The Forest for the Trees

Every UX professional feels the pain that has driven me down my winding career path, but the next steps aren’t obvious and there is not a clear path to follow. I’m trying to document the opportunities that I see, in the hope that others will drive forward, taking risks in order to have a larger impact.

Admittedly, I miss the days where I spent 10 hours in Photoshop or wrangling code. When I’m finalizing budgets, dealing with internal politics, reviewing contracts or defending a product roadmap, I seriously think about returning to those roles. Those challenges are much more familiar. The role far more comfortable. The results of my effort easier to see.

But my influence would be dissipated. My view of the world narrowed. My ability to deliver a great experience reduced, hampered by the decisions of others.

I would not make the impact that I want.

A Place at the Table for UX

Every so often I’m asked about my career path: “why the switch from coding and design to workflows and wireframes?”, “what prompted the jump from User Experience to Product Management?” or “why the move to the business-side of the house?”

It took me a long time to realize that my reason is simpler than my lengthy replies, outlining a cycle where I gained more control over the experience with each move, only to find that I didn’t have the final say. There was always someone else who would make the call, or could change something that I felt was in the best interest of the user.

Now, my answer boils down to this: I want the best possible experience for our users, and the only way to do that is to be the person who makes the final decision.

Many companies say user experience is critical, but until there are more of us in true, company-wide leadership roles, UX will not have its proper place at the table.

The (Updated) UX Career Path

Mapping the UX Path

Mapping the UX Path

This entry supersedes my earlier post laying out my take on the career possibilities for UX professionals. With this, I aim to shed light on the differences between the options, the responsibilities of the positions and the steps needed to transition from one role to the next.

This post remained a draft for far too long, held there by my hope that I would find time to fill in all of the job responsibilities specific to the PM and UX roles. I lay out four major levels: the Individual Contributor, the Manager, the Senior Manager and the Executive, which I acknowldege is far from exhaustive. There are steps between and within these levels, which aren’t included and there are branches into independent contractor roles as well as design and engineering paths that go unrepresented. Instead of waiting for everything to come together, I’m publishing this as a starting point for us to discuss the possibilities and realities of the industry.

I would love your feedback and look forward to a wide-ranging discussion.

This is just the intro, let’s dive into the details! »

Aol Alto – An Odd UX Decision

Aol’s new Alto Web-based email client is beautiful and does a nice job with the presentation of organized mail. The UI is clean and the service feels modern in a way that most Web-based clients don’t. While I’ve tinkered with it, I haven’t really put it through it’s paces quite yet. That said, I noticed an odd interaction flow that seems like a significant mistake for something that has so obviously had a lot of design attention.

In the video below, you can see the issue – in order to act on one or more messages in the sidebar, you click a label titled “Actions” at the top of the screen, which then slides up and causes an action bar to appear at the bottom of the screen – about as far as possible from your current moue position. I reduced the size of my browser for the video, so the distance is much more pronounced in real world scenarios.

Unable to display content. Adobe Flash is required.

My gut reaction is that the action bar should drop in from the top, reducing the distance required to move the mouse, and making the relationship explicit. It is also a clearly established pattern to place controls above lists. Following an existing pattern is by no means required, but breaking it is a very explicit decision. I’m curious about the logic behind that decision.

On Convergence and Features

Anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is about trade-offs, and you end up with trade-offs that don’t please anyone. You can converge a toaster and refrigerator, but the end result won’t be pleasing to the user.

Tim Cook

Every single person involved in product management or user experience should read this at the start of each day. It doesn’t matter if you’re working at a giant multinational or for yourself, this applies to every feature decision, large and small.

Intro to Tencent Weibo

Intro to Tencent Weibo

Tencent Weibo, one of the big Twitter competitors/clones in China has recently released an English version. While it’s a friendly welcome, the half-translated presentation makes it a bit hard to really dive in.

This is the first, in my new "Alex in China" series on Flickr.

Knowin’ What to Throw Away and Knowin’ What to Keep

It’s time for another installment of the State of the Hostile Web, a series that I’ve never officially started, yet have many entries examples of user-antagonism to highlight.

This time it started with a simple goal – I wanted to craft a clever reply to a Twitter post by my buddy Chris Bailey (@chriscognito):

Chris' Tweet: "Do you know when to cut bait and run? Sometimes knowing when to kill a program is as important as knowing how to start one."

I don’t know about you, but for me, I immediately heard Kenny Rogers. Maybe that’s because I was born and raised in Texas, but that’s besides the point. This was a crystal clear opportunity to blast the Internet with a reminder of the awesomeness that is The Gambler.

The Gambler Album Cover from (Links to Amazon)To ensure I got it just right, I did a quick search for the lyrics, and the first site to pop up is called LyricsFreak (they don’t get any link love from me – you’ll see why), which displays the words in all of whiskey-soaked glory. But when I go to cut-and-paste them (you can call it lazy – I call it efficient), nothing is selectable. At all. The normal click-and-drag to highlight doesn’t work and the right-click menu is taking the day off.

I was perplexed. I was annoyed. But I also know a little bit about these here Web pages, so I figured that I would just view the page source to disable the code that was blocking me, or I might copy the lyrics from there.

…and I stopped dead in my tracks, confronted with this:


That’s the very first line of the song: “On a warm summer’s eve on a train bound for nowhere”.


Beyond disabling all of the standard methods for copying a bit of text, Lyric Freaks encoded every single character of the song.

Part of me understands that their goal is to not have other people copy their database in bulk. Assuming they paid for the transcription, it has value to them that they want to protect in order to make some money . I get that. I’m a happy little capitalist myself.

But this practice has instantly made the site useless to me, when there is a sea of lyric sites available. Beyond that, any developer can tell you that this won’t make the least bit of difference to someone specifically scraping the Lyric Freaks site to snag their content. None.

So, the people who actually use their service, see, and hopefully click, their ads and tell others to visit are hamstrung.

Luckily Sing365 made it easy for me to reference The Gambler Lyrics.

Which I used oh so cleverly in under 140 characters:

This is a very long blog post that boils down to the fact that LyricFreaks has lost site of what’s important, hurting prospective users before they even have a chance to turn them into fans. All this in an attempt to protect something, using a method that won’t work, making the Web a little less friendly and a little less usable.

User-hostile practices do not work on the Internet. Your site or service is one among many competitors, and it won’t take long for a competitor to eclipse your work, so do yourself a favor and build solutions that reward the user for visiting instead of making their day harder in an attempt to protect a castle made of sand.

The Usability of the Link Icon

Peter Steen Høgenhaug has posted the results of a usability test focused “aimed at exploring how little documentation you could leave in a CMS, and still have even the most non-savvy person use it with no issues”. This lead him to discover how few people make the connection between an icon of two links in a chain with the act of creating a hyperlink to another page. It’s a quick read and a fascinating study of the cognitive association, or lack thereof when trying to extend real world imagery to represent online actions.

It would be interesting to see a study focused on users who are familiar with content management systems, to see if they find this to be an issue. Without a great replacement, we may need to rely on discovery and learning for this association.

This reminds me a lot of my previous post . So, posing the same question as we did there – what would be a good replacement? I haven’t been able to come up with a great iconic substitution and am leaning ever so slightly, toward simply using the word Link. I’m sure there’s something better though.

What do you think, is it worth changing? If so, what should it be?

Confusing and Cluttered Twitter Search Results

For the last couple of years, one of the most important columns in my TweetDeck setup was the one tasked with presenting tweets that mention Refresh Austin. The search itself is pretty straightforward, though it includes several variants to account for all of the possible ways that people might reference our group: refreshaustin OR austinrefresh OR “refresh austin” OR “austin refresh” OR @refreshaustin. This worked beautifully for a long time, but a little while back (I don’t know when exactly) I noticed that the feed included many tweets that have nothing to do with our group. A significant portion of these are written in languages other than English, so it’s been hard to detect a pattern.

Until today.

Twitter Search for Refresh Austin

The photo shows five recent tweets, three of which do not apply to our group at all. The key detail is that all three link to, which I set up a long time back to point to the Refresh Austin site. But in these cases, the problem appears to be due to the fact that a longer URL, which starts with ‘ra’ was cut off when the users retweeted or simply posted a tweet greater than 140 characters.

Twitter’s search now follows links within tweets to determine that they are both valid (non-spam, no malware) and also to provide additional context. So, in this case as resolves to, the tweets appear in my search feed even though they have absolutely nothing to do with us.

So now I understand why this happens, but I do not have a solution for it. While I do not want to filter out tweets that contain the link as it is a valid link, I’d love to reduce the overall noise. This is a bit frustrating, but seems solvable with a bit of time and effort. Should I figure something out, I’ll post it.

Data Will Set You Straight

We are very proud of our empirical focus, because it makes us humble – we realize that most of the time, we don’t know up-front what customers want. The feedback from testing quickly sets us straight, and helps make sure that our efforts are really focused at optimizing the things that make a difference in the customer experience

Neil Hunt, Chief Product Officer, Netflix

The rest of the response to the question “What types of things does Netflix A/B test aside from member sign-up?” is well worth the quick read.

Interaction Design in the Age of the iPad

The direct touch input removes a layer of abstraction, and that’s a really big deal. In this way, it was like going back to design for print – when you push it with your finger, it moves! – but it’s utterly unlike print in every other way imaginable. Point is, the direct interface really does mean reevaluating every assumption when it comes to interactive design.

Derek Powazek in Thoughts on Designing for iPad

Derek’s post is chock-full of insights, but that quote in particular struck me. I don’t think we’ve realized just how different the iPad and similar devices are from our familiar grounds, both in terms of design and usage. Tools that we’ve relied on, in some cases quite heavily, like the hover state, are on their way out, while entirely new capabilities are introduced.

We are no longer chained as designers, developers or users to that single little arrow moving about the screen. We can finally make use of all of our digits on-screen.

Game-Related Ends

“moral choices” in video games are, to me, more about cost vs. benefit than right vs. wrong. Because my real-world morality may not map to the world depicted in the game, and because “being evil” is a legitimate and common play strategy, I need to know how the decisions I make serve game-related ends.

Andrew DupontAlpha Protocol

Well said. In any story-based game, my first character typically follows a pragmatic course, though I tend to lean towards “light” or “good” decisions. Once I complete an especially good game, with a well-developed story, I will start anew to experience the game with an “evil” or “bad” character. This allows me to experience the story from a different angle, see how intertwined decisions and branch and appreciate a beautifully crafted world.

Games are a separate universe, with different consequences, which occassionaly often require that we make decisions and follow paths that we might not in our physical world. We as humans map our morality onto that universe, following our own codes and at times breaking them in ways both subtle and profound. It is both freeing and thought-provoking.

Well for me at least.

Thanks to Andrew for including that aside in his review of Alpha Protocol – it got my mind moving this morning, which likely wasn’t his intent when he wrote it. On a side note, I don’t think I’ll both with the game now that I’ve read his breakdown.

Privacy, Facebook and 170 Options

Facebook’s Privacy Policy is 5,830 words long; the United States Constitution, without any of its amendments, is a concise 4,543 words.

Price of Facebook Privacy? Start Clicking

Navigating FB Privacy (Image from the New York Times)

Navigating Facebook's Privacy (Links to NY Times)

Given Facebook’s release of a slew of developer tools and APIs, providing Web sites the world over with the ability to access the user data of Facebook users and the ever (d)evolving changes to Facebook’s privacy settings, it’s no surprise that there’s an outcry from individuals and privacy groups. The New York Times has published a great set of infographics laying out the “50 settings with more than 170 options” that a user has to work with to control how their information is used.

The accompanying article, Price of Facebook Privacy? Start Clicking is well worth a read for anyone unfamiliar with the issues at stake.

The Length of Facebook's Privacy Policy (Image from New York Times)

The Length of Facebook's Privacy Policy (Links to NY Times)

The second infographic illustrates Facebook’s ever-lengthening privacy policy. It’s interesting to note that the policy has grown longer at the same rate that previously private user information has become public.

Additional Resources

Images from the New York Times

Sketchy Wireframes, the Comic Sans of UX

A Sketchy WireframeSketchy-style wireframes, have wiggled their way into user experience documents the world over. With awesome tools like Balsamiq Mockups and a range of stencil sets to choose from, like as not, when an artifact describing the layout, features and workflows of a site is sent around the office or to a client, it’ll have squiggly lines.

Caveat: This post is about the sketchy style used in wireframes, not sketching in general. Sketching is an important part of the wireframing, workflow and design processes. Many a brilliant idea started life on the back of a napkin.

The reason most so often cited for the use of a sketchy style is that the squiggles convey that the document is still a work in progress. A secondary reason often follows with a claim that the sketch look obviously isn’t the site’s final design.

But sketchy style wireframes inevitably convey the opposite of what is intended, and worse, they come with additional negative implications overlooked by the proponents of the squiggle. In truth, sketchy wireframes imply that you don’t think your client is smart enough to separate crisp lines from a final design.

Simply put, the sketchy style is unprofessional. Yeah, I said it.

Would You Accept a Contract in Comic Sans?

I wouldn’t and I’m willing to bet that you would question any professional who provided you a legal document reminiscent of Garfield and Family Circle.

Wireframes aren’t supposed to be zany – they are supposed to be informative.

While our industry is young, and the tool set, younger still, we have many examples from which to learn. Architects and engineers are expected to deliver crisp lines and readable notes when they produce plans for a new home or skyscraper. The same holds true for engineers of all stripes.

Documents of any importance need to reinforce your experience, your expertise and the decisions you made as you produced them. The sketchy style does quite the opposite.

Sketchy Wireframes Imply a Lack of Importance and Conviction

Just as the final design for the site will convey a certain mood, the visual presentation of the wireframes should reinforce their importance to the success of the project. When you use a sketchy style your documents encourage the client to “fix” them.

Sketchy Wireframes Imply that Your Client Can’t Mentally Separate the Structure of a Site from its Design

While you may think this the case, you are either underestimating your clients, which is condescending or you should search for new ones, as clients who can’t understand the concept of a blueprint will likely struggle in their own endeavors. People are smart, and while you may have to explain the concept of a wireframe to a new client, the concept is easily understood.

Sketchy Wireframes Impede Comprehension

The goal of the document is to demonstrate the hierarchy of information and features and the relationships between those pieces. Wireframes are the blueprints for key business and design decisions. Adding visual clutter in the form of wavy lines, odd angles and handwriting fonts distracts from this singular purpose.

So, for the love of UX, save the sketchy look for the design phase where it belongs. Give your clients what they deserve – professional documents that aid their decisions and reinforce their selection of you for their important projects.

What Do You Think?

Am I wrong? Am I missing a key point? Do you agree with all your heart?

Leave a comment and let me know.

Thoughts on A Complete Experience

I recently posted a quote from Steve Ballmer discussing a key difference between Apple and Microsoft, which I titled A Complete Experience. Having spent a bit more time thinking about it, I thought I would capture some of those thoughts here. This is basically a brain-dump, so it is by no means comprehensive, or for that matter a fluid discussion.

For Ballmer to claim that Microsoft is committed to choice doesn’t match their past business practices. I’d love to see them truly commit to changes that support real user choice and a better end-to-end experience. The subtle knock of Apple (a “narrow” experience) is to be expected, though again it stretches the truth.

OS X, Apple’s computer operating system is not as broad as Windows in terms of configurations and options (six versions of Vista to choose from – two for OS X, one of which is targeted for servers – no confusion there), but that’s a very good thing for the people who buy and use computers. Windows provides every possible configuration option just in case one person out of 10,000 may want it. That’s pretty cool, except for the fact that it often clutters the experience for the other 9,999 folks.

Apple has gone the other route, making a vast majority of decisions for the users – focusing on normal people instead of edge cases. Power users can dive into the command line and utilize the full power of the BSD subsystem. They both have to strike a balance, but have chosen vastly different ways to do it. I’ve come to love Apple’s way of doing it.

If the experience were truly “narrow”, you wouldn’t have the wide swath of user types – students, lawyers, parents, kids, entrepreneurs and hard core developers. That last one is important – many dedicated techies who write programs and Web applications that millions of people use day in and day out switched to the Mac. These are the people most likely to tweak their system, to be that one out of 10,000. They chose the focused end-to-end experience over the bucket of options.

The experience is so much smoother on the Mac and my levels of frustration are amazingly low when I work on my computer. Hell, frustration doesn’t tend to crop up very often. I should say that my level of contentment and the occurrences of elation are rather high compared to any other product or service that I use on a regular basis.

A Complete Experience

In the competition between PCs and Macs, we outsell Apple 30-to-1. But there is no doubt that Apple is thriving. Why? Because they are good at providing an experience that is narrow but complete, while our commitment to choice often comes with some compromises to the end-to-end experience.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

The quote is from a memo that Mr. Ballmer sent to Microsoft employees this past July outlining the company’s strategy for 2009. Aside from the not-so-subtle “narrow” swipe, it’s a concise summation of why so many of us have switched to Apple products (not just the computer) after years, if not decades using PCs running Windows.

The experience matters.

Designing Milk

The New York Times is running a great article titled Solution, or Mess? A Milk Jug for a Green Earth (thanks to Sarah Kampman for posting it to the IxDA list). In the piece, Stephanie Rosenbloom covers a major shift in the packaging of new milk jugs recently introduced to the shelves of Walmart and Sam’s Club.

The New \"square\" milk jug in action. Photo from The New York Times
Image taken from The New York Times Article

There are a couple of very interesting aspects to the story. The first is the customer response to the new design (some love it, many hate it, most seem to be unsure) and the change required in their usage (some “feel like novices at the simple task of pouring a glass of milk”). The second is the benefits delivered by the new design: increased shipping and storage efficiency, reduced cost for the manufacturer and the customer and significantly reduced environmental impact.

It is very hard to introduce changes to an existing product or service, all the more so when it is as entrenched in day-to-day life as the common milk jug. I’m really curious to see how the new packaging is received over the next year or so and how it will be tweaked to meet customer needs.

On a side note, does anyone else think the word ‘milk’ sounds weird? Say it a few times: milk milk milk. Weird.

Portable Privacy Experiences

When you think about it, online social applications are bad places to put things that are meant to go unseen, and it makes the notion of privacy start to feel like the wrong idea. This brings us back to the words we choose, because I think we interact online not to keep stuff private, but to share it selectively. Setting up a privacy framework works as a force in opposition to the goal of sharing something. If instead we think about streaming shared actions (or gestures, if you like) and content to the right people and less about exception frameworks, things should work more smoothly and, I think, bring us closer to models that can cross networks without exploding.

Todd Sieling: Portable Profiles and Privacy: Choppy Ux Ahead

Todd’s insightful article has me thinking about privacy, expectations of and experience within our social media tools, online and off.

Searching for Findability

Everyone seemed to have their place in the project life-cycle at the web design agency; everyone but little Findability. Occasionally someone would notice his value to a project, but instead of giving him the care he deserved, they’d just fork over copious amounts of cash to ship him off to his sketchy uncle SEO, who tied him up and fed him keywords all day long. He spent so much time at uncle SEO’s that everyone started to think Findability was SEO, and subsequently became a little dubious of his importance.

Aarron Walter

Aaron’s article, Findability, Orphan of the Web Design Industry is a great reminder that we should not overlook the importance of findability, nor confuse it with SEO and usability as we create our designs and interfaces.