How learning to code made me a better Product Designer

Last fall, I took a part-time course in Front-End Web Development with General Assembly in New York. It was my first time going back to school since college — a sensation first exciting…

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…then a little frustrating…

…and finally triumphant with the completion of my website project (which, btw, I admittedly have not worked on since :\ ).

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Ultimately, my experience was well worth the investment of time and money. I didn’t become a front-end developer, and I didn’t expect to do so. I also didn’t quite level up to the next level of UX Unicorn: I would not trust myself with production code for serious projects right now! And contrary to what I thought I’d start doing after this course, I don’t typically prototype in code either.

From a Product Designer perspective, though, I’ve now had several months of applying this new knowledge set in a design role, and here’s what I’ve experienced as major benefits from learning to code:

  1. My visual specs and styling instructions are more realistic. With a better understanding of CSS, my visual guidelines for developers can be produced more systematically. I now know how to translate mockups in ways more compatible for actually implementing the code.
  2. My designs are more consistent. Along the theme of the previous point, the conceptual foundation of HTML templates and CSS have shaped my visual design approach to be more consistent and reusable.
  3. UX-dev collaboration is stronger. We can (more-or-less) speak the same language now. My eyeballs no longer glaze over as soon as the techy-talk busts out in a meeting.
  4. I can take advantage of new design software features. Adobe Suite, Sketch, and all the other top tools are loading in new features that help seamlessly marry visual designs with code. So now I can actually use them!
  5. I’m more considerate of technical constraints. Learning JavaScript and other technologies have really opened my eyes to developers’ perspectives. I have a better understanding of technical limitations, and why asking for things like form customization is such a bitch to deal with.
  6. I ask better questions. Along with the previous point, I know to ensure that the developers on our team are brought into conversations and involved in the decisions about our technology early enough. I find myself more capable of researching frameworks, libraries and support matrices (caniuse.com is my best friend), and with that I’m more prepared to ask the right questions.
  7. My QA testing is more useful. Instead of just reporting issues, now I can easily go into the DOM and inspect bugs for myself. I can provide better information, figure out which issues probably relate to one another, and even specify exact styling changes right there in the browser.
  8. Responsive design finally makes sense. There’s so much more to designing responsively than simply working with a grid. It’s been so helpful to really understand how breakpoints and media queries work.
  9. I appreciate engineers even more! …which basically puts them at the top of the castle.

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Shout-out to our awesome instructor, Hart, for making the class such a productive experience and making those 3-hour night classes something to look forward to even after a full day of work!

So, for any other UX/UI Designers, Product Designers or Creative Directors out there who are on the fence about learning code — it’s not just another unicorn skill where you’d need to take on the developer role as well! Taking the time to really learn HTML, CSS, JS and their surrounding technologies will help any product/design role for web experiences. Your products and your teams will benefit!

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The Method to Our Madness

One of the things other product / user experience designers and myself try to push for is sharing progress more early, more frequently, more collaboratively, and more iteratively. (I’ve blogged about The Lean Product Playbook before, which dives deep into this approach to product management). Last week I participated in a Design Thinking Crash Course hosted by The Design Gym, and it really helped summarize some of these core philosophies from a product design perspective. So, I want to share some of the central ideas that may shed some light into why it is that Product/UX Designers might seem OBSESSED with post-it notes and strategy decks and whirling in messes of research…

Before we jump into it, here’s my teaser for you: This Semisonic song is going to become completely relevant by the end of this post:

PhasesAs you could see in this illustration, every phase of product design opens with a starting point – usually a hypothesis that needs validation or an idea/direction that needs feedback. At that starting point, the possibilities are wide open. We use whatever methods and activities are most appropriate and feasible to explore different avenues. We draw patterns and discoveries from that exploration to arrive at some better understandings, narrowing down to an at least semi-conclusive end point of that phase. That end point should evolve from the start point from which it originated, and essentially becomes the start point for the next phase.

PhasesFlow

This is where our checkpoints and design artifacts play their essential role, though. The quality of the close of each phase dictates the success of the next phase. If we don’t take the time and serious thought to formulate our findings in some tangible way – whether it’s a series of personas, a strategy deck, a rough sketch, list of features, user journey map, wireframe, etc. – then we’re not concluding all the effort of that phase in a collaboratively useful way. Just as important, if we don’t take the time and serious thought to regroup on those end points before starting the next phase, then we risk moving forward without alignment. Clear end points help establish a unified vision going forward.

 The quality of the close of each phase dictates the success of the next phase. – Jason Wisdom, Co-Founder of The Design Gym

Now, just because we need tangible artifacts at the end points of each phase does not mean that we need to wait until we have a massive, polished presentation assembled. (And yes, I admit this despite a history of 80-page UX documents…but the era of lean is now here). Sometimes a sloppy sketch might do. We want to receive buy-in and feedback before investing a large effort into a single idea, which is why we’re often hesitant about mocking up early-phase design concepts. What if we spend weeks perfecting the UI of an idea thats premise doesn’t work for the client? While it may feel too abstract to seem productive, strategically aligning early on will save time in the long-run.

Design Thinking Crash Course worksheets

Likewise, just because we’ve reached a new hypothesis or idea to validate and explore does not mean that we need to invest massive amounts of time and money into elaborate design research exercises. In The Design Gym‘s Design Thinking Crash Course, we conducted these little activities within two hours and it still helped provide more clarity, direction and ideas to help move forward less obliviously. Of course, if the time allotted for these is extremely limited, we move forward with much less confidence and security (and sanity) than what feels adequate, but nonetheless there is merit to any effort that involves real research and real feedback.

Again, all these efforts come down to the principle of closing those loops strongly. Just listen to Semisonic…

EVERY NEW BEGINNING COMES FROM SOME OTHER BEGINNING’S END – Semisonic

#LeanProduct Webinar w/ @DanOlsen: 4 Guiding Principles for Great Product Experiences

Is it just me, or have certain terms in the UX/product world sadly morphed into constantly-abused, empty buzz words? It seems that, somehow, words like “lean” or “user-centered” or “iterative design” too often are likened to nearly any exercises involving colorful post-it notes and whiteboards, without even considering what methods and meaning they’re representing. It’s like pre-conceptualized ideas of what smart product experience methodologies should look like are blurring whether or not certain techniques actually are valuable.

The Lean Product PlaybookThis summer, UserTesting.com hosted an excellent webinar with author of The Lean Product Playbook, Dan Olsen. In this webinar, Olsen does not just advocate for strong product experience leadership, but breaks down specific components of lean product management in substantial ways that can help us differentiate those who truly carry out valuable UX/product methodologies versus those who just carry empty jargon.

Here are four guiding principles I’d like to share his deep dive into:

  1. Explore real problems to generate better solutions.
  2. Address real needs to produce better products.
  3. Pursue real differentiators to create better value.
  4. Prioritize real details to craft better experiences.

1. Explore real problems to generate better solutions.

Dan Olsen talks about the importance of differentiating problem space vs. solution space from the very start of a project. Kick-offs, executive summaries and initial business requirements are so important for communicating the core purpose of the project, identifying important requirements, sharing background information, and aligning strategy and expectations of all the stakeholders involved. But great potential can be lost in these first steps if a solution is already specified.

“By articulating the requirement [with execution specifics], you’ve already dictated and limited the solution space…By not jumping into solution space and by just being really clear in problem space, you can identify better, higher ROI solutions.” -Dan Olsen

Personally, I love having a multidisciplinary team together shortly after a project-kick-off to brainstorm all sorts of solutions. More minds means more ways of thinking, more possible paths, more chance for uncovering a common thread that could lead to a gem.

However, that gem won’t shine unless the problem space is sufficiently examined first. If we first identify all the problems that could be addressed, then we can figure out which ones we should address.

“As you get more detailed in the problem space, they’ll organize into related themes.” -Dan Olsen

From there, possible solutions can strategically be explored and better evaluated based on the user-centric thinking that is grounding the process.

2. Address real needs to produce better products.

“If you’re gonna spend a lot of time and resources and money on going after a new product opportunity, there’s no reason to focus on a low-importance user need.” -Dan Olsen

Olsen discusses the concept of customer value on a scale of importance vs. satisfaction. Where there is a high importance of user need and high satisfaction with a product, then there is an area of opportunity to create customer value.

03 - CreatingCustomerValue

However, this area of opportunity should also be checked across the competitive landscape to determine whether or not it is worth pursuing.

03 - PrioritizingCustomerNeeds

Intercom wrote a post called “Product Strategy Means Saying No,” which delves into a myriad of situations when you need to say “no” to certain features. One of them calls out the common mistake of including features simply because competitors have them. In reality, many of those features may not actually be needed, so you’re just complicated the design and wasting development costs by including them.

3. Pursue real differentiators to create better value.

It’s not only about which features to include, but how to include them. Olsen refers to the Kano Model of User Needs & Satisfaction, claiming:

“Yesterday’s ‘delighters’ become today’s performance feature and become tomorrow’s must-haves.” -Dan Olsen

04 - UserNeedsAndSatisfaction
So, when deciding on feature sets, we need to examine which user benefits we are providing and how we’ll do it better than competitors.

05 - ValueProposition

From here, this is when we start imagining what the minimum viable product (MVP) might look like. Here’s where things tend to go wrong, though. Drawing back to Olsen’s previous point about yesterday’s ‘”delighters” becoming tomorrow’s must-haves, concluding that “it works” no longer makes the cut. Making something simply functional cannot be an excuse for ignoring the other pillars.

06 - MVP

“Yes, you do want to take a limited set of functionality. But you need to make whatever MVP you’re building reliable enough, and usable enough, and delightful enough that there’s gonna be something there that people will react to and like.” -Dan Olsen

Here is a great medium article that talks about shifting the idea of a “minimum viable product” to a “minimum lovable product” instead…

View at Medium.com

4. Prioritize real details to craft better experiences.

“It’s rarely the case that you need to deliver 100% of the feature to deliver most of its value.” -Dan Olsen

So how can the minimum lovable product actually succeed and grow? Olsen nicely demonstrates breaking features down into chunks to help limit scope without killing delight, and to translate into product roadmap placement.

07 - FeatureChunks

08 - ProductRoadmap

This is the kind of planning needed to accomplish a MVP with a well-rounded approach. This approach is illustrated in what Olsen pulled out as the “UX design iceberg”

09 - UXDesignIceberg

“It all starts at the base with conceptual design — this is basically what’s the fundamental concept for how we’re gonna design this product to deliver these benefits…When you use a product that you really enjoy using — it’s easy to use, it’s delightful — it’s because the team has really put in a lot of thought and made a lot of good decisions at these lower levels…Good product teams need to be making good decisions across that whole iceberg to create a good user experience. -Dan Olsen

The webinar continues into the important next steps of testing and iterating based on user feedback. But those steps won’t mean much without grounding the product experience design with these four guiding principles.

The Apple Watch and the human behavioral role of discreetness

Monday’s Apple Live event incited a slew of mixed impressions about the Apple Watch, which will be bringing us even closer to The Era of Robot come this April. While the tech world debates the device’s cost, capabilities and digital interactions, I find myself more curious about the human interactions in the context of using this technology in real life. I’m particularly wondering about the role of discreetness.

The metaphor of people with “phones glued to their hands” is distinctly different from the wearable nature of a smart watch. Have you ever noticed how people tend to demonstrate secretive body language when using their smart phones — especially for personal matters? Interactions generally take place with heads down, phones held close to the body, and screens tilted towards the user. “Hidden” placements of phones is so common it’s a cliche, like “texting under the dinner table.” Unlike a smart watch, a smart phone is frequently placed on a lap, grasped in a fist, turned screen-down, tucked in a pocket, stored away in a purse, or left out of sight completely.

Whether it’s calling an Uber car, checking into your hotel or answering a text, the watch will allow you to interact with the digital world at a glance, in a less outwardly antisocial way than you now do with your phone.

The New York Times

How might the attached, exposed nature of a smart watch — which for the Apple Watch is centralized around personal content and functionality — make users feel about the constant, open presence inherent in what’s essentially our personal cell phones adapted as extensions of our physical selves? Will this elevate self-awareness of what’s broadcasted on one’s wrist? Will this hurt real-life social interactions? Will this open innovative opportunities?

Push notifications at your wrist…

From a healthcare and pharma perspective, I immediately see value in having push notifications delivered to a device attached to the body. Information delivery systems generally don’t fail due to failed transmission of the message, but rather to the recipient’s idle placement of their phone or active choice to ignore it. With a smart watch, I see increased potential in habit-changing and adherence based apps more effectively reaching its users.

At the same time, I wonder how the exposed nature of a smart watch might affect the content design. Habit-changing and adherence goals are often private matters, particularly within medicine. An MS patient might not want an injection reminder overtly popping up on their wrist in front of others — especially when the medication and its app are aimed to help minimize the prevalence of the disease in one’s daily life. Will self-consciousness be worth taking into content strategy consideration? Are there contexts in which being discreet will be a necessary design principle?

Personal communication and cognition….

“Ungluing” our phones from our hands can be a conscious or subconscious decision. It happens all the time because we’re constantly switching our focus to prioritize something more important at hand. (Literally). In social situations, we’re prioritizing people in front of us. How will the constant “glued” state and exposed nature of receiving personal communication affect our social behavior? While any given text message, call or chat bubble does not require an immediate response, it will require an instant reaction. I wonder what cognitively will happen in these moments when the attention is divided between in-person and through-the-wrist social interactions.

AppleWatch-LiveaBetterDay

After reading through the Apple Watch site’s section highlighting personal connections & communication, I found the next “Live a better day” point ironic: is the ongoing connection and constant interruption of data at one’s wrist really something that will help us live better?

More specifically, I wonder how the role of discreetness will impact these moments in social contexts. What will John do when Tinder notifications and texts from Molly and Sue keep outwardly lighting up on his wrist as he holds the menu atop the candlelit table of his dinner date? Will professors ban smart watches from classrooms? What will Jane tell dad when he catches a glance of the sexts that just popped up? How many of the 34 emails Susie received during a work meeting yielded glances down at her wrist? Did people notice? Did they capture her facial expressions briefly revealed at each glance?

Sure, there are gestures to ignore incoming content. But the interruption still intrudes upon the social situation because a reaction is still evoked. A split-second glance will be followed by cognitive information processing. Will the human microinteractions generated by these moments hurt real-world social interactions?

The wearable extension of ourselves…

As a UX designer in healthcare innovation, the ResearchKit is what I see as the most exciting and promising aspect of the Apple Watch. I personally believe that smart watches have very specific and limited functionality that legitimately adds value beyond the health & fitness apps we use on phones and larger devices. It’s why I’m less enthralled with HealthKit for the Apple Watch (as much as I’m probably not supposed to admit that). ResearchKit truly harnesses the wearable power of collecting data that can be significantly informative and progressive in the medical field.

I also envision possibly groundbreaking solutions to emergency situations. A means to immediate help is that much more accessible when attached to ourselves, and that much more informative when powered by great web software. Furthermore, the unique role of discreetness can be capitalized on in a very beneficial way. Imagine defense-based mechanism apps that secretly could be triggered to activate and assist in emergency situations like amber alerts, kidnappings, and sexual assault — situations in which overtly trying to communicate for help could be harmful, insufficient in data, or might not be accessible at all.

Final thoughts…

Releasing software is like releasing experiments on human beings. As the technology sphere critiques the Apple Watch’s cost, features, UI and physical design, I hope the conversation of human behavior is further engaged with as well. When it comes to wearables, we need to expand the schemas we use for evaluating general software and interfaces: we need to put greater emphasis on investigating how human behavioral qualities, like discreetness, might play more substantial roles.

2014 Mankind Moments to Remember

2014 was an ugly year around the world. Genocides ripped across populations. Airplanes peculiarly went missing or went down. Mother Nature unleashed wild fire, volcano, tsunami and Ebola. Beheadings joined school shootings as a norm. Violent protests erupted. Vengeful murders and hopeless suicides ended life where there used to be peace.

To me, the saddest part of these grievances is the amount of harm that was perpetrated by one anotherI’ve put together this video because I’m not sure how else to express it. Recognize that each of us cannot entirely imagine the raw struggles experienced in someone else’s shoes. But what we can all relate to is the common thread that every life is attached to people who love them, the capability to suffer, and potential to be filled. The photojournalism included in this video captures too many terrible stories that did not have to happen: Too many parents burying their children, too many young people being sent to kill or be killed, too many grown consciences inflicting pain and death around them…

…Can we please stop harming each other? While these images of 2014 don’t make the world feel like a very hopeful place, I do hope that we as individuals can use this reflection to take our own steps towards a 2015 where we strive to equip children with happy families, include the otherwise rejected, extend love to the lonely, care for the mentally ill, and treat one another with respect. Chaos that used to feel distant is getting closer and becoming more real: the way we perceive, speak to, and act towards others is going to affect how that tilts.

Games For Change 2014…in tweets.

Five days ago my mind was blown at the Games For Change 2014 Festival. And in five more days, my mind will be blown again when I arrive in Italy! This weekend was supposed to be when I get all obsessed about my trip, but somehow my mind is still enthralled with everything from G4C! I’m still soaking it in…

This was my second G4C Festival to attend, and this year I had the privilege of attending as a volunteer. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by so many intelligent, innovative and inspiring individuals. Among the many thought-leaders present this year were Jenova Chen of ThatGameCompany (makers of Journey), Jesse Schell of Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Michael Levine of Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Noah Falstein of Google, Eric Zimmerman of NYU Game Center, Jane McGonical (author of Reality is Broken)Paolo Pedercini of Carnegie Mellon University, Erin Hoffman of Institute of Play’s GlassLab GamesTom Giardino of Valve, and so many more! 

And, of course, the games for change nominees really showcased the effort for moving the games for change initiative forward! (Go play ’em!)

/nerdingout

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ANYWAY, the energy that surged through these three amazing days is still wildly pumping through my veins. I’m still reflecting on everything I’ve learned, still feeling warm & fuzzy about the great people I met, and still overcome with the drive to do more.

My job as a volunteer was to help front the social media effort for G4C. So I was working with a small team to tweet our hearts out with the 800+ attendees and 10k+ online streamers (according to an article by USA Today — nice job, G4C!) (Shoutouts to my awesome social media crew: @DanButchko @LegendaryHylian @garrettfuselier @emmalarkins @catherineskwak @justin_snyder and the lovely G4C social media leader, @meghanventura)!

It was really cool to be in a designated role where we’re completely inserted into the online conversation along with live-tweeting the event highlights as they occurred. And it was kind of funny (or creepy?) to meet festival attendees and feel like we already knew them from their tweets 😛 …On a side note, I also learned to accomplish the impossible when it comes to using an iPad for typing & multitasking under pressure, and seem to have morphed into one of those crazy Twitter addicts overnight.

In light of this live-tweeting extravaganza, I thought a recap of my favorite #G4C14 tweets would be a solid way to share my own personal highlights of Games For Change 2014. They’re snippets of the moments that had me sitting at the edge of my seat, feeling my soul throb, or cleaning up the pieces of my brain exploding all over the Skirball Center auditorium… BTW, keep an eye out for the recordings on the G4C YouTube channel — everything will be posted there within the next week for your binge-viewing pleasure 🙂

Kids Got Game

Kids Got Game

The mobile kids’ game space is crowded with over 96,000 apps (and that’s just on iOS). Successfully breaking into that space takes not only hard work and dedication, but some educated guidance from people with experience in the space.

Tonight I attended a “Deep Dive” event hosted by one of my favorite networking communities, the NY Games Forum. The lecture, Creating Kid-Friendly Mobile Games, was taught by Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Ed.D — veteran of designing mobile games for kids, and founder of No Crusts Interactive. Along with the excellent insights covered, she provided some great resources for people interested in designing and/or marketing kids’ mobile games. You can read up on some of them in her blog on Kidscreen, “Kids Got Game.”

Check out one of No Crusts’ games, Williamspurrrrg, which utilizes social play on tablet devices in a very cool way. (Plus, who doesn’t love cats with hipster mustaches and sweet puns!?