Designing a Creative Practice

Growth doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of intentional effort and consistent progress. You must define how you want to grow, then establish a plan to help you get there. —Todd Henry

For much of my life, I’ve taken a pretty haphazard attitude towards my own creativity. And while I’ve been mostly successful, I have long periods of creative block, as well as professional goals that have idled. I look back at envy at some of the most creatively-fertile periods of my life (2007-8 in particular) and I’ve realized there were activities I did every day that I should probably resume.

At the same time, for the last few months, I’ve been reading a number of books on creativity and forming creative habits. While many of these books have different, specific pieces of advice, I’ve collected the themes into a course of action for myself.

Block off time for creativity. This is obvious. You can’t expect projects to just happen; you have to make time for them. And it’s better to have a consistent small block of time every day than to expect large chunks of time at some future date (which almost never seems to happen). This is how I wrote my books: small bits every day, early in the morning. It’s how I should structure my other projects as well. From now on, every morning from 6-7:30 is creativity time. I’ve also blocked out one morning a week—on my work calendar!—for work-related (article) writing.

Start with a ritual. You need to get yourself into a creative state—even when you don’t feel like being in one. This is where ritual comes in. “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way,” writes Twyla Tharp. For me, the ritual is a cup of tea and Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

Work space. When I’ve written books in the past, it always has to be at particular place, which has (oddly) moved around my house with each book. I’m going to attempt to reclaim my (disused) desk and make it not just a place for dropping bills and other semi-garbage. It should be a place to summon ideas—and act on them.

Keep a list of Big Questions. It’s easy to lose track of what you’re supposed to be thinking about and working on, especially since my working days as a creative director are often chaotic and fragmented. Having a list of the top three things my subconscious should be mulling on is important as a centering tool. And phrasing them in the form of a question helps the mind work on answering them in the background. “When we phrase our objectives simply and in the form of a question, we lead our minds directly to solving the problem,” writes Todd Henry. I have a small whiteboard at home (it used to be my daughter’s toy) next to my desk where these questions can go.

Take walks.* Movement helps the body relax and the subconscious work. Too often I stare at my computer screen or flip through social media when I should just get up and walk around the block. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman noted, “Almost every dimension of cognition improves from thirty minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception.”

Fill the well. Advises Austin Kleon, “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” I’m going to make an effort to see more art, starting with buying a membership to my local museum, the De Young. I’m also going to expand my non-fiction reading to more general interest, biography, and other topics removed from design. I’m also going to increase my fiction reading. I used to walk down Haight Street in the early mornings, before the crowds came, and just look in the windows. Seeing new things can trigger new connections.

Record what you observe, then review it. I’ll be keeping two notebooks: one physical, one digital. The digital one (in Evernote) is for capturing anything I read online. The physical one will be for writing/sketching fragments of ideas, what Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.”

Without the little ideas, there are no big ideas. Scratching is what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you…Remember this when you’re struggling for a big idea. You’re much better off scratching for a small one.

When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Musicians know this because compositions rarely come to them whole and complete. They call their morsels of inspiration lines or riffs or hooks or licks. That’s what they look for when they scratch for an idea.

The physical notebook (dotted paper from Muji, if you’re interested in that sort of detail) is for scratching.

Because it’s not enough just to gather, on Saturday mornings (usually my longest working period), I’ll review and reflect on what I’ve read/seen/gathered that week.

Turn off the stream. Your mind needs time to work and process. I often find myself aimlessly going from Facebook to email to Twitter to RSS and repeat. When I catch myself doing that, I know it’s time to unplug (and maybe take a walk). Being bored and staring off into space is fine. Allowing your mind to wander allows ideas to enter. I’m not going to pull out my phone immediately while waiting in line either. “As we tune in to our devices during every moment of transition, we are letting the incredible potential of serendipity pass us by,” says Scott Belsky.

Rest. Related to turning off the stream is just switching off for longer periods. In addition to my (hopefully now) annual Screens Sabbatical on the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’ll be doing a weekly Screens Shabbat from noon on Saturday until sunrise on Sunday. “The idea is that one day a week, you need to get your mind in a different mode, you need to not work. Every week, your brain—and your soul—needs to be reset,” writes Tiffany Shlain.

Meditate.* I hate even using the word meditate. It sounds so San Francisco. For me, this is simply sitting quietly for a few minutes, not doing anything. This is very difficult for me.

Have a hobby.* I haven’t seriously played the cello in almost five years now. That needs to change. I miss it. Kleon: “It’s so important to have a hobby. A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.”

If you want your life to be different, you have to try something different. I hope that by taking these steps, I’ll move outside my comfort zone into a more fulfilling, productive, creative space. I’ll let you know how it goes. Although hopefully, the fruits will be self-evident.

* It’s very easy to find good advice, but very hard to take it. For some of these activities, I’m going to be using Stephen Guise’s “mini habits” to help me out. Mini habits are those that are designed to be too easy not to do, and lead to making it easy to form a habit. For me, this is doing (daily) one minute of walking, one minute of sitting quietly, and tuning my cello.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
I recommend all the books on this list, but especially The Creative Habit, The Accidental Creative, and Steal Like an Artist.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp
The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry
Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
Manage Your Day-to-Day, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, Todd Henry
Maximize Your Potential, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise
Do the Work, Steven Pressfield
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson
Creative Something blog

My Favorite Design Articles 2013

Five Ways to Prevent Bad Microcopy, Bill Beard

“We can fix that with copy.” I’ve heard this too many times when the UX falls short, and I hate it. If there’s a problem with the design, then fix the design. The best experiences have minimal copy because they’re intuitive. When designing the UX and you find yourself writing a sentence or two to help the user take an action, step back.

The First 15 Seconds: How Great Products Thrive, Scott Belsky

It is fair to say that meaningful engagement—with other people and with products and services (especially the internet kind) that could potentially change our lives—occurs only when we’re pulled past the initial bout of laziness, vanity, and selfishness that accompanies any new experience.

What Data Can’t Do, David Brooks

Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

Deep Inside Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco, Austin Carr

Like any serious renovation, Taco Bell’s started with a trip to Home Depot. It was April 2009. To show executives how the companies could fuse the flavor of Doritos with taco shells, the dev teams “basically went out to Home Depot to buy a paint-spray gun, and then sprayed [Doritos] flavoring onto our existing yellow corn tacos,” recalls Creed, with a chuckle. “It was pretty funny watching people from behind glass spraying our tacos with a paint gun. But it was enough for us to know conceptually that we had a big idea.”

You Lookin’ At Me? Reflections on Google Glass, Jan Chipchase

Glass is Google’s unintentional public service announcement on the future of privacy. Our traditional bogeyman for privacy was Big Brother and its physical manifestation — closed-circuit TV — but the reality today is closer to what I call Little Sister, and she is socially active, curious, sufficiently tech-savvy, growing up in the land of “free,” getting on with life and creating a digital exhaust that is there for the taking. The sustained conversation around Glass will be sufficient to lead to a societal shift in how we think about the ownership of data, and to extrapolate a bit, the kind of cities we want to live in. For me, the argument that Glass is somehow inherently nefarious misses a more interesting point: It is a physical and obvious manifestation of things that already exist and are widely deployed today, whose lack of physical, obvious presence has limited a mainstream critical discourse.

Three Ways to Make Wearable Tech Actually Wearable, Jennifer Darmour

Today’s wearable technology products are mainly in the fitness space, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Wearable tech will start permeating many other domains, including medical, entertainment, security, financial, and more. The more pervasive it becomes, the more important it is to advocate for products that are beautiful, peripheral, and meaningful. Only then will wearable technology achieve its full potential to enhance our lives, rather than disrupt, disconnect, and distract us.

The Future Mundane, Nick Foster

We often assume that the world of today would stun a visitor from fifty years ago. In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it.

Nearly a Decade Later, the Autocomplete Origin Story: Kevin Gibbs and Google Suggest, Liz Gannes

Since the feature would be actively showing results before someone had finished a query, there was a huge risk of Google putting forth something that offended people — even if it was the most likely result algorithmically. That meant many hard and strange decisions, Gibbs recalled, about terms like “hooters,” which could mean owls or the restaurant or boobs; and “lesbian sex,” which on its own is descriptive, but when followed by words like “video” is perhaps not appropriate for all eyes. (In the second case, he didn’t remove the root search, but blocked some derivations.) For many letters of the alphabet, the most commonly searched word was something related to porn.

All Technology is Assistive Technology, Sara Hendren

Instead of labeling some technologies and not others as assistive, let’s start like this: We’re all getting all kinds of help from the things we make. All kinds of help, all the time, for our many material and social and educational and political needs. Private needs and public ones. No one is exempt. Then the questions get really interesting: What can a body do? What needs are you interested in? Who might use which thing for what? Where might the surprises be? How might a familiar thing morph into something else altogether?

How Robots Can Trick You Into Loving Them, Maggie Koerth-Baker

We’re hard-wired, in other words, to attribute states of mind to fellow beings — even dumb robots, provided they at least appear autonomous. But little things — how fast an agent is moving, whether it changes its movements in response to our own — can alter how we interpret what it’s thinking.

Can Siri go deaf, mute, and blind?, Kontra

What happens to Apple’s design advantage in an age of objects performing simple discreet tasks or “intuiting” and brokering our next command among themselves without the need for our touch or gaze? Indeed, what happens to UI design, in general, in an ocean of “interface-less” objects inter-networked ubiquitously?

Why good storytelling helps you design great products, Braden Kowitz

I’ve observed that teams often like to walk through UI designs as they would a blueprint – showing where each element belongs on the plan. Each screen shows how the product might look in a different situation, but the screens are not connected in any way. The problem is that when designs are presented this way, you’re only building an understanding of how the product looks. You’re not focusing on how the product works, and you’re not simulating how customers interact with it. So when teams critique designs as blueprints, it severely limits their ability to reason through the interactivity of the product.

Algorithmic Rape Jokes in the Library of Babel, Tim Maly

Generative programs are force multipliers. Small initial decisions can have massive consequences. The greater your reach, the greater your responsibility to manage your output. When Facebook makes an error that affects 0.1% of users, it means 1 million people got fucked up.

User Expertise Stagnates at Low Levels, Jakob Nielsen

People don’t read manuals. People don’t go exploring all over the user interface in search of neat features. People don’t investigate whether there’s a better way of doing something once they’ve learned an approach that works…Learning is hard work, and users don’t want to do it. That’s why they learn as little as possible about your design and then stay at a low level of expertise for years. The learning curve flattens quickly and barely moves thereafter.

Great Design Always Means Great Style, Don Norman

There are many dimensions to great design, but great style is certainly among the most important. Style in appearance, style in behavior, style in the manner of interaction – style in every aspect of the product or service. Great style requires careful deliberate specification and then attention to all the details that result, for everything must be coherent, everything must be consistent with the chosen style. Call it personality, call it the voice of the product, call it the persona of the product, call it what you will: great design always means great style.

42 Rules to Lead by the Man who Defined Google’s Product Strategy, Jonathan Rosenberg

“Back up your position with data. You don’t win arguments by saying ‘I think.’ You win by saying ‘Let me show you.’”

The simple reason products fail: Consumers don’t understand what they do, Jasper Sørensen

Innovations that are totally new to the market are often extremely difficult to describe. Things that are difficult to describe are hard to understand. And things that are hard for consumers and investors to understand typically face two outcomes: They are either ignored or devalued.

We listened to the people, not the problem, Joelle Steiniger

We want so badly to nail it for everyone. But there are always edge cases, special considerations, etc. And you’ll hear about them a lot because they tend to be a very vocal minority. But we have to remember that it’s not our job to please everyone.

Product Strategy Means Saying No, Des Traynor

Making features optional hides the complexity from the default screens in the interface, but it still surfaces everywhere else. The visible cost of this is a messy interface with lots of conditional design and heaps of configuration. The hidden cost is that every optional feature weakens your product definition. You become “A Time Tracker that can also send invoices and, sorta, do payment reconciliation, but not reporting, yet, I think, I don’t know.”

Related: My Favorite Design Articles from 2012 and 2011.

Sensory Interfaces (SI)

I’ve always hated the term Natural User Interface (NUI) to describe the collection of touch, voice, and gestural interfaces. I think we need a new, better term for them. There are reasons for this.

As Don Norman rightly points out, there is nothing natural about “natural” interfaces , other than that we’re using our bodies. (We also use our bodies to move mice and tap on keyboards.) There is nothing “natural” about manipulating objects under glass; nowhere in the natural world can I pinch to shrink. Nor can I make a gesture in space that touches nothing and have it affect something else nearby (aside from a human). Or use my voice to command real world objects to perform actions (other than dogs, perhaps). So-called “natural” interfaces are, like all interfaces, learned interfaces.

My second objection to NUI is that it’s traditionally a Microsoft term. I have nothing against Microsoft per se, but the proponents of the term NUI have been traditionally people from Microsoft, many of whom worked on Surface (the coffee-table-sized touchscreen device, not the current tablet). I have nothing against those folks, but I don’t want to be identified as one of them either.

My third objection is that it sounds dated, old-fashioned, and HCI-wonky. NUI doesn’t replace Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), so why harken back to GUI at all? Granted, it builds on GUIs, but the current methods of interfacing are a different paradigm of interacting with a digital device.

And what makes them different, yet binds all three (touch, voice, gesture) together? Sensors. All of them rely on sensors to power them. Yes, physical buttons can use sensors as well, but they can also be purely mechanical; you can’t recreate a touchpad, Kinect, or Siri without making use of sensors. The new means of interaction all rely on sensors to make them possible.

This is why I’m proposing Sensory Interfaces (SI) as a way of labeling this new cluster of sensor-powered interactions. SI (“ess-eye” or even “Sí!”) makes sens(or). It doesn’t make any claims towards naturalness; it doesn’t come with any one company’s baggage; and it’s pleasing. Sensory is close to sensual, or pleasing to the senses. Although it’s not meant for consumers, it’s easy to say and remember. It also has some precedents: a brief Google search reveals a few thousand mentions in mostly academic papers, so there’s already some traction there.

Ever since I wrote Designing Gestural Interfaces (on touch and freeform gestures) in 2008, I’ve struggled to find a good term for the types of interfaces we’re designing now that use touch, gesture, and voice as input methods. And so too, I think, has the industry. I think this’ll work. Give it a try.

NUI, no. SI, sí!

My Favorite Design Articles 2012

The Accidental History of the @ Symbol, William F. Allman

Tomlinson’s challenge was how to address a message created by one person and sent through Arpanet to someone at a different computer. The address needed an individual’s name, he reasoned, as well as the name of the computer, which might service many users. And the symbol separating those two address elements could not already be widely used in programs and operating systems, lest computers be confused.

Convenience, Julian Bleecker

The Corner Convenience is a vault containing the treasures of great, world-changing innovations throughout all histories. Truly. We should see our Corner Convenience as a living Neighborhood Museum of Innovation. Someone should enshrine these and teach the lesson to every secondary school student.

Why Things Fail: From Tires to Helicopter Blades, Everything Breaks Eventually, Robert Capps

Product failure is deceptively difficult to understand. It depends not just on how customers use a product but on the intrinsic properties of each part—what it’s made of and how those materials respond to wildly varying conditions. Estimating a product’s lifespan is an art that even the most sophisticated manufacturers still struggle with. And it’s getting harder. In our Moore’s law-driven age, we expect devices to continuously be getting smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more efficient. This thinking has seeped into our expectations about lots of product categories: Cars must get better gas mileage. Bicycles must get lighter. Washing machines need to get clothes cleaner with less water. Almost every industry is expected to make major advances every year. To do this they are constantly reaching for new materials and design techniques. All this is great for innovation, but it’s terrible for reliability.

Mission Transition, Mark Cossey

Transitions take us from one state to another all the time, many times a day in fact. Most of the time, these transitions feel completely invisible (as they should), and until they are taken away we don’t really know they are there. This article discusses transitions and how well-designed transitions can enhance the user’s experience by imparting a sense of control and easy navigation.

How to See The Future, Warren Ellis

Understand that our present time is the furthest thing from banality. Reality as we know it is exploding with novelty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to understand, before you start the day here, that the invisible thing in the room is the felt presence of living in future time, not in the years behind us.

To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come. To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better.

10 Timeframes, Paul Ford

We’re constantly switching accelerations; we’re jumping between time frames. That’s what we’re asking people to do every time we make something new, some new tool or product. We’re asking them to reset their understanding of time. To accept that the sequence we’re asking them to follow is the right way to do a thing.

Augmented Paper, Matt Gemmell

It’s so easy to saturate electronic representations of paper with what I call “digital artifice”; the gratuitous and ultimately heavy and objectionable skeuomorphisms and decorations that betray a simplistic thinking process: let’s just make this look the same. That’s a damaging frame of mind, because it enforces a false dichotomy between the real and the virtual. Software should be an enhancement, not a replication.

True Innovation, Jon Gertner

But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

Redefining Hick’s Law, Jason Gross

We can’t always eliminate all confusion for our busy, distracted users, but we can ease their pain by limiting the options that they have to mentally process. When we view chunks of content as decision-making points, it becomes clear just how much we ask of visitors. Each option is an opportunity to evaluate its importance in the design. Designers who force users to decide between only meaningful and clear options are the ones who deliver an effortless user experience. And when the experience is effortless, everyone wins.

In praise of lost time, Dan Hill

Facebook Timeline is not quite there. While Timeline really only remembers your activity in social media, and so just a tiny proportion of one’s existence, it is interesting for two reasons:

First, it is an exemplary bit of interaction design, balancing technical innovation and business strategy with a narrative sophistication appropriate to an attempt to trigger memory.

Second, Timeline hints at what it might mean to be immersed in systems that capture our every move, and which comprise an augmented memory that may significantly alter our sense of who we are and what we do.

21st Century Gestures Clip Art Collection, Dan Hill

For some years I’ve been collating a list in a text file, which has the banal filename “21st_century_gestures.txt”. These are a set of gestures, spatial patterns and physical, often bodily, interactions that seemed to me to be entirely novel. They all concern our interactions with The Network, and reflect how a particular Networked development, and its affordances, actually results in intriguing physical interactions. The intriguing aspect is that most of the gestures and movements here are undesigned, inadvertent, unintended, the accidental offcuts of design processes and technological development that are either forced upon the body, or adopted by bodies.

Gardens and Zoos, Matt Jones

This is near-future where the things around us start to display behaviour – acquiring motive and agency as they act and react to the context around them according to the software they have inside them, and increasingly the information they get from (and publish back to) the network.

In this near-future, it’s very hard to identify the ‘U’ in UI’ – that is, the User in User-Interface. It’s not so clear anymore what these things are. Tools… or something more.

Is Siri really Apple’s future?, Kontra

Our computing devices, however, are far more “self-aware” circa 2012. A mobile device, for instance, is considerably more capable of passive intelligence thanks to its GPS, cameras, microphone, radios, gyroscope, myriad other in-device sensors, and dozens of dedicated apps, from finance to games, that know about the user enough to dramatically reduce the number of unknowns…if only all these input and sensing data could somehow be integrated.

Siri’s opportunity here to win the hearts and minds of users is to change the rules of the game from relatively rigid, linear and largely decontextualized CLI search towards a much more humane approach where the user declares his intent but doesn’t have to tell Siri how do it every step of the way.

The best interface is no interface, Golden Krishna

It’s time for us to move beyond screen-based thinking. Because when we think in screens, we design based upon a model that is inherently unnatural, inhumane, and has diminishing returns. It requires a great deal of talent, money and time to make these systems somewhat usable, and after all that effort, the software can sadly, only truly improve with a major overhaul.

The Ups and Downs of Making Elevators Go, Kate Linebaugh

At their core, elevators are a mode of transportation. Serving passengers well is constrained by the number of elevators, their speed, how fast their doors open and close, and how many people can fit in a car. In the U.S., these factors come together 18 billion times a year, each time a passenger rides an elevator.

That experience is at the heart of what Ms. Christy does. From her sparse second-floor office in a leafy office park in Farmington, Conn., she writes strings of code that allow elevators to do essentially the greatest good for the most people—including the building’s owner, who has to allocate considerable space for the concrete shafts that house the cars. Her work often involves watching computer simulation programs that replay elevator decision-making.

The Digital-Physical: On building Flipboard for iPhone and Finding Edges for Our Digital Narratives, Craig Mod

Abstractly, you can think about going from digital to physical as going from boundless to bounded. A space without implicit edges to one composed entirely of edges.

Welcome to the Future Nauseous, Venkatesh Rao

We live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak. To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

Creating the Windows 8 user experience, Steven Sinofsky

We created standardized ways of doing common tasks: with touch, you swipe in from the edges to reveal commands. With a mouse, you move to the corners. The lower-left corner of the screen takes you to Start, no matter where you are. Right-click always reveals off-screen commands for the app you’re using. Within apps, Settings and Search and Share are always in the same location (the charms), no matter what app you are using. There is real value to having the consistent aspects of apps always work the same way. Yes, you do have to learn a few simple things up front, but once you know them, you know how to use the entire system.

Atari Teenage Riot: The Inside Story Of Pong And The Video Game Industry’s Big Bang, Chris Stokel-Walker

“Anyone could play,” Alcorn says. “You didn’t have to know physics or space flight or anything. Pong was designed so you could participate in athletics while maintaining a firm grip on a can of beer. You could literally pick up a girl, drink a beer, and play a video game at the same time. It was wonderful.”

Are Design Patterns an Anti-Pattern?, Stephen Turbek

Patterns, once literally a design on paper that could be copied, in UX are an abstract idea that professionals can reference. You can not copy a UX pattern, like you can copy a sewing pattern. Having someone read a pattern library will not make them a competent user experience designer. It would be akin to teaching writing by reading the dictionary – the “why”s are not answered.

GE’s New Emphasis In Appliances: Sound Design, Kyle Vanhemert

The way a product looks and feels goes a long way to telling its story–conveying what it’s meant to do and who it’s meant to do it for. But sound, too, can play that role. So it’s hardly surprising that companies like GE are putting more thought into designing the acoustic identities of their products as much as the visual ones. “You can touch, taste, smell, hear, and feel things,” Bingham says. “Besides paying as much attention as we have to the visual portion of it, we’re looking to round that out with the auditory portion.”

See also my picks for 2011 and 2010.

What is a Microinteraction?

I’ve been asked What’s a Microinteraction? a few times lately, so here’s a brief excerpt from the draft of the first chapter of my new book, Microinteractions.

Microinteractions are contained product moments that revolve around a single use case. In other words, microinteractions have one main task. Every time you change a setting, sync your data or devices, set an alarm, pick a password, log in, set a status message, or favorite or “like” something, you are engaging with a microinteraction.

…Even though we’re surrounded by microinteractions every day, we don’t usually notice them until something goes horribly wrong…but microinteractions are, despite their small size and near-invisibility, incredibly important. The difference between a product you love and a product you tolerate is often the microinteractions you have with it.

Microinteractions are the details of a product, and details, as Charles Eames famously said, aren’t just the details; they are the design. Details can make make engaging with the product easier, more pleasurable—even if we don’t remember them. Some microinteractions are practically or literally invisible, and few are the feature that you buy a product for (although many apps and devices are created around a single microinteraction; see Chapter X); instead, they are usually pieces of features, or the supporting or so-called “hygiene” features. For example, no one buys a mobile phone for the mute feature, but as we’ve seen, mute can create all sorts of experiences—for good and bad.

Think about it: Almost all operating systems, be they mobile or desktop, do basically the same things: install and launch applications, manage files, connect software to hardware, manage open applications/windows, etc. But the difference between operating systems—at least from a user’s perspective—are the microinteractions you have with it on a daily, even hourly, basis.

New Book: Microinteractions

I’m very pleased to announce that I have a new O’Reilly book coming out in May 2013 called Microinteractions: Detail-driven Product Design. What’s it about and what are microinteractions? Well, I’ll tell you.

“The details are not the details. They make the design.” Charles Eames

The difference between a good product and a great one are its details: the microinteractions that make up the small moments inside and around features. How do you turn mute on? How do you know you have a new email message? How can you change a setting? All these little moments—which are typically not on any feature list and often ignored—can change a product from one that is tolerated to one that’s beloved. They are the feel part of “look and feel.”

The book provides a new way of thinking about designing digital products: as a series of microinteractions that are essential to bringing personality and delight to applications and devices.

Microinteractions are single- or few-use-case engagements that are either on the edge of a product or contained within a bigger feature. You engage with microinteractions every time you log in, pick a password, favorite or like an item, or set a status message.

Microinteractions are made up of five parts: triggers, controls and affordances, the interaction rules, feedback, and states/modes/loops. Each part gets its own chapter, as does the overall Microinteractions Model.

Now all that’s left to do is write it!

The website is going up soon, and it’ll eventually contain excerpts and book news. Stay tuned.

FOO Camp 2012 Report

After many years of enviously watching friends attend, I was thrilled to be invited to FOO Camp this year. In case you don’t know what that is: FOO stands for Friends Of O’Reilly, and it’s an annual, invite-only “unconference” of ~300 technologists, designers, scientists, journalists, writers, and others at the O’Reilly Media compound in Sebastopol, California. The list of attendees every year is impressive and intimidating, and as soon as I was invited I began stressing about what I would talk about and whether I’d be in completely over my head. (Talking to other first-time attendees, which make up about 50% of every FOO Camp, this is a very common experience.)

FOO Camp is also about camping: you bring a tent or a sleeping bag and camp on the lawn or inside the O’Reilly offices (!). I brought my gear and camped on the lawn. The camping also made it all have an air of informality, which helped lower the intimidation factor.

The “un-” part of the conference means that none of the content is programmed before people arrive. You show up and sign up for a slot to speak about something that interests you or to demo something you’re working on. I came with one idea, but abandoned it to do another (How To Get Your Project Mojo Back, which I’ll detail in another post). The unconference format also means Powerpoints are discouraged, so you are leading or participating in a conversation, often with very brilliant, opinionated people. Getting a point in can be a challenge, as can getting people who are used to being the Smartest Person in The Room to keep quiet and let others talk. The loose, unconference-style made for some failed sessions, but also some great ones. I’d love to see one of the big design conferences try it.

At any given point, twelve (maybe more?) sessions can be going on, so it can be hard to choose among them. (It’s pretty unlikely anyone’s schedule looked the same.) Here’s what I ended up going to, and this was I’m sure in no way typical, although it does hint at the breadth of sessions:

  • Medieval Manuscripts
  • The Future of Memory
  • Cloud Robotics
  • Toys as Tools for Empathy
  • Massive Sensor Data
  • Physical Artifacts in Digital Media
  • New UIs for Making Things
  • What Are You Reading?
  • Stop Drawing Dead Fish

A lot of the conference takes place outside the sessions, with discussions going on until late at night. (I got about 4 hours of sleep each night.) It’s not unusual to find yourself (as I did) at breakfast with a tech titan or to meet your childhood hero (in my case this was Steven Levy, author of Hackers, one of the books that got me interested in computers in 1984.)

There were a few major themes that kept emerging for me. The importance of thresholds was one, especially understanding when there are hidden thresholds that cause something (data, feedback, understanding, emotion, technology) to act unlike it did previously. A return to physicality was a third: how can we make objects reflect the content/data they contain? And objects helping other objects was another. What data can other objects via an Industrial Internet pass along to other objects to make them work better?

I returned with a head-full of ideas. I likened my brain to the Big Dog robot that had been kicked but was trying to right itself and keep moving. But it was an amazing experience, one I hope to have again another year. Thanks to O’Reilly for having me!

Designing Devices: The eBook

I’ve collected and revised the essays I wrote on the Designing Devices is available now from Amazon, for the low low price of $3.99 USD or €3.

Reviews from Twitter

“Designing Devices is great.” —Ben Bashford

“Dan Saffer’s short book on designing devices is very worth reading, even if you’re not actually designing devices.” —Basil Safwat

“Designing Devices is a great read. Highlights device design challenges and how to work through ’em.” —Karen Kaushansky

Buy Designing Devices on Amazon

My Favorite Design Articles 2011

The best articles on design or the design field I came across in 2011 (in alphabetical order by author):

Blessed are the Toymakers, Tom Armitage

The best toys have hidden depths. The best toys are all super-simple on the surface; super-obvious. They let you know exactly what you ought to try doing with them. But as you explore them, you discover they have hidden depths. And: hidden affordances. Spaces for imagination to rush in. Toys allow you to play games, inventing rules that make the toy more fun, not less. Toys allow you to tell the stories you imagine, not that are baked into them.

From Snarky Truth to Reasoned Explanation, Faruk Ateş

You want to know how to get more women and minority members in your field of work? Stop fighting and arguing against people who are asking for more women and minority members to be recognized. It is precisely these fighting efforts ones that make those groups feel unwelcome.

Emoticomp, Ben Bashford

Interaction designers are used to using personas (research based user archetypes) to describe the types of people that will use the thing they’re designing – their background, their needs and the like but I’m not sure if we’ve ever really explored the use of personas or character documentation to describe the product themselves. What does the object want? How does it feel about it? If it can sense its location and conditions how could that affect its behaviour? This kind of thing could be incredibly powerful and would allow us to develop principles for creating the finer details of the object’s behaviour.

Requirements-Driven Software Development Must Die, Fred Beecher

Requirements-driven software development fails mainly due to communication issues. Huge spreadsheets of detailed requirements, by themselves, are simply not an effective way to convey what an interactive system needs to do and how users need it to work. What does work, however, is validating those requirements with an interactive prototype.

7 Things Michael Bierut Loves About Design, Michael Bierut via Helen Walters

Asked to create a logo for the Frank Gehry building, Bierut came up with a series of solutions that the client absolutely hated. Having presented one idea, he recalled, “they were supposed to see it and ask ‘how can we thank you?’ Instead the question was ‘is this supposed to make us feel nauseous?” In the end, the company founder Michael Tilson Thomas sent a series of his own scrawled ideas. Usually a cue for designers to feel uppity and upset that a client is trading on their toes, Bierut welcomed the input, and used it to come up with the final (gorgeous) solution.

Seven Things Designers Can Learn from Stand Up Comics, Michael Bierut

Good comedians experiment constantly. Every time they test a new joke, they risk bombing. That’s why they’ll try out new material in smaller venues, polishing pieces in front of live audiences: they need to hear what’s working and what’s not working. Seinfeld admits that when he was starting out, “I was hitting 500. I would have a good show and a bad show, a good show and a bad show.” His very first show was bad. “But success wasn’t my objective.” He was desperate to simply be on stage, and was willing to risk failure every other night to get there. Designers take risks for the same reasons. Trying something new means not being sure of the outcome. But it’s the only way that anyone working in a creative field can hope to make progress. Ambition is a strong enough antidote to fear. Louis C.K. remembers how he idolized good comics: “I wanted to be one of them, and I didn’t care if I sucked at it.”

What The Telephone’s Unbeatable Functionality Teaches Us About Innovation, Stefan Boublil

Design has become almost useless to mankind since so few people pursue single-mindedness as a foundational purpose, but would rather purposelessly chase multi-functionalism down a dark and long tunnel that may well lead to magazine covers, but to little else.

How to Lead Clever People, Karen Christiansen and Rob Goffee

You touched on the fact that unlike artists or musicians—who can thrive on their own—clevers actually need organizations to thrive. Why is that?
Typically, they need to work with other clevers in order to generate new products and knowledge. In many cases they are actually motivated by working with others who may be even cleverer than they are. We talk about Google in the book. I went to visit some of the people there at the headquarters in California. Not surprisingly, they are hiring the brightest postdoctoral students and researchers in the world; that’s who gets to work at Google. And guess what the first thing they notice when they arrive is? ‘Everyone here is cleverer than me!’ This is motivating for them, because clevers thrive when they feel surrounded by people just the same or even cleverer. That’s one of the reasons they need organizations. There are also more pragmatic reasons: they also need resources and they need organizations as a platform to achieve recognition.

Convergence 2.0 = Service + Social + Physical, Hugh Dubberly

Convergence 2.0 recognizes that interactive multimedia exist within a networked world and depend on networked services. It recognizes that most services have a social component. And it recognizes that people are rooted in the physical world and networks are increasingly connected to things. Convergence 2.0 integrates interactive multimedia with internet-based services, social networks, and the physical world.

Fundamental Design Truths, Uday Gajendar

Every design involves compromises, trade-offs, constraints : This is just a hard fact of design practice, period. You can’t get everything 100% due to the social and political complexities of…working with people 🙂 The pragmatics of any design problem require understanding of and wrestling with constraints (technical, commercial, social, etc.), negotiating various trade-offs (since no design is perfect, see above) which then forces critical debates about what is most important (prioritizing content, functionality, features, so forth) to the product & user & business. This debate is what should lead to a well-guided strategy adapted over time. The ability to artfully compromise to achieve goals for all stakeholders is at the heart of any design.

Copycats, Matt Gemmell

The issue is that real design jobs aren’t about creating something absolutely new—instead, they’re about innovation. The etymology of the word ‘innovation’ means something like “renewing”, or changing an existing thing by adding something new or doing something differently. Not a clean-cut, start-from-scratch scenario – that’s not what innovation is, and that’s why it’s hard.

Hand waving and the “real work” of design, Elizabeth Goodman

“Hand waving” is a pretty apt description of what interaction designers do with clients. Typically, those meetings are intended to review the course of the project and decide what to do next. These decisions are generally based on representations of the planned future system, such as wireframes, visual comps, flows, site maps, paper sketches, etc. The problem is that there’s an inevitable gap between representations of what is to be built and the experience of the finished product. This is most obvious when you think about the difference between static wireframes and interactive systems. But the problem lies deeper. If you see the goal of interaction design as supporting human goals and activities through various interactions between humans and machines, then even a clickable prototype will not match the experience of the live system. Imagine Amazon without the recommendations, or World of Warcraft without the thousands of players per server. Hand waving—ie, a combination of verbal explanations and evocative body movements—is a way to bridge that gap between intermediate representations and the experience of the built system. Hand waving supplements visual representations in order to make up for what they lack – interactivity, movement, emotionality, etc.

Minimal Viable Personality, Grimlock

PERSONALITY IS API FOR LOYALTY. NO ONE CARE WHICH BORING STRANGER IS NEXT. BUT ALWAYS WANT FRIEND NEXT.

Portable Cathedrals, Dan Hill

Each mobile phone handset is not a mere product, perhaps like the other products that have traditionally adorned the pages of this magazine—as a chair is, or a lighting fixture is. Instead, each handset is a play in a wider global contest, a node in logistics networks of immense scale and complexity, a platform for an ecosystem of applications, an exemplar of the internet of things, a window onto the daily interactions of billions of users, of their ever-changing personalities and cultures, a product that consumers traditionally consider the most important in their possession, after the keys to their home.

The phone is an intimate device, not simply through its ubiquity and connectivity, its relationship with the body. While objects have long been cultural choices and symbolic goods, the mobile phone, being the most personal connection to the internet, is a device for generating symbolic goods, a vehicle for culture, a proxy for the owner’s identities. It is vast business and cultural phenomenon, all at once.

The Robot-readable World, Matt Jones

Computer vision is a deep, dark specialism with strange opportunities and constraints. The signals that we design towards robots might be both simpler and more sophisticated than QR codes or other 2d barcodes.

How Print Design is the Future of Interaction, Mike Kruzeniski

The literal analog affordance is no longer necessary, and yet, it’s the default path that so many interactive experiences follow. We don’t need to make an eBook look like a book for people to understand how to use it. The book isn’t the cover and binding, it’s the images and the text that make the story. Similarly, a movie doesn’t need to look like a DVD on a shelf to understand that it belongs to a collection, and an audio mixer doesn’t require cables and knobs to be capable as a tool, and a Notebook does not require leather and a spiral bind to be familiar. In the early days of interaction design when software concepts were best explained through heavy handed metaphors, the familiarity of these objects and textures was appropriate. However, the rendering of artifacts has outlived its usefulness as the definitive approach to UI design. As Designers we should be critiquing it for what it often is: shallow, meaningless, and often distracting from the information it surrounds.

Checklist Thinking for UX Professionals, Greg Laugero

Key to success is public visibility of the connections among deliverables. For instance, when showing page flows, start by showing the user stories as a setup for the flows. Or if you are developing user stories, start by reminding everyone of the personas and scenarios. This ensures you have the best chance of making sure the next deliverable is as complete as possible. You also can more readily identify new scenarios, requirements, and user stories without feeling defensive, or like you missed something. If you’re doing this right, you should start to hear your clients say, “This sounds like a new user story!” when new functionality inevitably comes up.

Why Angry Birds is So Successful and Popular: a cognitive teardown of the user experience, Charles L. Mauro

What makes a user interface engaging is adding more detail to the user’s mental model at just the right time. Angry Birds’ simple interaction model is easy to learn because it allows the user to quickly develop a mental model of the game’s interaction methodology, core strategy and scoring processes. It is engaging, in fact addictive, due to the carefully scripted expansion of the user’s mental model of the strategy component and incremental increases in problem/solution methodology. These little birds are packed with clever behaviors that expand the user’s mental model at just the point when game-level complexity is increased. The process of creating simple, engaging interaction models turns out to be exceedingly complex. Most groups developing software today think expansion of the user’s mental model is for the birds. Not necessarily so.

How to Pick the Right Clients, Mike Monteiro

Over the years the one constant that we’ve been able to rely on is that how a potential client behaves in the business development process is EXACTLY how they will behave during the project. Trust your gut. If they’re slow to return your calls now, while they’re trying to engage you, they’ll be just as slow later. If gathering requirements or success metrics is hard, then gathering feedback will be just as hard, if not harder. If biz dev turns into a May Day parade of red flags then disengage. You will not be able to do good work, and neither you nor the client will be well-served.

The A-B-C of Behavior, Jodie Moule

We all seem to be talking about changing behaviour through good design…but changing behaviour is actually really hard. Working as a psychologist in a detox unit at the start of my career has admittedly shaped my view of what it takes to change someone’s behaviour; and whilst I learnt it certainly isn’t impossible, it often takes time. Combine this with the fact that most human behaviour is not considered to be overly planned, with ‘conscious thought’ playing, at best, a small role in shaping our choices…things start to become a little tricky for us as designers. So how do we start to make sense of what influences someone to change their behaviour, given we are often charged with creating designs that are ultimately intended to encourage, if not drive, some form of behaviour change?

Act First, Do the Research Later, Don Norman

Today we teach the importance of doing design research first, then going through a period of ideation, prototyping and iterative refinement. Lots of us like this method. I do. I teach it. But this makes no sense when practical reality dictates that we do otherwise. If there is never enough time to start with research, then why do we preach such an impractical method? We need to adjust our methods to reality, not to some highfalutin, elegant theory that only applies in the perfect world of academic dreams. We should develop alternative strategies for design.

Post-rationalization is An Innovator’s Best Friend, Adam Richardson

It is one thing to have the idea, quite another to understand its possibilities and implications. Some lightning bolt inspirations are indeed junk, but some of them really strike at something valuable. It’s just not always clear what that value is.

The Metaphor of The System, David Sherwin

The holy grail for any product or service designer is to be able to elegantly describe the metaphor of the system, then prove it out through usage scenarios. In some design presentations, it can take a single word or phrase to eloquently connect key moments in a system’s information architecture, interaction design, and visual design. When you encounter a system design with a compelling, unifying interaction metaphor, you can often detect that metaphor through the “iceberg tips” of wireframes, prototypes, or animatics. And when users interact with the system in testing, they often react to how those details weave together into a (hopefully) cohesive whole.

Bless The Toolmakers, Robin Sloan

So I wish more people were making tools for a specific creative purpose rather than for general consumer adoption. I wish more people were making tools that very intentionally do not scale—tools with users by the dozen. Tools you experience not through a web signup form, but through pathbreaking creative work.

I guess I want fewer aspirational Apples and more Pixar wannabes.

Creating Great Design Principles: 6 Counter-intuitive Tests, Jared Spool

Great design principles help designers learn more about their design and make critical decisions about what they’re building.

The Ten Principles of Interaction Design, Chad Vavra

To steal a metaphor from E.L. Doctorow, “[Interaction Design] is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can still get to your destination”. When a task seems too big, start by picking two things, like a page and a button. Establish their relationship and interaction. Once that is done, pick something else that relates and keep going. Everything will come together thanks to the brain’s natural ability to spatially model the world.

A Brief Rant on The Future of Interaction Design, Bret Victor

Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It’s a Novocaine drip to the wrist. It denies our hands what they do best. And yet, it’s the star player in every Vision Of The Future.

How Much Design is Too Much Design?, Khoi Vinh

If you look across the digital landscape, the most exquisitely designed user interfaces and the most comprehensively designed user experiences are rarely the most successful. On the other hand, the most successful network products make good use of design but are usually not high watermarks for design execution. Flickr and Facebook, to name two, are both very well-designed but employ only just enough in the way of intricately polished user interface elements and highly controlled layouts to succeed, and stop short of over-managing their details. Products like these are savvy enough to allow sufficient room for a user to live within them, to flex his or her muscles and breathe freely within the product’s architecture. They’re also the result of considerable iteration and improvisation, and sometimes they show that fact almost baldly in their patchwork agglomeration of mismatched features. No one would call them beautiful but they work phenomenally well and users love them.

You Are What You Eat, Trent Walton

Eat one meal, then another, and over time that stuff becomes who we are. It’s used to heal skinned knees, grow fingernails, and rebuild tired muscles. I find that thinking of work in a similar fashion can be used to one’s advantage. When a job is done, we’re left with experience, new skills, and a sharpened perception. Do work that you enjoy so you can be good at what you love.

Our Jobs in Cyberspace: Craft Vocabulary vs. Storytelling, Jeffrey Zeldman

But the longer we practice, the more intuitive our work becomes. And as it becomes more intuitive, it disconnects further and further from language and constructs.

Any other article that should be on the 2011 list? Note it in the comments!

N.B.: Either women should write more about design, or I should be reading more of their writing. Woefully under-represented on this list. Who should I be reading?

Related: See my 2010 picks

In Praise of “Moving Stuff Around”

I was on my fifth revision of a search screen. (In my defense, it was a complicated search, with lots of variables.) The client said to me, in what might be my favorite comment of all time, “But you’re just moving stuff around!” Yes, I admitted rather sheepishly at the time, I was doing just that.

After the meeting ended, I realized I had no need to feel embarrassed. “Moving stuff around” is a lot of what design does: providing structure, hierarchy, and cues for understanding via positioning. But without justification and explanation, it can look like just fiddling.

I remembered this anecdote when I saw this 1972 interview with the legendary Charles Eames, in which he offers up his definition of design as:

A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose. [emphasis mine]

If Charles Eames can put arranging elements aka “moving stuff around” as the core activity of design, then so can I. There is a value in putting objects such as controls into an understandable configuration. This is, in fact, the exact service many designers provide. Embrace it.