Monthly Archives: February 2013

the weirdest people in the world

I still can’t entirely wrap my head around this amazing article.

You’ve probably seen this illusion:

mlillusion (also called the Muller-Lyer illusion)

If you are like me, the line on the left probably looks LONGER to you than the line on the right. (The two lines are actually the same length). If you were like me you would further assume that this illusion has something to do with the way the human brain interprets the incoming information from the eyeball and think that this interpretation would hold steady for any and all human animals encountering the illusion. But as it turns out, perceiving the line on the left as the longer line actually suggests that you are:






Because in fact when people from a dozen different cultures were shown the illusion some saw the lines as they are–equal in length, and Americans saw the illusion more dramatically than all the other cultures.


From the article:

The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.


The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.


What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?

I need to spend a bit of time absorbing this; I’m not sure to what degree it may impact my thinking about user experience design and usability, but I suspect it will be increasingly relevant as our work becomes increasingly globalized (unless globalization will ultimately make the whole world weird?).


I saw the picture with the shoes earlier in the week and initially had a feeling that this photo might be somehow relevant to UX design.  However, as I’ve thought about it, the line of shoes is really just a low-tech version of the “take a number” machines encountered at delis and shops. And yet the picture has retained a bit of a hold on me–I keep feeling like there is a UI take away (almost certainly in the what not to do category, of course). So I’ll continue to ponder.

603979_10151462260786253_794133716_n< >images

Meanwhile Garrick Van Buren sent along this with the perfectly apt “I like to think of it as a modern day Design of Everyday Things.” [Ironically, the controls for navigating this site are difficult to discover; I initially thought it was a site that showed a single image at a time.]



If I knew then what I know now…

I met with a new student in the IAKM program last night to talk about how she can make the most of the next two years and give herself the best foundation for her newly chosen field. It gave me a fun opportunity to come up with a list of “If I knew then what I know now” thoughts to share with her–but it also reminded me that one of the things I love about this field is that it requires continuous learning and that it’s never too late to learn something new.

The List

  • Take a basic programming class and commit to learning rudimentary basics of an accessible language, such as Python. Not so much to become competent at coding as to be introduced to the kind of logic and thought processes used by Developers. This is a strategy for working more effectively with developers on a number of levels–being more empathetic, having some shared vocabulary, being less intimidated. 
  • Learn (or bone up) on statistics. This is particularly valuable in the context of user research and usability testing and was something that was woefully lacking from my own formal education. Jeff Sauro & James Lewis’ book Quantifying the User Experience and Tom Tullis’ Measuring the User Experience should be considered canonical.
  • Develop a familiarity with as many tools as possible, but select a small handful to develop deep expertise in. When I started in the field Visio was the go-to tool; it has gradually been superceded by a variety of other tools. Today I think the most bang for the buck would come from learning Illustrator (or INDD, but this is much less ubiquitous) and the rapid prototyping tool Axure. To this end–bite the bullet and pay for an annual subscription to while you’re in school–bundle it with tuition; you’ll be able to learn more software programs faster, easier and cheaper than anything your university will be able to offer.
  • Systematically familiarize yourself with the various professional associations; consider using the reduced student rates to join several over the course of your education. Finding one or two professional associations that fit with your personality and goals will provide excellent networking and professional development opportunities. Learn about both the older more established organizations (that frequently have more breadth) such as UXPA, ACM (SIG CHI), ASIST (SIG IA), as well as the newer more narrowly focused organizations like the IAI, iXDa.
  • Use those professional organizations as a jumping off point for identifying a conference to attend while you’re still in school. Look for ways to reduce costs by volunteering, but get yourself to a conference. Ideally plan to attend one event annually–it’s an important way to keep your finger on the pulse of the field, get re-engergized about your career and develop a network.
  • Get in the habit of scanning (if not reading) tech and UX news/blogs/articles beyond what you’re being assigned in class. Bloggers invariably link to other smart people they’ll recommend reading.


Not new, but worth remembering

I guess this is the blogging equivalent of an OH (overheard) tag on Twitter, but I’m compelled to capture this.

This is a lesson I’ve heard in digital experience research, but I’ve found it useful in all aspects of life: “Instead of assuming that people are dumb, ignorant, and making mistakes, assume they are smart, doing their best, and that you lack context.”


I am still in the extreme novice phase with WordPress, so I haven’t made an in-depth study of this but as you can imagine the “uncategorized” label just hanging out gives me the hives.

And also reminds me of yet another book I need to read (so far this blog would be better titled: books I haven’t read):

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-fly Planning Make the World a Better Place by Eric Abrahamson

I don’t own this book yet (although I think Karl does), but I’m tempted to put it on a shelf next to Factory of One and see if spontaneous combustion occurs as these two books appear to be completely antithetical to one another.

I guess it would be rather ironic of me to have a MISCELLANEOUS category, which of course is what Uncategorized essentially is…for now denial will have to suffice.

“the conscious mind is simply not running the show”

“How these research studies are done is at sharp odds with what science now knows. The elephant in the room is that the vast majority of our decisions are made unconsciously. What is a no-brainer for any cognitive scientist remains mind-boggling to marketers. The conscious mind is simply not running the show, but we’ve created an entire industry pretending that it does.” The article from Fast Company

Douglas Van Praet’s recent article in Fast Company captured my attention in the way that any article that looks like it might have a user-research component does (and also because Karl despises the word “consumer” (although he is really against the tendency in the U.S. for the dialogue to be about consumers as opposed to citizens)).

This article is pretty much exclusively aimed at marketers who are making heavy use of focus groups and I think that most UX professionals would agree that focus groups are among the least useful user research techniques when it comes to learning what you need to know to create meaningful information architectures and user interfaces. (And it was very heartening to see several comments from UX professionals in response to the article.)

(And of course folks like Dan Ariely have made powerful arguments that the exact same criticism can be said of the entire field of Economics.)

Julie Dirksen, an instructional designer (and friend) has long been interested in the cognitive underpinnings of motivation, decision making, etc. This topic frequently comes up on her blog Usable Learning.

I’ve been so time starved the past several years that my professional reading has been exclusively limited to “must read” as opposed to “should read.” To that end, I have a couple relevant books on my shelf that I’ve skimmed but not truly *read*–another thing for the to-do list:

contextual inquiry project "war room"

Contextual Inquiry as an agent of organizational change

I met with a prospective client today and I went in with the idea that the issue at hand was conducting user research to better understand the needs of several under-served user populations so that future-state planning could be done to draw these audiences in. As we talked one of the things that came to the fore was internal resistance to making changes to the status quo. Initially these seemed like two very different/unrelated challenges but then I remembered a project that I supervised while I was at Wachovia (which I think I can discuss with impunity, since there no longer is a Wachovia–which is a truly sad thing). I suddenly had a revelation (cue super hero “da-da-da-da”) “This is a job for Contextual Inquiry!”

When we launched the newly redesigned site following the First Union and Wachovia merger we got a lot of things right–but our usability testing revealed serious flaws in the Investing Center. Subsequently we began working on a redesign of that section even before the new site had launched. In our postmortem review of the project we concluded that one of the reasons we didn’t get the design right (and in this context design refers primarily to IA) was that our team didn’t have a great working relationship with the content owners–in this case, Brokerage.  The UX team felt there had been a lot of resistance to our user-centered design process on the part of the Brokerage team; the Brokerage folks didn’t think the UX team understood the topic/business and were wary about letting us get too close to the customers (a whole other story).

I don’t actually remember how we came to the conclusion to us CI for the investing center redesign (it may have been a case of a solution looking for a problem–I know I had been very eager to try the methodology out for several years at that point and hadn’t had the opportunity).

The CI process had a pretty profound impact; we learned a great deal that directly influenced our redesign, but we also transformed our team’s relationship with the brokerage team–a lot of resistance and mistrust was broken down/overcome in the course of the project. CI is not for the faint of heart; it’s a complex methodology that takes some real commitment to follow–and yet when you can use it to learn what you need to do a successful redesign *and* evolve team relationships I suspect it’s cheap at the price.

See also: InContext Design (the folks who wrote the book on this subject)

Inaugural Blog Post

Like every third person on the planet, I’ve long been thinking about creating a blog but I’ve been torn between the competing desires of not wanting to commit to daily care and feeding vs. the fact that I frequently have links and resources I want to capture, both for myself and to share, and sometimes I even have (gasp!) actual insights to share. At least initially I see this space primarily as a repository of resources related to my professional activities.

So–first post:

Karl has been after me to read “Factory of One” by Daniel Markovitz–a book about applying Lean manufacturing principles to personal productivity. So far it’s pretty fascinating, although it is clear that my entire office/workspace/workflow is in desperate need of a makeover.