Efficiency versus consistency

Here’s a real world example of where consistency can matter more than efficiency: The traffic light controlled intersection at Haydon Drive and Jaeger Circuit.

Because there’s only a single lane coming out of Jaeger Circuit onto Haydon Drive southbound and because of ACT road rules, vehicles must stay in that right lane, so technically traffic in the left lane of Haydon Drives southbound shouldn’t need to stop at this intersection. But for consistency and to reduce confusion, all traffic is brought to a stop when cars on Jaeger Circuit have a green light.

Map of traffic light controlled intersection in Bruce, Canberra

To increase efficiency, the intersection would need substantial modifications to ensure signals are clearly comprehended by drivers and installing barriers as has been done at the south end of Anzac Parade for the left lane of northbound Parkes Way traffic. Also the Wentworth Avenue – Canberra Avenue – Sturt Avenue roundabout in Fyshwick where southbound traffic from Wentworth can safely bypass the roundabout onto Canberra Ave.

A poorly-designed example is the Yarra Glen – Yamba Drive – Melrose Drive roundabout in Woden where there is an increased risk of collisions because those same structural measures haven’t been implemented other than a solid white line, further compounded by the physical layout where vehicles on Yarra Glen are essentially going straight ahead onto Yamba.

Imagery © 2017 CNES / Astrium, DigitalGlobe, Map data © 2017 Google

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High quality is a way to pay respect to customers and users

From The Axe Book, a booklet that accompanies axes and tools made by Gränsfors Bruk, a forge north of Stockholm in Sweden:

What we take, how and what we make, what we waste, is in fact a question of ethics. We have an unlimited responsibility for the Total. A responsibility which we try to take, but do not always succeed in. One part of this responsibility is the quality of the products and how many years the product will maintain its durability.

To make a high quality product is a way to pay respect and responsibility to the customer and the user of the product. A high quality product, in the hands of those who have learned how to use it and how to look after it, will very likely be more durable. This is good for the owner, the user. But it is also good as well as part of a greater whole: increased durability means that we take less (decreased consumption of material and energy), that we need to produce less (gives us more time to do other things we think are important or enjoyable), destroy less (less waste).

Gränsfors Carpenter's Axe

Photo © Tito the Spoonmaker

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Excerpt from Jon Kolko’s book Well-Designed

From Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love (2014) by Jon Kolko:

Most of our product development processes are arcane and reflect outdated ways of thinking. The “product requirements document” for example – a leftover artifact from the 1980s – still seems to find its way into product development meetings, and those same meetings seem to spin endlessly around arguments about features, alignment, and time-to-market.

As the market demands products that are simple to understand, robust in their technical capabilities, and most importantly, delightful to engage with, our legacy processes obviously don’t deliver. And with consumer expectations relentlessly rising, becoming overwhelmed with the complexity of feature matrices and specifications is easy. In this increasingly complicated and pressurized world, it’s hard enough delivering a useful product at all, much less one that someone really loves.

In the past decade, mostly in reaction to this anxiety and complexity, a number of methodologies have developed that purport to be fast, nimble, and quick. These methods reject documentation and deride linear process, swinging the pendulum in the direction of speed and results. Run loose and lean, it is said, in order to fail fast and succeed sooner. Yet these methods introduce a mess of their own, and as a result, consumers often end up with incomplete products that feel half-baked.

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“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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