Friday, April 27, 2018

Careful with Labels

Be careful with labels.

I was at a communications conference that ended with a session on what "millennials" do and don't do, and what "they" believe and don't believe. There was wide agreement and only a little pushback among the ethnically diverse group, which ranged from 20-somethings to 70-somethings.


If you replace "millennials" with "old folks" or "women" or "black people" soon someone will point out what's wrong with making sweeping statements or generalizations about a segment of the population.

Generalizations (which follow labeling - or other words, categorization or, really, the creation of models) are useful, it's true. But only when they inform your decision-making. When you let the labels define decision-making, you do a disservice to yourself and to the people you're trying to reach.

To rearrange the famous Box/Deming quote: Some models are useful; but all models are wrong.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Multi-Purposing Media to Serve Different Use Cases and Different Usability

The same video (actually, any media - what I'm describing could be done just as well with audio or cartoons) can be used in a variety of ways to suit different needs.

Note that I'm using the phrase multi-purposing, as distinct from repurposing, because this is not a situation where we took media from an old project and recycled it. The multiple uses I'm discussing here were planned, if not from the very start, certainly from an early point in the process of course development.

I recently completed a long-term project using archival and purpose-shot video to illustrate ongoing public health policy issues. The end product was, on the surface, a web-based page-turner course, and it continues to be referred to a a course, simply for convenience. It doesn't look like anything else as much as it looks like a standard online course.

Except that it isn't really a course. It has several intended use cases - and none using quizzes or other traditional assessments.

Here's what it is:

  • It's a supplement to a traditional classroom course on policy and ethics
  • It's a self-guided informational piece for anyone interested in those topics
  • It's pre-reading (and viewing) to stimulate a flipped-classroom discussion environment
We started with archival recordings of a congressional hearing around the issues the course addresses (yes, we'll continue to call it that). It struck us early on that including current perspectives would be valuable and, as we had access to the majority of the witnesses from the original hearing, it would be feasible to do follow-up interviews. We did a round of interviews that tied the historical materiel into present-day viewpoints on the same issues. Each set of video clips was followed by un-scored questions, intended to prompt both reflection on the part of the individual student and to stimulate discussion in a classroom environment.

Conventional wisdom on using video effectively in online courseware is that it's best to present it in short segments. Only about five minutes at a time, tops. We've all suffered through endless lectures that were presented under the guise of a webinar. We determined that we would present a single idea at a time, with short statements from one or just a few speakers, supported as appropriate with related content.

But, when you interview experts, you will come away with far more than a few minutes on each topic.. And that was the case here. When we completed the "Perspectives" lesson we found we had hours of relevant, good, material that just would not fit into the course.

What to do with this valuable material?

We decided that we would use the interviews to produce a short documentary. The film would support the course and raise the profile of the issues. The course would support the film, in that participants in the course would be likely to go to it for more in-depth information from the expert interviews, 

Each product can function as a standalone, and each can be used to supplement other educational activities. 

A short film can go places that a course never would. To see if the film was a successful effort on its own, we submitted it to several documentary-focused film festivals - and received an award. IN the academic/policy world, it's been accepted as a conference presentation.

The course, apart from the film, has been reviewed by university instructors and public health policy people. Also getting high marks for being engaging and useful. 

What does this have to do with the "usability" focus of this blog?

Every form of media has different usability. A video can "work" in a situation or a context where a course wouldn't . Similarly for a book (or a podcast, or a song, or a game). In this case, we started from the same raw content, and developed two distinctly different, successful products.

If you've ever read Marshall McLuhan, you can see how this way of looking at different presentation modalities is in line with what he said about pre-web media forms.

We wanted our content to reach casual users as well as formal ones. We needed to serve professional workers in policy and public health, as well as university professors and their students.

Watching a short documentary is an easy investment of time for someone who can't take a course over many hours or days. The course-that-is-not-a-course (with or without the short doc) is easily used by an instructor as a supplement to a formal curriculum. It's like an assigned reading. Either or both is accessible for someone who is interested in the subject, but can't commit to signing up for  a class.

Another way to look at it is: we already had the noodles, so we used them as an entree on Monday and as a side dish on Tuesday.

If you can think ahead to where, and how, and to whom, you want your content to be delivered, considering more than one modality (using the same content) may be the key to reaching a broader audience.

Links to the materials discussed will follow - the products were not opened for wide release as of this writing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Mindfulness" VS "Sunk Costs"

At first glance, the idea of meditating to ground yourself in the present, to view things in terms of  'here-and-now', has little to do with design or usability.

But consider that design is about making decisions.

Your ability to make good decisions is affected by the extent to which you feel an obligation to stick with a course of action that you've already invested time and resources in.

This doesn't mean you should change course whenever things get difficult, but consider your motivation when you feel the need to continue on with something that isn't working.  There is a real difference between having reason to believe things will improve and being stubborn because of the investment you've already made.

The previous investment -- the "sunk costs" --  is less valid than your present understanding of the situation.

Momentum and inertia both refer to movement. You want the positive trait of momentum. You don't want the negative trait of inertia.

This post came out of a piece I read from from  UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center:

Can Mindfulness Improve Decision Making?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"When you do it right, it's like you did nothing at all"

I was commenting on a recent training workshop (systems thinking for medical school deans. No, I'm not one), and my point was that the expert running the session had done such a smooth job that it felt like he hadn't taught us anything, but had felt instead as if we'd been talking about ideas we all knew well and were part of our everyday internal dialog.

It struck me that it's the same sensation as when you hear a new song that feels like you've known it forever. Or see a movie, artwork, etc., that already seems like it's yours.

When it's done just that well the audience doesn't have to get comfortable with it, they're already comfortable.

With good design (good teaching, good art) the audience feels like the material has always been a part of their world.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Usability of Usability Infographics

For anything to be usable (not the same as useful, but not unrelated) it has to be fairly easy. Your reception of it should be natural and intuitive. Any barrier to your easy acceptance will slow or stop your interaction with the content.

And (despite years of hearing 'content is king') that means the use case is as important as the nature of the content when making design decisions.

Infographics aim to tell you or teach you or make you think about something in an easy, natural way. You just look at a picture, instead of reading or listening or working through problems or pages.

This is a nice "hundred years of usability" piece from people that know a lot about the subject. I only have one issue with it. It's horizontal.  Which works if you're getting it as a physical poster (and they have a link to purchase one). And I think the physical poster  would be a great addition to office space or a classroom.

Horizontal infographic from

 But to view it onscreen a vertical orientation works better. That goes for any screen -- landscape or portrait, you would still move through it in an up - down path more naturally.  We expect to scroll down, but scrolling sideways is more of an effort.

Here's one (similar style, from the same site) that works better onscreen.  Because it's vertical.

Vertical infographic from

What's my point? 

Usability starts with a use case. If your user is being encouraged to hang something on his wall, that suggests one way to design the product. If the expectation is that they'll view it on a monitor or phone or tablet - that's another.

Content may well be king, but the use case is the power behind the throne.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mobile Learning Infographic

Why Mobile Learning Is The Future Of Workplace Learning

Why Mobile Learning Is The Future Of Workplace Learning
Click to view the complete infographic. | Infographic by Upside Learning

Friday, May 24, 2013


We're all creatures of habit.  The trick is to establish good ones.

Slate on the daily rituals of creatives.