Habitual creativity: Turn around

design thinking, inspiration

For a little over two years, I left work and went to a particular bus stop on Elliott & Western in Seattle. So I spent a little time every day looking at this building, near the base of a hill leading up to the Queen Anne Hill area.

Building facing bus stop

One day, for whatever reason, I turned around and looked behind me. Due to an accident of unusual angles (hills, buildings, streets), suddenly I could see everything the building was hiding from me, including the Space Needle!


The beauty of turning around is that it changes your perspective. Sometimes it even shows you the forest for the trees—or in this case, the neighborhood for the buildings.

So how do you turn around, metaphorically speaking? Here are some straightforward and a couple less obvious methods:

  • Try the other person’s perspective on for size. You may not end up agreeing with it, but you’ll understand it better, and this process frequently provides insight into design challenges. You UX people are used to this one. 
  • Are you looking from the outside in, or UI first? Try flipping it. Do the mental exercise of imagining your web application from the back end out – network to content buckets to databases to identifying the right content to surfacing, navigating, and consuming it. Getting a better understanding of the building blocks will let you do more with your Lego.
  • Set yourself challenges that push you beyond your normal boundaries to see the point of view inside someone else’s. For example, find a song you like in all the music genres you can think of.
  • Like sitting alone? Join a group. Like groups? Try taking some time away from them.
  • Reverse the flow. (No, not that flow.) Does your taxonomy go from broad to specific? Why not try specific to broad? Or, put everything on the same level and make it flat. The meaningful concepts will float to the top.

UX happens everywhere

design thinking, psychology

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” said William James. Although James wasn’t talking about user experience as designers think of it, this is my favorite UX quote, and one I believe every UX architect, designer, or strategist should keep in mind. Today I’m writing about the implications this has on where we should focus our attention.

Where a person’s attention goes, there goes their experience of the world. In other words, UX happens everywhere.

Your product may be the ultimate experience you want your users to have, and your web site experience may help get them to purchase it (or be the goal itself, if you’re a social network or some other online service). But long before they land on your site or purchase your product, every interaction of the user with your brand is UX.

What people say about your product on social networks or blogs, your advertising (online and off), how your competitors represent you and your service. Your content lives everywhere, and your existing users and prospects can potentially encounter it everywhere. You can’t control this, but you can add to the milieu in a variety of ways: blogs, forums, social networks, videos, mobile applications, gadgets, rich media advertising, news, and choosing to advertise on more targeted sites.

Why does this matter? Because people make decisions in an all-or-nothing manner. Neurologically speaking, every encounter creates a positive or negative moments in a user’s head—a yes/no binary decision. A user’s overall impression comes from the preponderance of the individual binary choices associated with a concept.

Further, in the absence of knowledge most people tend to go with whatever information gets in first with the most. In this way informational cascades are spread across a population which may or may not be accurate. (This may be why car salespeople are trained to get customers to say “yes” more than once, and to speak to more than one salesperson. You can read more about binary decision making and informational cascades in The tyranny of dichotomy.)

If you expect users to “agree to attend” to ultimately experience your product, one way is to create more positive binary moments about your brand and product than there are negative ones. Every encounter with your brand weights a user’s interest in one direction or another. As UX strategists, it’s clearly in our interests as UX strategists to create positive user experiences in every relevant context possible.

Update: I don’t think I said clearly enough here that “positive” requires an experience to be honest and to the user’s advantage. So I’m saying it now.

Originally posted on the alexfiles (1998–2018) on January 1, 2011.

Designing for purpose

design thinking

This is the first of several presentations applying different psychological systems to user experience.

Designing for users is a tough job. To optimize our designs and strategy, UX professionals frequently turn to concept/site testing. The problem is that most design strategy and testing thinks in terms of input → output. We provide input, users perform a desired response (click-through, purchase, content creation). How to break out of this mold?

Perceptual control theory (PCT) assumes that all output is based on the ultimate goal of improved perceptual input. If you replace “input” in the previous sentence with “experience,” you’ll see the direction this discussion is going…

Originally posted on UXtraordinary, August 3, 2009.

Excluding data limits thought

design thinking

From illustrations in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life;” these creatures were misidentified for decades because of thought-limiting taxonomies. Stippled ink, watercolor.

I have never understood the desire to delete articles in Wikipedia solely on the basis of the highly subjective concept of “notability,” and I’ve fought against deletion of such articles. It’s easy to store the information, and it’s useful to someone or it wouldn’t be there. To these reasons I would add another: the more information you have, the more freedom you have to think flexibly about a subject.

Nicholson Baker supports the concept of a Deletopedia, a wikimorgue where all the “nonnotable” articles removed by the frustrated book-burners on Wikipedia would reside. Baker describes it:

…a bin of broken dreams where all rejects could still be read, as long as they weren’t libelous or otherwise illegal. Like other middens, it would have much to tell us over time.

Why, exactly, is this useful? Because we need taxonomic freedom.

A taxonomy is only as free as its data. The more categories you have—the more data—the more ways a given piece can move from one category to another and be connected—then the more flexibly and creatively you can arrange and understand the data. Not only does the freedom to connect and associate a given piece of data help, but each piece of data increases the number of patterns possible.

How we understand information is driven by the taxonomies—the patterns—we place it in. As Marvin Minsky said, You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way. The biologists have known this for some time. Initially biological species classification was based primarily on anatomy and phenotype. But there are many ways to think about organisms: according to evolutionary ancestry (cladistics), according to geography, according to the niche they occupy ecologically, to name a few. What taxonomy you choose to use determines how you’re able to perceive and understand a given organism or system.

The moment you begin to exclude and include along any lines, you begin to enforce a taxonomy of sorts. The taxonomies we use determine and limit the direction and options of our thought. We need to apply them to look at things from a given perspective, but we need to be aware of them so we can change them and see different perspectives. So, thinking in terms of deleting what is not notable is implicitly applying a self-limiting taxonomy. You will not be able to change your perspective to one that makes use of the deleted information, because you will not have the information.

This tendency by some to ignore or remove information that does not fit into their personal taxonomy of relevance is present in library cataloging, too. As a former online cataloger myself, I’m also in support of keeping analog card catalogs as well as digital. Having project-managed teams that converted card catalogs into databases, I’ve seen first-hand how subjective the choices of what pieces of information on the card get migrated onto the database can be. I think every piece of data should be online, but there are plenty of catalogers who skip over descriptive items they find trivial.

Humans are linguistic souls (even the mostly spatial types like myself), and having a new word or symbol attached to a concept immediately adds a tool to our arsenal of thought. This is why one of the first things repressive regimes do is burn the books and suppress the intellectuals. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning” (Umberto Eco, 22 June 1995, New York Review of Books). We do ourselves a disservice when we close off possible avenues of thought by disregarding data currently not important to us.

Besides, as Flaubert observed, “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.”

Maybe Wikipedia should make that its motto.

Originally posted on UXtraordinary.com, March 20, 2008.