What’s so Ethical about Design anyway?

Last year I gave a talk at Designers in Stockholm about where evil comes from and how to avoid it. I called it “What’s so ethical about design anyway?” as a joke about the raging debate on ethics of design.

This debate has only grown since I gave the talk, but I’ve heard very little of substance on the topic. So to contribute I thought I’d update my talk and make it available online.

Here are my thoughts on how evil happens in large organisations, and how to avoid becoming evil.

This talk is 5 to 30 minutes long. Email me if you’d like me to present it for your organisation or meetup.

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.  

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.

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.

Continue reading “What makes a product good”

How the Apple iTV will work

Most journalists now believe Apple will be releasing a TV this year. Speculating over Apple’s plans is close to impossible, but if we look closely at what Apple have been releasing over the last few years I think we can predict what an Apple iTV would be like. There are a lot of problems. All of which would be solved by taking the problems out of the TV set and instead making it a much more connected device.
Continue reading “How the Apple iTV will work”

An example of interactive UI design, the future of web design

HTML5 is a name we give the next level of web technology, it’s just simpler to remember. All the web is built using HTML, CSS and Javascript and with HTML5 new and better ways of using these languages are being made available everywhere.

The revolution started with the iPhone.

With the launch of their breakthrough device they didn’t intend for developers to be making Apps. Apple instead believed that developers would make web apps using HTML5 and save the web app as an icon of their phone. Surprisingly open by Apple’s standards the strategy soon changed to native apps because web apps simply didn’t feel quick enough.

Web technology is getting better

However, as HTML5 becomes a standard on PCs everywhere web apps are approaching the same sophistication as native applications. The hardest step now is for developers to take the plunge and create these great new interfaces and not get stuck in the old way of thinking and just pushing out another blog.

One of my favorite designers, Dustin Curtis, is leading the way with this new UI element on his site; the Kudos button.

It looks great. It’s fun to use and it’s a really simple way to add some life to a site. It doesn’t work on touch interfaces for obvious reasons. Sadly Dustin hasn’t made the code available yet, but most programmers could probably copy the concept. It’s that easy. We just have to make sure we starting thinking less about static web and more about user interaction.

UX trend predictions of 2012 B:

Whenever likeminded creative people try to innovate trends emerge. Ideas give birth to ideas. As ideas keep combining in the heads of creative people everywhere some ideas become more sticky than others. I’ll document some of the trends in user experience design I predict will become the norm in 2012. You can find my first post on the subject here.
Another example from a 2011 app is the amazing full screen representation in Wren.

Wren app for Mac

 

White space apps

When I first saw Wren I was amazed. It was focused and minimalist. Therefore I was shocked to see the full-screen button in the top right corner of the app, “Wouldn’t that completely wreck the experience” was my knee-jerk reaction. Then I tried it and another trend was obvious, apps that scale without bloating their feature sets, or White space apps.

Why are White space apps different? Mobile.

The mobile revolution has some interaction and UI designers scratching their heads or pulling their hair trying to fit all the usual information. The current computing paradigm has relied on massive amounts of text and information tags for a long long time. Even programs that have really tried to rid themselves of rarely used functions or unnecessary amounts of help information have sometimes been stuck in contextual help hell due to the modus operandi of desktop interface design.

No more. Mobile has rid us of all these things. And some designers are provocative enough to realize that less really is more and simply scale their apps without adding more information or complexity.

Is this good or bad?

Only time will tell. But the dominance of mobile design today tells us a lot about what people like. I think it is less about the iPhone being a must-have product and a lot more about really smart and beautiful apps that are just complex piles of engineering on other platforms.

Simple is better. And using white space to focus the users attention on a sparingly chosen set of functions beautifully designed makes this clear. I believe these minimal products will in the future continue to trump the feature behemoths of yesteryear.

Due for iPad