The Zen of Busyness

Over the past few years, I’ve worked to simplify my life. Mostly, this has been a positive exercise. I now have more time, and am less tense. However, I’ve also fallen into spirals of doubt, in which I plan scenarios out—but fail to follow through.

It’s understandable that I take this approach, given how much I help other groups plan. However, when I plan too much for myself, I slow down, and get confused. This can lead me to a depressed state.

Recently, I noticed something. In spite of common wisdom arguing the opposite, I’m happier when busy. I’m not talking about the distraction that comes from checking your smartphone every 30 seconds. I’m referring to the way complete absorption in a task leads to clarity.

Such tasks might involve making dinner, or reorganizing a closet. I also experience this sensation on long runs, or when walking in the forest. At the studio, this experience seems most present in work that has defined goals. So, planning a UI, or completing a set of wires can be fun; whereas, responding to email for an entire afternoon isn’t.

The important distinction here is between distraction and busyness. The former is neither pleasant nor productive. It’s a curse borne by modern workers who are always doing something—that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. The latter is invigorating. It is pure action, unencumbered by stuff that just looks like work (e.g., meetings, email, team-building, time sheets).

This realization is affecting the way I act. It changes how I feel, both in the studio, and outside it. This mindset allows me to push aside my doubts—albeit temporarily—and gain a sense of direction.

If you’d like to do the same, I’ve boiled this approach down to a few key parts: focus, speed, and sequence.

Focus is the most important of the three. Although multitasking is sometimes necessary, it’s inefficient. This lack of focus divides your attention. It leaves you weighing tasks, and wondering what to do next. So, your work takes longer, and you do it less well. Parceling work into blocks, in which you focus on one task at a time, is an easy way to increase your efficiency (and sense of control).

I achieve focus by following a few steps. I clear my desk, turn off smartphone notifications, and close my desktop email client. Then, I write out what specific work I intend to complete (e.g., Finish website comps). After that, I break my work into smaller tasks I can check off, as I complete them. Sometimes these tasks seem granular, but I benefit from this clarity.

I allow no other project to impede the one I’m working on. This is all I will look at until I’m finished. (Admittedly, such discipline can be difficult to consistently maintain.)

Speed is another key part of this approach. The longer I work on a project, the less excited I am by it. This leads to me to whine, get sloppy, and drag tasks out. (Or, I start to wonder if what I’m doing has any greater meaning—which leads to an existential quagmire.) So, I move as fast as I can, to maintain enthusiasm for the task at hand.

Finally, there’s sequence. This is the carrot. I need motivation to focus and move fast. I find the necessary motivation in having something else to get to. This might involve a new client project, or some internal experiment. Either way, I operate better knowing that once I’ve finished this project, I get to work on another interesting one.

To summarize: pick a project; focus on it; work fast; and know what’s next. Simple, right?

I can’t say this approach will work for you. For me, though, it’s been a sort of revelation. I can’t always see the “right” course of action. That said, I enjoy working, and when I’m getting things done, I find myself excited, happy, and at ease.

Invisible Design

If my bladder had a gauge, the needle would be at its highest point. There’s little time to waste. So, I locate a restroom, make my way inside, pee, wash and dry my hands, and am back outside—in less than two minutes.

At no point during this experience do I think about design. I just do as I must, free of any sort of friction, discomfort, or frustration.

Such an experience rarely ever occurs by happenstance. Instead, someone identified user needs. She explored material requirements/shortcomings. Additionally, she devised a plan and anticipated potential failings. She did so, to produce an experience in which the design seemed invisible.

Let’s back up a step, and consider this experience in more detail:

Of the many distractions surrounding me, the large restroom symbol is easy to spot. As such, I don’t need to ask for instructions, or consult my smartphone. Upon finding the entrance, clear symbols identify which side is for men, and which is for women. This means I don’t think for even a moment. I just direct myself to the opening on my left.

I enter, without needing to push open a door, as it’s propped open. A brief corridor (approximately 6 feet long) shields users from the gaze of those outside. Urinals are at the front—I gather to shape traffic flow. A small sheet of coated board separates each urinal, and provides a hint of privacy from the individual to one’s side.

After a sigh of relief, I leave the urinal, without flushing. There’s no handle or other means of controlling the urinal. Invisible design replaces such manual requirements. As I move out of the device’s range, an infrared beam triggers a flush.

This restroom’s designer baked needs fulfillment into the entire space. I place my hands under a dispenser, and it releases the appropriate quantity of soap—no waste. I move my hands beneath the faucet and water starts flowing. The water is set to a safe temperature—eliminating the risk that I’ll scald myself. As I pull my hands away, the flow stops. This conserves water (with no special effort required, on my behalf).

A blower dries my hands. It is also free of any sort of controls. Although the absence of buttons might have once been confusing to users, few even notice, any longer. Besides, in the absence of controls, most just poke and prod until something happens.

I’m a little obsessive about order and cleanliness—perhaps more than most. So, after witnessing many leave the loo, not having washed their hands, I’m reluctant to touch taps or door handles. Similarly, my fear of sharps in trash bins leaves me unwilling to push a paper towel into one that’s overflowing. However, this brief trip through the restroom involves no such touching.

Take my obsessiveness out of this scenario, and you still see how efficient my experience was. I knew where to go, what to do, and how to use the equipment. I completed this set of actions quickly—and without slowing others from doing the same. Meanwhile, there was nominal waste of soap, water, or paper towels.

I don’t design bathrooms. Nevertheless, I can imagine the many requirements for designing such spaces. For example, there are structural guidelines, budgetary concerns, and energy needs. Additionally, accessibility requirements, building/material longevity, and waste water management, are likely considered. Then, there are issues like sustainability, cleaning needs, upkeep costs, and user safety.

This is the important part of my post: because someone did their job well, I don’t need to think about, or know much about, bathrooms. I just use them and go on with my day. Just imagine if your website worked like that!

Postscript: For those who’re confusing invisible design with flat design, please read, These Aren’t the Skeuomorphs You’re Looking For.

User Experience is Brand Experience

The phrase, “we’re concerned about our brand,” is often misused. These words commonly mask a group’s real desire, which is focused on visuals. Translated to its intended meaning, this phrase might read, “make our logo bigger, and use more of our corporate color.” I might sound glib, but many would attest to the accuracy of this comment. Brand experiences are somewhat difficult notions to wrap one’s head around. As such, some mistake their visuals for their “brand.”

Presentation and Its Limits

Most acknowledge, at least in theory, that a brand is much bigger than how something looks. An apt comparison would be found in a person and what he wears. His clothing provides visual cues, which might indicate vocation, socio-economic standing, and life outlook. However, there’s more to a person than this presentation layer—including what he says, thinks, feels, and does.

In recognizing this construct, I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of presentation. Dress a homeless person in a suit, and people will treat him differently. Put a businessperson in rags, and she won’t get past her building’s security guards. Visual cues are powerful. The first information we receive about new things tends to be through our eyes. This makes the presentation layer information rich (at least superficially), and we process this data immediately.

If I see someone dressed like a hipster, my mind groups her with all those who share these characteristics. The category I’ve placed her in isn’t necessarily suitable to this person. With time, my other senses are activated. Her accent might contradict my first impression—as could the words she chooses. Similarly, her chosen discussion topics, mannerisms, gestures, and other bits of information will add depth to my understanding of her.

Although presentation is important, failing to think beyond the visual layer is a mistake. This myopia is comparable to obsessing over the size of your tie, while failing to develop your interpersonal skills—and then wondering why no one likes talking to you.

Why Doesn’t the Print Button Print?

Recently, my father-in-law asked me to help him check in, for a cross country flight. (During his prior excursion, he was stuck in a middle seat. He hoped to avoid such unpleasantness, this time, by selecting his seat 24 hours early.) We visited the carrier’s website, entered his data, and responded to some questions about baggage requirements. At the completion of this process he had the option to print his ticket, or have it sent to him via email, or text message.

As he doesn’t own a smartphone, we selected the Print option. After a moment’s delay, this action led us to a blank screen. I hit the Back button, and repeated the process. Same result. So, I tried again. Eventually, I gave up. As a workaround, I emailed the boarding pass to myself, and then printed the document.

The situation I describe isn’t the most terrible inconvenience one might endure; the experience was notably cumbersome, though. And this is my point: In spite of this organization’s adherence to logo guidelines, corporate colors, and standard brand treatments, all I remember is the broken experience. Perhaps this was a temporary glitch, but the interruption introduced doubt. If I can’t perform the most basic of actions on their website, what am I left to think of the airline? Errors/glitches on a basic system like this one make me wonder what else they’ve been sloppy with. For an airline, such notions are concerning.

Some reading this post will think, “There was a problem with the booking system, but you eventually got the ticket. What’s the big deal? Cut them some slack.” In principle, I agree; however, such a casual viewpoint belies how fickle brand relationships can be. Today’s customer has a vast amount of choice, and this leads to a ridiculously petty sort of entitlement. Slightly confuse a customer’s latte order, and he’ll consider you a moron. Interrupt his wi-fi access and he’ll think you’re ripping him off. Change what’s familiar, and he’ll threaten to leave your service—like they do when Facebook (a service made available, free-of-charge) makes a small change to their News Feed.

In spite of such overblown reactions, the customer/user can get away with this behaviour—because your organization needs him/her. As such, you need to understand what matters most to these individuals. If your corporate identity standards aren’t perfectly implemented in your site, app, or kiosk, they probably won’t notice; but, interrupt their experience, and they’re apt to react with vitriol. With this in mind, I raise the question: What’s the most important aspect of your brand—the visuals or the experience?

What It’s Like to Hold Your Brand

I don’t mean to freak anyone out about having an occasional system error. I only use the ticket printing example to illustrate how significant experience is, for your users. Yes, I want you to be concerned with matters of visual implementation. I also want you to be as concerned with user experience (UX)—because this area dramatically impacts the way your brand feels, for customers.

The baseline for online systems is an error- and confusion-free user experience. Navigation should be intuitive, options explicit, content clear, and so on. This is only the beginning, though. To facilitate positive brand experiences through UX, you’ll need to implement a more iterative, long-term mindset, in your operations. This involves continual monitoring your digital properties, regular testing of common use cases, and committing to putting the user’s experience ahead of any marketing directives you’re trying to meet.

This is no small statement, and this thinking runs contrary to the way marketing professionals learned to approach such matters. For the longest time, websites, apps, and other digital properties were principally thought of as apparatus that helped achieve marketing goals.

Although this can still be true, we increasingly find that UX defines the brand experience. Users are loyal to a tool, like iA Writer, with fewer features but more graceful UX. They become vocal advocates for experiences that bring them joy, like Netflix. Meanwhile, tools that empower them, like Twitter, rewire their daily habits. The user experience effectively becomes the brand, and the users—and their actions—do the marketing.

Let me take this a step further: The corporate identity you’re so intent on rigorously preserving? It isn’t really worth that much, any longer. In fact, you’d likely strengthen your brand, if you instead placed the bulk of your effort into your user experience. If it’s a contest, UX wins. (And, if you allow UX to win, your brand probably will, too.)

The Threat and Promise of UX

If you place visual identity concerns ahead of UX, you put your organization at risk. I say this because small groups tend to move fast. This speed enables them to make better stuff than you can. A small army of smart, motivated, forward-thinking people are working to overtake your organization, by attacking your weakest point. You might find such a notion alarming. Good—because while you’re tinkering with trivial details, someone’s preparing to eat your lunch. So, perhaps you need to be alarmed.

You’ve spent the last year working with a major brand studio, fretting your logo. Your competitor built hers in an hour, and will make it better if her business model takes hold. You’re stuck in meetings, trying to outline an approval process for blogging; she’s posting daily, and learning which content gets the most interest. You’re asking how to charge customers more; she’s driving the price to zero. You’re asking how to extend your user’s length of stay; she’s working to service them faster, so they have a frictionless online experience.

In case you think I’m being hyperbolic, I’d like to remind you of a few such cases: Search ate The Yellow Pages. Craigslist neutered newspaper classifieds. Torrents decimated cable television. These are the obvious examples, but there are also less known companies like Clearly Contacts, Dollar Shave Club, and ZipCar that are working to upset entire sectors. And if you don’t think someone’s working on disrupting your industry, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

One notable indicator in all of this, is found in the number design studios (not ad agencies) being acquired by growing startups. Good design talent is difficult to access, so, some organizations are buying existing design groups and plugging them into their operations. Think about that: how big of an issue is user experience design, if Google will buy a company—not for its fixed assets—but as a way to rapidly access design expertise?

These designers are notably different from their predecessors, though. They aren’t trying to exercise some kind of dogmatic control over how their work looks. Instead, they’re concentrating on the experience—and then letting users’ actions tell them whether their approach works, or doesn’t. This feedback isn’t coming through a survey or focus group; it’s being garnered methodically through data and testing.

People who work in branding live in a polarizing time. Those who insist upon following conventional rules risk their companies’ futures. Alternatively, those who put UX first, can topple giants.

We, the Despots

This morning, Monica Lewinsky’s name appeared in my Twitter feed. My first thought was to tweet a cheeky one-liner—referencing obvious (and tired) subject matter.

I then went on to read about Lewinsky. She recounted the experience of having her reputation destroyed on the internet. She also described the pain she felt as a result of the public harassment she endured. Since then, she’s made ending cyberbullying her mission.

I felt embarrassed.

Who was I to judge this person? What right do I have to mock another’s personal matters? Why would I trade my decency, just for a quick gag? More importantly: Am I the kind of person who’ll reduce another human being to a crass punch line?

If I’d acted on that dumb impulse, I wouldn’t have been alone. Tweets directed at her ran the gamut from, “Are you available for bachelor parties?” to, “I have a cigar with your name on it……” and “Let me tell u Moni, not all 21 year old suck the presidents dick.” (The sort of retorts one hopes will surface when these folks apply for jobs.)

A few hours passed, and Renee Zellweger’s name was trending. Turns out, the actress looks quite different than before—as a result of plastic surgery.

The public barbs that followed ranged from the cruel to the outright vicious. One compared the actress to Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. Another made an eCard that reads, “May your Halloween costume be as shocking as Renee Zellweger’s new face.” And everyone from individuals, to the “news” media were quick to take a kick at the actress.

A handful spoke to the insidious nature of Hollywood. They noted how it glorifies young actresses only to discard them upon reaching middle-age (and how this effectively forces these artists to undergo cosmetic surgery). Fewer yet acknowledged the systemic nature of sexism in media. I wonder if instead of our jokes, we should ask ourselves some questions. For example, why do we think it’s acceptable to judge, critique, and mock certain women, just because they have public personas?

Perhaps these spiteful leanings were always with us—and it’s just our tools that have changed. The internet, for example, isn’t just a set of technologies; it’s an amplifier. It takes our culture’s bravest moments, and highlights them for everyone to see. It can galvanize the voices of a silenced few, and raise them up for all to hear.

The internet also amplifies our weaknesses, as a people. My examples from this morning are just a couple of the most recent ones. Daily, we’re fed niblets of gossip that we collectively ravage. We extract every last bit of amusement from these, no matter the pain we inflict. Our appetites debase our morals and sensibilities.

But—we can be change.

You, me, every one of us: We can do better. We can think critically. We can challenge ideas. We can discuss issues. We can have heated debates, in which we say what we believe. We can speak with conviction, bias, or even ignorance. It’s in this discussion that we come to understand.

However, what we mustn’t do, is allow our weakest instincts to take hold. While any notion should be open to debate, we must preserve the rights of the individual. Because when we take momentary pleasure in others’ misfortunes, we are all made lesser.

Apple Doesn’t Design for Yesterday

Last night, I installed OS X Yosemite. After the marathon-length download, I finally saw it in action. My initial reaction wasn’t unlike that of many others. I’ll sum it up with the phrase, “This got hit by the ugly stick.”

Now, before you go all fanboi on me, please allow me a moment to explain my reaction. First off, It’s OK if I’m not immediately wowed by the updated GUI. Change works this way. Within a few days I’ll likely grow accustomed to this very flat, very Helvetica, environment. This was my experience when iOS was flattened. Although primitive seeming at first, after a few weeks, it felt fine—and its predecessors looked clumsy.

The biggest point of discomfort I have with the new OS X relates to type. Helvetica sets wide and isn’t always well-suited to screens. These shortcomings are glaring in Yosemite. I need to expand Finder window columns so they accommodate the girth of this type family; similarly, type in the menu bar looks crowded and soft. Admittedly, these are First World Problems. That said, I’m not complaining so much as I’m observing.

Apple’s decision to make a wholesale shift from Lucida to Helvetica defies my expectations. Criticize the company as much as you’d like, but it treats user experience with reverence. So, this leaves me wondering: What possible reason is there for this shift? Why make a change that impedes legibility, requires more screen space, and makes the GUI appear fuzzy?

The answer: Tomorrow.

Before I elaborate on this point, though, let me discuss yesterday. Microsoft’s approach with Windows, and backward compatibility in general, is commendable. Users can install new versions of this OS on old machines, sometimes built on a mishmash of components, and still have it work well. This is a remarkable feat of engineering. It also comes with limitations—as it forces Microsoft to operate in the past.

The people at Apple don’t share this focus on interoperability or legacy. They restrict hardware options, so they can build around a smaller number of specs. Old hardware is often left behind (turn on a first-generation iPad, and witness the sluggishness). Meanwhile, dying conventions are proactively euthanized.

When Macs no longer shipped with floppy drives, many felt baffled. This same experience occurred when a disk (CD/DVD) reader no longer came standard. I probably don’t need to remind you how weird it seemed for the iPhone to not have a physical keyboard. Apple continues to remove items that seem necessary from their products and line-up.

In spite of the grumblings of many, I don’t recall many such changes that we didn’t later look upon as the right choice. Floppy disks were too small. The cloud made physical media (CDs and DVDs) unnecessary. Better touch screens allowed a more efficient means of input, which made bulky keyboards unnecessary.

“What about this change to Helvetica?” you ask. It ties to the only significant point in yesterday’s iMac announcement: Retina displays. Just take a look at Helvetica on any high-fidelity screen, and you see a crisp, economical, and adaptable type system.

Sure, Helvetica looks crummy on your standard resolution screen. But, the people at Apple are OK with this temporary trade-off. You’re living in Apple’s past, and, in time, you’ll move forward. When you do, you’ll find a system that works as intended: because Apple skates to where the puck is going to be.