Conversation Techniques for Designers

Note: This article was first published in Smashing Magazine’s UX Design section on September 29th, 2011

Designers are visually literate creatures. We use visuals to express our ideas, whether by building wireframes, sketching interfaces or pushing pixels. As a result, the majority of knowledge captured when we design a product is some form of “corporate memory”: a combination of assets and documentation. This creation of visual artifact is widely regarded as our most effective means of communicating thought through a product. However, creating a product takes more than just documentation, and much of it is communicated not visually, but verbally.

Product design and development is a combination of creativity and analysis. But it depends on communication.

– Michael Bremer

Why Are Product Conversations Important?

Due to the growing popularity of iterative product development, the spoken word has become an integral part of the design process. The shift in focus from documentation to collaboration has put greater emphasis on communication. Now more than ever, there is a need to articulate a design “voice” during the early stages of conversation about a product, and to maintain it throughout the process — although this is easier said than done. While conveying one’s findings and opinions in discussion is important for designers, deciding what to say and how to say it often proves difficult.

Because team members and stakeholders sometimes hold different opinions on a product, navigating these conversations can be quite challenging. This social facet of designing digital products has been described by Löwgren and Stolterman (PDF) as follows:

If a design process aims to create an information system in an organization, then individuals, groups, and teams can be seen as kinds of material. The challenge is to design the social “components” together with the technical components as a systemic whole.

Influencing the Product Conversation

The extent to which design is embraced in a project varies greatly. At an organizational level, it is influenced by numerous factors, such as the company’s culture, leadership and strategy. At a product level, one could argue that it is largely determined by the team itself. That being said, teams often struggle to discuss the subtler, more experiential aspects of their digital products. As a result, technical terminology can dominate the conversation, prematurely steering the conversation towards “How should we do this?” without giving adequate consideration to “What should we do?” and “Why should we do it?,” thus minimizing the influence of design early on.

To avoid this trap, good designers need to become good conversation starters. By developing our conversational skills, we become better equipped to discuss the conditions required for a great user experience and to influence any decisions that affect it. Maintaining a healthy dialogue on design is important also because the conversations that are conducted as the product is being created will influence the implicit “conversation” that the product will have with the user. Tim Leberecht of Frog Design highlights the importance of conversation to both the design process and the product experience itself, by suggesting that designers should focus on…

… creating a memorable, auratic and yet reproducible experience for consumers. Conversations are part of this experience; they are integral to the “aura.” Designers visualize it. They unearth, discover, and articulate the consumer stories. They invent the product stories. And then they connect both.

In this article, we’ll examine the role of conversation in the design process, and how the words we use shape the products we ship. We’ll outline nine ways by which designers can maintain a consistent design conversation during a project, helping to create a better product.

Get T-Shaped

Better collaboration leads to better products. Designers need to ensure that they can communicate effectively with their team members from various other disciplines. To do this well, familiarize yourself with the kind of language used in each discipline, such as business and engineering. Being able to conduct a conversation using the appropriate vocabulary enables you to find out what you need to know faster, and it helps to establish your credibility on the team.

While each discipline on the product team has its role to play, it is the true teamwork and collaboration of a cohesive product team that makes great user experiences possible.

– Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Designers should also be knowledgeable across the various domains that an issue spans within a project, which will give them a broader perspective on the problem they’re trying to solve. Tim Brown of IDEO maintains that designers should try to become “T-shaped.” This is achieved by cultivating deep analytical skills (the vertical stroke of the T), as well as broad empathy towards the other skills and disciplines encountered in business (the horizontal stroke of the T).

Familiarity with the dialects of various disciplines is important not only in a practical sense, but strategically, too. At a recent AIGA event, it was suggested that it is up to designers to learn the vocabularies needed to be able to communicate the value of design to business managers and executives. In doing so, designers will better justify their representation in the boardroom in future. By becoming skilled communicators and demonstrating the value of design, we increase the likelihood of this happening. Aspiring Chief Experience Officers (CXOs), take note.

In assuming the role of “generalizing specialist” on a multidisciplinary team, designers establish a clearer picture of the problem and the means to address it. They also become armed with the necessary vocabulary to communicate with all those involved in the project.

So, don’t retreat into a silo. Get T-shaped!

Ask The Simple Questions

Question everything generally thought to be obvious.

– Dieter Rams

We often forget that simple questions are a powerful way to spark conversation. Designers sometimes back away from asking such questions, for fear of coming across as poorly informed. Canadian designer Bruce Mau describes it thus:

The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will appear naïve. But naïvety is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïvety is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can’t be done.

Apparently stupid questions can lead to illuminating discussion. At the outset of a design process, asking such questions is especially important, because they provoke a deeper consideration of the purpose of a product. In this situation, the onus is on the designer to put forward these questions. You might be surprised by the assumptions of stakeholders and, more importantly, by how enlightening it is to question them. Question absolutely everything, especially those things that are considered obvious.

  • Who is this product for?
  • What problem is this solving?
  • Is this really a problem?
  • Are we trying to do too much?
  • Is this feature for you or our users?
  • Do you think this solution is good enough?

A good team will always appreciate a thorough approach and a close examination of its strategy. Try to avoid posing elaborate questions that imply the answer you are looking for. Instead, formulate your queries to spark a conversation and to discourage monosyllabic responses. Both stakeholders and users can reveal a lot by answering such disarmingly simple questions. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, one of the brightest minds of the 20th century, was a great believer in the value of asking dumb questions. He encouraged people to question accepted solutions and to be unafraid to look ridiculous.

Asking the “stupid” questions is one of the smartest things a designer can do. But be respectful and tactful in how you go about it.

The only stupid questions are the ones you don’t ask.

Define the Problem, Continually

When you start with the idea of making a thing, you’re artificially limiting what you can deliver.

– Peter Mehrolz in “Experience Is the Product

In order to solve a problem, you must first define it. Such an assertion might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many people fail to recognize this. When a project commences, there is often a tendency to start designing a solution without having thoroughly discussed the problem itself. Basing a product’s direction on a set of assumptions or hunches is a very risky strategy, often resulting in a design that fails to address the user’s needs. Luke Wroblewski notes:

In many organizations, [the] problem is defined with a written or numerical representation of a market opportunity. Think business model, business requirements document, etc. While these documents are great at defining the aspirations (or net present value) of a product, they rarely fully define the problem a product team needs to address.

By diving headfirst into a solution, a team might find it difficult to overcome the oversights that they failed to recognize early on in the process.

Learning what the problem is rests on the designer’s shoulders. It’s your responsibility to ensure that the problem that a product aims to solve is discussed in depth at the start of the project. In addition, there should be a continuing conversation to evaluate the problem as it is being addressed. This is necessary because a lot can change during a project. A team will often lose sight of these changes, so make sure you don’t. If this does happen, adjust your approach accordingly, and discuss the changes with the team.

Noted design thinker Horst Rittel once wrote:

A design problem keeps changing while it is treated, because the understanding of what ought to be accomplished, and how it might be accomplished is continually shifting. Learning what the problem is is the problem.

By conducting an open conversation on the problem throughout the project, the designer ensures that all new information that affects the situation is quickly shared and absorbed into the solution.

Problems change — this is inevitable. Plan for it.

Find The User’s Voice, Then Use It

Don’t confuse yourself with the user, and don’t confuse the user with the customer. It’s not uncommon for a team to lose sight of who exactly they are building a product for. Marty Cagan of SV Product Group wrote an excellent article highlighting typical product management mistakes. To find your user’s voice is to develop empathy for them and understand their situation. For if you don’t understand your users, then you likely won’t fully understand their problems.

We systematically overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.

– Clay Shirky

The phrase “going native” is often used by anthropologists and ethnographers to describe their immersion in a user’s environment. One of the pioneers of user-centered design was industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (author of Designing for People, which came out in 1951). When commissioned by the company Singer back in the ’60s to design a new sewing machine, he and his team enrolled in an intensive sewing class. He knew that if he was to design a better machine, then he needed to know exactly what operating one felt like. The lesson here is that rolling up your sleeves and putting yourself in your user’s world has no substitute; it’s one of the most effective ways to develop a sense of who they are and what their problems might be.

Where resources allow, conduct research to find out more about the people you are designing for. When possible, get out of the office, spend a day on site, and put yourself in the user’s environment. Find out what they do and how they do it, and observe their daily routine. By doing this, you will gain insight into how the product might fit into their life and find meaningful ways it could assist them. If the nature of the product or budget constraints do not allow this, then spend a day conducting one-on-ones with prospective users. And if that is not possible, then at least carry out telephone interviews or Web-based surveys.

Designers are responsible for introducing the user’s “voice” into the design process. When required, we should act as a conduit for the user, voicing opinions from their perspective. By understanding their problems and regularly weaving their voice into the conversation, we can help ensure that the user’s needs stay central to the process.

Know whose problem you are solving, and speak on their behalf.

Tell a Story, Sell a Story

To be a designer is to be a storyteller. Everything we produce has a narrative, whether accidental or intentional. Because design at its core is concerned with communication, storytelling is a natural extension of any thorough design process.

Stories reveal a user’s-eye view of the landscape and provide an extremely effective way for getting people, both users and designers, involved and talking with one another.

– Tom Erickson

Sometimes, a lack of a coherent vision can run a project askew. Joseph Selbie observed the following, based on his firm’s study of in-house Web design teams:

Members of teams performing less well not only tended not to understand the application as a whole, they saw no need to understand it as a whole: programmers did not care to know about users, user researchers did not care to know about programming limitations, and stakeholders were uninvolved and were considered “clueless” by the rest of the development team.

Communication breakdowns such as this are a recipe for disaster.

To prevent these situations, designers can call on storytelling as a means of optimizing collaborative effort and understanding among team members. Compelling stories can clarify the direction of a product and strengthen a team’s empathy with users. In sharing a narrative, all parties have a cohesive vision of the project’s goals and, as a result, are more likely to create a better product.

In his excellent essay “Design as Storytelling,” ex-Apple researcher Tom Erickson notes the following:

Stories are a sort of equalizer. It doesn’t require much expertise or training to listen to and tell stories. Team members from any background can be made part of the process of telling and collecting stories. And once stories have been gathered, team members can discuss the stories, argue about their interpretation, and generate hypotheses about users’ problems, needs and practices.

By reducing the mystery of the disciplines involved in a project and putting focus on what needs to be built, a story helps to establish a common language among everyone involved.

Cindy Chastain also highlights the need for such an approach in her article “Experience Themes,” in which she expands upon the storytelling process and explores how innate characteristics such as pleasure, emotion and meaning can be infused into the product experience.

Storytelling doesn’t just describe relationships: it also helps to build them. Try to translate your stories into the priorities of your users and weave them into your product. While the methods and materials of design give form to a digital product, Roger Sametz and Andrew Maydoney argue that the ultimate goal of manipulating type, color, imagery, space and time is to tell stories, “to engage ‘teller’ and ‘listener’ in a dialogue that builds comprehension, commitment, participation, loyalty and trust.”

Employ storytelling methods not only to strengthen the team but to strengthen the product’s relationship with its users.

Express Your Doubts

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts. But if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

– Francis Bacon

Doubt may seem like an unusual quality to voice in any product conversation, but it is essential for designers. Positive doubt is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it. To be able to investigate and synthesize effectively, you must first remain open to all possibilities. Doubt calls on reason, encouraging the application of more rigorous evaluation methods. Questioning assumptions ensures that potentially unusable or redundant features are carefully filtered. It encourages a more thorough exploration of a concept, a product and its goals.

Gordon MacKenzie, author of Orbiting the Giant Hairball cites “attachment to outcome” as one of the biggest obstacles to creativity. As soon as you become attached to a particular outcome, you feel compelled to control and manipulate what you’re doing; and, in the process, you shut yourself off to other possibilities. Milton Glaser observes the same:

Doubt is better than certainty, If you think you know everything, you’re wrong. Rather doubt your abilities a little to give yourself room for improvement, but don’t doubt them so much that you’re too scared to try.

The designer’s responsibility is to ensure that many possibilities are explored and tested — prototypes are your friend. “Pet” functionality often lingers in products without adding value. Don’t be afraid to test the viability of such features and to eliminate them when necessary. Bear in mind that stakeholders sometimes need to see a bad idea realized in order to realize that it’s a bad idea.

Voicing concerns over whether a product is “good enough” isn’t whining. It simply demonstrates that you actually give a darn and that you possess the ability to recognize quality in your craft. Don’t compromise: view conversations as opportunities to refine and improve the product.

If you think something is not right, speak up and explain why.

Inform Your Intuition

Designers will have to learn a foreign language to win them [managers, business analysts and developers] over. That language is data.

– Louis Rosenfeld

During product discussions, designers will regularly contribute opinions on the spot about various aspects of a design. If this occurs too early in the process, though, the information available to inform the decision might be limited — and so our intuition comes into play.

A designer’s intuition is developed over time through a combination of knowledge and experience. We can use this intuition to make the quick decisions that are often required during a design process. However, intuition-based decision-making is potentially problematic in team situations, where decisions usually need to be made collectively. If other people disagree with your choice, you cannot simply state that your intuition is more relevant or valuable than that of others.

In this situation, designers can use analytical methods to inform their decisions. Some relatively quick techniques exist to gather data, such as A/B testing and user surveys. The results of these can be interpreted and used to support your argument — when they actually do support it.

Nevertheless, striking a balance between data and design is important. Data should inform the process, not dictate it — otherwise, every product would be designed by statisticians! Adam Mosseri, a product designer at Facebook, gave an enlightening presentation on the subject called “Data-Informed, Not Data-Driven.” He details how Facebook intelligently interprets its vast amount of data but doesn’t allow itself to become a slave to it. James Landay, a researcher with Microsoft, sums up this need to compromise by calling for…

… a balance between analytical approaches to design (e.g. computer science, data mining and quantitative HCI experimentation) and more design-oriented approaches that are good at creating products that make an emotional impact on people and create a desire to own them.

The difficulty with pushing certain recommendations about the user experience of a product is that not everyone will always agree. When discussing a design, use soft words and hard arguments to confidently communicate your view. Where necessary, use data to support your intuition, but never blindly follow it through the process.

Great products are designed by people, not pivot tables. Never let anyone convince you otherwise.

Explain Your Decisions

Designers get up in front of people and explain why they’ve made the decisions they’ve made. And if you can’t do that, you can’t call yourself a designer.

– Mike Monteiro

Designing a digital product requires many decisions to be made. Collaborative decisions will be made via numerous media, such as meetings, instant messaging, email and even informal chats over lunch. Designers will also make many decisions independently, based on their own research and intuition. Over the course of a project, these decisions combine to form a long chain of interconnected thoughts, as the product begins to take shape. Keeping a mental record of all of this information is not feasible, because we would forget why certain decisions were made.

Kees Dorst captures the situation in Understanding Design:

Every designer knows the moments of complete disorientation while leafing through piles of sketches (What was the reason for this!).

To avoid this scenario, keep track of decisions and the reasons they were made, so that you can explain them when required. Simple annotations on wireframes might be sufficient to jog your memory.

  • “We chose this approach because…”
  • “The team preferred this concept because…”
  • “I decided to place this here because…”
  • “Users prefer this method because…”
  • “This prototype was deemed least usable because…”

When presenting a design, whether to an internal team or to a client, discussing the evolution of the product is sometimes useful. Avoid the lure of the Ta-dah! moment, revealing a concept without any context. Instead, introduce the work and briefly explain how you arrived at it. Engage your listeners.

A record of decisions is also useful when reviewing a project. If a stakeholder comes along in six months and asks, “Why were radio buttons used here instead of a drop-down menu?”, or “What happened to the mock-up that had modal error messaging instead of a status bar?,” you’ll need to have an answer. These conversations will be a lot more amicable if you can explain why those choices were made. Having a simple log on hand of those long-forgotten decisions can be invaluable.

Explain your decisions. Transparency will bring people on board.

Embrace Failure

Failing sucks; there’s no getting around it. Having said that, no one should ever be ashamed of failing. If you’ve never failed, then you probably haven’t achieved much either — unless you’re one of the lucky ones. A designer will experience various kinds of failure in their working life, some small and easily rectifiable, others large and valuable in their lessons.

If a product or even a feature is rejected, yet the team is still functioning as a unit, that in itself should be considered a small victory. Many successful designers in all disciplines often recall the many false starts and dead ends they had to experience before finding a great solution.

I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure.

– James Dyson

When something is rejected, try not to sweep it under the rug — only then would it become a true failure. Avoid pointing fingers and attributing blame. Instead, focus on the product and the ways in which it failed to deliver. Get the team together, put your product up on the autopsy table, and ask the difficult questions.

  • Why did users reject this product?
  • Why did this feature tank in our usability testing?
  • Was this the right feature in the wrong place?
  • Was it the right product at the wrong time?
  • How can we avoid making the same mistakes again?

Nothing is morbid about conducting a post-mortem, as long as you identify the probable cause of death. You may never know for sure which factors contributed to the product’s downfall, but you will have a good idea. Learn from them. Ryan Jacoby recently suggested that in order for designers to get it right, they need to be “interested in being wrong.” He goes on to say:

Great designers and innovators see evaluation moments as learning opportunities. They couple confidence with humility and curiosity.

This captures well the incessant curiosity and mental dexterity of a good designer — traits that enable us to learn from our mistakes.

By conducting a frank conversation on the product and its shortcomings, designers can turn a negative situation into a positive one. The experience and insight gained will help you avoid similar errors in judgement in future projects. When the critique is complete, chalk it up to experience and move on.

Failure is probably the most expensive form of feedback you’ll ever get, but also the most valuable. Make sure to use it.


The path of every project will be unique, as will be the conversations that guide it. What we can do, however, is plan for more productive conversations, using approaches such as the ones explored above to guide the process along. The examples provided are but a few of the many conversations we can have while working on a product — they are not a bulletproof formula. Over time, a designer will learn to cultivate the conversations that they feel are necessary — and these will likely vary from project to project.

While a certain amount of solid documentation will always be needed, it is less important now than it may have been in the past. A 10-minute chat in the hallway today will often prove more informative and productive than a 20-page document next week. Fast iteration demands clearer lines of communication. By becoming keener listeners and speakers, designers can help secure the information and decisions that are needed to advance the product in the right direction.

Remember: there is no formula for a great solution, but rather many paths. Nevertheless, clear communication can make the path smoother and the solution smarter.

Related Articles

Design Conversations, Not Products, Tim Leberecht

On Being T-Shaped, Tim Brown

Experience Is the Product, Peter Merholz

Defining the Problem, Luke Wroblewski

The Top 12 Product Management Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them(PDF), Marty Cagan

Bringing Holistic Awareness to Your Design, Joseph Selbie

Design as Storytelling, Tom Erickson

Experience Themes, by Cindy Chastain

Data-Informed, Not Data-Driven, Adam Mosseri, UX Week 2010

Are We Becoming Too Analytical?, James A. Landay

To Get It Right, Be Interested in Being Wrong, Ryan Jacoby

Paula Scher on Failure, Jay Dixit

Related Books

Designing for People, Henry Dreyfuss

Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie

Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love, Marty Cagan

Storytelling for User Experience, Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks

Understanding Design, Kees Dorst

Illustration by Damien Weighill, in collaboration with Blast Design, for Conqueror: Endless Possibilities

Filed under User Experience

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IDEO and The Deep Dive

It’s been over 10 years since US TV show Nightline first aired an episode featuring the inner workings of a Palo Alto based design company called IDEO. The episode became an instantaneous hit, and it is often cited as one of the most requested videos (by viewers) which ABC has ever produced. IDEO was then a well known name within and indeed outside of the design community, but what was so special about this profile of the company?

Whilst the product design produced during the program was far from flawless, the program did allow outsiders a front-row seat into an exploratory process and a working environ a million miles from those of a traditional business.

It provided the viewer with a intimate view into the workings and structure (or non-structure) of a truly creative environment. It demonstrated how radical thinking coupled with an involved prototyping process can produce many ideas.

Despite many businesses and individuals having since watched the program, it would be fair to say that not many were able to replicate such a process successfully. This is in part because many businesses still presume they do not require this level of innovative thinking and secondly because they may not feel comfortable in allowing the seemingly chaotic process of design to occur within a company, and indeed lead a company strategy.

Granted it’s a fantastic showcase for IDEO and indeed parts of it may seem a little contrived or calculated but for a company to allow such an intimate glimpse into a creative process is rare. One which is not afraid to show all the ‘messy-stuff” – that is the mistakes, the stupid ideas, and the inherently fuzzy place from where a good idea is born and more importantly the manner in which it is allowed to breathe and grow.

For me this is one of the better demonstrations of what a user-centred design process is and nicely captures the imagination, empathy and effort that’s required to create such a design. For these very reasons ‘Deep Dive’ is always worth a viewing.

Reiterating the maxim that “It’s all about the journey, not the destination”.

Filed under Industrial Design Innovation Interaction Design Methodology User Experience
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Great Design is Brave Design

As designers we endeavor to improve how things work, look and feel; this is achieved by examining how things are and imagining how they may be. It can be argued that all design is inherently concerned with change, which in turn is brought about by making decisions. Design activity involves the process of making many decisions, decisions on how things work, how things look and how things feel. Many factors contribute to this decision-making process and an ability to take onboard multiple considerations and possibilities is a essential skill for every designer. Every single decision a designer makes, however small, will have an impact on the resulting product or service. Therefore it can be said that every product we use, be it digital or physical, is the direct result of a set of decisions.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

When designing within familiar territory and established problem spaces, the decisions taken will be influenced by existing knowledge and previous experience – using known patterns to solve known problems. Designers can call on their experience and tacit knowledge to arrive at workable solutions to problems which are similar to those they’ve previously encountered. Many decisions will be made intuitively, almost subconsciously, with the designer instinctively knowing the correct choice to make as they overcome each small challenge. Familiar problems are, by and large, easier to solve.

However not all design problems are familiar and not all problems encountered can be easily solved. Sometimes a design problem requires a substantial shift in terms of how it is approached and the manner in which it is eventually solved. Inevitably such design problems require making the type of decisions not made before, requiring a leap of faith in the hope of arriving at an elegant, efficient and effective solution – this is brave design.

“Impressing is not just done by good design; it’s done by brave design.”
– Elliot Jay Stocks

Being Brave

Brave design decisions occur when designing products and services which aspire to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary, when we need to solve a problem in a innovative manner, or when we wish to differentiate a product from the crowd. Brave design decisions require a vision to see past the present, to imagine being further down the road and to envision what it’s like there. Brave design often involves taking risks, and taking risks sometimes result in failure, but fear of failure should never prevent one taking a brave design decision.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
- Samuel Beckett

Failing Faster to Succeed Sooner

Success is rarely achieved without first having failed, though this is easy to forget. When we study brilliant products and successful services we often fail to acknowledge that they must have taken brave decisions, often many – be it removing features, venturing into a competitive market or simply undertaking a project which others deemed impossible. Start-ups and small teams can take these brave design decisions more easily and should they fail to work, they can be speedily rectified with a hopefully quick recovery. Brave decisions occur more naturally within those informal, collaborative environments where the decision making process is nimble and democratic. Hence start-ups and small-teams can achieve high growth rates dues to taking greater risks. They are innately brave by design.

Inevitably as an organisation grows, more layers of management are added, this results in a slower decision making process and a predilection towards risk aversion. Typically the organisations start sprightly, energetic and agile – akin to a rivers youthful stage, empowered to make iterative design decisions on a whim, zig-zagging along and forging a determined course to market. However as the organisation grows and matures taking on the necessary layers of management, it adds strata of decision making which eventually slow it down, running deep and slow, taking a meandering course out to sea. Cautiousness personified, bravery diluted.

An over-reliance on justifying every minute design decision can result in a stunted, stagnant environment. Doug Bowman’s recent experience at Google nicely illustrates what can happen when quantitive data has too much influence over what should be a qualitative process. By designing-with-numbers you may arrive at a good design but rarely will you achieve a truly great design. To achieve great design product managers must trust their designers intuition and their ability to make the brave decisions.

Following Your Intuition

Design inspiration often begins with a simple hunch, an intuitive feeling that something could work, could be potentially great. Getting up and actually exploring the idea and attempting to create a product based on a hunch is courageous, requiring a creative environment, an appropriate skill-set and a deep set determination among other things. Making a start is the hard part, after that it’s a matter of making the right choices and sometimes taking the brave ones.

It could be said that there are two ways of advancing through design – incrementally or by disruptive breakthrough. User interviews and focus groups will generally provide the type of insight that produces incremental or evolutionary advancement.

However to create something truly innovative and game-changing you need to follow your intuition and make the brave decisions, and not rely on your users insights to determine your products strategy.

Below are four examples of what I would consider as brave design decisions which eventually proved to be great design decisions:


Initially Twitter messages longer than 160 characters (the standars SMS carrier limit) were split into multiple texts and delivered in sequence. The team decided to place a limit on the number of characters that would go out via SMS for each post. They settled on 140, in order to leave room for the username. Many would argue that setting such a restriction on message length coupled with the omission of attachments or other enhancements was commercial suicide, however by employing these constraints they effectively created their own social communications powerhouse – with engineer Jack Dorsey remarking that

“One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.”
- Jack Dorsey


James Dyson’s personal quest to design a revolutionary vacuum cleaner involved a long arduous process. He prototyped obsessively for over three years, varying certain aspects gradually until he arrived at the product he had envisioned. All this time he was sinking further into debt, the venture could have potentially ruined him but he soldiered on, learning from each of his failures – convinced he could get his design to work.

“I made 5127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative… We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually. To me, solving problems is a bit like a drug. You’re on it, and you can’t get off.”
– James Dyson

Ford Model T

When Henry Ford set out to design and popularize a revolutionary means of transport, he did so without even asking people what they wished for. When questioned about why he didn’t he replied -

“If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
– Henry Ford

Supporting the widely held belief that truly disruptive innovations rarely if ever come from asking customers what they want.


Knowing they could not compete directly with the raw computing power of the Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, Nintendo instead focused their efforts on the area which really matters – the user experience. The key innovation of the Wii is how it makes players feel while they play – happy, engaged and active. Proving beyond doubt that user’s emotions are not necessarily enhanced by improved specs and faster processors and that the best graphics don’t necessarily result in the best user experience. Releasing the Wii was a brave but undoubtedly a genius move by Nintendo, instead of fighting a battle they were doomed to lose they instead subverted the market dominance by Sony and Microsoft and focused on creating their own niche. The physical interaction involved in playing the Wii became the key differentiator for Nintendo ensuring it was a runaway success.

I decided not to include the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to brave, innovative design. Suffice to say that Apple have been pushing the boundaries of both interaction and industrial design for many years. All the while removing what they deem unnecessary be it interface features, disk-drives or usb ports from our computing devices, however the popularity of their products has never been greater.

This has all been achieved by a strong focus on creating great products coupled with a superior user experience – by taking the brave decisions. Admittedly even Apple gets it wrong sometimes, as has been proved recently, however you can be assured of one thing, they have learnt from their mistakes and will bounce back smarter, better and braver. I will leave the last words to one of the true design visionaries of the computing industry.

“Don’t ask users – they simply dont know what they want.”
– Steve Jobs

Remember. Be Brave.

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On Monday, August 16th, 2010 at 11:26 pm 2 Comments »

This Is Spatial Tap

Of recent I’ve come to the conclusion that the one defining characteristic that is so fulfilling about using appropriately designed tools is that they become an extension of the user themselves, be it their body, their hands, or indeed their mind. Apples more recent device is a case in point, the iPad reduces the user interface to the extent that one feels as if they are actually ‘holding’ a webpage or application – and to all extents and purposes they are. However if one was to take this notion to the next logical level surely we would find that for many circumstances the ultimate interface would be no interface at all, and in turn the minimal physical interaction necessary, excepting neural and thought based interfaces, would be a simple and discrete gesture.

However many of the gestural interface implementations we have seen recently are concerned with how we as users might interact with a digital reality or unreality as the case may be. Projects such as Microsoft’s Natal demonstrate how a Natural User Interface (NUI) may be used to enhance our gaming environments by using our own bodies and actions as the proverbial input device in order to control a corresponding digital self or avatar.

In a recent re-reading of Don Normans excellent book the ‘Design of Everyday Things’ I was prompted to consider the real-world scenarios whereby a gesture based system would be advantageous in interacting with physical objects.

What implications would such changes have on our lives?

Many of the interactions which strike me initially would be scenarios where one is somewhat reticent to touch a shared surface, however by affording the modification of such behaviors would we be facilitating the creation of a generation physically averse to many everyday interactions which we as humans currently take for granted?

As our interactions with objects head in a direction visibly reminiscent of something approaching telekinesis how will this affect the way in which our everyday artifacts function and in what ways will designers harness gestures to influence behavior.

Which interactions or physical devices do we encounter on a daily basis which might benefit from such an interface?


An obvious choice surely? Maybe not. Many public facing doors in buildings are already using motion sensors to detect a person as they approach. Would they benefit by requiring a directive gesture to open? Probably not, although many of us would be familiar with two scenarios in which such solutions fall short.

a) The first we’ll call ‘Playing Chicken’ – When one walks towards an ‘Automatic Door’ with the intention of entering the building, yet the doors fail to open with sufficient time, forcing the individual to either break stride or stop, face the glass and wait patiently for the doors to acknowledge their presence.

b) ‘Getting Smart’ – when the flow of people using an automatic door is out of step with the sensors timing. Causing awkward uncertainty and nervous approaches by those who wish to enter, daunted by the prospect of getting sandwiched between the unforgiving glass panes.
The name of which is my tribute to an old spy TV show Get Smart in which the character confidently faced the prospect of simliar door malfunction.

However if a simple hand gesture were required would people feel socially awkward ‘waving’ to an inanimate object, or would it only be a matter of getting used to this slight change in behavior. For instance only 15 years ago a person may have avoided the prospect of having a full-blown conversation in a public space over a mobile device, yet nowadays many feel obliged to do just that not only by necessity but mostly by choice. Social conventions regularly accommodate technological advances with a unforeseen pace.

Toilet Seats

Use of a gestural command to lift and close a toilet seat would be of great benefit hygienically speaking, particularly in public spaces where one would be much less inclined to touch a toilet lid. When I researched this idea a little further it transpires that some other designers have had ideas along similar lines.

TV & Audio Systems

Use of a hand wave to change channels would initially seem useful, yet imagine a scenario where there are several people watching TV who might have differing opinions on what exactly to watch. Moving a simple single-user interface such as a remote control into a to multi-user scenario may unnecessarily complicate an otherwise straight-forward situation.

Imagine your next home audio system being able to recognise your gestures such as snapping your fingers to switch it on, a wave of your right hand to play and raising ones hand to raise the volume correspondingly. Would we want for such a thing or a would it be more a hindrance than a help.


I also remember thinking that taps would also benefit from having a non-touch interface. Again we are already familiar with motion activated taps but what about one where we facilitate greater control, allowing a user to turn it on/off, modify the flow and adjust the hot/cold streams – this could be achieved through use of gestures. Until this morning I had forgotten my thoughts on such interactions, that is until I received a message from Jasper Dekker, a product designer with Flankworks in The Netherlands who for his graduation project designed a tap which is controlled via spatial interaction.

You can view a demo of this tap in action below. There is also a more polished conceptual demonstration available here but the initial prototype spoke to me more, for some reason.

Neat huh? Seeing this prototype in action, it again struck me that the potential for gestural interfaces is vast and, if you excuse the pun – untapped, and we have only seen the beginnings of the impact such a subtle, virtually invisible technology can and will have on our daily lives.

As children we watched movies such as Star Wars where Jedi characters used their innate ability to manipulate objects at will, such behavior seemed magical at the time. However as man-machine interfaces continue to advance and their applications broaden, our interactions with the world and the objects within will accordingly becomes less intrusive and more natural.

Where else can you see gestural interfaces adding value in our day to day life?

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On Wednesday, July 28th, 2010 at 1:01 am 2 Comments »

Bill Buxton on Natural User Interfaces

Bill Buxton is Principal Researcher with Microsoft Research, he is a noted expert within the HCI field and was a pioneer of multi-touch interfaces back in the seventies.

He has a 30 year involvement in research, design and commentary around human aspects of technology, and digital tools for creative endeavour, including music, film and industrial design, in particular. Prior to joining Microsoft, he was a researcher at Xerox PARC, a professor at the University of Toronto, and Chief Scientist of Alias Research and SGI Inc. – where 2003 he was co-recipient of an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

Buxton works from the assumption that sketching is fundamental to all design activity, and explores what it means to sketch a variety of possible user experiences. His approach is aggressively low-tech and eclectic. He argues that although you can use software tools to create fully-realized interactive mockups, you generally shouldn’t. Those things aren’t sketches, they’re prototypes, and as such they eat up more time, effort, and money than is warranted in the early stages of design. What you want to do instead is produce sketches that are quick, cheap, and disposable.

“Now that we can do anything, what should we do?”

Bill Buxton

His book Sketching User Experiences – Getting the Design Right and the Right Design is an absolute must read for anyone working on software/hardware concerned with creating an engaging and usable experience. Last year he gave the first keynote presentation at MIX 09 conference.

Recently at CES, Microsoft spent time alot of time speaking about the ‘Natural User Interface’ or NUI, and how this gesture based, human oriented approach could represent one of the most significant changes to human-device interfaces since the mouse appeared next to computers in the early 1980s.

Touch, face, voice-recognition and movement sensors – all are part of an emerging field of computing often called natural user interface, or NUI. Interacting with technology in these humanistic ways is no longer limited to high-tech secret agents and Star Trek. Buxton says everyone can enjoy using technology in ways that are more adaptive to the person, location, task, social context and mood. Microsoft’s XBox technology ‘Project Natal’ incorporates face, voice, gesture, and object recognition technology to give users a variety of ways to interact with the console, all without needing a controller.

Larry Larsen’s lenghty (38 min. 42 sec) but fascinating interview with Buxton can be seen above in which he discusses his work with Microsoft on NUI technologies and the implications and impact such advances in human-machine interaction will have on our daily lives in the near future.

Further Reading.

Multi-Touch Systems that I Have Known and Loved
Natural User Interfaces: Voice, Touch and Beyond
Now, Electronics That Obey Hand Gesture

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On Sunday, January 24th, 2010 at 6:15 pm No Comments Yet »