28 September 2015

I don't know

Braden Kowitz at Google Ventures HQ
After working at Google for about 6 months I was working on Google Finance and I invited a fellow UX designer to talk to the team I was working with about the importance of social; thinking about the user in the context of having a series of relationships rather than being an isolated individual. Braden Kowitz gained my endless respect that day not for what he knew, but for what he didn’t know. 

There is a running joke at Google about having ‘imposter syndrome’ where for a while after joining you feel that somehow your getting through the tough hiring process was an error and everyone you work with is smarter than you. It is easy to fall into that way of thinking with the confident people around you who always have an answer for everything. When Braden was being grilled by the skeptical team of engineers he sometimes didn’t just reply with a vague answer, but he just calmly said:

I don’t know

Such confidence and strength to admit ignorance, rather than think less of him due to the gaps in his knowledge I admired Braden’s ability to look someone squarely in the eye and unapologetically admit to not having all the answers without fearing that it would undermine people’s perception of his expertise.

So often you see people being questioned who will panic and just start talking nonsense or answer a different question in an effort to maintain a sense of power and authority. Most of us have done this in the past, but wouldn’t it be great if we all stopped wasting each other’s time and have it be OK to say “I don’t know” without any need to be apologetic or feel a sense of failure.

One thing that helps is the understanding that not knowing is not a permanent state of being. As when we are designing products, we are constantly in a state of identifying what we don’t know and filling those gaps with research in order to have confidence in our design decisions. When training students in TaeKwon-Do I am in the habit of correcting students who say “I can’t do that” or “I don’t know that” by encouraging them to add the word “yet” on to the end. 

Understanding what you don’t know is a critical step in mastery and then it just takes time, effort and perseverance to change it. “I don’t know” isn’t an end state of ignorance but the first step in understanding. Changing our relationship to the phrase may help us feel more confident to use it in conversation.

14 September 2015

Process not product

Over the last few weeks I have experienced frustration that while I have moved to London to set up a UX team to support the rapidly growing Search engineering team here, there has been no commitment to assign any headcount to the team. Also right now is performance management time where everyone gives and receives 360 feedback, at this time promotions and performance scores are given. This time forces you to focus on what you have delivered for the company and this is directly compared to your peers who you are ranked against. Peers who have more team resources supporting them. 

I have been pre-occupied on the lack of commitment to support my UX team, complaining about the problem and trying to practice the classic ninja spirit of endurance.  The word ninja comes from two Kanji characters, shinobi and mono, which can be read in two different ways. The words shinobi and nin mean "stealth" or "quiet action" but they also mean "to endure”. Sha means "person" (Nin Sha). So the Kanji characters mean "a person skilled in stealth" or "one who endures."
Ninja: Stealth or to endure

But I think this has been the wrong approach, too much focus on the end result of getting sufficient support and recognition. While patience is having the capacity of calm endurance, my focus could have been on giving myself time. 

Giving yourself time is actively working towards a goal without setting a limit on how long you will work.

It reminded me of being frustrated when I started to work towards my second degree black belt in TaeKwon-Do. Younger people in the school who did not have the time restrictions of a busy work and family life were progressing faster than me, and I was struggling to remember all the fine details of movement to perfect the necessary patterns (forms). After I was able to eliminate my own deadline from my mind it was like removing a weight from my body.

Mr Suska, 5th Dan, performing Ge-Baek (2nd Dan pattern)

So what can we design ninjas do differently? We can work towards our goals but remove our own self-imposed pressures and give ourselves time to achieve them. For me right now means re-focusing my negative energy to create an environment where UX team members can be successful and being transparent about the consequences of not having these additional resources the team will most likely grow. 

7 September 2015

Drawing your own chalk circle

Your safe space

When Bruce Lee taught in the US he had a student called Joe Hyams who was struggling with tensing up in sparring and it slowed his moves and made it hard for him to react in time. Bruce invited Joe to his house on on the driveway, asked him to stand still and extend one leg out as far as it would go. Joe then pivoted slowly around as Bruce drew a chalk circle around him, the radius was the length of the extended leg.

Bruce stood back from the circle and made some aggressive moves and Joe stiffened awaiting the attack. Bruce asked why he was so tense as because from that distance he could not cause any harm.  He then went to the edge of the circle, Joe started to tense up again and Bruce chided him “I’m still not close enough to do you any harm, so why don’t you relax?” 

Bruce then stepped into the circle and Joe instinctively retreated. “Good” Bruce said, “you have moved your circle back so I am not a threat to you.”

When the opponent is inside your circle and you cannot retreat any further you must fight. Until then you should maintain your control.

Bruce Lee showing the edge of his circle

Google can be an intense, high pressure place to work now and then it gets to the best of us and we lash out at others around us. Recently a Product Manager (PM) was frustrated with the speed of the project which was slowed down by the large number of groups involved, all with their own agendas. He made personal attacks and threatened to remove me from the project unless I did exactly the UI he wanted rather than take the time to gather sufficient research evidence to make sure it was the right UI for the product. 

My natural instinct is to react to bullies with aggression and attack back meeting hostility with hostility. As design ninjas, we have faced down dangerous people who want to do us physical harm in sparring competitions and this helps us keep perspective in situations like this where the hostility is no real threat. There is no need to react aggressively when you can keep them at the edge of your mental circle. 

A would-be intimidator thrives on evoking a response from his intended victim. When there is none he quickly wears out and this happened in the conversation with the PM. I clearly stated all the facts in the defense of the UX team, and also calmly talked about ways we can evolve our process to show the PM he was heard. Once the aggression died down we were in a position where we could have an agreement of how to move forward effectively and try to avoid the frustration building up in the future. 

I am not saying it always goes like this for me, you have to be in the right state of mind to have a mental circle with any width to stay calm within and this can be a hard state to exist in with project pressures. It is something that can grow with regular martial arts training and meditation.

1 September 2015

5 psychology books which UX designers should read

Megan Fox vs reptile brain

What was the first thing you looked at when you saw this web page? I doubt it was the title of the blog, I bet it wasn’t even the picture of that handsome chap on the right side showing an audience how big the fish he caught was. Admit it, you looked at the sexy picture of Megan Fox before anything else, even though you might normally (assuming you are from a left to right reading culture) start scanning the page on the top left your vision probably anchored to Ms Fox and you scanned down from there. You might have only followed the link to this blog in the first place because the picture made you curious, or probably its the only reason you noticed the link in the first place.

You are not alone, you can’t help it as you are under the influence of the reptilian part of your brain that is quite intent on making little versions of yourself and also wants to check out the face for signs of threat. Its a cheap trick which has been used to attract your attention and get you to buy things for an awful long time now.

About 5 years ago I had the pleasure of partnering with Peter Hong on Google Search for the mobile web. Peter is a great design thinker, has a talent for persuading teams to adopt his ideas, and he taught me a valuable lesson. His background was in biology and he has a love of cognitive psychology which he used to explain to the engineers not just what he was recommending but also why based on scientific principles.

Good guy Peter

I mentioned this briefly in a previous post:

  • Rather than spend your valuable spare time learning the latest prototyping tool, consider investing time in learning cognitive psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. There will always be a new prototyping tool, but humans won't change that much.

It is exciting to start exploring psychology as a UX designer, these behaviors we have been observing our users doing while using our products start to get an explanation. Additionally your persuasion powers get a boost as you can point to scientific papers in additional to the rest of the tools in your design ninja tool belt.

How to get started

Many other approaches are possible, but this is how I got a start: 

To watch

Watch Yale’s Introduction to Psychology course on Open Yale Courses. Also available on iTunes university and the whole course can be downloaded from the link.

Professor Paul Bloom being amusing and informative

To read

If you read nothing else

Start with Susan Weinschenk’s 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People. It is as much of a bible for design ninjas as Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think which I have given out to stakeholders, PM and eng partners over the years as a UX primer. A couple of years ago it was updated and worth another look if it has been a while for you.

On a side note, I had the great fortune to have a 30 mins 1:1 session with Steve Krug when he visited Google a few years back. It was just after we had launched a tablet-optimized version of Search and I had lead the UX team for this project. Steve didn’t like one of the design decisions we had made; preventing the default browser pinch-to-zoom behavior (behaving like a native app) in order to have a different landscape-optimized layout. As soon as he found out I was responsible for the decision he took up our time expressing his frustration about it and I didn’t get the opportunity to ask my prepared questions I was excited to ask. So that sucked.

Not cool, Steve Krug

No martial arts metaphors?

I spent the whole blog post without using a single martial arts metaphor. Well humans are complex and unpredictable, and just as getting drawn to Ms Fox is likely, there are two other layers in the brain wrapping that oldest part which could also influence your reaction. 

As in combat we need to enter without expectation in order for our movements to be fast and fluid. The unpredictability of combat means that if we at any point have the intention of using a specific technique then we get in our own way and are caught out when the unexpected happens.

28 August 2015

Now www.designninja.com!

I have managed to get the designninja.com domain name for this blog. One of those very happy stories of people being fair and reasonable on the Internet. Will Frost was paying for the registration but was not using it and when I asked him and explained I was hoping to help the design community he happily transferred it over. No fuss, no extortionate demands. There is still a gentleman online and his name is Will.

We thank you.

17 August 2015

Yes, No, Yes?

My Yes, No, Yes? Post-It reminder 

I have been using this simple structure for replying to emails for a few years now and it continues to be of value so I thought I would pass on this tip. On a daily basis us design ninjas are going to receive an email that is suggesting an idea or approach which is so far from being user-centered that it sends your pulse racing and makes you want to yell at your laptop screen.

Remember this recommendation at the end of my last post…

  • never be dismissive of their ideas; understand the core of what they are trying to achieve and steer this in a user-focused direction

Our partners outside of UX also care deeply about the products we are building together, but their decisions are motivated by other factors so. If you with a negative critical approach a couple of things could happen:
  1. The recipient knows they are right and so they will work around you
  2. The conversation is shut down and a possibly great solution is lost

When replying to these emails try and follow this structure:


People have a need to feel heard. If at least we have had our point of view acknowledged then we are more open to moving towards a different solution or more able to let it go if our idea is rejected. I trained as a massage therapist between 2002 and 2004 and we spent much of it practicing active listening. While someone is talking to you, if you can state back what they have said in your own words the other person feels heard and validated which encourages people to open up more and continue talking.

So start by thinking about what they are trying to achieve in their email, there will be a lot of words in the way so it can take some analysis. This itself is a useful exercise as it forces you to slow down and think about an email rather than just reflexively respond. There is a concept calling Priming where every word you read will be interpreted based on your mood and what is happening in your life, so if you read that email an hour later it is likely it would have different meaning for you. Taking time to think about their meaning helps counter reactive responses.

In your own words state what you think they are trying to achieve, acknowledge it. Every word you write after this will likely be interpreted in a more positive way by the recipient.


State your criticism of their idea. Your goal is to keep their mind open for part 3, so anything that can be perceived as a personal criticism or judgment is going to work against you. As I mentioned in the last post, evidence is your friend so point to any research, related projects or scientific papers to support your criticism or you will end up in the opinion vs opinion death spiral. Keep it brief as you want to get them to part 3 ASAP and offer to discuss it in person (or at least face to face over VC) where the discussion will be more effective.


It is easy to criticize ideas, you can do it all day long with minimal effort. We started this email by stating their goals so extract their core objective and make an alternative recommendation which achieves their goals but is focused on the user and meeting their needs.

This step is critical as it moves the conversation forward rather than shuts it down. It also puts you in the same place of vulnerability as the recipient as it takes bravery to put an idea out there to be judged and criticized by others. By stating your own idea you are now establishing a more equal relationship which enables your Adult to talk to their Adult rather than any parental/child relationship being established which often leads to rebellion or submission on the part of the person perceiving judgement. 

A note on bravery

Bravery is essential for a design ninja and it deserves a whole blog post in itself. Our lives involve putting our ideas out there to be criticized every day and in the same way we condition our bones and build up calluses during our training, us design ninjas need to develop our design calluses to take a daily beating and still perservere. More on that to come.

Grand Master Rhee Ki Ha and his sledgehammer fists punching through a house brick

11 August 2015

On persuasion

Grumpy old designers

Last week I discussed the financial collapses of the last couple of decades over lunch with two engineers on my team. We talked about one that impacted me in 1994 where funding for a PhD fell through due to a financial downturn in the UK. This lead to me taking on my first UI designer role instead where I taught myself HTML by looking at the source of websites in Mosiac browser (before there was widespread use of Netscape). Both engineers were quiet for a moment and one said that that was the year after he was born and the other said that he that was the year he was born.

After designing products for that length of time and observing people use them you build up an intuition about how people will respond to UI design and where they will fail.  You continue to observe people use your products while the platforms and interactions evolve and it adds to your deeper understanding of HCI. This is what you can offer engineering and product teams as a more experienced UX designer; fewer rounds of experimentation and testing (or in a few cases more testing in areas where you understand assumptions need validation) leading to a more rapid and hopefully successful release. Note: Yes we offer much more such as our design ninjutsu skills to get our recommendations built - we will get to that. 

At Google, as in most companies dominated by engineering teams, there are daily conversations as a UX designer where an engineering partner will challenge a recommendation resulting in more time spent gathering evidence to support your thinking. It is the toughest and usually least fun part of the role. Often for you the recommendation could be a basic UX 101 concept yet it is new to them and along with a presumption that you are approaching the discussion with the same understanding; that you just have different opinions. Experienced UX designers approach these discussions with a deep understanding of the user segment being represented and make a recommendations based on the user needs and mental models, not an opinion of how you would personally experience the UI.

Here is where the daily battle with your own arrogance comes in. The fight to suppress yelling out that you have been doing this shit since they were born, that this recommendation is obvious for you and that because they have haven't been working as a UX designer for over 20 years we don't have equally valid 'opinions'. Guess what, it doesn't work. Trust me, I have tried it. Didn't end well.

Google hires plenty of grumpy old designers who were design directors and then have to deliver designs alongside the Google designers fresh out of college where the work is judged by stakeholders in the same way. It is tough for old designers that rely on their reputation to speak for itself and the biggest mistake I have seen is to quote your qualifications, books published and years of experience as a way to argue for your design recommendation. That also doesn't work. I have tried it. Didn't end well.

Empty your cup

Back in 2000 I would sometimes be referred to as a web design 'guru' and I liked it (as a relative veteran in a new industry). Every year since then I have increasingly despised the term when it has been applied to me, Aristotle's wisdom ...

the more you know, the more you know you don't know

applies to UX designers just as much as when you attain your black belt and realize that you have only scratched the surface and the journey has just begun. Our most successful engagements are usually with teams that challenge us design ninjas and force us to gather evidence and question our own understanding of UX design reality. Its how we continue to grow.

While studying Kung Fu in 2005-2006 I had been a black belt in TaeKwon-Do for 6 years (I wanted to focus on developing my hand striking techniques and I was drawn to the rapid punching in Kung Fu) and encountered trouble letting go of my TKD training which was ingrained into my muscle memory. My Sifu told me a story of a troubled young monk was called to see the head of the monastery where they had tea. Summarized - The master poured the student tea but as the liquid reached the top of the cup he did not stop and the tea poured over the table. The master explained to the surprised monk that his cup was full and the only way he could take on new knowledge is to empty his cup.

I loved this story and have told it to my students until the disaster movie '2012' came out where they re-enacted it to make a plot point. After that came out the response from my students has been, "yeah I saw it in that crappy movie". There goes another great story...

2012 - Stupid movie

Us design ninjas need to work hard at emptying our cup with every new project. Naturally it gets harder with every passing year of experience, so it is worth starting the practice early. We need to approach each project open to question what we believe we know which is effective when partnering with UX researchers who can run studies and experiments to challenge our assumptions. Great engineers are not going to take your word for it, they are trained (and learn) not to.

As well as partnering with UX researchers and gathering evidence we can do a few things such as...

1) Relationship building

Over time while working with a team persuasion gets easier as their confidence in your design abilities grows and trust is built. You can help build relationships with your team by

  • being present at their team meetings
  • sitting with them for some of your work time (don't work in your design fortress of solitude)
  • going for lunch with them at least weekly
  • go drinking with them - by far the most successful
  • smoking outside with them - I wouldn't recommend it but my mother built a successful career on this technique
  • include them in your design sessions
  • never be dismissive of their ideas; understand the core of what they are trying to achieve and steer this in a user-focused direction

If it helps, set a quarterly goal and review it regularly. Sorry to say that you have to leave your comfort zone and play your extraverted role as they are unlikely to approach you.

When moving to London a few weeks ago my manager and mentor, Hector Ouillert, gave me a solid piece of advice. We were discussing what my focus should be in the London office and he said that my #1 priority is to build relationships. The primary goal is that the new team wants to work with you. Hector allowed me to give myself permission to take the space and time needed to do this, the essential piece of the puzzle. Design managers take note - this is a great practice. With the pressure to ramp up and start delivering on new projects the focus on team integration can take a back seat.

Good guy Mr Hector

2) Learn the science of how people work

Engineers like evidence rather than when UX designers use words like 'I feel that...', 'I expect that...' which leads us back to the 'your opinion vs my opinion' madness. A few years back I discovered the effectiveness of learning the science behind why people respond to GUIs in order to persuade engineers to buy into my recommendations. Rather than spend your valuable spare time learning the latest prototyping tool, consider investing time in learning cognitive psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. There will always be a new prototyping tool, but humans won't change that much.

This topic of further education as a UX designer deserves its own blog post. More to come soon. 

3) Don't be an asshole

Its worth making this point. Us grumpy old design ninjas need to be reminded on a daily basis, so write it on a post it note and stick it on your monitor next to your password. Don't be an asshole, really. I am regularly, and it doesn't end well.