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.

The next step for Apple

With the launch of the iPhone Apple changed the world of computing forever. Since then Apple has fought a war against Samsung, Google and others over the dominance of the mobile market. But not a lot has really changed. Android comparison

 

Apple introduced the high pixel density display, Samsung launched larger displays. All the companies have introduced all sorts of bells and whistles to try to catch the interest of the consumer, but to little real effect. The basic model hasn't changed all that much from the original iPhone.

iphone comparison

Many people are thinking about and desperately trying to predict the next step. Google is launching Glass, a smartphone-like display that sits in the corner of your eye and is controlled by your voice. Most companies are working on watch-like devices based on the rumour that Apple is making one.

That got me thinking, this is an odd assumption. Why should reinventing the market require a new device? The iPhone was certainly not the first phone, nor smartphone. It was just radically smarter then the competition. Instead of launching a new type of device, what if Apple would drastically improve the devices they already have? What could they do?

The next generation: Real Touch

The central feature of the iPhone, and the iPad, is the screen. When Apple added the Retina screen the other companies scoffed and smirked claiming it would only decrease battery life. But after they got their hands on it, the entire market rapidly went with high pixel density displays.

What if Apple would add high density touch displays next? You can still use your finger as a primary pointing device. But also a stylus without lag or stutter. Maybe several people could draw and sketch together on an iPad.

The scoffs and smirks

Very few people will read this and go "wow! What an amazing and novel idea!". Most will remember the failed styluses of yester-year and think I've fallen off the wagon. But what if, just like with the retina screen, there would be no down side to these screens? What if they simple worked as magic paper?

Wacom

Wacom has the technology already. Now it is just a question of price and if Apple believes the market wants this. I say Apple, because even if Samsung and Microsoft could also do this I think their implementation of it would be lacking.

The problem with people without problems

You've worked with them. Perhaps you've even been them. The people who claim "there are no problems, only opportunities". This needs to stop. Putting your head in the sand doesn't make the tiger go away.

Problems are the interesting bits. Where the plans collide with reality. Solving problems is what we do. Solving problems is the only fun part about our jobs! Issues don't solve themselves because we reframe them. But they might if we talk about them.

Fuck all the people who tell you there are no problems.

If the connotations of the word makes them wet their bed, they have bigger problems than language in the workplace.

I'm not saying that the connotations of words have no power. Words have great power and choosing the right ones is very important. But if your organisation is stumped by the connotations of one word accurately describing reality, than there is a severe lack of direction.

If you trade a swearword for "sugar", you've only moved the angry connotation about. You haven't stopped swearing. You'll find yourself sounding crazy instead of mad.

We need to stop recoiling from the realities of the world, and of our work. Words have power. But so do actions. Deal with it. Learn to work with problems.

The definitive guide to value creation

In my youth I dabbled with dark arts. I thought experimenting wouldn't hurt, so I tried a little, but little became a lot. My addiction took up all my spare time and heavily impacted my social life. I became alienated by friends and had a hard time talking to people close to me.That's how I spent six years studying economics.

Creating value is tossed around these days as the way for startups and freelancers to contribute to the marketplace. So why is no one talking about what that really means, or how to do it? The short answer is because they don't know. The long answer is that the ones that do know think it's so obvious they don't the need to explain it.

What is value, and how do we get it

I'll just touch upon the economics of Value first, but don't worry, it'll be short and painless: All value is derived from trade. That's what value IS.

The idea works like this; if I have a ton of gold, but no one wants it, it is worth nothing. Literally nothing. Because I can't get anything for it. If someone would give me a loaf of bread for it, it'd be worth a loaf of bread.

Thank god we have money (an abstract form of value, think of it as shares in the work you've done) so we don't need to slog around with all that stuff all the time.

The interesting thing about this idea is that it implies that everyone gets richer all the time. You wouldn't trade for something you didn't want would you? We all trade what we think is worthy, which makes us better off. So in every trade there are two winners. Not one. Everyone is better off. If they aren't, the trade has been forced or is certainly the last trade between them.

How do startups and freelancers get value? They trade with their customers (and everyone you trade with is a customer). If the customers are better off after the trade they are likely to keep being customers.

Seems abstract? Let's get all practical with examples.

How to Create Value

The question of how to create value is now a lot easier to answer; we need to create stuff to trade. By stuff I mean anything that people are willing to trade for. It can be a product, or a service, but whatever we create we must have a clear definition of what it is before we trade. Otherwise customers might get impossible expectations or simple refuse the trade.

But the main point here is create. We must be constantly creating to add value, and to show our customers what we can create.

Defining a product

A product is anything that can stand alone is a product. A book, a play, and a website are all products.

Defining a service

A service is anything that can not stand alone, anything that only exists while you do it. Cleaning, making a website, and acting in a play are all services. Seem of them create products, others just create value either by saving the customer time or lending them expertise.

The good sale and the bad sale.

Good salesmen focus on adding value to their customers, which is why they often have good relationships with their customers.

Poor salesmen are just trying to sell whatever is the flavor of the week, which is why poor salesmen often have high spikes in sales but rarely recurring customers.

Summary

The only way to create value is to trade something. Making your product or your service easier to understand by defining, simply, what the customer gets is a great way to increase your trade.

Creating stuff is the only to add value. So never stop creating.

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?