Blog

Welcome to a little bit of my thoughts and musings about work and the Web. Some of these may just be notes to myself.

Ask More Questions

June 28, 2017

The old adage about how "there are no stupid questions," is wrong.

Of course there are stupid questions.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't ask them.

When starting a new project, or a new job, we can sometimes be timid about our curiousity. But curiosity is an essential element to life. If we don't ask questions, how do we learn?

Whether I'm helping a friend or starting something new, the answer to any unsolved problem has always been to ask more questions.

For example, a project I worked on was having trouble with the store locator on their webiste. Well, as soon as I heard that I started thinking about possible technical solutions. But before I got too far into that, I dug a little deeper.

It seemed like a stupid question, but I asked, "So, is this a business problem or a technical problem?" As it turned out, it was a business problem, and the solution wasn't something I could handle with code.

With a little open curiousity, I saved what could have been a lot of wasted effort on my part.

So go ahead, ask those stupid questions. It's worth it.

Create and Show Rough Drafts

July 5, 2017

As a bit of a perfectionist, I've had to learn a difficult lesson: drafts are not finished products.

The biggest waste of time I put myself through in the past was creating something close to a finished product only to find out the stakeholder didn't like it. (That's the worst-case scenario that doesn't happen anymore.)

Maybe the process I had been using at school didn't evolve properly. Create, create, create, and then turn it in and hope for the best... that doesn't work in the real world.

What I had to force myself to do was to create something without editing it as a I went. If it's words, put them all down on the screen before structuring it. If it's design, scribble out a stack of recycling before starting anything digital.

Then edit the text, or design a set of lo-fidelity mockups, and show it to someone. Or put it all aside for a day and show it to yourself later.

Whether you or that someone likes it, hates it, makes irrelevant comments, or just stares at it blankly, you will come out of the exchange with something. It could be a decision to run with what you’ve got, it could be an idea for an edit or redesign, or you could just scrap the whole thing.

Either way, you’ve tried a few different approaches and gotten feedback. And now that final draft should start to look more clear.

Getting Unstuck

July 18, 2017

With the 10 different activities I have going at once, I can sometimes get stuck on a task.

This happened to me recently with an important, high-level task that no one else could do at that time. (Nothing special about me, just right person, right time.)

It wasn't that I didn't know what to do. It was that I didn't know where to begin because there was so much to do and so much I was already doing.

With all of these ideas floating around in my head, I couldn't pick one to start with, and I was missing the obvious.

I needed a plan.

So I sat down and started making lists, cataloging everything I was doing, wanted to do, needed to do, had planned to do, was supposed to do, and had absolutely no time to do.

It was a kind of purge.

I ended up with four lists and a paragraph that was trying to explain it all. It was a mess.

I took a break. I think I watched an espisode of Fargo Season 3 (only something new and engaging can take my mind off work, and I love this show).

Then I came back and reorganized everything. I cut words and sentences and made action phrases and single item lists and put it all in a chronological sequence.

I still had four lists, but they were concise, and they were an outline of how to tackle that important task.

Do you want to learn more about JavaScript?

July 21, 2017

Try answering some JavaScript questions on Stack Overflow. Or whatever language interests you...

The key word in the question at hand is "more." Do you want to learn more about it? Don't go in blind. Bring a basic understanding of the technology with you.

You're strengthening a lot of areas here:

Communication - Figuring out what the real problem is and what solution is actually needed.

Problem Solving - Diving into the technical details to produce results.

Credibility - Community reputation and technical prowess.

Professionalism - Handling criticism or errors in a public forum.

Self Promotion - Visibly helping others.

Find something easy and give it a shot. If you get somewhere with it, add your Stack Overflow profile to your resume and LinkedIn.

Frustrations of Design: Change Requests

July 24, 2017

You've waited a week and the new design has finally hit your inbox. "It's great," you tell the designer, "just a few changes..."

Sigh.

Every designer deals with this, it's part of the job. But at what point do you decline to make the changes? Never. As a designer, you don't want to say, "No," to change requests. You want clients to say, "Yes!" to your designs.

There are two sides to this story--client and designer.

The designer wants to create something useful and aesthetic. The client wants to get something useful and aesthetic.

This problem of change requests arises when either the designer isn't doing their job or the client is trying to be the designer.

The Designer

It's the job of the designer to be able to justify their choices when questioned.

Design isn't all about aesthetics. You're heading into the realm of Art with that idea. Design is meant to communicate something effectively, or cause the audience to do something. Designers won't choose something just because they "like it."

The color of that button, or text was chosen for a purpose. That color either draws the eye, or maybe its part of a carefully chosen palette. You have to be able to explain the choice.

As a designer, if you're getting a lot of change requests, one question that you should ask yourself is, "Do I truly understand the purpose of this design?"

The Client

It's the job of the client to be sure the designer understands the purpose of the design. If you're making endless change requests, take a step back and evaluate the requests you're making:

Are the changes purely aesthetic or are they going to further the purpose of the design?

If they're purely aesthetic, work with your designer on it. Ask them why they chose the offending element of the design. Ask them if they had any other options in mind (designers often have a few versions of something, even if only in their mind).

If you think the changes are meant to make the design more useful, you're going to get a better product if you discuss the changes with the designer rather than ordering them made. The conversation could be short, or it could produce changes that are better than your original idea. Let the designer design.

What is an Expert Review?

July 25, 2017

When the barriers are too high to conduct user research, a user experience (UX) designer will use their own expertise to review a website.

That's the Expert Review, also known as the Expert Usability Review.

The review covers a range of usability topics:

  • Navigation
  • Content Organization
  • Labeling
  • Design Consistency
  • User Expectation
  • Visual Design
  • Readability
  • Task Analysis
  • Help and Support

Each of the above items is touched on by the UX designer. So, good or bad, the review documents the overall usability of the site.

While user research is ideal, the Expert Review can be the path to a higher quality minimum viable product without the expense.

What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

July 25, 2017

In the midst of a career change, I've struggled to find a single pursuit and a matching job title in the technology industry.

There's so much about technology that fascinates me. I love mobile apps, responsive websites, user experience, user interface design, and on and on. Ideally, I would specialize in one area, and I want to, but it hasn't happened.

At work I use a stack consisting of PHP, MySQL, Bootstrap, and SASS. That's a full stack—front to back.

At school I built a shopping cart application in JavaScript with MongoDB, Express, and Node. That's another full stack.

I spent a fun two semesters learning Swift and building iOS applications. That's native mobile development.

I've been a graphic designer for most of my career—both print and digital media (web design included).

A large part of my school curriculum included user experience (UX). I produced a nice collection of real world deliverables. That's good experience for a career as a UX designer.

Then there's the marketing. School and work experience both here as well.

So what am I? Digital Marketing Expert? UX Designer? Graphic Designer? Web Designer? Mobile Developer? Full Stack Developer?

I don't feel confident using any of those titles because my expertise is so broad, so I've started using "Designer and Developer" as a generic title but it's so… generic. I feel like it doesn't explain what I do, but I'm undecided if that's good or not. While the title is vague, I think it might invite questions:

"So what do you actually do?"

"Are you a graphic designer, too?"

"Are you a web or software developer?"

Are these questions good conversation starters? Or a compelling reason to read more of my resume or website? Or are the questions based in frustration?

Usability Guidelines: Navigation

July 26, 2017

Navigation is an essential element of a website whether it consists of one page or many.

There are many aspects of navigation, but they all need to handle two questions from the user, "Where am I and how do I get to...?"

Site Structure
How individual pages are arranged and linked to one another. Is the hierarchy narrow and deep, or wide and shallow? What works best with your audience and content?
Header and Footer
Which pages of the website will be linked in the header versus those in the footer. Will the header navigation be concise? And should there be fat footer showing additional links?
Local Navigation
How pages are linking to each other outside of the global navigation. Is there enough content to justify using local navigation? Does its placement aid the user?
Breadcrumb Navigation
A contextual set of links showing the user's location with the site's structure. Is your content organized in a way that makes breadcrumbs useful? If so, should their function be location-based or path-based?
Pagination
How large amounts of content or data are handle, i.e. 100 records split into 10 pages of 10.
Action Sequences
A series of pages as part of an activity. How many steps is the checkout process? Can the user see where they are in the sequence?
In-Page Anchors
Links that do not take the user to another page, but to a specific point on the same page. Can the user see that the link will jump them to another spot on the page? Are they being overused?
Anchor Geometry
How the interactive elements are shaped. Are links big enough for touch interaction? What happens on a desktop screen?
Functionality
How the various navigation elements behave. Do dropdown menus activate on hover? How many levels deep do the menus go?

By answering these questions as part of a full analysis, a UX designer will have a clear picture of what happens when the user asks, "Where am I and how do I get over there?"

Perseverance

July 27, 2017

My senior year of high school I did something outside of my norm–I joined the swim team. I did it for two reasons. The first reason was that I liked swimming. The second reason was because a friend of mine said I'd never make it through the season–an interesting challenge.

So here I was, a senior swimming with all the freshman. I wasn't good enough to swim with the upper classmen.

Sometime mid-season, Coach put me in a 500 meter freestyle exhibition. He was nuts. But I didn't say no.

I lined up. I dove in. And I swam. Three pool-lengths in and I was gasping for air. Only seven more laps to go... I couldn't keep my head underwater I was breathing so heavily.

I wanted to stop. It was painful. Everyone could see me struggling–the crowd, the other team, my team. I had given up. The fifth lap was going to be my last lap, but I looked up and there at the end of the pool was a group of my teammates. They were cheering me on. No one ever cheered me on. This race didn't even mean anything but they cheered anyway.

It was at that point that I dug in. Only death would stop me.

I finished the race last, but I finished. And I NEVER, NEVER forgot that event.

It wasn't that I finished. It wasn't that my team cheered me on (though I'm grateful). It was that I decided not to give up, and I didn't. That's what mattered.

I did't like the race while I was swimming it. I hated it. But I did it.

Completion of the race had no bearing on anything. Making it through the season didn't matter either.

What mattered was that I was willing to do it, I agreed to do it, I spent the time and energy doing it, and I finished. This was a character defining moment for me.

I earned the respect of my team. And I earned the respect of myself.

That's why I will keep working at it, even if I don't like it.

Usability Guidelines: Content Organization

August 1, 2017

Every grocery store is divided into sections and aisles. They want to make it as easy as possible for their shoppers (users) to find what they need, and that should also be the goal of every website or application.

A clear system or pattern of content organization allows for easy consumption of information by the user. Visual design and usability tweaks cannot overcome poorly organized content.

Content organzation comes down to one basic activity: content chunking.

Chunking is a strategy aimed at improving information retention among users. It's much easier to remember theses chunks as chunks rather than trying to retain all the information inside the chunk or in a long length of text.

There are a few different approaches used in chunking:

Inventory
The first steps in organizing anything is to gather all of the items in question. Every bit of content for the website, application, etc., needs to be listed. Has anything been forgotten? Is there anything new to add? Answers to these questions may become more apparent as the chunking continues.
Grouping
From the inventory, grouping can begin. The process is a game of topics and categories. Every item has a weaker or stronger relationship to the items in its surroundings. How do they relate? Do some items belong in more than one group?
Chunking
With some basic groups formed, its now time to take a look at what's in these groups. How much content does each one of these items represent? Can it be chunked down further? Can any long lengths of text be split up or turned into bullet points?
Sequencing
And while all this chunking is happening, it's important to recognize sequences in the content. Is any of this content part of a step-by-step process? Could it or should it be? Or can an established sequence be improved?

Content chunking is an action that will help your users. It gives them the chance to consume your content, rather than causing them strain in trying to find and process the information you're sharing.

Usability Guidelines: Labeling

August 1, 2017

Labeling can be thought of as concise description. In some cases, labels will be cut short, they'll have a character limit, or they could be full sentences. It's important to be mindful of the different aspects of a label's limitations and usefulness.

Page Titles
Easily overlooked from a usability perspective, page titles can provide both context and navigation for users. Page titles are often obscured so only the first few words (2-5) may be visible to the user. Make it count by labeling based on the actual content of the page.
Content Headings
With additional space for words, headings are more forgiving and more informative, too. A heading should cover the basics of the who, what, when, and where, while the content below it should exlain why.
Links
Avoid using jargon or potentially confusing words. Link labels should be short, descriptive, and give a clear picture of where they lead. "Learn more" or "Read more" are vague. Something like, "Find out how this service could save you 25%!" is enticing and informs the user of the link's destination.

Labeling also plays an important role in navigation, user expectation, and readability so it should be addressed with care.

Form One Line Here

August 4, 2017

Imagine you're at a grocery store’s self-checkout one day, ready to buy all those embarrassing hygiene products—because that's why self-checkouts were originally invented, right?—and you can't figure out where to get in line.

The “line” is a just a crowd of people. At the front, they're pausing and saying, "You go," and then, "No, you can go," in a battle of polite impatience. Meanwhile, a second kiosk opens up, unnoticed. The winner goes to the first open kiosk and there's a lag before someone pokes the new front of the line to take the second.

Laying off to the side is a sign on the floor. "Form One Line Here," it says. You walk over, put the sign back in its place, and head to the back of the crowd.

Slowly, a line forms behind the sign. Order is restored. People are moving and the line is quickly diminishing.



That's the essence of user experience design. It's not always as simple as a fallen sign, but it can be.

Usability Guidelines: Design Consistency

August 7, 2017

If you take a look around our everyday world, there are consistencies everywhere. Stop signs are octagonal and red. Street signs are long and green, etc.

So when you pull up to a stop sign, do you pause to read it before taking the appropriate action? No, you stop, wait your turn, and go.

But what if the next stop sign you came upon was black and square. Would you pause? Would you be confused? Would you think to yourself, "Is that really a stop sign?"

Probably all of the above.

The purpose of design consistency in a website is to provide a stable base for the user to stand on. They will know what to expect from page to page. They can focus on content rather than spending time finding it because of difference in presentation.

Design consistency takes into account functionality as well. Do buttons behave predictably? Do asynchronous transactions provide the same status indicators?

One of the best ways to implement consistency is to create a style guide. A style guide provides a basis for the creation of new design elements. Included in this should be descriptions of functionalities that would benefit from consistency (drop-down menus, for example).

Consistency is one of those things most users don't notice, but they feel it. They might make comments about this or that because they just can't pinpoint it. But when consistency is applied, it just "feels good" to users.

Usability Guidelines: User Expectation

August 9, 2017

Life can be stressful and unpredictable—the unexpected waits to pounce at any moment. If you stop to think about it, it's cause for anxiety.

So, how does this translate to user experience design? Expectation. Predictability. User's need it.

If a user expects an HTML form to give them a confirmation that the form was sent, give it to them. If a user expects a link to go to a new page, don't send them to an entirely different application. If a user expects to get a context menu when they right click on your site, give it to them.

The mundane parts of existence that are easy to predict compensate for the things that we can't predict. The comforting predictability counterbalances the anxiety of the unknown.

Don't take this to mean that boundaries and paradigms shouldn't be pushed, but this isn't the goal of the average website. The goal is usually to buy this or to read that. Don't throw your users off with clever "solutions." Make it easy for them to get what they need.