Learning How to Lead: Part 3

Genuine leadership isn’t a formula. It’s personal.

I’ve gained a lot of experience as a leader since joining eyeo. Most of it has been tactical, like hiring, developing talent, establishing processes, and unblocking things that get in the way of progress. Some of it has been strategic, like developing a vision for the product team, driving innovation, and setting priorities. But I still have a hard time defining what kind of leader I want to be, beyond all the things that need to get done. So, I started working with a personal coach to help me develop further.

The coach sent me a list of questions before our first session, just to get a baseline. They were difficult to answer, since I couldn’t really answer any of them unequivocally. During our session, she asked me to define what a good leader looks like, or if I had any role models in mind. Apparently, I really don’t know how to define leadership beyond vague American stereotypes, and I honestly can’t think of any leaders that actually inspire me (especially present day). I admire a few traits here an there, but no one person embodies the full expression of leadership that resonates with me.

That’s when it occurred to me: To develop further, I shouldn’t be trying so hard to copy somebody else, just because I think that’s what people expect from me. Fuck listicles. Fuck how-to manuals. Fuck role models. Fuck whatever I think other people think. Most especially, fuck any standards depicted in popular culture. What’s my genuine expression of leadership?

Again, it’s hard for me to answer this question. All those opinions and depictions and past experiences suggest that I can never be a good leader. I’m antisocial, not especially charismatic, hate being the center of attention, refuse to network, and I really, really don’t like telling people what to do. The quintessential image of the “strong”, bold, confident leader that commands a stage, publicly eviscerates incompetence, and regularly rubs elbows with powerful people makes me want to puke. To me, that just screams “self absorbed, egotistical asshole that needs to prove how awesome they are, all the fucking time.” I reject that template entirely.

But I’m just now starting to embrace the idea that I don’t have to be/do any of those things — that it’s possible to be an effective leader, and still be genuinely me.

After thinking a lot about this, some themes have started to emerge. They have nothing to do with external traits (like “charisma”), but have everything to do with internal values.

Here are some examples:

A leader serves those in their charge first, their superiors second, and themselves last.

A leader shouts praise for others from the rooftop, but delivers a rebuke behind closed doors.

A leader welcomes criticism, but eschews recognition.

A leader is always the first one on the battlefield, and the last one at the watering hole.

A leader knows when to be gentle, when to be harsh, when to be flexible, and when to be firm.

A leader can motivate others without demanding anything.

A leader would rather fail together than succeed alone.

A leader plans for both wild success and total failure.

A leader may not know the right answer, but they always know the right questions to ask.

A leader surrounds themself with people more intelligent, skilled, and talented than they are.

A leader sees the patterns and pitfalls others cannot.

A leader knows two things at any given moment: their own weakness, and the potential of everyone they lead

A leader makes plenty of mistakes, just never the same mistake twice.

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If I could become just half the leader described above, that would be enough for me. The important thing is that I identify with the description above personally. Others will have to define their own leadership style.

So, how would you describe the leader you want to be? I encourage you to embrace your own definition before trying to fit someone else’s. Otherwise you’ll end up becoming just another Listicle Leader.

Custom Fixie: The Storm Trooper

An obsessive breakdown of my custom fixed gear bike.

A few years ago I decided to build a custom fixie. I love fixed gear bikes because they’re simple, light, and easy to operate. I also like customizing things, and the idea of building a bike that perfectly fits my frame/lifestyle was too tempting to ignore.

My vision was based on a white frame and glossy black crankset, so a storm trooper immediately came to mind. Although I’m not really a Star Wars fan, the analogy worked since I also wanted something suitable for an urban setting — something quick, rugged, and comfortable in an urban setting. All the original parts were selected accordingly.

Over time, I’ve experimented with various components based on what I know about the materials most commonly used. For example:

  • Steel is the least expensive material. On the plus sides, steel is both strong and supple. “Chromoly” steel, which is a mix of chromium and molybdenum, is great for bike frames since the material soaks up bumps and harsh vibrations. Damage is less of a factor too, since steel tends to bend or deform under extreme forces. On the down side, steel is also heavy as fuck, being about 2.5x denser than aluminum. This is why there isn’t a steel component on my bike, aside from a few nuts and bolts.
  • Aluminum is about twice as expensive as steel, but it’s super stiff and weighs a lot less. The higher the quality of aluminum, the lighter and stiffer the component. However, aluminum is easier to damage than steel, and will crumple like a soda can when it fails. Also, it’s the least comfortable material since bumps and vibrations aren’t dampened like they are with steel.
  • Carbon fiber is a really interesting material. It provides 2-5x more rigidity than aluminum or steel at a fraction of the density, meaning that carbon fiber is feather-light and stiff as hell. More importantly, carbon fiber absorbs shocks better than any metal. But two things make this material less attractive: it’s incredibly expensive, and shatters completely when it fails.
  • Titanium is another nifty material. Although it weighs a bit more than aluminum, it’s still only half the weight of steel while being just as strong. Titanium frames and other components are hard to find and crazy-expensive, but it’s commonly used for high-end saddle rails (which often accounts for most of the overall weight of a race saddle).

As I rode in different environments or on new surfaces, I found ways to tweak my set-up for improved performance and/or comfort. For instance, the original aluminum bullhorn handlebars looked cool, but they ruined my lower back. So, I’ve since upgraded to carbon fiber riser bars, which are lighter, absorb harsh vibrations, and reduce strain on my old man body.

At this point I think I’ve finally ended up with a result I’m really proud of (and love to ride). Below are all the parts used in the bike pictured here, and why they were chosen in case you’re thinking of building a custom fixie of your own.

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Frame, wheels, and drivetrain

fixie-frame

Since I couldn’t afford a carbon fiber Cinelli, I opted for an aluminum frame from Pure Cycles instead. The Pure Fix Keirin Pro Frameset is double-butted 6061 aluminum (with beautiful welds, I might add), and sports a carbon fork with an integrated headset. Pure Cycles only had a 52cm version in white at the time of purchase, which admittedly is kinda boring. But it was lighter than steel, stiff as hell, and therefore super responsive.

From my past experiences riding a fixie, I knew that the crankset and bottom bracket had to be tough enough to withstand the forces of hard pedaling. In my opinion, the only option for a fixed gear bike based on a track frame is the SRAM Omnium Crankset. It’s strong as fuck and looks awesome. Sure, it might be on the heavy side at 825g, but it absolutely will not fail.

To pair with the frame, I went for the Pure Fix 700C 30mm Machined Pro Wheels, also from Pure Cycles, featuring sealed baring hubs in white for fast, smooth rolling. Attached to the rear wheel is a heavy-duty Shimano Dura Ace fixed gear cog. Together with the crankset and a heavy duty chain, the bike would have a drive train capable of standing up to any abuse.

Obviously, wheels are useless without tires. I wanted a durable racing tire that was lightweight. That’s why I wrapped the wheels in Continental Grand Prix 4000 S folding tires and Supersonic inner tubes, which together save about 100g over standard wheels and tubes.

There was still one more set of components most people seem to forget about: the pedals. Other bikes I’ve ridden with small, cheap pedals were hard to find with my feet when starting off, and even harder to keep planted when traveling briskly. After some agonizing, I settled on Atlas pedals from RaceFace. They’re generously sized and yet have a slim profile (so as not to scrape the pavement when leaning into a turn).

Stem, handlebars, and brakes

fixie-stem-handlebars.png

The Atlas pedals are actually intended for mountain bike applications. This got me thinking: Mountain bike parts are built for strength and durability, which led me down the path of creating a hybrid track bike with off-road ruggedness. So, I chose the EC90 SL carbon stem from Easton, which is intended for mountain bike racing applications.

Next up are the handlebars. As previously mentioned, the original bullhorn bars were brutal on my back, and made riding anywhere tedious. The WCS Rizer Carbon Handlebars from Ritchey are so much better. At 710 mm across with a 15mm rise and 9-degree sweep, I have more control and my back is infinitely happier. Plus, the fact that they’re carbon fiber means they only weight 180g and absorb vibrations better than alloy.

The purist in me would prefer to ride with no brakes at all. But in a city like San Fransisco or Berlin (where I currently live), brakeless bikes are a liability. For minimal weight penalty and enough stopping power to get the job done, I fitted a SRAM Rival brake to the front wheel only. (I couldn’t find a lever that fit the handlebars, but my bike mechanic found an unbranded used one in storage.

Seatpost and saddle

fixie-saddle-seatpost

What goes best with carbon fiber handlebars? A carbon fiber seat post, of course! In combination, the vibrations communicated to sensitive contact points are wonderfully dampened, and create a smoother, more comfortable ride on any surface. The one I use now is a Ritchey Superlogic Carbon One-Bolt Seat Post with a 25mm offset.

About that offset. Not only does it allow for a more relaxed riding position, the “bent” end deflects harsh bumps and annoying vibrations away from my buttocks (as opposed to straight up my asshole with no setback). But I diverge…

Atop that beautifully sculpted seat post sits an SLR saddle from Selle Italia with titanium rails. I picked it mostly because it was the lightest thing I could find in the bike store at the time, but fortunately it looks fantastic with the seatpost.

Bits and pieces

There are a few other little details I thought about as well:

Final result

fixie-full.png

It’s definitely not a classic fixie. However, it is supremely strong, fast, responsive, and handles paved surfaces like a champ. I can also cruz along at a lazy 4 kilometers per hour in comfort, or carry it on my shoulder easily when confronted with steps. Considering the intended application in mind, the end product is fucking amazing. Oh yeah, and it only weighs 8kg!

I love my bike, and enjoy the thought that there’s nothing else out there quite like it 🙂

Going for Distance

Sometimes you need take the long, difficult way on purpose.

Whether you’re just starting out as a professional, or building an already established career, you often have to make hard choices. Maybe you’re currently unemployed, or stuck in a job you loath. Perhaps you’ve plateaued in your current role, title, or salary. Or it could be that you just need a big, hairy challenge to reinvigorate your passion. In any case, you will likely have to choose between the short-term and long-term gains whenever accepting a particular position with a new company.

My last job search, for example, was a peculiar case. I’d gained a lot of experience working across many different industries over the years. I could have sought out a fledgling start-up destined for an IPO. I could have focused instead of building on my strengths and maximizing my salary. Or I could have looked for a stable, safe company that provided more security. Instead, I chose a position I had never held, at a small company in another country no one’s heard of, to do something I had never done before.

So far, it’s been an intense journey, fraught with complex challenges. The product team I was hired to build has grown from 1 person to 12, while the company grew from 39 people to over 110. We’ve updated our core products while releasing a new one. Our company structure and processes have changed dramatically. We even changed the locations of both our offices. Meanwhile, my wife and I moved to Germany to be closer to the action.

Throughout it all, I’ve felt deep frustration, uncertainty, or excitement (occasionally simultaneously), and have experienced so much change in such a short period of time that it already feels like a lifetime. I’ve watched some folks evolve into superstars, while others continuously struggle. I’ve seen our efforts to improve our products receive both praise and immense criticism. I’ve witnessed (or contributed to) both huge wins and epic failures. As a result, the company I started at two years ago is almost unrecognizable. Some days I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Yet it also feels like I’m just getting started.

Who knows if the company will continue to thrive 10 years from now? Who knows if the blood, sweat, and tears will translate into substantially more happy users? Who knows if all my success and failures will add up to better futures for everyone on my team? I certainly don’t. Earlier on in my career, I may have been tempted to jump ship, skip pay levels, and do something far less risky. After all, two years is good run at any company in this industry (or in this economy). But I don’t care about the short term uncertainty and pain. I’m in it for the long-term reward. It’s the most exciting time of my entire career, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

For the first time ever, it’s hard to imagine myself anywhere else and be just as happy.

So, if you’re deciding between new opportunities in your own career, I encourage you to consider the long road… The difficult road… The road that can lead to many different, unexpected destinations.

It may be worth the extra trouble.

Confessions of a Luddite

OR: The day I started covering my laptop camera with electrical tape.

My relationship with technology has evolved over the years.

When I grew up in the early 80’s, smack in the middle of rural Ohio, “technology” was generally rare. The only place one could even obtain technological devices of any sort was RadioShack. Fortunately for me, my parents were unusually drawn to cool gadgets and had access to numerous credit cards (which RadioShack gladly accepted). So, I happened grow up with a dual top-loading VCR, multiple-CD player, Commodore 64 computer, and dot matrix printer.

Still, back then, tech was mostly occasional entertainment. I played plenty of video games (actual Pac-Man and Centipede), watched movies (mostly campy comedies), or listened to music (which was either Whitney Huston or Footloose, our only 2 CDs). Most of the time, however, I was outside watching tadpoles in the stream behind our house, or experimenting with various art materials in the basement. My only real interests in life were discovering and creating new things.

It wouldn’t be until many years later that technology itself become more important to me than a Walkman or aftermarket car stereo.

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After dropping out of college, where I had been pursing a degree in Fine Arts, it dawned on me there was another way to be creative without being a starving artist: Become a Graphic Designer. After asking my parents to buy me a Mac and some design programs, I taught myself how to type, code HTML websites, and troubleshoot dial-up modems.

By this time we were living in Northern Virginia, a fast emerging hub for technology companies and design agencies to serve them. Within a couple of years, I landed my first real job as a design professional at a small creative shop in Fairfax. There, I continued to learn things, like how to actually design, manage thousands of proprietary fonts, or prepare files for print vendors. Armed with the latest Mac G3 and an enormous 17” monitor, I was responsible for real accounts, real clients, and real money.

While lightyears beyond my childhood experiences, my understanding and appreciation of technology would only grow exponentially from there… mostly because technology itself began to evolve exponentially.

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Nearly a decade later, my career as a pure Visual Designer ended while working for a big creative agency that designed digital technology solutions for clients around the world. By this time, billions of people had access to the web (hundreds of millions of which had access to reliable high-speed internet services), and virtually all of them were already on Facebook. Instead of webpages and brochures, clients cared about scalable web-based services, targeted social media campaigns, immersive digital experiences, and, of course, mobile apps.

Needless to say, tech had come a long way, and I wanted to solve deeper, more interesting problems than just the visual ones. Therefore, I successfully transitioned from a Visual Designer to an Experience Designer before leaving the agency world for “Product”.

Ironically, this was also the inflection point in my relationship with tech, since moving product-side only brought me that much closer what’s actually going on under the world wide hood.

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Nearly four years later, even more has changed. Now I do a variety of things for an open-source web software company based in Germany, including building prototypes, mapping out user journeys, scheduling meetings, and writing functional specifications. My primary work machine is faster than most of my previous laptops combined, and only has a 13” screen. There are no more clients and vendors (just users and stakeholders), and technical implementations are far more important than fancy presentations.

More importantly, the kind of things I worry about today are completely different than those I worried about a decade ago. That’s because I don’t just know more about technology in general, but also about how the web works, specifically, including the vast exchange of user data and programmatic ad buying that powers its economic engines. Considering how the web underpins nearly all of the new technology emerging today, knowing such things evidently changed me.

Because today, I’m not learning about typography, adaptive layouts, or how to design a frictionless credit card payment flow. Instead, I’m learning about a world where virtually everything about us is collected, stored, and shared via API’s every second we spend online. Instead of reading about the latest social media trends or next iPhone, I’m learning how to better protect users data in the products we build. And instead of keeping up with the latest techniques in agile software development, I’m worrying a shit ton about privacy in an increasingly mobile, insecurely networked world.

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15 years ago, I was the artistic kid that grew up into an bonafide design professional — dress pants and all. Whenever somebody showed me new trends (like all-Flash home pages!), I eagerly incorporated them into my designs. Technology was something I avidly consumed, and only sought the newest, latest gadgets to satiate my credit card-financed appetites. The future was bright with possibilities and endless opportunity.

Today, I’m almost a middle aged man who wears hoodies, avoids social media like radioactive waste, and covers his laptop camera with electrical tape. My mobile phone requires fingerprint authentication and runs a VPN at all times. I refuse to buy a new gaming console because they’re capable of recording every word and action, which an AI could analyze to serve me targeted advertising. And I always keep some cash in multiple currencies locked in a safe at home, just in case financial markets ever shut down.

What the fuck happened?

Explosive technological advancement happened, and not all of it positive.

More people have access to advanced technology than at any other time in recorded history, just as technology itself continues to grow exponentially in scale, scope, and complexity. In this hyper-connected world of mega data we’ve created, it’s finally impossible to live in the modern age without the web — and yet we have failed to address its most serious flaws and vulnerabilities, and in the process have completely lost control of all basic individual privacy. Even worse, we’ve given nearly all that control (and valuable user data) to a handful super-powerful American corporations, or to government agencies in the name of “national security”. It seems more than likely that all the data we’ve generated, floating out there in the “cloud” or stored in massive data centers, will one day come back to haunt us.

The very world I have helped create no longer seems so… positive.

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For now, I plod forward. I care less about aesthetics and more about substance, meaning, and core purpose. I do what I can, creating products that make a positive difference in the lives of ordinary people while, hopefully, making the web a better place for everyone. To this day, my overwhelming desire is to discover and create new things — for the benefit of all — and there is no better time to do just that than right now.

But in the end, it’s hard to feel optimistic. I fear the worst case scenario because I understand the potential for real catastrophy. The future isn’t a threat, per se, but it does appear more and more threatening every day. So, as a result, I cover my cameras and stay away from social media.

Maybe I’ll fall in love with technology again one day. Perhaps I’ll be forced to terminate our relationship completely. Until then, I currently prefer to keep our relationship strictly casual.

Learning How to Lead

If it doesn’t feel like drowning, you’re probably doing it wrong.

For a long time (longer than I’d like to admit), my primary responsibility was mastering the craft of design. From identity to print or Web design, there was a lot to learn. Branding. Layout. Typography. Color theory. Substrates and printing techniques. Technical requirements and limitations for the Web. These are all things I could spend a lifetime perfecting, only to remember that there will always be many people who are far more talented than me.

Then I ventured into the vast world of “UX” (mostly by accident). There was even more to learn. User journeys. Site maps. Information architecture. Wireframes. Content strategy. Functional requirements. The list of artifacts and specialties were endless! My only saving grace was that I was a halfway decent designer, so my documentation looked better than most. Still, it was yet another universe dominated by extraordinary talent.

Fast forward to 2016. I somehow landed a job at a startup company with a fancy title. I had experience designing things. I could do UX stuff. And by this time I had enough industry experience to somewhat understand how screwed up online advertising had become. Only now I was responsible for doing all the design things, prioritizing projects, hiring people, and getting shit done. It all sounded very exciting and important (because it was), but leading was a new frontier.

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After several months of pretending to know what I’m doing, I had a meeting with a newly-formed-but-loosely-defined team. My grand vision was that we’d figure out our Experience Design Process in a 1.5 hours on a Thursday afternoon (because, um, we never had one to begin with). Instead, I quickly realized that shit was all fucked up, people had no idea who was responsible for what, and our collective activities felt more like an exercise in chaos theory. We barely even got to the actual process stuff.

So, I obviously felt pretty terrible at my job. Again. Only this time there was no hiding behind pretty layouts and clever copy.

But you know what? It was a very good thing that happened in that meeting. I learned in that moment to embrace my deficiencies and failures. It was no longer about my portfolio, my reputation, or my experience. This was about other people – super talented, immensely dedicated, very motivated people (if I had done anything right, it was hiring). This was a mess I honestly could’t fix on my own. I needed help. Because the problem had nothing to do with “managing” people.

It was entirely about supporting them.

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In the days since that awkward, very painful meeting, I’ve been focused on the team’s success instead of my failure(s). There’s still a lot to do, and much more to learn. But I’ve started by trying to understand the challenges before prescribing solutions. My job, it turns out, is not to have the “right” answers, but rather involve those who actually have the experience, skill, and vision.

After several months in this role, I’m just now beginning to grasp how limited I am on my own, and how all the help I could ever need surrounds me in abundance. They are the answer. I am not the solution.

I’ve always had a knack for learning things the hard way… But this time, the truth never hurt to good.

Kill Your Babies

How being ruthless can make you a better Product Designer.

As a young designer, my approach to assignments resembled family planning: I conceived ideas, developed frameworks, and delivered polished interfaces to an expecting client. It was a “waterfall” approach to creative production, an artifact of agency-thinking.

While a methodical process, it was also a painful one.

So much thought and polish went into any one idea that changes were often gut-wrenching, time-consuming exercises. Creative Directors criticized the typography. Engineers balked at the technical complexity. Clients freaked over prices. Every slice of their scalpels hurt me somewhere deep inside, regardless of the rational exterior I projected. Some days, I felt like a man-boy raging against the machine, working countless hours to polish designs that rarely made it through production intact.

In retrospect, it’s obvious why everything felt so monumentally difficult:

No one taught me how to kill my babies.

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Lesson 1: How babies are made

Be it a vintage car, sterling sliver flatware, or conceptual mockups for a user interface, all it takes are the right circumstances for someone to form an irrational attachment to an inanimate object. Objects become personal over time by virtue of their familiarity. Subsequent experiences may then reinforce a particular feeling of specialness. Given enough time (and emotional stimulation), the ordinary becomes extraordinary, growing into an out-sized version of reality. Finally, the victim is blinded to any suitable alternative, in spite of all the evidence suggesting otherwise.

That’s when a “baby” is born.

Lesson 2: Why babies are bad

This is fine for weekend mechanics working alone in a garage. Their babies will grow up to become timeless tributes to human invention. Avid polishers of family heirlooms shouldn’t worry too much about their behavior either. In either case, their babies do not require any other approval in order to exist.

For product designers, however, baby-making is an especially unhealthy, disruptive practice.

Creativity comes at an emotional cost for many practitioners – so even straightforward assignments can quickly become personal. In turn, creative people are prone to making babies precisely because they take their work too personally. If those attachments are tolerated or nurtured, small details will soon get in the way of stuff that truly matters, and can cost designers valuable relationships. (Oh the bridges I’ve burned by arguing about typefaces and button styles!)

Lesson 3: Prevention is key

As professionals, we are expected to separate our Self from the problems we were hired to solve. For some, maintaining a professional distance from creative work comes naturally. Personally, I’ve had to learn how to translate what I feel into more appropriate, productive responses.

For example, whenever feedback from a teammate or client triggers an emotional response, I ask myself a simple question:

Is the feedback about the details, the execution, or the idea?

EXAMPLES

  • “Make the filter menu options blue” = about the details
  • “I don’t think users will use those filters” = about the execution
  • “Our users won’t filter” = about the idea
  • “Put more product shots on the home screen” = about the details
  • “Add a gallery” = about the execution
  • “Our mobile app should be more product focused” = about the idea

Based on the answer, I then determine a response according to a few rules:

If it’s about the details, they’re not worth spending personal equity over. Be willing and eager to compromise. Sometimes a designer can gain helpful allies by giving up on small details early on. That trust can be used later, when it is more critical to the success of the project.

If it’s about the execution, the designer should present a stronger case through research and analysis. Nevertheless, it’s not worth a war. Perhaps further exploration is indeed warranted. Or maybe other possibilities were explored, but it was not adequately demonstrated why those options were inferior. When all else fails, basic user testing will settle almost any dispute.

If it’s about the idea, then a designer should defend their idea with authority, clarity, and in terms of how it would advance the goals of their stakeholders. The only people who care about design awards work at agencies. Everyone else cares about effectiveness, efficiency, or scale. How does the idea solve both the business and user problems? How does this idea solve those problems better than other solutions? Does it allow for future growth or refinement?

Through applied reasoning, I can identify my pet-attachments more easily – and then smother them quietly before they develop limbs! The real secret is to do this every single time. Consistent practice has lessened my sensitivity over the years, and has allowed me to develop new, automatic responses.

Still, some babies will survive – which is why I test early and often. Overwhelming negative results diffuse strong attachments better than any self-help exercise. Yet I’ve also learned (the hard way) that any testing will have its limitations.

Lesson 4: Testing is a tool, not a solution

Agencies are hired to produce a final product, so they typically reserve user testing for the end to “validate” their vision (if at all, and only if the client pays for it). By the time real users actually experience the final product, both the agency and the client have usually moved on, and how it performs matters only insomuch as it leads to another Statement of Work.

Product companies tend to do the opposite. “Big ideas” are costly, resource-hungry, and technically complex to implement. Unless the company is building something from scratch, there’s already a core product fully developed. As such, most testing is tactical by nature, pitting one variation against another to find the most “optimal” solution. Unfortunately, while classic A/B testing is great for refining details or exploring alternative executions, it is not an ideal methodology for comparing different ideas – especially big ones.

This is when moderated studies or field research become critical to fleshing out a larger story. Moderated studies can provide detailed feedback, personal anecdotes, and measurable outcomes about specific product features. In-home interviews can reveal more about how users think about the Web generally, or how it intersects with their daily experience. However, there is one notable disadvantage to “going deep” like this: Scale. Most of these include less than 12 subjects. That’s hardly representative of any single audience, let alone several.

In other words, research will point in a general direction, but rarely reveal the final destination. In fact, research may lead the researcher astray, and even reinforce babies through favorable results.

For this reason, I’ve started using a simple framework that consistently yields the most meaningful results, without injecting my personal biases into the outcome.

Lesson 5: Results depend on the strategy

There are three basic types of user tests…

  1. Unmoderated tests are task-oriented, and measure the success or difficulty users have completing a specific action. Most tests take only a few minutes to complete, and all inputs are measured to identify pain points or confusion. Results are available immediately.
  2. Self-moderated tests are those in which testers talk out loud as they perform a task or answer questions. Their inputs, voice, and activity on screen are recorded. Quantitative data is rendered as charts and graphs for instant analysis, but videos must be viewed, transcribed, and analyzed by a human. Although final results and analysis take longer to complete, the information gathered is rich with user sentiment, candid commentary, and deeper insights.
  3. Moderated tests require a professional researcher, real people, and often a living room environment (in-home, or recreated at a testing facility). The researcher guides testers through a set of tasks and asks open-ended questions in real time. Tests of this nature last anywhere from 45 minutes, to an hour and a half. Once all the sessions are complete, the researcher gathers those results and produces a detailed presentation – complete with background, personas, data, analysis, and recommendations. The time and money required to conduct just one moderated test with several participants is substantial, and in-home “field studies” are exponentially more expensive.

Since each methodology has inherent limitations, a designer should likewise have a strategy for what to test, when, and how. (Otherwise they consume all their resources for minimal benefit.)

Taking all this into consideration, the following is now my approach to testing:

Use moderated tests to identify new opportunities, or a common user problem. They will capture how real users feel about real products on the Web, while still leaving plenty of room for innovation. “Big ideas” should ideally spring from this well of research, or at least directly solve the user problems identified therein.

Use self-moderated tests to vet proposed executions of a particular idea. This is how I seek and destroy every baby possible. Intentionally pit competing executions against one another, measure them equally, and evaluate the results impartially. If done well, the winning execution should determine the best place to start iterating.

Use moderated tests to fine-tune the experience. Once the Big Idea has been distilled into a minimum viable product (MVP) that real users can interact with – that’s when rapid, tactical testing helps me refine the interface or simplify the experience. I fully aware that nothing is ever perfect, and even the best solution now may not be a good one later. But by testing every feature, at some point, I find it easier to spot deficiencies that warrant moderated testing. Sometimes problems resist my solutions altogether, and moderated studies become necessary for further insight.

So far, applying this formula has killed nearly every baby I brought with me to Mozilla, and has helped me abort the ones I’ve made since.

Final Analysis

As a product designer, I will always feel a sense of “ownership” over the things I create. I may take things personally, or secretly harbor inappropriate feelings on occasion. At least now I have the tools to avoid making babies when possible, and ruthlessly weed out the ones I’ve been secretly protecting.

These days, I care more about idea babies than the design babies. Design details can be modified far easier than overarching ideas. Getting regular feedback from users enables me to let go when it’s not critical, and dig in when something is.

Of course, I’ve only learned to develop this perspective the hard way… After fighting too many of the wrong battles.

So don’t be like me. Don’t let your babies become bigger problems later on, and get in the way of work that matters.

Be ruthless from the beginning.

Apolitical Fan Art: Bernie Sanders

I simply couldn’t resist…

Participant of CGTrader Digital Art Competition.

Download the 18″x24″ poster: Bernie 2016 (PDF – 404 KB)

It came to me in a sudden flash. Blame it on jet lag and bad taste, but there is was in my mind: Bernie Sanders a’ la Milton Glaser.

Yes, there are umpteen-million rip-offs of Glaser’s iconic Bob Dylan poster.

No, I don’t think anybody could possibly do better than the original.

But that face. The hair! How could I not?

Besides, Bernie is an icon in his own right – one that often invokes strong emotions, regardless of leanings.

P.S. Maybe I’ll do another… once the Republicans narrow their field a bit 😉

Not Working in Whistler

A brief retrospective

I just returned from Whistler, BC, along with 1300 other Mozillians.

Because we’re a global organization, it’s important to get everyone together every now and then. We matched faces with IRC channels, talked shop over finger-food, and went hiking with random colleagues. Important people gave speeches. Teams aligned. There was a massive party at the top of a mountain.

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Typically, I learn the most from experiences like these only after they have ended. Now that I’ve had 48 hours to process (read: recover), some themes have emerged…

  1. Organizing and mobilizing a bunch of smart, talented, opinionated people is hard work.
  2. It’s easy to say “you’re doing it wrong.” It takes courage to ask “how could we do it better?”
  3. Anyone can find short-term gains. The best leaders define a long-term vision, then enable individuals to define their own contribution.
  4. Success is always relative, and only for a moment in time.
  5. Accelerated change requires rapid adaptation. Being small is our advantage.
  6. The market is what you make it. So make it better (for everyone).
  7. It’s been said that when technology works, it’s magic. I disagree. Magic is watching passionate people – from all over the worldcreate technology together.

Also, it has now been confirmed by repeatable experiment: I’m not a people person – especially when lots of them are gathered in small spaces. I’m fucking exhausted.

Officially signing back on,

-DCROBOT

Common Cosmology

Reflecting on the future of human understanding.

Being an avid follower of news and politics, I find it necessary to blow my own mind on occasion. After reading one too many stories about human shortsightedness, my thoughts begin to narrow and old ideas petrify. Sometimes, the scalpel of knowledge isn’t enough to extract the rigid crust of cynicism; only a cannon will do. Accordingly, I like to pick a meaty book from the astrophysics shelf every few months. Whether it’s black holes or the origins of the universe, I prefer to escape this particular stretch of spacetime altogether, and then return to Earth with (hopefully) a little more perspective.

Since math is definitely not my forte, however, I tend to stick to writers like Brian Greene and Caleb Sharf, who can distill the greatest mysteries of the universe into common language that’s clear and vivid. Because of their deft writing, I can “see” things like vibrating strings, the gravitational distortions of space-time, and colliding branes. Sort of. At the very least, they help me visual the otherwise unimaginable in metaphors that makes sense – even if that understanding is negligible. In doing so, the limitations of my own imagination are challenged regularly (both as a person and as a product designer).

More importantly, such books remind me that we’re all limited in our understanding. This “loose understanding” of how things really work is actually a dominant theme in many of the books I read. Modern cosmology, after all, is largely based on theories derived from pure math, most of which are impossible to observe with human eyeballs, or have yet to be confirmed through experimentation. And then, when repeatable tests do validate a particular theory, we often end up with a universe far stranger – and infinitely more complex – than previously imagined.

In fact, the bedrock theories upon which our current understanding of the universe are based are themselves not easy to reconcile. For example, there is no “Theory of Everything” that neatly ties together Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to String Theory and quantum mechanics. Both yield predictions that are confirmed by testing, and yet they are still, somehow, incompatible. (This is probably the math parts I don’t understand.) Another set of principles or forces seem to be at work.

Perhaps it all has something to do with dark matter and dark energy. Scientist have somehow determined that the two compose almost 96% of the entire universe, leaving only 4% for the stuff we can see. While these phenomena cannot yet be directly observed, they nevertheless have very measurable effects on what we can observe.

If this to true, one must concede that there may be other dimensions beyond the four we perceive. String theorists have proposed that there should be no less than ten dimensions represented in this universe. Furthermore, these dimensions might be so small, and so tightly curled up upon themselves, that we simply can’t detect them with current technology. Dark matter and dark energy may well be further expressions of these extra dimensions.

Meanwhile, in another field of study, scientists are seeking answers to a different riddle: Why is the universe shaped the way it is? It’s a simple question that I had until recently taken for granted.

For most of my life, I had imagined that the universe was spherical. I understood the Big Bang only as an unfathomably large explosion that began in the “center.” Following this logic, I presumed that everything would explode outwards, in all directions, at equal rates. Over enormous expanses of time, everything would slow down as it traveled outward, until the universe reached a degree of stasis. (Just like any explosion I saw in the movies.)

It turns out that all of this is untrue. In reality, the universe is nearly flat, and is expanding faster and faster. In my childhood mind’s eye, the black abyss we inhabited looked like a dandelion from a great distance… I should instead have imagined an elastic, microscopically thin pancake being stretched on all sides with ever greater force. Furthermore, it would more accurate to say that this pancake universe has an “origin”, rather than a “center”.

Even stranger, my notions that everything was “settling down” or reaching a “conclusion” couldn’t be further from the truth either. (Blame my linear, literal mind.) Since then, I’ve learned about the laws of entropy. Entropy is the gradual decline into disorder. The very early universe had surprising low entropy, meaning that there was more order and less complexity. But the Big Bang produced a rapidly swelling universe with ever-higher entropy, or more disorder and great complexity. And just like you can’t unbreak an egg, transitioning from a state of low to high entropy is a one-way train. The universe is still evolving from a singularity, and into something near infinitely complex.

Which leads the devout reader on to the most fascinating — if not disturbing — theories about Cosmic Inflation and the Multiverse. One says that there are really two thin pancakes, separated only by an infinitesimal gap, which collide over and over again, causing Big Bangs. The other suggests that this is but one of an infinite number of universes, maybe even with our own specific expressions of physical laws. There could even be other versions of us out there in the Multiverse, if not the holographic projections of a higher intelligence.

Mind blown.

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After a good mind blowing, I return to this cerulean blue orb with mixed feelings.

Over the last few centuries, science has uncovered a universe unlike anything Newton imagined. In the last 100 years alone, astrophysicists have made some of the most important – and fundamental – discoveries in all of human history. Today, we have things like high-powered mega telescopes orbiting earth, a Large Hadron Collider, and a rover on Mars. Galileo had a few rocks, a handheld telescope, and a crooked tower. In the next 100 years, imagine what other great mysteries humankind could uncover with more advanced instruments, better analytical models, and a little luck. In the words of Agent Mulder, “The truth is out there.” We may just need some time.

But how much time do we actually have? Sadly, we may not have much of it left if we continue on our present course as a species. Between our nuclear arsenals, accelerated climate change, the current mass extinction of other life caused by our activities, or even advancements in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, we’re more of a threat to ourselves than any asteroid or alien invasion. It makes me deeply sad to think that we may never know the answers our species seeks because we will destroy ourselves first.

So now, when I put down an astrophysics book and pick up the daily paper, I can’t help but wonder:

Will we ever be worthy of the truth?

The answer is entirely up to us. Whether that’s cause for hope or dismay, I haven’t yet decided.

Control Issues

What does “user control” actually mean? This is my quest for a definition.

The Product Manager I work with on Content Services, Kevin Ghim, recently asked me to explore ways in which we could experiment on New Tab with “more user control in mind.” Kevin wasn’t asking me to design cool buttons or fancy interactions. He was asking me apply a broad idea to the overall experience.

Naturally, I couldn’t flesh out the finer details of a User Interface before understanding the larger story; and I couldn’t craft a credible story without a proper definition of the basic idea it was intended to support. And since no such common definition can be found (other than in the traditional sense of manipulable controls), I did what any reasonable designer with marketing experience would do. I made one up.

What sounded like a simple exercise has turned into a real mind-melter. This is the journey I took before arriving at my own conclusion.

1: Controls ≠ Control

We talk about control a great deal at Mozilla. In theory, any new feature or functionality we want to introduce on Firefox should allow for greater control, whether over the browser itself or the content within it. Sometimes this means more menus and buttons. Other times it means clearer choices over intended outcomes. It all depends on the task at hand, and a particular user in a particular scenario. But as a UX designer, I fully recognize that controls don’t necessarily add up to control. They are in fact, distinct things.

Broadly defined, “control” could be a synonym for “interaction.” This is to say that for as long as a user can manipulate (i.e. interact with) something, then they have control over it. While this may be technically true, taking this argument at face value fails to consider the larger experience. By this definition, a user would have “control” over how a service provider collects and shares their data with third-party advertisers by clicking an “I agree” button on the Terms of Agreement modal. Not only is this misleading, it completely devalues the role of a user while obscuring the role of the content or service provider.

Certainly, controls are integral to any successful experience. But it’s not enough that a user simply understands what each feature or interaction is supposed to do. Even the best designed, most well intentioned, and considerately placed controls will prove insufficient if they don’t allow for self determination. This is why I felt it necessary to go further, because I want the New Tab experience to anticipate a user’s wants – not to coerce them into supporting our own interests, or to choose a particular path on their behalf.

To explore the idea of control further, I had to look more critically at another idea…

2: Control is Contextual

Since control is meaningful only in context and in regards to a single individual, identifying a user’s wants or needs especially tricky.

For example, a new or novice user will often find a simple interface more approachable because they understand it more quickly. More specifically, they recognize their relationship to it. And a user who “gets it” will be more likely to use it. Their goals are more immediate and general. Likewise, limited interactions tend to help facilitate a basic sense of control over the experience by eliminating distractions.

At first, that is. Once the user wants to do more than the interface will allow, then simplicity and limitations soon become barriers. As to be expected, wherever there is a barrier, confidence diminishes, and, along with it, the user’s perceived level of personal control over their experience. Users who consistently want more control will leave, and those who feel overwhelmed by controls either quit outright, or move on to something “more intuitive.”

So, if user control is largely about supporting individual goals, then any interface or experience I create should anticipate the fact that different users will have different goals at different times. Finding the balance between control and ease-of-use can be an art in itself, requiring constant reevaluation.

While this may seem impossible at first, it helps me to consider another key point…

3: Control is Personal

Control may be relative, but it’s also very real in that it can be perceived and demonstrated in everyday life.

Users are people, not abstractions. While our roles as individual may be small on a cosmic scale, here on earth, at this very moment, we do understand and feel varying degrees of control in all aspects of our lives. Work, romance, friendships, and family are each stages where we exert real influence over the final production.

When it comes to relationships, in particular, many equate control with authority (the right to exert influence). While there will always be those who seek outright domination, folks mostly strive to maintain equanimity within their relationships by playing an active and substantive role in achieving a shared goal. As long as everyone is on the same page, so to speak, then there’s little need for one to dominate another. The same could be said about technology.

By default, a user may assume that technology – which is made by people, for people – is subservient to them. They are the ultimate authority figure. But after playing around with a few toggles and buttons, it becomes clear that any technology has its own prerogatives. A user can’t do any-or-everything they want, only certain things. Furthermore, human flaws in logic or production can render an otherwise powerful utility into something utterly useless; which, in turn, renders the operator impotent. In similar fashion, a user’s relationship to the technology depends largely on their ability to gain mastery over it. This is further exacerbated on the Web, where there are no physical machines to manipulate, and only pixels on a screen.

Accordingly, the best Web experiences respect the user’s authority, and allow them to define the value for themselves, as it applies to their individual circumstances (which may change over time.) Basically, the user should always feel that they have genuine control. It doesn’t get any more personal than that.

Beyond this, it’s crucial to remember that…

4: Control is Specific

Typically, something is personal because it’s specific. Like the ratty sweatshirt kept long after graduating college, or the picture taken while on an exotic journey. They are things we can touch and see that invoke a memory or represent a larger idea we deeply care about. Take away those connections, and those things become entirely ordinary.

People can think of Web products in the same way. It depends on how strong – and clear – the connections are between a product, a particular user, and the role it serves in their life.

As the designer for New Tab on Firefox, I try to connect those dots in a coherent, meaningful way. Giving a user total control over absolutely every feature and function would most likely confuse or frustrate them, not build confidence. Instead, I’d rather identify what they care about, personally, specifically, and design for that.

For instance, the majority of users fall into one of two camps: those who don’t mind advertising, and those who hate it. This involves very personal feelings about something very specific. Likewise, New Tab must allow users to exercise personal choice over these promotional experiences. Those whose aren’t bothered by ads should still have the ability to decide when or what kinds of ads they want to see so that they’re more relevant and timely. Those who want nothing to do with them should be allowed to opt out of any advertising altogether. These are simple things, but they would demonstrate true user control in action.

5: Conclusion

Having considered the ideas above for some time, I’ve finally come closer to understanding what user control really means – to me, at least. My definition is by no means perfect. If nothing else, the following is how I choose to approach this complex issue whenever designing for Content Services products on Firefox:

User Control is the measure by which an individual user may influence, direct, or master a digital interface, in a particular context, and in order to support a specific goal.

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Now, I genuinely want to know what you, dear reader, think user control means. Regardless of your role, either as a contributor to the Mozilla Project, or as a regular user of Firefox, I invite you to share your comments below.

I’m just one guy with an opinion. Maybe together we can spark some much-needed debate within the Mozilla community.