September 8, 2020

Giving the Gift of Attention

I learned two complementary concepts today, both from Rob Walker’s always excellent The Art of Noticing. And they’re especially relevant to me, given that I’ve just moved to New York City.

  • Allokataplixis. It’s a word coined by Liam Heneghan. It means “the heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place.” The word comes “from the Greek allo meaning ‘other,’ and katapliktiko meaning ‘wonder’.”
  • Inattentional blindness. The lack of attention that comes as places become more familiar, the natural diminishment of allokataplixis. “We take [our] surroundings for granted, and we stop paying close attention.” A recurring commute, for example, can become profoundly numbing.

Awe and its decline into the familiar: a natural (and necessary?) progression. Heneghan acknowledges that not everyone needs “to live a life of perpetual astonishment,” that “our daily grind is perhaps easier to endure in a state of mild amnesia.” There’s some truth to that. But “surely, there are times when we must be released from our moorings and free ourselves up to notice the peculiarities of everyday life.”

And to “notice something new” in the familiar isn’t just a goal to reclaim “the particularities of everyday life,” but it’s also a gift. Heneghan writes notes that “allokataplixis, as I use the term, is the gift, usually unacknowledged, that the traveler offers to the places they visit.”

The gift the traveler offers to the places they visit. That’s a lovely idea, and a good reminder. This morning, as I commuted to work, I tried something I don’t often do: I didn’t pull out my cell phone or even a book. I just sat there, watching, and listening. And it was startling how new everything felt. The sound of the subway, the thrum of the brakes, the faint tunes coming from music playing at the other end of the train carrying through–these all came to me. Thanks to Liam and Rob, I know now that I was offering a gift to New York City: my attention. It’s small, but I like to think it went appreciated, somehow.

September 18, 2018

Eclectic Generalists and Pi-Shaped People

Here's food for thought for all designers, UX or otherwise:

Not long ago, designers were eclectic generalists. They studied art, science, and religion in order to understand the basic workings of nature, and then applied what they learned to solve the problems of the day. Over time, the quantity and complexity of accumulated knowledge led to increased specialization among designers, and breadth of knowledge was increasingly traded for depth of knowledge. This trend continues today. As designers become more specialized, awareness of advances and discoveries in other areas of specialization diminishes. This is inevitable and unfortunate, since much can be learned from progress in other design principles.

William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler, Universal Principles of Design

I like this quote, if only for the elegant validation of "eclectic generalists" everywhere. It brings to mind Emily Wapnick's concept of a multipotentialite, someone possessed by "a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime." Leonard da Vinci was a such a man, perhaps the Platonic ideal of a multipotentialite; as Wikipedia summarizes, his "areas of interest included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography." Not only was he possessed by all these interests, he was good at the them too.

And there's the rub: the challenge with generalists is they can be useless. "A jack of all trades, master of none," as the saying goes. It's a real problem, especially in our distracted world with our darting attention spans. But generalizing can be good, and that's embodied in the original version of the quote just given:

A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one

And that brings me to what I've been thinking about: the letters T, I, and π. (Forgive the category error.)

  • An I-shaped person is a specialist. They're good at one thing, and they do that one thing well. But they lack breadth. This might apply to a designer who is frustrated because they don't understand the constraints of a developer, or a businessman who lacks any knowledge of the liberal arts. They're the "master of one."
  • A T-shaped person is possesses both breadth and depth. Their interests go wide (hence the top part of the "T") but they have at least one specialty (hence the vertical line of the "T"). They can wear many hats, like a designer who can also code a working prototype, or a developer who has knowledge of some design, or a businessman who has read widely across marketing, sales, design, product management, and perhaps letters, history, and the sciences too!
  • A Pi-shaped person is someone with at least two specialties. This is the designer who can code, or the coder who can design. This is also the Information Technology specialist who can easily be promoted, because he also understands the business side and can manage people. This is the unicorn, the term for the rare player: the guy who can play great offense and defense in basketball, or (as mentioned just now) the guy who can do strategy, design, code, and QA. It's the person who can not just wear many hats, but make it look good.

Specialty is important. We need a strong technical background. But so is holism, the ability to think deeply and broadly; to approach a problem from many angles. This in itself is critical to critical thinking. I frequently find that my best insights come from making a connection between politics and biology, or design and astronomy, or simply between UX and instructional design, or voice interface and graphical interface design. These multidisciplinary efforts yield new insights.

I don't have any advice on how to become a t- or pi-shaped person, except perhaps "read a lot" and "talk to a lot of people about interesting things." I tend to mentally ricochet across many subjects, coming back to each often enough that over time, I develop expertise. It's not, I grant you, the most efficient method. But for me, it's tremendously effective, in large measure because it's tremendously enjoyable. More systematic approaches–tackling one area and working on it for weeks or months or even years–before moving are also recommended, and this discipline of attention and thought can be tremendously important.

But I'll end with this note: being a t- or pi-shaped person is exciting. I heard one religious scholar, referencing the events of Genesis and the Fall of Man in Christian thought, say "the adventure lies outside the garden" (here referring to the Biblical "garden of Eden" story). I like this phrase, and I think the insight applies to the gardens of our own professions, or our own disciplines. There is much to do within our own areas, but exciting things and terrific adventures come as we collaborate. Designers must collaborate with developers, QA, strategists, and businessman to develop a great product and make it successful. Listen to David Christian give his famous TED talk, "The history of the world in 18 minutes." He began as a Russian historian, and then branched out to comprehend all of history. He is visibly excited, and passionate about his project to unite the sciences and humanities and history.

A breadth of knowledge can be thrilling, as can the pleasure of honing your craft and specialty. Become a t- or pi-shaped person!

P.S. Many thanks to Caden Damiano, a fellow T-shaped person and aspiring polymath, for pointing the initial quote out to me. And to my fellows at BYU's Office of IT, where I first encountered the idea of t- and pi-shaped people.

September 15, 2018

Strange Roads, Chick-Fil-A, and Desire Lines

There’s a Chick-fil-A across the street from my office in Lehi that I sometimes go to. (I love their breakfast muffins.) Unfortunately, there’s a problem.

To showcase this problem, I pulled up this satellite picture of the situation. (It’s outdated, so I added a picture where Chick-fil-A is.) The blue arrows show how I turn from the highway into the road where Chick-fil-A (and my work) is.

Now, here’s the kicker. There are two roads you can use to get into this area. The road closest to Chick-fil-A, the road most natural to turn into, has a strange innovation: a triangle structure, which encourages cars only to turn in when driving north-from-south (in this picture, driving upwards toward the highway). So basically, if I’m coming on the blue arrows (from the north), they’re saying: take the next road, the green road. It’s longer, but the entrance is safer.

Here’s the thing. Ain’t nobody got time for that. People end up doing this:

Which is, mind you, unsafe–both to the drivers and to the pedestrians, because pedestrians aren’t expecting to have to look out for cars coming in this way, and because if the car has to stop for any reason, they’re in the line of traffic.

But here’s the thing: it’s also entirely natural–and it’s used more often than the “safe” (green) path. When I’m in the car, I expect to be able to take a left into that road. The triangle thing is so unnatural, even though it was probably built because the middle turn lane wasn’t long enough at that point. So it makes sense, perhaps, from a road design perspective; but it doesn’t make sense from what drivers expect.

This is an example, I’ve learned, of something called a desire line. I first read about these in the book Universal Principles of Design, where is says this:

Desire lines generally refer to to worn paths where people naturally walk–the beaten path that trails off the sidewalk, usually as a shortcut to a destination–but can be applied more broadly to any signs or traces of user activity in an object or environment. The implicit claim of desire lines is that they represent an unbiased indication of how an object or environment is actually used by people…

Wikipedia also adds some fun synonyms: “game trail, social trail, herd path, cow path, goat track, pig trail, use trail or bootleg trail.” I’ve also seen them called elephant tracks or “pedestrian’s revenge” (which wins for being the most memorable, I think). Again: they’re just the unpaved paths that develop based on animal and human traffic. If you google “desire lines,” you get pictures like this:

Which I think relates back to the Chick-fil-A example perfectly.

The obvious design implication for Chick-fil-A (and whoever owns or manages the property) is that this desire line, this evidence of human activity, is the preferred path. This is important–all the more so because this behavior has lots of implications for the safety of drivers and pedestrians alike.

The implications for designers generally is this: consider how users actually use your products. For interface design, this can be discovered through analytics, heat maps, and good old user testing. Where do people using the product stumble? How do they behave? Are there instances where they try to take a shortcut, using the product in an unintended way?

Something to think about. In the meantime, be careful when driving to Chick-fil-A!

September 7, 2018

Making Poetry of Familiar Things

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if was easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he’d sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).
Such is the power of judgment, of knowing what
It means to push the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.

Horace, Epistles, ii.3

When I wonder how to best describe the creative act, the act of designing–whether it be an interface, a blog post, sketchnotes, art, or even a life–I find this description fits the bill pretty well.

September 4, 2018

Alan Cooper, Jared Spool, and the ROI of UX

I enjoyed reading a recent exchange between Alan Cooper and Jared Spool this weekend about this question: “What is the ROI of UX?” Alan Cooper argues that good design doesn’t have value–at least, not if the company and boss is seriously asking .

From what I gather, Alan Cooper is an intelligent man whose work has impacted the industry for good, so I can’t believe that he is arguing that UX has no value–period. But I do think he’s arguing that the value should be assumed, and that the company has no need to be persuaded. If you have to persuade the company of the value of good design, Alan seems to be saying, then you have a choice: stay, or leave and find some place where your work’s value is seen.

Jared Spool responds–rightly, I think–that yes, there is value, a “return on investment,” of UX–though not all design is valuable, and not all valuable design is equal. And he argues that Alan Cooper is presenting a privileged, and foolish, choice. It’s a privilege if we can just leave and find some place that values us–a privilege that not all designers have. And it’s foolish. By this, I mean it’s a “fool’s choice,” a term I’m borrowing from Crucial Conversations: it’s a false dichotomy, an “either/or” that ought to be replaced with an “and.” Can’t we stay and help others at our company see the value of our work?

Of course we can. Jared Spool regularly argues for the value of UX here. Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen have a website, Norman Nielsen group, that is a great go-to place for new studies and evidences on the value of UX. For a more practical guide, Tom Greever has a whole book on the subject of communicating design decisions, a book I really need to read again. And Product Hive, my local group in Utah, has meetups that regularly discuss the value of UX, from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives.

Jared Spool’s conclusion–his answer to his either/or question–is this: be a design leader. Be someone who can persuade others to see the value of the design work we do.

A design leader finds where poor design is costing the organization money and pain. They start documenting it and put together ideas around what the design team could do differently to reduce those costs.

When the boss comes to ask, the design leader will be ready with answers for them. They can tell their boss which poor designs cost their organization and how they believe they could fix it.

Good ROI happens when the cost of fixing a problem is less than the ongoing costs of letting the problem continue. By having a ready plan, they’ll have the perfect starting point to discuss the ROI of design.

Jared Spool

I think there’s something to this. Obviously, finding “where poor design is costing the organization money and pain” is easier said than done. And I work at an agency / consultancy, where the rules are different: we work with a variety of clients, and I can’t change those clients minds in every instance. I can’t always argue on the strategical level, for a client’s whole company, that they need to reprioritize design. But in a way, this is a blessing: I have to argue on the tactical level–project by project, client by client, button by button and design by design–why this design matters. I’m forced, at an agency, to be incredibly concrete with my arguments, to argue for the value specifically, which is surely a powerful foundation to being able to argue for good design on a broader, more strategic level. And that’s what makes a design leader a design leader: they know how to communicate that value, to discover, uncover, and articulate it.

Jared is implying that UX design is, generally speaking, very valuable. It has a return, and in cases where it’s well-practiced, a strong one. Whether it’s the costs of poor design, or the potential earnings of delightful designs, it does. I can’t forget that, and I can’t afford to let others, either.

August 31, 2018

Work-Life Balance? Or Harmony?

I recently wrote about the point between contentment and ambition, and touched–briefly–on the idea of work-life balance. Basically, I said balance is important. You stray too far to one side, and you lose yourself.

My colleague and friend, Bradley, read this and pointed me to another concept: that of work-life harmony. This is an idea espoused by Jeff Bezos, who dislikes the term. I think it’s worth quoting in whole from the Business Insider article:

“This work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees and actually senior executives at Amazon too. But especially the people coming in,” he said. “I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off.”

Instead of viewing work and life as a balancing act, Bezos said that it’s more productive to view them as two integrated parts. “It actually is a circle. It’s not a balance,” Bezos said.

Bezos said that the relationship between his work life and personal life is reciprocal, and that he doesn’t compartmentalize them into two competing time constraints.

“If I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy,” said Bezos. “And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. You never want to be that guy — and we all have a coworker who’s that person — who, as soon as they come into a meeting, they drain all the energy out of the room … You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step.”

Jeff Bezos

I like this. A lot. Part of the reason I like this is because “harmony” invokes the idea of music. Life is a song, with various parts and instruments coming together to form some greater whole: a piece of masterful music. There may be different movements within that larger song, moments where one instrument or melody comes to the fore, but it can all string together effortlessly. This image of life is lovely, with work and life in lock-step with each other, each lending to the other a great deal of movement and progression.

Balance, by contrast, evokes more severe images: the scales of justice, or just a waiter at Olive Garden trying to juggle far too many drinks on that tray of theirs.

The one caveat, perhaps, is understanding this: some jobs are enjoyable, engaging, and energizing. Some jobs allow for flow. Some jobs lend themselves to a harmonious combination of work and life. But not all do. Balance can be a more apt metaphor when one’s job is draining or drugery. Ideally, someone could just leave their job in that case for a better one, but that’s not always possible–something Jared Spool, a UX Designer I admire, points out in a recent article.

Still, I think harmony is the ideal. It’s a lovely image, a life akin to music, “the shorthand of emotion” (as Tolstoy put it).