It’s a different world, not just a different medium

Like print, the iPad (and other digital tablets) are great for displaying text and images. And that, is pretty much where the similarities end. So it’s time to stop trying to have our cake, and eat it too when designing and developing content for this and other digital mediums.

Back in the early days of web development the Holy Grail was a visual, WYSIWYG editor. People thought we just needed better layout tools, and so we got products like NetObjects Fusion, PageMill, GoLive and countless other products with camel-capped names. Before these products, web development was pretty much a text editor and Photoshop.

Fast forward to today and no serious developer is using those tools. Ironically, we are pretty much back to the old way. However, the text editors have gotten to be more sophisticated.

The visual, layout-oriented editors turned out to be nothing more than a band-aid. Eventually you realize things like;

  1. Digital isn’t static. Users can change its form whether it’s resizing fonts, scrolling, and moving windows around. Content becomes a fluid, moving target.
  2. Visual editors enabled us to make tweaks to fit the design into the form. Since the end form can change most of those tweaks won’t make a difference.
  3. Consistency is the wrong goal. Realistically, no one reads both the print and the digital edition of a story. They don’t need to be alike, they need to be the best version of their form.
  4. We mistake nostalgia for the old form as a user requirement. Every medium has it’s own value proposition and affordances. They’re great for some things and awful for others. Early adopters figure this out right away, while others lament the passing of the old guard. Eventually everyone moves on.
  5. We’re working between different worlds not just different mediums.

The lesson here is embrace the differences the new platforms afford us. Sure, we’ll need a transition strategy. But you are going to have to learn something new to survive, just like going to a foreign land. Let’s move on. The perfect tool isn’t coming. It’s already here. If you want proof, just look at how many great tablet user experiences exist today.

Help yourself to help your customers

The other night our power went out around 9:30. There wasn’t a storm or anything. It was just raining. Everything went out, came back on a second later, and went out again.

Instead of calling ComEd (our local power company), I got on my iPhone and went to their website. It was there I discovered they have a SMS-based system for reporting outages. You simply text the word “OUT” to them and they immediately respond. In my case, it told me they were aware of the problem and 800 customers were also out. I received another text later estimating the problem to be fixed by 11:30pm.

I rarely have anything good to say about ComEd, but I’ll be talking this up to friends and family.

This simple feature, while very useful for customers, probably benefits ComEd more. Not only do they get to reduce the costs associated with staffing phone lines 24/7. They now have a secondary dispatching system that notifies them when and where the power is out.

I especially hate it when the power goes out at night. It’s not like you can go outside and find something else to do. I’m reasonable, I know the power goes out from time to time. I just need to know 1) it’s not the apocalypse and 2) someone is on it. This system does that.

Not every user-friendly thing your product or service does has to come from an altruistic place. Sometimes you can create more value for your organization and still make your customers happy.

Prioritize their problems over your solution

As designers, we tend to get wrapped up in our own little worlds. Forgetting that design is problem-solving, we only seem interested in sophisticated tactics or cool solutions.

Last year I was invited to take part in an event called UX for Good. The concept was that we could save the world by applying user-centric methodologies to solve problems like homelessness and urban violence. I know a bit grandiose, but I think there is a kernel of truth there.

I was in a group with people from Ceasefire, an organization that uses a public health model to reduce violence in high-crime neighborhoods. Their model is very successful at the local level because their people know who’s who and what is going on. More importantly, they’ve seen first hand what works and what doesn’t.

The group split up into teams to come up with ways to help Ceasefire indirectly so they don’t need to change their own tactics and focus.

One thing that works well is when there is a safe haven, a neighborhood place where kids can get away. It works because Ceasefire staffers negotiate with gangs to ensure they’re off limits. So our task was to come up with ways to increase the number of safe havens.

First, we assumed these safe havens need to be compelling to attract kids. One idea was to create a place where they could express themselves with activities like creative writing, street art etc. It was like a little cultural center. Our contact (or stakeholder) just nodded. He seemed indifferent. So I asked him what kinds of things he’d have. He said, “hot water, video games, and a TV.”

It was so mundane, that it literally turned off a couple of my teammates. But it dawned on me then and there. The problem with safe havens isn’t that they’re boring. It’s that there aren’t enough of them. The discussion really wasn’t going anywhere with our stakeholder until we started exploring ways to make safe havens easy to replicate.

As designers, we need to spend less time trying to impress with technique and more with outcomes.

Prototyping is like sketching

When it comes to design, I maintain the philosophy that just about everything is a prototype, until it isn’t. That drives a lot of people nuts because most of us just want to see the finished goods. If you’re part of a broader team, you need to see some sausage making in order to make informed decisions.

Prototyping as a term can be as useful as it is problematic. It’s vague and open to too many interpretations – kind of like design. In cases like that, I find it’s better to use an analogy to tell people what you mean.

I recently started using the analogy that “prototyping is like sketching” to explain my philosophy[1]. Trouble is, people misunderstand sketching too. When people see a sketch, they think, “unfinished”, but completion isn’t even the point of a sketch. Sketching, like a prototyping, is for communicating something vague not concrete. Why would you want to do that? One good reason is to explore your options with others.

Beware, most people don’t appreciate the process of moving from ambiguous to precise. “Done” is often rewarded over useful and usable. Ultimately, it comes down to the context in which you present things to people. No one likes to see unfinished work, but they do like to explore options.

[1] I want to give credit where credit is due. This dawned on me while attending a workshop on sketching for product design by Kevin Henry, an associate professor at Columbia College.