It was a full house at Hootsuite last night for Style & Class #6, a speaking series sponsored by Mobify and led by Dave Shea and his cadre of co-organizers.
I presented on the importance of moving past methods and towards principles. Methods, we know all too well, come in and out of fashion, replaced as we learn to do things better. Principles, however, act as guide-stars that help us navigate the challenges of designing digital experiences and give character to a career in product design. We also took a brief tour of Activity Theory, a framework for thinking through design problems in a way that lines up with the principles we follow at Denim & Steel.
The slides from the presentation rely too much on the talk itself to stand on their own, but we’ve put together some notes on key points, as well as a reading list promised in the Q&A portion.
This quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an important piece in the talk, and spoke to an issue that touches on many practices, but feels especially poignant for a field that changes as quickly as UX:
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
The six principles
These are the guide-stars that inform the many decisions that we make both explicitly and implicitly as we work through strategy, design, and engineering efforts.
1. People do things for other people
No matter what it is, when someone is using your product to achieve some goal, they’re not just doing it for themselves. We want to look good, we want to do well by others, and we want to be recognized, even through very personal activities. Understanding this is to embrace the social reality that design must take into account, especially in an ever-more connected world.
2. No “Users”
When we refer to people as users, we give up the chance to humanize and inform our conversations. More pointedly, we radically flatten the natural diversity and relationships that exist between people, and that are affected both through and around our products.
Identifying people as “people” is a mind-shift, and a harder habit to get into but not impossible. To really embrace this principle, referring to people by their roles or relationships in the context we’re designing for is very powerful. A teacher, cashier, gardener, inventor, or parent is a much more descriptive name than user, and let’s us always tell them apart even in unconscious ways.
3. People change more slowly than tech
However much we might notice and talk about shifting norms, whether it’s around privacy, selfies, or how much time kids should spend with a screen, the fundamentals of what drives people do not change quickly. We cringe when we hear people talk about ‘society needing to adapt’ to new tech. Tech is what changes quickly, so we emphasize designing for the fact that people are people, rather than demanding them to change to fit what we couldn’t do well.
4. Tech entails inescapable power dynamics
Even people who don’t directly use your product can be affected by it. The abilities that technology grants to one group of people may come at the expense of another, or turn back on them in unexpected ways. As we think about bringing digital more into the physical world, whether its through wearables, Internet of Things, or robotics, these issues will become every more pressing, and designers will be required to think about them deeply.
5. Software is an infinite canvas
When something isn’t working with a product, the first thing we all want to say is “maybe we can add something to help with that.” Software loves being added to. It’s an infinite canvas that is willing to go as far as our imaginations will take it, unlike buildings or physical things that have more direct and obviously limiting factors. Knowing that you can write any amount of code, the challenge becomes to find the least amount of tech that solves your problems. In doing so, you’ll be making fewer things that can go wrong for you and for your customers.
6. The curation of future moments
UX is the curation of future moments. It’s about creating something that people will put their time and attention into, and that they might depend on, you’ll never know them. You’ll need to choose the moments you try to make happen at that distance, to think through what can go wrong, and provide ways through those problems as best you can.
Websites to follow
90% of Everything
Bret Victor’s Blog
Little big Details
Mind the Product
Books to read
Acting with Technology
The Art of Game Design
The Clock of the Long Now
It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens
The Machine Stops
The Power of Myth
The Real World of Technology
The User Experience Team of One
You Are Not a Gadget