in Process

Which methods and resources should we deploy when users are suffering?

In the field of user experience design, we research users and often talk about the user pain points we’ve observed. When I use pain here I don’t mean inconveniences, as when I can’t find just the right streaming music playlist to match my mood. I mean tasks that emotionally hurt, such as knowing you need to file a timesheet by a deadline but you can’t figure out how do that with the enterprise timesheet software you’re forced to use, to the point you are cursing the software.

The phrase “pain points” implies discrete things or points in time. But in some cases users are interacting with a system on an ongoing basis and that pain is continuous. Usually when someone is in pain for an extended period we call it suffering. When it comes to our bodies we make this distinction between minor pain and suffering all the time. A minor pain we tolerate and wait for it to go away. When we’re suffering we go to the doctor.

When designing for users of software, differentiating between minor pain and suffering helps me make different choices about how to design solutions.

One consideration is how long to spend designing a solution. If we reduce either the pain or the time someone is in pain then we reduce the suffering. But this can involve a trade off: we can design an amazing solution that removes all users’ pain, but that could take a lot of time. We could design something and release it to users quickly, but it might only relieve part of their pain. Or we might find a middle road where we alleviate the worst pain first and then gradually alleviate the rest with subsequent releases.

Mathematically we can phrase it like this:

Pain x Time = Suffering

This tradeoff also helps me think about using the appropriate design methods. Let’s say for example that the scope of my problem is large, perhaps helping the U.S. government create a better way for residents to understand and file federal taxes. I would need a design methodology that can encompass many types of users, information, and interaction, such as service design. If preliminary research revealed that the most user suffering is in knowing how much to pay in estimated taxes, then I might focus on that problem. In order to alleviate that particular suffering quickly I would need a design methodology that helped me rapidly find a solution, such as Lean UX.

I’ll stretch this analogy further to illustrate how I think of allocating resources based on design needs. Near where I grew up is a large hospital system that offers patient care on different time horizons. One, the hospital has an emergency room to triage critical patient needs. Two, it has doctors who can provide scheduled, annual checkups. Three, it has specialists who provide larger procedures such as surgery. And four, it has research labs where it can develop new cures.

Now imagine there’s a tragic accident nearby. The hospital could allocate more resources to the emergence room to handle demand. Alternately, imagine a new disease is causing a pandemic; the hospital could allocate more resources to the research labs for find a cure.

Similarly, my team allocates resources depending on the kinds of problems our users have. One, we embed designers in agile feature teams to quickly alleviate critical user suffering. Two, we perform proactive testing to track how usability has changed over time. Three, we occasionally dedicate a team to a large change, such as an information architecture change. And four, we do research to arrive at overall design patterns such as infinite scrolling vs pagination. Our job titles and work assignments are fluid enough to respond to (constant) change.

All that to say:

  1. I try to be open to all methods and try not to see all problems as nails I can hit with my favorite design method hammer.
  2. When there is clear user suffering, I factor time into my choice of design method to alleviate suffering quickly.

This Blog is Almost Old Enough to Drink in America

Recently the web turned 30 years old, and I realized that this blog was started almost exactly 10 years after the web, making it 20 years old this month. And maybe that makes it a good time to start blogging again? Not really.

Although I am losing faith in Medium and Facebook as places to share my thoughts, and it’s comforting to know I have this place that’s all my own to do as I please, free of ads and unpleasant people. Let’s write and be pleasant!

Another book?

I was talking with some folks the other night, one had written three books, another five. “It’s like having a baby,” they said, “it hurts so much you swear you won’t do it again, but you forget the pain.” I can proudly declare I stopped after one book. But but… there’s all these books that don’t exist yet but should. Who will write them?

One of those books that doesn’t seem to exist is the small (small as in fits-in-your-pocket small) book for product managers, programmers, and business people to understand how human-centered software design gets done. By that I don’t mean how to start doing human-centered software design, there’s plenty of good resources for that (e.g.). And there’s good resources for people willing to devote the hours of reading it takes to get through a 350+ page book (e.g.). But in my experience people just don’t have that much time to devote to anything outside their area of focus unless they’re changing careers.

My inspiration is this:
scrum-intro-cover-front-outlined-400-207x300
Scrum: A Breathtakingly Brief and Agile Introduction is a wonderful little book that does exactly what it says on the label. It slips neatly into your pocket for reading anywhere anytime. There’s even space in there for a few useful illustrations. As a non-programmer needing to understand how my programmer colleagues are working, it’s perfect. I want to give them the same kind of book to understand what I do.

What’s Next for Digital Product Design?

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Working in the fast-changing world of digital product design, there’s always some new and exciting tools and techniques to learn. The flip side of this coin is that you must keep learning to keep up with the industry or your skills become irrelevant.

So naturally it would be helpful to know how our practice will change in the future so we can figure out what to learn next. This article is my attempt to look into this future.

Read more…

Designing Faster

Neuroscientists have accidentally discovered an area of brain that, when stimulated, temporarily shuts off a person's consciousness / Here There

I’m at an inflection point in my career of building digital services and reflecting on two things:

  1. How can we design better?
  2. How can we design faster?

While the thoughts are still in flux I’m going to set them down here and stew on them a bit.

  1. A Cadance is a cycle like a sprint, but every day is scheduled for a certain activity such as designing, studio, making tests, testing, reviewing tests, etc. If the schedule is set there’s less need to spend time discussing the schedule and less time figuring out what to do each day, instead you just do it. And if it’s an aggressive schedule you get a lot done fast. It relies on a project manager/product manager/leads to work in a parallel track to slot work into the cadence.
  2. Made-to-measure design recognizes that not every assignment requires bespoke design, and not every schedule or budget allows for bespoke design. And from the customer’s point of view we may want to leverage UI conventions that are familiar to them. So instead a made-to-measure approach uses not only frameworks (e.g. CSS and HTML such as Bootstrap) but genre-specific templates for dashboards etc.
  3. Inverting studio and desk time is something that often happens naturally when in war mode, but could be done all the time: spend most of the time together designing and rather than stop the studio at the post-it note or sketch level, keep iterating and adding details. Then spend the minority of time, say one day per week, working solo to document and refine the work.
  4. Testing constantly is now possible. Remote, asynchronous testing tools have become so easy and affordable we can bite off many more of our hypotheses and set up a queue of tests so feedback arrives as rapidly and as plentifully as analytics.

DAD Chord Chart for Merlin, Grand Strumstick, & DAD Dulcimers

Here’s a chord chart for instruments that have three strings tuned D-A-D like the Seagull Merlin, Grand Strumstick, & DAD Dulcimers. Also known as key of D, or diatonic D.

I had a few goals when designing this:

  • Correct chord names
  • Include chords in the root position (root note as the lowest note) and inversions and indicate which are inversions
  • Follow the graphic convention of guitar chords, for those of us coming from the guitar
  • Indicate the chord positions, so if you’ve thinking, “I want to play a blues in I-IV-V” you can find the chords easily.

In case you’re new to tab/tabulature, this one is set up like guitar tab: the lowest string is on the left, the highest string is on the right, the dots indicate at which fret to put your fingers.

Getting the Title to Your Car When You Have an Unsecured Loan

It’s a brave new world of auto loans out there with many customer-friendly features that traditional banks lack. Some of the new student loan companies for example will pause your payments if you’re out of work. How nice is that?

So when I was researching loans for a used car we wanted to buy, I looked at all my options. The Simple Dollar’s review of auto loans was especially helpful. We ended up with a loan from LightStream (aka SunTrust) because they gave us a great rate and would allow us to buy from a private seller which saved us a few thousand dollars.

Oddly enough we didn’t realize until after we registered the car that the bank gave us an unsecured loan. Normally a car loan is secured by the car, so if you don’t pay the loan the bank takes back (repossess) the car. But because our credit history and salary history is very good, they gave us an unsecured loan. Why? I don’t know, maybe it’s simpler and less expensive for them.

What this also means is they don’t have a lien on the title. And when we registered the car at our local New Jersey motor vehicles office they didn’t believe this because 99.99% of car loans are secured. The solution? We had to get a notarized letter from the bank to prove it the loan was unsecured and there was no lien on the title. Four DMV trips later we have the title!

Drugs I Like

I like how this School of Life video reframes what a drug is and encourages us to embrace the drugs that make our life better.

And that got me thinking about which drugs I enjoy. When I was younger I liked some which for several reasons we won’t mention. My needs are tamer now, I can think of

  1. Hot sauce, particularly sriracha and Tabasco.
  2. The sound of an intensely distorted electric guitar.
  3. Tickling my kids.
  4. My wife’s kisses.
  5. The light and sounds and smells of the Adirondacks and the beach.
  6. Moisturizer.
  7. A great pair of jeans.
  8. The sleepy, relaxed feeling from staying up late.
  9. Coming in from the bitter cold to a warm home, a glass of bourbon by the fireplace, and my cold face tingling as it warms.

Switching to Consumer Cellular with an iPhone 4s is GO; Bill Cut in Half

In my continued quest to simplify my life and reduce expenses, I discovered the MVNOs like Ting and Consumer Cellular that lease infrastructure from the big carriers have come of age. They have straightforward pricing plans that are a fraction of the cost, better designed websites, and better customer service as reported by Consumer Reports.

Although I like Ting better as a company, our GSM-network iPhone 4s’ would have slowed down on their network. By going with Consumer Cellular I stay on the AT&T network and cut my bill in half ($45 vs $90) for two phones. That’s even $10 cheaper than Ting.

The process is easy. Order online, swap in the free SIM card they send, and give them a call to activate service. There was a bit of fidgeting to get voice mail re-setup etc. but now it’s working just as it did before, but cheaper.

And here, in a single screen, is what makes them different. I hear usage alerts are available on AT&T. I’ve read articles about them. I’ve seen links to that effect on their customer website. But I (a software designer) was never able to set them up. But here’s what they look like on Consumer Cellular:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 10.42.53 AM

Not only is the design clear as day, they default the alerts to ALL ON. They’d rather you be in-the-know and have plenty of notice before you go over your plan so you can decide to pay-per or change your plan. Love that.

By contrast, the number AT&T displayed on their website to cancel their account was only for new accounts. And when I tried to use the online chat instead I get this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 11.13.21 AM

And that number is actually only for reseller agents. I’d tell you how it all turned out but I’m still on hold with them.

Yes, You Can Upgrade The iPhone 4s to iOS9

OK, there’s not much info on the web about this so I can confirm that yes, you can run iOS9 (9.2.1 in my case) well on an iPhone 4S. It’s not slow, it’s not weird. That wasn’t always the case with old iPhones and new OSes. For me it’s the same speed, and some of the ‘new’ features are quite nice.

I was an iOS7 holdout for a while, because it worked and I had no reason to upgrade. Then my phone began spontaneously rebooting, and taking a long time to do so. I thought maybe the battery was fried, but Apple’s online wizard says to do a full restore. I was inspired by Rob Rhinehart’s How I Simplified My Phone to rethink how I use my phone. First off, I hold onto my phones until the hardware fails for minimalist and environmental reasons, so that helps me stay simple.

Software-wise, I thought it would be good to wipe the phone, start fresh, and only install stuff I need and stop falling into the abyss of the phone (love that phrase) with social network stuff, games, news, etc.

How? Follow the official advice: backup phone (to iCloud), then do full restore while plugged into a computer using iTunes. Only my music got screwed up, but I think I can just re-sync to fix that.

I Refinanced My Auto Loan

Last year we refinanced our home mortgage and saved a bunch of money, but at the time it didn’t occur to me to refinance my auto loan.

In preparation for replacing our second car I was reading The Biggest Lies Car Manufacturers and Dealerships Tell to Sell You a Car and I recognized one: You Don’t Have to Finance Through the Dealership. With our first car that’s exactly what I did, not realizing I had the option to shop around. So as preparation for finding a new loan, I decided to refinance the loan we had and in the process find out how it works and who has the best rates.

My current loan is with TD Auto Finance at 3.99%. Not horrible, but I’ll save a bunch if I can get down at least .75% on a 48 month loan. Here’s what I did:

  1. Contacted TD via secure website message to see if they would refinance me. They responded, “Unfortunately, as an indirect lender, TD Auto Finance is unable to offer a refinance option at this time.”
  2. Asked the local bank where we scored an awesome home mortgage rate, but they don’t offer auto loans.
  3. Tried LendingTree and received four “quotes” — two lenders that wouldn’t give me a rate unless I called them, one that gave me a range of rates, and one (CapitalOne) that gave me an actual rate of 2.99%. For the amount of personal information I forked over, the results were disappointing. Still, I was happy to get one rate in my green zone.
  4. Talked to Chase where we have our checking account. I don’t have any great love for Chase, but operationally they work, there’s a lot of branches near me, and there’s a convenience to both myself and them of paying the loan out of the checking account. I walked into the branch hoping for a better, high-touch service, but their rate using the quick calculator wasn’t great: 3.64%. They offered to submit a loan application to see if their actuaries might do better, so we did. The next day they offered me 3.09%. I asked if they could beat Capital One’s rate. They asked for some more information about the car and then offered me 2.84%. I accepted, and stopped by the branch to sign the documents in about 30 minutes.

The upshot is now we’re saving $60/month on the loan. Yay! I’m paying $85 in fees to the state for transferring the title, but I’ll recoup that in less than two months.

Balancing My Budget with My Desire

In my work on Nickel I want to avoid giving the same old tired advice that a lot of financial advisors give — manage your money well, then go out and life your life with whatever money is left. That’s not how most of us live.

For example, my family is planning on going on vacation this year. Does that mean we have excess cash because every other area of our financial life is tied up with a neat bow? Definitely not. But after working all year we need that time off, in our case to play on the beach, go swimming, and just enjoy being a family.

I was thinking of this because we’re about to replace one of our cars that is coming off lease. It would primary act as my wife’s way of getting to work, so she’s taken the lead on testing driving and figuring out what she wants. She narrowed it down to a few options:

  1. Buy the car we have if the loan payment is within our budget
  2. Buy a new car within our budget
  3. Buy a used car within our budget

We’re lucky to be in a golden age of automobiles where there are plenty of cars, used and new, that are attractive, affordable, and reliable. But many options can make it complicated. I love car research; my wife does not.

But “The Budget” is a constant factor there. And so my thought is we can just make that a constraint. And as I know from my design work, constraints actually make it easier to get things done because you can focus your creativity. In this case, we can focus on our desire, on what makes us really happy. So before getting lost in details and financial options I find it helpful to just set a simple financial constraint and then focus on fun.

So I proposed another approach to my wife:

How about you pick the model that will make you the happiest and then we’ll find one that fits our budget?

She replied,

Good call :)

Raise the Bar

Perhaps the single most useful thing a manager of a design/development team can do is to raise the bar of quality. By extension, I think this also holds true for clients of design agencies.

By ‘raise the bar’ I don’t simply mean saying, ‘This isn’t good enough’ or ‘work harder’, or this…

Raising the bar sounds simple but it’s not. To do it properly, the manager/client must first understand what is possible given their budget and timeline and resources. Once you know this, you can see when the output is short on quality and you can do something about it.

Second, you need to have a sense of what is currently keeping people from falling short. Is it a personality conflict? Too many meetings? Not enough coordination? Rushing into execution without generating enough good ideas?

Third, you have to have the guts to deliver the message in a constructive way. The Steve Jobs yell-at-people method worked for Steve Jobs, but unless you work at Apple it may not work for you. In my experience good people want to do well. They want to feel good about their work and themselves. They want awesome samples in their portfolio. So appeal to their work ethic, paint them a picture of how awesome the future is going to be when things are different, then set the bar of what you expect.

In sum:

  1. Understand what is possible in your situation
  2. Figure out where the obstacles are and remove them
  3. Constructively set the bar higher for the team by inspiring them

Docker and Containers Summarized

Just as container ships can carry more cargo because they use a standard form factor for storing the cargo, software containers can run more apps on each server by using a standard way to share the operating system without all the wasted overhead of virtual machines.

How?

  1. Containers bundle together all the pieces you need to run the app into one package.
  2. Containers make it easy to deploy apps to local servers and the cloud.
  3. Docker makes it easy to create containers.

Also check out Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols’ What is Docker and why is it so darn popular?.