PoetPainter - Thoughts
2170 days ago / 4 Comments

From Paths to Sandboxes

I’ve been a long time fan of the Montessori approach to education, but it was only recently that I read The Montessori Method. Contrary to popular teacher methods that focus on shaping the path of a student’s learning (consider that most school systems force students down the same learning path), Maria Montessori focused on creating a learning environment that encourages exploration and discovery. To this day, Montessori classrooms around the world encourage independent learning and nurture natural curiosity, which leads to lifelong learners. But, this is not without design and intent. Learning isn’t left to chance, it is designed. Or, as Maria Montessori wrote:

…we have prepared the environment and the materials

It’s this design of environments and the objects (or “materials”) within them that I’m curious about.

What Pinterest, Twitter, and Minecraft have in common

I’m working on a new talk, tentatively titled “From Paths to Sandboxes.” I hope to share the journey I’ve been on, from trying to shape and influence a user’s path, to creating engaging environments where people may determine how and under what circumstances to best engage with a system.

Pinterest, Minecraft, and Twitter logos

The catalyst for this thinking was another talk I gave, deconstructing why systems such as Twitter, Pinterest, and MineCraft are so maddenlingly addictive. Indeed, there are a number of psychological nudges used in these environemnts (here’s my answer to why Pinterest is so Maddeningly addictive). But, put side by side, I saw two common themes:

  1. These are platforms. You can make of it what you want. There is no prescribed way to use the system. Having been an early user of each of these systems, they all shared a common “Huh, why would I do that?” problem. It wasn’t until an early set of users started demonstrating how and what you could do in these environments, and why it might be valuable, that other people “got it.” Which leads to my second observation…
  2. These are social spaces, in which people learn from each other how to use the system. Many of the psychological nudges that follow stem from observing others. While MineCraft is a place for exploration and self-expression (perhaps survival!), it’s watching others that inspires new ideas and creates personal challenges. The hashtag in twitter was an emergent element. It wasn’t until I saw my wife pinning decorating ideas that I saw Pinterest as a visual bookmarking system. These are all examples of “Positive Mimicry,” whereby we learn by modeling our behavior after others.

Sandbox Games

In the gaming world, these are called “sandbox” games, games that “have an open gameplay structure that allows you to ‘play’ in the world and choose to participate in the story at your own pace” [Wikipedia]. With Minecraft, there is no leaderboard, no mission, no points, no badges, no clear objective to the game—none of the usual trappings associated with most games. But, this is the strength of this style game: players make of it what they will. You can play the game to create interesting homes, search for rare minerals, survive threats from creatures, help other players, hurt other players… All players are provided an environment, objects, and rules around what can and cannot be done, but you make of it what you want. All of this was carefully designed to encourage possibilities; contrast that with the typical game that moves you through a series of ever-increasing challenges, each one having you converge upon the same solution.

Possibility Engines versus Exhaustibles

This distinction between games that diverge into possibilities vs games that converge around a common end goal first caught my attention in a talk by Sebastian Deterding. He briefly contrasted “generative” games (also described as “possibility engines”) against “exhaustibles… systems with uses so clearly delimited, they are rapidly exhausted.” Deterding referred to the ancient game of Go as an open, generative game with “a huge possibility space of moves and countermoves and repercussions.” With just a few simple rules there is a near infinite number of possibilities! Contrast that with games like Halo or Candy Crush, which have clear paths and end points. These are fun for a time, until we either master them or lose interest. This latter style of game moves you through an ever increasing series of pre-scripted, linear challenges. Indeed, generative games also have ever-increasing challenges, but they are self-imposed. As you desire to get better at something, you create new challenges for yourself. And this leads to my problem with the gamified apps I’ve seen—they’re based solely on one style of gameplay, the incentives-based, rewards-based, leveling-up, “skinner box” variety of games. Note, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If your desired outcome is a prescribed one (increasing registration, training scenarios), a rewards based model could work, though it’s not without it’s share of challenges and is often effective as a novelty.

But what about this other kind of game? This more playful, less directed, form of play? Incentives seem good for training scenarios, but not for habit formation or discovery. Who is designing the playful environments that enable people to create, surprise, and delight others? Where are the environments that people learn from, not because of a scripted series of instructional steps, but through playful discovery, experimentation, and feedback loops? I think systems such as twitter or Pinterest, while not characterized as games per se, might qualify as this kind of playful sandbox environment, or the “possibility engine” described by Deterding.


While I’m not designing full out sandbox games, this thinking has already influenced my design work, in at least two ways:

1. Designing Features (or why not to)

In my own work, I’ve noticed a transformation from designing scripted paths to designing systems through which people can accomplish a variety of things, in their own way. Indeed, this latter form of design is much more difficult, and harder to discuss. We tend think about features and functionality that address particular usage scenarios:
“As a user I need a way to flag interesting tweets for reviewing later…”
“As a user I need a way to give kudos to people for sharing something interesting….”
“As a user I need a way save positive tweets for later use as testimonials…”
Twitter hasn’t specifically built functionality for these use cases, but they do offer the ability to star a tweet. What is starring even for? Twitter doesn’t specify how or why you might want to star something, and indeed there are at least 5, if not more, ways that people have decided to use this functionality. But, that’s the point—it’s precisely this kind of simplicity and ambiguity that allows people to use starring in the way that is useful for them personally. It’s a piece of functionality for which there is no specified usage, though it will satisfy any number of user stories. Designing in a way that says “you can use x to do what you’re asking for” is very different from building out the requested (single purpose) functionality. It’s easy to react to new feature requests. It’s much harder to practice restraint, listen to dozens or thousands of requests, and respond with a thoughtful addition to your software that could be used to satisfy most people. However, if we design in this more thoughtful way, we end up with systems that scale, are easier to maintain (no forked versions for specific customers), and accommodate many more users.

2. Designing Behavior.

Moving from “paths” to “sandboxes” may sound contrary to much of what I wrote about in Seductive Interaction Design. Perhaps. But, I don’t think I’m renouncing any of the persuasive design themes that I opened in that book. Rather, this thinking builds upon and refines that thinking. Take, for example, the familiar “elephant, rider, path” analogy. While “shaping the path” can certainly be an effective means of influencing behavior, I find myself thinking about the difference between short paths and long paths. Nudging someone to complete a sale or fill out a registration page is different from a scripted workflow consisting of many steps.

In the past, I might have designed the “perfect” series of events, anticipating every possible course of action—a long path with many forks and roads laid out before the user. This sounds like hubris on my part, as the designer, but it’s not without some justification. My thinking was influenced by the pseudo AI described by Will Wright, analogous to building a set of dominoes, the sequence of which can vary widely, so long as the links or endpoints match up. My lesson learned from these experiments was a simple reminder that users like to be in control. No matter how much we try to anticipate every course of action and create the perfect journey, people don’t go about doing things in the same way! From these projects, I’ve learned to design in a much more open and flexible way. A specific example: I avoid designing “steps” of any sort. Even the simple process of writing this post in an editor that then publishes these words to the page is too much for me—I’d prefer direct manipulation of the words, as you’ll see them. And don’t even get me started on wizards…

Handing over control

In the end, this is about control–handing over control to your users, without any prescribed outcomes. Which is scary, if you have defined business goals (“increase x by…”). But, what are the outcomes of this approach? More engagement and use? People who love your service, for what it helps them do? (Versus what it does for you). A more active and enlightened society? If we really step back and look at the outcomes of a group of people playing and learning together, this might be the most valuable thing we can build for a society. In many ways, the internet and all the good that is has enabled might fit this description of a “sandbox” game. And it’s not like we’ve giving up complete control—it’s now about directing, by way of setting the conditions and defined boundaries. What happens inside those boundaries is where we can all be surprised, delighted, and amazed.

Where next?

So there you go. This is what I’m thinking more and more about everyday: the open environment, the boundaries of that open environment, and the objects placed within that environment. How do we create engagement by designing sandboxes, rather than paths?

Obviously, these musings are still in the early, formative stages, I’ll debut this as a talk in October, at The University of Waterloo’s Gamification 2013 conference. And as of this writing, I feel as if I have all the pieces gathered (much of what I’ve shared here) but have yet to arrange them in such a way as to have meaning or singular focus, beyond the broad theme of “sandbox applications.” That said, I’m always blown away by the feedback shared with me when I share exploratory thoughts such as this. So, From Paths to Sandboxes, what are your thoughts?

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2191 days ago / 2 Comments

Introducing the Mental Notes Behavior Cube!

When I created the Mental Notes card deck, I shied away from creating a framework for using the cards. Other than keywords suggesting how a principle might be used (for persuasion, memory, attention or understanding), there is no kind of classification system. As I explain in the instructions:

Early on, I had planned on having color-coded borders, icons and other information by which to group these principles. In the end, however, I found these to be unnecessary. While a solid framework would certainly be helpful (see “Chunking”), many of these ideas are simply too rich to classify into discrete categories. That, and there’s a certain magic in being able to organize (and reorganize) your cards as you see fit. As with music, it’s the song with fewer notes onto which you can add your own harmonies—my hope is that you’ll discover your own patterns and uses for these cards. Share your frameworks with other people. I’ll be doing the same at getmentalnotes.com and in upcoming workshops and presentations.

That was 2010.

So what’s happened since then?

A number of great frameworks have emerged, each offering a different perspective by which to discuss principles of human behavior. Some of my favorites:

From the numerous workshops, talks, and smart conversations that have followed since the publication of the deck, I’ve observed some recurring patterns of use. While I do encourage a very random “draw one idea and try to apply it” approach (the cards are a tool for brainstorming, after all!), there are some logical ways to group the cards. As an example, when it came to write the chapter in my book that comments on gamification, I started by focusing on 8 principles that I consider core motivators; this includes things like Curiosity, Competition, or Self-Expression.When you strip away all the other trappings that make something a game, these are what’s left at the center (or what should be at the center!).

Designing for emotion has attracted a lot of attention over the last several years. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the conversation often narrows in on very a specific set of examples, namely those things that excite the brain. This includes humor, surprise, tone & voice, visuals—things related to personality. While this is certainly important, it ignores much of what is (or should be) included in conversations around emotion. For example, without emotions, we are unable to make decisions. This has less to do with feeling elated or sad, and more to do with the emotional center of our brain telling the executive functions to “just pull the trigger—this is what we should do!” This applies to everything from choosing what to wear in the morning to making difficult financial decisions. The field of behavioral economics has essentially shown that we are not rational creatures. Our motivations are often irrational—why else would we care about mayorships or closing an information gap ?

It’s this narrow definition of emotional design that was the catalyst for what I’m about to share…

Catalyst for the “BeCube”

I was recently invited to do an internal keynote where the theme was designing for emotions. I was struggling to adapt my talk (essentially about human behaviors) to the emotional design theme; this is when the gap between what I normally discuss and the more popular emotional design conversations became evident. Opportunity: I could open by talking about humor, delight, visual imagery, and then segue into the broader view of what it means to really design for emotions, thinking about how we make decisions, how we perceive things, what motivates us and what reinforces those motivations. It’s this line of thinking that led me to create the Mental Notes Behavior Cube:

Mental Notes Behavior Cube (assembled)

Nope. This is not a 6 sided die you roll. Each side is a lens by which to organize principles of human behavior. One of the things that kept me from creating a framework before was that many of the principles don’t fit neatly into one category or classification. The brilliance of a cube metaphor is that you’re essentially looking at the same set of things, but from one of 6 different perspectives. As you change the focal point, a different cluster of things rises to face you. It’s okay if the same principle shows up on three different sides—it’s not sloppy thinking! It is this metaphor freed me up to suggest 5 different groupings or ways to discuss the principles of human behavior identified in the Mental Notes card deck.

Those 5 groupings, or lenses, are as follows:

  • What directly engages our emotions?
    More accurately, what excites or arouses the brain. This is the stuff that normally dominates conversations about emotional design. This includes things like humor, sensory appeal, visual imagery and so on.
  • What shapes memory and perception?
    Our memories of a past event and our experience of a current event are both a process of active construction— our brains working to find patterns in all the active neurons (or something like that!). All the principles in this lens deepen our understanding of how things like stories, beliefs and memories are formed.
  • What motivates us?
    These are core motivators. When you peel back all the layers, this is why we do most of the things we do. Go any deeper than this and you get into drives (sex, hunger, safety).
  • What encourages or discourages us?
    These are the things that keep us going or keep us on course. Often confused with core motivators, these the reinforcers, the things that say “good job!” or “meh, you need to work on that some more…”
  • What influences our decisions?
    These are those things that, in the moment, spur us on to make a decision or take action. You may know what to do, but these are things that trigger that action.

…and all of the principles organized into these 5 lenses answer the question “What motivates specific behaviors?”

To be clear, these lenses all compliment each other nicely, and the boundaries between the focal areas are fuzzy lines, not hard distinctions. But, I feel like this is a great structure for moving forward the practical design conversations focused on principles of human behavior.

If, for example, I’m speaking with a client about making something playful, I can start by talking about a few core motivations— why someone might care in the first place. Then we can talk about ways to encourage that behavior. We can then talk about ways to excite people, influence decisions, and so on. As with the Mental Notes, we’re talking about timeless principles of psychology, not the surface level mechanics that get so much attention (a “progress mechanic” only works because of the principles of Status, Appropriate Challenges, and Sequencing).

Mental Notes Behavior Cube (unassembled)
The Mental Notes Behavior Cube.pdf

All in all, I’m rather satisfied with the model, and excited to share it with others. It’s a fairly simple and straightforward organizational system, but the thinking to get to this point didn’t happen overnight. As with all ideas, I’ve given it a version number– I’m sure it will continue to evolve. But, it’s ready to be released into the wild. So… enjoy! I’m offering this as a free PDF, my way of giving back to others, and continuing the conversation. Let me know your thoughts and how this might work for you!

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2366 days ago / 2 Comments

2012, the Year in Review


While this blog rarely gets any attention from me, I have continued to write and contribute in other places, both online and around the world. Before I slip much further in 2013, I though it might be worthwhile to gather some of the highlights and details that made 2012 a truly blessed and wonderful year for me.

First off, the writing…

In December 2011, Alex Duloz invited me to contribute to The Pastry Box. His pitch:

Each year, The Pastry Box will gather 30 people who are each influential in their field and ask them to share 12 thoughts regarding their work (one per month, that is). Those 360 thoughts… will then be published every day throughout the year at a rate of one per day, starting January 1st 2012.

The challenge of producing 1 new thought a month, on anything web related, seemed like a reasonable commitment (and one that would get me in the habit of writing again). What I didn’t anticipate was just how useful this would turn out for me, personally. The format encourages a more “editorial” style of writing. Sans comments, I felt free to jump on a virtual soapbox and rant about whatever crossed my mind. As it turned out, this format enabled me to uncover several topics that are, apparently, very important to me.

The importance of learning and curiosity surfaced as a recuring theme in nearly half of my posts. A few of my favorites:

Unspurprisingly, I also wrote several posts related to sensemaking and the interactive, visual display of information:

(This idea of designing for understanding is, by the way, the topic of my next book and a subject I’ve been giving numerous talks and workshops on–stay tuned!)

I was also surprised and a bit curious to discover what topics seemed to resonate (or strike a nerve!) with a large number of people. Two posts in particular seemed to get a LOT of attention:

This last post actually started as a comment in response to a question posed by Jason Putorti in Nov 2011.

Designers, what do you want to tell all those developer/founders that are looking to hire you? Any stories or bad hiring / recruiting experiences you want to share?

In the end, nearly every post I contributed to The Pastry Box turned out to be of a reflective nature, the kind of things that might still be interesting and relevant 5 or 10 years down the road, like what I look for in candidates) or when is the best time to write a book?

About halfway through the project, I started noticing the meta-narrative that is created when you read a series of thoughts, written over a span of time, from one person. In this way, you start to see what things an individual notices and find interesting, which in itself is a new post of sorts. To this end, I’ve thought about collecting these thoughts into one publication, perhaps a self-publication for myself and some close friends and family. There was a brief attempt to collect all the 2012 thoughts into a book, but sadly, there wasn’t enough interest. Oh well.

Here are all the thoughts I wrote for the Pastry Box.

Outside of The Pastry Box, I’ve contributed to a few other places, most notably Quora.com. Perhaps the most surprising response I got was to my answer to the question: What are the best UI elements (controls, patterns, etc.) that have cropped up in modern web sites and web apps recently? (1140 votes and counting!)

Speaking, and more Speaking!

6 new presentations in 13 cities, including Dublin, Rome, London, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and (drumroll) Israel! There was also some domestic travel, I’m looking at you Memphis, Boston, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, MSP.

It’s hard to pick a favorite talk or venue. But, being invited to give the closing plenary at the Euro IA was, in addition to being a great honor, a great chance for me to refocus and crystalize a lot of my own interests. I chose to focus on the theme of curiosity, and how this one trait is drives learning and the entrepreneurial spirit. This topic also affored me the chance to share the things I’m curious about:

This was followed a few months later by my first ever TEDx talk—another great honor for me.

I have to say, I spent more time working in this one 15 minute talk than perhaps any other I’ve ever given. Between research and rehearsal, 100s of hours normally go into developing a new talk–this talk took things to a whole new level!

The biggest compliment I received on this talk came from my sister, who commented:

I finally understand what my little brother does!

I should also mention a talk I’ve only given once, at the IA Summit, about our brains and perception: “What’s Your Perception Strategy? Why It’s Not All About Content”

This talk is my response to the notion that “It’s all about content!” (it’s not). I wanted to reframe the conversation and get people thinking about how our brains come to perceive and make sense of external stimulus. Yes, content is very important, but perceptions of said content trump everything else. This is one of those ideas that, once it sinks in, totally changes how you approach just about everything you do—from designs to social interactions. I should also add, there’s a danger with most talks on the brain in that’s little practical knowledge to use in our daily work; while this was more about a single idea, I think I succeeded at delivering some practical tips near the end of the talk. I had a great time with this one, and would love to give it again. And it involves local artisan chocolate. Mmm.

2012 saw me talking mostly about information visualization, or more accurately, getting from information to understanding. Here are two slidedecks I’ve shared on this subject:

While there is some overlap in these two decks, this first one is more conceptual, given as a keynote at BigD.

…while this is the more pragmatic version, with more examples of what I’m advocating:

My biggest challenge with these talks has been figuring out how to describe what, exactly, I’m talking about. It sits somewhere in between print infographics (the good kind!) and data visualization. At the core, it’s about displaying information in a way that is highly visual, interactive, and ultimately conveys meaning and understanding, something missing from most sites today. Based on feedback from various folks, I’m feeling more comfortable with the latest title and description of this talk:

Design for Understanding: Solving the Small Data Problems There’s a small a small data problem, and we’re partly to blame. As IAs and designers, we put a lot of content in front of users. But how good are we at helping people make sense of that content once it gets published to the page? Sure, we provide search, sort, and filter tools, and we rely on common design patterns (lists, grid views and the like), but are these really the best ways to make sense of complex information? Be honest, how useful were these tools the last time you shopped for a new TV or digital camera? Ready access to information is great, but we need better tools to make sense of it all, tools that let us explore content, in rich, visual ways. In this workshop, Stephen will share the process he uses to create simple visual representations to help people make informed choices and understand complex information. In the same way that charts and data visualizations help us sift through numeric data, we need similar tools that allow us to interact with content and concepts. In brief, design patterns such as spreadsheets, lists, dashboards and grid views suffice for getting information onto a screen. However, when it comes to making sense of this information, these same patterns hold us back from designing great experiences; generic patterns are poor substitutes for a good custom visualization, especially one designed for the content being displayed.

And if this sounds interesting to you, be sure and sign up for the workshop! ;-)

Closing out the year…
As it this wasn’t already a crazy and blessed year, four more noteworthy events happened, nearly all in December.

  1. I was invited to speak at Time-Life, to the heads of all their online publications. That’s People, InStyle, Time, CNN, Real Simple, Fortune, Sports Illustrated—you get the idea!
  2. I was interviewed by Forrester for their report on Digital Customer Experience Trends To Watch, 2013. I’ve been a huge fan of Forrester since the 1st startup I joined back in the late 90s. To be interviewed by them was a great honor for me, personally.
  3. Out of nowhere, Christina Wodtke as me to answer “What is UX?” for a reboot of the Boxes and Arrows site. She caught me at a good moment, and I pounded out a rant that changed very little from initial draft through final publication (go ahead, read my response –- it’s not what you think!)
  4. I was invitied to contribute to a last minute project: UXMas! Think 24 thoughts (from people much smarter than me!) for the festive month of December. And one last zinger— I was to write for the 24th! Given such an significant day, I decided to pull out all the stops and share the single best exercise I know of for crafting a better user experience. The topic? UX Design, Role-playing & Micromoments (This, by the way, is the topic of a new talk I’ve now given at two 2013 events in Chicago and Israel.)

Anything else?

Oh yeah, 2012 was great in other ways: Great clients and project work. Great family stuff going on, including a move to a new house! But, that’s all for another time and place…



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3087 days ago

4 New Presentations!

I’m excited to announce four (really, three and a half) brand-spanking new presentations that I’ll be revealing over the next several months.

ONE: “Long After the Thrill: Sustaining Passionate Users”
First up, the “half-new” presentation; half-new, as I debuted a 20-minute version of this talk at the Interaction 11 conference last month in Boulder.

If the last couple years have been all about Seductive Interaction Design – “how do we get people to fall in love with our applications?” this one is about “how do we get people to stay in love with our applications?” To be honest, this was supposed to be my “beyond gamification” talk— my chance peel back the layers on games and find out what makes them so engaging. However, as I’ll show in this presentation, ongoing user engagement goes well beyond delighting users or offering fun and interesting challenges. This talk will walk through a bit of my journey to understand why people stay with a product for more than a few years.

I’ll be presenting “Long After the Thrill: Sustaining Passionate Users” at:

TWO: [My Yet-To-Be-Titled “Information Visualization” Talk]
Next up, is a Web App Masters Tour exclusive. Last year’s inaugural Web App Masters Tour (WAMT), was one of my favorite events of 2010—the good folks at UIE (Jared Spool and Lauren Cramer) did a brilliant job rounding up a top notch group of speakers who could comment on the different things to consider when designing Web applications. They had folks like Bill Scott, Luke Wroblewski, Ryan and Jason from 37 Signals, and more great speakers (you should check out the proceedings —well worth the $279 price tag!).

I was delighted to be invited back for the 2011 Web App Masters Tour, and even more delighted when they let me stray from my usual “psychology+design” theme.

This year, I’ll be talking about another interest of mine: how we represent information—dynamic information—in a way that is visual and relevant. This topic falls somewhere between online data visualization and print infographics—and has not yet been adequately addressed. To get an idea of what will be discussed, check out this recent interview I had with Jared Spool:

I’ll be speaking at two of the three stops on the tour:

If you can make it to either of these events, use the promo code ‘WAMT11’ to save $100 off the regular price.

THREE: “Critical Thinking for UX Designers (and Anyone, Really!)”
Imagine a workshop that culls together some of the best UX tips and tricks from more than 25 years of combined experience. This is what Russ Unger and I will be doing at least two events (and hopefully more to come!).

A little background: Last summer, Russ and I were talking about how the tools we use as UX professionals are (or were) at one time simply a response to a communication need. Someone, somewhere was in a situation where they needed to create a new way to communicate an idea or think through a concept or detail. Thus, wireframes, site maps, personas and other UX tools were born. But, these tools get far too much attention. And far too many people interested in user experience design focus on the tools, and not the critical thinking and creative problem problem solving skills that led to these tools in the first place. We’re hoping to change this, one group of people at a time.

The formal description:

Love creative problem solving, but need something more practical— something specific to User Experience? Russ and Stephen will share with you the exercises they use to solve the REAL problems. You’ll flex your critical thinking muscle through a series of jump starter activities. Even better, attendees will be encouraged to participate, if not embarrass themselves in front of a room full of their peers as they challenge themselves to see past the first, obvious—and often incorrect—answers, and start to flip problems on their heads to see solutions from a different view.

This particular topic is near and dear to me, as I get to draw on my background in education, primarily the education of gifted and talented students. Here’s a peek at some of the books I’ve been reviewing in preparation for this talk (though most of our content won’t be found in any of these books!):

creative thinking bookstack

This workshop will be at:

  • Web 2.0San Franciso, CA, March 28-31, 2011
  • The IA Summit 2011 (pre-conference workshop) — Denver, CO, March 30 – April 3, 2011

FOUR: “The Stories We Construct”
Finally, I’ll be peeling back the layers on why exactly ‘stories’ are so powerful. If you were to ask me which of the principles in the Mental Notes card deck was most influential, I’d have to say “stories.” But, the kind of story I’ll discuss here isn’t necessarily the kind we see in works of fiction or blockbuster movies. No, I’m focusing on the internal narratives we create, and how— biologically— we create these narratives. It’s through these stories that we define who we are and what kinds of decisions we’ll make.

The description:

What do fountain pens, football and photographs have in common? Everything we experience in life is filtered through some story. The things we buy, the decisions we make, how we spend our time— stories govern all these actions. But how are these stories constructed? Specifically, what have we learned about how our brains make sense of and integrate new information? And how can we use these insights to sharpen our design skills? Between lively anecdotes, speaker Stephen P. Anderson will share fascinating insights from psychology, neuroscience and learning theories to help explain why things have meaning in our lives. You’ll learn about symbols, stories and motivation, and the science behind the old adage “perception is reality.”

This is a very important talk. Stories are everywhere, from deciding which brand of cola to buy to understanding why people are willing to die for their religions (though we won’t get into anything this controversial!). I can promise a lively session that will (at one point in the talk) have everyone role-playing how our brains make a simple decision. And there might be a clip from Ratatouille.

I’ll be presenting “The Stories We Construct” at:


Maybe I’ll see you at one of these events? I’m excited to be sharing these ideas and looking forward to the discussions that follow.

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3284 days ago / 3 Comments

Radio Silence No More?

Yes. The post prior to this one was more than a year ago. I never considered myself a blogger, but sheesh, a year between posts merits some explanation. After all, it’s not like I haven’t had plenty going on in the past year. (If you already follow me on twitter, you’re probably scratching your head at the title of this post— just look at this as a summation of the last year.)

So, before I try jumping back into my meager two-posts-a-month-habit (I do have some interesting things to write about), here’s a very brief recap of what “the PoetPainter” has been up to…

Speaking / Traveling:
In the last year, I’ve:

  • created 4 new presentations and 2 workshops (see below)
  • presented at 18 events in 13 different cities
  • published 4 articles
  • created 1 new poster/infographic (look for a post, soon)
  • been interviewed by numerous folks, including Jared Spool and Paul Boag
  • traveled to 13 different cities, including Toronto, Amsterdam and London.
  • spoken at some pretty awesome events, like UX London, The Web App Master’s Tour and SxSW
  • had the best dish ever at Time in Philly
  • met some amazing people and made some new friends along the way

Project Work:
I’ve also worked on some really exciting projects that I haven’t really talked about (yet). Highlights:

Sidenote: I’ve also got a handful of my own ideas in search of a developer… Interested? Let me know!

Writing a Book
Yes, that’s right. By this time next year I will be a published author. I’m turning the Seductive Interactions presentation into a book, to be published by New Riders. I’m hoping that out of my new daily habit of writing (thanks 750words.com) , there’ll be more to share here and elsewhere on the Web.

Going Mental:
This was the big one: The Mental Notes card deck. Oddly enough, until a few days ago, there was no mention of Mental Notes on this site. Fixed.

Mental Notes Card DeckFor the last two years, I’ve been combing through all kinds of research related to human behavior, looking for ideas we can apply to the design of Web sites and applications. This journey has taken me into worlds like Social Psychology, Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Neuroscience, Gaming, Rhetoric, Persuasion, Seduction Techniques and so on. I started with texts like Predictably Irrational, Nudge, A Theory of Fun for Game Design before digging deeper into the research behind these fascinating reads. What came out of this study was a deck of cards. Each card represents a single idea from psychology (I use that term liberally) with some suggested ideas for how this could apply to the design of Web sites and applications. Along the way, I was lucky enough to get Kevin Cornell to create some fabulous illustrations. And my friend Steven Kidwell over at Chippenhook designed some pretty svelt packaging for the cards. The cards are finished. Now, I’ve just got to sell another 1,000 before we break even! Hint: You should really go buy a deck (or ten!) right now.

Workshop I:
Can’t wait for the Seductive Interactions book? I recently announced an all day Seductive Interactions workshop.

Photos from the Seductive Interactions Workshop

This workshop combines:
  • the theme of my original seductive interactions presentation (how to create playful and persuasive interactions)
  • with everything I learned creating the Mental Notes card deck
  • plus other odds and ends related to creating fun, playful effective sites
  • …for a pretty fun, intense day of inspiring ideas.

You can find out more information on the Seductive Interactions Web page.

Workshop II
While my focus for the last year has primarily been on the whole topic of psychology and UX, there was another, unrelated, workshop that I developed over a 6 month period:

How to Think with Pretty Pictures: Demystifying Concept Models

In addition Product Strategy & Design, Psychology and Managing Creative Teams, I also live/eat/breathe Infographics and Visual Thinking of all varieties. You can imagine then how thrilled I was to create a workshop walking through the process I use to create some of the fancy posters I’ve been known publish now and then. Slides for this workshop are available on the UX London site somewhere out in cyberspace. I hope to revisit this in the near future and offer it at other venues. If interested, let me know.

Looking Ahead:
On the immediate horizon are several conferences:

The common theme for all these presentations is psychology and design. However, I’m excited to also be speaking on some more strategic and creative themes:

  • Russ Unger and I are working on a critical thinking skills workshop (please vote if you’d like to see this at SxSW Interactive!)
  • In November, I’ll be presenting at a conference in Cannes, France on a practical “design thinking” related topic

I also have two other SxSW Interactive submissions:

(Please cast a vote if these sound good to you!)

The biggest change underneath all of this is a gradual transition, from supporting myself purely as a consultant to focusing more on speaking and training. Of course, this a risky transition. Which means it is with great optimism (and financial risk) that I’m launching the Seductive Interactions Workshop this month in Dallas (followed by Amsterdam in October?). It may fail miserably. Or it may succeed, as I’m hoping. You can decide that! Oh, if the workshop sounds like something you’d like me to bring to your city or company, just let me know via the “Where next?” form on the workshop page.

And there you have it. Stephen P. Anderson, past present and (near) future.

Now I’ve got to get back to work.

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3712 days ago / 3 Comments

My Thoughts on the New Whitehouse.gov Site

Last month, I was interviewed by Jon Ward of the Washington Times for an article about the new Whitehouse.gov Web site. The article, published this morning, speculates that “information is harder to find on the Obama Web site than it was on the site created and run by the Bush administration.” Since the views represented in the article do not necessarily reflect my own, I thought it might be best to share my personal thoughts on the redesigned Whitehouse.gov site:

General impressions:
I remember visiting the Whitehouse.gov site prior to and immediately after President Obama’s inauguration. What first struck me about the new Whitehouse.gov site was the dramatic full-width carousel or messaging area. Whereas the previous site felt more like a news site with lots of useful information spread throughout, this administration’s version of Whitehouse.gov has more in common with product or service sites— there’s a clear central message being communicated. This design choice is consistent with the current administration, as President Obama has tried to remain firmly focused on a core set of issues. (If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you know how important I feel it is for leaders to cast a clear and compelling vision.)

Social Media
The second thing that really stood out was how the site — and this administration — is embracing social media tools like YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter. I remember hearing about how Obama would be using YouTube for his Weekly Addresses, a break with the traditional “radio” address. Moving to a video format demonstrates an awareness of how more people are communicating and sharing information. But, aside from just participating in these existing platforms, I’ve been more excited by the various areas created to facilitate a dialogue between individuals, neighborhoods and our nation’s leadership. From “crowdsourcing” topics to be addressed to making financial decisions transparent and accessible— it’s obvious that conversation and participation are a priority.

Visual Design
Beyond the structure and content changes, I’m impressed by the overall aesthetic. Whereas previous versions of Whitehouse.gov felt a bit stale and older, the new site manages to feel fresh and contemporary while retaining a sense of heritage. I appreciate subtle gestures like the textured backgrounds and attention to typography. I think the bold use of blue does a lot to create a modern feel, but then all the little accents, soft shading and nods to architectural details keep the pages distinctive and appropriate to the function of the site.

I can’t say I ever frequented previous versions of Whitehouse.gov. That’s been different since this administration took office. Given the regularly updated blogs and video content, I feel a lot more connected to what’s going on in the Whitehouse. And the fact that this less “formal” content is integrated into the site (versus being buried behind a “blog” tab) creates a sense of… intimacy? I feel more connected to the conversations, issues and personalities in Washington, more so than ever before. Just look at the site navigation— “Contact Us” is part of the main navigation! With that said, I have read some articles indicating content (press briefings and presidential remarks) is missing from the site or not current— that concerns me. But the fact that we as a people, organized together online, can identify these gaps is a testament to new levels of accountability that elected officials and businesses now face.

Site Structure
Concerning main navigation, I also find the structure of the site to be intuitive. Moving from left to right you have

  • content that changes frequently (“The Briefing Room” and “Issues”),
  • …followed by information about our current administration (“Our Administration”),
  • …which leaves the historical content that rarely changes (“About the White House” and “Our Government”).

I can stay current with the most recent events or zero in on a specific topic I care about— this structure seems natural and supports different ways people might interact with information.

Finding Information
While the new site makes it easy to browse through recent content by either the issue or media type, finding an older press release on a specific topic is best accomplished using the search tool.

To test out the previous and new versions of the site, I performed a few searches. Both versions face the same universal search problem— how do you best help people sift through thousands of documents? “Paging” results is a pretty common solution for dealing with too much content, though probably not so useful for finding a specific video or executive order. That said, the newer version of search results is better in several respects:

  1. The “narrow results by:” sidebar allows you to quickly filter a long list of search results by specific categories.
  2. Search results are much easier to visually scan, and
  3. The “view all results on one page” feature is really useful for people who want to search within a page (with a browser search, for example).

(As a point of comparison, here is the same search on the previous version of the site. )

Also, Whitehouse.gov content hosted on external sites (such as video content on YouTube) is very well organized into different groups, making it very easy to browse through videos. And, in the case of YouTube, as the ability to search spoken words within videos becomes common, it’ll be much easier to find specific video content. This is another advantage to embracing social media— we can all benefit from the advances of those external sites who are financially motivated to improve their different technologies. One feature missing from the current site (that existed in the previous version) is the ability to browse news by date (my thoughts on this below).

I also performed a few different searches using the Whitehouse.gov search and Google site search— I didn’t find any discrepancies.

Concerning browsing behaviors, while the main “Issues” pages are obviously edited content, I feel much more comfortable with the newest versions of these pages. On the new site, the writing within the Issues area is much more terse and to the point. Comments are written like a progress report: a list of short, bulleted accomplishments, with— and this is important— links to supporting events or comments. Contrast this with lengthy fact sheets from the previous site, which often felt more like press releases and photo opps. And on the old site, where there were specific accomplishments called out, there were rarely any links to supporting information. It’s also worth noting that within the issues area, the new site surfaces related content in a sidebar area. This is useful for browsing content related to that specific issue.

Contrary to what the Washington Times article suggests, I do not believe the new Whitehouse.gov site has traded substance for style.

  1. Style is important, not just for making a good overall impression but for also communicating information. The new Whitehouse.gov site does a much better job at communicating information.
  2. Decentralizing content and making it sharable beyond the Whitehouse.gov domain not only demonstrates community participation but actually increases accountability and accessibility, and introduces a certain vulnerability to those external systems.
  3. While organizing content by date is currently absent from the site, there are much better ways of finding information that have been introduced or improved (see above).
  4. And what about not organizing content by date? From the article:

The biggest difference is that the Bush Web site archived all its information by year, month and day, with a sidebar menu that allowed a user to view virtually all the information from, for example, a day in 2002 — speech transcripts along with video and audio of the speech, press releases, official statements, nominations, letters to Congress, executive orders — with three clicks of the mouse.

This suggests that organizing news by chronology is a better (“three clicks!”) way to sort information. I beg to differ. Who can tell me the year/month/week that Bush stood on that carrier and declared “Mission Accomplished” with regards to Iraq? Unless it’s a significant event, or happened at or around the same time as a significant personal event, we aren’t going to think about information in terms of time stamps. Keyword searches and topical filters are going to be much more effective ways to sift through a high volume of information. “With three clicks of the mouse” assumes a user know the exact date, which is rarely the case!

There you go. My 2¢ on the Whitehouse.gov site. Is it an improvement over the previous version? I think so. Can the site be better? Of course. Is is as good as promised by Obama— the popular opinion is not yet. But, as anyone who designs Web sites and applications knows, a site is never done— only launched and then improved with time and usage.

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3769 days ago / 5 Comments

Advice to A New Manager

A good friend of mine recently stepped into an art director role and asked me for any advice I might have. I started to respond via email, but figured other people might find this useful. So, here you go!

  1. Listen
    While you’ll have a strong urge to come in and “prove” you are a capable leader (usually through top-down, heavy handed actions), spending the first few weeks quietly listening, learning and observing will make you a far better leader in the long run. This is a new environment, with different members, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Make this about them— you want to learn everything you can about your team, the company, their clients, and their history.
  2. Meet each person
    People are not all the same. You need to get to know each team member as an individual. You need to learn what each person’s strengths and weaknesses are. This is especially important with creative groups, where skills and talent can vary greatly, and where individuals hate being slotted neatly into (and rarely fit) a predefined role or job description. Most importantly, you need to learn what makes each person tick—why are they here, and not elsewhere. Fear? Satisfaction? To work with other team members? Convenience? Specific clients? It’s critical that you understand what motivates each team member to do their best. Tapping into these personal motivations will be the most effective way to accomplish your goals as a manager.
  3. Cast a vision
    This is the tough one— your team (and depending on the size of the organization, your company) needs to have a clear and compelling sense of purpose. Call it vision, mission, mantra, strategic intent, purpose—whatever! Like the “put a man on the moon” mantra, you need to uncover the shared sense of purpose that unites everyone. Expect this to take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. It took me 5 months to figure this out at Viewzi.
  4. Connect the group vision to personal motivations
    Perhaps farther down the road, the key to growing an excited, intrinsically motivated team to is to help your team members connect their personal goals and motivations to the larger group vision. If there isn’t a good fit, then maybe this isn’t the right place for that person. While this is a tough bridge to cross, it’s usually best for the company and individual— it’s critical that people be where they are happy, growing, and excited about the work they are doing.
  5. Understand peers and bosses, politics
    As much as you want to focus on you and your team, it’s equally important to understand the culture (and politics) inside the organization you’re working at. If you succeed in truly creating a team culture, you—as a leader—will be looked at to pave the way and clear the road of barriers that would prevent the team from kicking a**. Your job will become less focused on the team and more externally focused on efforts that support the team— managing bad clients, navigating thorny political issues, etc. It’s important that you understand how to do such things.
  6. Guide, don’t do
    As a manager, you need to learn to work through people. You cannot do their work for them. I’ll say that again: You cannot do your teams work for them. This is especially challenging if you are really good at what you do (and I know you are a perfectionist!). You will face a crossroad when you must choose: you can do people’s work for them, or figure out how to help them to do better work. The latter road is the much more difficult path, especially when you really want to just jump in and show them how it’s done, but this is your chosen path as a manager— to help those around you rise up and exceed your expectations. They’ll never do that if you’re doing their job for them. While challenging, this is the path that doesn’t lead you to dead ends, late nights, and burnout. What’s best, one day you’ll discover that you’ve surrounded yourself with people who can do what you used to do better than you ever could have dreamed. This is nirvana for managers.
  7. Make the subjective objective
    So how do you get people to be better? Frame the problem to be solved. Establishing objective criteria for evaluation is critical to offering valid feedback. It should never be “because my boss doesn’t like it.” It should be “my boss helped me understand why it might not work, or how it could work better.” Whether you’re discussing a Web site or an ad campaign, clients pay you and your company to create these things in order to accomplish clear objectives. As a manager, making these business and design objectives clear to your team is key. Is this more or less usable? Will this increase conversion? How does this fit with our target market? At the end of the day, while expression and art are certainly a part of what we do, we are designers. And Design is concerned with accomplishing a particular purpose. It is these purposes against which we should evaluate our design decisions— not our personal opinions.
  8. Meddle when necessary, but be clear about it
    Okay, not everything will be cut and dry. Sometimes you’ll have an idea you want to see given form. Or maybe someone is just not moving past the concept they’re stuck on. In these cases (and do keep them rare), it’s ok to cross the line— just be clear about it: “I’m meddling now.” However, even in these cases where you’re demonstrating how you would solve the problem, the goal is not that this employee would emulate your solution; no, you should want this different perspective to challenge them, inspire them, and provide them with a fresh way to look at the problem that will inspire their own, original solution. You’re jumpstarting their stalled engine, not programming the GPS (and if they do solve it in your way, they’ve made that choice as designers).
  9. Designate clear owners…
    Resist the urge to be hands on, if that’s not your role as a director. A sense of ownership is critically important among creative professionals, regardless of talent level. It’s important to be clear about who owns what or who has the final say. Everyone should have some project or some piece of the project they can point to and say “I made this.” Whatever “this” is, be clear about it, and then help them hit a home run with whatever it is they own. This means understanding their unique solution to the problem and either nurturing this idea to be stellar, or helping them understand where the idea is lacking. In an environment with lots of small projects, it’s easier to parcel out the projects to individual owners. However, if there is only one or two project that everyone is working on, ownership can be a bit trickier…
  10. …but also prioritize group collaboration
    While a sense of individual ownership is important, it’s often not that cut and dry. And some of your best ideas won’t come from any one individual. Pixar has assembled a stellar team of animators and engineers. They have a great practice of daily peer review sessions, where whoever attends provides feedback on work done the previous day. Programs like these encourage everyone to participate and feel that sense of ownership on a larger project. More importantly, these conversations quickly educate less mature team members on what constitutes a “good” solution. I’ve also found that almost all projects go through divergent and convergent phases; a phase for when you’re generating ideas and a phase for when you’re refining a selected idea. The nature of collaboration changes with these phases. I set aside ownership during the divergent phase, allowing everyone a chance to generate new ideas. Out of this process will generally come a few ideas worth pursuing. I believe it’s very important to let the originators of an idea (who are often the champions for that idea) see it through to completion. It’s at this point that I can say “you own this” and the team will help you make the best of a concept that everyone agreed was worth pursuing.
  11. Don’t feel threatened by stellar employees
    Don’t be afraid of people knowing or being better at something than you are. Expect this—and be excited by it— it means your overall team, including you, has that much more to offer. You have your own strengths and weaknesses. And there’s far too much out there to know everything. Let your team and peers complement you where you are weak. And let them step up to the plate in these cases, either joining you in meetings or taking your place. Don’t ever feel threatened by a really strong team member— rather, count this as a blessing and do everything you can to keep this an environment they want to remain in.
  12. Let individuals represent their own work
    This one can be risky, but hear me out. If someone has done great work, make sure they get the credit for it. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see bad managers take their employees good work and represent it as their own. Or worse, credit the employee but present the ideas themselves and butcher the presentation. Let the idea owners present their work. And if they’re not so good at representing ideas yet, help them out. Being able to represent, explain and defend your ideas is a basic communication skill that everyone at all levels needs to learn at some point. Have reservations about doing this? A good friend (and mentor to me) repeatedly said his job was to work himself out of his current position. Help people on your team do those things that would groom them for your position.
  13. And a few random comments…
    Most of what I’ve written assumes a fairly talented team. I personally favor the small, flat teams made up of mid-to-senior level folks. In these situations, your job as a manager is much easier. (It’s more like a group organizer than anything else.) However, your situation may involve many more levels and titles, and may include interns and junior level folks. I wouldn’t make exception to anything I’ve advised above. But, the projects people get to work on should be appropriate to their capabilities (and fit with their interest and talents). This means people who do great work with what is given to them will in effect earn the right to do more interesting work. And this has nothing to do with tenure or titles, but rather prior accomplishments.

In the end, the goal of all of these practices is to establish trust. If your team trusts you, well… things are so much easier! They’ll listen to feedback with an open mind. They’ll take you seriously. And on those occasions when the work is not so desirable (which will be more than you’d like), they’ll be more agreeable to continue doing their best work— knowing that you’re looking out for them. You want a team that trusts you, and knows that you are personally invested in their individual growth, wherever that growth may take them.

I could write a bit more about mentoring programs or some of the specific things I’ve tried over the years, but I’ll stop here. I feel this is a pretty good general list of principles that I try to practice. That said, I will point you to three additional sources of great management advice:

  1. 10 Tips to Manage a Creative Environment — I first heard this at SxSW. As Sarah B. Nelson and Bryan Mason went through each of the ten tips, I found myself nodding my head vigorously to each one. You can check out their slides here (note: you really need to hear the accompanying audio for some of their points to make sense).
  2. One thing I haven’t mentioned here are individual personality differences and how to account for those. For example, most people I’ve worked with enjoy representing their own work. However, for some individuals, this would freak them out. At Adptive Path’s MX 2008, Margaret Gould Stewart, User Experience Manager at Google, shared some practical tools for custom-tailoring your management style for different personalities . She’s put together a set of attribute cards you can use to help understand individual work styles your team members will have. This fun little exercise will help you understand what each member of your team needs from you as their manager.
  3. I just came across this post over at randsinrepose.com . It’s a good complement to the advice that I’ve given here as it focuses more on what being a manager will mean for you.

I hope you find some of this helpful. Best of luck in your new position!

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3775 days ago / 5 Comments

The Art and Science of Seductive Interactions

See if any of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • You’ve got a great product, but you can’t seem to get people to stick around long enough see why it’s so great
  • All of the fun built into your application requires some basic registration information, but not enough folks are registering
  • You have a high bounce rate— visitors just aren’t coming back
  • You’re in a crowded market and the nuances that make your service unique are lost on the casual visitor
  • You’re situation involves corporate software, where despite having hostage users, you’ve seen a really low adoption rate

Each of these scenarios point to the same business and user experience problem: How do we get people to stick around long enough to see and evaluate the value we’re offering? Or, to put it more crudely:

How do we get to first base? (with our users!)

This is the topic of my most recent presentation, “The Art and Science of Seductive Interactions,” in which I explore some of the more clever ways sites are leveraging basic human psychology to create what I would describe as “seductive interactions.”

Here’s the formal description from the IA Summit 2009 conference, where I debuted this presentation:

Remember that “percentage complete” feature that LinkedIn implemented a few years ago, and how quickly this accelerated people filling out their profiles? It wasn’t a clever interface, IA, or technical prowess that made this a successful feature– it was basic human psychology. To be good information architects we need to crack open some psych 101 textbooks, learn what motivates people, and then bake these ideas into our designs. We’ve spent the last decade perfecting how to create applications that serve our users needs. Now it’s time to create applications that are engaging. It’s time learn a bit about the art and science of seductive interactions.

We’ll look at specific examples of sites who’ve designed serendipity, arousal, rewards and other seductive elements into their application, especially during the post signup process when it is so easy to lose people. Examples will mostly include consumer applications such as Muxtape, Dopplr and iLike, where engaging with users through a process of playful discovery is vital to continued use; however, we’ll also look at how these same ideas might work in corporate environment, with a glimpse into a few corporate apps that have succeeded at being playful. Regardless of your current project, the psychological principles behind these example can be applied universally. In the spirit of “expanding our boundaries,” we’ll look to disciplines like social sciences, psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science for insights. However, attendees will leave with actionable tools and examples making it easier to bridge theory with tomorrow’s deadline.

As a profession, we talk about mapping user goals to business goals. But what if this focus on goals is no longer enough? And what if we can’t get users to stick around long enough to see the value in our apps? Come get inspired by examples of applications that have moved beyond just goals, and succeeded in both satisfying and delighting people.

I have much more planned for this topic, including the project I hint at beginning on slide 131. But, I’ll stop here and save these thoughts for future posts.

In the meanwhile, enjoy!

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3800 days ago / 3 Comments

The Fundamentals of Experience Design

Photo of my poster presentation at the IA Summit 2009

For some time, I’ve described the design of experiences with this potent little phrase: 

It’s all about People, their Activities, and the Context of those activities.

That’s it, really. Whether we are designing a Web app or new office building, simply ask: Who are the people we are designing for? What is the activity (or activities) they are trying to do? And what are the contexts in which they are trying to operate? And ‘people’ can be an individual or group. It’s that simple. On the surface…

Behind every explicit piece of information, we can dive much deeper for a richer understanding of the space in which we are designing. People are much more than users (or markets, prospects, players, stakeholders, or…). An exploration of activities yields more insights than simple task or use case definition. And context is so much more than a device or platform— from the environment we as information architects define to the environmental and economic context in which we work.

It’s these ideas that form the basis of my “Fundamentals of Experience Design” Model, which I had the pleasure of unveiling at the recent IA Summit 2009 conference . Think of this as my “grand, unified model” of experience design. Or something like that!

Download The Fundamentals of Experience Design model
(10M print quality pdf file!)
Download The Fundamentals of Experience Design model
(not quite so large 2M png file)

The origins:
This model/poster, as with previous Summit posters, is a personal attempt to resolve a number of different threads and conversations, this time around “designing for experiences”— any kind of experience, from shopping online to going out for dinner to checking out a book from the library.

The model covers the basic UX stuff like moving from a focus on tasks to a focus on activities, as well as more theoretical discussions like activity centered design vs user centered design. I also wanted this model to represent where I’m moving professionally: As evident in my seductive interactions presentation, I’ve become more focused on subjects like psychology, social design, game mechanics and other “deeper” human considerations when designing for experiences.

The elements:
For years I’ve been discussing experience design in terms of people, activities and the context of those activities. These are the core elements of this model. FYI, the poster you see is actually the third iteration— for several years, I’ve been exploring (1) how these elements relate to each other, and (2) whether there should be any other core elements added (I wrestled with things like “objects,” “tools” and/or “content”). Along with the considerations listed below, I’m comfortable with this particular representation of the ideas:

This is a simplified explanation (the poster explains all this much better!):

  • Experiences should focus on individuals and groups as people first, followed by our various roles as users, consumers, segments, stakeholders, employees, etc.
  • Activities can be anything you do, and aren’t necessarily task-focused (this is a problem I have with many of the UCD and Agile discussions). Consider passive experiences like reading The Onion, or entertainment experiences like iSteam. There’s a motivation for these activities, but there isn’t always an explicit task involved.
  • Context contains people and activities. Context for activities is fairly straightforward — environments, cultures, devices, etc. For people, there is a personal, implicit context that may affect an activity — having a bad day or finding out someone is in the hospital for example may have nothing directly to do with the activity (say, buying a pizza) but will affect the experience of that activity. Context also extends out further to consider the business, technological, cultural and social contexts that enable or affect the activity in some way. An easy example of this deeper cultural context is the editing out of the Twin Towers from the original Spider Man movie following 9/11— this editing decision recognized the emotions outside of the film itself that would have affected the movie enjoyment experience.
  • With the resulting peanut shape, I draw horizontal a line between explicit considerations (tasks, users, business goals) and deeper considerations— the insights, motivations, behaviors and other “softer” focus areas that separate good experiences from the great ones.

Here’s a “Cliffs Notes” version of all this, using first person callouts:
1st Person explanation of the Fundamentals of Experience Design Model

Some things I learned making this:

  • The importance of context.
    I’ll probably have to write a whole separate post on this. Needless to say, context is SO MUCH more than screen resolution and browser size! One theme that kept surfacing at the Summit was “context shapes behavior.” This is so true. On one hand, you do need to consider things like device constraints. On the other hand, you have to step back and look at the business context that is enabling (or standing in the way of) an experience.

  • These fundamentals are largely input considerations.
    In describing how different UX tools and activities might map to this model, I realized it was best suited for those things that provide input and insights. The output will vary base on your discipline (interaction design, industrial design, etc.)
  • Distinguishing between internal (personal, for people) and external (related to the activity) contexts. Basically, this is how something like “having a bad day” may affect an unrelated activity. How often do we factor in these personal contexts into our designs? This could be especially useful for contexts such as hiring sites, where a personal, emotional state might vary widely from individual to individual.

Feedback from the IA Summit:
During the reception and poster presentation, I got some great feedback from a ton of different folks. Here are some of the highlights:

  • “Aren’t motivations specific to people, not activities?”
    I got this feedback from about 3 people, two of whom work at the same company. This was clearly a semantic issue, not an issue with meaning or intent. For me, motivation is specific to an activity— why you do something. I’d call those abstract motivations that get us up in the morning (to be happy, to change the world, to avoid conflict) “goals” or “desires.”
  • “What about the cultural context for people?”
    Behind activities is a deeper cultural context, why not the same for people? I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m thinking this is part of the internal context specific to a person. But, something to consider…
  • “Why are people separate from activities?”
    This has been the most challenging question, as there are good reasons to join people and activities within context (think two halves of a circle inside a larger circle). I’ve been sketching this, and while there is cause for this, it would also introduce new discrepancies — for example, business context is specific to an activity and not a person. I exist outside of a given activity until I choose to do whatever that is. This would introduce a problem not currently in the model.
  • “Should behaviors be a core element?”
    I’ve also been thinking a lot about behaviors, specifically the idea that “context shapes behavior.” I think the model supports this just fine. We design for activities, and we design or consider the context. The behaviors are how the activities occur within a given context for a particular person or group of people.
  • One final comment— people really connected with the floating chunk of earth! Apparently this a powerful visual metaphor for these ideas. Several people described this as a better iceberg model. I’ll go with that! When I chose this, I was thinking about tumbleweeds, and how badly designed experiences have no roots in natural human behaviors, desires or motivations. I like the idea that the deeper your roots go (more human insights and applied behavioral economics), the better the experience being designed will be… And I like the analogy that roots aren’t readily visible.

What’s next?
So, that’s some of the thinking behind my Fundamentals of Experience Design model. What are your thoughts? Does this help you in some way? In the poster, I list some ways this might be useful with clients or with practitioners. But, I’d like hear more about how you might be able to use this in your work…

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3898 days ago / 8 Comments

Rock Bands, Guitar Heroes and Management Theory

What do rock bands and guitar heroes have to do with management theory? This was the topic of my most recent presentation:

Groups and organizations, just like musicians, don’t all work and behave in the same way. In this presentation, I look to the music industry to describe four organizational archetypes—each with a different set of values and ways of working. By understanding each of these work cultures, the culture we work in, and the work style that best fits us personally, we can make sense of the conflicts we face at work and become more effective at our job, whether we’re employees, managers or—rock stars!

Where this originated
Needless to say, I’ve been really excited to share this with everyone. It was during the Q&A for my Star Wars presentation-- over a year ago— that I made a spur-of-the-moment comment about George Lucas and how his leadership style was quite different from that of Gene Roddenberry, the visionary behind Star Trek. That presentation was focused on various lessons we can learn from the making of the original Star Wars movie, lessons about change and making innovative ideas a reality. Of course, at least one thing I was left wondering about was the group dynamics behind great innovations. What personality traits are needed to lead a successful, innovative team? Do we have to be strong, demanding visionaries like George Lucas, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson ? How much credit should go to those people the team? What about innovative groups, like those at Pixar or the original Xerox PARC folks? It was this line of thinking led me to reflect on another popular form of creation that involves different personalities: songwriting (and performing).

Anyone who has ever been in a rock band— especially more than one— can testify to the interesting group dynamics that go on. Sometimes these groups are in constant conflict, sometimes everything is pure bliss. Sometime a few changes in lineup can dramatically alter the group and their output. Rock bands (and other kinds of musical groups) are a great petri dish for exploring team dynamics.

Gods of Management Book So based on personal experience and observations, I began looking to for patterns and archetypes. Along the way I discovered a fabulous book by business guru Charles Handy The Gods of Management . In it, Handy describes four organizational cultures, and identifies each with 4 different Greek gods. His four cultures matched closely with the where my research was leading (and certainly influenced my thinking, moving forward).

What I saw emerge were 4 (potentially 5) different kinds work cultures. Each culture values different things, operates in radically different ways and has their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Mostly importantly, by understanding these cultures (and which one you value), it’s easy to push the fastforward button on most conflicts you might have at work. Forget the stereotypes (“creatives” vs “suits” being a popular one). It’s much deeper than that. Does authority come from what you’ve done, who you know, or seniority? Does your business operate in relatively stable environment, or are things changing all the time? What motivates people professionally? These archetypes have proven to be a great lens by which to understand different types of organizations.

So, what are the four types of organizational cultures? They are:

  • The FrontMan – Though more common with small companies, folks like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Martha Stewart or George Lucas represent this organization. These are visionary leaders with pretty strong ideas about how things should be done; Power is the dominant theme of this group and success depends on how close you are to and how well you imitate the leader. If you want to work here, you will be executing someone else’s vision.
  • The Studio Musicians – This is the dominant corporate work culture, where structure, rank, and hierarchy keep things going. Workers are hired to fill a role. Titles and promotions are key motivations.
  • The Rock Band – This culture is typical of smaller, creative groups. Teams work together, focused on the project. Collaboration and creativity are valued here.
  • The Rock Star(s) – These are your ‘A-Players.’ But they also tend to be mavericks, adhering to their own ideas about things, which often isolates them from other workers. They create tension, but it’s often in the best interest of their employer. and if you can tolerate their dissension, the rewards will be great. Loyalty to their profession and themselves is the dominant theme of this group.

Obviously, there’s much more to this. But, you get the idea. Anyone who is familiar with personality assessments like the four humours , the five love languages or more academic assessments like the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator will understand how useful these tools are for relating to people who don’t think like you do. In a similar fashion, these four organizational archetypes are useful for understanding different work cultures that exist, and the unique role each one plays. To be clear, this is a diagnostic tool. It’s not going to solve your conflicts, but it will help you gain a deeper understanding of where the conflicts come from— and how to overcome them.

Even more important now
The dominant work culture of the last century was the role-based organization. While this culture is great for manufacturing, where predictability and regulation are critical to success, it is the worst kind of culture for knowledge and information workers, especially in a space where things are in a constant state of change and businesses must deal with uncertain situations. Most of the information architects and user experience professionals I work with deal with uncertainty everyday. Our practice is about taming complexity. Unfortunately, the same thinking skills that makes us good at our practice also put as at odds with how most companies are run. This is also true of other “creative” groups—developers, architects, entrepreneurs, scientists. Few industries or businesses are immune to constant change, and the workforce needs more “creative” thinkers. Unfortunately, most businesses of any size struggle with how exactly to manage the entrepreneurial spirit within a culture of routine. Likewise, these individuals don’t understand and value the positive qualities of an organization focused on routine, predictability and efficiency.

Over the last decade I’ve led four different entrepreneurial (and intrapreneurial) teams. I cut my teeth at a startup. Moved on to consulting for many years. Became an “innie” for a some time, before returning to the startup world. I’ve been fortunate to work in a lot of different environments— each with their own unique management challenges. I’ve read plenty of books and articles by so called gurus. But it wasn’t until I framed things in exactly this way that all the conflicts I had observed (and been a part of!) suddenly made sense. “How do I manage a maverick employee?” “How do we prevent attrition following a merger & acquisition?” “Why are my boss and I always at odds?” “How do I manipulate that VP who is in the way of this project?” “Why am I so miserable in this position— I thought I’d be happier…” “What is the ideal job for me?” This way of thinking about different organizations with different value systems has helped me understand and respond to persistent management challenges. I’d love nothing more than to share this with other people. So, here’s looking at 2009 and taking this show on the road. What do you think— world tour?

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“Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent — not with how things are but with how they might be — in short, with design.”
— Herbert Simon