Exciting News

I have some exciting news to share with you all. Near the end of last year (2018), I decided to put in some effort and prepare an application to my dream school, the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) to earn an MS in UX/HCI and Social Computing. Though I was feeling confident at the time, I have to admit that lately I had started thinking about alternate plans and was narrowing it down to either teaching English in China for a year, or forgetting the whole academic thing and becoming a truck driver.

However, late last night, I checked my email before going to bed and I had received an invitation to MSI (Masters of Science in Information) Visiting Days. I clicked on it and the top line read:

“Hello Matthew,

Congratulations on your admission to the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI)!…”

Still in disbelief, I raced to the portal to manage my application. Of course, I couldn’t remember what password I had used, so I had to go through the steps to reset that. But then, there I was, scanning the page trying to figure out which link to click to take me to where I needed to go.

Then I found it. “View your decision letter.”

“…I am pleased to inform you that you have been admitted to the Master of Science in Information program at the University of Michigan School of Information for Fall 2019!”

I was shocked! I read the letter over and over, trying to make sure I wasn’t reading it wrong. I wasn’t. I cried a little bit. Tears of joy, you know. I can’t tell you how badly I’ve been looking for my next opportunity to reach my full potential. After my father passed about a year ago, I really began confronting my own mortality. I’ve never been in a rush, perhaps that’s why I completed my BA at 34 and am only now entering graduate school at 36, but the truth is that I think this is perfect timing. I’m ready now and time is relative.

I’ve been thinking about it. While my transcripts and GPA are decent, to be honest, I’m already confronting the fact that I’m going to have imposter syndrome the entire time I’m there. Don’t worry, I’ll muddle through. But, I also didn’t have any current/former employers or professors submit letters of recommendation, instead I used one of my former floor managers, and a former coworker from my current job, and finally the woman who trained me on my current job.

I believe I ultimately earned a spot because of the strength of my personal statement and statement of purpose, supported by my recommenders. I told a good story. It’s a true story, don’t get me wrong. But it’s my story and I told it well. One of the things I’ve been learning as I get deeper into understanding this field is that perhaps more than anything, UX is about telling good stories.

Then again, isn’t everything?

Examples of Good and Bad UX/UI in World of Warcraft

Initially, I was going to just discuss Spotify and Snapchat as examples of good and bad UX. Then it dawned on me to discuss the game World of Warcraft as an example of both.

The standard UI for the game has a classic feel to it, but is rather clunky and difficult to use in order to play a game with this level of interactive complexity.

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However, the game allows for the use of third party addons, or mods, which modify the UI to augment gameplay and overall user experience. I think this is just brilliant. And while mods are increasingly common amongst big online games, I’m not much of a gamer, I’m really just a childhood fan of Lord of the Rings who always wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons but I lived on a farm in the boondocks and couldn’t get a group together.

This actually brings me to another point, in that as a casual player who isn’t a gamer, I just log in from time to time to scratch an itch. As do many other people. People like me would be completely lost without these addons. So in that sense, they really do improve accessibility for us to enjoy the game and even be competitive.

Some examples of this include and addon called GTFO (Get The F*** Out). This addon sounds an alarm whenever I’m standing in fire, or acid or something that causes damage to my character. This happens a lot, and with everything else that is going on at the same time-

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many players will just stand there and either die or become a nuisance to the player(s) charged with healing them.

Another downside to the standard UI is navigation. Now I don’t mean navigating through the interface, I mean using the interface to navigate this mind boggling massive digital universe. I say universe because this game takes place on multiple worlds, at different times and different dimensions and is ever expanding.

One of the major components of the gameplay is exploring this universe by completing quests. While the standard UI does provide some tools such as marking the map and listing quest objectives on the side of the screen as a HUD or Heads Up Display, it can leave you confused, wandering around as a ghost trying to find your body. So a player who also is a developer created an app called TomTom that acts as a navigation arrow in the same vein as GPS navigation, pointing the way to your desired destination. You can set your destination by coordinates, CTRL + Right Click on the map, etc. It even tells you how many “yards” you are from your destination and how long it will take to reach it given current speed and direction. It even allows you to save points on the map so that you can navigate back to interesting or important places not otherwise notated.

These are just two examples of literally thousands of addons developed by the players themselves.

While I find the standard UI to be rather lacking and indicative to a poor UX overall, I also think it is brilliant for the control it gives to the user to modify and control their entire interface.

This last example elaborates on my post and demonstrates how players use addons to augment their gameplay. Just for reference, I use just over 100 addons for my basic UI setup, many of which only activate when I am in a certain zone of the game geographically or playing one of the mini games.

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World of Warcraft addons can be found on various websites. Among the most popular are Twitch, which bought Curse, and Tukui, home of ElvUI.

UX for Civilization

What does civilization mean to you?

Civilization is supposed to be the pinnacle of human social development. That we work together in a coordinated effort to achieve the common goal of human progress. Anthropologists, tasked with being at the forefront of this understanding often reiterate Ruth Benedict’s words, as she declared that the purpose of anthropology was to make the world safe for human differences.

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Let’s think about this in terms of UX Design. If society is something individuals have to interface with, and the pillars and constructs that we use as the rules/laws for our society were implemented at a time when the concerns of the majority of the users were not being considered, then you have poor UX, right? Unfortunately, just as with a web page, users can get used to poor UX and complain when it’s updated. Sometimes, we know it’s because it really just is poor UX, but more often it’s people having a negative reaction to change, because they often approve over time as they get used to it.

We also have people who act as friction in society, that act as a kind of error prevention, slowing civilization down from changing too fast. In political science, this is what we would refer to ideologically as conservatism. For more on designing friction into your UX, click here.

A bit about me. I went to school for anthropology because my father was a relatively intelligent man with a 7th grade education from West Virginia who regularly used the n-word in conversation. My mother was a relatively intelligent woman with a high school education from metro Detroit who told me that there’s good and bad in everyone. My father was an alcoholic and for all but 6 months of my life (not the first 6 months either) my parents were separated, but they never divorced because my father wanted my mother to be able to stay on his insurance, because even with all the hate he had in his heart, he was still capable of love.

I was the only boy, raised by 3 older sisters and a single mom. I picked up their mannerisms. I’m still often presumed to be homosexual because of it. This was compounded as a young child of 6 when, at the height of the crack epidemic, with a literal crack house at the end of my block, my mother packed us up and moved us from Lincoln Park to a farm in the Irish Hills, in a little village called Brooklyn, MI.

So this is the nexus I was enculturated into. I’m a straight, white man with ties to both rural and urban America, both through my parents as well as my own personal experience. Who was often ridiculed as gay in school, who grew up around both blatantly racist people and people like my mother and older sisters, who weren’t political activists or anything, but I’d like to think they were/are feminists. I was aware at a young age, about how the women in families often kept secrets from the men to spare them the overreaction. During Christine Blassey-Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, stories from women who never told the men in their lives of their own sexual assault was a painful reminder.

But I digress, my ultimate point is that civilization is a phenomenon that we all have a responsibility to. And although civilization is a more convoluted mess than that of a web page or mobile application, it still deserves to be just as user-friendly. And that is something we all have a responsibility to, because we’re all at the same time users of the product, and on it’s design team.

With that said, I invite you to read this post on Civilization Interface from Maxim Grozny, a UX Designer, who talks about building interfaces to satisfy the multicultural/civilizational needs of the diverse array of users for products in today’s global market.

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His argument however is geared more towards product design, whereas my argument is that policy and legislation is the product. Or take Nate Baldwin from Adobe and his post on, “Why we need design thinking in politics,” as he writes:

I work within the realm of user-centered design and its benefits are very familiar to me. Design Thinking is a scientific, human-centered, and empathetic process that yields the best designed solutions. It gets us to a platform of understanding the people and their problems; with firm understanding and empathy, along with continuous innovation, we can create the best solutions.

In any event, it goes to show that research is key and the design process is ongoing. So let’s get to it. As I am just shifting my gaze from more traditional anthropology to step into the role of an UX Designer, I don’t have any products to design, but I am just as invested in our society and the success of human civilization as most people, and I am feeling the call to action given the current resurgence of Strong Man politics and the subsequent rise in Nationalism. For more on this topic, here is a direct link to download a pdf published by the UNESCO Education Sector titled: Global Citizenship Education and the Rise of Nationalist Perspectives.

Perception is reality because it has real implications.

In sum, think about what civilization, what society, what being a human means to you. Understand that you are not the typical user of civilization, no matter how typical you may seem in relation to those around you. For as small as the world has become due to technology, we are becoming ever more isolated into our own little pockets, see: tribalism – which skew our perceptions of the world we live in and make us think we are being empirical in our assertions of fake news and disinformation. Perception is reality because it has real implications. Design thinking and designing for the user then becomes paramount in leading the charge to break this cycle, because if we can learn to design in order to improve the experience of those different than us, we can make the world safe for human difference.

Greetings Nerds!

Here is a blog I will write. The purpose of which is to serve as an opportunity to delve deeper into my journey mastering UX. I’ve started and stopped for a few years now. In fact, this very blog post is based off another blog I began on this exact topic in late 2016, which you can read here. (if you wish)

At the time I had all but graduated with my BA in Anthropology and was already thinking about next steps. I did audit the Human Computer Interaction specialization on Coursera from UC San Diego. However, I did not follow through with assembling a portfolio.

Later, I picked up on the UX micromasters program on EdX from University of Michigan. I audited the specialization and then went back to the beginning to earn the verified micromasters in lieu of applying to the university for a traditional masters degree. However, my father was diagnosed with dementia, and I put off my career aspirations to spend time with him.

I recently got organized to head down this path once again only to be informed that the EdX micromasters offering was being discontinued. However, I found a similar program being offered on Coursera right now from University of Minnesota. So I am beginning that program now, and preparing my application to University of Michigan for Fall ’19.

So what is UX Design? Chances are, if you’re reading this you already know. So let’s pretend you don’t. We’re going to be exploring this together. My undergraduate background is broad, hard-nosed, 4-field anthropology. I have always been much more of a generalist and hesitated on specializing, so I got a little insight into everything. What anthropology helps someone like me do is to bring to bear a wide range of knowledge and skills to specific problems.

Anthropology is uniquely suited to UX Design, because it is charged with being at the forefront of studying human beings at every layer and angle throughout all time and space. UI stands for user-interface, and UX stands for user experience. Generally speaking, these two will often be used interchangeably by those in the industry, at least according to some other blogs I have read. I am not sure just yet how comfortable I am with that because I think there is a clear difference to bear in mind.

A man using a cane to assist in walking is interfacing with a piece of technology. The handle where he holds it is the user-interface. The tip is the point at which he uses the cane, in concert with his feet to interface with the ground. If it is a poorly designed cane, uncomfortable to hold, too heavy, slippery on the bottom, these then reflect poorly on the overall user-experience.

Similarly when using a computer, you interface with the computer via the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and whatever other peripherals you use, such as a printer/scanner. These are hardware interfaces, but there are also software interfaces. What kind of operating system do you use? What kind of browser, programs, apps, etc.? All of these come with their own interfaces, and the goal of the UX researcher is to study people using these things and develop an analysis that enables the designer (often the same person) to refine the interface and improve the experience.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for my career. I think it sounds really cool. Whether I’m working with engineers to innovate more spacious interiors to automobiles or airplanes, designing more intuitive apps and websites, or helping crack the cultural algorithm that I believe is necessary to create a truly anthropomorphic A.I., this is bound to be an exciting journey.