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.

Designing in-app purchases that work

With the rise of mobile, more and more people are looking at in-app purchases to monetize their products and services. But, as usual, there are design aspects to think about. I this article I intend to explain two of the most important things to think about when designing for in-app purchases: Relevance, and Access.

In-app purchases are really nothing new. It's just the name for how to buy extras in apps. We've been buying extras for decades already: "cheaper rims with the car", "buy two jumbo sized bags of spam for the price of one!" and the list goes on.

What is different this time around is that these extras are virtual. You're more or less buying the use of a few more lines of code. This makes the value proposition for the customer very different from the real world extras we're used to. Which makes relevance and access more important than they would be for fuzzy dice.

Relevance

Relevance is the most important aspect for an in-app purchase. If the extra on sale isn't relevant, why would you care? But if the fuzzy dice at the car dealership are exactly what your wardrobe needs, perfect!

Take Punch Quest for example. Punch quest is one of the most popular games to hit the AppStore in late 2012. But despite having millions of downloads and tons of active players, Punch Quest didn't make much money. It's was a free app, and great game, but the in-app purchases lacked relevance.

The extras you could buy for Punch Quest were... Odd. They either didn't have impact on gameplay, being visual gimmicks, or they did but had strange, nondescript, names. I even bought some to support the developer, and I still have no idea how what I bought impacts the game. Without relevance, your in-app purchase is doomed to fail.

Compare that to Analytiks, my favorite iOS web statistics app. While popular, it's nowhere near as popular as Punch Quest. Yet it's much more successful. The in-app purchases in Analytiks are very relevant. Analytiks shows you a screen for every site in your google analytics account. Just swipe for the next site. But it's limited to 8 sites. After 8 sites instead you find a screen offering another access to neither 8 sites for a small sum. Brilliant. Instant purchase when needed. If you don't want to pay extra, you still have full control of which 8 sites are shown.

Access

The other important aspect for in-app purchases is access, which loosely translates to "ease of use". Ever found a business that seemed to not want to take your money? They had poor access.

Punch Quest has in-app purchases, but they are not a part of the actual game. You can play for hours without having any idea there is anything to buy in the app. Worse, when you navigate through the menu structure it's still hard to find.

The customer first needs to want upgrades for the game, most of which are quite hard to understand if you haven't played extensively. Then the customer has to run out of coins collected in the game with which to buy upgrades. Then, finally, they need to find a small call to action hidden in the navigation bar. Not very accessible even for advanced users. Terrible for casual players looking for an advantage in the game.

Analytiks does it right. In the main app, after your sites, you are presented with the upgrade where the content ends. The screen is uncluttered and has only one message and call to action, the cta is clearly labeled with the price. Making it a simple few clicks to make the purchase, there is no lack of information, not ambiguity, about the product that makes the customer want to think it over.

 

Summary

If people are already using your product or service. Chances are they might be open to extras or upgrades.But by making them relevant to the use case, and making them accessible for the user, they become useful extensions to the app. Which are much more likely to sell.

  • Relevant:
  • expands the product
  • solves specific problems
  • not removing artificial limitations in the product
  • Access:
  • clear and understandable purchase information
  • presented well for the use case
  • not a "bolted on" design or user flow

How to design rules that work

Rules are ever present in our daily lives. We follow social rules, company rules, and laws. We create organizations by making sets of rules, we create deals and contracts all defined by rules. But very few people learn how to create rules. Most rules, don't work. As a former game designer, I've studied rules academically and tried and tested rules by the thousands. This is what I've learnt so far about creating rules that work.

Rules always create side effects

All rules are limitations on an individuals actions (a rule says you can't design text a certain way). But since people are surprisingly intelligent, they always find ways around rules (the rule creates a counter culture and suddenly hipster typographical posters abound!). We smile at this behaviour in kids, always looking for ways to get around bedtimes, but we fail to see that every human does this. It's so ingrained in the human condition it even has a name in both game design and economics: emergent behaviour.

Emergent behaviour means the behaviour that arrives as an unforeseen consequence to a situation. Cheating at games is an emergent behaviour. Rebellion is an extreme emergent behaviour.

Rules always - without exception - create these unforeseen behaviours because rules are *fractal*. Meaning that rules can never cover every single situation or twist in the language. There will always be new situations the rule should apply to.

- Did you brush your teeth? - Yes. - Did you brush them with the toothbrush? - Yes. - Did you put toothpaste on the toothbrush? - Yes. - Before you brushed your teeth? - No...

When I create rules I try to take emergent behaviour into account, where and how is it likely to happen?, How will the rule affect situations that are slightly different from the normal situation? How often does your management or project manager take emergent behaviour into account when creating rules? If the answer is never, the rules are probably not working.

Family rules

The softest touch works, while hard rules fail

Surprisingly, the rules that do work aren't the simple and direct ones. In fact the simpler and more direct the rule is, the more emergent behaviour it creates.

Let me explain how by giving an example. If you set a rule for yourself that you must turn left at every intersection you'll soon find yourself in conflict with the rule. You might quite quickly arrive at the workaround that the rule doesn't say how many times to turn left, and from then on you'll be turning left several times to turn right. I bet you're thinking of other rules you're breaking in this way?

But if the rule says you can only turn left at intersections it is much more open to interpretation, and oddly individuals are more inclined to follow it. Maybe I'll turn right somewhere that's not an intersection? Or maybe taking a route around the block will be interesting? The more open version of the rule makes the rule more interesting and less annoying.

What's happening is that activating individuals minds, asking people to judge for themselves, is making them more inclined to work with the system instead of around it. Asking individuals to just follow a rule is more likely to make them bored, frustrated,  and opposed to the rule. No matter how normal and simple the rule might seem.

This is why companies like to talk about corporate culture. A culture is simple a set of rules that are not defined, instead the individuals in a culture make it up or pass it along as they go. Culture is a very soft set of social rules, and a great way to lead a group of people in the same direction. It is also very hard to create, because it is soft and made up by the individuals in the culture. And as soon as someone puts pen to paper, the culture is dead. The air of cooperation will be replaced by bored people following the rules.

(Creating cultures is also a part of designing games, and deconstructing culture is essential to economics, so I'll probably revisit culture in a later post.)

Rules limit what people think

The absolutely worst part of a rule is when it's followed. Beware of people following hard rules, it never amounts to any good.

If a hard rule is enforced, or socially frowned upon to break, it swiftly becomes a dogma. A rule that is set so hard in individuals minds that they can not break it. Not only are they unable to break the rule, they might even be unable to think about breaking the rule.

We see this happening at all times, all around us. Ever wonder why senior citizens are more often against change? It's because they have lived with an unquestioned rule for so long, it has become impossible for them to see a world without the rule. The same thing happen with middle managers, unable to alter a rule themselves, and unable to see the effects of them, they stay with rules long after the intended purpose has become irrelevant.

The really worrying part comes from cognitive psychology. Studies seem to indicate that living with the same thoughts for to long actually create rigid structures in your physical brain. Yes, I'm serious. The brain is a huge network of neurons, always making new connections. But living with the same connections, thoughts, for long enough might physically inhibit new connections being made. That's right, hard rules might actually be shutting down small parts of our brains!

No wonder change comes so slowly right? (For more on the subject, google "Neuro plasticity")

rules

Creating rules that work

From my years in games and economics I've learned a lot of ways not to make rules. But at times we need them, no matter how hard they may be to create. If we're aware of the pitfalls and careful, we can create rules that work.

Here's a list of rules that I follow when creating rules (rule-ception?):

  • Communicate the outcome of your rule, not the limitations (the rule itself).
  • Think up situations that might warp the rules, and take it to extremes.
  • Think about how the rule will affect things when it's purpose is no longer relevant.
  • Remember that rules are used by at least two groups of people: individuals, and groups.
  • Never punish rule breaking. If you must punish, punish for outcomes.
  • Try to be vague. Trust people to interpret rules intelligently.

What makes a product good

Sit up straight, I'm about to explain the secret sauce behind exceptional products. There is a difference between products that perform poorly and products that perform well that is hard to put your finger on. Designers have been struggling to tell you about it for years. But it turns out it's not the answer that is the problem, it's the question. The question is: Is it enjoyable? It's the difference between functional and great.

For a long time now the tech industry has been struggling with paradigms. Is your product technology driven or design driven? Are your most important people engineers or designers? The pendulum swings every five years or so.

Google is a company driven by engineers, they solve problems. Apple is a company driven by designers, they make experiences. Which company makes the better product? Android or iPhone? For years, journalists and salesmen have been asking the wrong questions, and coming to all the wrong conclusions.

Customers buy products for their features. But they keep them for the experience.

No one doubts that features are important. Every retail box is crammed with specs and every review seems to compare products on feature lists. But features are not what makes customers buy. When you buy a kitchen knife, you probably just grab a cheap one to get the job done, right? But the next time you buy one, you'll be more likely to invest in quality because it feels better to use, the old one became dull quickly or chipped. Your enjoyment of the product starts to make an impact in your purchase.

What is that enjoyment worth? If your first knife cost $5, would you buy a better one for $50?

Android phones were crappy when Android was first released. Mostly because Android was crap. Google spent millions making sure Android had every feature that the iPhone had. Every function was matched. Every look that could be copied was copied. Samsung even went so far as to make extremely similar phones and UI-skins. But oddly, the consumers were not using Android phones like they did iPhones. App sales were low, internet usage was non-existant.

Only then did the engineers at Google realize that the secret sauce in the iPhone wasn't so much features, but the experience. Still they couldn't put their finger on what they lacked. They had to hire a new manager, a designer, to tell them what to do. Now Android is becoming enjoyable to use, app sales are skyrocketing and internet usage is on the rise. People are using their Android phones for the first times.

Enjoyment is hard to bottle. It can't be checked off on a scrum board or a todo list. It's the sum of all the parts. And even worse, it costs money. You can't just finish a feature, you have to iterate on all the parts until they fit together. (To read more about enjoyment or fun, visit my blog on Gamification: Adding the Fun.)

The sooner we start asking the right question the better. What if startups focused on making their features enjoyable instead of just functional? It'd cost more, but their churn would be less and they would get more interest.

Right now the market is focusing on design. Designers are in high regard and design is the measuring stick of the tech industry. But because most companies and organisations still don't understand this crucial piece of secret sauce, designers will become another checklist on the project management chart. Is it designed? Yes. Tick the box.

If the question had been: is it enjoyable? The answer would have been different. The product would end up different and the market reaction would as well. Next time you read a review, don't look at the feature list or the score. Find the sentence where the author says if he/she liked it or not.

It's time to make sure we start asking the right questions and stop looking at features or design as checkboxes.

This list of questions can help you start:

  1. Does the feature work?
  2. Does it work every time and in every circumstance?
  3. Is it enjoyable?
  4. Is it enjoyable even when you're in a hurry?

If the answer to any of the questions is no, you need to start over.

Like Steve Jobs so eloquently put it "Design is how it works". Sadly, he didn't stick around to explain how anyone could check for that emotion.

Ask the question: Is it enjoyable?