Solve the Right Problem: Derek Featherstone on designing for extremes

Derek Featherstone at An Event Apart

12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco – № 3: Derek Featherstone was the 10th speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco, which ended Wednesday. His session, Extreme Design, showed how creating great experiences for people with disabilities results in better designs for everyone.

Focusing relentlessly on accessibility helps us think of extreme scenarios and ask questions like “how can we make this work eyes free?” and “how can we make this work with the least amount of typing?” Most importantly, it leads to deeper design thinking that solves problems for everyone who uses our sites and products.

A Map For The Blind

One of my favorite examples from Derek’s presentation had to do with a map. A Canadian city was expanding geographically to encompass some of the surrounding suburbs. The city’s website was charged with letting all citizens know about the change. The web team did what you or I would probably do: they created a map that clearly showed the old and new city limits.

Unfortunately, this visual map was by definition inaccessible to blind citizens, so the city brought in Derek and his colleagues to design an equivalent experience for the unsighted. Derek’s team and the web team pondered typical solutions—such as laborious written descriptions of the city’s shifting geographic borders. But these were not user-friendly, nor did they get to the heart of the problem.

Maybe creating a verbal equivalent of a visual map wasn’t the answer. Derek’s team kept digging. Why was the map created in the first place, they asked. What was the point of it? What were users supposed to take away from it?

It turned out, people wanted to know if their street fell within the new city boundaries because, if it did, then their taxes were going to go up.

Solving for a map wasn’t the point at all. Allowing people to find out if their home address fell inside the new city limits was the point.

A simple data entry form accomplished the task, and was by definition accessible to all users. It was also a much quicker way even for sighted user to get the information they wanted. By solving for an extreme case—people who can’t see this map—the web teams were able to create a design that worked better for everyone.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with another top takeaway from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker. The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017.

 

Also published at Medium.

Identify “stress cases” and design with compassion: Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer at An Event Apart12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco – № 2: Eric Meyer was the 11th speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco, which ended Wednesday. His session, Compassionate Design, discussed the pain that can occur when our carefully crafted websites and applications, designed to create an ideal experience for idealized users, instead collide with messy human reality.

You can’t always predict who will use your products, or what emotional state they’ll be in when they do. A case in point: when Facebook’s “Your Year in Review” feature, designed by well-meaning people to help Facebook users celebrate their most important memories from the preceding twelve months, shoved a portrait of Eric’s recently deceased daughter Rebecca in his face, surrounded by dancing and partying clip-art characters who appeared to be celebrating her death.

With great power…

Certainly, no one at Facebook intended to throw a hundred pound bag of salt into the open wound of a grieving parent. What happened, surely, was that no one sitting around the table when the feature was planned asked the question, what if one of our users just had the worst year of their lives?

If even one of the talented Facebook folks charged with creating the new feature had asked themselves “what’s the worst that can happen?”—if just one of them had realized that not everyone using Facebook felt like celebrating their year—they might have put in safeguards to prevent their algorithm from assuming that a Facebook user’s most visited (most “popular”) post of the year was also their happiest.

They might also have made the “year in review” feature an opt-in, with questions designed to protect those who had experienced recent tragedy. Facebook didn’t build in those protections, not because they don’t care, but because our approach to design is fundamentally flawed, in that we build our assumptions around idealized and average users and use cases, and neglect to ask ourselves and our teammates, “what if we’re wrong? How could our product hurt someone?”

It’s not just Facebook. We all ignore the user in crisis.

Eric shared many examples from leading sites and services of unintended and sometimes horrifying instances of designs that hurt someone—from ads that accidentally commented sadistically on tragic news stories (because keyword exclusion is underrated and underused in online advertising); to magic keywords Flickr and Google added to their customers’ photos without asking, resulting in a man’s portrait being labeled “gorilla” and a concentration camp photo being tagged a jungle gym.

The problem, Eric explained, is that our systems have not been designed with people in mind. They’ve been designed with consumers in mind. Consumers are manageable fictions. But human life is inherently messy. To create sites and applications that work for everyone, including  people who may be having the worst day of their lives at the time they encounter or product or service, we must always think about how our product could be used to hurt someone, and plan for the worst-case scenario whenever we design.

When we label a usage an “edge case,” we marginalize that user and choose not to care. Think “stress case,” instead, and design for that human.

We can do better.

Eric’s presentation included many techniques for bringing these new principles into our design workflows, and his book with Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Design for Real Life, goes into even greater detail on the matter. (It’s one of those rare and important books that defines how we should be looking at our design jobs today, and I would say that even if I weren’t the publisher.)

Tomorrow I’ll be back with another top takeaway from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker. The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017.

 
Also published on Medium.

Measure Customer Time, Not Organization Time: Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco – № 1: Gerry McGovern was the 12th speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco, which ended yesterday. His session Top Task Management: Making it Easier to Prioritize tackled the firehose of content and interactions web and interaction designers and developers are called upon to support.

Gerry shared example after example of cases where most of this stuff didn’t matter at all to the person using the site or service, and drew the commonsense—but too rare in the corporate world—conclusion that if we spend our time making stuff that matters to our organization instead of stuff that matters to our customer, we will lose our customer. (“Nobody reads your annual report.”)

One of my favorite takeaways from Gerry’s session was about performance, but not in the way you probably think. Gerry pointed out that, in organizations, we are always measuring our own performance: how quickly did we turn that project around? Did we launch on time? Instead of dressing up our navel gazing with analytics that are about our tasks, we should measure our customers’ speed. How quickly do our sites and products help our customers achieve their goals? How can we identify and remove additional obstacles to completion, so our customers achieve their goals faster and faster?

We need to manage speed on the page, not just the speed of the page load. Manage the customer’s time on task. We won’t become customer-centric until we change our metrics—focusing on customers’ time to complete tasks, not on internal speed, and not just on the mechanical speed of page load—although page load speed (and perceived page load speed) are also terribly important, of course, and are part of improving the customer’s time to complete their task.

“If you solve the customer’s problem, they’ll solve your problem.” When you understand your customer’s top task, and focus relentlessly on helping them achieve it, you build a relationship that works for organization and customer alike.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with another top takeaway from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker. The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017.

 

Also shared on Medium

Private Parts: unlikely advocate fights for online privacy, anonymity

MESMERIZED as we have been by the spectacle of the flaming garbage scow of U.S. election news, it would have been easy to miss this other narrative. But in the past few days, just as Google, AT&T, and Time-Warner were poised to turn the phrase “online privacy” into a George Carlin punchline, in marched an unlikely hero to stop them: the American Federal Government. Who have just…

approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2016

Given the increasingly deep bonds between corporate overlords and elected officials, this strong assertion of citizens’ right to privacy comes as something of a surprise. It’s especially startling given the way things had been going.

On Friday, Oct. 21, shortly before a massive DDOS attack took out most U.S. websites (but that’s another story), ProPublica reported that Google had quietly demolished its longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names. I quote ProPublica’s reporting at length because the details matter:

When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”

And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.

But this summer, Google quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand – literally crossing out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep the two pots of data separate by default. In its place, Google substituted new language that says browsing habits “may be” combined with what the company learns from the use Gmail and other tools.

The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.

Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking, by Julia Angwin, ProPublica, Oct. 21, 2016

Et tu, Google

Google has long portrayed itself as one of the good guys, and in many ways it continues to be that. I can’t think of any other insanely powerful mega-corporation that works so hard to advocate web accessibility and performance—although one of its recipes for improved web performance, making up a whole new proprietary markup language and then using its search engine dominance to favor sites that use that language and, of necessity, host their content on Google servers over sites that use standard HTML and host their own content, is hardly a white hat move. But that, too, is another story.

On privacy, certainly, Google had shown ethics and restraint. Which is why their apparent decision to say, “f–– it, everyone else is doing it, let’s stop anonymizing the data we share” came as such an unpleasant shock. And that sense of shock does not even take into account how many hundreds of millions of humans were slated to lose their privacy thanks to Google’s decision. Or just how momentous this change of heart is, given Google’s control and knowledge of our searches, our browsing history, and the contents and correspondents of our email.

Minority Report

Scant days after ProPublica broke the Google story, as a highlight of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time-Warner, came the delightful scenario of TV commercials customized just for you, based on combined knowledge of your web using and TV viewing habits. And while some humans might see it as creepy or even dangerous that the TV they’re watching with their family knows what they were up to on the internet last night, from an advertiser’s point of view the idea made $en$e:

Advertisers want … to combine the data intensity of internet advertising with the clear value and ability to change peoples’ perceptions that you get with a television ad. If you believe in a future where the very, very fine targeting of households or individuals with specific messaging makes economic sense to do at scale, what this merger does is enable that by making more audience available to target in that way.

Individualized Ads on TV Could Be One Result of AT&T-Time Warner Merger by Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, Oct. 26

An unlikely privacy advocate

Into this impending privacy hellscape marched the U.S. Government:

Federal officials approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users. …

The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.

The passage of the rules deal a blow to telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which rely on such user data to serve sophisticated targeted advertising. The fallout may affect AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which was announced last week, because one of the stated ambitions of the blockbuster deal was to combine resources to move more forcefully into targeted advertising.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27

What happens next

The consequences of these new rules—exactly how advertising will change and networks will comply, the effect on these businesses and those that depend on them (i.e. newspapers), how Google in particular will be effected, who will cheat, who will counter-sue the government, and so on—remain to be seen. But, for the moment, we’re about to have a bit more online privacy and anonymity, not less. At least, more online privacy from advertisers. The government, one assumes, will continue to monitor every little thing we do online.


Co-published in Medium.

News of the World

OUR UBER DRIVER must be hard of hearing, because he plays his right-wing talk radio morning show LOUD. It’s not your erudite, intellectual morning show. It’s hosted by Morning Zoo-type personalities: braying, hyper-testicular fellows, as subtle as a Cuban tie.

To illustrate some local New York story about a Hassidic synagogue, they play a nerve-shattering recording of an air raid siren. They talk over each other, like men do when they’re excited, and segue seamlessly into sponsor messages about homes for the aged, and medical recovery facilities for seniors. Then right back to the entertainment portion of the program: the two men, cross-talking in stereophonic sound, sharing revealing fragments of the public and personal between sound effect blasts and explosions of machine-gun laughter.

If you had just one minute to live, you’d want to hear this, because it would make your final earthly moments last longer. Okay, to be fair, I’d toss a coin to decide between this and root canal. My fellow passenger farts silently, which I consider a reasonable response. Soon. Soon I will get out of this car.

We learn that both show hosts live in Long Island. The super-aggressive one tells a story about taking his daughter to soccer practice and then taking his son to soccer practice while his wife borrows the car, but we never hear the denouement, because the dominant guy, who is even more aggressive, keeps interrupting.

The news continues. An unfinished story about taking the subway to eat at a famous pizza parlor in Brooklyn. Something about the Muslim call to prayer. It seems the secret service doesn’t want to protect Hillary Clinton because she is such a nasty woman. The polls are looking up for Donald Trump.

Spotify to music subscribers: drop dead

SINCE AT LEAST 2010, subscribers to Spotify’s paid music service have asked the company to include the ability to sort playlists alphabetically in the desktop player. It’s the sort of drop-dead obvious feature that should have been built into the player while it was still in alpha. Yet, after six years of requests by paying customers, the feature still does not exist. Many good people work at Spotify and take pride in working to create the best possible music service. But the management in charge of feature requests does not seem to care about or respect customers.

Spotify subscribers organize their music in playlists. Any serious music listener will soon have dozens, if not hundreds, of playlists. They appear in the sidebar in reverse chronological order of the date of their creation. From a programmatic standpoint, the order is random. The inability to sort playlists alphabetically soon makes listening to one’s entire collection problematic. You ignore most of your playlists because you can’t find them, and waste time recreating existing playlists because you’ve forgotten they exist—or can’t find them.

For years, Spotify users have taken to the company’s message boards to request that this basic, rudimentary, obviously necessary feature be added. And for years, Spotify’s official message-keepers have strung users along. Reading these message boards is a study in corporate indifference. In this board, for example, which began in 2012, one customer after another explains why the ability to alphabetize their list of playlists is necessary if they are to continue using the service. It’s almost comical to watch the customer support folks react to each post as if it is a new idea; or attempt to pacify the customer by assuring her that staff is “working around the clock to implement this feature.” That last comment was made in 2015, three years into the thread; there’s been no word about the feature since.

The desktop player does let users change the order of a given playlist by dragging it up or down. That feature would suffice for someone who had three playlists. It might even work for someone with a dozen playlists. But for someone with several dozen or more playlists, manual drag and drop is not only no solution, it’s actually insulting.

What Spotify has done is create an all-you-can-eat buffet, and equipped its customers with a toothpick in place of a knife and fork or chopsticks.

The problem can’t be that difficult to solve, as Spotify has added alphabetization of playlists to its phone and tablet apps. Yet the desktop, a primary source for folks who listen to music while working, remains as primitive as it was in 2010.

Six years of alternately pretending not to know that your paying customers require a basic tool to manage their subscriptions, and pretending to be working on a solution, shows a basic disregard for the paying customer. Which kind of goes along with a disregard for the working musician, who isn’t exactly getting rich off the Spotify royalties that have replaced CD sales.

Apple Music has rubbed me the wrong way since Apple first crammed it into their increasingly dysfunctional iTunes player (whose poor usability is what drove me to Spotify in the first place). I hate that Apple Music shows up on all my Apple devices, even though I don’t subscribe to it, and even after I’ve turn it off in Settings. In this regard, Apple today is like Microsoft in the 1990s. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

But, as obnoxious and overdesigned as it is, there’s one thing I like about Apple Music: it just may drive the complacent management at Spotify to actually start listening to their customers.

Ten Years Ago on the Web

2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugsworrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.

I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.

Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)

Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.

Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.

I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)

In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.


As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts onetwothree, or four, have a look back.

 

 

Speaking Most Clearly When Not Speaking At All

Writing brain and speaking brain verbalize differently for me, I have found. I’m considered a passable conference speaker, and, from friendly conversations to client meetings, I’m rarely at a loss for words. But the ideas I’m able to articulate with my mouth are nothing, absolutely nothing, to those I can sometimes share while writing.

In writing I have clarity of vision and authority of tone that I almost completely lack when speaking with more than one person at a time. This is why I often find meetings stressful and frustrating.

Now, meetings are essential to design and business. And they’re great for listening and learning. But when I have a strong point of view to put across, or when am trying to align folks around an important rallying point, conversation with more than one person just doesn’t cut it for me.

Rooms hurt.

The more of my businesses and projects I can wrap around written communication, the more optimistic I am that those businesses and projects will grow in meaning, deepening their connection to people and serving them better and better. And the more the business of running a business relies on person-to-person talk, the tougher it gets for me to be sure things are progressing toward clear and meaningful goals.

I sense that probably many designers feel this way.

Oddly, I probably don’t come across as one of these designers, because I do okay in a meeting. I’m not the cliched tongue-tied designer in the corner. My relative articulateness as a designer has been a cornerstone of my success, such as it is. In meetings I may even speak too much. Not from lack of interest in what others have to say, but out of fear that an idea not expressed will be lost. This anxiety that drives me to verbalize probably makes me appear confident. Maybe even over-confident.

But my seeming ease in meetings is nothing to the comfort, clarity, and articulateness I feel when alone at a keyboard.

I speak for myself now. This is just me. This is not a law of design or business. Not a rule. Not a lesson. For some folks—including some of my smartest and most productive collaborators—the hack of emitting sounds through flapping jaws is how the best ideas are birthed. And more power to them.

Learning to be okay with their process is part of my challenge as a worker and person. It’s a challenge because it’s a surrender of control as well as confidence. We are all here to share something. In writing, I know what I must say and how to say it. In a room, I’m a person struggling to focus, my monkey mind sabotaging me as it tries to claw its way out of the room.

I would not have figured this out about myself if I didn’t have a gifted child who is also ADHD and dyslexic, calling my attention to how completely differently different individuals can process written and spoken English, and making me realize that, like my daughter’s, my brain is also more comfortable in some verbal environments than others.

I acknowledge that part of what makes written communication work for me is the solitude. Perhaps I’m more narcissistic than I hope. Or maybe it’s just that silence is the place where I can hear whatever it is that I’m meant to share.

Sometimes a cigar is a penis

Beach photo

MANY NIGHTS I have these dreams where I lose my daughter while traveling. We’re about to board a flight, and suddenly she has vanished. In other parts of these same dreams, still traveling, I’m doing something amazing—like hiking the Alps—when I realize I’ve forgotten to check in on my app. Although the two distresses are in no way equivalent in life, in the dream sudden heart-stopping panic attends them both. It’s as if my unconscious is warning me I place too high a value on my illusory digital life.

There’s also baggage in these dreams. Literal baggage. As in, before boarding the flight with my daughter, I need to pack all our household possessions, so they can fly with us to a new home. In reality, we live in a two-bedroom apartment. In the dreams, the possessions fill a huge, rambling house. They are mostly dirty and broken: a cracked hobbyhorse, a single-octave air-powered toy organ with chord buttons. Halfway through wrapping these smashed globes, armless dolls, and hand-me-down suitcases that cannot be closed, I wonder why I must drag all this baggage with us.

In my 20s, I had a different recurring dream. In that one, I was at the beach with my father the moment before an immense tidal wave came crashing down, annihilating all life. I would see us from an overhead omniscient point of view—all of us beachgoers gazing up wordlessly at the power that was about to smash us out of the universe. Then, from my own point of view, I would gaze for an endless moment at the peaking wave, which seemed to hang suspended for a miniature eternity. Unable to bear my terror, I would turn to my father and bury my face in his chest. The last thing I experienced in the dream was my father’s hand cradling the back of my head.

I had that dream over and over. At the time, it seemed to me an omen of imminent tragedy. Now I think it was simply the disguised expression of a wish to know my father’s love and feel close to him.

My father is of that generation that doesn’t hug and doesn’t easily share its feelings. Today he is finally old enough, and sentimental enough, to say, “Ditto, kid,” when I tell him I love him at the end of our phone calls. We speak more now than we did all the years I was growing up. Night school, and two jobs, and other things kept him away far more than he was home.

Now in life I am a father, living alone with my daughter, two cats, and four hamsters, in an apartment that, on good days, looks like a dozen children must live there. On bad days, it looks like the Gestapo came through. Come to think of it, at age twelve I had recurring dreams about hiding from the Gestapo.

There’s the surface world, where we worry about work and bills and if our kid is getting enough nutrition. And why some people we like don’t like us. And why some people we were kind to hurt us. And whether we are kind enough. But mainly about work and bills and food.

And then there is the dream world, where our true fears stand naked, telling us who we are, and what we value.


Also published in “Let Me Repost That For You” on Medium.

Help Carolyn Wood

Carolyn Wood needs your help.ONE OF THE NICEST web professionals I’ve ever worked with desperately needs and deserves our community’s help, compassion, and kindness.

Many of you, whether you knew it or not, have benefited from Carolyn Wood’s work on A List Apart, Digital Web, The Manual, and Codex: the journal of typography. For two decades, she has been a tireless, egoless motive force of great projects—always eager to help, never seeking the spotlight.

Now she needs our help. Like nobody ever needed help before. Catastrophic medical problems, together with lack of support from the insurance system, have left Carolyn in a life-or-death crisis. Only by our whole community pulling together can we hope to raise the huge sums Carolyn will need to survive.

Please help by donating what you can, and by sharing Carolyn’s support page with anyone in your network who is compassionate and will listen.

Life is often unfair. But a network of caring, compassionate web folk can send a ray of light into Carolyn’s undeserved lonely darkness. I know we can do it!

Please donate, and please share Carolyn’s page with your Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and the actual human beings you know: www.youcaring.com/carolyn-wood-585895.