I ordered some shoes today from Moosejaw, a store I’d never heard of before. Their order process was quick and efficient, and their site design is, let’s say, not beautiful. But the experience stood out because it was punctuated with fun little bits of copy. I wish I’d captured the “processing” message as I submitted my order, because it was clever—something like “we’re doing all sorts of important stuff in the background”—but the confirmation page was almost as good.
And when I went back later to see if I could grab any other examples of their copy, I found this amusing message.
As I’ve said before, this exact approach doesn’t work for every site. Moosejaw sells gear, clothing, and accessories for outdoorsy types, so they’re not doing anything either essential or terribly serious. But when used judiciously, as it was here, a touch of wit gives a site personality and charm. I’ll remember Moosejaw before I remember a ton of other shopping sites, and that means they’ve accomplished at least one goal.
Serendipity is a lovely word and a lovelier concept. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have nearly enough serendipity in my life, possibly (but not definitely) because I spend so much of my life online. So this post on serendipity by Eric Reiss got my brain all fired up and going in a million different directions
I agree with Eric’s points about Google and social media. I think even more than Google, Facebook—with its quiet suppression of some posts in favor of others, and its algorithm-based determination of who your “close” friends are, and a thousand other things it does—is the ultimate enemy of serendipity; in essence, it wants to eliminate any serendipity from our “connections” in life, especially if that serendipity might steer us away from advertisers and brands. That’s one of the main reasons I think Facebook contains the seeds of the total destruction of society. (Yes, that’s hyperbole, but maybe not as much so as it sounds.)
On the other hand, Wikipedia—which I don’t mean to hold up as a paragon of anything, more a messy placeholder till something better comes along—encourages serendipity precisely through its rather traditional information architecture. When I go to verify some quick fact in Wikipedia, I inevitably end up pages away from where I started, reading a list of People Who Have Disappeared Mysteriously, or Shipwrecks in the South Pacific, or some other trove of information that’s way outside what I consider my usual landscape of interests. I’m not sure that qualifies as real serendipity—call it “guided serendipity,” if that’s not an oxymoron. But it expands my thinking in a way that my confirmation-bias-heavy* Twitter and Facebook worlds never do.
So are non-digital encounters, whether with actual humans or physical objects, the only way to find true serendipity? I’m not prepared to go that far, but I do worry that our increasingly digital lives, our connected selves, reduce the possibility of serendipity in ways that we don’t always notice. Serendipity does have a way of finding us when we’re not looking for it, but you still have to be open to letting it find you—something that’s hard to do when you have your headphones on and your eyes glued to your smartphone. As an introvert and something of a misanthrope, I love my digital world, and I don’t have any plans to disconnect. But I’m glad that Eric’s post reminded me to keep my eyes and ears open just a little wider, to give serendipity a chance to find its way to me.
*In general, I’m okay with confirmation bias, at least as it applies to my world view and in particular my political views. The older I get, the less I think I have anything new to learn from opposing political viewpoints; my political beliefs are a big part of my moral core, and I’m not sure what I gain from listening to people whose morals are dramatically different from mine. Confirmation bias is a very human tendency, and I’m not convinced of the value of combatting it just for the sake of combatting it. It does constrain the world of things I’m exposed to, but not necessarily in a bad way. But I digress.
A while back, my friend John Yuda and I briefly tossed around the idea of “co-mentoring” for UX professionals. There are resources out there geared toward novice designers, such as the IA Institute’s excellent mentoring program*, but it’s harder to find (or even ask for) a mentor when you’re a mid-level or senior practitioner. Co-mentoring would be explicitly focused on that. Our discussion never got very far, but I think the idea was that co-mentoring would provide a way to access a group of peers who could offer advice on anything from solving a thorny design problem to how to advance in one’s career. We all get some of that from our own networks, from Twitter and face-to-face meetings and so on, but this would formalize it a bit.
More recently, I’ve been struggling with where to go next in my career. Do I continue with my current contract, which is a worthy project with a great team but offers no longevity or growth potential? Do I look for a management-ish role helping to build a UX team, which is something I think I’m ready for but may not have the pedigree to get? Do I take the plunge and set up my own shop? I’m not sure, but I’ve had some fuzzy thoughts about forming partnerships with other independent/freelance/solo UXers to share work opportunities, both through collaboration and by serving as backups or fill-ins on each others’ projects (i.e., you have a longtime client who needs something done and you’re tied up on another project, but you have a partner who can step in).
Again, this would simply formalize a type of relationship that also exists in people’s networks. It would be similar to, but on a smaller scale than, consultancy networks like FatDUX and Happy Cog, and perhaps less highfalutin than Rosenfeld Media’s experts. Maybe there isn’t a need for it, since those networks already exist, but I think there might be room for another.
Trouble is, I’m not sure where to start with something like this. But thinking about people I’d want to talk to about it brought me back around to the idea of peer mentoring, and made me wonder if the two couldn’t be combined somehow. Call it the UX Exchange, maybe: a network of people who collaborate in ways both formal and informal to share ideas, concerns, and work. People could participate at whatever level suited them and fit their schedules.
It’s just an idea, and I don’t know if it’s a viable one. But if you’ve read this far, thanks! And I have three questions for you:
Can you spot what’s missing from IFC’s “Find Your Provider” tool for its IFC On Demand service? Or to put it another way, can you figure out how to use it?
When I was a sophomore in college, back in the late Pleistocene, I became a linguistics major. This meant that telling people my major immediately led them to ask, “Really? How many languages do you speak?” This used to drive me crazy, and since I was a know-it-all back then, I felt obligated to tell people that linguistics doesn’t really have much to do with speaking a lot of languages, and that it’s the science of language, and blah blah blah. But as I continued in the field, and went on to a graduate program, I refined that view. For one, I did speak a few different languages, and that was what led me to linguistics in the first place; I love learning languages, and on a more basic level, I simply love language. In grad school, we were advised to choose a language to work with in our studies, though it wasn’t required. Lots of people chose languages they didn’t actually speak (mostly endangered ones), but others picked from one of their many languages, because yeah, a lot of linguists are, after all, polyglots. The number of languages any of us spoke wasn’t important, but for many of us, it was a part of who we were and why we were there.
I think of that a lot when I think about the eternal—and irrelevant—UX discussions about wireframes.
It’s not a precise analogy. Obviously, no one ever, ever says, “I want to go into UX design because I love drawing wireframes.” (Or at least I hope no one ever says that.) But if we think of “wireframes” as a stand-in for “some physical expression at some level of detail showing what we’re building and how it will work,” then wireframes are definitely a part of who we are and what we’re doing at our jobs. At some point, we have to express the output of our work—our research, our problem-defining, our understanding—in some way that others can see and respond to (and preferably interact with).
The trouble is that we get bogged down in wireframes. The trouble is that because wireframes are a tangible way of expressing our design thinking, others—recruiters, bosses, stakeholders—see our wireframes and think, “That’s what UX does. They’re the people who make the wireframes.” We become our deliverables This, and the related problem of the way our deliverables are fetishized, has been written extensively about elsewhere, and people have said smart things about how arguing about wireframes hurts us as a profession. But we’re still doing it. We’re still arguing about wireframes. And it’s not doing us any good.
When a UX leader says “I don’t do wireframes anymore,” I have two reactions. If they’re saying “…because my clients pay me to help them define their goals and their business problem, to understand their audience’s needs, to plan their digital strategy,” I stand up and applaud, because that person has made a crucial step toward making businesses understand that UX goes way beyond wireframes and UI design, and is earning a seat at the table. Whitney Hess has tweeted saying that she doesn’t wireframe or prototype much, and it’s precisely because her clients look to her for her true value: her ability to provide UX thinking.)
But if the rest of the sentence is “…because prototypes are so much better,” or “…because I go straight to code,” I groan a little. Because that person is still keeping us mired in one of those endless debates that make us look, frankly, kind of idiotic as a profession.
(And if the person says “…because I work so closely with the developer, the visual designer, and the product manager that we don’t need detailed wireframes to capture our thinking—everyone understands what we’re building,” I applaud just a little less loudly, and maybe I don’t stand up. Because that’s still focusing too much on the deliverable—the artifact—but it is the kind of mindset that I believe will help us get our field to where it needs to be: an integral and integrated part of any organization.)
I had a job where I did nothing but wireframe, and I was miserable, not just because I wasn’t doing any of the thinking that goes into the wireframes, but also because many of the people I worked with didn’t understand that there was more to UX than wireframes. So for a long time I was on the “death to wireframes” bandwagon. (I still prefer to prototype.) But you know what? Wireframes are fine. They’re a legitimate means of expressing design thinking in tangible form. They may not be the ideal form—they’re static, they don’t capture different states all that well, blah blah blah—but they are a legitimate form.
This, however, is massively not the point. You could, in fact, be a great UX designer without wireframes, just as you can study and practice linguistics without speaking a single language other than your own. The point of linguistics isn’t a specific language, it’s language itself. And the point—and more important, the value—of UX design isn’t the method you use to express your designs, it’s the knowledge: the thinking, research, planning, and understanding that go into the expression. That’s our value as UX designers. We should be paid for that, and not for the ability to use a specific tool or method to crank out attractive arrangements of shapes and arrows in a software tool. So let’s talk way, way more about how we’ve gained that knowledge, how we’re refining and expanding it, how we can share it with others within and without our profession. And let’s talk way less about our tools and output. Let’s not vilify wireframes or canonize them. Instead, let’s accept them as part of a toolkit that we may or may not use, and move on.
Lotus Notes—yes, some of us still use it, though not voluntarily—wins the Useless Error Messages award every time. I particularly loved the message I got when I clicked Details on this already useless message this morning.
Presumably this message was based on the site auto-detecting my location (though I’m not sure about that, since using the locator turns up plenty of stores in my area), but I’m still not sure what this message is trying to accomplish.
How about “We couldn’t find a store within x miles of (your location). Would you like to change your location or expand your search area”? Or something that isn’t seemingly intended to confuse the user.