All posts by Ben

Zero States Don’t Understate

Zero states are the messages that our apps tell us when we haven’t made anything yet, our lists are done, our notifications are all read, or when our searches have no results. As app designers, we often focus on giving the user what they needed so we don’t talk much about what happens when there is nothing to give. And nothing isn’t a bad place to be.

BambooHR does a great job telling you that zero is good

Don’t get hung up on showing nothing to your users. Some apps should always give something (think searching on Amazon on Google), others should be more responsible and stop showing things (endless social media and YouTube videos) but most of the time users want to know that they’ve ACCOMPLISHED getting to nothing! This can be super important part of their workflow.

So the next time you’re designing an interface that can have “one or more” somethings show up, take a step back and consider what you’d like to communicate to your users if there aren’t any to show. It could be a good time to relax and let your hair down with something funny, congratulate your users, ask them to create, or point them to another aspect of the app that needs their attention. You should never leave someone wondering, “huh, so I guess there aren’t any then?”

Need some inspiration? Check out what dribble has here.

Be Your Brand

I saw this email in my inbox yesterday and I immediately flagged it because it hit a certain nail right on the head for me. This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and watching from my company and from other companies. As you look past direct marketing efforts—and I wouldn’t recommend that this be done lightly because direct marketing and sales is SOOO MUCH easier to track and account for. And what can be tracked can be improved and that’s a great space to be in. But as companies look past that, they look for more comprehensive approaches that support indirect sales, word of mouth, influencers and just groundswell for your sales efforts. And then we start talking about brand and there’s a million ways that we see brands. Not all of them are successful. Not all are even noticed or appreciated. And if you don’t apply regular and intentional pressure then you will still have a brand, but it will be obscure, absent-minded, flighty and limited to the exposure that just happens and that’s not the impression you want.

So back to this email. It’s from Atlassian, makers of the supremely popular project management software Jira. And here they are sending me an email about incident management. Now I honestly didn’t know they had any product offering in that space, and that’s the genius here because they know that I do think about incident management and that’s a particularly nasty area that IT and Development groups need to have great controls and procedures in place for. It’s like Atlassian knows who I am! (And they do, because I’m fitting a profile they’re targeting for, but that’s not the point!) The point here is that they’ve just shared something with me that I appreciate. That maybe I need. And there’s a load of people like me out there that got this email and said to themselves, “Huh. Atlassian. OK, nice! I appreciate that!” Now I forwarded this on to the right guy in the company and I never clicked on the button in the email. Which means that they couldn’t track what they just did: they build trust. Now further, I forwarded the email onto my executive team as an example of this kind of marketing and now all of them are thinking good things about Atlassian.

How do you measure that? You don’t.

I’m thinking about basketball camps that Nike sponsors. I’m thinking about JR Smith’s new “Supreme” calf tattoo. I’m thinking about what Beats did for the Olympic athletes as they took their brand to the masses. There is a way to attribute the spend, but it’s not easy and it’s sketchy but it’s real. By providing value to people outside of your direct sales and marketing efforts—by providing exposure away from your buying channels you’re letting your brand breathe. And here’s the nail for me today:

If your your company has a mission to accomplish outside of just revenue, then you need to talk about it with your customers and prospects outside of your sales channels.

When you’re ready, get out and get talking about what your company is doing for people. Show them what you want to do and introduce them to people that are making amazing things happen with your product or service. You won’t be able to measure it, and you’ll need a discipline around it, but don’t think for a minute that if done correctly, it isn’t going to make a big difference.

Process Always Breaks Down

We had an interesting epiphany yesterday.

Despite our continuing efforts to include key factors for prioritization, we found ourselves being pushed to work on things that were not prioritized. And it wasn’t about prioritization.

One of my team members has implemented a very clever prioritization method using Airtable that captures the problem, potential solutions, related meta and then key factors for prioritization including customer pain, frequency, reach and development effort to resolve. Being a bit of a spreadsheet nerd myself, I’m pleased that we’ve found a way to do this in a way that is collaborative, transparent and effective. It’s been an aspiration of mine to have something like this working to ensure that design and development are focusing on the things that matter most for the company.

So why work on something else if it’s not in the system?

The epiphany is that no matter how good your system is, even if it includes company rank, emotions, weather and actual dollar amounts for cost and benefit, humans don’t actually like systems! I mean, I’m a human and I love systems. I love this prioritization system we have because it means that I don’t have to worry that day-to-day we’re missing our target. It means that we have a recorded history of good choices and a plan for future good choices. It’s flexible and sharable. But it’s done by algorithms and not by gut. Humans like their guts. In the end, when all else fails, and even when all else is good, humans want to trust their gut over systems. That’s why process always breaks down: human guts.

(Here’s what I’m not going to talk about: why we should build and rely on processes, models, principles and systems that reflect our aspirations and needs.)

So go out there and build the best systems, for prioritization, delivery, operations, tracking and more! But remember why you’re building it. You’re building it to help humans be more precise, accurate and have better memories. You’re building it to insulate from frustration, impatience, overconfidence, and flights of fancy. But you built it for humans! If your system is too rigid for the dynamic of humans, then they’ll know and they’ll suspect it, fear it and ultimately lose trust it in. And untrusted systems fail. They fail harder with every fracture of mistrust. So be transparent, iterate to improve, but account for human nature too.

—–

I was going to end there, but I think some examples might help you understand some specific human factors that conflict with systems. Consider these, and perhaps your system can account for them. If you can’t, adjust your system.

  1. Does it really matter if a developer skips the top story in the backlog in favor of another story two down that really gets her excited?
  2. If the CEO marches down to your desk to tell you about a bad experience he just saw on the site, and he’s rational, is the correct response really just “that’s great, but it’s 30th in line?”
  3. Do you really wait to implement an internal tool for your Support team when they’re  getting bombarded with a demoralizing issue day after day, in favor of another tool or fix that outranks it?
  4. Do you always tackle the “big rocks” at the top of the list at the cost of one or two collectively larger, themed pile of “little rocks” lower down?
  5. Do you hold off on a new project because the original estimate caused a lower priority, despite a developer being so excited about it that he’s spending his own personal time to further the code?

8 Easy Pressure Cooker Recipes

We’ve had a pressure cooker in the home for years and I’m always surprised to hear someone say that they just got a pressure cooker but they don’t know how to use it. Don’t know how to use it?? Turn it on! OK I know it’s not that easy but it is a go-to tool in my kitchen several times every week. Like crockpot recipes? Do you like tender meat? Take some time to explore these recipes and then Google some more and I think you’ll find that dinner prep time just got way shorter! Seriously, our Instant Pot changed the way we cook (faster and easier).

#1 RICE!

If there’s a theme to this post, and a theme to cooking with pressure cookers in general, it’s E-A-S-Y. I won’t burden you with a recipe here. At my house it’s 4 cups of rice and 5 cups of water, lid, push the RICE button. If you’re feeling fancy then throw in some chicken bullion. Done. We do this several times a week. It’s why we have two Instant Pots. 🙂

#2 Salsa Chicken

You’ll see some variations on chicken dishes in this list, but what makes this one come in at number two is that it’s a favorite for our kids. Maybe it’s the brown sugar? We usually serve the salsa chicken over rice and then have a veggie or salad on the side.

#3 Pot Roast

As I learned to cook, the pot roast gave me some apprehension. It’s the classic mom’s-been-cooking-something-amazing mountaintop that I was never sure I wanted to climb. Well forget all that. We’re just talking about an easy way to eat tender, fall-apart meat with some potatoes, carrots, onions and the like. Soooo many ways to do this one!

#4 Cafe Rio Pulled Pork

There are a lot of copy-cat recipes for pulled pork, but we learn towards yummy and easy. The basic idea here is tender and sweet. This works well over rice, but is best with the full-fledged, rice-and-beans, tortilla-bottomed super salad! With the pressure cooker you will spend more time on the creamy tomatillo dressing than the pork. We’ve also done put this on open-faced ciabatta rolls, broiled with a slice of provolone cheese.

#5 Teriyaki Chicken

Another chicken recipe. Another one that’s good over rice or with a stir-fry as part of an Asian-style meal, but we’ve also put it in tacos! Teriyaki chicken has a mild, sweet, and savory flavor that works well in concert with other foods.

#6 Shredded Chicken

OK so you’re getting the idea that you can basically do a lot of different chicken recipes! We use this one, or something like it, for sandwiches, salads, over rice and in tacos. What you’re looking for in good shredded chicken is soft, flavorful meat that can be added to something else that will give the dish the kick and flair you want.

#7 Ribs

The pinnacle of my cooking journey will be excellent ribs. I’ve smoked, baked, and pressure cooked them. I think I did all three on one batch! I really enjoy trying a new recipe and having to eat them myself in the end because “they weren’t good enough” for the rest of the family. I’m a team player!

#8 Taco Soup

A family favorite in my house, we have a few versions of taco soup: soupy for bread bowls, thick for a hearty chili. Cheese, sour cream and Fritos are great mix-ins with breads and harvest veggies on the side.

Why are you still here? Go buy yourself a pressure cooker already!


Noise Cancelling Microphone Rodeo

I’ve been telecommuting for nine months now. There have been a number of changes as I’ve physically separated from the great folks in my company’s office. But the hardest change has been trading out face-to-face conversations for video conferencing. Although it’s never been easier to schedule and join video calls with our existing browsers, phones, built-in cameras and teleconferencing equipment, it’s still no match for being there. There is so much to communicate and perceive that can only be done with the full fidelity of unimpeded senses: micro expressions, vocal timbre, outside-the-camera-frame body language, posture and gestures, knowing looks and eye contact or lack of eye contact, physical presence, proximity and touch and conversation timing and cadence. Even with the best systems so much of this is just lost! In addition, artificial constructs impede natural communication with so many meetings starting with technical difficulties, bad connections, video and sound checks, issues around muting (or not muting) background noises and then there’s latency! It really does requires intentional effort to make sure that remote meeting participants can hear and be heard during a fast-paced conversations, debates and brainstorming. Ugh. Now there are ways to mitigate these problems and I’ll focus on just two. After all, this is an equipment rodeo and I need room to talk about that!

Video Conference Manners

I’ll start with this because with just a few things you can dramatically increase the quality of video conferences. Good protocol applies to whoever is conducting the meeting, whether in the conference room with others, or remote. 

For starters, not every participant can always see all of the other participants. So take a moment at the beginning of a video conference to make sure you all know everyone on the call. Acknowledge and do introductions just like you would if you were in person. Video conferences can feel impersonal if not anonymous so do what you can to keep it personal. 

Second, take a beat every so often to make sure that remote participants understand what is being said and have an opportunity to pipe in. You may not be seeing the normal nonverbal communication that would clue you into their confusion or need to interject. Generally people are a little too polite on calls and we should give even the meekest a seat at the table, virtual as it may be.

Know who’s on the call, give them time to speak and remember that it all sounds much worse on the other end of the wire.

Lastly, think about audio throughout the call. Are there multiple conversations happening? How many microphones are there? Is anyone not able to speak for lack of being heard? Technology has come a long way, but the audio fidelity in video conferences is nowhere near what it is in real life! The human ears are remarkably adept at filtering noise and recognizing sounds. With just your own head’s stereo-on-a-swivel your audio quality will always be better than those on the other end of the wire. Conference microphones are designed to pick up sound efficiently and make everyone sound close, so if you can’t imagine what a room full of people sounds like coming through a single tinny speaker, take time to join a busy meeting and experience it yourself. It will change the way you feel about over-talking, side conversations and natural pauses in the conversation.

Noise-cancelling Microphones

Even with good meeting protocol, having a bad mic can be a meeting killer. Background noise can betray your location or peel back the illusion that your home can be an effective office. Much is said about noise cancelling headphones but it can be difficult to find a noise-cancelling microphone! Don’t assume that your laptop or your webcam’s mic will do a good job. Most mics have one job: pick up sound indiscriminately—they don’t know that a lawnmower or a crying baby is unintentional sound. Thus began my search, when I realized that people could really hear noises from outside my home office. I did take some time to look at sound attenuation solutions for my office, but ultimately you really can’t/won’t change your walls or your door and sound definitely comes through those. So for me the solution had to come from the microphone.

Having some experience with audio engineering and the physics of sound, I was pretty excited about finding a mic solution that could cancel out unwanted noise. And I found some pretty good ones that did not disappoint. They all use “beam forming technology” which uses an array of microphones to identify the loudest sound and cancel out the sounds coming in on the other mics. If you want to see this in action, check out how the Amazon Echo uses this in a noise room and will light up the direction it hears you from. 

There was a point in my research when I had the epiphany that this problem has already been solved for people who take their calls on-the-go and don’t want the background noise of cars, wind or other people. You know, those people who wear bluetooth earpieces all day and you don’t know if they’re talking to you or someone on a call? I realized that to maximize noise cancellation and also get the benefit of proximity effect, I needed limit my search to microphone headsets. All of the headsets that I found with active noise cancellation were also bluetooth. I’m a tough buyer so I had a few key criteria, mostly around what it shouldn’t be, like looking like a headset from Apollo 11.

  • Excellent noise cancellation
  • Doesn’t require a lot of desk space
  • Doesn’t look like I’m doing anything “weird” to get good call quality
  • Doesn’t break the bank

So here they are, in order of my preference. If you’d like to see more, consider something from one of these lists. All of three are good. I feel like I was picking from the best available.

Plantronics Voyager 5200

My overall favorite. Although initially I didn’t like the design because it seemed bulky, my wife and daughter thought that it was the best looking and head-on, the profile is pretty small. What won me over was that in the testing this mic did the best job out cancelling out unwanted noise. The packaging was really nice, maybe too nice with its pull tab and magnetically-closing flap. The earpiece’s build is solid, but flexible and comfortable to wear for long periods. My favorite part is the ear tip that sits loosely in your ear rather than being shoved inside it. $80 on Amazon.

Sennheiser Presence

I really like Sennheiser. I have their e835 microphone and studio headphones and I can’t say enough good about this brand. So I really wanted this bluetooth headset to win. But it didn’t. The noise cancellation was good, but not as good as the Plantronics. I liked that it was small and it has this clever open/closed switch to turn it on and off. It was pretty light too and could actually just hang from being pressed inside my ear but it also came with an over-the-ear hanger as well. The packaging was simple and understated, which I also liked. $92 on Amazon.

Jabra Steel

This one was a surprise for me. I didn’t think much of it when I ordered it—it seemed too simple but the rugged design and manly-man packaging made me feel like wearing this would make my life better! I gave it a shot but overall the audio quality and noise cancellation weren’t as good as the others. If I kept this, I would only wear it when working in my shop or if I was digging a hole or something. It seemed pretty indestructible and I wouldn’t worry about carrying it in my pocket or dropping it. $60 on Amazon.

Testing Method

As I was most concerned about the mic quality, I tested each one with semi-scripted scenarios that included different kinds of background noise so I could compare them side-by-side as much as possible. I also evaluated ease-of-use, fit, price and packaging. I had some success with attempting to record all of them at once, but I ultimately gave up on that approach in favor of time. The recordings are available here for reference if you’re interested.

JTBD Isn’t Complete, But It’s No Gimmick

I avoided reading this article for 19 days! It came to me via email and I skipped over it every day to read all the adjacent messages, but not this one. It’s not that I didn’t have time, or that I wasn’t interested. I was actually very interested to hear from Jared Spool on the subject of Jobs to Be Done. I just didn’t want to watch him tear it down! I really like Jared and I really like JTBD and I need these two things two agreeably exist in my universe. JTBD has been a catalyst for my company to successfully focus on the appropriate aspects of our customers. It’s a watchword and a sentinel that continues to guard us from wasting time on well-intentioned but ill-equipped initiatives. When is was introduced to our company we even formed a JTBD guild to justify the fervor and frequency of our acolyte-level adherence! Now, we’ve cooled since then, having found an equilibrium where JTBD is a component of our overall research and decision-making processes. But it remains a key part of what we do. And the idea of unseating it was, let’s say, “unappealing!”

But today I read it. And Spool’s article wasn’t bad. It turns out that Spool employed a good old-fashioned marketing trick to get a rise out of me before I read it, and it worked. While the article title is polemic and seemingly critical of JTBD, I don’t think he’s really against JTBD theory or what Clayton Christensen was positing. But he does make two key points (that I do agree with) that bear repeating:

  1. How people understand JTBD now has more to do with the diversity of application from niche thought leaders and consultants, and it’s getting messy.
  2. JTBD isn’t groundbreaking for those of us who’ve been in user design for a while.

I’ll point out that if you want to prop up JTBD as a be-all, end-all for your business, you’ll find it lacking. It was never meant to be comprehensive. Christensen admits that and doesn’t explore, in particular, appropriate methods of user research. There is already so much content being created to apply the theory to different kinds of businesses. There will be different schools of though because there is room in business for it. As a theory, and a principle in practice, it’s up to you to determine how JTBD should be applied in your company. But as a tool to help form proper processes across the disciplines of your company, I think that JTBD is essential. Competing Against Luck should be on the recommended reading list for anyone who has honest doubts about their ability to correctly read human-driven markets. The article from Spool is also a good read. In particular the links to other works on design research.

Directed Discovery + Jobs to Be Done + Minimum Viable Product + Agile = Your business has a chance

If you aren’t 100% sure that you understand JTBD, you should read up. It’s well worth your time. But don’t start with derivative work or consultant websites. Read it directly from Clay. …… You’ll quickly understand what it’s about, and what it isn’t about. And then it’s up to you to determine how it fits in your company and processes. For me, JTBD plugs in after Directed Discovery and before MVP. Take that, Spool! 😀

Opportunity Knocks?

Sears: now hiring!

I snapped this photo the other night while walking from my parked car. After a good chuckle, the nuances of why hiring at this outlet right now started to come into focus. I don’t know that anyone would expect to apply for a new career at Sears today… but… what if…

As Eddie Lampert angles to try to make something good (for him) happen from the crashing of this iconic brand, the rabble of unpaid creditors grow restless. What if he can pull something out of this?! Will the Kenmore and DieHard brands live on? Even in this dark uncertainty created by the failed effort to boost sales through overextending credit there is opportunity. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know if it’s good, and I’ll guess it’s just not for me, but it is very likely that there are many opportunities for someone. And that’s my point for sharing this picture: I don’t think opportunity knocks or texts. It’s hidden. If it was easy and obvious then it would be for everyone! Opportunity is a narrow circumstance for possibility, so don’t knock it.

Operant Conditioning

We’ve all used operant conditioning. Just admit it. You know, when you take someone into a plain white room and hook them up to electrodes and then start–wait, what??!?!

No, not that.

As it applies to UX, operant conditioning is when an application attempts to change the frequency of specific user behaviors. Things like confirmation modals, success and zero states, some kinds of error messages, form validation, etc. It comes in several varieties but I want to quickly hit on three common ones:

Positive Reinforcement

Rewards, payouts, praise, humor and value are all forms of positive reinforcement that encourage users to continue to do whatever-they-just-did to get more. It’s the addition (positive) of something wanted.

Negative Reinforcement

Contrary to the colloquial understanding, negative reinforcement is not punishment. Silencing the alarm, hiding the error state, removing the danger, and opening the path are all forms of negative reinforcement that encourage users to continue to do whatever-they-just-did. It’s the removal (negative) of something unwanted. 

Punishment = Bad

Not going to say a lot here because computers should not be used for punishment. Like the first law of robotics, applications should not harm humans. Don’t do this or… or… you’ll be punished? But to be clear, punishment is the addition something bad or the removal of something good as a consequence for specific behaviors. Remember that punishment can only be marginally effective at stopping behavior, it can’t encourage behavior. As you know from your horrible experience with your second grade teacher, you never forget punishment. Not only is it a damaging method for changing behavior, once the punishment is removed, that behavior often returns! 

So What is Proper Reinforcement?

So the studies have been done. You can read more here, here and here and much of it applies to humans as well as lab rats. Everybody likes good things and hates bad things and there’s some morality here too: if you’re hoping to induce improper behavior in others, or worse, behavior that is good for you and bad for them? Stop reading now. 

But in software applications there are “good” behaviors and “bad” behaviors. Or more accurately, user actions that will get them the value they need and actions that will ultimately frustrate them. Incentivizing proper behavior is a smart thing and will actually contribute positively to the tenuous relationship humans often have with software.  And there is a real science to optimizing the change in behavior with proper reinforcement. While you might think that rewarding every “good” behavior is the best, it’s not. Users will actually have a higher response rate to reinforcement (e.g. start doing it sooner) and will have a slower extinction rate (e.g. will keep doing it) if the reinforcement is variable, both in time and frequency. In short, this means that we shouldn’t reward our users every time, but closer to about 50% of the time.

Key Takeaways

  1. Help users find their value by reinforcing supporting actions (e.g. the animation of a lock icon turning unlocked)
  2. Never punish
  3. Mix up the reinforcement (e.g. don’t toast “Good job!” every time)

Reading Guide for Software Estimates

We’ve all been there. A lot. Before your next argument about a project estimate starts, take a minute to get everyone on the same page. Estimates are in important part of business AND estimates are often wrong. Yes, both of these truths can exist in the same universe!

My favorite insight from this set of articles was from John Cutler, “What job are you hiring estimation to do?” This perspective is perhaps the most valuable thing to keep in mind as your team works through your next estimate.