Manual for a stranger world

We’ve become too practical
I’m a big fan of agile, prototyping and lean. I think a hands-on, iterative and getting-things-done process is great. But we’ve lost something. The obsession with making things real limits the scope of the things we can make real. It limits us to what is possible within the constraints of our current understanding. Companies due to their nature, are obsessed with tangible details and their delivery focused operations keep us on the path of incremental innovation. We get what we optimised for, an endless series of extrapolations: faster, lighter, bigger, cheaper. All very useful, but what about a different world? A space far beyond the horizon of the next sprint, the next launch, the next round of funding? A world of dreams, of ideas, a stranger world?

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Exploring eternal questions through interaction design

This is a write-up of a talk I gave at Geeky

Thanks to a side project on  time mapping I became interested in the design implications of a set of questions that are collectively known as the eternal questions.

1. What are eternal questions?
Eternal questions are concerned with meaning. They arise from people’s experiences with the world, and have no definitive answer. Famous questions are: what is the meaning of life? What is a good life? What makes a good person? What is beauty? What is love?

Although they cannot be answered definitively, this doesn’t mean that they cannot be productively discussed. Through the centuries countless people have come up with answers. Some believed they answered a question once and for all, others were more modest and saw their answer only as one of many possibilities.

Many of us are familiar with Douglas Adams’ answer from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: “42″, the answer to life, the universe and everything. But there are many others:

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Inspired by the simple and colourful life of Tahiti, Paul Gauguin wondered: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And came up with a surprisingly colourful answer.

In what turned out to be his final work, Dostoevsky created The Brothers Karamazov  a story about  three brothers and a father with very different ideas about what makes a good life.

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Designing for customisable sites

Yesterday I held my talk at uxcamplondon on how to enable users to customise their site whilst avoiding a usability nightmare (both for them and for their future visitors).

It was a pretty interesting discussion, and a few ideas came out of it that I want to share with you all:

  1. Don’t offer the user total control, offer them the feeling that they’ve just successfully designed a site according to their own preferences.
  2. Customising sites should be a quick, fun and enjoyable experience, after which users should go on with the reason they came to use your site in the first place.
  3. Just because site editors are built in a certain way (for example colour pickers), doesn’t mean you should just reuse that pattern. Think a step further, how you can steer the user in the direction of good design.
  4. Although the request might be for a site editor, a customisable template might do the job as well.
  5. If you build an editor with many features, you will attract people who love even more features.
  6. Tools do push a certain design, don’t give a user too much rope.

A decent write up of this presentation is still in the pipeline, but meanwhile here is my slideshow.

If you have any examples from your own experience or come across other sites with great customisation tools, please share it in the comments.

Design for the difficult

This is my tiny wrap up of uxcamplondon talk that I held at the Ebay Headquarters down in Richmond. My talk had the  inspiring title “designing for the difficult – because some things just aren’t simple”. Before I had my talk I had only a vague understanding of the concept. But I think I understand it a bit better now, so i decided to give you a rough outline of the concept.

The problem
The problem is quite clear, many applications (be it software such as word, excel, be it web-apps such as Ebay or Facebook) are quite well designed to get beginners up to steam, and also have some advanced features for the top of the end users. How someone goes from beginner to advanced users is still an hardly explored terrain, leading to many people stuck in the middle. To use a graph to explain the problem: If a new product arrives on the market some people will quickly ‘get it’ and become an advanced user, most people will slowly grown in to the functionality they need and become moderate users, and also a fairly large chunk will never grow out of the beginner state and or give up, or only use the very basic of functionality of the software. The challenge therefore is: how can we get as many users from beginners to moderate and from moderate to advanced in a way is most natural to the user.

Old answer – the manuals
Rtfm Write lengthy manuals, hundreds of frequently asked questions, and many pages on help. Although this is not a bad thing to do, it’s also not the best for two reasons:

  • Users don’t read for various reasons, but mainly because reading requires true effort
  • Developers and designers don’t like to write manuals (no statistics for this claim, so I’m happy to be proven wrong)

So the reading coin doesn’t work out for two reasons, no-one likes to read and no-one (almost no-one) loves to write help texts, faq and manuals when they know they won’t be read.

Old answer – the course, seminar, workshop
Sent the users of your software so lengthy and expensive help courses, where they will burn away their valuable hours and burn away valuable company’s cash. Although this method works, it comes with the down down sides, that it requires even more effort than reading and most times courses are more expensive than the software itself.

New Answers
I believe there are better methods to educate the user and there are several fields of which ux-designers can borrow inspiration and information.

  • Game design – is already working for decades on how to get users through their levels with giving them the right challenges at the right time.
  • Marketing – also has a long track record in how to get users to do something /anything
  • Education – Just as the classic examples of the book and the classroom, there should be a lot of information there on how to motivate people to learn new tasks.

Together with the fields above there are also two scientific areas that give a lot of ‘new’ answers: sociology and psychology both studying human behaviours and trying to come up more answers on how to keep the change > effect train running. Recently this whole field has got an incredible boost by both the further development of neuro research and the incredible rise of data mining

To me it seems no more than logic that ux field should learn as much as they can from those three fields of work, two fields of science and two incredible methods. Luckily this is already happening, but as far as I can see not in a very structured way.

To give you some links to sources where you can read more on this subject:


I’ve gathered quite a series of examples, but at the moment I feel it’s to early yet to state that it is anything beyond incidental anecdotes, but for those interested; have a look at my presentation: