Technology: Strange v Familiar

This few weeks we have focused on the concept of technology being strange, yet familiar. Technologies and it’s rapid growth in conceptualization to market, far outseeds the Moore’s law already.

Is this a good thing? Is it a bad thing, does higher access to civilians make our lives more like a sci-fi film? Or make us better or smarter human beings? Or dumber… or have no affect at all?

Through all the readings I got a sense that the authors had also thought about this, and from one extreme to the next, one author Bell, felt that we should chill out on getting gadgety with domestic technology. Such as the internet tv in the refrigerator, because there could possibly be a place in your brain that could come up with a design solution to not have to have the user completely loose touch with the reality that makes us, well – human.

Not that technology is bad by any means, but choose wisely is what I got from her article. The power the designer has to influence those who interact with our “stuff” can be good, bad, or perhaps even worse, indifferent.

To illustrate this I used a 2×2 with the axis being: y axis – user controlled v technology controlled, and the x axis being the designers intent to make humans use more cognitive skills and become more intelligent, or less cognitive skills and become perhaps not dumber, but not any more intelligent by any means.



Our Authors:strange&familiar.002

The base for my discussion of the writings:strange&familiar.003 strange&familiar.004

I believe Bell fell between the technology being in control (if the future of design were to go the way she had explained) and this technology not making us human any smarter. But perhaps just making our lives easier by default of not having to think for ourselves.
strange&familiar.005 strange&familiar.006

I put Sterling right in the middle of not learning or getting dumber, but at least having more user control over our situation. Although our cultures may be different it doesn’t mean we wish to have different outputs in using the technology given to us.
strange&familiar.007 strange&familiar.008

Marsden was interesting to me for the sheer fact that his article dealt with such a real life situation. I placed him in an area where yes actually the user was getting more tech savy by shear means of having to learn to use the broken platform that was provided, but the user was still under the thumb of the reach of the technology provided, limited, yet aware.strange&familiar.009 strange&familiar.010

And then there is Kerweil the futurist whom I believe threw out Moore’s law a long time ago and believes that humans will actually be controlled by the robots we built in 200 years. He may be right. You never know.

Lastly I would like to leave with one thought that persisted throughout these readings. That we can not stop the progression of technology and how it impacts each person in each culture differently for better or worse. But as designers, we have the obligation to not only fulfill the need of the consumer, but also not go so overboard that we are actually making them less intelligent. There is a difference between a Roomba and an Internet ready TV screen on a refrigerator. The Roomba makes my life easier by keeping the floor clean, but it doesn’t solve my math homework, or tell me how to cook my grandmother’s recipes. 

The world has enough fluff widgetery. Let’s make some real design. 


IxDA 2014

Yesterday, Scott and I submitted our application to the 2014 IxDA Student Competition taking place next February in Amsterdam. You can find our application documents linked below.

The competition is focused on health records in developing nations. We see the completion as an opportunity to explore the work we’re doing around health records through the framework presented by the completion.  Helping people understand their health is a universal problem; without crucial information, how can we make good decisions around our health?  We see compelling parallels as well as important distinctions between our work locally and the global scope of the competition.

While the problem of comprehensive health records is similar across communities, it is inherently wicked in that it’s significantly affected by the values and conventions of each local community the system exists in.  We’ve been looking at health records confined to our community here in Austin, and the system here is linked to the entrenched nature of American healthcare.

The competition offers us the opportunity to take our built intuition around this topic and apply it to a more open problem space; to generate solutions for communities that are, in many ways, still trying to define their system. These communities have their own challenges, but the space is inherently more open to change and new ideas.  In some sense, designing for communities without a robust existing bureaucracy seems like a great opportunity for design to make a rapid, meaningful impact.  We hope that by competing in Amsterdam we’ll generate some valuable insights that could impact both the communities addressed in the completion but also those back at home.

Our application documents:

Application Video

Food & Identity


– jacob

Self-Efficacy Part 1

Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s capability to achieve a goal or an outcome.

The crux of being a designer is that a) you believe in your ability to notice what needs to change and b) you believe you can change them effectively.  If design was taught as a new liberal art in K-12 education, a new version of self-efficacy and social participation could be formed. By the time children become adults, mending perceived problems would be commonplace behavior. From: “Class, how could we best arrange our desks to learn well this year?” to “Our high school needs a central gathering place, let’s build a plaza,” to “Our new neighborhood needs to make some changes, let’s start a town hall meeting once a month,” and so on.

Here’s a casual way we could start this today: As we go through the day to day, let’s empower each other to move from passive permission for the world to exist as it is, to active recognition of messy problems when they surface. If it’s something small-scale you can fix right away, do it. If it needs a longer-term solution, write it down and keep it as a reference to guide future pursuits. These lists can contain broad ethical problems, that’s fine too.

If we encourage everyone to behave as design researchers, an active society of “noticers” could see and state needs for alterations to systems. Not every perceived need would have to be addressed, as some things may be outliers that only pertain to one or two individuals and thus would be best changed by those individuals. But for the problems deemed to affect larger groups or communities, the newly empowered citizenry could make the changes they see fit and shape their communities organically through the ideas and skills of that community’s stakeholders.

Doing so would reduce the societal homogenization that George Ritzer speaks about in his book, The McDonaldization of Society. Ritzer discusses the push of culture from one centralized hub (for example the McDonalds’ corporate offices) to their 31,000 franchises around the world. Local communities begin to resemble each other through this cultural push from one source.

I’m putting forth the charge to encourage everyone you know to approach the world as design researchers. Imagine everyone, full-time, engrossed with the world to such a degree that we see it clearly for all its abilities and disabilities. From that vantage point, and the self-efficacy of an empowered “designerly” mind, great new solutions will emerge and problems that once seemed permanent will be seen for the malleable structures they are.

Expand Your Digital Presence

When we talk about our digital presence, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and personal web pages are natural starting points. All these options excel in how general purpose they are. The sky is the limit for how you want to balance your personal or professional personas. But I’d like to bring up a few other options that are scoped a little more tightly, but have great potential to improve your professional reputation as a designer. I’ll briefly describe how these work and they value they have.

1 – Stack Exchange (nee Stack Overflow) and Quora: These are both question and answer sites where individuals “upvote” what they think are best answers. Quora focuses on all industries with an eye to bigger picture questions and you can follow particular topics. Stack Exchange sites allow people to mark one answer as “best” or that it solved their problem, so it’s more tactically focused. Stack Overflow started out as a programming Q&A site, but has since spawned a network of sites including UX and IX design. By providing quality answers, on either network, to other people’s questions, you can build your reputation as a knowledgeable and helpful person who works to improve design by taking the time to give back to the community.

2 – Github is widely known among software developers because it helps them manage their code, collaborate with other developers, and track issues. What makes it so powerful is that developers can share their code publicly and allow anyone to contribute. As a coder looking for a job, many employers want to see that you contribute to projects and use Github as a way to see your own code. As a designer, potential employers are probably not looking for your work on Github, but your professional reputation could greatly be improved if you were willing to share common libraries, tools, or design patters you’ve developed: for example, icon sets, Omnigraffle stencils or Illustrator symbols, or maybe Photoshop templates. If you do code, make that available. The designers at Twitter and at Zurb have both shared their HTML/CSS frameworks on Github, and they have much more momentum now that the community is involved in building them. To put it another way: give away a few quality, useful tools for free to win friends and influence people.

3 – Dribbble and Behance: If you are a visual designer or interface designer, Dribbble and Behance are portfolio sharing sites. To oversimplify it, consider it Instagram or Pinterest where you post galleries of your work. It’s a great way to put yourself out there and get feedback. If you are applying for jobs in interface or visual design, these sites give you quick ways to share your portfolio with potential employers. Even if you don’t join them, these are great sites to peruse if you are looking for inspiration.

4 – AngelList: Ever thought about having your own startup? Maybe you made a ton of money and are looking to invest. Or you’re looking to work for some of the latest startups. AngelList is a great place to establish a profile for any of these scenarios. It’s a great way for investors, entrepreneurs, and other talented people to meet. As an entrepreneur, you can spread the word about your latest startup and list your previous ones. For investors, you can peruse new startups raising money, and try your hand at picking the next Instagram. Or you can list yourself under talent to connect with and find employment at new startups.

BONUS – SoundCloud: The intended purpose for this site is to allow musicians and producers to share their work. The coolest function of SoundCloud, though, is that comments are tied to the audio timeline. This makes it a great tool for several collaborators to annotate discussions at specific points in a recording. You can view the comments both in a standard list or as popups during audio playback. Although you probably want to keep interviews private, it’s a great way for you and several designers to record a discussion about issues in design and share your insights to the world.

When you think of sharing and social networks, consider that most web-based tools these days have a social component that you can use to expand your digital presence. If you’ve found great utility from a network not listed here, please share it in the comments!

Describing The Value of Your Product

I’m advising a startup that’s in a fairly typical “starting” position: they have a team, a good idea of a high level topic (“We’re focusing on financial markets, not on baking bread”), and a series of product features that they know they want to include in the company. They have a timeframe for success, driven by the amount of money they have, their perspective on how fast their competition will work, and, as is usually the case, a bit of arbitrariness. And they have a name.

And now, they need to build a product.

There are lots of different processes for identifying what to build. I’ve outlined one way before. And there are lots of processes in place that describe how to build it. But knowing what to build, and building it, doesn’t get you all of the way to a product or company, because you won’t have answered a critical question:

How does the product or company feel?

That’s a vague and fuzzy question, and so it may not ever get asked, much less answered. Those with an extremely analytical mind rarely consider this type of question, and if they do, they may discount it as being irrelevant. Even if it is considered, it’s hard to know how to answer it, because the concept is subjective and the embodiment of the answer is vague.

A way to arrive at the answer to that question is to ask a different question, one of value. What value will your product or company provide, and to whom?

It’s tempting to answer this question from a standpoint of utility, describing the practical things it helps someone do. For example, you might explain that Google “helps people find information.”  That makes sense, considering their stated mission: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And, examine their value-line (I bet you didn’t even know they had one!): Search, Ads, and Apps. These are statements about getting things done and increasing efficiency. They are clear, and straight-forward, and can easily be tracked and measured. A statement of value can be used as vetting criteria for new features and functions, or even for the organization of the company. When someone has a great idea for a new product, you could ask, “How will this new idea support our value-line of search, ads, and apps? How will it help people find information? How will it help organize the world’s information?” These are all indications of commodity, which – as aspirational goals – are strange;  I would expect a company to aspire to a more differentiated and rich value proposition.

Of course, you can go in the other direction, too. For the last few years, AT&T’s value-line has been “Rethink Possible.” The absurd grammar choices of big companies aside (HP did it with “Let’s Do Amazing”, and Apple obviously enjoyed success with “Think Different”), the statement is thin because it’s overly broad. Taken as a sentence, it implies that “Our products will help you rethink what is possible.” Rethink what’s possible with what, my dishwasher? My relationship? Everything?

(As an aside to the aside, I feel like Let’s Do Amazing is terrible, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Yum! Brand’s “striving each and every day to put a Yum! on our customers’ faces around the world“. Excuse me, Ma’am, but you have some Yum on your face.)

A larger criticism would be the frequency with which AT&T changed their perception of the value they provide. Consider that at least five lines have been used since 2000:

  • Fits you best
  • Raising the bar
  • Your World. Delivered
  • Rethink Possible
  • Rethink Possible: It’s what you do with what we do.

Has the value AT&T provides actually changed that much – five massive changes – in 12 years? The justification for the last change is the most compelling, as it signals an attempt to humanize:

“We did a lot of insight research about how people live with technology,” said Esther Lee, senior vice president for brand marketing, advertising and sponsorship at AT&T in Dallas, which included “ethnographies, shop-alongs and spending time in people’s living rooms.”

When the “Rethink possible” campaign was developed, most consumers “felt overwhelmed with technology,” Ms. Lee said…

Unfortunately, it seems that they fell short of truly empathizing with their customers, as Lee goes on to explain:

“… but only a short time later many have “found ways to integrate it in their lives” — and some even “talk about it with love. The real innovation that’s happening is what people are doing, and how people are dealing, with technology,” she added, and “the unique ways they use it to make their lives better.” [Source]

The five statements AT&T has tried indicate a sense of value that is so broad as to be aimless or meaningless. I think large companies have a hard time describing their value to the world because their literal size has diluted a sense of purpose. I don’t necessarily believe the story of the NASA janitor who claimed he was “putting a man on the moon”, because NASA’s engineering culture was so strong, and the organization was so big, it’s unlikely there was a shared vision of anything.

I don’t like utility-driven value statements, like Google’s, because they seem destined towards commodity. And I don’t like the high-level value statements of AT&T because they are meaningless – they are fluff, noise. Instead, I recommend a more human approach to the question of value, which you can arrive at through a round-about manner. Ask, and answer, these two questions: If your product was a person, what kind of person would it be? What stance does your product take when it is confronted? Your product isn’t a person, but it will be used by one, and so these questions force you to consider the time-based interactions and dialogue that will occur when a real live person engages with your creations. You’ll describe the aspirational attitudes that your work conveys, and because your work is a proxy for yourself, you’ll be describing your aspirational stance, too.

Thoughts on Design Portfolios

Designers are typically judged based on their portfolio of work. When I worked at frog, I encountered lots of unsolicited portfolios. The sad reality of sending a portfolio to a consultancy is that your chances of getting a job are a weighted dice roll, based on a mixture of extremely fast first impressions, serendipitous timing, and who you know. When I would receive a portfolio from someone I’d never heard of, I tried my best to actually look at it, but if my schedule was three-deep back to back meetings all day long, the email was ignored. Sometimes, if the sender got lucky, they might send it on the same day that a plea for hiring went out, usually based on a sales cycle accelerating or a deal closing unexpectedly. In these cases, they got the benefit of the doubt. And, in the cases where the email comes with a recommendation from a friend, I couldn’t help but be interested to see the work.

And so, if you made it past the “luck” phase, I would open the .pdf or click the web link.
At this point, you might stop and question things like “HR departments”, “your resume is on file”, and “just apply through the website”, which are probably all good ideas, but that – in my experience – are giant black holes. The human connection is huge.

This portfolio shows what a candidate has done, how they’ve done it, and how proficient they are at it. The “it” has traditionally been print and industrial design, and since these are visual end-artifacts, it’s easy to show the output, and the process is equally as visual.

But designers who work on software, systems, and services encounter a challenge: how do you show the output, and the process, in a meaningful way? Here are some pragmatic pieces of advice that I found myself wishing I could have offered, as I reviewed portfolios. Your mileage may vary, and all usual caveats about how impersonal, cold, and unforgiving agency life is apply.

General Advice
You may be the best generalist in the world, and it might be emotionally difficult for you to pigeon-hole yourself as a “type of designer”, but if there’s an open rec for a “visual designer”, that means the firm has money allocated to hire someone who does visual design work, and a need for that type of work. Your great wireframing skills are a nice supplement, showing you can work in a broader team, but at that critical moment of initial portfolio review, show what the rec asked for.

Your portfolio doesn’t need to be big. In fact, the best portfolios I reviewed usually had two projects in them – one that showed breadth, and one that showed depth. For example, it might contain a project that illustrates the entire design process, end to end; this illustrates if the candidate understands how design works, is familiar with a collaborative and user-centered approach, and thinks about things iteratively. Then, the second project offers only examples that show proficiency in an extremely focused skill area, such as wireframing, icon development, sketching, motion graphics, and so-on. This area of focus shows how the candidate can be resourced on day one: they can be put on a project that’s billable.

Attention to detail matters, a lot. In this very first moment, where someone hasn’t seen your work before and you’ve made it through the cold-call luck round, you have about 10 seconds for an arrogant, over-extended, tired creative director to poke at your material before they find something they don’t like and leave. This translates to:

  • No spelling errors, of anything, anywhere
  • Things in a grid line up exactly (to the pixel)
  • Use Helvetica, Futura, Frutiger, or Meta, and nothing else, unless you actually know what you’re doing
  • The .pdf you send is less than 3 megs
  • The URL you send is actually live
  • The cover letter that you send to frog doesn’t explain why you would be great for the job at IDEO (you would be chagrined to know how frequently this happens)
  • The imagery you include has been cropped, color adjusted, and otherwise manipulated to be appropriate
  • Use big pictures. Little itty-bitty sketches indicate a lack of confidence in the work. Be big and bold.

Design Research
When showing design research, it’s tempting to show photographs of people, particularly of people’s faces. This is irrelevant to someone judging your portfolio. Who are these people? Why are they relevant? What did you do with them? You could explain this in the accompanying text, but at that first glance, no one is likely to actually read that text. Instead of pictures of people, show imagery that includes insightful evidence of workflow, artifact, or space problems – and circle and annotate the important part of the image, so it’s super obvious.

When I review DR portfolios, I care less about your ability to plan and execute design research, and more about your ability to synthesize and make meaning out of the data you found. This means showing diagrams, insights, quotes, and other things that led you to big, important takeaways for design.

Taking pictures of post-it notes is really fun. I do it a lot. But showing pictures of people moving post-it notes around in your portfolio isn’t interesting and doesn’t add any value to your story. Showing pictures of post-it notes themselves isn’t that interesting, either.

There’s an expectation that someone getting a design research job knows how to conduct standard design research. If you’ve done something particularly unique, emphasize it. Did you join the girl scouts to understand teenage girls? Get a job at a grocery store to understand the supply-chain process? Work through co-design activities at a retirement home? Show the unique stuff.

Visual Design
A strong visual design portfolio shows a breadth of platform expertise. This includes designs for web, various mobile platforms, television, print, packaging, motion, and so-on; it illustrates that a consultant can work on a broad array of billing programs.

Show exploratory process. While the final artifact is nice to see, it’s also useful to see how you arrived there. Did you pick a direction on day one, or explore multiple styles over time?

Try to show that you can both take an existing brand language and extend it, and create a new language from scratch. If you never did these things in school, assign yourself a project and do them yourself.

Include both conceptual (blue-sky, experimental) and pragmatic (utilitarian, transactional), because if you can do both, you’ll be in huge demand.

Interaction and Service Design
An interaction and service design portfolio seems nebulous, because these ideas are so big and broad. But while the discipline is huge, the job you are likely applying for is much smaller in scale, scope, and expectation. Research and identify the discrete skills that a particular job expects, and be sure to illustrate competency in these skills. This probably means showing:

  • The ability to produce scenarios and storyboards, showing people in a context using a designed artifact
  • The ability to describe software using wireframes, comps, and interactive prototypes
  • The ability to sketch interfaces, rapidly, in an exploratory manner
  • The ability to use diagrams to sketch complex systems
  • The ability to create a visual map showing how a service extends across touchpoints

Don’t use lorum ipsem, ever, for anything. Include real content in all of the work you show, illustrating that you understand the vocabulary and contextual cues of a particular discipline

Think through all interactions in a given context, even if you don’t intend to show those. Just because you emphasize a particular linear path through an interface or service, there are other things that a user can do at any given stage. By showing these in your work, you indicate to a reviewer that you are thinking comprehensively about a system.

Include an exhaustive level of detail in screen designs. Try to make your work look as real as possible, by including contextual clues (browser chrome, a sketch of a kiosk surrounding a touchscreen, a user’s hand on a mobile phone), detailed form design for controls and inputs, sketched illustrations of framing imagery (rather than big square empty placeholder boxes), etc.

If you can create working or quasi-working digital prototypes, do it – this is a great way of showing you really consider how interactions should feel over time. But if you include these on a website, make sure they work, and make sure it’s clear what features and functions are prototyped and which aren’t functioning. Give the reviewer a clear path through your UI.


I hope this is a helpful overview of things I would look for in reviewing portfolios. Keep in mind that my intent was to fill specific roles at a specific consultancy, which had extremely specific needs related to the core business, resourcing, utilization, and so-on. A different business will look for different things. Good luck :-)


You might also enjoy reading 7 Steps to a Kick-Ass UX Portfolio, by Will Evans or Five Steps to a Better Design Portfolio, by Jeff Veen.

Fun with Guerrilla User Testing

This week I searched all over Austin for people to test the user interface of my smartphone app, Leafy Compass. I had them navigate through sketches of the app to perform the following functions: search for local fruit, input their shopping list, and take a photo of a local fruit. Then I had them state the number of problems they encountered with the app. I interviewed seven different people and adjusted the sketches according to the feedback I received. Here is a video of the final test (with the technical issues that my laptop experienced edited out):

The user testing went fairly smoothly but there is lots of room for improvement. In my next user tests I would make the following changes:

  • I would stop leading the subject and not give them any confirmation before they have made a decision
  • I would create a more specific set of criteria for them to review my app than “how many issues did you have?”
  • I should triple-check my laptop for potential technical issues