Category Archives: UX Design

8 Ways Apple Can Save the MacBook Pro (Hint: it’s all about UX)

MacBook Pro dongles

You may have to use up to 17 dongles with your new MacBook Pro.

The Problem

The release of the new MacBook Pro computers with the Touch Bar feature has not gone smoothly for Apple. Chief amongst the problems with this latest iteration of Apple’s flagship portable computer is poor and inconsistent battery life, the primary reason why Consumer Reports for the first time initially did not recommend the laptops. Consumer Reports has since changed their recommendation after Apple released a fix. But even with this problem apparently corrected via a software update, there are other serious usability problems, as well as a user base that is largely underwhelmed with the lack of innovative improvements that could actually improve the user experience.

The reduction of ports down to just two or four Thunderbolt 3 ports on the 13” and 15” models respectively seriously hampers how professionals use the MacBook Pro. There are still too many hard drives and other peripherals and input devices that use USB and FireWire to be thrown away and replaced. Users can purchase expensive adapters for all their externals, but forcing users to buy and use a pile of dongles is clunky, terrible UX.

The Touch Bar was the most vaunted new feature on the revamped MacBook Pro. It’s essentially a second small touchscreen display that replaces the function keys, allowing for customization of the UI for different software applications. Apple calls this “A revolutionary new way to use your Mac.” However cool this may look, it seems to create more usability problems than it fixes. First is that using the Touch Bar for executing certain tasks is slower than using keyboard shortcuts because as a flat touchscreen it has no tactile feel. The user must take her hands off the keyboard and her eyes off the screen to look at and use the Touch Bar, thus disrupting their workflow both physically and psychologically. Ten of my students currently have MacBook Pros with the Touch Bar, and all of them report that they thought the feature was cool at first, but stopped using it because it was slow and not very useful.

Contributing to this degradation in speed and efficiency is the fact that the Touch Bar changes functionality when you switch software applications. While customization might seem like a powerful feature, it’s long been a well known fact in the HCI field that one of the most common causes of user error is what’s called ‘modality changes’, i.e. when the functionality of an interface element with the same look and/or location changes it’s functionality depending on what mode the software is currently in. One of the ways that professional or power users achieve greater speed and proficiency is by committing commonly used functions to subconscious muscle memory, so that for instance a user doesn’t have to think too hard or look at the keyboard to hit ‘Command-S’ to save a document, they just do it automatically. If, however, ‘Command-S’ functioned as ‘Save’ in Pages but in Keynote created a shape then users would be prone to making errors by accidentally hitting ‘Command-S’ in Keynote when they intended to just save their document. Further, users would have to work more slowly and think about what modality the software is currently in. I have observed this with my students: they stop, look at the Touch Bar, and have to think about how to use it every time. A quick ‘Command-Tab’ switches applications, and therefore modalities. That’s why they quickly stopped using the Touch Bar: it’s bad UX, especially for power users.

Some other lower-level annoyances about the MacBook Pro:

  • Standard RAM and hard drive storage is too small for pro users
  • Lost the HDMI port for HD displays and projectors
  • Lost the SD memory card slot used by most professional DSLR cameras
  • No touchscreen display

Collectively, these all add up to the MacBook Pro creating more problems than it solves. So below I’ve outlined features and functionalities the MacBook Pro could have to make it a really innovative, powerful, and most importantly user-friendly portable computer.

But first we need to look at…

Who is the user?

The MacBook Pro, as it’s name implies, is for professional users. This is a pretty broad category, but for this exercise I’m going to focus on a core professional user group that Apple has long catered to: Creative Professionals. This includes designers of all disciplines (graphic designers, illustrators, interaction designers, architects, 3D artists, etc) and media makers (photographers, videographers, film/tv editors, special effects artists, etc). Some commonalities shared between creative professionals include:

  • Use of memory- and processor-intensive software such as the Adobe Creative Suite, Final Cut Pro, Maya and AutoCAD
  • Need for large, fast and local storage capacity (cloud-based storage is too slow for working on very large files)
  • Need to work quickly through complex tasks
  • Often need for tactile input, i.e. via a tablet input device
  • Need to connect external devices for input (graphics table, track ball, video controller), hard drive arrays with fast connections, multiple external monitors for working, external HD displays and projectors for presentations, small memory storage devices such as USB thumb drives for quick file transfers and SD cards for professional digital cameras
  • Need for durability as they are sometimes working in different environments (working remotely in Starbucks, on movie sets, visiting clients, etc.)

And let’s also keep in mind one more important thing: not one single professional user has ever told me that they really need their MacBook Pro to be thinner and lighter. Apple seems to be obsessed with this. Pro users are not.

So now that we have a few insights into the needs of professional users, let’s look at some features that would help solve these user needs:

Eight Ways to Save the MacBook Pro

  1. First of all let’s ditch the Touch Bar. It doesn’t seem to serve any of these user needs, and creates usability problems rather than solving them.
  2. Next let’s focus on memory. Pro users need lots of memory to run applications and store large files, and although Apple wants people to pay for their cloud services, this doesn’t work for how pro users actually work. Let’s make the standard base-level memory 16GB of RAM (upgradable to 32GB or 64GB) and hard drive storage starting at 1TB (upgradable to 2TB or 3TB).
  3. Pro users have evolving storage needs. Let’s make both RAM and HD memory user upgradable.
  4. To help pro users work more quickly and efficiently, Apple should design add-ons for their pro software such as Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. These can include keyboard overlays that teach keyboard shortcuts (proven efficiency boosters) and different types of mouse-like input devices specific to these softwares.
  5. Many pros use tablets for a more tactile input device experience. Apple should follow the route of Microsoft and others by giving the MacBook Pro a touchscreen display with stylus. They already have something like this with the iPad Pro, but iOS doesn’t run most of the professional software. Let’s bring that iPad Pro functionality to the MacBook Pro.
  6. Speaking of the iPad Pro, let’s make it interoperable with the MacBook Pro by making the iPad Pro a portable dual display option. Let’s allow users to connect an iPad to the MacBook Pro and use the iPad as a second touchscreen display. The Microsoft Surface Pro can’t do that…yet.
  7. Pro users already may have to connect multiple external devices to their MacBook Pro. Let’s not make that even clunkier than it already is by forcing them to stick a bunch of dongles between the computer and the externals. Let’s create a customizable, modular port bay on one side so the user can choose between these two options: three Thunderbolt 3 ports + 1 USB-C port —OR— two Thunderbolt 3 ports + one USB-C port + one FireWire 800 port. And let’s add back the SD card slot for pro photographers and videographers.
  8. Durability is something that is not usually a priority with the industrial design of computers, but so-called ‘Tough PC’s’ have been around for a long time. So let’s really set the MacBook Pro apart from the competition by making it waterproof (to one meter…let’s be reasonable), dustproof and shockproof.

Conclusion

To design great products that are usable AND innovative, Apple needs to use the UX process to understand it’s users, design to their needs, and test extensively. Ultra-thin laptops with Touch Bars are neat, but they don’t solve any usability issues and don’t serve the needs of professional users. Beautiful aesthetics can deceptively mask poor usability as explained in this excellent article on The Aesthetic-Usability Effect by Kate Meyer.  A beautiful, ultra-thin laptop with a not-very-useful Touch Bar and a bunch of dongles hanging off of it isn’t innovative, and it’s not good design.

Designing Resiliency

Climate Change, AI, Cyberesecurity, and Experience Design

We are living during a period of history defined by uncertainty. Global climate change, political and social upheavals, demographic shifts and other large scale changes mean that past trends do not necessarily predict future ones. But this is also a period when design as a field is more prominent than ever, giving us tools to innovate in the face of challenges with uncertain outcomes. A primary design goal with these really big challenges should be resiliency.

Resiliency is a kind of strength. It allows objects to hold their shape, and people and organizations to remain intact under duress. To design resiliency we cannot just devise solutions to current challenges; we must also anticipate future challenges, and this requires futurecasting.

Futurecasting is not about predicting the future. This is a fool’s errand, yielding results that are almost certainly inaccurate. When I was growing up, magazines like Popular Science promised flying cars and personal robots in the 21st century. (I’m still waiting for mine!) Instead, futurecasting is about sketching possible future scenarios based on current trends across a wide range of disciplines including science, technology, social sciences, economics, environmental and energy trends, etc. Instead of viewing the future as a single linear pathway, it uses systems-based thinking to envision multiple possible scenarios from best-case to worst-case possibilities.

For this article, I want to focus on four specific and interrelated trends that will affect organizational resiliency in the next decade:

  1. Climate Disruption
  2. Artificial Intelligence
  3. Cybersecurity
  4. Experience Design

Climate Disruption

Climate change is already happening, and the latest data suggest that it started earlier than previously thought. Many scientists also believe that the recent Paris accord is too little, too late to stop human-caused climate change. While there is promise of technology-based solutions to the problem, these will take time to both come on line and begin to take effect. So we can say with a high level of probability that many of the predicted effects of climate change are inevitable, and some— such as sea level rise, drought in some areas, flooding in others, and increased storm activity— are now unavoidable. Designing resiliency to climate disruption thus becomes of paramount importance.

What this means is that organizations need to be aware of all the possible effects of climate change, and what parts of their business are most vulnerable. For some organizations that means there are value chain risks to physical property, energy supplies or price volatility with raw materials or commodities. There may also be risks of products becoming unpopular due to shifts in the needs or attitudes of consumers, or regulatory risks due to governments taking action to mitigate climate disruption effects. These need to be factors in an organization’s design strategy to improve resilience. (Kem-Laurin Kramer has an excellent book on design strategy and sustainability called User Experience in the Age of Sustainability.)

Artificial Intelligence

Before proceeding on this topic, it’s important to define what AI means. There are different types of AI, and the differences are enormous:

  • Weak (or Narrow) AI is non-sentient and focused on specific tasks
  • AGI or Artificial General Intelligence is sentient and of equal intelligence to humans
  • ASI or Artificial Super Intelligence is sentient and exponentially more intelligent than humans

To be clear, what we are talking about here is weak AI. We are a long way off from building a self-thinking, self-aware, sentient AI, and we really don’t know how long it will take or if it’s even possible. We are held back less by computing power and more by the fact that we don’t have a clear understanding of the inner workings of consciousness or sentience. It’s pretty hard to build something when you don’t know what you’re building.

However, weak AIs are going to have an enormous impact in wealthy countries in the next decade. A new development that is coming quickly is the personal AI avatar, a weak AI that acts as a personal assistant. It will filter information for you, customize your news feed, manage your personal and professional communications, and predict your needs and desires. These personal AI avatars will be gateways to access consumers. Some companies will design and customize the avatars. Others will negotiate with the avatars to deliver ads and marketing materials. Organizations need to understand how this technology works.

Objects with embedded computers and wireless connectivity, the ‘Internet of Things,’ will proliferate, and increasingly these objects will interface with weak AIs that live in the cloud. These will also interact with personal AI avatars. For instance, your avatar will know when you wake up and will tell your coffeemaker to start making coffee. Your printer will tell your avatar that your ink levels are low and then your avatar can order new ink from Amazon without bothering you. Rather than just designing individual products, organizations will be designing product ecosystems, and there will be no difference from a design standpoint between digital and analog experiences.

Another area that is seeing revolutionary change is transportation design. Enabled by weak AI, autonomous self-driving cars will become the norm in the next decade. That doesn’t mean everyone will drive one, but we will all share the road with them. Just like with the Internet of Things, experience design will be critical in how we interact with transportation, from cars to buses, trains and aircraft. Already, companies like Tesla, Hyperloop, SpaceX, Toyota, Honda and others are hiring UX designers to do the design work that used to only be done by ergonomics engineers. This is because people don’t just interact with their car or other vehicle, but are interacting with multiple hardwares and softwares both inside and outside the vehicles. Organizations working with transportation will need to think of their products and services more like digital devices and software-as-a-service rather than traditional transport.

Cybersecurity

We are in a cyberwar. Right now. The recent hacks of government email servers and the DDoS attacks that brought down sections of the internet in October, 2016 were skirmishes in this war. This war is very complex because some of the players are governments and some are private parties, but it’s often very hard to tell the difference. This war will affect everyone using the internet and connected devices, so organizations need to know what’s going on and have a strategic plan.

The recent DDoS attacks were especially significant because instead of using desktop or laptop computers to launch the attacks, they used other devices, like home internet routers and webcams. All of those Internet-of-Things devices are actually computers with wireless connectivity, and they are all vulnerable to cyberattack.

For decades cybersecurity and anti-virus efforts have always been a step behind hackers. Humans are a bottleneck in these efforts, and so the only way to be able to respond and defend against these attacks quickly enough to be effective is to use defensive Weak AIs. On the flip side, AIs can also be weaponized and used to launch attacks. Again, because AIs have an enormous speed advantage over humans, such an attack could be very damaging.

Hackers know this, and so an attack with a weaponized AI is almost certainly inevitable. Organizations need to have a cybersecurity strategy, and AI needs to be a part of that strategy. For individuals, personal AI avatars will not only be our assistants but also our bodyguards against hacking and identity theft.

With AIs being the new defensive and offensive weapons in the cyberwar, experience design is critical to being able to effectively utilize them and to understand what is happening.

Experience Design

Experience Design (XD), UX, and Design Thinking are becoming the biggest forces in all fields of design and business. This is because they work as effective methods for solving big, complex problems with human-centered solutions. XD/UX combines the creative ideation and sideways thinking of design, critical for coming up with innovative solutions, with the empirical rigor of science, critical to validating whether a solutions works or not and why. Studies indicate that startup businesses fail 80-90% of the time due to XD/UX failures, which include things like lack of a market need, being beaten by competition, poor product design, ignoring customers, etc. XD/UX is critical for business.

Some of the areas that XD/UX is expanding into include:

  • Industrial design
  • Product design
  • Transportation design
  • Fashion tech
  • Medical tech

Increasingly, XD/UX is designing not just single products but product-service ecosystems. The empirical iterative process of XD/UX is particularly well suited for tackling big complex problems using design thinking and systems thinking.

Conclusion

In this time of uncertainty, there are unique opportunities for innovation. The organizations that are best prepared and well positioned will have a distinct advantage in those opportunities. By leveraging design thinking and XD/UX, organizations will have the critical elements to design solutions to climate disruption, AI, and cybersecurity. Futurecasting may at first sound more mystical than meticulous, but only by putting in place a proactive forward-thinking strategy can organizations design resiliency.

UX Project Review: UXSC 2015 Designathon

The winning UX team, from left to right: Sarah Dzida (mentor), Alison Omon, Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, and Lowrie Fu.

The winning UX team, from left to right: Sarah Dzida (mentor), Alison Omon, Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, and Lowrie Fu.

Winners of the UXSC 2015 Designathon design an innovative master planner for college students

On April 25th, 2015, UXSC (the student UX design group at the University of Southern California) staged a Designathon, a shorter version of hackathon tailored to user experience design. The Designathon, held at USC’s tech incubator facility The Blackstone Launchpad, was open not only to students but to anyone who wanted to participate. Teams were formed the morning of the event, and each team was mentored by UX design professionals who helped them with the design process.

The winning team of Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, Lowrie Fu, and Alison Omon (and mentored by UX designer Sarah Dzida) were charged with designing Koreplan: a master planner for college students. Kenya Duque explained how their design would address student’s needs:

“Koreplan would help users find an optimal work/school schedule based off of their lifestyle. Instead of trying to re-design Google Calendars or another popular calendar platform, we decided to concentrate on designing a better experience for USC students when they use Web-Reg to sign up for classes.”

Common frustrations that students face with current online tools include having to open multiple tabs to see what courses to take in one semester (OASIS, Ratemyprofessor, Google Calendar, etc.), the overhead in remembering the specific classes that are needed, and being forced to start over when there is an enrollment error, such as not meeting the prerequisites for a class. These frustrations require students to spend many hours of time at tasks that should be much simpler, and the causes of these frustrations may also lead to students making errors in their course selection and academic planning, negatively impacting their overall university experience.

The team’s solution was to have a student log into Koreplan where their dashboard would show their remaining classes and the progress they have made to their 4 year plan. The student clicks on a few classes from their Major, Minor, or GE course lists, and Koreplan makes a few schedules with the combination of classes. The class sections have a table of details where a student can see if any of their Facebook friends are also enrolled in the class, and the rating of the professor teaching the course. Once a student has chosen their desired school schedule, they can integrate it with their personal calendars such as Google Calendar, iCal, etc.

The team focused on three primary user personas, representing a freshman student, a junior student and a senior. Although they did not develop a persona for a sophomore, the personas they did have allowed them to analyze the problems from the point of view of students from the very beginning to the end of their university experiences. The personas also represented a college athlete, a med student, and a member of a fraternity, giving the designers a broad range of user perspectives.

The confusions and frustrations with course enrollment selection and management, and the current lack of a systems-based approach to managing one’s academic career, were clear and universal for students of all types. While there are lots of great digital tools available for students, the lack of a coherent ecosystem for making these tools work together is exactly the problem the team approached. The solution they came up with, Koreplan, is precisely the digital trend that is defining UX design now and will continue to do so over the next five years: not just innovation in a single product, but designing innovative synergies between products. In this way, the Koreplan team not only designed a product that would solve major pain points for their target users, but also leveraged the synergies between existing technologies in a way that was inventive and forward-thinking.


Below are images from the work that Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, Lowrie Fu, and Alison Omon did for the Designathon:

User personas

User personas

Koreplan screenflows 1-4

Koreplan screenflows 1-4

Koreplan screenflows 2

Koreplan screenflows 2


 

UX Design Thinking for Transmedia

“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” -Albert Camus

Before launching into the topic of this article, it’s necessary to lay out very clear definitions of what exactly UX and Transmedia are, as these terms get misused far too frequently.

UX is short for User Experience. Broadly speaking UX design is a process for designing positive interactions between people (users) and products (often software or websites) and/or other people. Taking a user-centric approach and drawing upon the disciplines of visual design, psychology, and human-computer interaction (HCI) research, UX aims to design not just the visuals and interface, but the entire user experience. While UX is most often applied to software and website design, UX designers are also designing physical experiences like in-store shopping experiences, airport lounges, classrooms for schools, museum and art exhibitions, etc.

Defiance is a transmedia tv show and computer game by the Scify Channel.

Defiance is a transmedia tv show and computer game by the Scify Channel.

Transmedia storytelling is an approach of developing characters and delivering narratives across multiple mediums using both analog and digital technologies. These can include but are not limited to books, electronic books, films, tv shows, computer games, webisodes, and social media narratives. The transmedia experience for the spectator is to experience and explore a single storyline and character or group of characters unfold across multiple mediums. A prime example is the 2013 transmedia project Defiance, a tv series on the Scify network and computer game. Character development and plot lines flow fluidly back and forth between the tv episodes and the computer game. One is not derived from the other, but rather the story line and characters are unfolding on both, meaning that the tv series and game are equal parts in the Defiance transmedia ecosystem.

This is the future of entertainment media, the result of the trend of convergence between media in the first decade of the 21st century, driven by many factors including decreasing costs of CGI graphics for films and tv, the explosion of smart phones as primary tools for media consumption, and the electronic gaming industry surpassing the film/tv industry in revenue and popularity. As I outlined in an earlier article, we have moved past the decade of convergence and are now in a decade focused on synergies, and this is particularly the case with transmedia and UX design.

Transmedia opens the door to new kinds of storytelling, and new possibilities for creative expression for authors and media makers. But unlike a book, movie or tv series, software-based narratives such as websites, apps and electronic games need not only compelling stories and characters but also compelling interfaces and user experiences. Transmedia makers need to know good UX design.

To begin let’s consider some of the fundamental elements of UX design and how they apply to Transmedia storytelling.

The first and most important is that UX design is an iterative rather than linear process. There are different ways to describe and illustrate the iterative process, but here is a simplified version. First designers do research and brainstorm during a learning stage of the process; second they build prototypes during a building stage of the process; and third they test usability and effectiveness during a measuring stage of the process. The process then repeats, as ineffective ideas are jettisoned and the project moves closer and closer to a “finished” state with more and more refined iterations.

The iterative design methodology is based on a cyclic process of research, prototyping, testing. Refining the design each time the process is repeated results in improved functionality and effectiveness of the design.

The iterative design methodology is based on a cyclic process of research, prototyping, testing. Refining the design each time the process is repeated results in improved functionality and effectiveness of the design.

This iterative process and rapid prototyping model can also be effective with transmedia design, where story and character development is often collaborative, and the possibilities of how to develop narrative and character across different mediums requires input from writers and media makers with diverse ranges of expertise.

The often collaborative, cross-media writing for transmedia has parallels to information architecture in UX design. Writing and editing a story and developing characters, figuring out to best tell the narrative on which mediums, is similar to the process of organizing information and designing simple user interfaces. Again, this is an iterative process, and using a UX design approach to writing narratives in transmedia can lead to better, more effective storytelling by constantly taking a user-centric mindset. What elements of the story are best told via video, electronic game, social media, etc? Rather than thinking of this as screenwriting, it can be thought of as narrative design.

The production and testing phase of the UX design process is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring art direction and graphic design, software coding and database administration, and often user testing and metrics analysis, all the while maintaining a user-centric focus. Transmedia, too, would benefit from this approach. Film and tv production is already inherently interdisciplinary, which is why filmmaking is such an inherently collaborative art form. But add in the transmedia integration of games, apps and networked media and there are not just multiple disciplines working together but multiple industries, representing a conceptual merging of Hollywood with Silicon Valley. Transmedia projects would greatly benefit from the UX approach of user-centric design, and design-thinking as part of the creative process. Films tend to be produced, whereas software is designed. It’s time to merge these two sets of thinking, to approach film and tv production as well as software design from both filmmaker’s and designer’s perspectives. With a transmedia product, the moving picture part of the project isn’t separate from the other digital media parts. The Scify channel’s Defiance isn’t a tv show plus a game, it’s a transmedia ecosystem.

Transmedia is compelling because it immerses the audience in the story and characters. Rather than being limited to one tv episode per week, viewers can immerse themselves in their favorite stories and engage with its characters any time they like. Rather than being passive spectators, they are active, involved users of transmedia stories. The user-centric, iterative approach of UX design is tailor made for this new paradigm of entertainment media. To be successful, transmedia projects need great UX design.

UX Design and Social Entrepreneurship

“The human-centered focus, and the rigor and creativity required to maintain that focus over the entire course of the work, sets design thinking apart from other methods of problem solving.” ~Sarah A. Soule

Design thinking has been adapted as an effective methodology not only for product design and business models but also for social entrepreneurship. Design thinking for social good, a methodology utilized in product design, involves the designer engaging with social and environmental issues from the perspective of the individual people directly affected by the problems that the designers are trying to address. Solutions are brainstormed directly from the “users” perspective (the users being the affected people), rapid prototyping allows for empirical field testing, and solutions are synthesized. With social entrepreneurship the solution may be a product, but it may also be a new paradigm of behaviors or ways of doing things. User-Experience (UX) Design thinking provides a model for expanding design thinking to broader behavioral and social aspects in order to tackle increasingly complex and interconnected social-political-environmental challenges.

A solar cooker made from easily obtainable recycled trash materials. Appropriate design and technology that addresses a wide range of social and environmental problems.

A solar cooker made from easily obtainable recycled trash materials. Appropriate design and technology that addresses a wide range of social and environmental problems.

An example of this is a project that a non-profit organization I work with engaged in a project of social entrepreneurship in Nepal. They wanted to engage with a number of problems that turned out to be interrelated, including overpopulation, deforestation, access to education particularly for girls, and access to clean water. By traveling to Nepal, talking to local people and community leaders and spending time living amongst normal people, who designers would call their “typical users”. The project they decided on was a design for a solar cooker made from local trash including cardboard boxes, aluminum foil or tin, old glass window panes, etc. They taught women and girls how to make the solar cookers themselves and how to cook with them. The primary use of the solar cookers was for boiling and sterilizing water, thereby removing the need for collecting firewood, which contributes to deforestation. Due to the scarcity of wood, girls would spend hours every day collecting wood. The solar cookers freed up time for the girls to instead attend to their school studies. Girls who receive a basic education tend to have smaller families, be more economically prosperous, and ensure that their children also receive an education.

UX design thinking was critical to tying together all these different threads, in designing not just a product but a new way of doing, teaching and thinking about interconnected social and environmental challenges. Design thinking, often described as utilizing the designer’s creative methodologies to connect the needs of people with what is technologically feasible, becomes a greatly expanded concept when the “UX” is added in front of it. Although UX design historically grew out of the techno-centric field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), it now extends to all aspects of a person’s interaction within a given system, encompassing interface, graphics, physical interaction, as well as social, political and environmental systems. Engaging effectively with the complex challenges that social entrepreneurship attempts to take on requires UX design thinking.

Experiential Design in a Shot Glass

A technology entrepeneur named Brett Cramer, founder of the Spice Lab, is obsessed with salts.  He buys them by the container-load (I mean those small house-sized shipping containers) from all over the world–Himalayan salts, Hawaiian salts, smoked salts, spicey salts, etc. etc.–and sells them to foodies and gourmets.  If you think salt is just salt, check out The Spice Lab or just look at this rainbow of salts:

Tubes of salts from all over the world.

But is isn’t just the selection of salts that are unique to what Cramer and The Spice Lab are offering, it’s how in some cases they’re designed.  Some of the salts are sold in glass tubes that slot into holes bored into blocks of wood.  Cramer has designed a mixological interface to cooking with various exotic salts from around the world.

himalayan_salt_glassesBut the most striking design in his collection is the tequila shot glass carved from Himalayan salt.  Yes, the glasses are made from solid Himalayan salt, which has a translucent pink marbled appearance similar to rose quartz, owing to its high natural iron content.  This introduces a different phenomenological experience to drinking tequila.  With each shot, you get a bit of Himalayan salt, that with the presence of more than eighty minerals tastes earthier than standard table salt.  The glasses are soluble.  Each time they come into contact with liquid, a small amount of the salt dissolves.  They won’t last nearly as long as glass, and you can’t wash them or put them in the dishwasher like normal glasses.  Instead you lightly rinse and immediately dry them off.  But the salt is naturally anti-bacterial, so only minimal cleaning is required.

The experience is inherently different than the standard rock salt on the rim of the margerita glass.  The taste is different, the texture is different, the way the salt and drink are mixed is different.  These shot glasses invent a new way to consume tequila and salt (and lime).  Cramer has combined materials with consumables with interface in invent a new tequila UX.

UX design is the New Design standard.  Graphic designers, user interface designers, product designers, interior designers, architects, etc. can all take their work to a different level by understanding principles of UX design.  Some of these principles are to make things simple and intuitive.  The Himalayan salt shot glasses are an intuitive and simple way to consume tequila and lime with Himalayan salt,  far simpler than mixing a margerita and grinding the exotic salt, etc. Another principle is to reduce latency; these shot glasses make it faster and easier to have a truly sophisticated and different phenomenological and mixological experience with tequila.  And a third principle is that less is more, meaning everything about the design has a purpose.  The shot glasses hold the drink, deliver the salt to the drink in sufficient amounts to be palatable, and are aesthetically pleasing.

UX Design is Impossible. So How Do You Do It?

“Nightlife design is a set design for a play that hasn’t been written.” -Serge Becker, Experience Designer

It’s sometimes said that UX design is impossible because you can’t design the user.  People are slippery and individualistic and won’t behave the way they’re supposed to.  The UX designer profiles user personas, writes narratives, defines parameters and design conditions.  But you can’t design the user, or as a creative director once told me when I was a young designer, “Never underestimate the stupidity of the user!”

The ways in which experience design is approached in the design of night clubs is extremely informative for the UX designer of other media.  Night club designers cannot design what people will do in the club, they cannot design the user.  But what they can do is design parameters and conditions, a “set design for a play that hasn’t been written.” Night clubs are most effective at creating a first impression and a conceptual environment different from your everyday life, taking you somewhere else the moment you step into the club.  And clubs are ephemeral, they don’t last, they’re only about what’s now and what’s next.  Digital media like websites and mobile apps are the same.

The moment you click onto a website or open an app on your smartphone, there is the potential to be transported into a different user experience than the other websites and apps you’ve used in the past.  In the case of apps, the loading screen is critical for this first impression. It’s not just a spinning wheel to reassure you that something is happening while the app loads into your device’s memory, it’s a prelude to the user experience within.

app_load_screensLet’s look for example at the load screen for the Netflix app.  It’s all red, with the netflix logo in the center and a small spinning wheel below it indicating that the app is loading.  The adherence to brand identity is excellent, for it’s readily recognizable as the Netflix brand.  But what of the user experience?  The color red is an emotionally intense color.  It can denote a warning sign (stop! danger!) as well as fire, blood, war, love and passion.  But what Netflix says they want their brand to be associated with, they identify “convenience, service, speed and cost.”  They want their customers to have the easiest, fastest, and most pleasant experience getting movies as possible.  Filling the entire screen of the smart phone with scarlet red is at odds with their branding objectives.  It’s setting users up to be anxious and on edge.  Then, even if a very small annoyance occurs during the customer’s experience, they may be primed to react passionately, and not in a good way.  Netflix has set up the UX experience to be on knife’s edge from the very start.

By contrast, the load screen to Temple Run features the entrance to an ancient stone temple, preceding a menu screen that mimics the same layout.  The aesthetics call to mind ancient ruins in a tropical environment, reminiscent of the stone temples found in the rain forests of Southeast Asia and Central America.  The typefaces, colors, and textures suggest an Indiana Jones-style adventure, and the arched entrance to the temple that is shrouded in darkness suggests the the user is entering this realm, embarking on a thrilling and exotic adventure.  The design creates a first impression that is critical for the user experience throughout.  The edginess and sense of danger are similar to the loading screen on the Netflix app, but in this case it’s appropriate to the UX.

There is much more to UX design than can be covered in one short article. But setting the tone with the user’s first impression, the concept of building a stage upon which the actors will invent the play, are critical foundational concepts.