Mama, i’m coming home

OK, well not really “home”, but since the East Coast was the first place I lived in the U.S. and for the longest time (13 years), I identify with it more than any other place.

Anyway … in June I left USAA (and my awesome team there) after 4 years and moved to New York to head the design team for Capital One’s commercial bank.

It’s an exciting time to join C1 and the commercial team because there is a huge up-swelling of interest and support for design-centric approaches to problem solving across the entire company. But even more important to me is the “do the right thing” attitude that permeates this organization.

Last week in Dallas I was privileged so see Rich Fairbank, our founder and CEO, speak for about 8 hours on the strategy for the company. His most powerful moment (and there were many) came with this (oft-repeated) line “Doing the right thing cost, and it cost, and it cost … until one day it didn’t”. He backed this up with many examples of how C1 has done the right thing for clients (reducing fees, working to increase rewards redeemed, etc.) which cost the company money and reduced profits in the short-term, but which ultimately contributed to increased client loyalty, usage, and profit in the long-term.

It’s a great example of a win-win scenario on how a for-profit company and its clients can exist in a harmonious, symbiotic relationship. And a fascinating study on how an intensely analytically company can also make huge business decisions based on “how would you want your mother to be treated?” (another Rich quote) and have faith that the economics will work out.

Fun times ahead for me in NYC 🙂

The Dimensions of Design

I’ve recently been thinking about the perceptions people have about this thing we call “design”, and how those perceptions affect how we communicate its place in the world to those people.

The 3 most common perceptions i’ve encountered recently are around timing, context, and depth. So as is my wont, I made a diagram.

Creativity vs. Constraints

An often-held viewpoint is that we need to “remove all constraints from designers – let them be creative!” On the surface, this sounds great – but in actual fact, the opposite is true.

Now that I’ve made that provocative statement, let me explain.

Design is not Art, Art is not Design. Artists create things to ask questions, they follow no rules, no set process. Designers, on the other hand, create things to answer questions – they solve problems, they follow rules, they have constraints. (See here for more).

the value of constraints - v04

Some of those constraints designers impose upon themselves. They understand and constrain themselves to the mission of their client and what they’re trying to achieve; they understand and constrain themselves to what is technologically feasible; they understand and constrain themselves to their users’ mental models – how they think about the world; they understand and constrain themselves to human abilities related to ergonomics and usability and they understand and constrain themselves to aesthetics that humans find pleasing and simple.

Using these self-imposed constraints, designers can create beautiful stand-alone experiences (e.g. the Uber app).

There are, however, another set of constraints – those imposed upon designers when they choose to work within an existing, large ecosystem. Those designers understand and constrain themselves to only add the features and functions that are complementary to the ones already in the ecosystem; they understand and constrain themselves to connecting their designs to the rest of the ecosystem; they understand and constrain themselves to creating predictable patterns of interaction to make the ecosystem easier to use and they understand and constrain themselves to the brand of the ecosystem, to present a unified, cohesive whole.

Using these ecosystem constraints, designers can create beautiful connected experiences (e.g. the Apple ecosystem of products, packaging, stores, digital, etc.)

Many large organizations have recognized this and have created design systems to encourage their designers to direct their creative energies in productive directions and not reinvent the wheel. (US Government, NASA, Google)

Constraints are not bad; in fact they’re necessary, if you don’t believe me, how about Charles Eames?

“Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem — the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible — his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time and so forth.”

Thoughts on the IA Summit selection process from an ex-chair

It’s the most wonderful time of the year … the IA Summit chair is making his list and checking it twice – the acceptance and rejection emails for presentations have been sent out, sparking a flurry of conversation on the twitters about the selection process and (mainly) the value of blind reviews.

Although I haven’t been heavily involved in the organization of the conference since 2008, when I was the conference chair, I thought i’d give some transparency into how we did things then – I don’t think it’s changed significantly since.

Back in 2008 we received about 150 regular session proposals and had 45 available session slots. The first step in the selection process was a blind review – 50 volunteers reviewed about 20 proposals each against a set of standard criteria, giving each proposal about 6-7 reviews and scores.

These reviews were done “blind” (without knowing the author) because the final selection committee wanted to gather research on what topics and presentations potential attendees might find attractive without that research being polluted by speaker name recognition.

Every proposal was then reviewed by a final selection committee of 3, led by myself – taking into account the blind reviews, scores and speaker identities as well as our own experience and opinions and the list was narrowed down to the final 45.

We found that the blind reviews and scores were an excellent starting point and a way to get different perspectives, but they were just that – a starting point. We ended up picking 26 of the final lineup (57%) from the top 45 as scored by the blind reviews and 19 (42%) from outside it. Three of the sessions in the final lineup were the 137th, 127th and 111th as ranked by the blind scores – so you can see that the research needed interpretation!

Bonus Information about Scheduling: Once we had the final 45, we didn’t create the schedule straight away – we published the list on the website and asked attendees  to pick their favorites. This enabled us to do 3 things:

  1. Put popular sessions in large rooms.
  2. Pre-schedule the 6 most popular sessions into the flex-track as repeats.
  3. Through a pairs-analysis, avoid pitting sessions that attendees wanted to see both of against one another.

So there you are, a little window into our process, hopefully it sheds some light into the role of blind reviews.

Discrimination in 458 characters, not 140

To be crystal clear, here is my position on the recent discrimination in UX. Ian, thank you for encouraging me to say this in 458 characters as well as 140.

Discriminators: Stop it, now.

Victims: Draw strength from those in similar situations, talk to them. (Sarah, Relly, Leslie, Whitney, Amy, Jessica). Speak up publicly to raise awareness so the rest of us can help make this treatment culturally unacceptable.

Everyone else (incl. conference organizers): Listen. Believe. Don’t suppress discussion, even if it makes you uncomfortable or you think it has a negative short-term impact. Don’t stand by and do nothing.

Denethor defends User Experience

Amidst so much bashing of the term User Experience, I was delighted to read Robert Hoekman Jr’s post on Boxes and Arrows recognizing the weakness in the term but acknowledging it’s momentum and calling for it to be defended.

Why are we so readily abandoning the term just when the going gets tough? I am reminded of quote from Denethor, Steward of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings:

‘Yet,’ said Denethor, ‘we should not lightly abandon the outer defences the Rammas made with so great a labour.’

‘Much must be risked in war,’ said Denethor…. ‘I will not yield the River and the Pelennor unfought — not if there is a captain here who has still the courage to do his lord’s will.’

Well Lord Hoekman, here’s one captain still up for the fight!


(we should of course ignore Denethor’s delusional belief that he could win that fight – every metaphor breaks down somewhere!)

KPIs: Bringing Balance to the Force

In his excellent article, KPIs are Metrics, but Not All Metrics are KPIs, Jared Spool states: “Finally, to be useful, the metric needs to predict the future — that’s what makes it an “Indicator.””

The last time I checked the dictionary definition of “indicator” it said:

in·di·ca·tor – noun

  1. a person or thing that indicates.
  2. a pointing or directing device, as a pointer on the dial of an instrument to show pressure, temperature, speed, volume, or the like.
  3. an instrument that indicates the condition of a machine or the like.
  4. an instrument for measuring and recording variations of pressure in the cylinder of an engine.

No mention of predicting the future there. In fact Key Performance Indicators can take two forms, “leading indicators”, which as Jared states – are used to predict the future, and “lagging indicators” which measure past performance.

Now I happen to agree with Jared that leading indicators, if you can discover them (it’s hard!), give you the most value – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give any thought to lagging indicators. A powerful dashboard or scorecard technique is to define complimentary leading and lagging measures that show cause and effect, this can help you validate your indicator selection and give stakeholders confidence in your measurement framework.

Men live in Boxes, Women in balls of Wire

A few days ago Whitney Hess, a good friend of mine, tweeted:

“I firmly believe that anyone who talks about having “work/life balance” has no life and doesn’t love their work”

This was followed by a short twitter conversation (a twersation?) between several people about kids, family and compartmentalization. The fact of the matter is, of course, that people think differently – it’s actually wired into their brains.

Now before I go any further, a warning: I’m going to talk about men’s brains and women’s brains. There are going to be generalizations, but I do not believe (contrary to the title of this post) that all men or all women think alike. I think it more likely that there are patterns of thinking that anyone can exhibit, it may just be more likely that women will tend toward one pattern more often and men to another.

In this video Mark Gungor speaks (humorously) about men’s brains being full of little boxes, with one topic in each box and the boxes never touching. Women’s brains, he continues, are more like balls of wire, with every thing connected to every other thing and emotion running along the wires. This is why, he contends, men can only do one thing at a time and why women can multi-task and remember everything. (The video is well worth watching for the laugh!)

It turns out that there may even be scientific evidence (this is now my own conjecture) to support this:

“The connections between the two sides of women’s brains enable them, on average, to be better at expressing emotions and remembering details of emotional events and communicating them. They use language to talk about feelings and develop consensus more efficiently than men do. Men’s brains, more specifically organized and with fewer connections, enable men, on average, to focus more intensely and not be as distracted by superfluous information.”

Suppose that a “Wire Thinker” (man or woman!) was shopping for a car. As they’re looking at cars and specifications, might they be (subconsciously) influenced by the context of their family, their job, pleasant memories of cars in the past, just about anything in fact?

Contrast this with a “Box Thinker” (man or woman!). They would be in their “car box”, which is not connected to their “family box”, or “good times box”. Might they be more focused on the task at hand? At looking at specifications and features? Less emotionally connected?

So men and women aside – perhaps there are “Box Thinkers” and “Wire Thinkers” (or times when a person thinks box-like and wire-like), and perhaps this accounts for some people’s inclination to separate or conflate their home and work lives – neither of which is right or wrong of course.

If there is any truth in this, the question becomes – how can we design experiences that resonate with both types of thinking?


A User Experience is greater than the sum of it’s Touchpoints

Last week, after a conversation with a colleague, I tweeted “A User Experience is greater than the sum of it’s Touchpoints”. It seemed such an intuitive statement, but almost immediately after hitting [Enter] I started to ask myself “what on earth does that really mean?”. Since it was retweeted quite a lot I thought i’d better spend some time thinking about it!

Space Time; the Final Frontier; As User Experience professionals we expend so much effort on the visual (layout, navigation, aesthetics, etc.) we sometimes forget that our users experience things over time. Whether a few seconds – page to page, or a few weeks – visit to visit, the time between touchpoints causes things to happen to memory which changes the context of the next (and subsequent) touchpoints.

Human memory; Users may remember or forget particularly good or bad interactions, changing the context and their perception of the next touchpoint, a perception they would not have if they only interacted with that single touchpoint.

Computer memory; The system may remember or forget information from one touchpoint to the next (usernames, reference numbers, last items viewed, last state, etc.), changing the context of the experience (for good or bad) from that which they would have experienced if they had only interacted with that single touchpoint.

The takeaway? Do what Kirk did to Khan, but go one better – think in the 4th dimension, time.

A new chapter: Leaving the good ship Vanguard

After 13 years in various User Experience roles at Vanguard I have decided to leave to pursue a new opportunity. I enjoyed my time there, I made a lot of good friends, and I learned a lot – the most important thing being the importance of an organization’s mission, it’s reason for being, WHY it exists.

While looking for a new opportunity it became clear to me that i’d consumed enough Vanguard “client-owned” kool aid that I would struggle to work in an organization that focused mainly on making money for it’s owners or stock holders. I was open to moving away from the financial services field – in fact I thought I would have to – I used to joke with friends that there was really only one other financial services organization that I could work for, since they were also required by their corporate structure to put the interests of their clients first.

That organization is USAA, and fortunately for me they thought I could add value to their talented UX team. I’ll be joining them in late July as Assistant Vice President of User Experience. See you in San Antonio!