PoetPainter - Thoughts
Thursday September 12, 2013 / 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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Wednesday February 27, 2013 / 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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Wednesday March 9, 2011

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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Tuesday August 24, 2010 / 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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Monday April 20, 2009 / 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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Friday December 19, 2008 / 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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Thursday July 24, 2008

"See What I Mean?"

assorted film developing envelopes
If you’re interested in some of the thinking that went into things like Target’s ClearRX program, or Karen Schriver’s redesign of the 1040 form, then you’ll want to make it out to Refresh Dallas tonight.

Wait. Scratch that.

If you build or design Web/desktop apps or Web sites for a living, or perhaps you customize business intelligence packages, or maybe you’re a technical writer or an IA or… Whatever your situation, tonight’s refresh meeting is for you! Co-worker Travis Isaacs and I are going to be speaking on information design. Specifically, we’ll be sharing some of our approaches to making ‘better’ screens (and forms). And, we’ll be running it a bit like a workshop, with some hands on activities…

Here’s the description:

“See What I Mean?”

We all work with information. In our web sites. Our web apps. Print communications. Graphs, and charts. But how exactly do you present information in a way that simplifies the complex, communicates powerfully, and actually delights people?

Join us, as Travis Isaacs and Stephen P. Anderson share their information design secrets. From travel plans to search results to quarterly earnings statements—they’ll present a handful of information design and data visualization case studies, identifying those principles we can apply to just about any project.

Learn how to identify and group related information, create a visual hierarchy, draw focus to the most important content, use images appropriately, see familiar data in a fresh new way, and much more!

As always, dinner will be provided, this time courtesy of Viewzi. I hope you can make it out! More details can be found at the Refresh Dallas Web site

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Sunday July 13, 2008

Speaking 'In Defense of Eye Candy' at UPA

For those of you in the DFW area, I’ll be speaking at Tuesday night’s DFW-UPA (Usability Professionals Association) meeting. That’s this Tuesday, July 15. If you can make it out, the meeting starts at 6pm; I’ll be presenting shortly thereafter (more info on meeting time and place here).

chopsticksI’m excited, as this will be the first public appearance of my ‘Eye Candy’ presentation. I’m also curious as to how it will be received, especially by this audience. As I indicated in my original post on the topic, visual design— so called “eye candy”— get’s a bad rap, for the wrong reasons. This presentation is my way of stringing together some of the solid research and perspectives supporting the functional value of aesthetics.

Formal Description:
Graphics, eye candy, sexy interfaces— while these aren’t as seemingly strategic as say a mental model or BCG Matrix, it’s time to stand up for these misunderstand elements. Aesthetics play just as critical a role in business as picking the right server or insuring your data is accurate. But here’s the catch—it’s not about shiny buttons or gradient fades in and of themselves. Rather, it’s about “the psychological response to sensory stimulus.” It’s about people. And how people respond to these elements.

If we truly care about making things work for people, then we should care about aesthetics, or the science of “how things are know via the senses.” And it’s much more than graphic design: Sights. Sounds. Smells. Motion. Aesthetics is concerned about all the senses. And it’s about how people respond to these elements (and not the elements themselves).

To understand so-called “eye-candy” in proper context, it’s critical that we stop focusing on particular design elements (rounded corners or drop shadows, anyone?), and instead look at the response that is triggered by these elements. We’ll do just this, looking at a variety of design details, focusing not on their stylistic qualities but rather the cognitive and affective responses these details elicit. In doing so, we’ll skim across a variety of research findings from the last decade that will both confirm and challenge many of our assumptions about design.

Oh, and what do the chopsticks have to do with this presentation? You’ll have to make it out to find out! Hope to see you there.

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Thursday May 15, 2008 / 3 Comments

Leading the Rebellion Inside Large Organizations

I’m excited to share with you my presentation from Adaptive Path MX.

It’s a version of my Star Wars presentation. But, only 6 of the 15 lessons are represented. (I joked that this was the first in a trilogy!) And I’ve made a few critical additions.

In the original presentation, I identify and share 15 lessons that might apply universally to anyone with a visionary idea. Basically, ‘You got an idea? Here’s some advice to help make that idea a reality’. Anyone could be someone founding a startup, or the maverick leader inside a large organization. But, while the lessons might apply universally, I wasn’t thinking of startups when I created this…

The backstory
Between my interview with Todd Wilkens and the opening slides , I think you’ll get a good idea of the backdrop that led to this presentation. There’s a lot of resistance to change inside large organizations (no surprise), but most resistance has little to nothing to do with the project or idea you have. In his book The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun dedicates a chapter to the myth that ‘People love new ideas” (no, they don’t).

On the surface, you’d think that people— companies— are looking for the ‘next big thing’ to invest their dollars in. The truth is, no one really wants to take a risk on the next big thing. We’d rather have “brave souls like Magellan, Galileo, and Neil Armstrong take intellectual and physical risks on our behalf, watching from a safe distance, following behind (or staying away) once we know the results.” Or put another way, “Innovation is expensive: no one wants to pay the price for ideas that turn out to be not quite ready for prime time.”

But, it’s about more than risky, or even safe ideas. It’s about a fear of change. Or an inability to understand truly new ideas. And this is where many innovative ideas fail. Again, Scott Berkun:

Many innovators give up when they learn that ideas, even with dazzling prototypes or plans in hand, are the beginning. The challenges that follow demand skills of persuasion more than brilliance.

And this…

Every great idea in history has the fat red stamp stamp of rejection on its face. It’s hard to see today, because once ideas gain acceptance, we gloss over the hard paths they took to get there. If you scratch any innovations surface, you’ll find the scars: they’ve been roughed up and thrashed around— by both the masses and leading minds- before they made it into your life.

“Behind the Music”
And here is the part that intrigues me: What are the stories behind the truly great ideas? What are the obstacles that got in the way of these ideas? And, what’s the real story behind visionary products that do manage to make it through otherwise hostile environments? From sticky notes to the RAZR phone, the stories of how these things came to be typically includes some form ‘rebellion’ against business as usual— which in large organizations has a tendency to be about power, position, predictability, and a score of other concerns fairly well-removed from the idea itself.

Somewhat familiar with Star Wars, I wanted to explore what it took to get this visionary film completed and in theaters. For starters, I love this film. But I also knew there were a host of challenges, as well as lessons about leadership, craftsmanship, and business that seemed to parallel much of what I have seen in the business world. That, and I can’t help myself— I love exploring patterns and connections between seemingly unrelated things.

Adaptive Path MX
So, when Adaptive Path contacted me to present this at MX, I was thrilled. Here was a chance to (1) share these ideas with a larger audience, but (2) bring out and comment on some of the elements that led to these musings (what I’ve shared here in this post), and (3) it was the perfect venue for my real topic: leading change.

The MX Conference is about ‘managing experiences’, and is targeted at PMs, Manager, Directors, and even VPs— those people ‘managing toward a vision’ (one of six MX themes). It’s not a conference about moving resources around on a Gantt chart. It a conference about promoting the value of a great customer centered strategies inside our organizations. And that can be a rebellious idea. One that may very well lead to adversity.

A business management perspective
Which leads me to a very encouraging paper: Gary Hamel’s ‘Strategy as Revolution’, published in the July-August 1996 issue of Harvard Business Review. Hamel speaks directly to executive leadership, urging them to embrace the revolutionaries within your company, as they may be the key to some much needed revolutionary ideas. Some notable quotes:

... in all too many companies, the entrepreneurial spark is more likely to be doused by a flood of corporate orthodoxy than fanned by resources and the support of senior executives.

If you’re a senior executive, ask yourself these questions: Has a decade or two or experience made me more willing or less willing to challenge my industry’s conventions? Have I become more curious or less curious about what is happening beyond the traditional boundaries of my industry? Be honest.

If you go down and out into your organization— out into the ranks of much maligned managers, for instance— you will find people straining against the bit of industrial orthodoxy. All too often, however, there is no process that lets those revolutionaries be heard… So, like economic refugees seeking greater opportunity in new lands, industry revolutionaries often abandon their employers to find more imaginative sponsors.

These were all very comforting words, especially coming from a credible business management guru. But for me, perhaps the most poignant statement was this:

Revolutionaries are subversive, but their goal is not subversion.

I’ve had profound difficulty articulating this sentiment is as concise a fashion. It’s not that visionaries are immature or obstinate. Quite the opposite: We’re rebellious because we care— not about politics, power, position, or the game (though perhaps we should). We care deeply about the business— creating value for our customers and the companies we work for. “People who care about their country— or their organization— don’t wait for permission to act.” (Hamel)

And this leads to a sad irony, “the secret tragedy of innovators is that their desire to improve the world is rarely matched by support from the people they hope to help.” (Berkun)

Words of advice?
So, what can we take away from this, if you are a revolutionary in your organization? Off the top of my head…

  • Be realistic. A good idea is not even half of the challenge
  • Politics are a part of corporate culture. Learn to play the game, or saddle up to someone who can.
  • Don’t be discouraged when things don’t go smoothly— it’s human nature to resist the truly good ideas.
  • Good ideas can and do come out of difficult situations.
  • Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your idea is wrong or bad.
  • If you truly believe in the idea, keep shopping it around. Go around the roadblocks if necessary.
  • If you must break some rules (we are talking about a rebellion here!), first understand the intent behind the rule you might be breaking or bending
  • These are universal, human struggles, present wherever large groups of people gather together.
  • Accordingly, encouragement and ideas can come from anywhere—even movies!

With that, I hope you enjoy the presentation. And, maybe you’ll find a few of the 6 (or 15) lessons we can all learn from the making of Star Wars useful or inspiring.

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Friday April 18, 2008

Speaking at MX, My Interview with Todd Wilkens

Adaptive Path MX Logo If you enjoy the leadership and management themes I’ve been focusing on recently, then you’ll certainly want to look at Adaptive Path MX. AP has pulled together a stellar lineup— Chip Heath, author of ‘Made to Stick’, Chip Conley, founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, California’s largest boutique hotel company, Julie Peters, Brand Manager at Virgin USA, the stellar folks from Adaptive Path— the list goes on… If you’re managing or leading a UX Team, this looks like the conference not to miss. In speaking with Brandon Schauer and some other folks at AP, they basically describe it as the conference they would want to attend on the topic. And it shows. I’m really excited about this event.

While it’s a little late to be plugging a conference that starts in a couple days, if you are planning on attending and haven’t yet purchased tickets, you can reference ‘MXSA‘ for a 15% discount. That’s if you haven’t already registered.

I’m also very excited to be among the speakers presenting. A few months ago, I had a chance to speak with Todd Wilkens at Adaptive Path about my presentation (if you’ve seen my Star Wars presentation, it’s a version of that talk, with new content and an emphasis on some of the things that I glossed over in earlier versions— namely pushing visionary ideas through a corporate culture). I’m pleased with how the interview turned out. Todd asked some really great questions, which allowed me to comment on many of the more strategic leadership themes that I haven’t yet written about here. If you haven’t yet read the interview, please do. And then let me know what your thoughts are…

And if you’re planning on attending MX— come say hi!

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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