Unboxing Algorithms

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Business & Culture / User Research / UX Design

I’m on a team with Ariel Duncan and Paul Roberts, and for our graduate “thesis” project, we chose to focus on algorithms and their impact on culture. We landed on algorithms – and the technologies that use them – because of the increasing roles that they play in shaping daily human life. With the results of the 2016 election, we felt that it was timely to understand algorithm’s often opaque internal mechanisms and hidden biases. Part of our mission is to raise awareness around the cultural, social, and political impact of algorithms and empower people to explore how they shape and are shaped by technologies that use algorithms.

Below is my synthesis of our literature review.

Introduction

The 2016 election revealed to many people that their perspective of the world have been influenced by the echo chamber effects of the “news” presented to them in social media. This echo chamber has, in part, been reinforced by Facebook and other social media platforms decisions to prioritize information that spreads affirmation. (1) Although Facebook is not the only platform contributing to the echo-chamber effects, its reach, size, and disproportionate power to shape our lives makes it notable.

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Words Form the Building Blocks of User Experience Design

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Case Study / Content Strategy / Uncategorized / UX Design / Writing & Editing

In her talk at Rhode Island School of Design, Nicole Fenton described the concept of interbeing from Thich Nhat Hanh. It looks at the world as everything taking a part in creating everything else: the sun makes it possible to grow a tree, which takes a person to chop it down, which eventually becomes paper. All these activities feed into making paper and allows it to exist.

Similarly, when we think about something as ambiguous as user experience, it helps to be specific about what we’re trying to make, who it is for, how it works, and why it matters. We give words to our intentions before we start a project until we end up with something on the screen.

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Let Writers Lead on Your Product Team

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Content Strategy / Uncategorized / UX Design / Writing & Editing

Note: This is Part 1 of a series on using language to solve design problems.

“Innovation is no longer just about new technology per se. It is about new models of organisation. Design is no longer just about form anymore but is a method of thinking that can let you to see around corners. And the high tech breakthroughs that do count today are not about speed and performance but about collaboration, conversation and co-creation.” -Bruce Nussbaum

Design patterns can be copied. So can novel interactions. Even entire products – heck buildings, too – can be knocked-off and reproduced. A fast follower can improve upon its predecessor and avoid the mistakes of trailblazers. What happens then?

The above quote is interesting because it’s easy to assume that new technology has inherent value. It doesn’t. Technology has value when it continues to deliver meaningful experiences to people, helping them accomplish things they want in a manner and speed they desire.

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Language as Interface: A Voice and Tone Guide for Your UX Design Project

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Content Strategy / Marketing & Brand / Resources / UX Design / Writing & Editing

Editor’s Note: You could digest this piece in one sitting, or you might read it in chunks, use it as a reference, or even save it for the weekend. It’s long but comprehensive. Whatever you do, remember this: words are also design material. Choose them thoughtfully.

Introduction

“Like a well-built home, great software focuses on giving its users hundreds of small, satisfying interactions. A great transition in a mobile app gives us the same feeling we get from using a well-made door handle on a solid oak door — you may not be able to put your finger on it, but man, does the house ever feel well built.”Andrew Wilkinson, Founder of MetaLab

Wilkinson was referring to Slack, the popular chat app his company helped design. Although it’s basically the same as other chat apps, Wilkinson shared three key things that make Slack stand out from its competitors: the look, the feel, and the sound of the app. They all work in unison to make users feel like they’re “slacking off.” “Fun” is not a normal word people use to describe an internal communication tool.

So how do these details impact user experience? According Hiten Shah, in a survey of 731 users, 51% answered that they would be “very disappointed” if Slack no longer existed. Granted, a product must first solve a real need (in this case, reducing email and increasing productivity within teams). As Paul Graham wrote, make something people want.

But beyond fulfilling functional needs, the look, feel, and sound of a product matters. Why? Because those elements reward users. They make the experience worth the effort. Wilkinson says:

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Why Slack Is Worth $2.8B: Its User Experience Makes People Care

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Business & Culture / UX Design

“A central thesis is that all products are asking things of their customers: to do things in a certain way, to think of themselves in a certain way — and usually that means changing what one does or how one does it; it often means changing how one thinks of oneself.”

We often forget that we ask a lot from people who use our products. Whatever we design is asking users to do things our way. And it’s so easy to assume they care about the product as much as we do. For someone trying our products for the first time, they’re usually skeptical, and they aren’t yet convinced why they should spend any more time caring about it.

The quote above comes from Stuart Butterfield, who wrote a Medium post, “We Don’t Sell Saddles Here.” He is also the president and co-founder of Slack. What I admire about Slack echoes what everyone else has been saying: it’s actually fun to use. More than that, what makes the product successful is Butterfield’s drive to answer this question: Who do we want our customers to become? His answer is worth $2.8 billion dollars.

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Write Microcopy Like You Give A Damn

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Content Strategy / UX Design / Writing & Editing

If you’re designing interfaces for websites and apps, it’s still mostly about words.

Iterating quickly without considering the words is like forgetting to add yeast to the dough. You’re leaving out one of the most crucial ingredients that actually make your interface work.

I’ve written previously about how copy is interface. Once people have downloaded your app, for example, words direct them and create paths for them to follow. If consistency is one of the key rules of building a great user interface, words should be part of the equation, not just recurring UI design patterns. Words bring clarity to the layout, button icons, and graphics.

Obviously my thoughts are less than perfect versions of ideas that other, more accomplished people have spoken about at length. My aim here is to explore how I might apply interface copy to design better products.

Below, I will show you how microcopy can anticipate friction in the user flow, make your product more helpful, and create stronger connection with users.

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Design Your Narrative Before The Product

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Case Study / Content Strategy / Marketing & Brand / Storytelling / UX Design / Writing & Editing

Your user experience is your product. When marketing people don’t talk to product people, what you get is less than ideal user journey. Below, I’ll explore how writing your product narrative first can help you design more welcoming experiences for potential customers.

A case of disconnected user journey

YouTube is a perfect marketing channel for some companies. If you target a niche audience, understand their behavior well, and find the right Youtuber to promote your product, it’s a deadly strategy for competitors.

A few days ago, one of the Youtubers whom I subscribed to made an irresistible offer: Hanz de Fuko sampler pack, for free! Hanz de Fuko makes hair products that use organic ingredients, and in this case, the offer was for six different samples of hair styling molding paste.

I wasn’t even looking to stray from American Crew Fiber, but I really liked the YouTuber, and he did a fantastic job showing me how he used it to style his own hair. I headed over to the Hanz de Fuko website armed with the discount code he provided.

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Good Writing Is Good Design

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Content Strategy / UX Design / Writing & Editing

“Words matter. They are abstractions, too — an interface to thought and understanding by communication. The words we use mold our perception of our work and the world around us. They become a frame, just like the interfaces we design.”Frank Chimero

Michael Johnson, Design Director of Happy Cog, tweeted something recently that caught my attention. Not only because designers can learn about design from writers, but also, I believe that writers can learn about writing from design. Both hone their craft to shape experiences – one visual, the other written.

Designers should spend more time with writers. At least that's what a design director thinks.

Designers should spend more time with writers. At least that’s what a design director thinks.

Just like code is material for developers, and pixels are material for visual designers, words are the building blocks that interface writers use to shape digital experiences. Language is material that speaks directly to users.

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Your Point of View Is Your Brand

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Business & Culture / Marketing & Brand
Lighthouse in the Dark

Side note: I have always been a firm believer in writing about things I care about and that might add a lot of value to whomever reading. But Hunter Walk’s post reminded me that I can let go of the pressure to be right, have everything figured out, or write something definitive to “build an audience.” (Though that would be nice.) Just share what you know. It might attract someone who you can learn from.

TL;DR: Stand up for what you believe in. Your worldview will attract the right people into your life – and business.

The value of a service mindset

Right out of college, I worked as a sales associate at a large department store for 2 years. I hated it. It was 2009, at the start of the recession, and it was the only job I could find at the time. Not only did I feel massively underemployed, I felt the job was beneath me. Along with accruing 20K in student debt, the job added to the pain of feeling stuck. It was the first in a string of customer service-related jobs I held after college, which included being a server at a Thai restaurant and tech support at a startup.

Looking back 5 years later, I’m grateful for those experiences. I wasn’t necessarily good at it, but it taught me how to think on my feet, get better at reading people, and respond in a way that’s empathetic to their circumstances. I got a handle of swallowing my pride and defusing tense, tricky situations.

Most importantly, these customer service jobs cemented my beliefs in how successful businesses should be run. They became my lens to see the world and solve problems. Fundamentally, customer service is about this: people matter. You can’t run a successful business without simultaneously uplifting and improving your customers – their life, and as a person.

Customer service isn’t an afterthought, nor is it just about support. It’s a belief system about how to treat people. When that belief is part of your business DNA, you approach all decisions differently. As my general manager at the Thai restaurant coined, it’s being “service-minded.”

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Listen for the things unsaid

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Career / Journal

My mom recently asked me where I wanted to be in about 5 years. Everybody should have a 3-year, 5-year, and 10-year plan, right? I admitted that I didn’t know. “You have to know!” She said. “How do you know what to do if you don’t know where to go?”

I’ve often struggled with gaining clarity around my future. While many of my friends already had their life planned out – a stable career, a house, a baby, a dog, holidays with both sides of the family, etc. – I shuddered with such predictable outcomes. “I’m still in my twenties!” I said to friends, many of which are already either married or engaged.

What I later realized was perhaps I was afraid of admitting what I truly wanted. Partially because it seemed like a ridiculous aim, and the other reason was the long road to get there. So here it goes:

I want to help people publish world-changing ideas.

Not necessarily world-changing to you, but it could be world-changing to someone else. It could radically shift their mindset. For me, one of those books is How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It doesn’t have to be a personal development book either – or books for that matter. A breath-taking photograph or a captivating speech (e.g. Steve Job’s commencement speech) is a form of publishing. A song with an aim to shift our cultural conversation is another.

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