• Using design for social good

    I'm in Chicago this weekend to participate in a pretty cool design event: it's called UX for Good (hashtag: #uxxu)

    The premise behind it is that we (designers) can apply our skills to actual, real-world social problems like unemployment, urban violence, public education, community mental health, and cross-cultural understanding. User experience and visual designers are known for being creative problem solvers, but their skills have not been traditionally valued very highly in organizations — or in the non-profit world. Mashable wrote a summary of the event and why designers, specifically, were picked to help come up with solutions to hard social problems.

    Pretty rad, I think. And I am honored and stoked to be participating in it. Here's why:

    First, it's important from a civic-duty perspective for us all to participate and "give back" to the community in our own ways. I don't do much volunteering anymore, but I have in the past and it's always been very rewarding. And today, one way I can give back is through design.

    Second, I've been to iPhone Dev Camp and other hackathons as a "guest" — not as a participant — since I'm not a developer. It always looked like a lot of fun to work with a small group for a day or two, build something, and compete against each other on a project. But there haven't been any "hacking" competitions for designers (that I've known of). UX for Good is specifically a designer hackathon — which is just about the most exciting thing I could imagine right now!

    (Side note: I've been organizing a hybrid design/hacking competition in San Francisco recently, because I'm passionate about getting designers and developers to talk and work more together! The focus also had a civic-duty angle: to help prepare people in times of natural disasters/emergency response. Unfortunately, I had to resign from the organizing committee because organizing 3 conferences at the same time while working at a startup is crazy business. I believe the event is still being planned, so if you're interested....stay tuned!)

    Third, the UXXU attendees are some rockstar designers that I'm very honored to be working with! I'm hoping that this weekend lets me learn and grow in ways that I can't (or don't) during the week at work.

    Fourth, it's based in Chicago! Chicago is an awesome town and, importantly, it's not San Francisco! I believe the dedicated technorati of SF need to branch out from the Valley and learn from practitioners elsewhere. This seemed like a perfect occasion for that very thing, even more so than an Interaction'11 or IA Summit (both of which I'm bummed to be missing!).

    In addition to being an awesome design event, it happens to be the same weekend as ORD Camp — a barcamp inspired event that's put on by a few folks from Google, and happens to be invite-only, but brings together the top tech thinkers and do-ers in Chicago. Chris and I attended last year (as the token out-of-towners) and we were both planning to attend this year as well! When UX for Good came across my radar, I realized that it'd be a better event in terms of professional growth — but we were still able to travel and stay with each other in Chicago over the same weekend! Bonus!

  • Startups, products, and pivots. Oh my!

    I'm not sure how old our company is officially. Tim was working on the seeds of the idea in July 2010. I remember this because I was "moonlighting" with them once a week after work (at an apartment in Pacific Heights), helping with design, strategy, and some early research into the idea. I joined him officially the last week of August 2010. It was just the two of us for about a month. Then Dan joined sometime in September.

    This week our company just hired its 6th employee! With Tim as our founder, that makes 7 people! Kind of hard to believe — but amazing nonetheless, and they're all bright and brilliant and seem to fill each of the key roles and skills that we need. (We have the CEO, the ops guy, now *two* engineers, the front end developer, me — the designer, and a jack-of-all trades who's filling in a product manager. Pretty complete list there.)

    So maybe we're 6 months old? What's more interesting is that we're on our 2nd pivot! I've been thinking a lot about how "pivot" is a strange concept since it can mean a big shift in the product or it can be a smaller, internal shift in the way you *think* about and position your product. The first pivot of ours was more of the former. This is more of the latter.

    But even though this is a smaller pivot, it's going to have big ramifications for our product and we've decided to take this time and redesign everything from scratch (at least in the front-end). I'm actually really enjoying this time. We've learned a lot from getting our alpha product designed, built, out the door and tested with 50 users in 2.5 months in the fall. Phew, that was hard. But we learned a lot about what we want to be as a product and how to work together as a team.

    As a result, we completely shifted around who works with whom (how, when, and how much) — so that this time around, our process is smooth like buttah. The product team (me, front-end guy, and our jack of all trades) has been on a roll going through tons of ideas and moving even faster than we were in the last 2.5 month round. I didn't think it was possible.

    I'm also willing to recognize that, since we learned a lot about our product in the fall, we now know better what we're designing for. It no longer feels like a big experiment, hehe. I see reason in nearly everything I design now — I ask better research questions — and I am even better at managing my email, filtering out what's simply not relevant and responding to the stuff that's urgent and important for what I'm working on right now.

    It's a strange world, startups. But you just can't have these kind of experiences and learnings as a consultant or at a mega company. So I'm enjoying it while it lasts ;)

  • Themeword for 2011: "fitness"

    My #themeword for 2011 is fitness. In fact, it's Chris' themeword too!

    I decided that fitness would be a good themeword for me as I was walking into work one day in early January. Of course I need to focus and work hard this year (especially being at an early stage startup without a lot of resources). Of course I want to continue to connect with the wonderful community and groups of friends I've made in San Francisco in the past year. Of course I want to keep up with my gym routine — which has proven to be wonderful for my body and brain since I began going last October. Of course I want to (continue to) have a great relationship with Chris — and maybe this is a year to focus on that since we've got a house, and life, and work routine now. I certainly don't want to take our relationship for granted!

    And it dawned on me that "fitness" would be an appropriate theme that united all these goals. Fitness in the sense of:

    • workplace fitness
    • professional and social fitness
    • physical and mental fitness
    • and relationship fitness

    (Chris does a good job of spelling out in more detail what each of these "fitnesses" mean).

    So after several week of searching for the right theme for 2011, I was pretty excited to have settled on "fitness." I texted Chris immediately!

    To my surprise, Chris replied back: "That's great! Fitness was actually a runner-up themeword I was considering myself!"

    We've never had the same themeword before but it occurred to me that it was appropriate to do so, especially since several types of "fitness" we are trying to achieve are shared together. Our relationship is an obvious one. Our social life is another (we are trying to go on at least one "friend date" a week, and HealthMonth is helping us make sure we do!). But our physical fitness is a third.

    Back in October, neither of us had been to the gym in...oh, years. We definitely hadn't been to the gym since we'd been living together in SF (a year and a half). We stay pretty slim from all the walking we do in the city (often 30 miles per week), but we knew that we didn't have the best cardio health. However I knew that I'd only really change my routine if it was something we did together. And so we started going to the 24Hour FitLite on the corner of Church & 24th — about 2 blocks from our apartment.

    (Sadly, Chris has now joined this fancy schmancy gym at Google so I rarely have a gym buddy anymore. I've got good ol' HealthMonth to keep my act in line for fear of losing a "life point"...and so I actually have been going to the gym every week!)

    Anyway, Chris and I decided that sharing a themeword this year would motivate both of us. It certainly has motivated me so far and I hope it helps him, too. Either way, there's only moving forward and there's only good things that await in 2011! Cheers to that!

  • Party Invitations: A gamestorming activity

    This game is credited to Cyd Harrell and has been used by Bolt Peters in several client brainstorming meetings.

    Objective of play: Improve the onboarding process of a product or service.

    Number of players: 5-30
    Duration of play: 30-60 minutes

    How to play:

    1. Everyone is handed a piece of paper and a marker.
    2. Participants are asked to imagine that the product/service being designed is a party or event and to create an invitation.
    3. Invitations should be as detailed and realistic as possible — they might include an inviting statement (“Join us for…”), what to bring, what the host (company) will provide, time, dress code, directions, RSVP info, and any other information guests might need to enjoy the party. It could also be done in the form of a Who, What, Where, When, Why invitation.
    4. Participants are encouraged to refine their invitations in multiple iterations. Allow at least 10-15 minutes for invitation writing.
    5. Once everyone has completed their invitations, the facilitator calls for ideas on each element of an invitation in turn:
      • What did you call the party?
      • Did anybody have a dress code?
      • What did you say about refreshments?
      • What do guests need to bring?
      • What is the party actually for?
      • How will guests get there?
    6. Next, participants read through their invitations in turn. The facilitator takes notes and posts the themes on a white board.
    7. After everyone has presented, participants jointly narrow and refine the ideas, keeping in mind things like:
      • What metaphors have emerged? How might they contribute to ideas for the onboarding experience?
      • Which elements are crucial to the invitation?
      • Which ideas represent the right feel for the brand and offering?
    8. Finally, the facilitator engages the group in sketching or another idea generation process to implement the refined invitation as a draft of the onboarding process.

    [caption id="attachment_2143" align="aligncenter" width="342" caption="An example party invitation."][/caption]

    This is essentially a metaphor-generation game that allows participants to imagine how they want to engage their audience. Detail is good, and players who go whole-hog with imagining their party as anything from a white-tie gala to a potluck are likely to be successful as long as they carry it through. Interesting discussions will ensue when participants go for different versions — are we a come as you are party or do we have a festive dress code? Must you RSVP or can you just show up?

    Why invitations?
    Bolt Peters, we often think of successful technology products as being more than just friendly. They are literally inviting — asking their audience to use them, rewarding them when they do, and asking again for higher levels of use and engagement. When deploying a conversion funnel, especially for gradual engagement, an enticing and escalating invitation is a critical piece of the puzzle.

  • Tummelvision recap: On social interaction design

    I just signed off Tummelvision, a weekly podcast/videocast (in some cases) led by Deb Schultz, Heather Gold, and Kevin Marks, where we had a fascinating conversation about designing for social interactions. I was a lucky guest along with Julie Hamwood from Adaptive Path.

    The conversation was really stimulating, and wound in and out of perspectives about social interaction design (sxd). At first we were discussing Google Wave's demise and Google's inherent lack of social understanding, and then moved onto Facebook missing the mark with Facebook Questions. My take on this is that Facebook already has users asking and answering each other's questions every day — and effectively at that — but in their status messages. What Questions appears to accomplish with its wide open format is merely to generate data for some presumed search platform later. I'm not convinced the data will be any better than Yahoo! Answers, and, as users, we're certainly not compelled to answer (or read) questions by people who aren't in our friend group. It's the chicken and egg problem if Facebook wants to grow their database to search on later; so a better strategy, in my mind, would be to target questions to the right friend groups. Context matters.

    This brought us to a discussion about fundamental differences in the way Twitter and Facebook are designed. Facebook is a network where relations are the social object; while Twitter is a network where information is the social object (although emotion and play are also social objects at times). Yet, with all of Twitter's openness, it brings with it a sense of presence of who you're talking to. It doesn't feel like you're tweeting into a void, whereas using Facebook Questions does. We also discussed, here, that relationships that form around content sharing (e.g., Twitter) develop into the sort of network where this openness can be supported. But privacy still reigns in the Facebook networks where the only glue is, in many cases, a former relationship.

    Of course, this led to asking whether there are rules for designing effective social interactions. The short of it is no. Twitter created a versatile platform by using only simple rules for engagement. But these rules cannot be carbon copied, replicated elsewhere, and expected to work in another system in quite the same way. Things like context, culture, and personalities (among other sxd considerations) change the way a given feature will be used and adopted by the community.

    Instead of developing rules or principles of social interaction, a better approach is to think of the questions we can ask when designing for social. Who are our users? How do they think of themselves? Who do they want to connect to? Who do they want to connect to tomorrow? Why? What's the point of the network in the first place? Where are they when they're using the network? What is the outcome of an interaction? What's the role of strong versus weak ties in the network?

    We didn't have any glorious resolution to our discussion but instead emphasized how we need to keep trying to understand how social interactions play out — which includes doing research into social and developing case studies which illustrate principles that we can take to our clients and product teams.

    A few references related to social interaction design include: