Ghost in the Pixel

Uday Gajendar's musings on interaction design

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.

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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.

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Aligning value prop & customer goals

An immensely valuable discussion to hold with your key product stakeholders (like the Product, Sales, and Marketing leaders) involves a critical assessment of two essential ingredients of ascertaining your product/market fit: the product “value proposition” and the customer’s goals. Alignment between these two increases the likelihood of achieving a fit that enables business success (hey, there’s no guarantees!) but how to get there? First, ask basic questions among your stakeholders, all together if possible, for full transparency.

a) What is the product’s value prop…and how is that being messaged in the corporate website, as well as in the current application interface? Just jot down a key phrase or two, not some long-winded Dilbertian mission statement full of buzzwords! This is about the product’s purpose, raison d’être if you will. Chances are, various members of the product & company leadership team have varying perspectives…which is fine, as that speaks to a range of potential, but need to find the focus and identify any divergence or contradictions.

b) What are the customer’s goals? Actually, the antecedent assumption to this is identifying who exactly is the targeted customer per utility and revenue. Perhaps there’s a range or a single target—just be clear and fully in agreement. Then, via the devices of user profiles, contextual analyses, and personas, ascertain the aspirations and goals sought from using this product. What lifestyle qualities are enhanced? Which emotions are evoked and sustained? Who else benefits in terms of the “social life of information” extending from the product itself, but the broader ecosystem?

Capturing the responses to these basic yet critical questions will help determine if there’s mutual inter-dependence or crucial conflict in arriving at an appropriate product satisfying customers and driving business value.

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Reactive to proactive designing

In dealing with the perpetual quick-fire nature of a start-up, I’ve begun to develop and apply a useful approach to help manage the swirl of seemingly random chatter and work streams—and when you’re the sole person in charge of UX, it comes in fast! In particular is a mental model for handling the intensely reactive mode of “fix this UI problem” requests per some pre-determined project schedule. Instead of simply indulging in the face-value request of “fixing” a screen for an arbitrary deadline, I’m cultivating a more proactive approach, which hopefully demonstrates “good behavior” for non-designers on the team. There is a series of questions structured in the following manner:

* What appears to be the actual problem? Let’s frame and phrase it not in terms of “I don’t like” but in terms of the issue and consequence. Focus on the (de)merits that negatively impact the user’s task outcomes.

* Who will benefit the most from fixing this problem? The company? A buyer? A user? A middle tier partner or reseller? Let’s be clear about who’s really impacted here.

* What is the impact if this is not fixed? This will help prioritize and get a sanity check. Focus on facts (or reason, at least), not fears! This also shapes a dialogue around perceived needs and goals.

* What is the probability of this problem actually happening to the identified target? Is this really more of an edge case vs a frequent issue? Under what contexts or conditions does this problem occur?

* Is this problem entirely preventable via some other method or approach of changing various controls or options or wizard steps, etc.? This forces deeper look at how this problem is triggered in first place.

* Any other prior issues or precedents within the product related to this? This helps uncover broader thematic issues beyond this problem, expanding the scope of insight and looking a range of considerations, towards a more strategic outlook.

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It’s not about “having the answers”…

One thing I’ve quickly realized while leading design in a dynamic start-up context is that I need to let go of the pressure of being the “answer guy” with the “right” answer to every single question asked or issue raised…Indeed, I was hired for my range of expertise, both tactical execution and strategy insight…and also my ability to facilitate, educate, and evangelize, as someone leading teammates towards some positive outcome or decision-point. Accordingly, my value as a leader is being developed and recognized (implicitly) in a variety of ways already:

* Providing immediate near-term design “fixes” and tangible outputs for delivery to the engineering team (i.e., UI specs and assets) to prove I can deliver gritty details, thus earning trust capital. (Besides, how can you lead the design function for a company if you can’t, you know, actually design?? ;-)

* Directing productive dialogues around the product UX (via an extensive UX Audit, for example) and the customer (via discussions around personas/scenarios) where I’m mostly extracting prior knowledge and back-stories from everyone.

* Raising critical questions about the nature of  design strategy, process, and principles through ongoing discovery about the product functionality—even playing the role of the “naive” student, innocently asking some “why not” questions!

* And lots of plain old active listening! Truly absorb what folks are saying are the high-priority issues and opportunities and then just mull over the responses. Take notes and follow-up with deeper dives or brainstorm sessions, accordingly. Often just being that listening agent provides ample comfort and calming assurance to the team, that “someone” (clearly qualified, of course!) is taking care of this.

I’ve said many times before that a big part of being a designer is simply functioning as a “therapist” of sorts, not always jumping to quick answers, but offering that supportive voice and mindful presence that someone is focused on these tough UX issues—and expressing the captured listenings in some form: sketches, diagrams, stories, etc. I think that’s even more true at a leadership level, where your presence is the signifier that someone is taking command, with facilitative guidance backed by bonafide execution.

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