The Podcasts I Listen to, 2014

At IA Summit, I was chatting with the great Jessica Ivins when she asked me, "What podcasts do you listen to?" Awesome question, and since I have a long commute, I listen to quite a few shows.

But here's the funny thing: only one of them is directly about design. I can guess why that is: not thinking directly about UX or design gives me a break to actually think about this stuff. Got it? Good.

Without further ado, the podcasts I listen to, 2014 edition.

  • 99% Invisible: Okay, so here's the design-y show I listen to. There's so much to like about Roman Mars's short show on the invisible aspects of design. The stories are very rich and terribly interesting, and I feel like I'm learning things with each episode. (There are companies whose sole purpose is to name things! The Citigroup Building in New York could have been blown over!)
  • The Alton Browncast: I've had my love and hate streaks with Alton Brown but he shows how great an interviewer he is on his podcast. I haven't been interested in all of his guests for sure, but then there are keepers like the interviews with John Hodgman and Alex Guarnaschelli (highly recommended).
  • Back to Work: I've listened to every episode. When you have nearly 200 episodes, you don't bat 1.000. And the banter between Merlin and Dan is really, really off-putting for new listeners. But, there are great streaks of solid, insightful work and life stuff here. To wit: the episodes on sleep and really working with GTD. The show is never dry, but if you don't like either of the two hosts, you probably won't get with the show.
  • Designing Yourself: I listen to my own podcast. It's great.
  • Judge John Hodgman: Oh yeah, a long-time favorite - I've listened to every one. My wife and I can agree on one podcast, and this is it. Funny, smart, great pacing. Judge John Hodgman rules - that is all.
  • Radiolab: Just got into this and I'm not sure why I didn't listen sooner. Whereas I was growing fatigued by This American Life, Radiolab feels a lot fresher and interesting to me. Excellent pacing and diversity of topics.
  • The Spark & The Art: Tucker's new show on creativity and art. Great point of view, solid interviews.
  • The Talk Show: Probably the nerdiest one I listen to. Some shows are a miss, but many are genuinely interesting if you're curious about the mobile industry, Apple, and its competitors. The episode with Glenn Fleishman was revelatory, as it explained Bitcoin in terms I could fully understand.

I also have a few shows that I dip into now and then, but are not quite on the regular rotation. They include BLNCE, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, Ladies in Tech, and Throwing Shade.

That's what I've got. If you listen to something good, let me know.

Give yourself five minutes

Before I started yoga and meditation, one of the notions I carried around was that these things were big time commitments. Many parts of me are big on schedules and efficiency, so those parts were able to readily dismiss those practices as "too time-consuming". Over time I realized was that this was also something other parts of me classified as selfless: if I chose to do something else (under the guise of helping others), then I could never be called selfish, which had been a big bad label for me.

But self-care is quite important and, really, vital to our daily lives. Sure, when someone says, "Hey, can you do a yoga class with me for 90 minutes every 3 days over lunch?" that might not be something that you can do. But I'm here to say: don't let this be an all or nothing event in your life. Find time to do self-care.

Let's start today. Let's try for five minutes. Just five! And that's all. When you're done reading this entry, five minutes or so will have passed. That's not much time. I know: I have a family and a job and a commute and never-ending laundry too. It's not going to be perfect. But it's going to be.

Here are a few ideas where and how this could happen:

  • During your commute: If you drive to work, give yourself five before or after you start the day. Radio off, eyes closed, and just listen and breathe. Easier on a train or bus.
  • At your desk: Work work work work work... pause. Stop. Take a deep, deep breath - you know, one of those super deep breaths. Go for it. And then let it all out, and chill.
  • Outside: If you have a desk job, take a brief walk around the block or in the parking lot. Get fresh air into your lungs - breathe all of it in.
  • In the shower: Awesome place to think, awesome place to take a quick moment for yourself and just be. There's a reason lots of people like the sound of running water: it's very relaxing.

And what do you do during these five minutes? Obviously I'm big on breathing: it helps with awareness, and forces me to slow down and be in the moment instead of elsewhere. But I have also found that doing one or two yoga poses is a great change of pace too. You may want to do a power pose (Amy Cuddy recommends two minutes. Just two!) Meditation is a great thing to do too. Or, listen to a song.

Don't let it go

Here's what I know is true: after even doing one of these small things, I feel much more centered and relaxed. I come back into the rest of my life feeling more refreshed, aware, and ready. Find something that sounds good for you - try things out! - and give yourself five minutes today.

You're buying so much more

Over a decade ago I was fascinated by PDAs. I thought they were pretty cool gadgets and as a young geek with extra cash burning a hole in his pocket, I considered buying one. I remember favoring the Handspring Visor. But then I realized, "Oh, hey, I don't really need one." Part of it was due to a lack of need, and part of it was because the PDA didn't really do anything I needed it to do.

I am feeling this once again with fitness trackers. I am relatively close to buying one - leaning towards the Jawbone Up at the moment, although I love me some Nike+ - but there has been something holding me back. After reflecting on it, there are two main thoughts in my head:

1. I don't really need one. It's a pure want.
2. I'm not just buying a fitness tracker - I'm buying a whole ecosystem.

The latter point is what I find immensely frustrating about technology in 2014. It seems like every tech company is building an ecosystem; they want to be your one stop shop for everything, and also make it hard to leave later. Facebook. Apple. Amazon. Samsung. Microsoft. Sony. So when you choose, you best choose wisely; when you leave, it's going to hurt (most likely in the wallet).

Thus, I'm not just buying a Jawbone Up24 or a Nike+ FuelBand SE. I'm buying into the entire system and company that goes along with those devices. And the quant self market is immature - there are no standards yet (and I wonder if there ever will be). This gives me serious pause.

 A decision on something that should be as small as a fitness tracker, or a music player, or a TV streaming box ends up being a very, very large decision with ramifications that could affect you and your data for years. That's a very different place than we were with technology 10 years ago, and I worry for where it's going to be in 2024.

IA Summit changed my life, again

I didn't expect it. How could anyone? A conference changed me in 2013. Yes, a conference. So while I've been an enormous booster of IA Summit, I wasn't expecting to have a similar experience in San Diego this year.

But I was wrong. IA Summit did change my life again. Truly.

Over the past day or so since my time at the conference ended, I've been reflecting on why this is. I've talked about it at length with my friends. And I think it boils down to this.

The talks are tremendous and diverse (the keynotes, in particular, are just stellar). The program is well-crafted and thoughtful. The venue and experience of the event is just about flawless. But in the end the people and the community are second to none.

I think about how attendees can go on stage at Five Minute Madness and feel comfortable and safe (!) enough to share their deepest feelings. I see how conversations run the gamut from taxonomy and emotion to design patterns and pie (yes, we talked pie). The energy of the entire conference is overwhelmingly positive, encouraging, and supportive. Flex track exists. Karaoke and game night exist. Yoga, 5K & 10Ks, and social events are plentiful. The keynote had yoga. THE KEYNOTE HAD YOGA.

Due in part to all of this, IA Summit offers that fertile ground. I can have life changing conversations with people. (LIFE CHANGING! FOR REAL!) I can approach parts of work in entirely new ways. I can get in front of a room full of strangers and sing "It's the End of the World As We Know It" without a lyric sheet. I can both see people for who they are and be seen for the person I am.

IA Summit gives people in this very special industry the chance to be themselves, fully. It is refreshing. It is true. I have not experienced this anywhere else. I do not expect to. Instead, I expect to attend this conference every year until I can no longer do so. It is my home, it is my tribe, it is my people.

I will miss all of you, stay in touch throughout the year, and see you again in Minneapolis... if not sooner.

Evolving UX Strategy

I've been involved with UX strategy for a few years now. As I progressed from a developer to a UI developer to a UX designer to a UX strategist, my thinking on what UX and UI are has changed dramatically.

My original, self-made definition of UX strategy was something like this:

UX strategy is the creation, management, and governance of an overall plan for the experience of a product portfolio, ensuring it meets the needs of users and the business through research, design, and measurement.

When I attended the UX STRAT conference last September, many presentations validated my own stance on this. My thinking on this has changed a bit, though:

You make wireframes, you don't make companies

In my experience, having "just" a UX designer, UX architect, or even a UX manager doesn't necessarily bring about the necessary change to ensure an organization is ready to be user-centric. Part of the reason I consciously entered UX strategy was to not only ensure my work wasn't just floating out in "creative UX land" but truly reinforce that UX actually matters when it comes to products and businesses. This was demonstrated primarily through metrics and creating an overall plan to integrate UX activities within Agile frameworks. Fun process stuff!

Since I started real content strategy work within the past 6 months on a project, I've come to deeply respect and appreciate the work that content strategists do. But there's something big and meaty and distinct about content strategy that UX by itself hasn't had, in my experience. Take a look at Brain Traffic's seminal quad chart and let me know if you see it.

Transient

Got it?

There are people components and, in particular, there's workflow. Brain Traffic defines workflow in this context as this - emphasis mine:

What processes, tools, and human resources are required for content initiatives to launch successfully and maintain ongoing quality?

This is something that has been woefully missing from UX positions I've both been in and experienced: a lack of expectation that UX people need (or should or can) instill bigger change than "just" research and "just" flows: we, too, need to aid in defining the overall way a company approaches UX in order to ensure its quality.

The tension we feel

This is where I and, I trust, others have felt pain when it comes to growing out of a straight-on UX role into something bigger: because UX is oft aligned with marketing, creative, design, or all three, it may not be taken seriously as an integral part of the business. We hear this when people say, "We'll add the UX later" (I HAVE HEARD THIS AND IT HURTS ME SO) or, "We don't need a UI for this; we'll just have our coders make one" (YOU ARE STILL MAKING A UI).

UX strategy is one way that we can bring our skills out and apply them to things bigger than a product, bigger than a portfolio, bigger than an interface. Instead we can do our research and work, focused internally, and say, "This is how we could design our organization in order to achieve this goal." We state the goal and how to do it. Then we make PowerPoints and use the language of our business partners.

Here is the catch: other people do this work too. They may be called strategists. They may be risk managers. They may be change management. They may be organizational designers. They may not be any of these things. But all of these people, particularly if they are already in your organization, may feel like they've got this. They understand the problem, just from a different perspective than us, and may already working on how to solve it.

So once again, it's on us to figure out how to best work within our organizations - hierarchies, politics, titles, and all - and design plans to achieve our goals. That sounds like a workflow to me, or maybe, a workaround-flow. But none of it will happen if UX is not empowered to bring change in your organization. And to me, UX strategy is analogous to content strategy in that organizational change is not only possible, it is expected.

Taking over the world

In an interview with the UX STRAT folks, I opined that UX and UX strategy will continue to grow and then go away altogether. I do believe that someday, UX will not be a discipline in and of itself within organizations because, by then, these principles and practices will be more standardized. It won't be weird to conduct usability testing for design optimization, or do hardcore deep research on users in order to figure out what to build.

Until then, we are still out there working hard to convince people that UX isn't just a magical thing that one person makes randomly based on gut and nothing else. We are still out there working hard to demonstrate that a designed experience can make people happier and genuinely empowered. But it's not going to happen - or, happen well - without UX strategy.

DTDT

Thus, I'd like to cast out a new definition of UX strategy for myself. (Who in UX doesn't love DTDT, right?)

UX strategy is the creation, management, and governance of a plan for the experience of a product portfolio to support user needs and business goals. This plan encompasses both external and internal touchpoints through research, design, human resources, and workflows.

Consider it a work in progress.

The Disconnect

It starts out very quietly. "I'll talk to her tomorrow", you may think to yourself, "instead of today. I'm not up to it." And maybe you aren't. Maybe your energy is low; maybe your capacity for compassion needs to be refilled.

Then tomorrow rolls around and you think about that lack of contact. "That's not going to happen today. Something got in the way." Maybe the dog needed a bath, or there was an important phone call that needed to happen. You bumped it down the to do list.

Soon, it's a week and you haven't spoken with that other person. That "Call her" task is a big fat number on your GTD list. The disconnection has taken root. You start wondering what's going on with them. Have you done something wrong? Are they okay? Wow, I hope they're not sick. Maybe they're "just busy". Are they still... there?

And then it snowballs into a month. Now it's been forever since you've talked, and the anxiety builds. It festers and lingers. And now what could you possibly say? How could you take everything that's been swirling around in your life for the past month and encapsulate it into a neat, 10 minute conversation? More importantly, how can you articulate these feelings and emotions to this other person?

How long does it need to continue before you reconnect? Does it need to continue at all? And more importantly, how long will it be until you realize that your inactions are just as impactful as actions?

It is actually a big deal

I've been in places where anxiety has absolutely gotten the best of me, and it can be all-encompassing. I've gotten so wrapped up in worrying about what might happen that I just don't do anything, instead. But that's a choice, as it ever was, and ultimately what does it serve me?

I learned through self-observation and self-reflection that I was giving anxiety a big, big part of my days. Just turning it all over to anxiety, and I'd push it way down. But that isn't sustainable. Worse, it can be painful.

Pull in your logical parts, and call on them to examine the facts. Watch what you're doing, in the spirit of empathy and understanding. Then, reconnect.

Reconnect with yourself. Reconnect with others.

The Warby Parker Experience

Last year during my routine eye appointment, my eye doctor told me something surprising. "You might only have another 2 years or so with contacts," he said, "before your eyes start rejecting them a little more often." I didn't know if he was bullshitting me or not, as I'd been wearing contacts for over 20 years. But I knew that I was growing tired of putting the little plastic thingies in my eyes every day and my glasses were woefully outdated - both in prescription and style. So I decided to buy new glasses.

I naturally thought of Warby Parker when it came time to buy. Now that I've had the glasses for nearly a year (9 months, to be precise), I wanted to share my thoughts.

Before You Buy

Warby Parker's pre-sale experience is fantastic. The home try-on program is killer: request up to 5 frames, try them out, and then send them back. I ended up doing this three times total, at no cost to me. (I didn't think much of their "try them on, online" stuff; that doesn't appeal to me.)

As I got my trial frames, I took them into work to ask co-workers' opinions, and then I started tweeting about them as well. The most surprising part of the whole experience was when Warby Parker made me a YouTube video (!) with frame picks, based on my tweet:

This absolutely floored me. What amazing customer service! After one last home try-on that included the frames I bought, I went ahead and made a purchase.

The winning pair, by the way, was the Wiloughby in Striped Chestnut. (Nice naming too, folks). 

All was great. I received my new glasses in a lovely case, and have enjoyed them ever since.

The Post-UX UX

But there's something that's really been bugging me about my experience, and it is this: after I bought these glasses from WP, I felt like I was dead to them. I was receiving a lot of attention - personal attention, no less - during the shopping process. That's good! That should happen, if I want it (and I did).

Once my order was done, my status with WP seemed to devolve back into "hit up for future purchases only". There was no communication asking me how my glasses were doing, or how I was liking them. There was no video checking in with me, and no one encouraging me to continue to share my experience. Sure, the try-on process is made for our times, practically begging people to post pics on Instagram or Twitter (and I did!)

The only emails I've received from WP since my purchase last year are about sales. That's it. For a company as seemingly customer-focused as WP, this is a huge miss.

Buying glasses online is still somewhat novel for people. Certainly not as novel as it was in 2005, but it is not quite at a Zappos level of comfort. WP has the unique opportunity to step up and say, "Hey! We know you got these great glasses, and we want to make sure you're happy with your purchase." Even a brief, personal tweet or email a week or two post-purchase would have done wonders.

Yes, this means extra time and money. And yes, there's a chance I'd be bothered by more contact from them - that's why they would let me opt-out. But I would happily exchange the "BIG SALE COMING UP!" communications for something smaller and more reassuring.

It's not like my Warby Parker experience stopped the day I received my glasses. In reality, that's when my day-to-day with them just started - and isn't it strange that the company that made them chose that time to no longer be involved in my experience?

Designing "Better Living Through Design"

My World IA Day presentation, Better Living Through Design, was all-new and created specifically for this event. I took a new approach to developing the talk, and in the interest of sharing process, here are the details.

Initial Research

There were a lot of ways I could approach this challenge. I chose to read up and watch some of the best people in the field to see how they did it.

Matt Haughey's "An Introvert's Guide to Better Presentations": Matt's article formed part of the skeleton of how I'd design the writing process. In particular, his notes on timetables and giving people a break were a big influence on the WIAD version of the talk.

Karen McGrane's "I Suck! And So Do You!": This was my talk of the year 2013. From her talk, I took away the pure bravery and skill she demonstrated. (No speaker notes - shit!)

Kathy Sierra's "Presentation Skills Considered Harmful": I reread this about one month into development of the talk, and I definitely had a big, "Oh, crap" moment. It made me question what value my talk was going to bring, and what people could actually get out of it. It also made me realize I had to wear a jacket in order to be a good-looking but unobtrusive UI. (Just kidding, I would have done that anyway.) Directly from this, my second slide was the question I needed to answer for people.

Whitney Hess's "Evangelizing Yourself": Of course, my podcast co-host and friend had a great talk on this very relevant topic years before I thought of it. Direct, simple message. Straightforward examples.

Carl Smith's "Your Money AND Your Life": Carl did this talk at UXMAD last year. His combination of practicality and raw emotion really hit me good. He also came across as such a goodhearted person, which was later validated by talking with him.

Finally, Heather Gold's "Unpresenting" style isn't something that I fully employed but definitely learned from - the participatory break was used not only because of Matt Haughey's advice but because of how well I saw Heather use participatory moments in her ConveyUX talk in 2013.

Once I gathered my research, I moved on to designing the content and schedule.

Origin and Timelines

I was contacted about speaking at WIAD back in November, 2013. My first step was to figure out what the hell to do. I knew that I wanted to incorporate my interests - designing one's life obviously - with this fantastic, research-driven process that I was introduced to (primarily) at my day job with Centralis. Putting the two together seemed like a natural fit.

I created an initial outline in Google Docs in November. I sent it to my boss for his early feedback. It was so so rough, but I wanted to be much ahead of the curve on this talk and practice the hell out of it, with an end goal of having as few notes as possible (and not read it.) Thus, I decided this would be my plan:

  • November: Create outline. Refine outline. Start broad research.
  • December: Finalize outline.
  • January: Practice. Ask friends for feedback. Incorporate feedback. Practice. Make slides.
  • February: Final runthroughs. Deliver talk. Post notes and references.

This pretty much stuck, and is very much my style: make the meat of the talk first, don't worry about the slides until later. I upped the practicing substantially. I'm very pleased to say that I stuck to this timeframe.

Words with Friends

I can say that without a doubt, doing runthroughs with people was the best part of the design process. I nominated and contacted people I wanted input from - in this case, Carl Smith and Whitney Hess. I just used Skype and shared my Keynote presentation that way, super simple. I also did a runthrough with the entire team at work. These rounds gave me a chance to gather audience perspectives on this talk from people who knew me & people who did not, as well. I highly recommend this and will always do this from now on, and you should too.

Practicing was the second most important thing to do and that meant doing it many times. I recorded myself using my iPhone and listened to my talk during my commute. I quickly gathered a sense of what flowed well and what needed help. I also got to notice some of my verbal tics and habits.

Slide Design

I've been using a slide design similar to Matt Haughey's for a while now: big, big photography with little text. The first drafts of my slides had a lot of text, but Carl pointed out that they were distracting - this was true, and there was just too damn much to read. Also, Whitney gave me another great piece of advice: whatever you want tweeted should be on a slide. (Conversely, whatever you put on a slide will be tweeted.) This is true, although a couple of things I said and did not have on slides were also tweeted, like this:

...and now I have a reasonable thing to put on a slide in the future, for an upcoming iteration of this presentation.

The only real visual change in this presentation versus my XDCHI & UX STRAT ones was the font. Helvetica is out and Futura is in, in order to match my site. (The visual style also nods to the Centralis style for client presentations.)

In the Moment

I knew I would be anxious before taking the stage, and I was, but because I had done 8 full rehearsals, this was really just the 9th time I was doing it. I knew the nooks and crannies of the material and knew where I could stretch time or cut, if I needed to. There were a couple of things that went away in this version, but there were also things that the audience responded to that I didn't anticipate. That's the beauty of performing live.

My notes were minimal. I had a one-liner - often just one word - for each slide, with a couple of additional scribbles here and there for support, but otherwise it was all off the cuff. I am super proud of this; I mostly memorized my talk without having it as an explicit goal.

Afterwards

The walk was incredibly well-received. I was honored when attendees came up to me afterwards, and throughout the day, and shared their own stories.

The thing I will remember most is that I made an emotional connection with a lot of people through the talk. To me, having that connection and inviting people to think about their lives in a different way - using familiar techniques - was exactly what I wanted to do.

It was an exciting and fun experience, and I can't wait to do it again.

 

 

Better Living Through Design: Links and References

Thank you to those of you who attended World IA Day Chicago and heard my talk, "Better Living Through Design"! I'm glad I got to share my stories with you.

First!

I must acknowledge that I am by far not the first person to do this type of "life is a design project" work. You should read up on people like Christina Wodtke, whose "Personal OKRS" was inspirational. (If you're in IA, you should be reading her stuff anyway.) My friend Derek Wade and I chatted about the concept of "personal Agile" a long while ago, and that got me researching and thinking on this quite a bit.

Specific References from the Talk

"Strong Opinions, Weakly Held" by me: You know the phrase, "Strong opinions, weakly held," right? Have you ever applied it to your opinions of yourself?

"Make Small Plans" by me: Those little things add up. Over time, they become the bigger things we want to do or need to do.

Leslie Jensen-Inman on recognizing where she is: When I feel in limbo and feel I have no control over anything, I remind myself to be where my feet are.

"Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are" by Amy Cuddy

The Motivaider

Romantimatic

Getting Things Done

"Getting Started with Getting Things Done" by Merlin Mann

Back to Work with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin

Loadstar

The effortless fame of George Clooney by Jason Kottke, which led me to the Esquire piece I quoted

My work

Of course, you should also visit Centralis and Designing Yourself.

If you have any questions or feedback for me, get in touch! Namaste.

One Pen to Rule Them All

Back on episode 8 of Designing Yourself, I revealed to my co-host Whitney that I am a pen geek. Her reaction was great:

So, did I hear you correctly when you said that you are a "pen" geek? P-E-N?

Yep.

Soon we were chatting about the Fountain Pen hospital, which sounds pretty great. But my own journey to pen geekdom started years ago - as a kid. I loved office supplies and office supply stores. I longed to have an office just so I could buy things like desk organizers and of course, pens.

I've come to accept this over time, and I started to find a corner of pen fandom I hadn't seen before: caring almost too much about it. I learned about Jetpens through John Gruber and, well, then it was all over. And that was 7 years ago.

I was in New York very briefly a couple of years ago, and stopped at the MUJI TO GO kiosk at JFK solely to bask in their pen collection. I picked up a fantastic 0.4mm model there that was my go to pen. Until...

The Audition

I decided to order a select few pens from Jetpens and audition them. YES, FOR REAL. And over the past year and a half, these four pens have been my only pens whenever I've had a choice in the matter. Without further ado, here are the four I tried.

Assumptions going in: black ink (blue is for kids). Gel pen only. 0.4mm maximum, but leaning towards 0.38/0.37. No preference on brand or cap/no-cap.

Pilot G-2 0.38mm: This was, by far, my least favorite. My wife loves the G-2 at a thicker width (something like 0.5mm, which would drive me bananas) so I used this as a starting point. The feel of the pen was just bulky and like it was trying too hard. Felt inky even though 0.38 is pretty reasonable. Satisfying click. Not impressed.

 

Zebra Sarasa Clip 0.4mmGruber's favorite but, there's no accounting for taste. Overwrought design, with an exposed clip (come on). The only great thing about this pen is the click, which is extremely satisfying.

 

Uni-ball Signo 0.38mmLots to like about this one. Sleek and purposeful: it's a damn pen, and it's not trying to be something it's not (hi, Dunkin' Donuts with your chicken sandwiches.) Super nice flow. Precise. Has a cap, and even though it's well-designed and attractive, it's one more thing to lose.

 

Uni-ball Signo RT 0.38mm: Pretty much just like the non-RT version, but with a nice clicky clicker. Same sleekness, same precision. However, and this is critical: I was easily able to break off the clip. A pen with a broken clip is dead to me.

 

So, I faced a dilemma of miniature proportions: I clearly liked both Signo models. But caps on pens are easily lost or misplaced... but clips can be broken. Still, when weighing the two it was clear to me that the Signo RT, without the cap, was the winner. It's pretty much the best pen I've ever used on a regular basis. It's never let me down (except for the damn clip).

And, all this can be yours for the cost of $1.65... versus $2.50 for the capped Signo. (I mean, you have to pay more for a cap? Don't be a fool.) GAME OVER.

PS: You know you need some Field Notes to go with a pen like that, right? Right.

The most important UX tool

As a part of our practice, it seems that a lot of us love to talk about tools and labels. This makes sense: IA work, and UX work in the broad, deals with these things. I know that I love it too, and so when I'm asked about what tools I use my mind tends to go straight to technology.

Technology isn't the biggest tool we have. It's not even close. The biggest tool we have as UX people is the ability to listen. It can happen in many forms.

If we can hear, it can be the sounds other people are making, analyzing them, and understanding them. We can pick up on tones in conversation. We can notice how fast or slow people are talking. We can notice patterns, extract possible emotions, and then probe on those emotions. We can also just shut up and take it all in, a powerful technique.

If we can not hear, that listening may happen with the other senses: touch, vision, smell. Observation of others is a form of listening, and it leads to empathy and understanding.

Observation of ourselves is also form of listening. We live with ourselves every day, and how much listening to ourselves do we do? Listen to your body. What's it telling you? Are you in pain? Hungry? Full? Calm? Anxious? Happy? How is your physical state impacting the way you feel? Where are you right now? Take a moment to observe and listen to yourself.

This capability, this tool, is something that we all possess and we can all get better at doing.

"Listen. Don't wait. Don't wait."

On Compassion for Others

When it comes to compassion of the self and compassion with other people, for me, it’s been easier to be compassionate with other people than myself.

But something I had first read via Tara Brach said that everybody that you encounter in the day is fully-formed, too. They have their own hopes and dreams and desires and pain and suffering -  they have all of these things, too. And they’re carrying those around with them at that same time you are.

The interaction level with other people may be almost nonexistent. It might be somebody that you see walking down the street as you’re driving by. It might be somebody who’s the cashier at a store. It might be somebody who is asking for money as you walk down the street. But they are full people, too.

I really started to take that in, sit with that and, frankly, just kind of look around at stoplights and look at everybody... it gave me such a different perspective. All these people are just out there living their lives and doing what they need to do or what they have to do or what they want to do.

When I started to see other people as people, that led me to be generally more compassionate and open to the idea of interacting more with strangers - that ties into introversion and social awkwardness, too. I may never understand these people’s pain. I may never hear about it. But acknowledging the fact that it does exist and everybody has it to some degree has that’s been very helpful for me.

This post was excerpted from episode 9 of Designing Yourself, "Embracing the Suffering".

Details Fuzzy

Yesterday on a rather arduous commute, I turned on the radio and heard a rather fantastic weather forecast. The weatherperson shared a poem about the cold wind, the freezing temperatures, and the sun overhead, taunting us. As I sat in my car a huge smile crossed my face and I chuckled. "Wow," I said out loud to myself. "Wow! That was great!"

I repeated one of the key phrases from his weather poem, and thought, "I can't wait to tweet this." That changed into, "I can't wait to share this with everyone at work."

But by the time I went to do so, after getting my PC up for the day, the phrasing was gone. The words were a memory at best, filed somewhere in my brain with many other forgotten things. I certainly could Google it - I remember the station I was listening to, and could research who said it, hoping to find audio - but the moment was gone, gone for all time, never to return. I chose not to share the story, as I had determined that the best part of it was indeed the exact turns of phrase this person used.

The whole thing started so strongly, and everything was clear.  The words were strong. I repeated them more than once on the short walk from my car to the front door at work. And within an hour or so, I had dismissed all of the details, whether consciously or not.

On thinking about it, though, those details were ultimately not terribly important to the moment. Yes, they happened, but the key thing is that I had a noticeable emotional and physical reaction. I smiled. I laughed. I talked to myself. It heartened my heart when I needed just a little bump, just a little hit of unexpected joy. And I still smile thinking about it.

But that moment was only for me. It was not planned, nor was my reaction. And my mind and body held on to what was most important... it just wasn't what I imagined it was.

Make small plans

Big plans are exciting. Big plans are breathtaking. Big plans are inspirational. Big plans are motivating. Big plans are thrilling. I love it when a good strategy comes together. But, I also love it when the smallest pieces are just as well-designed.

It's easy to get caught up in only paying attention to the big plans or only paying attention to the small plans. Some people are even told not to do one or the other.

For a very long time, I focused on vague and big plans. I was going to travel, or I was going to organize the entire house, or I was going to plan out family meals for the entire month. While I had components of a trusted system in place, I wasn't fully using it and thus, these big plans were just items on a to do list: too big, too clunky, never going to happen.

Instead I tried a different approach: small plans.

It would be super cool if I organized the entire house. But I know that's not going to happen Saturday, because it would take approximately 394 hours (I estimated!) Instead, "Organize my sock drawer" became something I could easily do. And so I did.

Sure, I said that in jest. But that was actually a nice accomplishment: it was something that had been bothering me. I paid attention to it, and moments later I didn't have to think about it ever ever again.

Those little things add up. Over time, they become the bigger things we want to do or need to do. But if we never make them small, never make them manageable, never make them ours, they may never happen.

2013

I'm tempted to write a year-end reflection filled with clichés, or a list filled with numbers, or a list of clichés filled with numbers. It's hard not to; please indulge me while I try to avoid both. (I'll succumb shortly.)

The summary, though: 2013 was a year in which I got to know myself better, and then began to work to satisfy the parts of me that had been underrepresented for a long time (possibly my entire life). That's no small potatoes. That's pretty big.

A lot of this manifested as change. I started a new job in August, one that has allowed me to remove fighting from my daily duties and focus on client work and business development. I passed the 300 miles run mark, and started to run outdoors - so much that I began to prefer it in October. I attended a few conferences and one of them, IA Summit, changed me forever. I played guitar as a part of a UX talk in February. I spoke at the inaugural UX STRAT conference. I started a podcast and finished its first season. My wife and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. My son turned 3.

If I look back, I'm able to connect a lot of these things. There wasn't any one thing that necessarily allowed all of this to happen but there is one theme: I allowed myself to be more open to possibilities by improving my presence and awareness in the moment. It's this continued practice at being present that really helped me the most. Without it, I would be holding on to things I need to let go of and not be much of a participant in my own life. Notably, too, a lot of decisions I made in 2013 set me up for the future - later in 2013, and in 2014. It's thrilling to see how the little choices, and the big ones, can affect what's to come.

The Influencers

My biggest influencers this year were my wife and my son. They have pushed me to be a stronger, better, and more patient person. Without them, I would be a very different individual.

A lot of other people had big influences on me too. Here's where I give in and make a big list.

Massive professional thanks to, in no order: Kathi Kaiser, Lyman Casey, Whitney Hess, Karen McGrane, Carl Smith, Jenn Downs, Mike Montiero, Erika Hall, Sarah Emerson, Shelby Bower, Marteki Reed, Thomas Huls, Rebecca Griftner, Gina Trapani, Dan Klyn, Susan Rice, Pamela Pavliscak, Ryan MacMichael, Damaris Phillips, Kathy Sierra, Ashe Dryden, Paul Bryan, Roz Duffy, Steve Portigal, Anita Sarkeesian, Dave Raymond, Roman Mars, Jesse Thorn, John Hodgman, Amy Silvers, Christian Crumlish, Elysse Zarek, Abby Covert, Christina Wodtke, Margot Bloomstein, Lisa Maria Martin, Lis Hubert, John Jarosz, Peter Merholz, Gene Moy, Jessica Ivins, Leslie Jensen-Inman, Kristina Halvorson, Derek Powazek, and Cinnamon Cooper. You all have inspired me, motivated me, encouraged me, and pushed me to be better. Thank you.

In case you didn't want to read that entire list, I understand. Here's a smattering of the things that impacted me the most this year.

2014

I have no idea what's going to happen next. Life is exciting that way.

Thank you for being on this journey with me. Namaste.

There's always one more thing to do

It's no secret that I love lists. I've talked about it on my podcast and I've blogged about it forever. For me, there is something very satisfying for me to accomplish something and cross it off the list - or delete it altogether.

And yet...

In all this talk of making better lists and organizing one's self, one thing is true: the to do list never goes away. It never ends.

I don't see this as a fatalist thing, or a depressing thing. And, in fact, there was a time in my life when I felt so very overwhelmed and burdened by things to do that I prioritized them over everything else. Everything else. I could always find busywork in cleaning, or organizing, or doing project X that had been on the back burner forever.

I could also be distracted by tools: trying a system out (Things, OmniFocus, GTD) and then letting the tool be the focus instead of the things to do, or not do.

But in the meantime, I realized that choosing to do something on my list meant I wasn't doing something else. The list would live forever, and it would always be there. And as I sat with that I came to see that the list couldn't be my life anymore. So I worked on doing something very difficult: I started to let the list go.

That led to initial feelings of guilt ("Oh no! I'm not organizing the garage today EITHER!") and regret. Those feelings subsided over time to a place of acceptance, because it helped me refocus on the choices I was making at the time. Yes, I wasn't reorganizing the garage. But what was I doing instead? Something that was more important.

The to do list is never going away. You can recognize that and dive completely into the list forever and ever, never finishing, always busy. You can also recognize it and choose to live your life, and not let a list rule you.

Who calls you out?

For the first time ever, I think, I'm going to quote George Clooney. Here he is in an Esquire interview about a few pick-up games of basketball with Leonardo DiCaprio. Essentially, DiCaprio and a friend of his thought they were incredibly good at the game. Emphasis mine:

"...And so then we’re watching them warm up, and they’re doing this weave around the court, and one of the guys I play with says, ‘You know we’re going to kill these guys, right?’ Because they can’t play at all. We’re all like fifty years old, and we beat them three straight: 11–0, 11–0, 11–0. And the discrepancy between their game and how they talked about their game made me think of how important it is to have someone in your life to tell you what’s what. I’m not sure if Leo has someone like that."

I offer this as a companion to the idea of inspiring yourself. Yes, you must know what's what - as a balance. You have to learn about your capabilities - your true capabilities, not the ones you've been told you have - and balance them with everyone else.

I think back to my declaration that I am a writer. I stand by this. I do claim I'm good at it in general, but, it's also important to have someone who calls you out: a friend, a spouse, a mentor, a colleague, a random dude on Twitter (that last one is not recommended). That person can help be a compass, as long as you're open to it.

There's a fine line between the way that Clooney portrays his skills and the way DiCaprio portrays his. Clooney almost comes off as brash - almost! - but it falls on the side of confidence. DiCaprio's comments - and those of his friend in particular - are brash and smug.

Here's another Clooney quote from that interview:

"I’m not great [at basketball], by any means, but I played high school basketball, and I know I can play. I also know that you don’t talk shit unless you can play."

Honest, humble, direct. Admirable.

So, can you talk shit about something? Now ask yourself: can you play?

Inspiring Yourself

What do you do that inspires... you?

I'm a person who, in general, can easily be inspired and motivated by other people. I've noticed this more with musicians lately; the ones who are firing on all cylinders are instantly appealing to me, and I can truly feel their work shine.

But I get a very different kind of lift when I'm doing something, or have finished something, that feels great. I feel it in my gut; I get excited. It may be something that pulls on my passion and love and pushes me to do something bigger than me, bigger than just my concerns. That inspires me.

Yes, it's great to find that in other people. But it's greater to find it in yourself.

Go where you're wanted

Once upon a time, my job decided to reorganize the department I was in. In fact, it reorganized me right out of my job. I went from having a team with a clear plan for the coming year to having no direct reports and poorly-defined "dotted line" relationships. 

I felt incredible shock when it happened (it was a sudden change, at least to me). More challenging was that my responsibilities were changing, but my title and pay were not. So I had to pretend I was still in management even though I wasn't.

I sat down with my new boss at the time and talked with him about the change. To be fair, he had heard about this change just two hours before I had, suggesting it was a poorly-designed decision. He was familiar with all of my work: building out a competency, setting personal and team goals, developing a UX roadmap, and helping create a product strategy. And then he said something profound, something that only solidified my already-present feelings on leaving.

He said, "It's great that you have all of these skills, but we just don't need them." 

A couple of things crystallized for me at that moment. One was that my job was no longer going to challenge me in any deep nor meaningful way. Two was that in his eyes, I was a resource - nothing more.  

The path

To be fair, the path to that moment was not completely unexpected. Tensions had run deep as I put forth my agenda and mission for my team and myself, as it made some people uncomfortable. "People are afraid UX is going to take over the company," my former boss had said to me. I told him, "I don't want to take over the company. I just want us to have that fabled seat at the table." (This was coded talk for, "Shit's fucked up , yo.")

As my team and I started questioning things, the questions started to grow in scale. We moved from, "Why is this page so shitty?" to, "Well, why do  we price products this way?" to, "Why are we making this product?" We asked more and more questions and faced more and more pushback (in part because some of the questions had no answers). People were uncomfortable.

This discomfort and fear was what followed me around every day, and I let it get to me. I had to fight and fight and fight. I had to fight for my team. I had to fight for my job. I had to fight for market pay. I had to fight for org structures that made sense. Hell, I had to fight to get a part-timer converted to full-time. But by the end of it I was truly tired of fighting. It took away much of my passion, much of my drive, and much of my energy.

And, well, being in that position and then having your boss say your skills aren't needed? A clarion call.

The exit

I was and am fortunate to be in a place where I can choose to leave a job and take a new one. I do have a family and financial responsibilities, and I wasn't in a position to go freelance nor do I feel that's right for me (even now). But the number of privileges I had was astounding: I didn't need that job; they needed me - until they truly didn't, anymore; I got to hire my replacement; I got to find a job where I was challenged. 

Most importantly though, I didn't need to fight those battles. I didn't need to fight for UX, my team, my respect, my pay, or anything like that. I was able to instead focus on my work, fight for way more interesting things, and help that company do its very best.

To me, that is extremely valuable. In that job, I was wanted - and it made a world of difference.


Designing for the change

 This entry was updated 11.8.13 to reflect Apple's knowledge base article on iWork.

 Once I wrote:

Cars, computers, UIs... these are things we make and may change rather quickly. In order to highlight the change, we tend to incorporate visual design to signify the change. "This is different!" we're saying. It's pretty amazing that we have design to help us communicate change.

If it's so amazing, why is it trivial to come up with examples of when it doesn't happen?

I'm thinking of Apple here, in part because they're so big, but it applies to just about any redesign rollout ever. Consider this: Apple has rolled out new versions of all of their apps - including Keynote and GarageBand, two I use - and features have been removed. Arguably significant features, too - per Matt Haughey, GarageBand has lost nearly all of its podcast-specific tools (!)

There was a good discussion about why  this may have happened on a recent episode of The Talk Show. If I may paraphrase John Gruber and Dan Frommer, there was a word of caution conveyed: if you use Apple's apps, be prepared for features to go away in the future.

The idea of removing features is not flawed, although it's questionable.  My bugaboo is with the fact that Apple did not communicate these changes in advance or during the change. Instead in the case of the iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote), Apple released a knowledge base article stating what was coming. While there's a vague laundry list of upcoming stuff, they say:

In rewriting these applications, some features from iWork ’09 were not available for the initial release. We plan to reintroduce some of these features in the next few releases and will continue to add brand new features on an ongoing basis.

Mind you, Apple designed the change, but they did a poor job of designing for the change itself; this knowledge base article came out over a week after the apps did. The way it goes down, there is a massive amount of work that goes into designing the change, and then a switch is flipped. All done, and maybe a note about things later. But it's not enough.

Poof! 

Consider this quite realistic scenario. You use Keynote all the time. It's your go-to. You have automatic app updates enabled because, well, you're advised that it's easier to do so (and it is, arguably). A "stunning" new update is installed overnight and the next morning when you open the app, not only does it look different but some of the features you use are gone.

There is a moment there, a key one, that Apple is ignoring. It's ironic, because it's a very human moment: it's one that can be loaded with confusion, comfort, reassurance, understanding, concern, hate, or love. Apple bets hard on the beauty of its tools, and attempts to provide some reassurance through tutorials - but nothing so hand holding as to say, "Here's what's gone and here's why."

The week-later article is an attempt to assuage these concerns, but consider this: one would only find this article if she actively sought it out. Apple didn't make this a big deal. It smacks of a reaction, and isn't proactive in the slightest.

Christina Wodtke's piece on change, which I will reference again and again and again because it is damn good, applies here.  In talking about Twitter's UI changes for conversations - those infamous blue lines - she said:

Perhaps [Twitter] didn’t spend enough time hypnotizing the users that the blue line is beautiful. Or perhaps they just didn’t warn people change was coming....

I would estimate both are true. There's the hypnotizing part (which I bet Kathy Sierra would rightfully take to task) and there's also the warning part. The change, again, was simply put out there even though Twitter knew about it for probably a long time .

How inhumane is that? 

There's a degree of arrogance at play here, a degree in which companies like this are expressing their superiority when it comes to knowledge of the people using their services and products. Sometimes they're right, and they make tons of money and have happy fans. Sometimes they're wrong, and they still make tons of money and piss off everyone.

It's particularly egregious of Apple to behave this way, because of their heretofore stance as advocates for people. We've seen it in the past: Human Interface Guidelines. Computing for the rest of us. I'm not thrilled in part because I do like beautiful objects - who doesn't? - but don't want to sacrifice ability  for aesthetics  and may have no realistic alternatives. (I mean, a Samsung phone and Android? Really?)

I digress. 

Like anything else in life, not choosing to do something is actually a choice. Thus, it is essential for designers to stand up for their users and design for the act of changing, and not just the change itself. Not doing so is irresponsible, disrespectful, and arrogant.