Notes from Tufte Advanced Course

I recently attended this all-day event led by Edward Tufte. However, unlike the usual seminar with Tufte sermonizing the scholastic principles of information design (with a free book set for attendees), this event featured three other speakers beyond Tufte, who simply spoke at the very end! Entitled “See, Think, Design, Produce”, this “advanced course” involved a veritable rockstar lineup: Jonathan Corum, Bret Victor, Mike Bostock. Tufte concluded with a short lecture on his new book “The Thinking Eye”. Below are my main notes, condensed from all four talks. Enjoy!

– Seeing is about pattern recognition and learning new patterns. It must be practiced over time to develop the sensitivity to see “what’s possible” and “find what’s more than what’s available.”

– Sketching is visual problem solving, a method of probing and finding a clear thought. Once you find it, then communicate that “aha” moment.

– When designing, you must consider someone else. Don’t be your audience, instead you must break from your inner echo-chamber or bubble. Beyond empathy, you must remember how not to understand something, then reverse explain something intelligibly.

– Anticipate confusion and help the reader/viewer navigate through your solution. Through the combined efforts of understanding and explanation you should respect the user.

– “Good design is clear thinking made visible.” — Edward Tufte (ET)

– Too much of publicly applauded design is really empty facades of communication without actual real meaning and value. (“Pretty” vs “Beauty”)

– When producing the designs, embrace the limitations to arrive at truly novel solutions (innovation). Keep honing and refining the idea by ruthlessly applying “common sense”.

– Understanding, elegance, and beauty are emergent qualities that result from clarity, empathy, and simplicity.

– Consider the amplifying power of dynamic displays and dynamic content: visual cues, transitions to show change, jolt the user with new expectations, animate to show orientation, preserving context while clarifying data, adjustable elements to understand consequence of change (this is all via Bret Victor’s demos)

– Shift your thinking about graphics from “nouns” (geometry) to “verbs” (physics): from data objects with edges and vertices to transformations and consequences for continual interaction. (shaping a dialogue between user and data via interaction)

– Design is fundamental a “search problem”: like a maze unfolding in real-time and you’re trying to find your way through that maze to the “right” exit. You’re searching for the solutions while simultaneously grasping the contours of the problem space and audience needs.

– As a designer you’re constantly in a state of creating and editing, thus compounding the challenge of what it means to design something elegant and understandable with value.

– “The Thinking Eye” has a taste for excellence and searches forever for knowledge. Serenity is the condition in which all brainpower is devoted to this “Thinking Eye”.

– “Design is now code. Code is design”— Edward Tufte


Notes from Netflix “Cinematic UX”

I recently attended this after-work event held at Netflix HQ in Silicon Valley—which, incidentally, served as a rather fun homecoming after 5 years since having worked there as UI consultant. It was truly wonderful re-connecting with the Netflix design team, and getting a sneak peek at some upcoming concepts ;-) Yay!

Regarding the talk itself, Alvin Lee, one of the team design managers, led a brief overview of what they term “cinematic UX” and how that concept has been successfully achieved via Netflix service delivery and interface mechanics. Below is a rundown of the 5 core elements of what constitutes (for Netflix) a “cinematic UX”:

1. Visual: Given the entirety of Netflix’s content is television and movies, it’s quite obvious the experience delivered must be primarily visual. This also means going beyond standard box-art, towards iconic signature frames and scenes from their catalog, which are memorable and soul-stirring.

2. Story: Again, given the special nature of the content, Netflix took an approach that maximizes the value of emotive, resonant qualities of their movies, namely around the story. As a result, the rather bland vanilla plot descriptions were tweaked to be more specific, memorable, and emotional, with a “point of view” that jolts the viewer to want to view and engage with the story of a certain movie or TV show.

3. Emotion: Building upon the prior principles, this one is essential for creating a “cinematic UX”, whereby viewers are drawn in, and have a visceral reaction to the dramatic, engaging content being consumed. The challenge for designers then is how to make “I want this now” as an emotion consummated via expertly designed content consumption interface: the artwork, the previews, the interactions, with both “pre-play” and “post-play” engagements for a show or movie.

4. Immersive: This pertains to drawing the viewer into a world where they feel close to the content, in a space that’s been aptly extended across devices and channels, to feel continuous and enriched. In terms of the interface, this refers to minimizing the “app chrome” elements and focusing on the content itself, with subtle UI controls for interaction and more smart techniques (like auto-play the next episode of a TV binge watching session)

5. Be Entertaining: Naturally, given this is all about movies and TV shows, the spirit of entertainment should be evident in the interface and experience all throughout! How can Netflix enable a positive, rewarding, and FUN experience that keeps viewers coming back for more and also firmly cement Netflix as the premier destination for entertainment. This final principle serves as the capstone that pulls together the prior four into total fruition for viewers.


First month “start-up insights”

Wow, that went really fast! Hard to believe it’s already been over a month at my gig leading UX at CloudPhysics in Silicon Valley. So, what are my big insights and learnings so far? Quite a few that I’m still processing… but I’ll summarize with three words: Speed, Impact, and Contradiction.

// Living in a state of blur

First overall observation: the sheer speed with which stuff happens. It’s both disorienting and extremely gratifying to see live code generated and reviewed in just a few hours or a couple days at most, and pushed out frequently—hey, it’s all SaaS web-based apps anyway, right?! ;-)

As a consequence, I feel as if I’m living in a state of “blur”, where I’ve lost my sense of time—confusing yesterday for last week, or vice versa! The torrents of emerging and interwoven threads (strategy, research, hiring, designing a new vision, marathon 2-week sprints, spec’ing UIs, meeting customers) slam you forward with intensity and focus. The high frequency context-shifting is like watching hummingbird wings—just an ambient swash of activity that zooms ahead. It’s exhilarating and exhausting, all at once!

// The burden of making solo impact

Being a “Team of One” is wonderfully exciting and can be an overwhelming challenge, no question. Admittedly the level of authority to make significant impact is unprecedented in my career–and I gladly welcome it! I do feel prepared to handle this kind of influence, which is not for everyone. I had to undergo certain experiences in my career development to reach this point. Also, I’m very lucky to have total executive backing and a willing, supportive team who realize the product crucially needs design value. Sitting with our team— I literally sit in the middle of the room overhearing the chatter, jumping in to discuss and sketch solutions—is fantastic for maximum visibility and contact. And it’s an impressive array accomplished in just 30 days, with team support: Conducted a UX Audit, Defined a Customer Experience framework, Defined draft principles and strategy, Delivered UI Specs for features, Defining a concept vision for what’s “next”, Joining in customer calls, and Hiring UX Interns! Whew. I need a drink, or two ;-)

I must admit, however, one of the big things I definitely miss from corporate, is having access to a great, diverse in-house design team that I can tap into as a “sounding board” for ideas, and of course, resources to assist me. It’s a real trade-off.

// Swimming with contradictions

There’s this odd set of contradictions or “dialectical tensions” (via R Buchanan) I’ve been grappling to absorb and master. It’s not easy to do it all. Here’s a few of them:

* Now vs Next: There are immediate demands to deliver UI specs per preset 2-week sprints (“cohort cycles”) so there’s a need to focus on the “Now” designs. Yet I’m also pushing what could be, shaping a future vision & conceptual direction that leads us forward. Balancing both, while finding moments to draw them together, as connective threads, has been an interesting challenge. How do we ensure a progressively built path to overall coherence & consistency?

* Macro vs Micro: This is the classic “forest vs trees” problem, trying to say aloft at the high level of strategic oversight and broad perspective—discussing abstract product/UX issues with CEO and CTO, for instance, while diving deep into pixel-level production for specific UI controls with the engineers. Maintaining a parallel, dual vision of both is tough, especially when you have to deliver “tomorrow” (e.g., often late night ;-)

* Direction vs Production: Sure, I own the “title” of UX Director but I’m cranking comps and spec’ing pixels with sliced graphics, like a production intern. Obviously, somebody has to do it. And there’s no better way to deliver specific tangible value that garners respect from the team. Yet I’m shaping strategy, principles, and conceptual approaches that blend high-level customer experience thinking…about who our users are, and what kind of world do we want to offer them. This also involves direction in terms of design process, aligning with the Agile development model, which takes time to evolve as a team practice.

* Leading vs Following: This is the hardest of all for me, to balance the image of being the knowledgeable, competent leader projecting a posture of conviction, yet be an awe-inspired follower of this new company, culture, technology, etc. It’s a funny blend of humility to follow wiser folks, with the natural desire to drive and set a tone–while knowing when to do either! I’m still learning daily about the technology and business as well, no question. This is just something that takes time to cultivate, but it gets better every day!

A new vocabulary for start-up UX

While leading design-oriented cultural change at Citrix, a global 9k person company, I whole-heartedly espoused the vocabulary of “design thinking” & “customer experience” drawn from Stanford and Forrester —including “workshops”, “catalysts”, “empathy”, and so forth. Such phrases epitomize a certain POV for customer-centric advocacy and education, tuned for a corporate, distributed constituency not familiar with “design”…and often skeptical of its business value!

Now that I’m leading design at a dramatically smaller start-up of just 20+ people, where “massive cultural change” is simply not the order of the day, a different vocabulary is warranted. A set of phrases & concepts that foster the pursuit of tight integration of design strategy within sales and engineering cycles, one that speaks to pragmatic efficiency and iterative learning. So here’s what I’ve been diving into lately…

** Hooked framework: How do you create a habitually addictive product— minus chemical enhancements? ;-) Nir Eyal advocates his “hooked” model of “Trigger > Action > Reward > Investment” as a way to re-interpret your offering in a more autotelic sense of self-generated desire to satisfy needs/goals—and it’s habitual. The most interesting part for me is the notion of “variable delights” that engender repeat visits with a sense of surprise.

** Jobs-to-be-Done model: Clayton Christensen’s latest thinking around innovation, grounded in the notion of someone has a “job” that needs to be fulfilled by using your product or service. Not entirely revolutionary for the UX industry, I realize, but this frames the product or service offering in a very task-oriented manner. Does your offering deserve to be “hired” by the user for their “job”? What are other candidates for that context? And so forth…

** UX Debt: When there’s a gap between what has been delivered and what was intended to be shipped, in terms of the quality of the UX, there’s some UX debt incurred. This can be itemized, measured, and tracked accordingly per decisions made and circumstances that led to it (ex: deferred a simplified navigation due to lack of time or headcount from engineering). Debt piles up and there may be a reckoning! This is a great discussion point in project meetings: are we ready to accumulate more UX debt by making this or that compromise? (Special thanks to Jim Kalbach for introducing me to this handy concept! Check out more of Jim’s useful, profound thoughts here: )

** HEART and GSM frameworks: Very nice frameworks from Google on measuring user satisfaction, this is an acronym of Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention, and Task Success. Also, GSM is a corollary to determine which Goals, Signals and Metrics would be useful for a feature or product, thus enabling informed decisions in an earnestly data-oriented manner. Sure, A/B testing is fun and fashionable, but what metric are you trying to improve and why? Let’s be clear and open about it.

Finally, I’ve mostly avoided the word “Process”, which conveys negative tones of bureaucracy–definitely not desired in a start-up context. Instead, I speak of “Discipline” and “Focus”, echoing the intense drive of Steve Jobs in shipping the first Mac, and subsequent breakthroughs.

Fostering a sense of “visual empathy”

Visuals are powerful tools for compelling teammates to recognize what’s important and useful, from sketches to mockups to prototypes. In this vein of thought, also valuable are quite simply giant posters of collages of graphical interfaces—literally big enough for a whole wall, to dramatically amplify both the examples of current state of affairs, as well as shape a fantasy of aspirations for the targeted customer market. Indeed, the power of visual volume (number of images) and scale (measured in feet) fosters a kind of “visual empathy”. For example, in trying to develop a novel visual design language for an enterprise IT app, it’s useful to feel out the current state of enterprise apps, that IT Admins inhabit. What kind of visuals (images, colors, type, diagrams, tables, etc.) do they immerse themselves with, surround themselves daily, and interact with frequently? This helps understand the kind of conventions and realities that define their world view, that shapes expectations and perceptions…as drawn from Bergson’s “assumptive worlds”. It’s the world that is normal and routine.

Likewise, it’s useful to shape a vision of what’s to come, a visual collage of aspirations that elevate the quality of information display and interactive potential. What kinds of colors, shapes, textures, atmospheres might suggest an improvement of that conventional state of affairs? Again, blowing up the collage to large-scale magnifies quite literally the sense of “living in this new world”, immersive and absorptive. Then step back and assess what qualities make for an improved sense of lifestyle, emotion, and satisfaction overall for the customer.

It may be obvious, but of course having these immersive collages juxtaposed further strengthens the sense of empathizing for that world that is, and what might come to be. The diligent designer will ascertain critical threads of progress and themes for defining principles and guidelines, all with a mindful sense of how the customer may strive to feel.