Tool users vs service users

I am not one of those people who sees service design as the grand catch-all for multi-touchpoint multi-/omni-channel experiences.

I feel the same way about “service” as I did in the early aughts about the term “user”. These words imply relationships between what is designed and the person whom it is designed. Designing for the wrong relationship means misframing the design problem. “User” implies a tool relationship. Users use things as a means to accomplish something. Of course we can apply the word ‘use’ broadly and see a movie as something an audience uses for entertainment or a concierge as something a visitor uses to get local information, but this breadth is purchased at the cost of consequential subtleties. What we need and expect from a word processor is different from what we expect from a concert or a bank. Discovering exactly what those needs and expectations are and developing satisfactory resolutions of those needs calls for different methods. The mistakes UX have historically made were often tied up with insufficient sensitivity to these distinctions. The same is true of “services”. We can reduce a drill to one component in hole-making service that spans a journey from discovering a need all the way to resolving it, and, yes, much is gained from seeing it this way, but if we are not careful, important distinctions can be lost.

And in fact I do believe certain things are currently being lost by this framing. Software as a service (aka cloud computing) has changed norms around how software is supposed to behave. We are now accustomed to think of web-based software as something that belongs to someone else that we are licensed to make use of. A decade ago, users were more likely to perceive software as tools to own, learn and eventually master. Upgrading was a purchase decision resembling the decision to replace a pen or a hammer with an improved model — not as a periodic change that just happens and requires us to adapt.

This seems mostly OK in many cases, especially where tools serve as front ends to services, for instance banking and accounting, or databases. But for software tools used for making things — word processing, image editing, ideating, music creation, even blogging — changes, especially subtle ones, distract from the tools purpose which is to be an invisible extension of a user’s abilities. It is important that such tools be utterly predictable, controllable and unobtrusive so the user can exercise mastery over the tool to keep complete focus on what is being produced. I am concerned that software designers have lost all awareness of this goal. They are focused on different problems.

Years ago I was struck by the elegance of James Spradley’s research method typology, defining them not by technique, but rather by the role played by the research informant. Surveys are performed with respondents, tests with subjects and ethnography with informants. I think a similar approach could be helpful for classifying design methods. Perhaps we could gain clarity by paying less attention to medium or channel of delivery and more attention to the kind of relationship we are trying to develop through our design between the designed thing and the people for whom it is intended.

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Obtrusive conveniences

A design trend that disturbs me intensely: obtrusive conveniences.

What makes these conveniences obtrusive is that they make it incredibly inconvenient to refuse what they offer and you end up fighting for control over what you are attempting to do.

An example that is driving me away from iOS is text selection. Instead of giving the user direct character-level control over  selection, iOS tries to divine the user’s intention. Are they selecting just a character? or a word? or a text block? It never gets it right, and the effect is one of fighting for control.

Autocorrect also blows it constantly. If you use unusual words it constantly changes them to common ones for you. It is like one of those idiots who insists on finishing your sentences for you constantly despite having no idea that you are saying something they don’t already know. I can’t believe Jony I’ve hasn’t done something about how much effort it takes to type his name against the digital will of the devices he’s made.

And these behaviors are not even bad in a consistent way across apps. Now a new breed of “creative” coder has entered the scene who feels he can improve “the experience” by adding his own innovative flourishes to text editing. Nowevery editor you use has different behaviors around selection, spell checking, formatting, etc. Sadly, the more powerful HTML becomes, and the more empowered designers and developers are, the more inconsistent the overall OS platform user experience becomes. “Learn once, use often” has been replaced with utter chaos of second-rate ingenuity. The very editor I am using now (WordPress) is one of the worst offenders.

And don’t even get me started on autocomplete. When everything is optimal — the device is running smoothly, the internet connection is fast, and the user is typing accurately — autocomplete is great. But things are rarely optimal, so what actually happens is painful delays between keystroke and result, leading to mistyping, leading to attempts to delete and correct, with missed keystrokes and that same desire to escape being helped so ineptly.

Behind it all are philosophical principles which I can feel palpably in these interactions. For one thing, there is no awareness that this product is one element of a much larger experiences. For one thing, there is the experience of using the device, something few developers consider anymore. Then there is the experience of trying to get something done. And of course, there is the experience with organizations over time. Human-centered designers think about these overlapping contexts and design with them in mind, but in recent years companies have come to the opinion that iterative trial and error with ludicrously short development cycles that leave little or no time for testing will get them to a great product faster than being thoughtful or thorough. In all of this I detect a relapse, away from empathic discipline (thinking subjectively in terms of experiences) back into obsessive making of objects (which are still called “experiences” by people who like the idealistic tone of the term and the mouthfeel of X). But what bothers me worse is a sense that these coralling conveniences are ok for most people, who don’t really need control, and who are happy to say and do what is easily expected. In these near-irresistable conveniences I feel a sludgy flow toward a brave new world of lethargic uniformity where everything is dittoing, me-tooing, LOLing, emoticoning from a shrinking repertoire of publically recognized standardized experiences.

If any individuals are still out there, consider this a liberal beacon. Hello? Hello?



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Gadget-porn addiction

Apple used to innovate by asking “Wouldn’t it be great if people could ____?” This was what made them uniquely great.

Now Apple does what every other banal tech company does and asks “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make a thing that could ____?” Or even worse “Wouldn’t it be great if we made a thing that has ____ characteristics/features/specs?”

This is why Apple keeps coming up with the same ideas as everyone else in the industry and why none of what they do matters one bit, however much their gadgets get hyped by gadget enthusiasts.

This hyping is part of our problem: great designs are better to use than to obsess over and to talk about. Most of what is best in great design is hard to talk about and is boring to read about. Great design tends to disappear. But cool features, record-setting specs and thrilling visuals generates buzz and drives short-term sales.


I think our culture’s gadget porn problem might be destructive in ways that parallel our culture’s sexual porn problem.

Just as pornography confuses and misleads youth about healthy relationships between partners, gadget porn confuses consumers about healthy relationships between people and things. In both cases, what is most healthy is quiet and not much to talk about but makes life much better. Addiction to lust drives people into cycles of craving, temporary satiety and empty boredom.

When design isn’t rewarded in the market, companies stop taking it seriously. They don’t invest in making products that are great to use, the make sexy-looking gimmicks that open wallets. Our tools start out as pleasant diversions and end up as perpetually irritating distractions.




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Why I get emotional about design

When I use a product, I feel the milieu that produced it. Products are crystallized philosophies. In a designed object I feel people — the people who produced it and sometimes a precise person for whom an object is intended. This “personal from” and “personal to” is what makes design what it is.

When I get inspired or offended by bad design, precisely the personal from and to is what I am reacting to. In objects I sense all kinds of things about the producer: care, contempt, insight, vanity, poetry, banality, tyranny, playfulness, thoroughness, orderliness, arbitrariness, etc. And I also sometimes detect a consumer’s personality and worldview (for better or worse) — a person the producer had in mind for whom this thing is intended. And all too often I feel an anonymous vacuum where a producer or consumer should be. It is a thing from nobody and it is for anybody.


When I’ve felt betrayed by design it is when an organization did a “personality switch” on me, like an unfaithful friend. I can feel that the organization has come to see the world in a new way where there is no longer space for me to exist. The organization used to make things designed for me, but now they’re designing for someone else, or worse for everyone, which really means nobody.


Since we are once again in gift season, I will repost my “Design as gift” idea yet again, with the usual minor variations.

When one person gives another person a perfect gift, the gift is valuable in three ways:

  1. The gift itself is intrinsically valuable to the recipient. The gift is good because it makes life easier, more pleasant or more meaningful.
  2. The gift contributes to the recipient’s own self-understanding and sense of identity. The gift is a concrete example what the receiver experiences as good. It is a crystallization of the recipient’s ideals that reveals something important about the recipient that sometimes cannot be said.
  3. The perfection of the gift is evidence that the giver cares about and understands who the recipient is as an individual. The successful giving of a perfect gift demonstrates that the giver was moved to reflect on the recipient and has real insight into who they are as an individual, what they value and how they fit into the world.

Great design experiences are similar to gifts. When a design  is successful the user gets something valuable, sees tangible proof they are valued and understood, and experiences an intensification or expansion of their sense of self.


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George Soros

I’ve been hearing such dark and incredible tales about George Soros’s depravity and deviousness I felt I’d better look into who he is. And what better better place to start than to go directly to the source and read one of their books?

It turns out Soros is a philosopher — a Popperian. Not only does he have a well-developed liberal ethic, he has developed a profound and liberal metaphysic, which is not something I normally expect from an investor.

The profundity of his metaphysic is what makes him truly exceptional, and I suspect it is also what triggers such violent paranoia in far-right circles. This is what happens when souls who know everything because they need to know everything encounter a soul who knows a much bigger everything.

If only the far-right conspiracists weren’t deluded about Soros’s goals and the extent of his power! If Soros were in a position to actualize his political vision we all would be better off.

I intend to continue reading Soros, and to study Karl Popper’s political writings. This might be the re-fortified liberal philosophy I’ve been looking for.

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Four sides to every conflict

In conflicts, there are four sides to every story: there is my side, there is your side, there is what I think your side is, and there is what you think my side is.

If you want to know a person’s soul, don’t be distracted by how that person represents himself in a conflict. You’ll learn far more about who he is listening to what he has to say about his enemy.

If you hear dark and incredible tales of depravity and deviousness, take extreme care. Being on the side of good, facing such enemies, the righteous man might be forced to do evil things to defend himself and his people. If he has foresight and strong resolve he might even take preemptive action in order to avert an inevitable catastrophe.



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Formalizing relationships with the formless

Formless realities cannot be grasped with formal thinking, but our relationship with formless realities can be.

Formally grasping our relationship with formless realities makes these relationships with formless realities more bearable.


This is mainly a note to myself at this point. It feels important, so I’m posting it.

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