“Gold-plating” is often used to criticise designers when they attempt to thoughtfully design a useful and usable surface or interface for a product.

The approach here is that the breadth of the product is locked in and we progress across the entire base from the bottom towards the top, and clawing back time and money is done from the top down.

As long as the functionality is implemented and passes QA, effort spent at the surface is regarded as low value.

Diagram describing gold-plating as being the surface or interface of the UX layers model

But in reality the gold-plating has typically already happened before the build starts with the staking out of a product scope far in excess of what would satisfy the business objectives.

This is often due to the cumulative nature of requirements gathering (“Is there anything else you would like?”) and counterproductive procurement processes that demand clients precisely specify the solution before engaging the professionals they need to devise that solution.

Diagram describing gold-plating as cutting vertically through the UX layers model

The gold-plating is really entire vertical slices of scope, unnecessary systems integration, automation, and functions that should be demoted to the bottom of the product backlog ensuring that the highest value stories are implemented correctly and to a high level of quality; not merely “works” but at least “useful”.

Gojko Adzic software quality pyramid

Sure, getting your EFTPOS terminal hooked into your POS system would be nice and it’s what a system architect would strive for, but plenty of businesses get by just fine with manually entering transactions into the machine, including my local chemist, butcher, newsagent, and health food store.

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Trying to get info on ACT Road Rules

Or When Knowledge Bases Inevitably Go Bad.

I wanted to look up the ACT road rules to check what I thought was a new rule that came in last year about having to stay in your lane when going around corners on multi-lane roads rather than drifting across while cars are trying to merge.

If you’re curious what I’m talking about I’ll have to draw you a diagram because so far I’ve been unable to find information on it.

Anyway, so I started with the government one-stop-shop portal for the ACT, Access Canberra.

Access Canberra website Transport section

I started with Roads but that had articles on road closures, weighbridges, reporting road damage, and bus service accreditation.

So I went back and tried Safety & Rules:

Access Canberra knowledge articles

Ah there we go, ACT road rules:

Access Canberra cycling section

Hmm, Cycling section? Well, road rules are road rules … but what’s this about mobile phones? Did it link me in too deep? No, I guess that’s a frequently-asked question or something they’re promoting at the moment.

Well, there’s a link there to ACT road rules so let’s keep following the scent.

Ah great, is that seriously the best you can do, send me to view the actual legislation?


Guess I’ll give Google a go … and found what I was looking for, titled the ACT Road Rules Handbook [PDF]

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When e-commerce gaslights you

With over 400 registered accounts for websites I may be in the upper percentile for web users, but I’m sure everyone has at least once had an online account “lost” by a business.

Sometimes e-commerce businesses lose their user database through data corruption, accidents etc, sometimes through migrating to new systems and not being able to or bothering to migrate user data, often from moving from a system that stored passwords cleartext to encrypted.

When you register an account you make a contract with that business that you will hand over personal details for safe-keeping in return for faster service and other benefits; you nominate them as a preferred supplier for a product or service as opposed to sites where you make purchases as a “guest” customer with no plans to shop there again.

Sometimes when online businesses recognise they may have lost user accounts they’ll own up and provide mechanisms for recreating your account in their new e-commerce system.

Sometimes they say nothing, and it feels like they’re gaslighting you, like this morning’s example from Officeworks.

I know I have (or had) an Officeworks Photos user account because I keep all my passwords in a vault; I can tell you I created the account in October 2013.

But this morning when I went to log in it told me “I’m sorry, your password was not correct. Please try again“. No that’s not possible. Using a vault like 1password means there’s no scope for typos.

But okay fine I’ll say I “forgot” my password …

Officeworks is telling me I don't have an account with them

No culpability here from Officeworks, no suggestion that perhaps something went wrong their end.

Nope, it’s all in my head. I don’t have an account. Never did. I’m imagining things. Thanks, this makes me feel like a valued customer …

I don’t mean to single out Officeworks, this has happened over and over again, and creating a new account is no big deal, but it does feel dismissive and even derisive.

Losing user data shouldn’t happen, but it does. It would be a nice gesture just to say “Hey we can’t find your account, there’s a chance we screwed up and if so, sorry”.

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Usability and software architecture

Contribution to The UX Book (2012) by Len Bass from NICTA:

Architectural decisions made early in development [may] preclude the implementation of a usable system. Members of the design team are frustrated and disappointed that despite their best efforts, despite following current best practice, they must ship a product that is far less usable than they know it could be.

This scenario need not be played out if important usability concerns are considered during the earliest design decisions of a system, that is, during the design of the software architecture. Software architecture refers to the internal structure of the software – what pieces are going to make up the system and how they interact. The relationships between architectural decisions and software quality attributes such as performance, availability, security, and modifiability are relatively well understood and taught routinely in software architecture courses.

However, the prevailing wisdom in the last 25 years has been that usability had no architectural role except through modifiability; design the UI to be modified easily and usability will be realised through iterative design, analysis, and testing. Software engineers developed “separation patterns” or generalised architecture designs that separated the user interface into components that could change independently from the core application function.

The Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern is an example of one of these. Separation of the user interface has been quite effective and is used commonly in practice, but it has problems: (1) there are many aspects of usability that required architectural support other than separation and (2) the later changes are made to the system, the more expensive they are to achieve. Forcing usability to be achieved through modifications means that time and budget pressures are likely to cut off iterations on the user interface and result in a system that is not as usable as possible.

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Cook your damn chicken

It’s like if a bunch of people had eaten chicken all their life and then you come along and suggest cooking it, and they reject that idea because it takes too long and seems unnecessary, but you knew cooking it would put an end to the ceaseless Salmonella poisoning?

That’s what UX is like. It’s not something extra, it’s something you’ve been missing, and its omission is a reason why your “tried and true” approach continually results in misaligned, mediocre, unsatisfactory and poor quality products and services.

It’s not someone dragging another chair up to the table, it was already there and was vacant for too long.

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People are beautiful

Me and my newborn in May 2016As designers, we often refer to and are concerned with people’s preferences, characteristics, attitudes and behaviours. To some, it might seem unnecessary or even extravagant to accommodate the breadth of experiences, attributes and desires that are unique to each person.

But as I sit on the bed while my six-month-old baby daughter sleeps I think about how she has started developing preferences … sometimes she likes to be on her tummy, sometimes on her back; sometimes she prefers cold milk, sometimes warm; sometimes she wants her musical elephant, sometimes her clanky-eared moose.

And that’s beautiful. It’s what makes her her. She’s no longer just a homogeneous animated small human, she’s Lily, and Lily likes to squeal while thumping her feet on her bouncer. Lily likes to be blasted off into orbit towards the ceiling and then drift back down to Earth. Lily likes to roll over in her cradle and hit her head on the sides.

These differences between us aren’t nuisances. People are not stupid. It’s not a chore to have to treat users as real people. We are all amazing, complex and varied. We all have names, parents, maybe siblings, maybe we’re cat people or dog people, or we’re dealing with a difficult situation in our lives or we love our jobs and want to succeed.

This is one of the most important things that designers can bring to the table, a reminder that we are not designing for robots or clones of us, that what we care about is not what other people care about.

Maybe this is why I dislike personas, because they feel like contrived mannequins that’s more like taxidermy. Keep it real, connect with people and remind others that what makes us human and individuals should be celebrated, not despised.

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I will care … but not right now

I work predominantly in agile teams using a Lean UX approach with concurrent streams of tactical and strategic design and research, supporting the development team with the stories being delivered in the current sprint while looking at stories a sprint ahead, and epics further out.

Often developers will want advice on user interface design and surprisingly my response will be that I don’t care about the details.

The thing is, I absolutely do care about the details of user interface design and usability, but there’s little value in sweating the details for screens and workflows that have yet to be validated at a higher level. When you’re working with an agile methodology everything is tentative; developers are building and deployment increments that you may have have had no involvement in validating and designing. And that’s okay. When there’s one designer and half a dozen developers you can’t afford to be a bottleneck nor impede velocity by forcing a linear workflow.

Sometimes the details are vital to demonstrating the viability and desirability of a feature or screen. Often they’re not. There’s little point to getting bogged down in form design, interaction and typography until you’re confident that the feature is likely to survive validation and testing and worth investing more time in refining.

The more time the team invests in refining the presentation of user interfaces that haven’t passed validation with customers the more it hurts when those screens are demoted or discarded from the product.

I’m not necessarily talking about technical and design debt, although that’s often part of it — prototypes are intended to be thrown away, MVPs are not — but focusing on activities that will deliver the greatest value and impact.

Hold your ideas lightly and be willing to let them go so unsuitable design and features don’t persist in the product because of your ego or a sense of squandering the team’s hard work.

If the team has thrown together a corrugated iron shed to test whether the size and placement of the shed is suitable, there’s no point spending all weekend painting the shed because it’ll likely be pulled down and set up somewhere else … and if you’ve put in the effort to paint it, the team might be reluctant to touch it.

As Tony says in Scarface (1983) “You gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women“.

In other words:

  • Don’t get bogged down in screen design until you’re sure you understand the purpose of the screen
  • Don’t get bogged down in determining the purpose of the screen until you’re sure you understand the suitability of the workflow
  • Don’t get bogged down in the suitability of the workflow until you understand the relevance and market need for the feature
  • Don’t get bogged down in assessing relevance of the feature until you understand the scope of the product
  • Don’t get bogged down in the scope of the product until you understand the fundamental problem you’re trying to solve, and for who

Start from the bottom and work upwards, and don’t skip a step.

EDIT: Some weeks after publishing this post I found this very relevant passage in Contextual Design: Evolved by Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer:

Lengthy quote from the book Contextual Design: Evolved about design as layers

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How design is framed can handicap delivering great user experiences

Some designers lean more towards the artist/genius side. That’s not me. I believe design is more of a craft like cabinetmaking that straddles both art and engineering, function and form.

My goal is to be able to justify every design decision and trace it back through user insights from research, collaboration with stakeholders and my team, and heuristics back to high-level requirements and the vision for a product or service.

It’s not always possible and sometimes it comes down to a flip of a coin or personal preferences; when that happens I’m happy to admit that to my team or client and let them have an equal vote if they want to contest the design.

But I do see that this mode and attitude leads to designs that lean towards “barely enough”. While I might have had great success in encouraging clients and teams to think creatively and explore ideas at a conceptual level, when it comes down to implementation it tends to be too heavily influenced by technology – specifically what the chosen technology can do and what it looks like out-of-the-box.

Trying to make tasks easier for users to complete, to proactively push information to them and let them cut corners or take shortcuts … these are often a battle, and it shouldn’t be.

Here’s a concrete example from Atlassian’s Confluence:

Atlassian Confluence restricted access message

If I were a designer involved with Confluence I’d want to provide users a way of requesting access to the page or space. From a user task and goal perspective they can probably achieve this as they’ll know something about the page they’re trying to access and can find someone involved who can dig up the space admin who can then make a decision. But a text field “Why do you want access” and a submit button would be so much nicer and make their lives easier.

Heck, I’d just be happy if they provided the name and email address of the admin, that’d save a lot of time and frustration.

Trying to tie such recommendations back to subjective and ambiguous brand values of “friendly” and “helpful” can be a tough sell. If you’ve set the expectation that you back up all design with evidence and then suddenly you’re trying to get things through the door on clouds and fluff then of course it’s no surprise when getting that last 10% to finish the product than ship it rough sawn is like pushing shit uphill.

It seems to me there’s an opportunity here to market ourselves (or at least myself) as curators of great user experiences, that it’s more of a package than grains of sand that development teams feel they can ignore.

You can’t have us bake a cake and then not let us put candles on it; what sort of disappointing birthday would that be?

It feels necessary to counter the strong and often overwhelming appetites from teams and clients to do less, to see what they can get away with not doing, minimising custom code and keeping things simple, easy to test, easy to deploy, and easy to upgrade.

Their concerns and motivators are of course all valid but as Normal Modes’ UX Maturity Model [PDF] states “UX is seen as a zero-sum game versus technical imperatives and business objectives”. That’s just a common perception in immature organisations and teams and not reflective of how UX and development can work together to deliver great results, not just average, as perceived and determined by users and the market.

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Why a “senior” UX designer?

In email signature blocks and documents I typically refer to myself as a Senior UX Designer.

Is it because I have subordinate designers who directly report to me? No, and if that’s what it was then I’d probably opt for Lead UX Designer. Is it because I’m old? No, I’m thirty-three although I have been working in IT since 2000.

So why a senior designer? Isn’t that a bit wanky?

Well, yes a little bit; sometimes I shy away from the prefix. I much prefer to demonstrate my value rather than attempt to assert it through a title on a business card.

It’s more a posture, it’s a memo to myself that I’m not here to be handed requirements, draw wireframes and log usability defects in JIRA.

To me, being a senior designer is primarily about design leadership. It’s the next rung up from doing design to teaching design, transformation and facilitating the delivery of design services through user-centred design maturity.

Can anyone be a senior UX designer? Does it just take experience? If I deliver 20 projects can I then call myself senior? Not in my book. Leadership, negotiation and strategy are skills additional to the base set of competencies for UX designers.

Yes experience is definitely part of it but so is a tenacious attitude and enthusiasm for improving the way organisations work and deliver or improve digital products and services. To not be the only person with empathy for customers and users and not even to persuade others empathise once-off but to invoke a culture where other people are asking the questions and challenging assumptions that you normally would have to.

Anyone can learn those skills and some people might have those skills and then learn UX (although it might be strange for an inexperienced UX’er to describe themselves as “senior” when they’re fresh out of General Assembly).

Champions fight on behalf of others. Leaders encourage and equip followers to fight for themselves … and maybe introduce some new toys and tools.

Modified war vehicle from Army of Darkness

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Shipping costs, coupons and reward programs

The follow is based on personal experience and anecdotes and should not be used to inform design or business decisions about e-commerce.

It seems many smaller e-commerce businesses adopt the position that “Shipping costs what it costs and we just pass that onto customers” without considering how much revenue they could be losing.

Lower shipping from another retailer

An obvious example is earlier this week when I wanted to buy a high-quality English Haws metal watering can; one retailer wanted to charge me $36 – I enquired about it and got a sound explanation which made sense but didn’t persuade me to place an order with them, which should have been the aim of their response:

All shipping is charged on the greater of the cubic weight or actual (dead) weight. Watering cans have a cubic weight 15-20kgs, where they only weight between 2-3 kgs. We simply pass through the cost based on Australia Post’s eParcel rates.

Instead, I went with Peter’s of Kensington who charged me $9 for shipping.

Free shipping

Then we look at a retailer like Book Depository who offer free worldwide delivery. Not having to pay a shipping fee to buy books has changed my pattern of buying behaviours.

Instead of maintaining a shortlist of books and then placing an order every few months I just order when I want, sometimes placing orders just a week apart because it doesn’t cost me any extra.

I skip the stage where I cull my shortlist and instead can place orders spontaneously with no financial repercussions, so the upside for both myself and the retailer is that I order more books.

Tiered shipping rates

When I ordered some sharpening stones from Lansky in the US there was a shipping cost increase when the order went above $100 so I spent twenty minutes moving products in and out of my cart and whittled it down to come under that price point.

It’s completely irrational because if they just had fixed the shipping at the higher cost I wouldn’t have cared. But because I could save a bit on shipping I spent the time to do so.

Rewards and coupons

Another thing that alters my buying behaviour are rewards programs. At Timbecon you get a $20 voucher for every $500 you spend, but the vouchers are only issued once a month so if I want to place an order and I’m expecting a voucher I put it off until it’s issued.

Their shipping costs are low too, just $10-15 but that’s enough to stop me placing orders as needed and instead maintain a shortlist in my shopping cart for weeks until I feel like I’ve got everything in there I want and have excluded anything I absolutely don’t need … and that largely comes down to the shipping cost which is ridiculous as shipping sometimes represents as little as 3% of the order.

If shipping were free I would have ordered more products, more frequently.

Fuck it I’ll pay anything

There’s a Spain-based retailer who charges $60 express international shipping. That’s pretty high, but I’ll pay it because it’s still lower than any single one of their hand-made products (even though shipping can represent a full third of the cost of the order).

For those products it’s an emotional decision; I want what they sell, it’s the only place I can get it. I basically shut my eyes, hold my breath and click Place Order.

What really feels wasteful is when shipping costs more than the product, like when I paid $10 to ship something from Hong Kong that cost 99¢.

I think many businesses don’t consider the influence that shipping costs and rewards programs have on customer’s decision-making about placing orders.

If they did and implemented or perhaps even revoked rewards programs or offered different shipping costs including partially subsidised shipping then they could potentially increase their revenue and profit.

I know many businesses don’t move the scale required to qualify for low courier rates and for many simply passing on the costs of shipping works for them.

But I don’t think it should be the default. It should be a considered and deliberate decision made in the best interests of the enterprise to maximise cash flow and profit and I think in some cases incentive and rewards programs may actually be detrimental.

Related reading

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