Home on the Range

Stove top ranges crack me up. They are often examples of hilariously bad design.
This one has two burners.
You’re busy making breakfast. Perhaps you are running late. The kids are hungry and fussy. You have an important meeting to get to. Just barely enough time to cook something fast and get out the door.
Glance at this quickly and then look away. Remember, all you have time for is a quick glance. You’re bleary-eyed and in a hurry.
Then tell me: how many burners are hot?

Here’s another example. This one was in my kitchen for a few years. And for the life of me, I could never get it right. I was always turning the wrong knob and getting wrong burners hot - leaving a cold pot sitting there, staring at me stupidly, and a dangerously hot surface next to it which I expected to be cool!

Looking closely at the complicated way the knobs are correlated with the burners, it’s not hard to understand why I had this problem.
(I might also point out there is just one “Hot Surface" indicator. No indication of which burners are hot.)

There are four burners in a simple, proportional arrangement. They are not staggered, they are directly across from each other in a “square" formation. So how could they possibly justify making the arrangement and positioning of the controls this complicated and unintuitive!?
I’m left to assume that the people who designed the control panel were not in the same building (or possibly country?) as the people who designed the stove top.

Maybe it was some kind of experiment. “Let’s have the people designing the controls be COMPLETELY IGRNORANT of what the things they are controlling look like. Muh ha ha. Mwaaa ha ha haa! MUHWWAAA HAHA HA HA HAAA!"

Boy, those diagrams sure are helpful, though.
Except I have to think about what they’re telling me.

Please call .

They’re a fine bank, really.

But they lost my business awful quickly.

This is what happened when I tried to recover my password on their web site.

Say it with me… “Who ya gonna call?"

Push to drain

Found this in a hotel bathroom once.
The sink looks harmless enough. But how do you plug the drain? There’s no lever anywhere, as with most bathroom sinks I’ve used.
The drain stop itself isn’t removable, tried that. So I was hesitant to push it down to block the drain. I wondered, “If I push it down, how will I be able to get it back out? There’s no chain or anything…"

But upon inspection, I see that I am told to push the drain stop down. So, I do it.

Then I get down to business, filling up the sink with water. I begin shaving. The water in the sink quickly becomes murky with shaving cream and my dark, manly facial hair, obscuring the drain stop.

By the time I’m done shaving (tired from a poor night’s sleep and jet lagged, mind you) I have no idea how to unstop the drain. In my tiredness and distraction over thinking about the busy day ahead, I’ve probably even forgotten how I plugged it. In any case, I can’t even see it.

Nowhere in my mind was the thought that the way to unplug the drain is the same way I plugged it. Push down, and the thing pops back up.

The real problem is that now, both the control and the instructions are hidden. Obscured by the dirty water in the sink. Which, by the way, I’m not likely to stick my hand into unless I have a good reason.

This is why most bathroom sinks have a little handle or lever above the faucet connected to a metal arm that moves the drain plug up and down.
Because, usability.

A Government Web Site, circa 2014

Our tax dollars at work!

Although, not recently, it would appear.

Found this while requesting military service records from the National Archives. Perhaps the entire site itself should be relegated to the archives..?


In which your web app holds my data hostage for the ransom of one cookie

So what is design, anyway?

Recently while waxing philosophical about Photoshop and Web interface design, I promised I would write more on what design is. So here ya go.

My story

I never really set out to be a designer. I kinda fell into it.

Okay, I can hear you snickering about how it shows in my work. That’s not nice!

But seriously, I considered pursuing several careers before I wound up with the one I have, and I don’t really remembering a point where I decided on this one. At least, I didn’t consciously decide on it until a few years ago, when I was already pretty much doing it.

At various points in my teen, college, and early adult years I thought I would be (in no particular order): a journalist, a television news producer, a radio deejay, or a cinematographer. There were probably some others in there, but those are the ones I remember most.

So here I am, all grown up and a user experience designer. Whatever that is. The purpose of this piece is to ignore the first two words and focus on the last: designer.

What exactly is a designer, anyway?

You probably have an idea in your head. It might be close to one of these:

A designer is someone who…

  • Chooses which color the curtains should be
  • Draws (perhaps by hand) pictures of a building, car, or some other substantial thing to be built
  • Dresses in black, wears thin-framed eye glasses, and speaks in a clipped, vaguely German accent
  • Takes ideas from marketing people and turns them into eye-popping visuals
  • Wanted to be an “artist" but isn’t quite creative enough, so settled for “designer"
  • Uses computers to create awesome 3-D animations for video games
  • Is basically an artist but probably makes more money and smells better
  • Will appreciate hearing everything you think you know about Steve Jobs
  • Only uses Apple things and knows how to fix your iPhone
  • Is Steve Jobs
  • Will happily work for free if you have a sure-fire business idea that is really cool

I think some of these popular notions of “designer" have some merit. Two or three of them are almost completely wrong on so many levels, I can’t even begin. One of them is ethically bankrupt and you should be sent to jail forever for thinking it.

But, just for kicks, let’s assume that none of these fine ideas is totally correct. So let’s simplify things and take the person out of the equation. Let’s just focus on the work that he or she does.

What is this “design" that you speak of?

Well, I can tell you definitively there is no single answer to this question. What did you expect? We’re not talking about something simple like brain surgery, here. This is design. The very word is elusive. Almost mystical.

The best I can do is give you ten tidbits to chew on from people far smarter than me.

Here are ten definitions of “design" that I rather like.

  1. Richard Buchanan says “design eludes reduction and remains a surprisingly flexible activity." Unlike other fields of inquiry, design has no inherent subject matter.
    My reinterpretation of this is to say: design isn’t about something. It’s a human activity around something. An activity that takes on many forms and defies all attempts to capture in a single definition.

  2. Design is a discipline characterized by qualitative analysis as much as quantitative.
    (I don’t have a single source for this, but if you dive into the literature you’ll find much qual. vs. quant. discussion and debate.)

  3. Design is the rendering of intent," says Jared Spool

  4. "Design is the art of gradually applying constraints until only one solution remains." - Author Unknown (don’t you just love quotes by that guy?)

  5. "People view designers as artists, but their fundamental role is problem solver…." - Danielle Sacks

  6. "I’ve been amazed at how often those outside the discipline of design assume that what designers do is decoration. Good design is problem solving."- Jeff Veen
    Yup, that’s saying the same thing as #5. I have found that it bears repeating.

  7. "Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that's why it is so complicated." - Paul Rand

  8. "Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose" - Charles Eames

  9. "To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master" - Milton Glaser

  10. "First, design is imagining a future and working toward it with intelligence and cleverness. We use design to close the gap between the situation we have and the one we desire. Second, design is a practice built upon making things for other people." - Frank Chimero

Now, add your own definition of design in the comments!

The .PSD Is Not The Territory

I’m reading Responsive Design Workflow by Stephen Hay. It’s pretty awesome.

LOVE this quote:

…as far as I’m concerned, the use of image editors for the creation of static mockups is officially old school, and I would encourage designers to put some of that creative energy to use exploring the medium for which they design.

Like most Web UI designers, I've spent a good portion of my career drawing pictures that approximate what the interface should look like and how it should behave. No matter what tools I use - pen and paper, dry-erase board, lo-fi or hi-fi digital drawing software - the same problem always exists. The picture is just a picture.

As Ethan Marcotte has pointed out: The Map Is Not The Territory.

In other words, no matter how hard I try to draw the perfect picture, I cannot convey exactly what the interface should be in a static picture. This is simply because of how the Web is. We aren’t making a flat, static thing. We’re making a dynamic, interactive thing that people will encounter in many different forms in different contexts. This is not a problem to work around. It is simply an acknowledgement of the nature of the medium we are designing for.

So why would we continue trying to design the Web (and especially the Responsive Web) in static pictures?

I think it’s simply because as designers, too often we fall in love with our tools and our methods. We establish a way of working and we call that “design." For many designers, the tool is Photoshop and the method is static mockups.

Designers, we need to change.

More on what design actually is, soon...

UX in Different Environments

A panel discussion exploring what it’s like to be a user experience design practitioner in different environments.

By “environments” we primarily mean different kinds of organizations, such as:

  • For-profit corporation

  • Non-profit organization

  • Government / civil service

  • Marketing agency

  • Startup venture

  • Independent consultant / freelancer

  • Academic institution

  • and so on…

The conversation also drifted toward other comparisons as well:

  • different industries, e.g. travel vs. health care vs. retail

  • team size, e.g. “UX team of one” vs. small team vs. large department

  • organizational structure, e.g. centralized UX team vs. individuals embedded in project teams


The discussion was broadcast live on Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 8:00 pm EST.


There were five panelists and one moderator.

Stephen Anderson

Stephen is a highly sought after UX speaker and design consultant. Author of Seductive Interactions (New Riders, 2011) and creator of Mental Notes.

Dallas, Texas | LinkedIn

Kara DeFrias

Kara is “the baddest of the badass innovators” (per US CTO Todd Park) with a unique mix of private and public sector experience. Appointed to the first class of White House Presidential Innovation Fellows. Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) and former journalist.

San Francisco, California | LinkedIn

Daniel Munz

Daniel is a web professional with a strong background in public administration, with nearly a decade of experience building smart digital strategies for civic causes, political campaigns and federal agencies.

Washington, D.C. | LinkedIn

Lynne Polischuik

Lynne is an independent designer and consultant. Studied Web Analytics at the University of British Columbia, later realized that it’s really all about understanding people. Clients include: Adobe, HSBC, Uptake (sold to Groupon), Electronic Arts, Disney Interactive, ADP and Happy Cog.

Vancouver, British Columbia | LinkedIn

Roger Belveal

Roger is a seasoned UX designer with experience in many industries including air travel and the financial sector. He’s also a "Tech-Expressionist sculptor” who brings his artistic vision to life with welded metal and other media.

Dallas, Texas | LinkedIn

Moderator: Ben Judy

Ben is a UX generalist who has worked as a manager, contributor, contractor, and consultant. Current employee of a Fortune 500 corporation, has also worked for a marketing agency, a family-owned medium-sized business, and a small startup venture. Loves to talk UX!

Dallas, Texas | LinkedIn


We were invited to speak at a meeting of students and alumni of the HFIDO (Human Factors in Information Design Organization) of Bentley University.

Here are links about the program and the student group:

The role of Human Centered Design in Innovation

I've run across an interesting juxtaposition (or is it conflict?) while reading about Human Centered Design (aka User Centered Design) and innovation theory. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

In one corner…

legendary HCD expert Don Norman says that traditional HCD practice is suitable for incremental innovation, but cannot (without significant modification) lead to radical innovation. In other words, you can improve the quality of an innovation with HCD, but you cannot break through to something radically new and of greater impact. Radical innovation requires either a major shift in technology, or a change in meaning - things that HCD does not promise to deliver.

And in the other corner…

I just discovered the small firm LUMA Institute which promises to help organizations "accelerate innovation through Human-Centered Design.” LUMA offers an organized toolkit of HCD activities and methods, complete with a book and card deck.

What are we fighting about?

So I'm trying to make sense of this. Are these two different camps? Shall we have a debate?

Much of this hinges on semantics. Does LUMA actually propose HCD as the path to the same kind of “radical” innovation that Norman speaks of? If we adopt Norman and Verganti’s position, there could be no conflict here if we agree that the effective reach of HCD Innovation groups like LUMA is recognized as limited to incremental innovation.

Then again, a lot of what LUMA has to do is market their approach. They are, after all, selling something. And I’m guessing they don’t want to admit that their whole approach has philosophical limitations, restricting it only to a means of incremental (read: small-scale) innovation.

At the end of the day, none of this is a problem. With innovation there is a great deal of value on the incremental side of the equation. Indeed, the vast majority of innovation work must be incremental, otherwise we would be reimagining entire industries on a weekly basis.

Still, it is a new thought to me as an HCD / UCD practitioner that one might have to look elsewhere for help pursuing truly radical innovation.

I'm going to keep digging here. Expect more on this topic from yours truly.