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Posts from the ‘Design’ Category

Make Things As Simple As Possible, But Not Simpler

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.
Albert Einstein

It has become fashionable of late, during the second coming of Apple, for a large number of consultants, executives and professional speakers to frame simplicity as an absolute good.  Simplicity, however, can have a number of negative implications for both design and usability, so I thought it prudent to highlight a few of its limitations as a guiding principal.

Ockham’s Razor vs. Einstein’s Razor

Before jumping to technology, it’s worth noting that this debate has origins in science as well.  Ockham’s Razor famously dictates that, given two hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.  While not absolute, the principle is important because it shifts the burden of proof to the more complicated explanation.

Einstein (as quoted at the top of this post), pointed out the obvious: simplicity has its limits.  As a result, Einstein’s Razor is commonly stated as:

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Too many entrepreneurs and executives preaching the simple religion forget this.

Example: iPhone Home Button

When the iPhone launched in 2007, it was an extremely aggressive vision of the future of the smartphone.  Bucking the trend from 12-key numberpads to full QWERTY keypads, the iPhone debuted with just one button.

What could be simpler than one button?

iphone

Well, technically zero buttons would have been simpler.

iphone-0

Why the single button?  Apple decided this was as simple as they could get it without hiding a key function they felt people needed to be able to access with “tactile” accessibility.  Apple had decided to remove quite a bit of tactile access from the phone.  Feature phone users lost the ability to know that the “*” key was in the bottom left, or “3” was on the bottom right.  Treo & Blackberry users lost the ability, without looking, to know where keys like space and return were.

The answer? Apple decided that the importance of having a tactile method of accessing “home” was more important than enforcing that next level of simplification.  Simple as possible, but not simpler.

Wait? They Added a Switch?

Industrial design aficionados might have already spotted an issue with my previous example.  Apple may have reduced the keypad to a single button, but they actually were applauded at launch for adding a new physical control.

Apple added a hardware switch to mute the phone.

iphone2G

Along with hardware buttons for home, power, and volume up/down, the iPhone added a physical switch for turning mute on or off.

With most other dominant systems at the time (Nokia, Blackberry), turning off your ringer meant navigating from:

Home -> Settings -> Ringer (or Volume) -> Off

Now you could argue that Apple “simplified” the ability to turn off the ringer, but from an interface standpoint they added a control to their highest level of information architecture (the device) for this one function.  This is roughly the equivalent of a website adding this function to its primary header.

In the push to reduce the number of controls, simplicity gave way to an equally important design consideration: minimizing the number of steps to perform a high value action (with the added benefit of tactile access, crucial for a function you might want to perform sight-unseen, in your pocket)

Simplicity Can Lead to Overloading, Which Is Complex

Anyone who has worked on a design project around information architecture is familiar with the tradeoff.  Reducing the number of controls or number of entry points definitely simplifies the interface.  Fewer choices, less cognitive load on the user.

Unfortunately, if you have five branches at each level of a command structure, you can make 25 commands just two steps away.  If you have three branches at each level, you need three steps to reach that same number of commands.

No one wants to replicate the Microsoft Office hierarchy of thousands of commands littered across dozens of entry points.  But if your software honestly has four key functions, “simplifying” to one entry point can make the users job harder, not easier.

Wealthfront: Building Trust with Transparency

At Wealthfront, one of top priorities is building trust with guest visitors to our site.  Interestingly, we’ve discovered that over-simplification has another negative attribute: when people don’t readily see the answer to a key question, there is potential for them to assume you’re hiding that information.

As a result, our new user experience is a careful balance of simplicity, but balanced with providing crucial information to our visitors, even at the risk of some complexity.

We show our clients up front our investment choices, down to quick answers for why we’ve chosen each particular ETF.  We provide examples of both taxable and tax-deferred account allocations up front, even before the visitor has signed up for the service.

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 4.08.39 PM

To be sure, like all software interfaces, there are significant improvements that we can make to our new user experience.  But it’s worth sharing that our experience has been that blind adherence to simplicity can actually hurt the level of confidence and trust people have with your service.  This interface has seen the company to record growth in 2013, up over 250% for the year (as of September).

More broadly, it’s worth considering that when you bury functions and features, you may trigger emotions in your user that aren’t positive:

  • Frustration. They don’t know where to look for something they want.
  • AnxietyThey worry that the thing they need is no longer supported.
  • Distrust. They assume that you are hiding something for a reason.

So remember, when someone preaches the religion of simplicity, think carefully about Einstein’s Razor.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

How to Recover the Left Side Navigation in iTunes 11

I can’t believe I’m writing this blog post, but I am.

Last night, I tweeted out my joy at finding out that Apple did, in fact, provide a menu item to re-enable the side navigation in iTunes 11.  Now, while I’m not a huge fan of the complexity and modality of the older iTunes interface, there is no doubt that after using iTunes 11 for a week, you wish for the halcyon days of the left navigation bar.

Surprisingly, enough people tweeted and commented in gratitude that I realized I should probably summarize in a blog post.

iTunes 11 – Default

This is the iTunes 11 default interface. (Try to ignore my taste in movies for a second)

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.09.42 AM

iTunes 11 – Sidebar

This is iTunes 11 with the sidebar enabled.

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.14.16 AM

All of a sudden, the shockingly horrid modality of the iTunes 11 default interface is resolved.  You can easily select which sub-category of content in your iTunes library you want to browse, and viewing connected devices and playlists has once again become trivial.  It turns out, you still end up with the horrid choices for navigation views within a “domain”, but at least we’re 80% of the way back to the (limited) usability of the previous iTunes interface.

Wait, How Did You Do It?

It’s hidden under the View menu, “Show Sidebar”

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.13.27 AM

Simple does not mean Easy to Use

Just as cuffs, collars and neckties are subject to the whims of fashion, so also do memes in design tend to come and go in software.  I think iTunes 11 represents a bit of a teachable moment on a couple concepts that have been overplayed recently, and what happens when you take them too far.

  1. Consistency does not always lead to ease of use.  Having a more consistent interface between the iPhone, iPad, AppleTV and Mac OS renditions of iTunes may seem like an “obvious” goal, but the fact is all of these devices vary in terms of input mechanisms and use cases.  The truth is, many users sit down at a desktop for different tasks than they sit down at a TV for, and the interface of the desktop is optimized for those tasks with large, high resolution screens and a keyboard.My best guess here is that Apple optimized the interface for laptops, not desktops, and for consumption, not curation. However, Apple would have been well served to provide a “first launch” experience with packaged pre-sets of these minor configurable options, to let users who are upgrading easily identify their primary mode of operation.I would love Apple to take a more proactive stance on how to build applications and services that provide elements of commonality across the multitude of devices that users increasing use to author, curate and consume content with, without blind adherence to making everything look & behave “the same”.
  2. Simple does not mean easy to use.   On the heals of Steve Jobs mania, it has become ultra-fashionable to talk about simplicity as the end-all, be-all of product design.  The fact is, there is often a trade off between reducing the number of controls that an application (or device) has, and introducing increased modality for commonly used functions.  The one button mouse was, in fact, simpler than the two button mouse.  However, it came at the expense of pushing a significant amount of functionality into a combination of selection and menu modality.Look at the poor “single button” on the iPhone.  Simple, but now stacked with modality based on the number and timing of presses.Designers would do well to consider the balance of simplicity, accessibility and the difficult decision of which functions are so key to an application that they require “zero click” comprehension of availability.  For iTunes 11, the hidden modality of managing the devices synched to your iTunes library is unforgivable. (The likely sin here is being too forward looking. As we move to iCloud for everything, the need for devices to be tethered to iTunes goes away.  But we’re not there yet with video.)

I hope this helps at least one person out there have a better experience with iTunes 11.

The Game Has Changed. Design for Passion.

One of the most exciting developments in software has been a resurgence in the focus and priority on design.  With the growing dominance of social platforms and mobile applications, more and more people are growing comfortable productively discussing and utilizing insights about human emotion in their work.

Google: The Era of Utility

The progress of the last five to seven years is really a significant breakout from the previous generations of software design.

For decades, software engineers and designers focused on utility:  value, productivity, speed, features or cost.

If it could be quantified, we optimized it.  But at a higher level, with few exceptions, we framed every problem around utility.  Even the field of human-computer interaction was obsesses with “ease of use.”  Very linear, with clear ranking.  How many clicks? How long does a task take?  What is the error rate?

In some ways, Google (circa 2005) represented the peak of this definition of progress.  Massive data.  Massive scalability. Incredibly utility.  Every decision defined by quantifying and maximizing utility by various names.

But let’s face it, only computer scientists can really get passionate about the world’s biggest database.

Social: The Era of Emotion

Like any ecosystem, consumer technology is massively competitive.  Can you be faster, cheaper, bigger or more useful than Google?  It turns out, there is a more interesting question.

Social networks helped bring the language of emotion into software.  A focus on people starts with highly quantifiable attributes, but moves quickly into action and engagement.

What do people like? What do they hate? What do they love? What do they want?

In parallel, there have been several developments that reflect similar insights on the web, in behavioral finance, and the explosion in interest in game mechanics.

Human beings are not rational, but (to borrow from Dan Ariely) they are predictably irrational.  And now, thanks to scaling social platforms to over a billion people, we have literally petabytes of data to help us understand their behavior.

Passion Matters

Once you accept that you are designing and selling a product for humans, it seems obvious that passion matters.

We don’t evaluate the food we eat based on metrics (although we’d likely be healthier if we did).  Do I want it? Do I love it? How does it make me feel?

The PayPal mafia often joke that great social software triggers at least one of the seven deadly sins. (For the record, LinkedIn has two: vanity & greed).  Human beings haven’t changed that much in the past few thousand years, and the truth is the seven deadly sins are just a proxy for a deeper insight.  We are still driven by strong emotions & desires.

In my reflection on Steve Jobs, he talks about Apple making products that people “lust” for.  Not the “the best products”, “the cheapest products”, “the most useful products” or “the easiest to use products.”

Metrics oriented product managers, engineers & designers quickly discover that designs that trigger passion outperform those based on utility by wide margins.

The Game Has Changed

One of the reasons a number of earlier web giants are struggling to compete now is that the game has changed.  Utility, as measured by functionality, time spent, ease-of-use are important, but they are no longer sufficient to be competitive. Today, you also have to build products that trigger real emotion.  Products that people will like, will want, will love.

Mobile has greatly accelerated this change.  Smartphones are personal devices.  We touch them, they buzz for us. We keep them within three feet of us at all times.

Too often in product & design we focus on utility instead of passion.  To break out today, you need to move your efforts to the next level.  The questions you need to ask yourself are softer:

  • How do I feel when I use this?
  • Do I want that feeling again?
  • What powerful emotions surround this product?

Go beyond utility.  Design for passion.

Top 10 Product Leadership Lessons

On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to give a talk at the 9th annual Harvard Business School Entrepreneurship Conference.  I’m trying to be better about posting the slides from these talks as they happen.

Context & Caveats

This talk is based substantially on a lecture I gave at LinkedIn on August 31, 2011.  It’s heavily based on the unique product, strategy and organizational issues that you see currently in fast moving, hyper growth, consumer-focused software companies.

At the same time, many of the higher level business and management issues discussed are fairly universal, so hopefully there is something useful here for anyone who is passionate about building organizations that build great products.

So take a look, and I look forward to the comments.  FWIW The Optimus Prime quotes are from this excellent list of Optimus Prime quotes for the workplace.

Be A Great Product Leader

Pinterest & LinkedIn: Identity of Taste vs. Expertise

It’s hard to go three feet in Silicon Valley these days without someone commenting on the phenomenal engagement and growth being seen from Pinterest and other curation-based social platforms.  What’s a bit surprising to me, however, is how many people refer to this demand as a growing interest and search for “expertise”.

As I have a passion for finding a more human understanding for what drives engagement in real life and then mapping it to online behavior, I think the use of the term “expertise” here is misleading.  Instead, I believe what we are seeing is an explosion of activity around an incredibly powerful form of identity and reputation: the identity of taste.

Expertise is Empirical

If you go to LinkedIn, you see a site that is rich with the identity of expertise.  LinkedIn has rich structured data around sources of expertise: degrees, schools, companies, titles, patents, published content, skills.  They also have rich sources of unstructured content about job responsibilities, specialties, questions & answers, group participation, status updates and comments.  There are even implicit indications of expertise related to other online identities (like Twitter) and relationships to other people with expertise (connections).

This expertise can be tapped by using LinkedIn’s incredibly powerful search engine, either on site or via API, or by browsing the talent graph displayed in catalog form on LinkedIn Skills.  Github has created a powerful identity for developers based on their actual interests and contributions in code.  Blogs, Tumblr, Quora and Twitter have helped people create identities based on the content they create and share.

The power of identity based on expertise is that it is concretely demonstrated.  Education, experience, content and relationships are all very structured and concrete methods for measuring and assessing expertise.  However, in some ways, expertise is limited by it’s literal nature.  Factual. Demonstrable. Empirical.

Taste is Inspiring

Pinterest, however, has unlocked an incredibly powerful form of reputation and identity that exists in the offline world – an identity of taste.  People don’t care about the expertise of people who are assembling pinboards.  They care about how those combinations make them feel – the concept, the aggregation, the flow of additions.  The Pinboard graph begins for most people with their friends, but people quickly learn to hop based on sources to people they don’t know, finding beautiful, interesting, intriguing or inspiring collections of images.

This isn’t an identity based on expertise, really.  It’s not even clear how closely related it is to a graph of interests. Curation-based social platforms evoke a different phenomenon, and with it, some very powerful emotions and social behaviors.

Taste is different than expertise.  Taste does not imply that you are a good person or a deep well of expertise on the domain.  Taste is not universal, although there are certainly those with a predilection for influencing and/or predicting the changes in taste for many.  But when we as human beings find people whose taste inspires us, it’s a powerful relationship.  We map positive attributes to them, ranging from kindness to intelligence to even authority.  Fame & taste are often intertwined.

You Are What You Curate

Curation-based social platforms are based on the interaction of three key factors:

  1. A rich, visual identity and reputation based on curated content
  2. An asymmetric graph based on not only following people, but specific feeds of curated content
  3. A rich, visual activity stream of curation activity

It’s the first item that I seem to see most under-appreciated.  Vanity, as one of the most common deadly sins in social software, drives an incredible amount of engagement and activity.  As people are inspired by those who create beautiful identities of curated content, they also become keenly aware of how their curated identity looks.  When people signal an appreciation for their taste, it triggers power social impulses, likely built up at an early age.

This, more than anything else, reflects the major step function in engagement of this generation of curation over previous attempts (anyone remember Amazon Lists?)

How Does Taste Factor into Your Experience?

I always like to translate these insights into actionable questions for product designers.  In this case, these are some good starting points:

  • How does taste factor into your experience?
  • Is the identity in your product better served by reputation based on taste or expertise?
  • Are the relationships in your product between users based on taste or expertise?
  • Are you creating an identity visually and emotionally powerful enough to trigger curation activity?
  • Are you flowing curation activity through your experience in a way that stimulates discovery and the creation of an identity of taste?

Don’t underestimate the power of good taste.

LinkedIn in LEGO: Q&A

Ever since I began showing the LinkedIn in LEGO sculpture, I’ve been shocked with how many questions people have about it.  There is definitely something about seeing a LEGO sculpture of this size in person that makes people want to know more.

So while this blog post is the official description of how and why I built the LinkedIn in LEGO sculpture, I thought a 20 questions format would be fun and useful.

Let’s Play Twenty Questions

  1. What gave you the idea to build the LinkedIn in LEGO sculpture?
    I was driving to work in May, and as usual I drove by the Google building that houses the Android team.  They have a tradition of putting a sculpture of each of their releases out based on the codename (“honeycomb”, “ice cream”, etc).  I love these sculptures, but they always bothered me because Google is techie, and there is nothing techie about playground sculptures.I immediately thought how much cooler they would be if they were made of LEGO bricks, and thought that LinkedIn actually had nothing “cool” in its lobby.  So the idea was hatched to build a LinkedIn LEGO sculpture for our lobby on the next InDay.

  2. How big is the sculpture in real life?
    It’s four feet tall, four feet wide, and one foot deep (approximately). 4′ x 4′ x 1′.

  3. Why did you pick that size?
    I tried to pick a size that was big enough to be visually impressive, and a good size for people to stand next to for photographs.  There was also some cost sensitivity, as the number of bricks required effectively goes up as a cubic function.

  4. How big is a LEGO brick anyway?
    There is suprising complexity to this question, but the most interesting aspect of designing with LEGO bricks instead of pixels is that they are not perfectly cubic. A LEGO “stud” is 8.0mm wide and 8.0mm deep, but is 9.6mm tall, giving you an effective 6/5 ratio to work with in your model design.

  5. How many LEGO bricks are in it?
    Unfortunately, I don’t have an exact figure.  I ordered 8,000 bricks from LEGO.com, but also purchased a large number from local LEGO stores.  It’s definitely over 10,000 bricks, but likely less than 12,000.

  6. Are they real LEGO bricks?
    I don’t know why everyone asks that question, but yes, these are regular lego bricks, mostly 2×8.  They are not Duplo bricks or any other no-name brand.

  7. How much does it weigh?
    I don’t have the exact weight, but the shipping weight of the LEGO bricks alone was over 170 pounds, and I purchased at least another 50 pounds of bricks from the LEGO stores.  Including the heavy stand, the sculpture is well over 200 pounds.

  8. Where did you buy them?
    I purchased the bulk of the bricks directly from LEGO.  We had to call and fax the order in because the online form won’t let you order more than 999 of any one brick.  Due to changes in the design made during construction, I ended up buying another several thousand bricks from the LEGO stores in Valley Fair and Hillsborough.

  9. How much did it cost to make?
    Total cost was fairly close to $5,000.  That includes the cost of the bricks, the supplies to build the stand, and other related expenses.

  10. How did you build the stand for it?
    Home Depot to the rescue.  The base is custom cut 3/4 inch plywood, framed by 2×4 lumber, with 6 200-lb furniture moving locking wheels underneath.  Once assembled, I spray painted matte black and screwed the 32×32 blue lego base tiles in a grid on to it.

  11. How did you come up with the design for the [in]?
    This was a bit tricky given the non-square dimensions of the bricks.  Based on 8.0mm width, I quickly determined the logo would be 160 studs wide.  Using the 5/6 ratio, this meant 133 bricks tall.  I took the official LinkedIn logo and reduced it down to a 160×160 bitmap.  I then resided to 160×133, and manually fixed symmetry errors that were introduced by applying the ratio.

  12. How did you build the four rounded corners?
    This was one of the more complicated parts of the construction, as the corners actually support most of the weight of the side walls.  As a result, they are built more broadly internally to ensure significant cross-dimensional support.  The top corners were also particularly fragile at first because of the lack of internal support.  For both the top & the bottom, I had to rebuild them three times to find the strongest pattern of bricks.

  13. Is the white [in] actually inset by one brick?
    Yes.  One of the trickiest aspects of the [in] was insetting it by one brick for effect, and then ensure that there was ample strength between the blue and white bricks.  I ended up building a hidden “3rd layer” behind the seam where the white & blue bricks meet to join the two layers every 10 rows.  I also used 2×3 bricks in several locations to lock in support for the hidden third row.

  14. How did you make the curves smooth?
    The rendering of the curves follows the 160×133 logo exactly.  It’s not perfectly smooth, but I think that’s part of the charm of a LEGO sculpture.  In this industry, we all love pixels at some level.

  15. What’s holding it up?
    The internal substructure is one of the things I failed to model in advance, and had to improvise on during construction.  I ended up making the internal support structure from LEGO bricks as well, which added over 2,000 bricks to the design.  Approximately every 32 studs, there is a “T-shaped” 8 stud clumn that is perpendicular to the walls of the sculpture.  The bricks for the walls of the sculpture are interleaved with these columns every other row, to provide corner-like strength to the entire span.  Every 40 rows, a horizontal beam four bricks tall is added between the columns, to ensure that the large, square walls don’t bend in on each other.  Lastly, there are “joints” internally that bind together the white and blue sections of the design every ten rows.  (see my original blog post for pictures).

  16. What was the hardest part about the design?
    There were a number of difficult challenges, but the most difficult aspect of the design was balancing unexpected stability and design issues with the inventory of bricks that I had available.  Then again, constraints are part of what makes any problem fun to solve.

  17. How long did it take to build it?
    It took about 90 minutes to build ten rows, so the total sculpture took just about 20 hours of effort, typically 1-2 hours per weekend and an evening here and there.  Since I spent about 3-4 hours modelling the design ahead of time in Photoshop and Excel, and another 10-12 hours making trips to local LEGO stores, the grand total time is probably 40 hours.

  18. When did you get it done?
    The modelling was all done in my favorite work time, between 11pm & 2am.  I built the base on Father’s Day.  Most assembly was done at LinkedIn on weekends and the odd evening.

  19. How did you learn to do this?
    There was a surprising amount of useful information on blogs from consultants who build LEGO sculptures for a living.  LEGO, as you might guess, is pretty well covered on the web.  I also asked a question on Quora which provided a few useful tips.

  20. Where can I see it?
    It’s not on public display yet, but later this fall it will debut in the new lobby of 2029 Stierlin Court, LinkedIn’s main building.

If you have additional questions, feel free to post in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Be forewarned – I have no qualms about deleting inappropriate comments / questions.

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