The Future in Three Links
I want you to read/watch these three things, pretty much in this order.
I share this knowing that this is my greatest skill, associating things that might not obviously go together and finding a through-line. And I share this knowing that this skill will be obsolete long before I find any fame or fortune from it.
It’s no secret that I never intended to live in Ann Arbor long term. For a Generation++ like me - note: trying to stay away from “Millennial” because fuck that term - it’s too small, too disconnected from surrounding things, and doesn’t have enough alternative transportation infrastructure.
But there’s something Ann Arbor does really well: summer. From the Water Hill Music Festival to the Taste of Ann Arbor to the downtown-wide Summer Festival, there’s a wide variety of things to do that attempts to bring the entire city together. Heck, even the contentious Art Fair (despite it’s tendency to block off bike parking) does its part.
These events give people a place to gather for leisure and a reason to be around and perhaps even meet strangers. A vibrant and active place creates a good user experience for people. Big cities have plenty of this of course, but they’re often too big to have city-wide events that feel this communal. It’s one of the things I really will miss about Ann arbor.
What does your city do to encourage active places?
I was just thinking the other day that it’s been a while since I’ve been for a physical and I should probably do that soon. But they don’t really do all that much, when you think about it. (In fact, apparently it’s a thing only we Americans do and maybe probably shouldn’t.)
But in this age of big data, I think the physical exam is due for an overhaul. Imagine if most of the point of the physical exam wasn’t to diagnose unseen ailments (though that would obviously still be a thing) but to collect data. Like, they measure all your parts, do a complete blood work-up, do a PT-like assessment of your range of motion, test your eyesight, etc, etc.
It really wouldn’t be hard to do, likely wouldn’t take much more time than sitting through a LOTR movie, and would be massively valuable to medical research. So valuable, in fact, you could probably pay people to take them (or at least give them discounts on premiums if they do this routinely) and, in the process, build a statistical encyclopedia of the human body, perfect for seeing hidden patterns.
I’m not a doctor or even in health care, so this might all be really stupid or unnecessary, but the idea is seductive. ^_^
Sometimes Something is NOT Better Than Nothing
Every once in a while when someone sends me an email with a time or date in it, Gmail provides a helpful little popup that lets me add the whatever-it-is straight to my calendar.
Unfortunately it’s a little hit or miss. In fact, rather bizarrely, it’s really good at finding random times or dates strewn haphazardly around in an email, but when someone bothers to put together a nicely formatted date and time - say like this: Wednesday, 7/23, 3 PM-4:30 PM - Google can’t seem to figure out that might be something I want to add to my calendar. I’m probably doing some bad estimation here, but I’d think that that properly formatted shit is way more likely to actually be a calenderable thing. (Calendarable - is that a word? Whatever, it is now.)
The old idiom something is better than nothing doesn’t apply to stuff like this. The fact that it works sometimes and not others just creates frustration when it doesn’t and the user is expecting it to. If it never did it, that’d be better all around. For some people it might be annoying, but they’d quickly learn not to expect it; this is not a good user experience for them, but it’s certainly a better user experience than what we’ve got now. For others… they may be very used to manually jotting down dates and might never miss the feature at all if it wasn’t there.
By the by, Remember the Milk probably has one of the better time/date free text parsers I’ve ever used. It can handle most anything and it was built by a tiny little team. If they can do it, Google can do it.
The Walkscore Mirage
Here’s a very particular picture of Ann Arbor, MI. How many downtowns does it have? (If you’re from there, you’re excused from this little quiz.)
Here’s a couple of close-ups of the center of that smaller green blob off to the side:
That last picture is the central intersection in this “walkable” area (Jackson and Maple).
If you aren’t familiar with the W Stadium corridor (what we’re looking at), that probably wasn’t quite what you were expecting to see. (But maybe it was if you noticed that particular swatch of green contains a mothafuckin’ highway.) Huge setbacks, infrequent crosswalks, very wide intersections with high-speed turning radii… the urban design of the area is not terribly conducive to walking, which makes it hard to call it walkable.
Here’s a particularly potent example. Grocery stores are a pretty important amenity, right? I might well be wrong, but (commuting aside) I’d wager that, for most people, if they had to choose for one thing to be easily walkable from where they live, it’d be a nice-sized grocery store (y’know, smaller than a Walmart, bigger than a bodega). The Kroger in the area is located here, just a scant few blocks from the major intersection pictured above:
Here’s what it looks like if you’re trying to walk up to the store from the sidewalk:
Notice that there’s no clear pedestrian path from the sidewalk. You have a choice between contending with the near-constant rush of cars as you walk on the blacktop of the entrance/exit or walking through the carved out bioswales on either side (which are filled with tall grass, animals and insects that inhabit tall grass, and all manner of litter). Neither are very welcoming for the traveler on foot.
The bus stop - if you can call it that, the sign doesn’t have schedules or even route numbers - is nested between two such entrances.
It gets worse. Note that the store is set so far back you can’t even see the sign from the street. A pedestrian has to walk through at least 450 feet of vehicular traffic to get to the front door. Should you need to catch the bus on the other side of the street, good luck. This stretch of S Maple is just shy of 4 tenths of a mile long, contains a staggering 33 curb cuts - on average, one curb cut every 60 feet - and outlets on major thoroughfares on both ends. This is not a quiet street. Looking for a crosswalk? There are two - one at each end.
I wouldn’t call that a walkable urban place; it doesn’t exactly provide for a pleasant user experience. In fact, this particular area seems to have some features specifically designed to disincentivize walking; not having pedestrian paths leading from a storefront up to the sidewalk is a dead giveaway.
And yet, Walkscore gives this area a score of “71 - very walkable.” So what’s going on here? It’s hard to say for sure as their algorithm is proprietary, but based on what they will say their major measure of walkability is density of amenities. The more dense and varied a collection of amenities is, the more likely the walkability is high, so sayeth walkscore.
Here’s another wrinkle: what are these amenities supposed to be accessible from? As you can see from this Ann Arbor Population Density map (City-Data.com), the areas with high Walkscores are only kinda/sorta correlated with where people live. For instance, the heart of Downtown Ann Arbor (south of the Main / Huron intersection) does happen to feel very walkable, but only once you’re there. (Several high rise developments have gone in recently and more are coming, so that’s going to get less true as time goes on, thankfully.)
As you can see, Walkscore doesn’t always give the most complete picture. Urban design and proximity of housing/office space can matter just as much as accessibility when it comes to a given area affording not owning a car.
Why does all this matter? Mostly because Walkscore loves to promote research that says stuff like this:
"One point increase in Walk Score was associated with between a $700 and $3,000 increase in home values."
-Joe Cortright, Impresa, Inc. (2009) Walking the Walk, CEOs for Cities
I don’t doubt that this is true in the aggregate, but it clearly is not true universally. If rental and real estate agencies are using this information to increase the amount of money they’re asking from you based off the raw Walkscore alone, you might well be getting fleeced a little. If you’re in the market for a condo or an apartment that advertises a high walk score, you might want to use Google Streetview to check out an area and make sure the premium they’re asking for is actually worth it.
Don’t get me wrong - I love WalkScore. The information they give you is definitely better than nothing. And, to Walkscore’s credit, they are very aware of the flaws in their methodology and will even tell you about them (if you click around enough). The fact that they have a proprietary product called “Pedestrian Friendliness” - which is apparently different from what a WalkScore is! - shows that they’re self-aware about this. I just wanted you to be aware as well.
Burning Wheel GM Dashboard Microproject
I’m a nerd. Probably you knew that. Like many nerds, I love to play games and Burning Wheel is my absolute favorite game of any medium.
It’s story- and character-centric and one of those games that’s fairly easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master. While the mechanics aren’t all that complicated (usually), there’s a hell of a lot of information to keep track of. So this game I decided to do this:
It’s a “first draft” but I’ve got a relationship map up top, and color-coded post-its for my players’ Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits.
As a brief insight into my design choices, Beliefs are the most important thing for a GM in Burning Wheel to keep track of. Those are the things you want to use to push the story forward. You might expect those to be the yellow ones then, but no; good user-centered design sometimes yields surprising results. See, I know that Beliefs are important. I don’t ever have to remind myself to check them. They are front-and-center in the Purple so that I glance at them by default, but I saved the brightest colors for Instincts and Traits, which I almost always forget to bring in. Now they call for my attention and balance out my natural instincts, resulting in more balanced use of the things that make the story awesome.
The post-its are admittedly a low-tech solution but not only do I very much believe in prototyping early and often, it also provides some advantages that pretty much all apps would not be able to offer:
- I can rearrange them at will in any order quickly and easily in any formation I choose
- They never turn off
- They never lose power
Perhaps as I refine my solution I’ll update this post. It’s been a pretty fun microproject.
On UX Interviews
This isn’t a rant, though some will see invariably it that way.
What follows will be my own - admittedly narrow - interpretation of why UX interviews are so hard for me to prepare for. I may be wrong to extrapolate from my personal experiences to the industry at large - and in some of these cases I truly hope I am - but for now I’m just going to say what I think; the naked thoughts of an open mind are never very dangerous.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should first admit that this post is fueled, in part, by frustration. I am not an expert in my craft, but I know it well and with a little more experience I really think I could be. And it has been genuinely surprising to discover how difficult it is to convince employers of that. However, I’m smart enough - and self-reflective enough - to know that this isn’t an evil plot against me. I know that the frustration I feel is not anyone’s fault nor does it require anyone else to change on my account. It is fueled at least as much by the difficulty I’ve experienced as it is by the hints of shame I feel when I fail. I’m also self-reflective enough to know that I am not owed a job just because I feel like I am prepared for one.
So I assure you, these are not complaints. These are just things I found surprising. Sometimes these are not pleasant surprises so there will be judgments, but feel free to take them with all the grains of salt you think necessary. There’s no real goal here, except maybe to help all the other new UX grads wandering the desert of the unemployed to know what to expect. (Along the way I may also point out something that you happen to think is a problem. If so, let me know - solidarity is a great thing.)
Without further adieu, here are my thoughts on UX interviews.
- They require an unexpected sort of critical thinking.
Critical thinking is an excellent skill and I think all people who practice UX or design in any part or parcel should have it in spades. It’s a completely fair thing to assess in an interview setting. I would also say critical thinking is a thing that I am generally good at.
However, in the context of an interview I tend to be very bad at it, on reflection. Call it a combination of nerves and an academic hangover. I’m used to answering difficult questions but not so used to looking behind the question and wondering why it was asked. I understand this would be something I would be expected to do if talking to a client - I do! - but this is not necessarily something I am used to doing with peers. Usually they aren’t throwing something into a question just to see if I can spot it and call it out, like it’s one of those word problems back in math class. I’m used to trusting my peers to ask honest questions and to give their honest judgment and I want to work in an environment where I can.
I get that an interview is different than a job and that one can’t replicate the experience exactly but I don’t think this strategy tests critical thinking as much as people might think. It feels like testing to see if I know the secret handshake, which brings me to my next point.
- They are very idiosyncratic.
It’d be one thing if everyone in the industry all used the same handshake, but they don’t. The difference between an Interaction Designer and a UX Designer and an Information Architect is a wider gap than you think when one company’s Information Architect is another company’s Interaction Designer. And, of course, values come into this, too - as well they should. But all this makes it very hard to know how to prepare for any given interview. Which is related to the fact that…
- They ask you to generalize about UX.
Perhaps this is one of those things that differentiates the best from the rest but, because of how I see the nature of the work, I find this almost impossible to do. The UX toolbox consists of well over 100 different methodologies. Most UX people don’t know most of them (I know I don’t) and, even if they did, any given project is likely to use something like perhaps 10 depending on the nature of the project, the problem, and the intended outcomes.
I’ve learned to just say “I don’t know; it depends. What type of project is it?” It feels like a cop-out - but maybe that’s the right answer and it’s just part of that group’s secret handshake?
(And I know, I know… trying to give the “right answer” is part of the problem, but when employment is what stands between you and reasonably-priced healthcare and medication, the temptation is formidable.)
- They are very focused on design deliverables.
A caveat: I have not interviewed for any UX researcher jobs. I’m sure those interviews are different. But the swarms of job ads I’ve read and the handful of interviews I’ve attended seem to really be looking for a wireframe or HTML monkey. I say this because the UX designer job ads that request research skills are few and far between and the interview questions about my research skills are similarly meager. (At least twice, I’ve had the phrase “You seem to have a lot of research experience” said to me without sounding like a compliment.)
What really irks me about this is how quickly the pendulum seems to have swung back. It feels like only yesterday that UX advocates finally won the battle of acceptance, that paying attention to users and meeting their needs is paramount, that business needs have to yield to user needs (at least a little) instead of bulldozing them. (Although the use of dark patterns and psychologically sophisticated advertising in place of a solid UX strategy are still viable, if disquieting, paths to a solid quarterly return.)
Eric Flowers once said UX is not UI. I’d go a little farther: if you don’t value user research, you aren’t doing UX. It’s weird that, in 2014, that feels like a brave thing to say but… there it is.
- They are very sensitive to top-down pressure.
I’m obviously not above this - I’m the guy with the massive pile of student loans and the chronic lung disease; I’m not quite at the point where I need a job but wanting to never be in that position is a remarkably similar fear. I understand the pressure to conform and to please your masters.
That said, as much as I understand the need to add value to the team and company, as I said above, the rallying cry of UX has always been to do that by being unrelenting user advocates. Given that, one would think I would be fielding lots of questions about my desire to help people and find solutions for them. I get those questions, but the framing seems to more often be about how I can solve company problems, not user problems.
- Advanced degrees are not very highly valued.
I won’t comment on this one. It’d get dispiriting in a hurry.
- A lot of these jobs just plain don’t really matter.
And it’s become difficult to pretend like they are. (But, again, see a couple of bullet points up. It’s an eternal struggle.)
I gave a talk on this to a roomful of UX professionals and no one told me I was wrong. In fact, it was a room full of nodding heads (and I had expected a tough crowd). I had several actually apologize to me because they felt guilty about it. (I didn’t actually blame them. Mike Monteiro would, though.) And hey, it’s not like there isn’t a shortage of problems for the technology-minded designer. What a strange world where there’s plenty of work to be done and not enough jobs to do it.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. It’s occurred to me that publicly putting them out for all to see may well make it harder to get employed but… fuck it. If I have to choose between being employed or being true to myself, I’ll pick being true to myself. As long as I’m well stocked on asthma meds.