Empathy and Ethics in UX

I don’t think we can have ethics without feminist ethics. However, let me preface this by saying that I mean intersectional feminism. Intersectional feminism asserts that all aspects of socio-political identities overlap.

I was glad to see Alison Adam and Jacqueline Ofori-Amanfo dragging questionnaires and surveys just a little bit, while also advocating for ethnography and participant observation. And I also want to mention their criticism of the Kreie and Cronan paper because it highlights an issue that’s kind of been a recurring theme in my reading responses.

Outside of anthropology, social sciences like psychology and economics have a replicability problem. Much of psychological literature is based on studies conducted on Psych 101 undergrads at universities in N. America and Europe during a period of time when the student body was almost exclusively comprised of young white men. Many psychologists believe that they can study human behavior as something distinct from socio-cultural environmental habituation. But if you happen to have read my humans as cake, culture as eggs analogy from a few weeks ago you’ll know that in my view, you can’t distinguish between the two, the eggs (culture) is baked in and part of the cake (human).

In Emily Chang’s, “Brotopia” she talks about how women face barriers into the tech industry because of rampant misogyny and toxic masculinity. It’s somewhat similar throughout the business world. A lot of relationships and business deals are forged through social gatherings. And when these techbros grow up as introverted incels and then are suddenly billionaires, they host these extravagant gatherings, making deals in the hot tub surrounded by the kind of beautiful women that rejected them all their lives previously. Female entrepreneurs don’t usually get invited to these events and when they do, they tend to find it problematic as they often get propositioned by the men or treated as just another one of the women at the party.

There’s a software company in the UK that recently announced they developed an anti-shoplifting AI that is 99% effective at identifying shoplifters before they shoplift. They trained the ML algorithm by hiring actors to pretend like they were shoplifters. So these actors perpetuated the stereotypes that were given to them by a veteran security guard, and I think it was even like just 2 criteria. Trayvon Martin was murdered because of a stereotype that existed in the head of George Zimmerman. How do we know that these stereotypes passed to the actors from the security guard don’t hold a similar bias?

The problem with statistics is that it deals in probability, so all you can ever say to some degree, is probably. We have to remember that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. P-hacking is a big issue in science, where we can use software to find correlations that achieve that p-value. In a rush to publish or perish, in a profit driven system where academic journals don’t value failure, in a research culture that seeks to reduce everything to occam’s razor, weak behavioral correlations are rampant and often reinforce racial and gender stereotypes promoted by white supremacists. Because if you already believe the stereotype, then a p-hacked correlation can easily fit the narrative you’re trying to promote.

I found myself particularly interested in the probing method described in Boehner et al., especially the camera. As mentioned in the readings, surveys, questionnaires and even interviews can be problematic in regard to acquiring good data. Self-reporting is something, to be certain, but it’s of limited value because the person can lie or even unintentionally misrepresent their own reality. What people do, what they say, what they think they do, and what they say they do can all vary dramatically. And often times the more a person wants to be helpful, the more inaccurate the information they provide!

I think probes can be very useful in giving the subject opportunities to contribute within their own time and space. I neglected to mention as I ripped psychology in my response above, that a lot of studies are done in a lab setting. While this lends an air of credibility to the researcher, it removes the subject from the context of their own lives. I think it was the Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary, famous for popularizing LSD in the 60’s, who noted that lab settings and sterile white coats make people nervous, and it primes them for a reaction to the environment rather than the stimulus, the people he tested had bad trips until he made his lab more like a living room.

I have a hard time opening up to an interviewer, but if you gave me a camera and told me to take a picture of the spiritual center of my house, that’s another story, and something you could really gain useful information from, especially from a design point of view. Similar to how when conducting a contextual interview, it’s important to see the workspace as the subject sees it, without them cleaning up first.

I also just want to take a moment to reference The Triumph of the Default. Although I alluded to it previously, we have these tech people deciding what the default is in many cases. And because of that choice overload, many people conform to it even though it may not be adequate for them. Kind of like in Don Norman’s DOET, where he discusses how users think it’s their fault if they aren’t good with technology. Instead Norman says, blame the designer. Just before the semester started, Kentaro published this article  about holding moratoriums on technology until it can be fully vetted for things like bias. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. We often can’t see the ramifications of our actions until we look back in reflection. A better approach is to take our time and carefully scrutinize technological innovation with diverse perspectives. Without research and training, I can’t imagine how some invention I come up with can adversely impact a disabled person living on the other side of the country, or even in my own neighborhood, because their experience is not my own.

Default states, in general can be very useful in combating choice paralysis, because believe it or not, there is a threshold to which choice is useful. But default states can also reward bias. For example, earlier I mentioned an anti-shoplifting AI trained by actors pretending to be shoplifters. If they were just acting out stereotypes from the security guard who happens to mostly catch young black men because that’s who he’s most suspicious of, then the actors just trained the AI to be suspicious of young black men by default. And if we believe that this AI is actually 99% accurate, then it would provide statistical evidence to support the racist notion that young black men are more likely to be criminals. But this doesn’t even touch on the fact that black men don’t have the same opportunities to participate in the formal economy. When you aren’t allowed to participate in the formal economy, you participate in the informal economy to survive. That’s what most theft is. Never mind that due to wealth and income inequality, the police were formed to prioritize and protect the property of the haves over the lives of the have-nots.


Boehner, Kirsten, Bill Gaver and Andy Boucher. Probes. Chapter 14 in Inventive methods: The happening of the social. Lury, Celia, and Nina Wakeford, eds. Routledge, 2012.

Kelly, K (2009) “Triumph of the Default” http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2009/06/triumph_of_the.php

Bennett, Cynthia L., and Daniela K. Rosner. “The Promise of Empathy: Design, Disability, and Knowing the “Other.” (2019)

Shinohara, Kristen, et al. “Tenets for Social Accessibility: Towards Humanizing Disabled People in Design.” ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing (TACCESS) 11.1 (2018): 6.

Adam, Alison, and Jacqueline Ofori-Amanfo. “Does gender matter in computer ethics?.” Ethics and Information Technology 2.1 (2000): 37-47.

Winner, L. (1986). Do artifacts have politics? In The whale and the reactor, pp. 19-39. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nissenbaum, H. 2001. How Computer Systems Embody Values.

Ethnographic Archaeology: Iterative Prototyping in UX Research and Design

From the outset of the Stringer et al., paper I was a little put off by the mention that they had developed a form of UCD called, ‘curriculum-focused design’. In so far as curriculum is content, they just conducted user-research along with iterative prototyping. And I think this point is not beyond the authors otherwise they likely would have showcased Curriculum-focused design in the title of the paper instead of the iterative prototyping. Another issue I see, and this is also true of the broader field of HCI, they misunderstand what ethnography is. You can’t do a real ethnographic study in 3 weeks. I hear seasoned ethnographers say that it takes at least 6 months to a year, but then they also have a tendency to return to the field site periodically for the rest of their lives to see how things change over time. Of course, it’s this lengthy duration that caused business interests to prefer quicker studies like surveys, and focus groups. Obviously this method had to be adapted to be useful, but in my view a better way to adapt it would be to have one of the researchers focused on conducting the ethnography throughout the duration. The entire case study could have been written as ethnography. This would not only yield insights about the users, but also about the researchers and the process. As it applies to HCI and IxD, ethnography is what we refer to as ‘Thick Data’. It tells rich stories about a few data points, in contrast to Big Data which looks for correlations and trends across innumerable metrics. But the point here is that ethnography is ongoing, it’s not that valuable if you just stake out 3 weeks for an ethnographic study and then presume you can get very useful socio-cultural insights, you only get a peek. How long does it take a person to become an expert in a field of study, or go from trainee to trainer at a job?

Humans are avid consumers and co-creators of culture, and culture is always changing. It should be no surprise to anyone that the girls in this study performed better at verbal tasks than the boys. It’s well known that women tend to have better verbal skills.

Image result for cavewomen invented pronouns cartoon"

But teenage girls have also been driving language innovation for centuries:


And I just wanted to mention that Lucy Suchman, the anthropologist of XEROX PARC fame that’s the pioneer of bringing ethnography into HCI design, came to Umich back in April and gave a talk as part of the Critical x Design series. I just mention this because her work at PARC is discussed in this video that I’m sharing to give a better understanding of how ethnography works:

Ethnography: Ellen Isaacs at TEDxBroadway

In regard to the Rudd et al., reading, well it’s a lot different nowadays. I can build digital prototypes all day for free on my computer. To do this paper-prototype assignment, I had to go out and buy some supplies. And as I was reading, it made me wonder if digital prototyping can now be considered lo-fi? One of the things I’ve noted through my trials and tribulations in trying to put my design on paper is that it really makes you stop to consider. If I’m designing on my computer, I’m more likely to say, “That works.” and move on to the next panel. Whereas on paper I’m scrutinizing my design decisions more because I don’t want to draw it all over again and I don’t want to use up the whole eraser on my brand new mechanical pencils I bought to draw with.

So I stopped, went to a fresh page, and started drawing out a sitemap. I don’t think I would have done so if I was just working in design software. Because it’s so easy to just cut elements, duplicate screens and the like, I’m more likely to just keep throwing designs at the wall(re: user) and see what sticks. What I’m finding works for me is to go search the net (Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, etc.) for design inspiration (I’m not reinventing the wheel) and then I keep what’s useful and disregard the aspects that don’t fit the problem I’m trying to solve. Something I also noted with regard to sketching and paper-prototyping. I purchased some of those UI stencils on Amazon , and I really like how clean and precise I can make my wireframes with them. However, I now feel constrained to only using the icons and buttons available to me  with the stencils, because a poor drawing of an icon will stand out like a sore thumb and may even draw the attention of the user I’m showing it to or testing it on away from the core concepts of the design.

In sum, I find the paper-prototyping rather cumbersome and tedious, but oh so worthwhile

I like using the term digital artifact to describe these interactive technologies. When we think of archaeology, we usually think of ancient civilizations. But archaeology studies artifacts, or more to the point, archaeology is the study of material culture. To put this in perspective, as an undergrad archaeology student, one of our assignments was to analyze the contents of our own trash can.

What stories do the materials we use tell us about the lives we live?

When I see an article about design trends in the upcoming year, it reminds me of archaeology, studying an ancient civilization’s pottery and how it changed over time. Over at Wayne State they have an ongoing archaeological dig over at Roosevelt park  from where there used to be a tent city about 100 years ago. Detroit had a housing crisis when there was a mass influx of people from the south moving up here to work on the assembly lines. Also, like I mentioned, you can technically go dumpster diving and utilize archeological field methods to understand the people who are currently using that dumpster.

Although, I think the primary reason archaeology is most closely associated with studying materials of the past is that those people are not around to speak for themselves. Since history is the written word, and history is written by the victor as they say, history is little more than self-reporting, so it’s not a complete picture. Archaeology can help fill those gaps. But we have other disciplines and methods we can draw from when the people we are studying are still alive and available to be contacted.

Amber Case, the cyborg anthropologist and UX consultant I mentioned at the beginning of the semester did talk about how sifting through your inbox for a particular email can sometimes feel like archaeology, sifting through dirt to find an artifact, in this case though I think information archaeology is really better understood as information architecture.


Rudd, J., Stern, K., & Isensee, S. (1996). Low vs. High-fidelity prototyping debate. Interactions, 3(1), 76-85.

The Webkit Tangible User Interface: A Case Study of Iterative Prototyping. Stringer, M., Rode, J.A., Toye, E.F., Blackwell, A.F., Simpson, A.R., Pervasive Computing, Vol. 4, No. 4. (2005), pp. 35-41

Prototyping w.me in XD

What isn’t a prototype? Even a finished product is a prototype of the next iteration or version.

The key takeaway from the Le Bricolage section was how the designers cobbled things together to make a brilliant prototype of an innovative technology that doesn’t actually exist. At the end he also noted that in his view, it’s a classic prototype and that the whole process they undertook should be studied and replicated. But reading about the Virtual Whiteboard I began to think about the looming future of the virtual reality fully immersive meeting and how might that impact the design process? I bet for many, there would still be something missing in collaborative efforts. I also wonder if these people might benefit from haptic feedback to replicate that feeling you get when you’re in the presence of other people.

One thing I wanted to make sure I correct in the Buxton chapter, is when he mentions how hunting and gathering research material borders on mania with good designers. That’s all well and good, but these days we say foraging. Hunting and gathering invokes an image of the “noble savage” whose way of life is reduced to a simple binary.

Speaking of prototyping tools, there’s a really lo-fi one called Marvel app, I have it on my phone. You can take photos of your hand drawn sketches and insert hotspots on the buttons you drew to link your frames together for a fully clickable paper prototype. As far as the Warfel chapter, Fireworks has been reincarnated into XD. Axure was still really popular up until a few years ago, but I don’t hear much about it lately. I heard that designers used to use PowerPoint for prototyping, I think with some of the other tools like XD, Sketch, etc., PP has been relegated back to presentations, but I thought it was really neat when I saw Kentaro earlier today in 501 using PP to interact with and cluster affinity notes.

It seems to me that one of the first things many a young UX designer thinks about when they survey the field of technology is how they can improve upon to various tools we use. And then of course many of them seek to profit off of these tools by selling them to the other UXers in the field. Personally, I’m sticking with XD for as far as it will take me, because one of the things that XD offers that none of the competitors can match is the resources and experience of Adobe, with its array of industry standard design tools which have a deeply integrated compatibility across the entire Creative Cloud. I am going to miss my student discount when it’s gone but I shouldn’t be too hard up to afford a personal CC account. Even so, XD is currently still free which is a big bonus over Sketch. I think one of the biggest assets for Sketch is still the incredible plugins it offers through its platform.

However, I’m a PC, and Sketch is Mac only. Although there is a free compatible version on Windows called Lunacy. Interestingly, I do have Lunacy, Figma, and I picked up the free Invision student license, so that’s on my laptop as well. There’s also Marvel app as mentioned previously, which has a really cool mobile app that you can photograph your hand drawn frames and overlay hotspots to create a fully functioning lo-fi prototype for people to test on a real screen! Really neat stuff there.

Unsurprised by the findings in Dow as it’s easy to see how people may look at us playing our little games and brainstorming through the iterative process, they may think it looks easy, or that it’s silly. It’s actually pretty difficult to come up with a bunch of ideas, and people who aren’t experienced in understanding how important a variety is will quickly find that they just settle on one idea because it’s easier.  This is similar to the difference between a trained researcher and a lay person. Lay people tend to assume that the first thing they think of is sufficient and seek ways to prove it. But in research, a person establishes a hypothesis and then goes out of their way to disprove it and refine it until they can’t disprove it anymore. Only after all of that, in addition to peers finding they can’t disprove it either, does it then become theory. 

In a nutshell, this is the method and philosophy of design thinking.


Chapters 6 – 11 in Warfel, T. Z. (2009). Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.

Chameleon: From Wizardry to Smoke and Mirrors, Bill Buxton

The Efficacy of Prototyping Under Time Constraints. Steven P. Dow, Kate Heddleston, Scott R. Klemmer. Creativity & Cognition, 2009  

GUI Prototyping Tools: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?GuiPrototypingTools

“Chapter 5: Picking the Right Tool” in Warfel, T. Z. (2009). Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media. 

I’m a Storyteller: Modeling Users, and Crafting Analogies for Better Design

I use analogies. I’m constantly on the lookout for the perfect analogy to describe this phenomena or that. For example, how do you describe culture to someone?

 If you go to the dictionary and recite: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group -(see: Dictionary.com (Links to an external site.)) I for one would find that answer lacking. I combine a definition with my cake analogy. That humans are born as a box of cake mix, culture is the eggs and an individual’s environment is the oven. Once you bake the eggs into the cake, the eggs are indistinguishable from the cake.

Now I feel as though I already knew this, but improv comedy possesses an invaluable toolkit for us as designers to borrow from. In truth I can’t think of a better way to achieve more divergent ideation in a short span of time. 

Off the top of my head some of the benefits of developing improv skills as a UX Designer are as follows:

  • You develop your active listening and observation abilities.
  • Practice and perform ideation techniques in collaboration with the other members of your group where you have to understand and build off your partners ideas in the moment as they act them out.
  • It improves your storytelling capability as you have to convey the appropriate context in a short amount of time to an audience with little to no material assistance. In many cases you are quite literally bodystorming an entire setting with nothing more than a chair.
  • It improves your ability to think on your feet and tap into your creativity.

I learned a lot from the Cooper chapter about how to construct personas. Specifically, while personas are presented as individuals, they are actually composites of a variety of users as determined through the analysis of user research. They are powerful tools for us as designers to present a range of behaviors, something which all products must strive to accommodate. (Cooper pg. 83) Furthermore, I found an understanding of the range of persona types to be particularly helpful for my current and future projects. And in particular, the design principle that we should focus the design of each interface on a single primary persona. (Cooper pg. 105)

To put this in perspective, in 501 I was assuming that my group would create a customer journey map based on a persona crafted from each of our 6 stakeholders, and then try to design in such a way to satisfy all 6 as best we could. It didn’t occur to me to make 1-2 personas based on information from the 6, and then just design for the 1 primary persona while taking into consideration the 2nd persona, but not necessarily designing for it.

Many companies are rushing to get their own “UX designer” but they often don’t really understand what that means. In many instances, they think UX is simply a set of principles and heuristics that the designer employs to optimize products, no user research needed. Or they might try to hand you some market research from the marketing department and expect that to suffice.  I’m not sure where the link went, but I had read an article several months ago about how to discern whether or not the UX job you are applying for is really a UX job. The key identifier was whether or not user research was a part of it. If it’s not, you should probably keep looking elsewhere.

There’s also an issue if you are working in a company that does appreciate user research as an important part of the user-centered design process, but there’s an economic downturn, and the board is looking to make cuts. Because of its newness and relative ambiguity in comparison to a department like marketing, UX is going to be close to the first to get the budget cut.

That’s why it’s also important for us as design professionals, to learn the language of business so that we can advocate on behalf of our discipline. Basically we have to get some numbers and prove our worth. Talk in terms of ROI and convince who we need to convince that it is significant enough to warrant the investment.

There was a time with UX would yield an average $100 for every $1 invested! That’s huge! I think marketing methods average $10-20 for every $1. Of course, UX is much closer to marketing averages these days, but UX provides an opportunity to be disruptive in a way that marketing and advertising simply cannot. Still, MBA’s all feel more comfortable investing in those rather than the veritable games we play with post-its by comparison. In which case we’ll have to convince them. 

Some benefits of UX Design (courtesy of Frank Spillers at IDF in lesson 2.2 of User Experience: The Beginners Guide)

  1. Products that meet the user’s needs – If your users are involved in the design process then your final product should meet their needs. That should deliver a more commercially viable offering and thus higher levels of profit for the company.
  2. Products that require less tinkering after release – It’s cheaper and easier to tweak sketches, wireframes and prototypes than it is to tweak a product after launch. UX enables a company to work out what doesn’t work and then abandon it before the development phase rather than after.
  3. Products which are less risky to the business’s reputation – UX is a quality measure. When you release products that users love to use and that meet their needs; your business reputation will grow. Conversely if you don’t get things right – your reputation will fall.
  4. Products which are relatively immune to scope creep – If you define the user’s needs and then design with them in mind; there should be a whole lot less scope creep and that makes it easier to budget for a project and to define a delivery timetable.
  5. Products which are competitive – the research phase of UX means that you should know what competitors are doing and how your product will be “better”. Design in this manner is based on the evidence and not on the “gut instincts” of the development team.

Some indirect benefits too:

  • Lower costs to the business of product development – Well defined projects which are on time and on budget are less expensive than those that are continually redefined.
  • Customer satisfaction – If the UX for a product is high then you’ll have happy customers reducing the burden on both support teams and customer services.


Chapters 2, 7, 8, 9 in Quesenbery, W. & Brooks, K. (2010). Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.

Chapter 5 – “Modeling Users: Personas and Goals”, Alan Cooper

Richard Sheridan (2013). Joy, Inc.: How we Built a Workplace People Love. Chapter: The Power of Observation.

“Section 4.4: The Narrative Storyboard” in Greenberg et al. (2012). Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook. Waltham, MA: Morgan-Kaufman.

What about Personas?

As we were going over Personas in my Interaction Design course at UMSI, I began seeing some articles on the topic that I wanted to share to the class.

Kill your Personas (Links to an external site.) – Microsoft Design

Stop obsessing over user personas (Links to an external site.) – UX Collective

The discussion we had on personas also correlate to an issue I’m having with the MacLean et al., reading. While I overall found Design Space Analysis highly informative and useful for the design process, I’m hung up on QOC as argument based. As interdisciplinary as Design Thinking is, when we justify our decisions through arguing for our rationale rather than proof, we end up in effect making excuses for what we did based on our own internal logic.

Models are only useful until they aren’t. Models, analogies, metaphors and the like, are kind of like stents that force a communication channel open to cram more information through than that channel could withstand otherwise. The experts who develop the models have a better understanding of that model’s limits and drawbacks than the person who is introduced to the concept through the model. So we need to really hone our instincts so we know when to break our own rules. A good recent example of this is the information processing model we spent the first half of the semester in 588 learning. Everything about vision, perception, attention and memory that we just learned in that class was related through this model. But that’s not what our brains look like, how do we know where that model breaks down? How many generations removed are we from the experts that developed it?

Despite what the rationalists think, logic occurs inside the individual. It’s good that we abstract data to create personas as noted from the readings. But as discussed in the articles above, we tend to ascribe erroneous details to these personas that come from our internal logic rather than the data. Ultimately I think this results in a holistic thinking that’s rather hollow. As Sapolsky notes in his tome (Links to an external site.) on human behavior, rationalism is most often rationalizing away violence as just part of human nature. We aren’t wired for [this], we didn’t evolve for [that]. Neither are we a ‘tabula rasa’ or a clean slate. We are born with an array of biological behavioral propensities that are cultivated through environmental inputs and our reaction to them.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that the words we use, shape our perceptions of the world. We can only think in terms of the words we know how to think in. When we enter a design process as non-experts we are looking to the user research to drive insight that give us a sense of holistic expertise. When we justify based on arguing rationale rather than proof, we employ rationalism, which essentially holds that whoever wins the argument is right, or at least closer to the truth than those who lost. As they say, history is written by the victors.

I say all of this because I have a growing concern that the interdisciplinary approach is starting to appear somewhat shallow and self-congratulatory. Like Dr. Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, we were “so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we didn’t stop to think whether or not we should.” Businesses scrutinize every penny and I see a future of tight deadlines and budgetary concerns where we fudge user research and employ our own inner logic to advocate for our own crappy designs while we post inspirationals on Instagram, repeating that saying, “You are not your user.”

But maybe we should be.


“Chapter 5: Structured Findings” in Saffer, D. (2010). Designing for interaction: Creating innovative applications and devices (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

MacLean, A., Young, R. M., Bellotti, V. M. E., & Moran, T. P. (1991). Questions, options, and criteria: Elements of design space analysis. Human-Computer Interaction, 6(3-4), 201-220. (through section 2)

Case Study:  (Links to an external site.)http://vesperapp.co/blog/how-to-make-a-vesper/ (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)

“Chapter 5: Picking the Right Tool” in Warfel, T. Z. (2009).  Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide.  Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.

Chapters 6 – 11 in Warfel, T. Z. (2009).  Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide.  Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.

GUI Prototyping Tools: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?GuiPrototypingTools

Critique: Reflections on Taking Design Criticism Well

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a comic book artist. I could draw of course, but I knew I wasn’t skilled enough to really go for it. After I got my first computer with an internet connection, I started thinking about web and graphic design as I was fulfilling these roles for my band. I ultimately didn’t pursue that path for a number of reasons. Namely, I couldn’t take criticism well. In fact, it wasn’t until the last few years when I began learning about UX and the user-centered design process that I ultimately learned to appreciate criticism. In high school, when I envisioned a life as a graphic artist, I imagined spending all this time to come up with a finished work just to have the client demand a slight change to the work that meant having to start over to create a new work that incorporated that slight change. At that, I lost interest.

Once I understood that things like brainstorming, sketching, parallel prototyping, and getting feedback early and often as a matter of course correction before any significant time and energy is spent on the finished product, it gave me the confidence to finally commit to this discipline and career path. I am probably best at being the brainstormer that comes up with all the worst ideas first, but I take solace in the understanding that this is helpful to the group. With all of this in mind, I started drafting up some quick “sketches” of animated notes on Adobe XD, because a lot of the elements that we might use as designers are already assembled through various UI kits that you can download for free on Behance (Links to an external site.). What I quickly found was that I wanted to go back and run a different design, so I actually created a parallel prototype and was essentially able to run my own a/b test to see which design I liked better. Parallel prototyping allows for more divergent ideation (there’s that model of divergent/convergent thinking as presented in the design funnel again), and an increase in self-efficacy, or the feeling of confidence in abilities regarding the task at hand.

While a lot of us will probably stick to using some form of software for our sketching needs, I think it’s important for us to practice and develop our drawing skills. In a similar manner to how typing notes into a Google Doc is more convenient for reference material, writing notes on paper has been shown to commit the information to memory better. (More info) (Links to an external site.)

Similar to the discussion on need-finding as an approach to qualitative design studies, there are also best practices in regard to giving criticism. Remember, that feedback is important information that the designer uses to course correct, so when you offer criticism, you really want to justify that criticism in a way that’s helpful to the designer and the work you are criticizing. If not, you might as well be naval-gazing.


“Chapter 4: The perfect brainstorm” in Kelley, Tom, & Littman, Jonathan (2001). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, america’s leading design firm. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Buxton, Bill. (2007) “The anatomy of sketching” in Sketching user experiences. New York: Morgan Kaufmann.

“Sections 3.2 – 3.4” in Greenberg et al. (2012). Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook.  Waltham, MA: Morgan-Kaufman.

Dow, S.P., Glassco, A., Kass, J., Schwarz, M., Schwartz, D.L., Klemmer, S.R. (2010). Parallel Prototyping Leads to Better Design Results, More Divergence, and Increased Self-Efficacy. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 11(4).

Design Critiques (Choose 1 out of the 2 to read deeply and quickly skim the second):

Design Critique and the Creative Process, Cassie McDaniel http://www.alistapart.com/articles/design-criticism-creative-process/ (Links to an external site.)

Spool, Jared (2012) Goods, Bads, and Dailies: Lessons for Conducting Great Critiques https://www.uie.com/articles/great_critiques/

“Sections 4.4” in Greenberg et al. (2012). Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook. Waltham, MA: Morgan-Kaufman.

UX is About Processes, not Products

I keep thinking about comments I’ve seen from UX designers on Instagram discussing posts that are tagged #uxdesign. These posts are almost always finished mockups. And amongst the generic bot comments sporting the ‘fire’ emoji, I often see an actual UX designer saying that this isn’t the kind of work they do in UX. While the work varies, UX designers tend towards the storytelling, the wireframes, the empathy/affinity/customer journey maps  that go into making sure the design team is on the same page.

I actually want to bring in another quote I seem to remember from Thoreau’s, ‘Walden Pond’, but according to Quote Investigator (Links to an external site.), it comes from a variety of sources, and the quote is attributed to unknown.

A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

All the background research, synthesis, needfinding, ideation, etc. that we do is sharpening the axe, which in this case would be the wireframe. But I also want to add that I’m grateful for the clarification on what wireframes are and the importance of them. It’s particularly easy to skip over the wireframe if you’re doing your work in an application like Adobe XD for example. When you create a box where a profile picture is supposed to go, it’s so easy to just drag and drop a stock photo into the box. It’s so easy to just select a color for the background.

These simple choices impede the kind of feedback we receive. People see the colors, they see the stock photos in place, and they don’t realize they are just looking at some rectangles in a rectangle. And I think that applies to different kinds of stakeholders too. Non-expert end users often have difficulty providing direct feedback on a finished design, which is why we employ methods like contextual inquiry and ethnography to get at the heart of what their reality is that they can’t readily supply. But even other members of the design team might have a more difficult time with a critique of something that looks more finished than not.

So far at UMSI we’ve gotten a lot of Design Thinking ala IDEO. And while IDEO is one of the most well known agencies, it’s not the only one. AJ&Smart (Links to an external site.) as an example, is well known for the Design Sprint. They also have a YouTube channel (Links to an external site.) and a podcast (Links to an external site.). I remember one video in particular, where Jonathan criticized Design Thinking as a linear process. And then the YouTube recommender showed me other videos where designers went on the attack suggesting that Design Thinking is out because it’s a linear process. Even though everywhere I learn about Design Thinking (e.g. UMSI, IDF) it is stressed that it isn’t a linear process.

I think the main point is that there is no one way to design a product. As designers, we have to synthesize all the resources and tools we have at our disposal and select the best one for that moment. In 501 earlier this week, Kentaro asked what we wanted to get out of the class. Immediately someone said, “An ‘A'”. But an A doesn’t necessarily demonstrate mastery of the material, it demonstrates that all the boxes of the rubric have been satisfactorily checked. When people who just want an A (not to overly criticize the person who said that, I want an A in the course too) apply design thinking to a project, I think there’s a tendency to treat it as a list of boxes to check off, and that results in it being a linear process.

Some of us may go off to work at an agency like AJ&Smart, where they travel around the world running design sprints for different clients on a variety of projects. Others may go to Facebook, and get caught in the cycle of implementing a new update every 2 weeks. Still others may go into a smaller firm where they are a design team of one. In each case, the process and methods most utilized are going to vary. I imagine a wireframe is more important at Facebook, where you have a huge team working on the product. I’m not sure if a wireframe is an important deliverable in a week long design sprint. On the one hand, I could see it being overlooked entirely in order to quickly generate a mockup or prototype. On the other hand, I could see a wireframe being the primary deliverable of a design sprint to pass along to the development team. But if you’re a design team of one, you may or may not be utilizing a wireframe. Personally, I think I would because if I left the company, I could leave them the wireframe for the next designer to work off of.

From Brown we learn that wireframes are representative of the concept we are intending to develop. They focus on the information being presented and the range of possibilities available to the user. What we think of as a wireframe may change over time, but the concept is still the same. It’s like a blueprint.

Ginsburg discussed the importance of concept exploration as it relates to the design process. The part that stuck out to me was creating the appropriate environment to allow for informal collaboration. I think about how people are products of their environment. Sitting in a cubicle all day can be depressing. Putting a picture up of a tropical beach can be a relief. Design is an ambiguous process, and you want to create an environment to support that. 

Storyboards ala Greenburg demonstrate the importance of the designer developing an understanding of the overarching narrative in which a user will use the product. How does this product fit into their overall life?

How can we make our product a seamless integration into the users overall narrative of life?


“Sections 4.4” in Greenberg et al. (2012). Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook. Waltham, MA: Morgan-Kaufman.

Suzanne Ginsburg’s, Designing the iPhone User Experience: A User-Centered Approach to Sketching and Prototyping iPhone Apps. Part Three: Developing Your App Concept, Chapter 6: Exploring App Concepts

Dan Brown, “Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning”: Chapter 7: Wireframes: http://proquest.safaribooksonline.com/book/web-design-and-development/9780131385399/design-diagrams/ch07

The Needfinders: a Reflection on Patnaik and Becker’s seminal paper

Patnaik and Becker seem to give us a torch with which to light our path into that immersive, murky realm of qualitative data collecting and assessment. Among the several important takeaways I saw was that in doing social research, it’s easy to just gather data for the sake of gathering data, and you’ll be able to tell a great story about the user, but it won’t be an effective story to design around unless you uncover a clearly defined user need so that the whole team (or even if you’re flying solo) can begin to visualize the problem that you intend to design a solution for.

Though the image below is worded a little differently, I think this model should be emphasized regarding the Saffer chapter on refinement. Refinement is the convergent areas. And this process can continue for the entire duration of the project of iterating and refining. 

Since interaction design is still figuring itself out, we don’t want to necessarily be bound to say, making every interaction on our website as fast as possible according to Fitts’s Law, or every menu perfectly optimized according to Hick’s Law. Our job will be to effectively manage the trade-offs, but also be able to explain where and why we made these trade-offs.

Similar to how needfinding will build a foundation with which to effectively produce a user need to rally around, having a clear understanding of how to balance the Laws and Principles discussed in Saffer, and when to throw them out completely in favor of something different are crucial skills we will need in order to even begin to effectively manage some of the other constraints like time and money.


Dev Patnaik and Robert Becker, Needfinding: The Why and How of Uncovering People’s Needs. In Design Management Journal (1999).

“Chapter 7: Refinement” in Saffer, Dan (2010). Designing for interaction: Creating innovative applications and devices (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: New Riders. 

Compare | Design | Explain Series Part 1

The goal of this report is three-fold. It seeks to compare and evaluate two competing websites in terms of human-computer interaction with a focus on the information processing model. This model likens our cognitive processes to how a computer works. Using this critique, we will then propose a new design, and justify why this design is an improvement over these two sites. (Wickens, Hollands, Banbury & Parasuraman 2015, pp. 3–5)

mage source: https://dataworks-ed.com/blog/2014/07/the-information-processing-model/


For the purpose of comparison, this report will consider two users with individual differences on Jakob Nielsen’s (1993) user cube as shown below.

Janet is a cohort 2 Baby Boomer and domain expert with minimal computer expertise. (Norman, 2008) She’s made her career in hospitality and marketing, beginning her first restaurant position as a hostess in high school, where she was responsible for taking reservations the “old-fashioned” way, by phone.

The “user cube”. J. Nielsen, Usability Engineering

anet worked her way up to restaurant manager by her early 30’s, and now in her late 50’s, she’s the regional manager of a franchise bar and grill. She’s comfortable enough on the computer to complete her tasks mostly related to work, but spends little time online. Her task is to book a reservation for her and the eight General Managers in her region in celebration for a great quarter. We can imagine she is looking for a reservation for 10/26/2019 from 6–9pm at a restaurant that serves alcohol and accommodates vegetarian and gluten free options.

Earl is a high school senior, Gen Z, who is preparing to go on his first date with his new girlfriend on 10/19/2019 for Sweetest Day. As such, he’s ignorant about the domain (both making reservations and dating) but has relatively extensive computer experience. Earl is hoping the website will show him a good recommendation for a romantic evening at a restaurant in a teenager’s price range. As we proceed to compare these two websites, consider Janet and Earl, and their tasks at hand. For them, how do OpenTable and Resy compare?

We find Janet confused by Resy more than OpenTable. As she arrives on the homepage, she understands that she can click on “Detroit” and “Guests” to select her options. There is a downward facing carat to suggest a dropdown menu once clicked. As she hovers over these menus, she notes that the cursor turns into a hand, which provides immediate feedback, and causes her to begin building a mental model of how the site works.

She is puzzled by how to select her specific date; the cursor doesn’t change when she hovers over “Today” and there is no carat to suggest she should click on the word. This is inconsistent with the internal model she is building as the colored words should suggest “clickable” in conjunction with a hand cursor upon hovering. Here we find a missed opportunity to exploit redundancy, which results in a design that doesn’t immediately support the maximization of automaticity and unitization. (Lee, Wickens, Liu & Boyle p. 170) And while this also slowed Earl down, his level of computer expertise and habituation from other websites informs his decision to just click anyway to see what, if anything, happens. (Johnson, p. 5)

When Janet goes to “View all Detroit Restaurants” via the search menu, the long list of locations is sorted in no order. The screen is split between the restaurants and a map pointing out all the participating restaurants in the area, but with no corresponding information. Even hovering over points on the map yields no new information. It’s only by clicking on a point that the user will see movement in their peripheral vision as the list of restaurants on the left side of the screen moves to bring the selected restaurant to the top of the panel.

Simultaneously, there is a pop-out feature that displays the selected restaurant’s information in a box over the map pinpoint the user just clicked, but Janet initially misses this pop-out information which is overshadowed by the movement in her peripheral vision. (Ware, pp. 27–35) Additionally, the scroll bar on the far right of the screen is mapped to the restaurant list on the left, with the map separating the two, a clear failure to design for stimulus-response compatibility. (Ritter, Baxter & Churchill, 2014)

By comparison, Janet has a much easier time figuring out how to navigate OpenTable. The center of OpenTable’s homepage is consumed by the main feature, making a reservation. She can immediately see how to select her chosen date, time, and number of guests. The “Let’s Go” button is easily recognizable as a button, providing a signifying clickability combined with what Saffer refers to as feed- forward, the label of the button tells the user what will happen before clicking the button. (Saffer, 2010, p. 133)

Clicking on the “Let’s Go” button, she is presented with a long list of restaurants as well as a “Map” button, and a variety of options chunked on the left side of the screen, creating meaningful sequences that she can select in order to narrow down her search. (Lee et al., p. 177)

However, upon clicking the button and being taken to the next screen, we find a box featured in the center of the screen labeled “Restaurants with Bonus Points”. What are bonus points? On the top right of the box we see a link labeled “About Bonus Points”, but even after clicking this link it is not clear what bonus points are or how they work as we are taken to a new page with a list of articles to sift through in order to learn more. This is disruptive to the user and largely distracts from their task of making a reservation as now their attention is being spent on information regarding bonus points filling up their working memory. (Johnson, pp. 90–94)

Overall, OpenTable is more consistent in being able to properly detect and apply the appropriate interactive features in which to carry out tasks the user wishes to perform. OpenTable offers the map level view as an option but improves the design by providing a scroll bar right next to the list of restaurants that the scroll bar is mapped to. On the other hand, Earl’s expertise with computers gives him an edge in that he is able to figure out both sites eventually, albeit initially confused by the Resy interface and found it less intuitive and more difficult to navigate according to his model of how website navigation typically works in line with stimulus-response compatibility. (Ritter et al., 2014)

OpenTable’s design draws the user’s eyes to the center of the screen and keeps them there. It strategically arranges supporting information around the periphery in an easily understandable format that allows users to quickly perform a visual search that supports pattern building from the bottom-up while the user’s top-down processes reinforce relevant information. (Ware, pp. 8–17)

Resy is arranged to be viewed left to right, and top to bottom, but it doesn’t lend itself well to a clear use as the user’s eyes scan over the menu of cities to select from, even though the website has already detected the user’s location. The elements involved in initiating the search and booking a reservation are less distinct from the rest of the page, and blends in somewhat with the white space across the header. (Lee et al., p. 109)

Viewing all restaurants focus the eyes on the map which presents no further information aside from an array of pinpoints, while more prevalent information is situated around the periphery of the screen.

How does the user determine what pinpoint they should bother clicking on? If they have clicked on a few points already, how can they tell which points were already clicked? Rather than supporting user recognition of where they’ve already clicked, Resy forces the users to recall it for themselves, something humans tend to have difficulties with. (Johnson, pp. 121–129) Overall, the map is distracting to the user and impedes bottom-up pattern building as more attention is required from top-down processes to scan for relevant information. (Ware)


Figure 1 Improved landing page design |”Dinner Reservation” by Rafael Farias Leão is licensed under CC BY 3.0


In Figure 1 the design brings the user’s attention to focus on their primary task above all others, which is to make a reservation. This is accomplished by bringing all the necessary elements center stage. (Esser, 2017) The selections are clearly labeled and contrast with the surrounding whitespace to allow features to be more easily detected. The stacked positioning of the selection and search boxes improves speed and accuracy of moving from box to box in accordance with Fitts’s Law. (Johnson, pp. 187–191)

This also improves the ability of users who prefer to navigate the website with the keyboard using Tab targeting, as well as assists in keeping more of the initial reservation selections from falling outside the focus of the user into the periphery. (Johnson, p. 56) This design places “Top Rated” and “Popular Cities” around the periphery of the homepage to support the needs of users like Earl, who are interested in browsing recommendations without obfuscating the primary task of making a reservation.

Finally, this design maintains the labeling of the “Let’s Go” button from OpenTable, but it increases the size for improved targeting and prominently displaying the button within the user’s detection field. (Ware, pp. 37–42) We changed the color of the button from red to green to take advantage of the greater contrast between surrounding colors. (Johnson, p. 39) This has the added benefit of utilizing the socio-cultural schema in American society between green and the word “Go”. (Marcus, 2000)

Figure 2 Improved search page design | “Restaurant Food Icons” by macrovector_official. This image has been designed using resources from Freepik.com


The design presented in Figure 2 shifts the center stage contents of Figure 1 to the header of the page while maintaining the relative size of the boxes. The map button is moved up next to the city search for more consistent “chunking” during the visual search and pattern building as the user constructs a model of how the page flows. (Lee et al., p. 177)

Graphical icons of popular cuisine options are prominently displayed across the top of the page to immediately draw the user’s attention to cuisine options and allow them to begin refining their search. A scroll bar is placed just underneath the icons to convey to the users that there are more options currently off-screen. These icons serve two purposes as noted by Johnson. In Ch. 7 of Designing with the Mind in Mind, even if we are well fed, food will quickly get a user’s attention. (Johnson, p. 93) Since the user is visiting the page to select a restaurant for a reservation in which it is presumed the user will be eating food, it follows that getting the user thinking about the food they want to consume sooner than later will aid in matching the user with their ideal restaurant. But these icons also utilize graphic images to convey function as well, as explained in Ch. 9. This allows for users to click on the pizza icon for example, and immediately refine their search to just look at the notable restaurants that serve pizza. (Johnson, p. 126)

We also employ numerous data-specific controls that exploit chunking through a visual-hierarchy along the left panel to allow users to select their chosen neighborhood, cuisine options, etc. (Moran, 2016) This provides even more structure and allows users to focus more on the relevant information specific to them and their task. (Johnson, pp. 33–34)


While both Resy and OpenTable provide a similar service, OpenTable offers a better user-interface in terms of the information processing model, particularly for older users. Resy’s layout appears to be more focused on a clean aesthetic with a minimalist approach but falls short in terms of broad usability and appeal for consumers in comparison with OpenTable. Some of the interactive features feel awkward as they don’t conform well to stimulus-response compatibility. The map feature feels cumbersome and causes the user to have to spend time figuring out how to narrow their selection rather than simply doing so.

OpenTable takes advantage of the center-stage approach to interface design and provides usability features for a broader range of users, presenting the map and list view as different modes that users can select between. Overall, the OpenTable design is superior, but it is not without its own issues. Date, time, and guest selections are too spread out on the homepage and causes the user to lose track of some of the information they entered, or missed entering, as their eyes focus on the “Let’s Go”. (Johnson, p. 56) We also see some dark UX in use as OpenTable makes a concerted effort to funnel users to promoted restaurants via “Bonus Points”. (Brignall, 2019)

In our design, we took advantage of the center-stage approach for homepage design and utilized chunking and visual hierarchy as well as stimulus-response compatibility to provide an even easier to use interface with appeal to both our users as positioned on Nielsen’s user-cube, and those in between.


Alleydog.com. (2019, 10 09). Information Processing Model. Retrieved from Alleydog.com’s Online Glossary: https://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition- cit.php?term=Information+Processing+Model

Brignall, H. (2019, 10 10). What are Dark Patterns? Retrieved from darkpatterns.org: https://www.darkpatterns.org/

C.D. Wickens, J. H. (2015). Designing for People: An Introduction to Engineering Psychology and Human Performance. London: Taylor and Francis.

Esser, P. (2017, 10 1). Center Stage — Help the User Focus on What’s Important. Retrieved from Interaction Design Foundation: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/center- stage-help-the-user-focus-on-what-s-important

Frank Ritter, G. B. (2014). Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems. London: Springer.

J.D. Lee, C. W. (2017). Designing for People: An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering 3rd Edition. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

Johnson, J. (2014). Designing with the Mind in Mind. Waltham: Elsevier.

Marcus, A. (2000). International and Intercultural User Interfaces. In C. Stephanidis, User Interfaces for All (p. 56). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Moran, K. (2016, 03 20). How Chunking Helps Content Processing. Retrieved from NN/g Nielsen Norman Group: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/chunking/

Nielsen, J. (1993). Usability Engineering. Cambridge: AP Professional.

Norman, K. L. (2008). Individual Differences. New York: Cambridge University Press. Saffer, D. (2010). Refinement. Berkeley: New Riders.

Ware, C. (2008). What We Can Easily See. Burlington: Elsevier.

Critical Issues in Information

The most critical issues in the field of information seem to stem from the fact that we’re awash in it, information that is. Making sense of this information and making it accessible, or at least useful to the public can only be accomplished through adaptive technology and the adaptation of that technology through the culture.

However, both technology and culture are prone to high degrees of variation throughout both time and space. (or temporal localities if you’re a nerd like me)

In order to adapt technology to the people that are intended to use it, developers need good information on user needs, values, and patterns of behavior. With today’s technological consumer base more varied and diverse than ever before, it follows that the field of information requires a work force that reflects the varied and diverse nature of a truly interconnected planet.

Additionally, something we need to keep in mind is that Big Data and the innumerable metrics by which to measure and analyze it are creating a faster rate of change than society has ever seen. Our technological and material culture evolves more rapidly than our cultural values or indeed, our biology. Take for example the rate of automation, combined with the Protestant work ethic so ingrained into the moral fabric of the United States, and you can begin to see the core causes of the geopolitical tension regarding industries like manufacturing and energy as well as the conversations and policies surrounding social welfare, unemployment, and the economy.

If the questions to answer are what people need to improve their lives and how can user-centered design deliver that; then the strategy to answer these questions must be a shift from the etic (outsider) to the emic (insider) perspective, and an analysis that blends the two. The analysis of Big Data leaves significant gaps that can be filled with “thick data”, or ethnography.

For some time, products have been designed to sell, and so profit was the center for the design. Now we see that the best way to be disruptive with new technology, is the put the actual user front and center in the design process.

According to a Gartner survey, a lot of companies are talking about and investing in Big Data, but only about 8% can do anything transformational with it. (Wang, 2013)

image source: Big Data Dashboard Dizziness — A Trendy Tool with Little Utilization

While a trained analyst can uncover useful insights about a population using Big Data, if you really want to know what’s going on you ask the locals. Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt once declared, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” This was a brilliant assessment from a marketing standpoint at the time and was much lauded. However, in his seminal work, “Design of Everyday Things,” Don Norman took it a couple steps further when he countered with:

“Once you realize that they don’t really want the drill, you realize that they don’t really want the hole either, they want to install their bookshelves. Why not develop bookshelves that don’t require holes? Or perhaps books that don’t require bookshelves? (i.e. eBooks)” (Norman, 2013)

Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things. Philadelphia: Basic Books.

Wang, T. (2013, 5 13). Why Big Data Needs Thick Data. Retrieved from ethnography matters: https://medium.com/ethnography-matters/why-big-data-needs-thick-data-b4b3e75e3d7