The empathy paradox

Empathy is so hot right now.

Whether you’re a user experience professional, visual designer, marketer, developer, empathy is the new skill to have. Unfortunately, like most buzz words that become jargon, the value of the word is being lost in the noise.

What really is empathy? The first definition that may likely come to mind is “the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Much like its cousins, sympathy and mindfulness, its a skill that requires emotional intelligence and awareness.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. By empathizing with our users (clients, colleagues, etc), we are able to create more meaningful experiences, and therefore better designed products. However, there’s a paradox to empathy: The more we think we know another’s needs, the less effort we make to find out what their real needs are.

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What do top UI designers do differently?

Yesterday, I was asked to answer a question on Quora: What do the top 1% of user interface designers do differently than the other 99%? I think the original poster was assuming that the top eschelon of UI designers use different tools or techniques in their practice.

However, I see expert UI design differently. Those designers who really meet their mark and set the bar are not the ones posting pixel perfect mocks to Dribbble that would create horrible usability issues in practice; rather, the best UI designers are the ones who create interfaces so intuitive, so simple and clear, that the design itself really fades from view.

So I answered the question in kind:

  • They talk to the people who are going to be actually using their product
  • They hear criticism and feedback as an opportunity to improve things for the user and NOT as a personal knock
  • They are tied to an outcome, not the design itself, and they realize that the first 50 versions of their design may get scrapped before the 51st is accepted
  • They iterate on small things instead of feeling forced to recreate the big picture
  • They don’t follow trends blindly
  • Most of their work happens in sketches, on whiteboards, through conversations, and only a small piece of it concerns whether something will look nice on their portfolio
  • They allow data to guide their design, but they are not afraid to question the conclusions that are drawn from it
  • Most importantly, they see design as a process that involves multiple people and inputs – they lack ego and embrace empathy.

What do you think?

This excellent UX quote spoke to me

I stumbled upon this great article,  Slaying 5 UX myths for the good of mankind, and was blown away by the reality (and humor) of this quote:

Gone is the view of humans as rational beings who make decisions based on logical reasoning. Embrace instead humans as they are, turning to intuition when too tired to read, making poorer decisions when grumpy and who want to buy from you because you have a pretty smile and you like cats.

Can I get an “amen”?!

When I was studying economics, one of my biggest gripes was the idea that we could make large-scale policy decisions based on perfect models and the false notion of the “rational individual.”

Well, let’s face it folks: people are not rational. That’s why news about Kim Kardashian gets more attention than children starving in Darfur. It’s why we continue to vote for politicians who work against our own interest. It’s why we eat junk food, knowing full well its negative effects on us, because we like it.

And when you’re done reading this great article (which you should), follow it up with Never Ask What They Want — 3 Better Questions to Ask in User Interviews.

You’ll thank me later.

The pre-processor isn’t the problem with your CSS

There has been a lot of bashing on pre-processors lately, and rightfully so. Sort of.

Certainly, these tools, such as SCSS and LESS, can result in excessive bloat and specificity issues in their generated CSS. Lyza Gardner struck the nail on the head in A List Apart this month:

Pre-processors have a way of keeping us at arm’s length from from the CSS we’re building. They put on us a cognitive burden to keep up on what’s evolving in CSS itself along with the tricks we can pull off specific to our pre-processor. Sure, if we’re intrepid, we can keep on top of what comes out the other end. But not everyone does this, and it shows.

But when it comes to pointing the finger, we should be looking at the author, not the tool he uses.

Pre-processors caught on largely because they made it easier to create scalable CSS that paralleled the structure of a pattern library. They made it easier to track variants off of a single element without duplicating any code or requiring additional class names on a single HTML element.

When used correctly, they make coding CSS – and more importantly, maintaining a large CSS code base – so much easier.

To truly take advantage of the strengths of pre-processers, we have to be aware of their limitations and weaknesses, plan accordingly, and think ahead. You could say the same thing about HTML, Javascript, image use, etc. Like any tool, a pre-processor is only as strong as the person who wields it.

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Designer: It’s what you do not what you’re called

As designers, we spend far too much time analyzing how to refer to ourselves. “Product designer, UX/UI designer, visual designer, full-stack designer, lead designer of products”…do any of these really tell you about the person behind the title? If you saw a resume with one of these titles at the top, would it shape your expectations?

My bet is, no.

For example, I have reviewed countless resumes for people heralding themselves as a UI/UX designer because they have worked with wireframes. Often times, these individuals have never once spoken to an actual user or conducted any user research.

But can you blame them? Read any job description for designers, and you’ll think you can only be hired if you can conduct research, generate content, formulate an app’s infrastructure and key interactions, test prototypes, design the whole thing using the latest trends, and then launch the product with CSS, HTML, and Javascript.

It’s no wonder designers are forced to market themselves as the full package, even if it’s just to get a foot in the door. Plus, descriptions like these contribute to imposters syndrome. Your company may be missing out on the perfect candidate because he didn’t think he fit the full description of what you were seeking.

As an industry, I think it’s time we take a step back and just embrace the title “designer”. That, in of itself, expresses so much. (more…)

User Types: The Tourists and The Explorers

User research is paramount to a well-balanced design process. It helps us create and implement interfaces that adhere to the needs and expectations of our users. But how do we adjust for different behavioral patterns amongst that group?

People tend to fall into one of two categories – thinkers and doers; cautious and impulsive; perceptive and decisive. Neither of the two is ‘better’ than the other, but they absolutely are distinct.

In a past life, I was a multi-day raft guide on the Colorado River. Almost all of the people on my trips fell into one of these two groups. Some of my passengers wanted a controlled experience. They wanted to know where we were stopping every day, which rapids we were hitting, what we were serving for each meal, and detailed information about all aspects of the canyon itself. Other people wanted a more adventurous trip. They tended to be the ones who wanted to try and row my boat, who ran up the side hikes in front of the guide without waiting for interp, who came prepared with a swath of information that they had looked up, and who wanted to define their experience for themselves.

These two types of visitors, both unique in their own right, also shared many things in common. Namely, they still required a guide to get them down the river. They still needed assistance, but they looked for it differently. The latter group would ask which way to go and then take off to explore independently, while the former stuck close to the guide for step-by-step instruction. But they were on the same journey.

I refer to these two groups as the tourists and the explorers, respectively, and they did not leave those distinctions behind when they left the trip.

Like my passengers, your users will generally separate into these two groups. One will look for detailed walkthroughs and guidelines while the other will jump right into the interface and start playing around. However, both require a clear and intuitive interface with useful navigation and action-oriented user flows. That’s the common denominator.

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