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.

1 August 2015

Putting pixels to metaphorical paper

Scott, a friend and mentor 

Five weeks ago I was having an enjoyable lunch with a mentor, Scott Jenson, at the Slice restaurant on the Google campus in Mountain View, California. We were discussing my impending move to the UK to re-join my family and work at the London Google office where I would work on the Android Google app. I usually end up being inspired by Scott and this time he encouraged me to write about design on a regular basis, something he has had the discipline to do for many years now. Not only has it provided value to user experience designers around the world, it has provided a method of reflection on his recent work and helped him process the lessons he has learned. The challenge of putting these lessons into words being part of the process of distilling meaning from all the noise.

Time is valuable, we spend our lives at work managing it preciously and rushing from location to location in order that we do not waste any of our coworkers time. So the words on the blog need to be precious and full of value and meaning in order to provide sufficient value to make the reader's time worth it, right? Blimey, that's a lot of pressure. what can I possible write which is that valuable and worthy of your time? So writing paralysis sets in and besides, I have a list of blogs to catch up on from inspirational writes who actually have something meaningful to teach.

Scott warned me of this. The hardest thing is to start each time and then more often than not it is hard to stop and you have to go back and edit most of it for it to be readable. Scott also reminded me that while I am focused on designing the next release of the Google app, many of the concepts I now take for granted are still new and interesting for many readers out there.  That helps doesn't it? Doesn't that ease the pressure to consistently deliver design inspiration each time? In combat we learn to let our training take over and rely on our muscle memory to react faster than we can think, so maybe its time for me to get out of my own way in the writing process too.

What to expect

  • musings on life as a UX designer
  • Android and Google tips and tricks
  • an introduction to new Google product releases
  • my biased opinion on events in the tech world
  • too many metaphors from the world of martial arts

A call to action

My fellow design ninjas, we can try this together and sometimes come up with some small nugget of design inspiration each week. And sometimes not, but maybe in the end there will be enough for a book, maybe it will useful material for a talk, and if all else fails remember that you can always serve as a bad example. Join me in starting a design blog to help yourself grow a little more and maybe bring a little enlightenment and maybe even joy to others. Drop a link in a blog comment if you do, and we can go on this journey together.

Thanks Scott