Monday, December 27, 2010

New Things For Old

To really start a new thing, you have to both carefully remember and completely put aside the old things.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Setting limits - defining what you say "no" to - can seem like putting yourself in a box. View it, instead, as putting the things that you're not comfortable with in boxes. You can then maneuver around them or examine them more closely if you choose.

By sequestering them, quarantining them, putting these jobs/projects/conditions under glass - you are being both honest and wise. Few situations are worse than taking a job you you don't want. Either you or the client - and probably both - will be disappointed.

So set your rules and stick to them. When an opportunity arises that is on your "no" list, be clear (with yourself, at least) that it's not the type of thing you normally do.

You can always give it a second look. Remember - you're not in the box.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Know when to say yes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Know when to say no.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Your Word Matters

Of course your word matters to your clients and colleagues - while managers, marketers, and those who hold the budget can make idle promises, it's somewhat ironic that anyone with a foot in the creative realm really has to take care to deliver on what he (or she) says. Designers, producers, writers, artists - we are often thought of as being less grounded, less disciplined, than the suits.
But they expect us to deliver - and that's right, and that's fine.

The point today is different, but no less important. The point is to keep your promises to yourself. If you swore you'd never do X, then make sure you don't. If you said to yourself Y and Z would happen, move the world if you must to make them happen.

Treat yourself right.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Crap beats zip

When you need to come up with an idea and you're drawing a blank, write something down. Even "the bad idea that I can't even come up with" is something you can change.

More often, you're coming up with lots of things - and they're all bad.

Pick the one you like the most (or - more likely - hate the least) and write that one down. Now you've got something, even if it's something bad.

Crap beats zip.

Usable or Secure?

Overcomplicating things can cost serious money.

By going all-out for security and designing $100 bills thought to be nearly impossible to counterfeit, Uncle Sam succeeded in designing $100 bills that the Treasury found nearly impossible to print.

"...the quarantined bills add up to $110 billion -- more than 10 percent of the entire U.S. cash supply, which now stands at around $930 billion.

The flawed bills, which cost around $120 million to print, will have to be burned." -- From Zachary Ross's piece on Yahoo -

Given that there is no plan to retire the existing $100 dollar bills, the level of protection this debacle was intended to provide for the US money supply is debatable. And it's doubtful anyone would argue that any currency is impossible to counterfeit. The counterfeiters may well have an easier time developing these superfranklins than the Mint.

The security consultants should have made room at the table for someone with a usability background - or someone with hands-on knowledge of printing currency.

As Franklin himself is so often quoted (paraphrased, really) - "He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither."

He who trades a usable product for a secure one will have neither.

Franklin's original quote, in the interest of completeness, is: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Friday, December 3, 2010


Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn't.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Multitasking is enticing. But can you really do three things at one time as well as you can do one?

It may be that in our quest to work smarter,not harder we are in fact working harder and less well.

Racing to hit the milestones, it's easy to miss the point.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


When tempted to vent your frustration in the form of a question ("What makes them think this is a good thing?" "Why are they asking us to do it that way?" and the ever popular "Who's bright idea was that?"), try imagining you are being asked the question and that you have to provide a serious, reasonable answer.

It might help. It might even put the situation into perspective. It will definitely provide you an opportunity to look just a little bit better -- better than you will if you blurt out the pointless question.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Better Choices

When faced with a new project, you have a dizzying number of options. Your experience and knowledge will trim those down considerably - you have a good idea of what will work, and what probably won't.

Still, there will be a lot of choices. And frequently - through habit or reflex or the simple comfort of the known - you'll make similar choices to those you have made in the past. And that can be fine. Wise, even. Assuming you have usually made the right choices.

Too often, you find yourself in a "here we go again" situation, not because you're dumb or incompetent but because the options you're used to selecting often lead to similar pitfalls or pinch points. Doesn't mean your path won't work - just that the same pain appears.

When you become conscious of this, it means you should back up, breathe, and think about how to make better choices.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Saving Daylight

Does changing the clocks really make anything work better? Or is it busywork for society, pretending that we're doing something to improve efficiency (saving energy would fall under that heading), make daily life more user-friendly (arranging things so the farmers can work or so the kids can go to school with the benefit of daylight would fall under that one), and so on. But in a 24-hour world... in a world with electricity for that matter... is it just spinning our wheels?

Most of us are not dependent on natural light. Farmers get up in the dark, regardless of what the clock says (and livestock do not respect government edicts to 'change time'). The kids might have another week of going to school in the light (after a week of going to school in the dark because we changed the clocks to Daylight Savings Time last spring), but now they come home in the dark. Meanwhile we have sleep disturbed, appointments missed, traffic accidents.

So, for all the disruption, what is really gained?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Accessibility Lesson On Mozilla Drumbeat

The "ramps integrated with stairs" are very interesting. Nice-looking, too. Not sure I agree with every assertion - for example, I'm quite certain the disability creates the barrier - it's not a question of whether it's created by the wheelchair (which is, of course, an accessibility tool) or by the architecture.

P2PU Web Accessibility Lesson 1: Setting Motivation

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mental Models

"Because designers know too much, they form wonderful mental models of their own creations, leading them to believe that each feature is easy to understand." - Jakob Nielsen,

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Specific Specifications

I do a lot of government-related design work. They see specifications as coming in 2 flavors - detail specifications and performance specifications.

Most projects are described with performance specifications - describing what the product or service needs to do. That's the right way to request most work - "I need something that does X."

Relatively few projects are described with detail specifications - things that for compatibility or other requirements have to be built following a certain approach. That makes sense, too -- "I need something that does X, and it has to be built using Y." They define them pretty well here.

Sometimes a client comes out with a bizarre mix of the two types of spec. A performance spec is called for, but they fall into the trap of thinking that it is right and proper to impose an arbitrary -- yet non-specific -- condition on the approach taken in the project. A recent example of this is a client who wanted their online content to fit one of three levels of both interactivity and multimedia richness (yes, their spec was already getting blurred by linking the two areas). This is still manageable, though - their basic product would be vanilla HTML with minimal graphics -- middle school web design stuff; their high level stuff goes all out, branching navigation, games, videos with clickable hotspots that take the user to different outcomes; and their intermediate level falls in-between.

So far, so good. They define their types as basic, midrange, and complex and they describe the types of things they want to see in each flavor. Still good. But then the fail comes. They get excited. They decide to require that the complex multimedia / complex interactivity product be delivered with a "complex underlying technology."

Um - does delivering it over the internet count?

Now, advanced design is simple to the user - look at an iPod, does anybody really need the manual to use one? How will this client assess whether the product's underlying technology is sufficiently complex? What, if the users don't have trouble with it, it doesn't meet the spec? Or - looking at the "underlying" aspect of it - if the client can't make head or tail of how it works, is that complex enough? We can build you something that you'll never be able to update yourself - is that really what you want?

Specifications should make your needs clear. If you need it in blue to match your branding, fine. If you need it to be in Flash (or Silverlight, or HTML5, or Java -- remember Hotmedia, anybody?) because your users already have the plugin or don't have admin rights to install any new ones - that's fine and reasonable, too.

But a stipulation that "it has to be really complicated under the hood" is foolish.

File it under "pitfalls of organizational thinking."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Convincingly Sincere

The challenge is to design something that you yourself would find useful and engaging... usually with the caveat that you have to pretend you have a totally different background and skillset... interests... abilities.... Like the man said: if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Squeaky wheels

There's communicating (interfacing with colleagues, an even-handed give-and-take, sharing knowledge and opinions) and then there's being the squeaky wheel. They're not the same thing. And reinventing the squeaky wheel is way out there.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's all storytelling

From a while back, but still a very smart piece from Boxes & Arrows:

Use of Narrative in Design

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Those who can

Those who can, do.

Those who can't .... well, they would be the clients, wouldn't they?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Someone WILL miss the point

Got a disappointing review on Amazon for the LBBD - a fellow who looks very much like the Peter MacNicol character from Ghostbusters 2 objects to "one sentience per page."

"Sentience" is what we're all pretty much going for, isn't it?

Monday, September 6, 2010


Don't hide the "Next" button. Just don't.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Inside Freshbooks. A nicely done recruiting / about us page. I particularly like questions 10 and 12.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Big Picture

The problem with expecting people to see the big picture is that there are really thousands of little pictures demanding attention instead.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Monsoon Notwithstanding

Conference went well. Whether or not we weathered the Washington weather well.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Conference call

SALT tomorrow. And they're letting me in for free.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Did you?

Did you ask yourself why today?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Makes you wonder how much you think you know that you really don't know at all.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Most standards and practices are really guidelines and rules of thumb. Decide they are strictures that must be followed to the letter and you ain't gonna be doing nobody no good, nohow.


Remember that you're trying to communicate with an actual person. You're not trying to please a stuffy old English professor.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Wonder, logic, and the why of things. If they're orbiting one another in the back of your head, that's a good thing.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Head or tail of it.

It's like a coin. Doesn't matter what it is, it's like a coin. Every now and then you should flip it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Simple is good. Sometimes things are complicated, and the right thing to do with such things is to simplify them. Don't go the other way.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Big W

The new AP stylebook makes 'website' one word, instead of "Web site." "Common usage" was the reason for the change. High time. They need to drop the capital in "Web" and "Internet" as well. When I was a mild-mannered journalist at a major metropolitan news site, the argument was that internet and web be capitalized under the view that "there is only one Internet, and only one Web, so these are treated as proper names." I argued (and argue) that the internet, and its appendage the web, are media -- like television and radio -- not discrete items, and so should be treated in that way -- no initial capitals. You watch television, not Television (unless it's the band), and you listen to the radio, not the Radio. You could couch the debate in terms of individual infrastructure elements, like a transit system - not a far stretch - but it still doesn't fly. In New York you take the subway, not the Subway (unless you're getting lunch).

My boss shut me down, of course, pointing to the conceptual stone tablets that spelled out how we... well, spelled things out. And now one of those stone tablets has been re-carved. Usage rules should and do evolve to meet the way things are actually used.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


If you believe it, they'll believe it. Do you believe it?

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Bull

Taking the bull by the horns will quickly reveal your most likely outcome.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Doing it in 'Adobe'

Adobe is a corporation. Adobe is a building material. Adobe is not a product. When someone tells you "I tried to do it in Adobe" you know you're dealing with a person of limitations (who likely draws a government paycheck) -- unless "it" is a mud-brick structure or a change to corporate policy.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Are white lies and bald facts similar in that both have an aversion to direct sunlight?

Friday, May 14, 2010


You don't win an argument (or a debate - or a pitch, for that matter) by being insistent or unpleasant until your opponent (antagonist, dance partner) gets disgusted with the whole thing and leaves. It's not a last-man-standing battle for territory. You win by convincing the other party to share or at least accept the validity of your position.

In the marketplace of ideas, someone has to be interested in what you have to offer. You can't bully them into buying it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A little at a time

Everything is incremental.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


My paper and presentation - the SALT conference alternate speaker thing - follows the following abstract. Or vice versa,

Use and Usability - Design Philosophy for the Real World
Abstract: Across the realms of multimedia production, information design, web development, and usability, certain truisms are apparent. Like The Art of War or The Elements of Style, the basics of good design philosophy can be delivered simply and briefly. Topics examined include: taking the user's point of view in user-centered design; do you need a use case or a target audience?; collaboration - synergy or too many cooks; the importance of honesty in design; and, foreseeing the pitfalls created by organizational thinking.

Monday, May 3, 2010

More is less

Beware of confusing 'information' with 'inflammation.' Don't let your content get swollen.

Friday, April 30, 2010

SALT of the Earth

Use and Usability: Design Philosophy for the Real World has been accepted as an alternate at the August 2010 SALT e-learning conference in Arlington,VA. Will the various and manifold federales and salarymen listen or heckle? Their reaction to the idea of simplicity and common sense in online information design (in other words - 'e-learning') will be informative.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Conventional wisdom is only wise at conventions.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Don't be a process whore. Processes are supposed to serve you and the work you do -- not the other way around.

And if the people running the show - management, client, whoever - are convinced that their function is to serve and promote the process above all else, well... that's what we call a bad job.

Do a good one.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is it a fix? Is it an upgrade?

Is it conceptual bondo?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sand Castle

It's like building a sand castle. Possibilities, the exhilaration of committing to design decisions...

But sometimes the sand is dry.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A thousand words

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. If you use a picture where only a few words are required (or appropriate), you should get change.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Content for the sake of content -- adding something when you have nothing new or nothing more to say -- is called "noise."

Monday, March 22, 2010


Yeah - that's what we call the old navigation aid, usually at the top left. But I'm talking about maintaining interest.

Users are commitment-averse. Maybe because so much of the web has evolved to suit adolescent males.

They won't commit to give you an hour, or half an hour. Or even ten minutes. You can probably get another click or two out of your users, unless you've really put them off. So you have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Just one more cool thing ("OK," the user thinks. "I'll see this and then move on.") Then another cool thing, and another. They might only commit to that one click at a time, but if you do it right you just might be able to keep them for as long as you want.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Intelligent Design

No, not the theological kind. But that thought does provide a starting point, because they really don't mean "intelligent design", now do they? No, they mean "intentional design."

Which is to say, meaning to do whatever it is you do. Otherwise, making it up as you go, it's just evolving, isn't it? It's going to evolve anyway - with each new piece of the puzzle, the whole thing changes somewhat and the other pieces will shift in order to fit. But there should be an intent in place before anything is written, shot, coded, has life breathed into it. Makes it easier to run the show, if you have a script.

Too many metaphors? Working on the web, it's all metaphors. Buttons, scrollbars, cursors, frames (accursed frames), layers -- it's all a representation of something else. Real-world items, paper documents, machine control interfaces.

Use them with a purpose. Any purpose will do, as long as you have one.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The web

The web is for browsing, surfing. Sporadic, short bits of contact with sporadic, short bits of content. The web is not for plowing through pages of text, like a book. That's what... books ... are for. The web is not for sitting passively while a story is unfolded for you. Like a movie. That's what -- you get the idea. Yes, you do.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


When does multitasking become task interference?

Monday, March 15, 2010

What are you doing?

Are you adding value, making something better - a tool, an experience, an explanation? Or are you merely keeping the parts moving? I'm not saying that's a bad thing. But is it a good thing?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stop Sign Redesign

A classic look at complicating something simple. Thank you, organizational mentality.

Here's the low-res embedded Youtube video (if you don't want to go to a new tab).

Multitasking Collaborators

The time it takes to complete any project must be multiplied by the number of multitasking collaborators assigned to it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Are you...

Are you working for them, with them, or on them?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review and validation

Reviewing a deliverable - and validation of actions taken as a result of that review - should be done by the same person. Otherwise you risk a never-ending cycle of new change requests. And (and this is very important to the Facebook generation) you may never get your validation.

Friday, March 5, 2010

It all depends...

It all depends on how you look at it.

So look at it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Never embark on a course of action based on what someone from upper management saw at a conference or read about on an airplane.


... in motion. Keep moving. I read a story, ages ago, in which you could visit a friend far away via a holographic avatar. The protagonist's equipment was old, however, and the vertical tracking drifted. If he stood still for more than a few seconds, his avatar (and consequently, his point of view) would sink through the floor. So he had to keep moving.

Don't sink through the floor.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The price of tea in China...

...about 50 bucks for 380 grams of packaged black tea, according to Teashopchina. 2 grams for a cup, works out to about a quarter U.S., right?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Always ask why

..and then, ask why again.

He wrote the book...

Well, a book, anyway.

The Little Black Book of Design has been spending a reasonable amount of time at the top of the graphic design bestseller lists in Amazon's Kindle store. You don't need a Kindle, though -- they have free readers for PC, iPhone, iPod Touch and Blackberry.

It's a collection of a hundred-odd points to ponder, like those I've been posting here.

If you like the blog, you might like the e-book.

"Ask me questions, and I'll tell you no lies" is no way to maintain any kind of partnership. Faith and trust require risking openness as well as betrayal. If the product has a flaw, or if a partner has an undisclosed relationship that could appear inappropriate, the fallout from the cover-up will be far worse than the cost of the truth. You might not get the job if you have a poor product or if you have a connection that is questionable (then again, you might - disclosure would add strength to the "good-faith on your part" element of any decision). Deception, however, will get you labeled as a liar and a fraud.

Oversight or poor judgment can be understood ("I had no idea my friend Mr. Smith was part of the approval process for this project." "We felt the accessibility shortcoming could be overcome soon after launch.")

Lying means you made a conscious decision to do the wrong thing, presumably for your own benefit. Giving a second chance to you after you've gone down that road is going to be very difficult - and most would consider it unwise.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

There is

a lie in believe.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


...really can make you go blind.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sometimes... need a use case, not a target audience.

What you need... a reason to do what you're doing the way you're doing it. If you can articulate the "why" you are in a manageable position. If you can't, you're not.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Unnecessary Complexity

... leads to disaffection. I have government clients who will insist on cumbersome, complicated, difficult approaches. When the flaws in this are pointed out, the response is that the users will have to "deal with it" because they are required to. This may be because it's a required training course, a tool that a particular group has to have exposure to or something similar. But the users will only "deal with it," they won't internalize the training (internalization - really absorbing the information - is always the goal with training), or actually use the tool, or value the experience in any way. They'll deal with it. And then they'll try to forget it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The User...

...doesn't care about the cleverness of your design. He doesn't care if you use "they" or "he" as a generic pronoun - but saying "he/she" or "(s)he" will create a speedbump in his movement through your content. Users want to get what they came for - whether it's information, education, training, or entertainment. Unless it's easy fro them to get - to "use," - they're going to move on.

Too many cooks...

Too many cooks still spoil the broth - even if they call it "collaboration."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February 17

The technically superior design is not always the most successful. The better mousetrap often will lose out to the better-marketed mousetrap.

journey of a thousand miles...

Or... the design of a single product. Both start by starting. With a single step. Even if it's the wrong step - take it. You can always change direction.