Jony Ive's wisdom about design problems

Speaking with the Independent Jony Ive, chief design officer of Apple, gave us this insight into design. I think it’s one of the most wise things I’ve read about design problems in a very long time.

I think that is a huge part, a fundamental part, of my job. When you’re talking about the future, and as a designer that’s where my head is, then it’s extremely rare that I feel that I’m working in response to an articulated problem.

I could count the occasions that I’ve done that in the last 25 years on the fingers of one hand. It’s extremely rare that what we do is a response to somebody articulating a problem. By definition, you didn’t know it was a problem until you were aware of a better way of doing it. The tremendous challenge here is that when you have been solving a problem a certain way for a long time, so many things convince you that, of course, that’s the best way of doing it, not least habit.

When you have been solving a problem a certain way for a long time, the very idea that there could be a better way of doing it, can seem almost sacrilegious. It can seem extremely unlikely, so what you have to do is work by taking a leap of faith. That faith is based on the thought, ‘I’ve been here many times before and many times before we have found a better way of doing this’. And you just have to believe that’s the case and you keep on.

Sometimes, the vast majority of times, we are able to find a better way of solving a problem.
— Jony Ive

It’s extremely rare to solve articulated problems. Because normal users don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what the real problem is, they simply discover annoying details. And most often, the habit of how things are done, is not the best way of doing things.

Time to challenge the internets visual conformity

I wrote a few weeks back about the fact that the internet doesn’t need to be quite as bland as it is. The prerequisites have changed which opens up a lot more choice in design. This idea seems to be becoming a trend, this morning I found another great article on the topic: “Why do all websites look the same?”.

How will you break the mould?

It's time for a radical rethink of web design paradigms

I love the current state of visual design online, don’t get me wrong. There’s so many beautiful apps and services that I’m constantly feeling the pressure to up my own game. Oddly though, in this sea of great design, there’s a strange aspect of conservative conformity. I’ve only started to wrestle with this myself, but this article will detail why I think web design needs a reboot.

There’s no reason for the web to look like the 90s

Most design today is based, at least in part, on context from the 90s. At that time design was constrained by bad browsers, small screens with poor contrast and bad system font typography. The results were frankly fantastic. Since then most of these constraints have changed radically, but design trends still closely resemble their forerunners.

Screen size and layout metaphor

Screen size should have little to no impact on design. In the early days of the internet, screens were terribly expensive and for the first couple of decades they were more or less standardised into a handful of sizes. TV and Cinema did the same thing, it was a great way to ensure affordable cost and mass market.

Today there are hundredsof screen sizes being used in large numbers. So many that simply testing a design on the most common screen sizes becomes an exercise in futility. Instead we tend to settle for flagship devices. An iMac Pro and Google Pixel Phone? Then we’re all set. Never mind the other 89 screen sizes that are used in more than a million visits per week...

Designers all over the world try to adapt to this by padding their layouts as if they were cinema screens. Just like Hollywood in the 60s we show the same things in almost the same size and then add white space fill the full width of the screen. Making sure the proper elements align above the "fold" (whatever that is on screens today).

This is nonsense. Screen size actually affects user behavior. The iPad technically isjust a large iPhone, but people sure don’t use it as such. Windows 10 does work on mobile devices, but no one would use software designed for a 4k monitor on their cellphone.

I believe that the only useful metaphor left over from the early days is scrolling. Scrolling is arguably more useful than ever because it is the main user inputon the most common type of device used online today — the touch screen phone.

Instead of seeing web pages as a full width scrolling sheets, there are two other metaphors in use that are more useful with todays technology:

Specifically sized cards.

Possibly made famous by the failed Palm OS. Look at any mobile app today and you will see cards everywhere. Usually they are made to be one size, and are then stacked horizontally or vertically depending on the available screen real-estate.

Infinite canvas

Facebooks infinite scroll is probably the most commonly used one. But infinite canvases are everywhere just like Cards. Presentations zoom and pan, web pages scroll, app windows show only part of the document. The use cases go on.

User Interface Inputs

The web is primarily used through graphical user interfaces, and mostly on mobile devices. Based on this premise isn’t it strange that so many designs still use the desktop hunt-and-peck-with-your-mouse style of elements?

Why do we right click links and chose to bookmark or open in a new tab? Why don't we drag the link to the side of the screen for a new tab, and to the bookmark icon to store it?

Despite huge success on mobile apps, the web still fails to recognise touch as a first class user input. Mouse clicks are already optional on many laptops. Ten years after the touch device started it's rise to power it is time for us to make the web reflect that.

Grid & Typography

In the last few years typography has turned the web from computer science book into a beautiful print poster. Finally we have access to technology like CSS grid that allows us to recreate any print layout. But why print?

Print design is all based on a set of constraints that have no value on the web. Most typography is created to fit fixed size sheets of paper. Worse still, fonts are set in rows with fixed heights. Do we really always need to scroll?

In stark contrast with layouts, why aren't we type setting based on screen size instead? Imagine if the font size was set to 80 characters across the screen. Or 200 characters vertically? What sort of grid could that produce?

So where do we go from here?

I don’t really know. The situation is extremely interesting. I’ll keep working on this, and post everything I think of right here. If you’d like to join in the fun, please contact me! Honestly, I'd love your help.

Your next steps

A collection of buttons and dials on instagram

I've always loved buttons and dials. When I was a kid, the flashing consoles of Star Trek and Star Wars were the height of sci fi cool. Stereos and electrical panels were exciting, I kept wondering "what do these do?"

 

Stories are taking over, as a media format

I loved when Snapchat introduced the Stories format. It suited the platform perfectly and became a sort of passive social channel that I used to enjoy when social media was new. But I haven't given much thought to what the rise of Stories means, both as a platform, and as a media format.

Thankfully, better people have:

Stories is not a technology, nor is it a feature. It is a media format, or even a genre, in the way that a magazine or a murder mystery or a 30-minute television program is.

Twitter reinvents the web comment

If you’ve read my posts before you’ve probably heard me complain about Twitter before, and I’ve thought about it some more: 

I loved Twitter when it was in its infancy, the distributed social asynchronous communication let me learn from and get into contact with people who shared my interests from all over the world. It was empowering.

But Twitter is changing. It's no longer designed as a platform for discussion, but as one for publication.

This new Twitter feels way-to familiar. It looks like Twitter have reinvented the web comment. Same format, same bad tone, same bad social grace. Good job Twitter.

The only real difference between a blog, twitter, and a news site is interface. That's how powerful design is in informing behaviour.

Newsletters are the new Blog

We’ve come full circle. The 2000 era internet is back! Newsletters are now The way people publish content online. They’ve replaced blogs almost perfectly after the short blip of social media became a garbage pile of algorithmic ads. 

Just like blogs they’re trending each other’s content, intermittently updated, and completely distributed. There no one newsletter service. 

Why?

Because the Pull Behavior (go out and find information, spread it by creating more information, making it easier for others to find when they search) we so loved about the web is over. It’s been replaced through lazy social media with Push Behavior (I want something now, just keep gushing everything to me and I will “curate” what I want.

It’s a brave new world. 

Why social media is dying

I’ve witnessed and anguished over the decline of my favorite social media, Twitter, for years. Now it seems everyone is talking about the implosion of Facebook and all the algorithmic feed platforms like Instagram.

Today I realized just how much people crave chronological feeds of what people wish to say. I’m sure you’ve seen stories like this:

 It’s the traditional social media feed. The chronological text update from someone.  reinvented in the “disappearing story’s” popularized by Snapchat.

It’s the traditional social media feed. The chronological text update from someone.  reinvented in the “disappearing story’s” popularized by Snapchat.

It turns out that while social media is dying. The reason it exists in the first place is still just as valid:

 “Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation...” — Oscar Wilde

Whatever made these companies think it was ever about anything else?

 

Notebooks and bullet journals

I've had a love for notebooks since I was a kid. I've always doodled, sketched and written on paper with relish. But since collage the habit has waned because it's just not efficient enough.

Bullet Journaling is a trendy todo list idea that is getting people back on paper. And I love it. Check out this amazing journal, and my current favourite notebooks.

Now I just need to figure out if writing on paper is worth the lack of search and tags and get journaling, or if I'll just build a digital tool for the same.

Personal style for the minimalist

I'm a tall white 34 year old man from Sweden. I've never been able to purchase clothes that really fit. I've bought custom tailored shirts for years.

Is it too early to just go old school, and wear suits the entire time? I've always been comfortable in classic outfits. It fits my personality quite well. And I've basically been using a personal uniform for ten years (blue jeans, white shirt, leather jacket).

I'd like to pair down. My wardrobe as much as the time I spend on outfits. Are suits a smart way to go, or will I be spending too much and drearily wearing the same thing every day?

 Classic style for gentlemen — or boring wage slave old farts?

Classic style for gentlemen — or boring wage slave old farts?

Product mechanics

In Games there’s a focus of design called Game Mechanics. It works like this: Mario jumps, that’s a mechanic. The player is pushing buttons, but that’s just how they interact with the game mechanics. In this word where Mario jumps there enemies, enemies move and have behaviors, all of these things are not game mechanics. Mario can jump on enemies, that’s a game mechanic.

Game mechanics could be said to be mental models for how your activity works.

There isn’t really anything like it for the tech industry. There’s no product mechanic for a Todo list. Just an interface, and some actions.  

We design UI. Not activity. UX is trying to change this, but often lacks the understanding and even the language to do that. Maybe we should take a page out of the game design playbook and start designing Product Mechanics.  

Motivation and leadership are passive qualities.

Sometimes I come across quotes and ideas by people that resonate so intimately I can't help myself but share them:

"You can’t motivate people. The best you can hope for is to inspire them with your actions. People who think they can use behavioral “science” or management techniques have not spent enough time on the receiving end of either."
— Leo Babauta (Zen Habits)

The science of motivation, and of fun, is quite clear on the subject. It's very easy to motivate someone who wants to do something. It's near impossible to motivate someone who doesn't want to. Which is why leisure and luxury sells well, while real fitness and learning looks stuffy and boring.

This is a moral question for designers. Because the easy design, the quick sell, will be motivating. It will also, quite probably, be the wrong thing to do.

What TV executives believe about their audience

A few years back I was involved in redesigning a website for a TV channel in Sweden. What they told me gave me a profound insight into the minds of the networks. To bait your click, you won't believe what they believe. We met in a conference room in the networks main building. He was in charge of communications for several channels that belonged to the network. I was a junior employee at a highly regarded marketing agency.

We sat down, three of us from the firm, and the TV exec, to discuss what we would be doing. We began by offering a series of ideas about how they could communicate their unique brands and shows, but the exec stopped us half way though.

"No, no. You've got it all wrong." he said "this isn't why people watch our channel at all".

We all leaned in. The exec launched into a vague pitch about what made them truly unique, summing it up in a phrase that is forever etched in my mind:

"People stay with our channel, for our programming"

I was confused. I didn't think he meant any coding was going on, but didn't understand the term, thankfully he explained it. In the view of the network, people tuned into to a channel, and stayed with that channel, because of their unique arrangement of shows and commercials. The programming, is their term for the schedule of material broadcast. Each show, each commercial break and even the ads themselves, are scheduled to reflect the overall feel of the TV channel. This is, according to him, why people like one channel over another.

I was stunned by this. Not the information itself, I've always expected every media form to think like this to some degree, but by the thought that these executives actually believed that in the age of the internet.

This was prior to Netflix launch in Sweden, but anyone who had seen any statistics about video usage online, or seen anyone using youtube or torrenting a movie knew that this was completely false. Not just ignorant, but incorrect almost to the point of lunacy. People find and watch specific content because they like that content. They might endure everything else, only if there's no easier way. But they do not choose their content by association.

I walked away from that meeting in a stunned silence.

Recently I think I have realized how this idea took shape. TV usage is measured by putting a box near your TV that records audio cues from the programs and commercials. This recorded data is later collected and aggregated to find statistically interesting patterns.

The problem, like with most statistics, is of course that this collection method cannot measure intent. So if you were to turn on your TV while you do the dishes, and talk on the phone, and then see one program before you go to bed, you will be measured as staying with one channel for quite some time before jumping to a specific show and then turning off.

Even though your intent was background noise while you do something else, the measurement is easily interpreted as you enjoying the channel and sticking to the programming.

For that network, or at least that executive, the numbers were clear. Their unique programming was what kept people glued to the TV screen five hours every night.

This is not a jab at TV, though they are aging rather badly, but a warning to all of us not to get caught forcing what we want users to think onto statistics, just because we believe our work to be important. Let's never become so arrogant we start believing our brand is more important than our product. In the end, every business is about creating value for your customer.

(If anyone has similar insights into the TV industry, I'd LOVE to hear it. Please post in the comments below.)

Massimo Vignelli on focus groups

It is one thing to believe something, and an entirely different animal to put that belief into an articulate argument for that belief. This quote by Vignelli explains the true issues of trusting focus groups and market testing.

"I don’t believe in market research. I don’t believe in marketing the way it’s done in America. The American way of marketing is to answer to the wants of the customer instead of answering to the needs of the customer. The purpose of marketing should be to find needs — not to find wants.

People do not know what they want. They barely know what they need, but they definitely do not know what they want. They’re conditioned by the limited imagination of what is possible. … Most of the time, focus groups are built on the pressure of ignorance." via BrainPickings

Whenever someone asks me to do a focus group, I usually begin with asking that person what they want the focus group to answer. It is usually quite easy to guess the normal responses. Especially if the product or service is entirely new.

It's not that the focus group isn't observant or brilliant, they quite often are. The problem stems from them not having enough time with the product or service to really give us the important information. And sadly we can't observe a tester for weeks.

Don't confused with testing for quality assurance purposes, I've never seen a project without a few rough corners left, and that sort of testing is essential.

Let's add some ethics to design

Why? Because we can.

A playful answer, but more often true than not. If something works, why not keep doing it? Marketing and sales are areas where this attitude is so entrenched that some people never question it. "Always be closing", "sell sell sell". Why are we pushing this grandmother to buy an android device she'll never use? Because we can.

We put all the responsibility in the hands of the recipient, the buyer, or the clicker of ads. Often rightfully so, in my opinion. As good balance to douchy sales tactics is that if people simply don't buy, the salesmen will quickly stop and try something else instead. Other fields are not so clear cut though.

As designer we believe it is our mission to delight users. To make the product easier to use, more entertaining, and always more sticky. Last week my favorite gamification researcher, Sebastian Deterding, posted a keynote where he questioned this idea; Why is it our job to make things more sticky? I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. No matter if work with web or apps, you are providing either tools or entertainment. There really is nothing else. Entertainment should of course be entertaining, and I wont rant about game design in this post. But should tools be fun? Should they be sticky?

Steve Jobs once described the computer as a "bicycle for the mind". A tool to reach farther and faster than a human could without it. But are computers living up to this promise? I would argue no, and it's because of us. As designers, we've perverted the idea of tools. Creating hammers people really like to use instead of ones that gets the job done. We're not looking for the best way to solve a problem any more, we're debating how to make our users engage more with the product. Again something which is fine, if it's entertainment. But if it's a tool, this is a douchy sales tactic.

I think we need to stop talking about delighting our users and get back to trying to build the best tools for the purpose. No matter how good we dazzle our clients, eventually the sales pitch will end and the users are left holding chocolate hammers.

How to plan UX, the right way

The most common gripe I hear from UX designers is that they're not invited into the process early enough. This is absolutely a problem. If you get on board when the code is done and time is running out, there's only so much you can do. But there's another common problem, rarely talked about. Getting on board too early. Subtle project fail

Many companies I talk to today want to plan their UX in advance. Basically they want sketches of how the end user will interact with the finished project. Several things can go wrong with this approach:

  • You get locked into what the project was supposed to be and you can no longer change it for the better.
  • The sketches might not be technically sound. Small details can often be the largest technical hurdles.
  • There might not be enough time to realize the planned UX, but it's just so tasty that your iterative process becomes a linear project doomed to miss the deadline.
  • The designer(s) fall in love with an ideal, and are less open to change.

All of these issues, and all the ones I did not list, can be summed up in this sentence:

Premature UX is like masturbating before sex

No one is satisfied, it doesn't help you with the actual project and worst of all: The people involved in the pre-production process feel they've done some real work. Worst case they might feel that their job is already done. Just as the real work starts.

When and how to plan UX

Instead of trying to plan out a theoretical product of a project, find the parameters:

  • Define a problem that the project is trying to solve, without actually proposing the solution.
  • LIst the key issues and responsibilities the project must adhere to.
  • Set measurable targets for the project, then divide by half.

This way the problem solving is a part of the project, and the project may run more smoothly. It also forces UX to be a part of the project process instead of just something to check off before the project starts.

As always, the key to great UX and design is iteration. Having UX as a part of the development process, without the limitations of a set goal, makes a vast difference.