The Trials and Tribulations of Anecdata

“The plural of anecdote is not data” -Roger Brinner (probably)

As an editor at UX Booth, I frequently remind authors of one of our key guidelines - show, don’t tell. By this we mean that readers are more likely to understand a concept when it is illustrated with specific examples. Abstract theories are great, but we are more likely to remember stories or case studies than facts and figures, and if we’re up against an unfamiliar concept, we’re more likely to grasp its meaning when we can see it in action.

Occasionally, authors will respond to this request by attempting to “prove” a new concept with a single example. They will tell write about how useless usability testing is, based on the fact that it failed when their company attempted it, and they will illustrate this fact with a detailed story about their company’s experience. Or they will write about the importance of UX in enterprise software, based on a single personal experience. In both situations, the author is confusing “show, don’t tell” with “anecdotal evidence.” Their thesis is based on what I like to call anecdata. Continue Reading


User Experience Ethical Conundrums

In Mike Monteiro’s talk “How Designers Destroyed the World” (which I cannot recommend highly enough), he reminds us that we are responsible for what we put out into the world, which is a blessing and a curse. One of the stories he tells is the story of Bobbi, a girl who joined her college “Queer Chorus” because she loved to sing, and she is also a lesbian. However, Bobbi had not yet come out to her parents, and when the well-meaning chorus leader added her to the chorus’ Facebook page, he inadvertently outed her when she was not prepared to be outed. What’s more, many of her followers turned on her, including her family pastor who left her a voicemail telling her that “Hell awaits you.” She was devastated.

Monteiro reminds us that this was not the chorus leader’s “fault.” He added Bobbi because he wanted to be able to easily communicate with his choir, and he used the Facebook group for those communications. He kept the Facebook page “open” (i.e. not hidden) because he knew how important it was for his chorus to be proud of themselves. Bobbi also did nothing “wrong” in this situation. Her reasons for not coming out to her parents earlier are entirely her own, and she had set her Facebook privacy settings to protect her from just this sort of thing.

To be completely fair, Facebook also didn’t mean for this to happen. The Facebook group settings allow other people to add you to a group, because that encourages social networking, which is Facebook’s goal. The group settings also override the personal privacy settings, to make it easier for people to share information, and communication is another of Facebook’s goals.

I said that Facebook didn’t mean for this to happen. I did not say it wasn’t their fault it happened – and not because Facebook is in any way malicious, but due (as Monteiro says) to a “careless design decision.” Continue Reading


The Ice Bucket Challenge: A Content Strategy Case Study

The ice bucket challenge is sweeping the nation, and inviting conversations across websites and blogs that wonder whether or not it can be considered a “success.” The question seems to come down to whether the challenge is providing the right sort of attention for ALS, the disease the challenge ostensibly raises funds for.

What makes this conversation so interesting to me, as a content strategist, is that the challenge has actually raised over $2 million for ALS, compared to $25000 last summer. From a financial standpoint, this makes the challenge undoubtedly successful. But few videos mention what ALS is, or why raising funds is important, so it can’t be said the ice bucket challenge is “raising awareness” per se. Continue Reading


Creating an Aura of Safety

Property of XKCD http://xkcd.com/936/

Property of XKCD http://xkcd.com/936/

In the past year, concern over privacy online has increased exponentially. But unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Internet users are making themselves (ourselves) more secure. Instead, most users appear to have ignored security issues, while panicking over privacy concerns. For example, I’ve met people who zealously check their Facebook privacy settings, and yet use the same password for all of their bank accounts, email accounts, and web apps. I’ve seen otherwise intelligent people click unknown links and download unknown apps, all the while priding themselves on staying away from social media. None of this would matter, except that the misinterpretation of “privacy” meaning “security” may result in users leaving themselves open to security threats.

In short, Gotham city believes they’re safe, but it’s up to us in the UX world to keep them secure. Continue Reading


The Pathway to User Experience

Group shotEarlier this month, I taught a two-week course based on user experience principles.

That’s not a sentence that existed ten years ago. Even now, a course in UX might mean ten different things to ten different people. Unlike an American History teacher, who has a fairly consistent curriculum to follow, a UX teacher has only his or her own reading and experiences to draw on to invent a way to teach something that he or she has “picked up” along the way. At one point, as we created our curriculum, I thought “I’m trying to cram eight years of work experience into a two-week course.”

That’s not to say UX can’t be taught. On the contrary, UXMastery has even curated a list of UX degrees offered worldwide. But what does the formalization of teaching UX mean for the field? Continue Reading


Activities on the Spot

In 2007 I was an English teacher in a public school in France, teaching a rotation of 8 classes and seeing each class once a week. It was tough to keep them straight, but I enjoyed the classes, ranging from first to third year English, with ages between 11 and 13.

One week, I planned an activity based around World War 1. I knew they were studying the United States and their role in the war, so I dug out one of my favorite poems (Flanders Field), translated it into French, and prepared a list of questions to get discussion going on the impact of war on the country’s youth.

One problem: when I arrived in class, I realized they were studying the American Civil War, not World War 1. Continue Reading


What is Livability?

A few years ago I was spending some time in Barcelona with my cousin Josh. One night I offered to make dinner – a peanut chicken dish I had more or less invented. We sat down to dinner, and after a few bites Josh said “this is very edible.” His wife Jan immediately defended me. “What a terrible thing to say! This is great.” But Josh had meant it as a complement. “I mean I don’t want to stop eating it,” he explained. Since then I’ve loved the idea of edible meaning more than something you can eat, but something you don’t want to stop eating.

Yesterday, during our frustrating yet valuable card sort (part of the ongoing design process trip for high school students I am currently co-leading through Atlas Workshops), the students got into a conversation on the word livability. It’s a popular word in city design these days, but the definition is vague at best. To be “livable” means more than just a place you can live. It means a place that is delightful, a place that ranks at the top of Design’s Hierarchy of Needs. Livable describes a way of living in the way that Josh wanted edible to describe eating. Yet edible does connotate merely able to be eaten, to most of the world, and livability equally might mean merely able to be lived in. No wonder livability is such a difficult concept to explain! Continue Reading


Card Sorting, People Sorting

Yesterday’s lesson: if it frustrates me, it likely frustrates students as well.

GamestormingTo be clear, I was not frustrated yesterday. In fact, I absolutely loved our exercises – it was the beginning of our Information Architecture work, as we (Atlas Workshops) continue to lead the students through the design process to create a website about smart cities. We’ve helped them to do some basic user research, understand their audience, collect data on smart cities, and yesterday the time had come to identify how the information they had collected all connected, and (ultimately) how we would display it on their final website.

We began with a card sort. Each student had a topic in mind, and announced it to the team. My plan had been for them to write their topics on index cards, and then collectively sort them into various categories until they had a clear idea of how their myriad ideas connected. That said, we had forgotten the index cards. We had also forgotten the sticky notes. It was a user experience designer’s nightmare… until we realized, the cards could be people. Continue Reading