My presentation for the Feb 21, 2011 mkeUX.

These slides are missing a lot of context. If you weren’t there and want to know what I said, please let me know! I may try to write a summary of what I covered sometime soon.

Throwing users at UX

Lately, I’ve heard some seasoned UXers bemoan the dearth of user testing and data collection going on in a lot of modern UX practices.

The internet has been around for quite a while now. People (erm, users) have had enough varied experiences that a lot of the tried and true “best practices” are no longer relevant. Or at the very least shouldn’t restrict what we do. Strategic experimentation has helped make things fun. It’s pushed thing forward. And it’s helped make our jobs interesting while at the same time enchanting our audiences.

But there’s a real danger in unchecked innovation.

UX people are obviously trying to craft unique, well-reasoned experiences. We’re good at thinking things through, considering the whys and hows. But, as @mkedobbs said after last night’s mkeUX meetup, all the innovation and creativity in the world is for naught if you don’t have tangible proof that it’s useable.

So here’s the thing: Let’s not get hung up on user testing, etc, but let’s not forgo it. We need to put what we’re creating in front of users before they’re forced to use it in the batty metropolis of daily life.

Part of your UX advocacy with clients or within your organization needs to be
focused on fighting to let users speak in their own voice.

Testing does not have to be expensive or time consuming. A small sit-down yields massive results.

So, you know, to awkwardly rake up an old advertising slogan: Just do it.

Seriously though—have at ‘er.

Embracing constraints

Earlier today, @Abby_the_IA delivered her definition of UX as a one-two punch:

  • Day to day job of UX: mold experience our client is delivering to be as usable and useful as possible within current climate and constraints
  • Long-term job of UX is to help mold client mindset to bring the needs of the user into as much focus as best practices & business needs.

For a long time, I’ve been snoozing in the sunlight of the first idea she touches on: constraints.

It’s like Georges Perec’s A Void, a 300 page lipogrammatic novel, where he doesn’t not once use the letter “e”. Truthfully, I’ve never read the book (it’s on my endless to-read list, like the entirety of Donald Barthleme’s syllubus), but I love the idea of building something almost squarely on the concept of omission.

Constraint is a great tamer. You’re forced to be resourceful and smart with your creativity, and to be fearless with purging bloat and fancy.

In our UX work (and in life in general, I guess) we should never bemoan the boa constrictor-ish lot we’re sometimes handed. Sucky as it can be, you occasionally need to be nearly choked out in order to fully live.

Tags: ux

Using wireframes as visual design is like asking an infant to perform surgery

Most of my week has been spent playing around with different wireframing tools. Basically, our fresh-faced UX team is trying to figure out what will work best for us. We’ve all used different things in the past and need/want to come to a consensus, so it seems worthwhile to see what’s new and hot.

While researching, I came across Travis Isaacs’s presentation, Keynote Kung-Fu: How to wireframe like a ninja. As the name suggests, it’s about using Apple’s Keynote to create wireframes.

This slide (#106) really grabbed me:

Here’s the thing—I didn’t hear the audio of the presentation, so I’m not exactly sure if he meant you could fancy up your wireframes up with visuals or that you should do so.

In my experience with client work, I’ve noticed that wireframes are taken very, very literally. Even if you preface them and continually remind the stakeholders that nothing’s set in stone and that the frames are more of a living roadmap, they always get stuck on small visual happenstance like:

  • Why is this text bolded?
  • Why is it this shade of gray used?
  • Shouldn’t this font be bigger?

Things like that. They focus on the wrong details and end up missing the big picture. Even with a lot of handholding.

I totally agree with what I surmise Travis is saying. Do a whizz-bang job when creating wireframe. Make things look good—high fidelity theoretically should help cement ideas. But from what I’ve experienced, it seems like mixing too much wow into your wireframes could easily backfire. And it may thoroughly sidetrack your discussion with stakeholders.

It’s a tangled mess of psychology, really.

It’s almost like the complete opposite of the Ipsum Lorem issue, where you’re offering up too much and what’s on offer isn’t real. Wireframes are not and should not be visual design. Using wireframes as visual design is like asking an infant to perform surgery.

At least that’s how I see it. But I’ve never done very hi-fi wireframes. Mostly, I’ve used Hotgloo, which doesn’t have a rough sketch-y look like Balsamiq, et al. So maybe I’ve done mid-fi frames?

Have you presented hi-fi wireframes to clients? And if so, what were the results? I’d love to hear. Tweet me your response, since my commenting on here admittedly sucks.

new job!

I haven’t posted in a good, long while. Maybe you’ve noticed. But probably not?

I don’t really have excuses for it, other than laziness, the impending birth of a daughter, and the general fog-headedness that comes with searching for, interviewing for, and getting a new job.

So thaaaaat’s what’s bringing back into the blog realm. I have a new job. And I want to tell you about it.

The past: tech writing
4 years ago, I started as a technical writer at Trisept Solutions. I have a degree in Technical & Professional Writing. But up to that point, I’d just worked jobby jobs. Things to get by, pay a few bills. I wasn’t putting my degree to use at all.

In 2006, my wife (then girlfriend) was finishing up acupuncture school and we decided to move back to Milwaukee from Chicago. Cheaper cost of living, closer to friends/family. That sort of things. And I landed my job at Trisept, where I’d actually use the education my parents paid so much for.

Enter UX
Several months in, the company hired a Usability Specialist. A really great one named Deborah Sova. I had no idea what usability was. But Deb and I quickly struck up a rapport and she graciously took me under her wing, involving me in all her projects. Heuristics, user testing, the works.

It was the best, most intense education I’ve ever had.

About a year later, Deb left for a different and her role was handed to me. I continued to hone my skills, work on different types of projects, and just generally grow the UX practice within the company.

The freedom I had to learn at Trisept was astounding. I dove in deeply and lost myself in the nooks and crannies of UX. I got really excited about the field and realized that it’s exactly what I want to spend the rest of my working life doing.

Need for a change
After a few years in the UX role, I started feeling the need to diversify. Trisept creates technology for the travel industry. Both B-to-C  and B-to-B sites. Great stuff, but you need to grow to stay relevant, right?

The departure
So I started shopping around for new job. Keeping my ears open.

My good friend, colleague, and mkeUX co-conspirator, Mike Kornacki, had recently been hired as UX Architect at Johnson Controls (JCI). He promised me and Steve Grobschmidt that he’d keep us in the loop about any expanded UX needs at JCI.

Within three months of his hire date, he had us in the door.

I started as Information Architect a week and a half ago. Steve started as UX Lead earlier in July.

New things
I’m totally stoked about learning a new industry and continuing my UX education in a new domain. I’m also super excited to be on a UX team with people I genuinely respect and like personally (Gretchen Thomas is also part of it!). We’re being empowered to create the organization’s UX process from the ground up.
Exciting stuff!

I’m sure I’ll be telling you more about it as I get settled. And hopefully the change of scenery will kick start me back into blogging!

Wireframes: Like explaining metaphysics to a drunk

Over the past month, I’ve been working on a pile of wireframes that have a somewhat precarious purpose.

They aren’t tied to the future design of a specific website. Instead, they’re meant to give our internal teams a sense of features they’ll be able to pick from and implement on their individual sites in the future.

Kind of like a menu at a restaurant.

There is an inherent danger with wireframes. Or, rather, in presenting wireframes. It has to do with how things like size, scope, and verbiage are interpreted by stakeholders. These things are often interpreted as being carved in stone. Like they’ll be the permanent artifacts of a brand. Corporate cave drawings that will linger on forever.

For this reason, it is obvious that we need to be as careful as possible when composing wireframes. Duh.

But we need to be even more careful when presenting them.

How to present wireframes well
During wireframe presentations, even just spelling out expectations properly before you dive in to the guts of the frames isn’t enough.

Go into these meetings with utmost patience. Know that your biggest obstacle will be steering conversations back when they inevitably veer toward “Well, why does this box look like this…?” Over and over again.

This is hard enough when creating wireframes that drive design. But if you’re like me and creating a site “menu”, you’ll need to be even more nurturing to your clients.

Trampoline tactics
It’s best during a meeting to periodically remind everyone that what they’re looking at isn’t literal. And it’s changeable.

If someone keeps returning to the whys, a good tactic is to revisit an earlier example. Say something like: “Great questions. But this is kind of like the XYZ that we discussed earlier. It’s just representing the fact that XYZ will exist on the page. We can delve further into the details when we begin talking about design in a few weeks.”

Confusion is ok to start
Subtle visuals will obliterate even the most carefully architected information scheme. Be ok with this. Be gentle. Eventually everyone the electrified by clarity and it will be awesome.

Reflections from a first time presenter


Today I did my first ever “speaking engagement” outside the confines of my corporation.

My dad’s a member of the Racine, WI Founders Rotary club. Knowing that a lot of other members are small business owners, he asked me to give a high level presentation on creating good user experience on their websites.

The main things I harped on were:

  • Knowing why you’re creating site
  • Knowing who your users are & speaking to them in ways they understand
  • Content strategy

A few things I learned:

  • The nervous quivers in your voice dissipate pretty quickly
  • If you care about what you’re discussing, don’t worry about having too little to say—you’ll probably go over your allotted time
  • Just because you ask for audience participation doesn’t mean you’ll get it (does anyone have a good plan for spurring involvement?)
  • Doing a primer-type presentation on a subject you know well can really help you re-think your outlook. It also make you think deeply about how to best communicate those ideas without using icky jargon or overly technical terms. These are good things to purge.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to being able to present again in the future. Hopefully on something a little more challenging and specialized. But it was really great to test the public speaking waters in the way I did today.

Huzzah, indeed.

Social avoidance: Using Foursquare as your fortress of solitude.

People love social media for its shrinking abilities. It helps them feel in the know. And to be part of that know.

Foursquare is obviously a great example of this—it tells you where someone is at a given moment. Great! If you’re feeling social.

But people rarely talk about using tools like Foursquare to avoid social situations.

How to avoid people socially
Truth be told, I’ve done this. (Have you?) Maybe it has something to do with living in a city like Milwaukee. It’s not small, but small enough that you’re apt to run into someone you know anytime you leave the house.

Foursquare just exacerbates this.

Say you want to drink a cup coffee quietly, while reading a book. On your way to  the coffee shop, someone you know has checks in there.


But at the same time, not so crap.

Knowing they’re there helps you plan somewhere else to go in advance, so you don’t have to be swayed away from the alone time you’ve committed yourself to.

The good with the good
Technology hasn’t destroyed the social fabric. There are many ways that it’s closed massive gaps for people who share common interests. Awesome.

Only total weirdos want to always be an active part of what’s going on. Normal people need to turn inward often and reflect. Quiet our minds. Set shit straight. Be alone!

Social media can aid this.

Same media, different contexts
We need to apply different contexts to how we use social media.

  • If you’re feeling like being part of things, use it to help you become part.
  • If you’re just not up to facing people, use so you don’t have to become part.

Pretty magical, eh?

This week at

Published two new article on this week:

  1. The Impact of Content on = describes how we used content as a starting point when creating
  2. Content as Visual Design = about how formatting of content can’t be overlooked as part of a creating a good content strategy.

Nice video about Milwaukee’s very own Mike Rohde and his sketchnotes. Mike’s the guy who did the rad illustrations for Rework.

Mike agreed to me to send him some questions about how he’s incorporated sketching into his UX/IA work. Look for that in the coming weeks! Really excited to hear about his process.

Tags: mike rohde ux