words on the internet

i'm will dennis. these are my movie reviews and thoughts. i don't proofread before publishing so forgive the editing or lack thereof

Tag: design

Building What You Design

I’m teaching myself iOS. Before that I was primarily focused on mobile design. I’ve found interesting the new transparency with which I can see through the “design stack.”

Before learning iOS, I would design with the user in mind — in pursuit of that perfect user experience. Now I design with both the user and the engineer (me) in mind.

If a design is marginally better for the user, but much more difficult to build, is it in fact the best design?

It’s a new question I’ve been wrestling with. We’re in the business of building things that look great, work great, and also ship quickly.

Having insight into each part of the process is forcing me to make engineering related design decisions at the UI level — sometimes consciously sometimes not.

It makes me realize how costly some “design-y” decisions can be to the actual building process.

My main perspective shift is that “design then build” may be a fundamentally flawed workflow. Engineers should be alongside designers when scoping projects.

The best design may be the one that minimizes the time-to-build/user-benefit tradeoffs.

This brings me to the next question I’m wrestling with: Is pure user-centric design bullshit?

The tradeoff between time and polish is not an engineering problem, but should be a framework for software design itself.


Edit Your Product into a Corner


When building out a product, there are so many potential features to include, it’s hard to decide which features need to be included in the first version.

What we’ve found helpful building Hollerback, is actually editing back features until the experience, well, breaks.

By taking away the very features that make your product useable, you quickly get a deep understanding of why each feature has to be there. You also get the added benefit of cutting out fluff in the process.

A good rule of thumb is that if you cut something and don’t miss it after a week, leave it out.

With aggressive feature editing, you arrive at the experience that truly matters — the set of features that accomplishes your “one thing” in the simplest way possible.

Well designed products aren’t sets of features, they’re systems that accomplish a task with little to no friction.

By editing your product into a corner, you start to consider each new feature as necessary to solve a specific friction point. Eliminate features until your experience breaks, then only add the features that eliminate friction.

The result is a product that feels both whole and simple.

If you’d like to check out our execution of a whole-yet-simple product check out Hollerback.

Let me know if I can be helpful will@hollerback.co

How to Talk About Design

I watched a talk yesterday by Ryan Singer, design guru of 37 Signals. The talk has a bunch of great points, but one struck me in particular – his description of how to qualify effective design.

Effective design is a lack of friction.

I love this definition because it fully captures the iterative process of design and the trade offs that come with iteration. The best part is that it doesn’t rely on “designery” language.

It’s not just a great definition, but it’s a great way to tackle design problems and opportunities.

Designs can always be better if there is friction in the system. That’s why iteration is necessary. Finding the best design is often a process of designing then using then designing then using. Using your product allows you to find friction. Design allows you to eliminate it. It’s tricky because eliminating friction in one area can introduce it in another. That is what makes design so fun and challenging.

If you’re able to kill friction without introducing it elsewhere in the system then you’re on your way to a great design.

“Friction” is just so much more tangible and human than terms like simplicity, aesthetic, design, feel, or ux. Simplicity and aesthetic result from an absence of friction – I don’t think they drive effective design in and of themselves.

Our understanding of friction as a word and a feeling is basic, it’s human. Your mom can feel friction just like a designer can feel friction.

We have frequent field tests at Hollerback where the entire team goes out and uses the app for a few hours. When we come back, we discuss bugs and potential UX improvements. The UX part of the discussion was good, but hard to nail down exactly what UX was.

From now on we’ll be using points of friction as the focus of our discussion. I look forward to seeing if it pushes our design and product in a more effective, delightful direction.

My Favorite Design Links of the Last 6 Months

Over the past 6 months I’ve been actively working to improve my design chops. Visual design, interaction design, ux, design thinking — you name it. When I find a helpful resource (ie asset, article, definition, process) I save it to a bookmark folder in Chrome.

Below you’ll find an unordered list of design focused links I came across over the last 6 months.

Instead of writing descriptions or trying to cull the list, I thought I’d share it in its raw form. Click around. Explore. Hopefully you’ll find some of them helpful.

If you know of a resource I’ve missed, add it in the comments!

Why good storytelling helps you design great products.

The Kano Model

What is Product Love?

Dribbble Mock Up Resources

Starter’s Guide to iOS Design

The iOS Design Cheat Sheet

Upping Your Type Game

Wilson Miner — When We Build

The Mental Model of Verbs in App Design

Getting to Signature Moments with Microinteractions

Improving UX with Customer Journey Maps

How to become a designer without going to design school

Creating Successful Product Flows

How Designers Can Help Developers

Required Reading For Product Designers

Learning to See

Dieter Rams: ten principles for good design

Final Designs are Always the Simplest and Most Practical

New in Android

Android Design Guidelines

inVision Mobile Prototyping

From Google Ventures: How to Hire The Best Designer for Your Team

Your App Makes Me Fat

Warm Gun: Lightning-Fast Mobile Design

Butterick’s Practical Typography


Why Whitespace Matters

Glyphish Icons

Digital Design — GUI, Layout Interfact on Pinterest

Adobe Kuler Color Wheel

A Rare Look At the Graphic Design Guidelines at Google

Google Visual Assets Guidelines

10 Rules for Making Good Design

PlaceIt — Generate Product Shots in Realistic Environments

Designer News

Review: The Design of Everyday Things

First Principles of Interaction Design

Gestalt laws of grouping

Forget All the Rules About Graphic Design

Design Better and Faster With Rapid Prototyping

Creating Prototypes with Keynote

Fake It. Trash It. Build It.


Mobile Design Details: Performing Actions Optimistically

My Six Rules for Mobile App Design

Design By Numbers: Typography

52 Weeks of UX

Learning from “bad” UI

Cognitive Overhead, Or Why Your Product Isn’t As Simple As You Think

Portkit: UX Metaphor Equivalents for iOS & Android

An Event Apart: 10 Commandments of Web Design

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model

Type Hunting

What To Do When You’re The Only Designer They’ve Got

Best Logo Designs of All Time

Trade Marks and Symbols by Stefan Kanchev

Great Products Focus on A Motif

Thirteen Tenets of User Experience

Five Ways to Prevent Bad Microcopy

If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it

Touch Gesture Reference Guide

Taste for Makers

Beyond Flat

A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design

There is no place for just shitting all over other people’s work

Felt Presence — Ryan Singer

An Insider’s View of Mobile-First Design: Don’t Make These Mistakes

If you’re interested in seeing if any of this pays off, you should check out Hollerback

Let me know if I can be helpful: will@hollerback.co


Burn Your [Product] Ships

burn your product ships

When the Spanish explorer Cortez landed on the shores of modern Mexico, story has it that he burned his ships to ensure they were “All In” on their conquest. This is a beautiful metaphor for building software products.

Many tout the benefits of both iteration and simplicity. The problem is that to iterate and preserve simplicity, features have to be cut. You have to burn your ships that got you to where you are. There is no turning back.

This can be tricky.  You have to kill the features that individual developers and designers had personal relationships with, features that took careful planning and months to develop. They have to be swiftly killed.

It’s the right choice. If they’re not on the critical path to your best user experience, they have no business seeing the light of day.

It’s tempting to keep that one cool feature, to leave that one option in the settings, to leave a little bit of product flexibility in case users want to do Y and Z in addition to X.

But remember – users will actually use the features you give them. If you include features that are “good” but not “great,” some percentage of your users will experience your product as good and not great. Only great products survive.

Make bold and specific user experience choices, let them ripple though your product, and kill the features that are tangential.

By focusing on only one core experience, you have no choice but to make that the best in its class.

You have no choice because there’s no going back. You’ve burned your ships.


An Homage to Stupid Weather Apps

I’ve often heard a gripe among early adopters whenever they see buzz about a utility app coming out. “Who needs another alarm clock, weather app, or todo list?” they say. Hell, I’ve been guilty of it myself.

Upon closer inspection, however, these utility apps are in fact the trojan horses of app innovation. They’re the unsung heroes. They’re the badass vigilantes that fight for the common man even though the common man doesn’t know they’re name or really give much of a shit.

This is an homage to the weather apps.

You can’t innovate on everything at once.

There are new social networks, services, and business models launched into the app store daily. They correctly set out to innovate on one thing: the shiny new service they provide to the user. It’s novel, it’s unique, it fills a user need. They do one thing and they try their darnest to do it well.

Praise innovation!

Unfortunately, these services rarely, if ever, innovate on the UI and interaction model of the app experience itself. Save for a few signature moments, apps stick to things users have seen before and know how to interact with. It makes sense. When you’re trying to get a user to order their groceries via smartphone the last thing you want is for them to be confused about how to drag and drop groceries into their shopping cart (though that would be cool).

There is simply no opportunity for experimental UI in apps that are already busy teaching a new consumer behavior in the service they’re providing.

However unfortunate it may be, it’s difficult if not impossible to educate a user on a new service and a new interaction model simultaneously. You’re either sacrificing user experience, threatening business goals, or both. Most often it takes much less time to use standard UI than teach a user something new.

There are exceptions in consumer/social applications where the app is the product itself. For example, the “hold-to-record” video affordance in Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat is now bordering on convention. It’s a great example of how challenging it is to teach users new things. It has taken 3 of the app store behemoths to even suggest a possible new norm for mobile video recording.

And despite this consumer video trifecta, we’re still beholden to operating systems’ reinforcement of traditional camera interactions for the foreseeable future. Until Apple and Android decide to embrace a new interaction model, like Apple finally has with drawers in iOS7, it’s tough going on the UI innovation front.

So where does this leave us? Are we trapped in our current UI paradigm of nested list views and ever-present settings buttons?


Enter the innovation trojan horse

This is where apps that give you the weather, wake you up, or organize your tasks can shine and impress.

By focusing on a user problem so familiar, so singular, and so ubiquitous, utilities can paint a clean canvas colorful with new interaction models. These conceptually-simple apps don’t burden users with the cognitive load that comes along with a new service. Developers of utilities can explore how users might interact with apps in ways that are faster, simpler, less traditional, and potential way better.

By focusing on a simple, borderline-trivial user problem, developers and designers can create apps that are designed for the sake of design. They’re designed for the sole purpose of answering the question: “What if it worked like this?”

Utility apps that use unconventional UI in general are borderline pieces of art. I’d equate them to a modern day self portrait: The concept has been done to death but you never know exactly how it will be executed.

Therein lies the fun. Therein lies the opportunity to stumble upon new interactions, new gestures, and new workflows. Therein lies the opportunity and the freedom to innovate.

So keep the alarm clocks coming

Without simple utility apps that take risks with interaction and UI design, we’d be constrained to using apps that are so focused on accomplishing a business task that they necessarily limit the UI.

While games push the boundaries of UI and interaction design, games are a different beast entirely. The UIs are fragmented on an almost game-by-game basis. They’re far from ever establishing a new UI convention, let alone one that works well in general consumer apps. We need interaction innovation from consumer apps themselves.

In time, it’s the apps that take UI risks that truly push user experience in the right direction (even if they occasionally fail). As users become more and more challenged over time, they’ll be more comfortable going button-less and fully gestural. (<- unintended sexual innuendo!).

And so I plead.

Weather apps, keep coming hard with the animated snow.

Alarm apps, keep giving me new ways to set the time.

Todo list apps, fuck yeah lets rearrange some lists in clever ways.

I know that for every super trivial knock-off that is submitted to that app store, it’s this genre of apps that can unlock the future of app experience on a fundamental level.

While a lot of the hype goes to innovative business models and shiny new services, lets not forget to give it up for the unsung heroes. The developers and designers who are pushing the limits of how an app on your phone can actually work.

Hopefully they keep busting their asses to create better interactions that slowly bleed into the mainstream. The end result is a better user experience for all.

I’ll keep downloading your alarm clocks. No matter how many times I wake up late because I didn’t quite get how your app worked, I know your intentions are righteous.

Move in before you buy the furniture: Design vs UI on the web

The importance of design on the web is one of the most “critical” aspects of a start up’s success. You get a lot of people doting on new websites for their beautiful landing pages and along with it designers excited to profess their obsession with “pixel perfect” UI.

In fact, the importance of UI is extremely overblown. The way pages connect and function and where users interact is what will make or break a web service, not the UI.

I’m going to go ahead and use the analogy of a house as a website and users as prospective homeowners. I think it works.

The Foyer 

You need a welcoming entrance. It should lead to the most impressive part of the house or perhaps a general tour. It should make visitors say something like “Wow. This seems like a nice house. I’m going to go snoop around.”

The Kitchen

Someone has to put food on the table. On twitter the food is a tweet, on ebay the item for sale, on youtube the video. Whatever the meal, the chef needs the stove and oven in order to put out their best food, and for them to be able to cook day after day. If the kitchen is especially well built, chefs can socialize with each other.

The Dining Room 

There should be an airy communal space where everyone who’s in the house can interact. The food is served and the hungry guests chow down. They get the chance to like, buy, or retweet the food so the chefs know they liked it.

The Bathroom

Sometimes you need to take care of business, readjust the settings if you will. The bathroom doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does need to be 100% functional. Otherwise things get messy and you spend more time in the bathroom than you should. That never is a good experience.

The Bedroom

The bedroom is where an individual can come, own their space, hang a few pictures, and make sure they’re presentable to the world. This room needs to be functional, under the user’s control, and also fun and homey.

After investigating the various rooms the user makes the call: should we move in? should we spend time here? is this where we want to cook and eat our meals? They’re snooping around deciding if this is the place where they want to invest time and energy. This is where they’ll tell their friends and family they’re living. If the floor plan has missing, uncomfortable, or hard to find rooms, users will look for another place to live.

Only after the lease is signed do prospective home owners discuss furniture and paint color. UI is furniture and paint color. Hacker news, digg, google, twitter, facebook. They all made sure their floor plans worked great before worrying too much about the furniture.

Make sure what you’re building is somewhere livable before you buy furniture. It just doesn’t matter how nice the living room couch is if you have to walk through the bathroom to get to the kitchen.

the web as performance art

Fred Wilson mentioned in a post how one of his portfolio entrepreneurs equated himself to an artist, and the web as the most powerful artistic tool of our generation. While an appealing thought, it’s a stretch. Releasing V1 of a site is a far cry from releasing a song or putting down the brush on a canvas. When conventional artists “ship,” it’s over, it’s out of their hands. The public has it now.

But you can never really finish a website. The potential for “better” UI and sustainable competitive advantage are just around the corner with the new feature set. Things can load a little faster, be a little easier to navigate, look better on mobile. With web, what takes a few weeks to build then takes years to improve and refine, all while in the public’s eye.

There are just a few sites like hacker news and google’s homepage that have remained relatively the same of the past few years. Are these sites just good enough or perfect from day one? Would an updated UI or a change in layout be beneficial? You could make the argument for either, but their compelling commitment to simplicity is the exception rather than the rule.

In tech I think there is a constant belief that things can always be better. There is an innate drive for progress. From broad political systems to industry to pixels on a web page, an answer lies is tech. There is the belief that if we just work a little harder and think and create a little more we’ll make a dent in something.

Maybe the web is indeed art. A type of performance art set in the struggle for relevance and constant improvement. If art is supposed to represent something within the human experience, I guess creating a website actually seems pretty appropriate.