seen after 20 odd years of working within and with product centred organizations. What has become clear to me is that I have little interest in selling myself or design research in general to people resistant to such topics. My current interest is not consulting and the amount of time that is required of each meeting not financially viable. So I suspect I’ll be changing the nature of this relationship going forward.
  • Instead of writing a new workshop this month on what would have amounted to covering part of a design thinking process, I hauled out an old talk on another topic. The rationale was to test the waters and see if there is an appetite for such things – when you ask new business owners what areas they would like covered invariably they bring up Facebook ads, boosting Instagram followers and some such. I didn’t want to spend a week on a 90 minute workshop only to have people show complete disinterest. What I asked of Startup Zone was a sample group of people, maybe 6 – 8, representing the community at large so that we could have a small intimate presentation and a talk about experience design. My mistake was not communicating this clearly, as it became something more than I planned. Despite some hiccups, my clicker battery was dead, I did manage to learn a great deal and the next one will be all the better for it.

One last challenge. I don’t know if it’s reverse culture shock, the terrible weather, or a lack of sleep but I’ve found that my conversations and writing have been taking on an increasingly negative tone of late. I always considered it a normal part of January, but that was when we lived in a region with little in the way of winter. I think the immediate fix to this is more exercise (I haven’t trained in months), more time talking with my wife, and less time stuck alone in my cubicle.

Why walking helps us think

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

Any work that requires a problem solved or a touch of creativity is more often than not solved when I am on my feet. At one job, I used to slyly punch the clock, or in this case give a thumb print, and then go for a long one hour run where I would solve (or attempt to) the problems of the day. I tried to involve colleagues in this habit, under the guise of coming up with new product ideas, but for some reason running 10k first thing in the morning was not attractive to many. At another company, since were in the R&D department we had the luxury of a late start to our work day (9AM). This meant that I had a few hours to be mired in all kinds of problems, and the lunch hour to repeatedly walk around the block trying to solve them.

Sitting at a desk typing at a computer for an extended length of time is like death to me. It’s a place for production, more than anything else.

Why walking helps us think

Enabling Empathy

Through her talk, Indi Young explains how we must ask and listen more as a means to get past our assumptions. Absorbing eclectic ideas, understanding varied work patterns and incorporating different ways of thinking will help broader ideas sprout. She categorizes Empathy into Emotional and Cognitive Empathy, giving us examples of both.

I’m hoping to take Indi’s advanced training series but thus far the ~$800US cost is prohibitive; at least in the context that the skills may not be directly applicable to what I will do in this part of the world.

Design for Non-Designers

This presentation will go over design for non-designers, skipping the university-level concepts and jumping right to shortcuts and easy-to-remember principles. Recommended for those who want to learn just enough design to be dangerous (or for designers who’d like to better teach their coworkers and colleagues); featuring quick hits, easy to understand and utilize principles that anyone can use to improve their design skills

Short Visit

At the airport

Sheryl’s journey back to Taipei started with an all-too-early 5am flight out of Charlottetown yesterday. Luckily her return was uneventful – unlike her flight from Taipei which was marred by an Air Canada aircraft having technical problems in Shanghai. While a short visit, we did enjoy a wonderful Christmas as a family and were lucky to see family from afar while visiting Sheryl’s homestead in Truro.

It’s going to be a long 7 months until she returns in late July – especially for the kids. The kids get worn by my strict parenting style and lack of patience. If I believed in resolutions, developing more patience would be at the top of the list.

Design Ephemera

Designers often love the artifacts of their work. Depending on the availability of whiteboards, displays like the above would often stay around the office for months. For the UX teams this is often the only output they can share with others as the design teams tasked with creating the interfaces and the engineers, who produce the final deliverables, more often get all all the glory.

This messy whiteboard was from a service design project for a restaurant in Fuzhou, Fujian.

The books

I’ve modified my page of recommended reading after noticing that the layout was broken, I suspect due to javascript, but it could have been some mistake on my part. Anyway, the grid masonry foolishness is gone and has been replaced with other foolishness. There is still some work to do with the assets but it will need to wait until my next period of task avoidance; which come as soon as tomorrow.

What this short experience has taught me is that I should either make a concerted effort to re-learn/learn development for the web or rely on a platform that delivers webpages not filled with massive amounts of cruft. Or I suppose I could just settle for the stasis quo. I suspect I will somehow find the time before Christmas to learn once again how to write clean simple mark-up for the web.

Looking at the list of books I also realized just how much my reading habits have changed over the years. My copies of “the polar bear book” and Interface Culture are worn out, but as time as passed I’ve moved more and more from deep slow reading, to referencing and skimming. This can’t be a good thing, but in my defence, some of those books, though important, are really really boring. Anyone who has made it through, cover to cover, the book “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things” deserves some kind of a prize.

Readers now recognize that unintelligible documents are not natural disasters that have to be accepted like summer squalls or sleet storms. Rather they know that poor documents are human artefacts produced by organisations that could be encouraged to take readers’ needs more seriously.
Karen A. Schriver

Intelligible copy is as much an issue today as it was 21 years ago when I was handed a stack of research by my then boss who reviewed my early attempts at producing readable web copy.

Chunking data

Most who have done any study or practice in Information Architecture or design understands the importance of proper chunking of data. This relates to UI elements as way, and has brought forth the often cited chestnut that people cannot hold more than 4-6 items in working memory at one time. You need to break down information and have a thorough understanding of memory to make a good product. From 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People:

Every second of every waking moment, your subconscious is dealing with roughly 40 billion pieces of information. However, only 40 percent of this information makes it to your conscious brain. What makes certain knowledge stick, then? Your brain is only capable of processing information in bite-sized chunks. Therefore, if you’re ever conveying information – whether in a presentation or an ad – make sure you don’t provide too much at once.So how much should you provide?Studies have found that four is the magic number. Obviously, it’s not always a viable option to provide information in chunks of four, but it’s always a good idea to split up whatever you’re trying to communicate into groups that contain no more than four elements.

The above is obvious, but I don’t remember seeing this issue as it’s framed below:

Your brain routinely decides what to remember and what to forget. Human forgetfulness is especially helpful when it comes to product design. If you design with forgetfulness in mind, you’ll make sure to include the important information, weaving it into the design or making it easy for people to look up.

Designing with the knowledge that your customers will forget, seems like a good UX strategy to think about when you go about creating your product.

George Heilmeier’s Method for Solving Research Challenges

Or for solving all kinds of problems. From George Heilmeier’s method for solving research challenges:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success?

via John Maeda

A recent interview

I did an interview back in November(?) for a Taiwan government sponsored online magazine called Design Perspectives. Design Perspectives claims to be: “the world’s first bilingual resource that provides insights into design created for and within huaren (Chinese-speaking) communities”. I met with Daniel Cunningham the current editor and we had a short chat over coffee at Good Choo’s Bagel Cafe in Taipei. We pretty much deviated from the prepared script and had a long discussion about life and work here in Taiwan and China, from an outsiders perspective. Other than meeting someone interesting I came away with the feeling that I’m pretty difficult to interview and talk too much.

The result is fine – I’m picky and would have loved to be clearer on some points.

I used to be called upon for interviews quite regularly years ago, as I was an outlier, a foreign professional involved in at that time a nascent discipline. This time I was again an outlier but for a different reason; most of my work over the past number of years has been in support of others, a typical staff designer and freelancer, a team player, which seemed to put more at odds with the other interviewees who have a bit more ‘star qualities’ (Rock Stars vs. Super Stars).

Apps are wonderful tools, but you shouldn’t use them too much

Telling your story

This bad habit keeps coming back to bite me. I’ve realized for years and lamented on more than one occasion my lack of good documentation, that I can use for myself, of the work I have done on projects (not to be confused with my project deliverables which are fine). Recording the process, the problems, results, success, disasters, and hopefully some nice attractive imagery goes a long way to communicating to others what you do or have done. I’ve worked with people who are absolute masters of this, I am not.

This is especially essential when most of our deliverables don’t necessarily result in immediate results that can be easily communicated via screenshots. Industrial designers and graphic designers have it easier. I am exaggerating, but show people a beautiful render or a lovely poster and they are sold. An excel file and their eyes gloss over. Righty so, as I too hate excel.

What makes it worse, is most of the work I have been involved with over the years does not even exist anymore, or has changed beyond recognition.

Story telling is more important than ever and it’s a skill I must spend more time honing.

In an effort to speed up iterations and get prototypes in from of peoples eyes much sooner, I spent significant time this past year trying to convince the team to both pare down their documentation and form a studio approach to collaboration. I hadn’t realized that this strategy fell under the lean UX umbrella. But as I read through Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf it seems like a convenient label.

… the lean start-up method to product design, a strategy that implies fast-paced experimentation and validation. It works like this: Prototypes are turned out as fast as possible to test market assumptions early on. This early testing then generates feedback almost instantly, telling you what works and what doesn’t. This way, inaccurate assumptions and weak ideas can be scrapped with little effect, freeing up the resources for your best ideas to flourish.

… design processes normally involve a design team being briefed by someone else, and subsequently creating a product based on this secondhand information. If the design doesn’t work, it is then sent back for reworking, a process that can go on forever

Lean UX gets around this problem by putting designers to work with other employees right away, allowing the team to fix problems immediately and move the process along. Consider a designer and a developer going back and forth in an informal dialogue to design a dashboard. It takes them a few sketches and adjustments but they soon agree on a design. The designer is then free to iron out the specifics, while the developer writes the infrastructural code.