Why do we design?

I remember when I was in college, studying to become a graphic designer, there was a feeling that we were learning how to change the world. And everyone there thought that we didn’t need to wait until we finish, just for the fact that we were there, we where changing it already. Everything we did had the seed in it to be life changing and thought defying.

It’s been several year since that time. I worked at several types of agencies, some more professional, some less. Every one of them taught me something, even though I wasn’t changing the world at some of them.

Some people, and to my regret some designers too, think we just design things to be beautiful or to sell things. The worst thing is that some agencies think that too, that they are in the business of improving sells on products for their clients. Although there is nothing wrong with that approach, I think we can do better, a lot better.

There is some natural impulse on mankind to design. A few months ago I was lucky enough to be at the British Museum, and there was this really kind old woman behind a little table in one of the museum halls, the one with wooden stands wall to wall and a zillion of objects in them. This table had a little sign with the legend “hands on”. On there were five objects from the museum collection, and for our surprise (me and my wife) we could grab them and hold them in our hands. One of the objects was a stone hand axe of almost 500.000 year old. It was incredible to be able to hold it in my hands, I was trembling of emotion after these almost eternal five minutes that we where there. But it was more incredible that this axe, an axe made of stone by an Homo-Erectus almost half million year ago, was a perfect fit in my hand, it has the perfect weight and balance. This axe was designed that way.

Before I went to college, I had the luck to work in a notorious argentinian design studio, Diseño Shakespear, leaded by Ronald Shakespear. I wasn’t doing any design work there, I started as an errands boy, just going to print shops with zip discs (yeah those old ones) to plot presentations, and things alike. After a month or so, I was promoted to be Ronald’s assistant. I still didn’t do any design work, but I was able to see how it was to do it. I had access to a lot of documentation, I remember specifically reading cover to cover a one thousand pages identity manual like it was a novel. I saw how designs where presented, how you have to play some politics with clients, and how the theory, concepts and caring of the designs are important to protect them from those politics. One of the most prominent projects they did was the sign system for Buenos Aires city. In a recent interview he said: “I like more (signs system design) because i feel useful. Knowing that an old lady found the subway station and came to her home safe”.

When I read that, all my career decisions pass in front of my eyes. How with some kind of unconsciously thinking I tried to stay focused in a discipline that mix all the things that mattered to me. I always loved technology and working with it, and like in college, I still want to change the world bit by bit (pun intended). Is the feeling of being useful, as Ronald Shakespear said, that drives me. But instead on doing sings system design, I want to develop better interfaces for the everyday task we have to do in this highly digital world we now live in. Helping the old lady to pay her taxes online, making the best interfaces so she could do everything she need to with confidence in the least time possible, so then she can keep doing what she likes in the analog world. I think what drives or should drive every designer is the goal of improving life, by enhancing, simplifying and making more delightful every little aspect of our daily tasks.

So the next time we have to deal with any kind of design, a brochure, an online campaign, a mobile interface, a home banking, a spatula, we don’t have to think how to make it more aesthetically beautiful or improve sales as our primary goal, we have to focus on how to make it more useful, how to improve the time people have to deal with it, how to improve readability for the little old lady, how we can improve people lives with our little grain of sand, how to make an stone axe fit perfectly in the users hand.

Responsive images approach

There has been a lot of discussion of the best way to implement responsive images these days.

Jason Grisby points out another problem with the browser implementation of the image pre-fetch functionality. Or how the browser will be able to fetch the correct image if it doesn’t know the layout yet.

So I have a little idea I want to share.

What about defining our desired breakpoints on the html tag:

<html respbp="320,480,960,1000">

Then we just tell the browser what images need to be treated as responsive

<img src="photo-320.jpg" resp="yes" />

So when the browser try to pre-fetch the images, it knows our desired breakpoints, and it already knows our vieport size.

So we just need to name our responsive images as our breakpoints
photo-320.jpg
photo-480.jpg
photo-960.jpg
photo-1000-jpg

And as you see in my img tag I took a mobile first approach defining the 320 breackpoint as the default img. Of course this is much simple to code and deal than the other ideas with multiple sources or breakpoint defined in every image.

what do you think?

Responsive Hardware Interfaces

A few weeks ago, Microsoft shows us a Productivity Future Vision, just the typical cinematic hollywood-esque concept show-off of futurology of products (a friend used to call it “hollywood OS”) they probably won’t ever make or do just too late after the competition captures all the market. Ok, that’s a little harsh, but late Ballmer’s Microsoft history tell us that.

Bret Victor on his Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design points out all what is wrong with this video. He says:

” …this vision, from an interaction perspective, is not visionary. It’s a timid increment from the status quo, and the status quo, from an interaction perspective, is actually rather terrible.”

And he is right, all the video shows, are really cool cinematic effects, but you can find a ton of interaction issues on it. But the main problem is that in that future we all still interact with the digital data with on finger over a glass. It’s like if in the late 90’s we envisioned a future where all interaction are done with a 2 button mouse.

Bret even suggest some paths that could enrich the future of interaction where we use our full body to interact instead of just one finger.

As I see this problem, the initial road could be mark with Chris Harrison concept with his 2009 paper Providing Dynamically Changeable Physical Buttons on a Visual Display. He envision a that a thin transparent layer over the glass of touch based devices could adapt to reflect a soft keyboard with volume so you could feel it. I thought that solution was already on the works, but as it looks it just on paper.

But, what if we could expect more adaptable hardware around our software? What if we could have Responsive Hardware Interfaces as we have Responsive website designs. It will be hardware that could adapt its form and function depending of the task we want to do, it can be done with Smart Materials or even nanobots.

Imagine you take out of your pocket your mobile device, launch your favorite game that links to your big display on your living room and then, your mobile device change its form and function to a game pad for a better and more comfortable experience.

This could be applied to a variety of tools. Imagine you won’t need a set of specialized screw drivers, you could have just one that can shift its shape to whatever form you need. Or even a simple task as making cookies for your kids, where you could have just on piece of metal that can change its form to whatever you want, a star a half moon, a man… And all this could be done with software, you can even buy more shapes for this devices on your online app store making them more useful over time.

But not necessarily all interfaces will be tangible or manipulable, there is a lot of room for various type of them, specially for Natural Language Interfaces like the recently introduced Siri Assistant.

One thing is clear, touch based interfaces, or Pictures Under Glass as Bret puts it, are a real advance in interaction, but it is the Now not the future as Microsoft wants us to believe.

Book review: Andy Rutledge’s Design Professionalism

Design Professionalism

We all struggle at work, at every level, as employees and as managers. We all have complaints. And web design is not an exception.

I’ve been working on this area for more than 14 years and I know every one of the problems we all have working at agencies. I suffered them at every level. And I must admit, I complained a lot, some times wrongly, some times not.

Web design agencies started to surge as one person companies, and when internet started to grow they had to face the same grow inside the organizations, and for no better role model they take the traditional publicity one with all their flaws.

This leaded to a sum o problems that infested the profession and the ability to make our jobs a we supposed to do.

Andy Rutlege, in his Design Professionalism, put in words a thoughtful analysis of the roots of the situation and offered solutions managing them based on his many years of experience, with a focus on integrity, moral and professionalism.

If you a are a designer or a manager on a digital agency, this is a must read book. It goes deep into every problem you complaint in your career and gives you insights of the origins and solutions you need to circumvent this problems and be a better professional. You will argue with him a lot, but be patience and read all he has to say. Let the ideas macerate for some days and you will find real wisdom and tools you can use to enhance your practice as a professional.

You can like some of his ideas, you will hate some, but you can ignore them.

I assure you, this reading will benefit your company, will benefit your work as a designer, as I can assure you it benefited mine.

What the best of all, he make a website for everybody to read it for free. It’s his contribution in improving our profession, now its time for you to read it an make your own. You can also buy an ebook version, so you can have the best digital reading experience.

Design Professionalism

The sadness of a fan boy

Steve Jobs
image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/farber/

I always watched with astonishment girls screaming, shouting and even crying, in a kind of mass hysteria at their favorite music artist. I couldn’t comprehend how can they be connected in this way with a total estranger from who they only know their songs and what is published about him.

Some time ago, a close friend approaches me with genuine sadness and told me that Carl Sagan had died. We, as young people as we where, maked jokes about his ridiculous overreaction, Sagan was a notable man, but a total estranger for him. We knew he was a real follower, admirer of his ideas and achievements, but still we cannot understand what he was feeling at that moment.

But today it was different for me. Today I understand those girls on a concert, or my friend sadness. Today Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple. As John Grubber wrote:

This is not out of nowhere, it’s not even unexpected. We could all see this was coming — but it is a shock.

A shock indeed.

It is not sadness for the company he created and managed as a CEO. It is not sadness for that company products. I can enjoy using apple devices and software, but I don’t feel sadness for material things. It is sadness for knowing that this man I admire, this estranger guy who has ideas I can feel related to, this person, its as fragile as any other person. It’s sadness because his resignation as apple CEO is the beggining of a long goodbye.

Visa online checkout experience: a 30 minutes phone call

The other day I started planing a big trip, obviously entirely online. I can’t conceive planing this trip on my own without the internet, it is really useful, easy and fast.

Except when you want to pay for things with your Visa Card. It went like this: found a museum or hotel I wanted, check for availability,  add to cart, put my credit card data, checkout, enter my Verified by Visa password, return to cart, get a rejected by Visa message. Try it again, the same result.

Next step, call Visa. Dial phone, enter my credit card numbers, enter my birthday, enter 9 to talk to a person, wait 10 minutes, explain I want to buy something online and get rejected, get forwarded to the people that can help me, wait 5 minutes, explain I want to buy something online and get rejected, get forwarded again to the people that can help me, wait 5 more minutes, explain I want to buy something online and get rejected, they told me that its true, ask me some questions to verify I’m me, approve the transaction and tell me I have to go again to the website and buy again. Effectively, now I can book the hotel. To be noted, I call them on three opportunities, and in all of them they forwarded me two times to the people that handled online purchases.

But, this it not the whole story. As you can guess, when you plan a trip, you buy lots of tickets, hotels, planes, etc. So, I asked the Visa people if they can unblock my credit card for online shopping, at least for a week, so I can plan my vacations without all this time on the phone and having to buy twice on every site. But I was out of luck, for my security this can’t be done, I’ll have to call EVERY TIME I purchase something online to be authorized by them, even with the Verified by Visa protocol the have online after every purchase.

The estrange thing is, this only happen with one of my cards, I have another from another bank from which I bought things online since 1999 without any problem, both from Visa.

I really don’t understand this procedure. They have several measures to avoid this but I have to make a 30 minute call for every purchase.

If for any chance there is a Visa guy reading this, if you really must add a third verification layer for online shopping, here is an alternative: put a list for user approval purchases on the “Visa Home” website, you know, the one you host with all my credit cards data, so I can go there and verify every purchase without a phone call, can do them in bulk, and I get to use my credit card more securely online with the certainty that no online purchase can be made without my express approval.

Otherwise, you just fucked online shopping for everyone.

Book Review: Web Form Design – Filling in the Blanks by Luke Wroblewski

Web Form Design - Filling in the Blanks by Luke Wroblewski

Forms suck

Yeah, thats it, and Luke cleverly selected those words to start his book. Since I read it, whenever I told someone about this book, they gave me this look like I’m a kind of geek freak. Maybe its true, but I can’t recommend this book enough to every designer that is doing some web work.

Luke makes clear that forms are everywhere, and remarks the importance to gave them the attention they need when we design online experiences. Maybe it’s not a book to read it from beginning to end like I novel, although I did it and enjoy it, but its a great reference to have always near.

The best thing of this book are not the countless reference cases, but the usability tests with eye tracking and hard data that backup all the recommendations. Things you won’t find in any other web or book.

Just one day after I finished reading it I had to solve an estrange case in a credit card acquisition process, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Luke and his book; it help me to make a quick and informed decision and give the user the best buying experience possible.

Don’t get intimidated by a book about forms, think about it like a online experience problem solving helper, a good companion, a must have book for every designer.

A light at the end of the road

In his talk at the IXDaBa Beer & Design, Andrés Rodriguez, showed us his thesis on a proposal for a standard on integrating Usability on software development process.

It was really interesting session. But the talk afterwards gave us a lot of insight of the real implementation of UX from a software engineering point of view.

He, as a head of a big team, change the hierarchy of the process and took the Ux people at the level of the software architect. Now the Ux team become a consultant for all the other areas and work with the software analysts.

As a designer it was a great surprise to know someone on the other side of the development that gives UX the place it deserves.

I have two quotes that I want to remark:

“…usability decisions always have an impact on the architecture, that´s why we must include it at the beginning of the projects…”

“…after the heuristics, a test with user must show problems, if not, something estrange is happening…”

He shows us that UX is growing and having real impact on many areas, and with it he gave us a little more certainty that there is light at the end of the UX road.

The best digital reading experience

In Ux design we always take care of the quality applied to the content in terms of legibility. The heart of the web is text, and we should take care of it a the most precious value in any design.

I read a lot of digital content, news sites, blogs and books. And it is really difficult to get good online comfortable text. Here is where projects like readability, or the reader functionality on safari comes to fill this void. and they’re good at it.

Most of my reading was done in NetNewsWire with a theme I make myself that fills all my reading needs. Sometimes I read on my iPhone on Reeder app. I even read a couple of books on the mobile Kindle app.

But all these thing don’t quiet cut it. The best tools and the most ad-hoc design wasn’t still comfortable enough to get the experience I was looking for.

Until I decided to buy a 6 inch 3rd generation kindle. It is a truly magical digital reading device. You really have to see one in person to fully understand it.

kindle

I must agree that it hasn’t got the most sexy interface, or that the font selection could be better, but these complains are overshadowed by the incredible screen, and the ultra light weight. With the kindle, you get the best digital reading experience, and this is the ironic part, it is because it looks almost like paper. You get the right portable size and weight, the convenience of load it with any content coupled with a not eye straying screen and long lasting battery. It is like you have an infinite page book with the magical ability of keeping its size and weight constant.

And it get even better, if you read a lot of different blogs you can send the articles you want to the kindle, almost as magical as the device, with Instapaper.

You just have to click on a bookmarklet on your browser (or the icon on netnewswire) and the entire article with it images, and without the ads, are sent to instapaper, who everyday or week, as you prefer, send you a compilation of all your unread articles specially formatted for your kindle. This gives you the choice of font family or font size on any content. And don’t forget you can read txt doc and even pdf.

You can say the ipad is a better device with the ability to become anything with the help of the vast software available, and you are right, is a better device, but not for reading. The weight is really a problem for long period use and the light emitting screen is not good on the eyes.

kindle

Speaking of light, the other day I was relaxing at direct sunlight and decided to do some reading. When I approach to my comfortable seat, my family screamed: “what are you doing? You wont be able to read anything at direct sunlight!”. They couldn’t be more wrong. More light the better, that’s the beauty of this screen technology. When they saw with their own eyes they were just amazed, even one of them told me to get one for him as soon as possible. And he was more amazed when I told him that this little wonder can give him a month worth of use with just one charge.

kindle

And there are more good things to say, it has wifi and a webkit browser, where you can do a good but slow online reading, twitter or mail check. You can even go to your google reader and see all your feeds. It has a mp3 player, but I don’t even bother to try it because I make all my music and posdcast listening on my iPhone, but if you don’t like to carry a lot of devices and enjoy reading with a little background music, this come in handy.

So, this little and almost weightless screen can become the window to all the written content you want, anytime, anywhere, giving you the best digital reading experience you can get.

Lion + iOs + iCloud: is all about piracy

Apple, with the latest announcement at the WWDC 2011, make it clear it was all about the software. But that’s just a part of the plan. There where two key things that gives us a hint of what Apple is up to.

The first one was the iTunes match. With the ability to, as they say, “store your entire collection, including music you’ve ripped from CDs or purchased somewhere other than iTunes”. The second one the price of Lion, just $29.99 via the App Store.

Who can argue to the advantage of legalizing all your pirated music for $25/year and with the possibility of syncing it to all your iOs devices?

And what about Lion, its not only $29.99, it is also possible to legally install it to up to 5 computers, as all the software on the App Store. Obviously you have to sign in to the Store, and there you are exposed to the “as simple as IOs” purchase and install system of thousands of applications.

They’re are clearly trying to introduce all the people they can to the simplicity of the iTunes and App Store and keep them there. With this strategy they want to duplicate the success with music on the software industry.

They could go to the hard way, use of the anti piracy abilities at hardware level on the intel chips, but thats is not good marketing for Apple and also user will hate imposed things on their personal computers. The strategy is crystal clear: get the user do what you want by giving them simplicity and a big advantage for doing so.

Now with this ecosystem you have a safe, legal, easy and convenient way to get software to all your devices and with the advantage of buy one, install on 5 machines, and with the Apple guarantee that you can reinstall all at any time from the App Store.

And with music, they want to give music piracy the final stroke by legalizing all your music with the hope that you buy the next album you want from the iTunes Store that already holds all your music.

We have been introduced to the future which we know will come with the internet: one place to know, get, buy and store all our digital assets. Internet is the OS. Internet is the business OS.