Years ago I saw an episode of Deadliest Catch in which the Time Bandit was passing another vessel through rough seas. Captain Johnathan Hillstrand happened to be looking when one of the men from the other ship was washed overboard. The Bering Sea is brutally cold and violent, and once overboard, one only has a few moments to live in the best conditions.

Captain Hillstrand leaped into action, and with several passes, steered his ship over to the drowning man. With great difficulty the crew managed to get a line out to him and pull him onto their ship. They didn’t know him, or the other ship, but they knew what it was to be on the unforgiving sea, and they moved without hesitation. With the man safely on board, Captain Hillstrand rushed below deck. They embraced, and both wept freely.

Today in a parking lot outside a mid-priced Mexican restaurant I saw a man drop his iPhone face down. I stepped away from my party and toward him, and said, “Did it crack?” “No,” he said, “not a scratch.” We didn’t know each other, but we knew what it was to drop a phone and hope it hadn’t cracked. We embraced, and wept freely.

Dos croissants, por favor

I took American Sign Language in college. I did this because I didn’t want to submit to the tongue vibrations required by languages like French and Spanish. I found the motions untoward. I’m a different person now, and would advise my former self differently, but here I am, barely able to order crepes.

At regular intervals we had to pick passages from music or literature and sign them to the class. One of the other students in my class was a cop, and one night he gave his presentation in uniform because he had either come from, or was headed to a shift. I can’t remember. He plugged in a small portable stereo, pressed play, and signed along with Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” It was a combination of sound and silence. The music was loud enough to to hear, but quiet enough to also hear the sounds of his keys jingling, and the zip of his hand across his polyester uniform as he made signs.

A Strong Opinion About Instagram’s New Logo

I am not grieved by the new Instagram design. I actually like it.


I am grieved, however, by the cascade of strong opinions from the design community every time a change like this happens.

I don’t know why we designers don’t cut each other more slack on these things. We all know – best-practice bloggers or not – that our work is constrained by time and resource promises made on our behalf, and without our consult. We’re all trying to do the best we can under those pressures, our own anxieties and idiosyncratic pain, the weeks when our moms are sick or being weird, and on and on. The truth is the majority of the design work from organizations of a certain size and philosophy is actually as good as these terms allow it to be. Perhaps a better response is, “I know. I know. And I’m sorry.”

Our highest-paid historians

I’ve written in the past about how an interest in comedy made me a better student. Early in my life I recognized that comedians weren’t dopey clowns, but – the good ones, anyway – were well-read historians and philosophers. The same is true of the best musicians.

Depending on how you grew up, you may have seen music, comedy, and the arts enjoyed, but been encouraged to pursue more “serious” career paths. That was my experience, though it always bugged me because my gut knew better, but my kid words couldn’t articulate it. And before the internet, it was harder to find the video interviews to support my hunch. Later I would find interviews on YouTube of Stevie Ray Vaughan lecturing on the subtle differences between Freddie King and Eric Clapton, or how T-Bone Walker held his guitar, and confirm he was a careful student of music history. Now one of my favorite pastimes is watching hour-long videos of artists talking about how they work.

Recently I’ve been drinking from the fire hose of Wynton Marsalis’ knowledge of World History as it relates to Jazz, and his growth as a person. So round is his understanding of the history of his genre, he can listen to the drum beat of any given Jazz song and tell you which immigrant group moved to which neighborhood in New Orleans and contributed it. In the same video you see Marsalis, and Late Show band leader (and fellow music historian) Jon Batiste walk you through the history of America via Jazz.

And speaking of the Late Show, you may also enjoy Stephen Colbert’s interview with a priest in which he breaks down not only the nuts and bolts of humor in politics and society, but also drops obscure church history, ontological arguments for the existence of God, and the sweetness of his affection for Christ. Five nights a week you can watch him and Jon Batiste play the erudite symphony of America past, present, and future.

Don’t let the sometimes goofy garb of performance trick you into believing you are consuming the work of fools too flakey for academia or business. In many cases you are consuming the applied science, history, and theology of masters in their field.

Stakeholder Stories

Developing empathy for stakeholders means looking at the project from their perspective, in order to let go of the defensive and protective feelings that often surround a project. Empathetic designers accept that stakeholder suggestions are based in reality, and are important. When designers have empathy, they not only understand the stakeholder’s perspective, but they’re actually driven to action: they want to make changes to their designs because they feel the stakeholder’s pain as well as the user’s.

That doesn’t mean that a designer should do anything and everything a stakeholder suggests. It simply means that the priority for communicating has shifted from a position of defense to one of solidarity. Stakeholders and designers are on the same team, accomplishing the same goals, and espousing a common vision.

– Tom Greever, Stakeholders are People Too [emphasis mine]

Why does our gut twist a bit when we think of this? We still somehow believe our stakeholders are at best, not in as pure a pursuit of the users’ good as we are, or at worst, are tasteless. I mean, come on, the loyalties are right there on the face of our job titles: Sales Manager, Project Manager, Business Analyst, Solutions Architect, User Researcher, User Experience Designer. You can tell who really cares about the user. We do. High five! Hold still for a second; your cape is crooked.

Once we allow ourselves to believe we’re on the moral high road as UX designers, it creates a problem — when stakeholders suggest a change based on anything other than the user’s immediate need, it feels like a compromise. And when we feel as though we’re compromising we take a defensive posture emotionally, vocally, and physically. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. And before we take our final form, we will all do it a few more times.

But life is complicated, and there are many things at play in the organizations we serve, and far fewer actual villains. We need to tune our empathy antenna for a wider range of signals.

I’m currently reading Tom Greever’s Articulating Design Decisions, and he suggests creating stakeholder stories with the user story boiler plate as a way of seeing stakeholders as, well, humans.

User Story: As a user I want to _____ so I can _____.

User stories, hopefully heavily influenced by research, are buoys that help us keep our bearings as we solve problems. They speak to motivation and goals, and help get us at least somewhat in the user’s shoes. Greever’s idea of writing them for your stakeholders as well was, for me, one of those, “Why didn’t I think of that?!” things. Here are three examples from his book:

As an executive, I want to see what my team is working on so that I can provide a report back to upper management

As a product owner, I want to deliver new and creative ideas so that I can make an impression on the company with my leadership.

As a developer, I want to understand all the requirements up front so that I can plan my work and maximize my time.

PERMISSION TO CAPE: I wasn’t going to say anything about it, but since I just had to type “so that” three times, fie on the torpedoes! If you want to put on your cape and defeat something, allow me to suggest the extraneous “that” in the user story boiler plate. “… so that I can avoid a rage blackout.”

Ideally, your stakeholder stories will be more granular, and there will be a few for any given role you are trying to better understand. After all, people’s needs and goals are multi-dimensional. Getting the details for these will take some strategy because most project briefs don’t include a company’s org chart and the KPIs for every role you’ll encounter over the course of the engagement. You’ll have to ask around. You can casually ask other people in the company about who reports to whom as you walk between meeting rooms, or better still, go to lunch with people and ask something like, “So, I’m always interested to hear about the daily details and nature of other people’s jobs. Would you mind telling me what it’s like in your chair most days?” Use your own words, and actually mean them. The point is, most people like talking about themselves.

Paul Ford has this great piece on being polite in which he shares this nugget:

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

This applies not only to parties, but group lunches in the break room. Remember, you’re on a slow boat, and you’re really just trying to understand the other person as a human being who, despite that little success calendar on their desk, spends as much of the day frightened and in pain as you do. Over the space of a couple of weeks you should be able to write a much more detailed set of Stakeholder Stories than when you began, and hopefully those stories will help you let down your defensiveness, hear past their clumsy expression of an idea, and calmly understand what they really need.

The Role and Power of Satire

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of John Oliver viewers and Vox Americans, you’d be left with a perfect circle.

– Jacob Sugarman, They’re not eviscerating Trump: John Oliver and Stephen Colbert will never save us from fascism

This was tough to read, but I think Sugarman makes a good point: Our “Comedian X DESTROYED person Y,” reactions amount to so many impotent rush hour amens as we read another bumper sticker confirming our own views. Political criticism has become so pre-qualified in terms of its viewership that few people who don’t already subscribe to a commentator’s view will give it any credence.

I don’t think Sugarman is saying satire isn’t valuable. For example, Jon Stewart’s recent parade of late night cameos shed light on the Zadroga Act being used as a political toy, when it wasn’t being neglected altogether, which shortly resulted in it’s getting passed by Congress, securing health care provisions for 9/11 first responders. The issue here is the hyperbolic, clickbait-y, internet responses to each new comedic segment, especially as it relates to Trump’s campaign, which, though it has made comedians a lot of money, seems pretty well satire proof in terms of persuading anyone (Ironically, even Sugarman’s own headline participates in exaggeration with the phrase, “save us from fascism.” That word is getting tossed around increasingly in relation to Trump’s campaign, but cooler heads who actually lived through fascism would have us tap the breaks there as well.).

Comedians have a canny skill for spotting inconsistencies and following them to their most absurd conclusions, sometimes bringing legitimate clarity to society’s issues. For our part, though, we could be a bit more responsible about how we elevate their role, and inflate their victories.

Design Homogeneity

Earlier this week a coworker shared an article in our company chat by Morgane Santos titled The Unbearable Homogeneity of Design. Because I’m a sucker for a certain brand of call-the-cops-I-don’t-care design industry criticism (I’m a designer, so it’s more of a lover’s quarrel than disdain.), I pumped my fist.

Santos asked some awkward questions like:

  • Is it weird that our work all looks the same?
  • Is it weird that WE all look the same?
  • Are our conferences themed and priced in a way that makes it difficult for these things to change?

And I was like, “GET ‘EM!”

A few days later Yaron Schoen posted In Defense of Homogenous Design that, though not explicitly stated, seemed to be a response to Santos. I don’t think these two disagree all that much, though, but instead compliment each other’s point of view. I suspect if they went out for coffee there would be more laughing than yelling, and if they go out for coffee, I wish they would call me.

I see these two articles connected by more of a “Yes, and…,” than a, “Yeah, but… .”

Schoen’s case is that a certain kind of homogeneity in design serves our purposes. Well established patterns amount to dependability, giving the user a familiar set of mechanics for moving through a task. We’ve even added some historically innovative interactions in the very recent past, like gestures, long presses, and 3D touch. Even though some of these are still quite new, they are well understood enough for large companies to bet their substantial, though still limited, budgets on their users understanding what to do with them.

I’m in hearty agreement with Santos’ call for more diversity in hiring, fashion, and general perspectives across our industry, as well as the flame-thrower she aims at our preciousness (This tweet? It burns us.), but a call to take more aesthetic risks in our software design is less compelling to me outside of personal portfolio sites, startups solving bro problems, and, I don’t know, corn chip marketing pages? One problem with designers is we’ve seen too much. We track the trends, we install the betas, we bore easily. But in terms of software, we are here to solve for user and business needs, not individual designers’ frustrated sense of style.

I suppose my bias toward enterprise software is showing. I know this, and I do want to take care not to put my preferences on a high horse. I would only ask myself, and my peers to vigilantly take readings of when we are solving for users and clients, and when we are solving for our own, hair-trigger boredom. When we solve for boredom, we are restlessly pushing food around on our dinner plates and calling it innovation.

PS: Seriously call me if y’all hang out?

No Relation to Omar

I have recently descended into what I predict will be a long and violent Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs phase (I’m not normally the compilation type, but Sam the Sham wasn’t exactly the concept album type, so I’m making an exception. Start here.). Naturally, I headed straight to their Wikipedia page, where I found these two delightful paragraphs.

Back in the States, Samudio enrolled in college, studying voice at Arlington State College, now the University of Texas at Arlington.[1] “I was studying classical in the daytime and playing rock and roll at night”, he recalled. “That lasted about two years, before I dropped out and became a carny.”

In Dallas in 1961, Sam formed “The Pharaohs,” the name inspired from the costumes in Yul Brynner’s portrayal as pharaoh in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. The other members of “The Pharaohs” were Carl Miedke, Russell Fowler, Omar “Big Man” Lopez and Vincent Lopez (no relation to Omar). In 1962 the group made a record that did not sell. The Pharaohs disbanded in 1962.

RE: I know y’all wanted that 808!


Our department did not order any 808. I don't know what that is, or how much it costs, but it should not be taken from our budget as we have planned our Summer picnic within a few dollars.

Thank you.

Fran Williams
Associate Marketing Director, Clearcorp
Skokie Office

"Make it Clear. Keep it Clear."


From: "Chad Dunlop" <cdunlop@clearcorp.net>
Date: Fri, Jul 1, 2016 at 1:09 PM
To: "Skokie All" <all.skokie@clearcorp.com>
Subject: I know y'all wanted that 808!

Can U feel that B-A-S-S bass? Whaaaa? Who put this beer in my desk fridge? LOL Happy three day weekend! See you jerks at the lake!

Chadbomb out!