Interview: The Write Stuff

Corey Gwin is building a writing app called Blurt. To promote the app, he’s been writing about writing. To promote my book, I’ve been tweeting about writing. I tweeted out one of the things he wrote, which made him notice me, and then he asked me to do a video interview for a series he’s doing to promote his app, which I was happy to do to promote my book. Ah, the virtuous cycle of online self-promotion 🙂 

I did it at the office, as my kitchen at home has all the visual personality of a corporate break room. The headset I’d planned to use was not working well, so I was glad I had my trusty Apple earbuds handy. Probably one of the better products they’ve ever made, dollar-to-value wise.

Write every day, yes, fine, I’m trying

My journal is full of entries, my Ulysses inbox is full of notions and half-starts. So I’m writing a lot. I’m writing a lot. Good. Great. But I’m not quite getting to what I want to with a lot of it. I want to be on that Austin Kleon wavelength, you know? That easy, collected, curious tone of a blog written by someone who knows what they’re into and what they’re about, and also knows what people are into about them.

This is maybe the fifth post I’ve started writing tonight. Gotta finish something to be able to publish something, so I’m gonna commit to publishing this one now and keep going.

The difficulty isn’t word making so much thing making. I can make the words go all damn day. The first draft of my book was twice as long as they wanted (whoops). So that’s not hard. Laborious maybe, but not hard. It’s the discipline, the shaping, guiding the words somewhere, toward a thing, a unit you can post and share and promote … or at least pick a damned title for. That’s hard. For me, anyway.

My buddy Rob tweeted recently about not trying to make his posts perfect, and instead just publishing more, which I think is a great sentiment. Perfectionism is a big bad in my productivity rogues’ gallery. But I don’t think that’s quite what I’m wrestling with lately.

“So what am I wrestling with?”, he asked himself, in the hopes of prompting an answer from within.

Yeah, not sure.

I think some of it, tonight especially, has been tripping over … what, ambition? Lack of discipline? Something that starts small and might make for a nice little post blooms out into stubs for several posts, or an idea for a project, or no wait maybe I’ll start a Twitter thread about this! So instead of one simple little finished thing I have five little unfinished things or one big unfinished thing, and in either case they’ve sort of sucked the air out of the room.

My experience with these things is that it’s often a matter of habit. Get used to stopping, proofing it, naming it, hitting publish. Sometimes to finish you’ve just got to stop. So let’s.

(Update: Wrote this several nights ago and not sure why I didn’t publish it? This is maybe a different problem.)

Pumpkin pie for one

I am reasonably certain I’ve never made a pie before. I knew I’d have a lot of time this weekend, and I freaking love pumpkin pie, so I made one. Used a store-bought gluten-free crust because I didn’t want to have two things to screw up. Got a two-pack of crusts for about $8 at Whole Foods.

I went with the straight-up classic back-of-the-can Libby’s recipe. It calls for ground cloves. A container of ground cloves at both stores near me was very costly, and the bulk buy section only had them unground. So now I own a stainless steel mortar and pestle.

Canned pumpkin, canned milk, all that good stuff.

Turned out pretty good. I should have blind-baked the crust about 10 minutes first, I think. I found competing opinions on this online, and the instructions on the crust package were somewhat ambiguous.

I was not prepared for how long it needed to cool so I didn’t cut my first piece until about 9pm last night. I also had really disturbing dreams. Related? Don’t know. Will repeat the experiment tonight, no doubt. So far it’s been breakfast and lunch today both, with some ham in between.

I spent Thanksgiving solo, which was fine. I am not immune to feeling lonesome but the holidays don’t do it to me in any particular way. Running or vending at Market Day for many Thanksgivings in a row meant that my only real Thanksgiving tradition was taping down electrical cords. I’ve been traveling a lot, and I have two more trips coming up in December, including to see my folks, and it’s been really nice to have nowhere to go for a few days. The apartment is very clean and I turned on my Nintendo Switch for the first time in about six months. (Splatoon 2, mostly.)

The system is a lie

I’ve always been enamored with product ecosystems. It’s rare that I’ll buy anything without researching what kind of accessories I can get with it. Does it have an official case, pouch, or sleeve? Can you change the tip, the handle, the grip? What can I upgrade? What can I combine it with?

LEGO was both spark and fuel for this interest in my life. Heck, it used to say “system” right there on the boxes! In a time when so many toys required costly batteries that barely lasted a day, or were part of some computer or video game console with exacting hardware specifications, there were always two things you could trust about LEGO:

  • Whatever came in the box was complete unto itself — no add-ons required.
  • Anything that said LEGO would work with anything else that said LEGO.

Sadly, LEGO were the exception, not the rule. Nearly every other consumer brand seems to quickly abandon their systems. They stop making the filters. They stop making the refills. The new bags don’t fit the old vacuums. The old bags don’t fit the new vacuums. And where am I supposed to plug in these headphones I just bought?

Thrift stores — which I have spent a LOT of time in, for what it’s worth — are full of consumer product system garbage. Shrink-wrapped square pegs abandoned forever because now all the holes are round. Printers that will never print again, vacuums that will never vacuum again. Refill pages for planners no one makes anymore, planners you can’t refill because they don’t make the paper anymore. This isn’t limited to electronics, though that’s often the most visible — huge bins full of cables and connectors and docks that came to this country on big ships just a few years ago and will go back on big ships a few years from now to be melted and scrapped, or just dumped in the nearest landfill.

Planned obsolescence is part of it, though I suspect Apple’s billions in cash has little to do with how many lightning cables they’ve sold. Rather, I have two notions on what contributes to this phenomenon — one sinister, one benign (though depressing).

“Refillable” stainless steel Sharpies they no longer make refills for.

Notion one: the vultures in marketing know that the idea of a product system (reusable, refillable, recyclable!) appeals to tree huggers like me, and they deploy this idea without any intention of supporting the “system” beyond the initial launch. They know they can trick people into paying a premium price for the core product, especially if it’s typically a disposable commodity (like my markers, above), if they market it as part of a system.

Notion two: the product team earnestly intended for their system to be a success, but lack the political power within their organization to sustain it. Someone new decides it’s not making enough money, or that they want people to buy some new thing instead.

Whatever the case, the frustrating outcome is that so many things that get marketed as renewable and “green” actually end up being the opposite — more materials are consumed in making the core item, and all of the various add-ons and accessories become insta-garbage as soon as the system collapses.

Links of late | 2018-11-19

Lorem Ipsum is fine (but you might be using it wrong)

I used this video of a deflating Pikachu as a placeholder while building out the landing page for my book, as I had not yet uploaded the video I’d recorded. (I might switch it back, this video is way better.)

Writerly sorts are frustrated when content takes a backseat to the visuals in a design. And for good reason: Most sites and apps may well as not exist without the words. I fear, though, that in an effort to champion “content first” design processes, many are sending the wrong message about the role Lorem Ipsum and other placeholders can play in a designer’s personal workflow.

Consider these headlines:

  • Death to Lorem Ipsum
  • Lorem Ipsum is killing your designs
  • Why designers should never use fake text
  • Lorem Ipsum is a crime

It’s easy, but wrong, to decry a given design tool as universilly good or bad. Tools can be useful in one context and harmful in another. While the broad sentiment of these and similar articles is good, an important nuance is being lost.

I would put it this way: A designer should never pretend that fake text – squiggles, boxes, Lorem Ipsum, Hipster Ipsum, or otherwise – is real text. A designer should never pretend that fake data is real data. And a design team should never engage in the shared delusion that designs with fake text are done and ready for review. The reason, as I shared in Writing for Designers, is this:

Everything left unwritten is a mystery box of incomplete design.

Which is to say: if you haven’t done the writing the design isn’t done. If you didn’t use real, user-generated data in your design, you didn’t really test your design. But placeholders aren’t the problem – lying to ourselves is the problem.

How I use Lorem Ipsum

Form is the shape of content. – Ben Shahn

Form and content both contribute meaning. The shape of a thing is critical to understanding the thing. Invoices tend to look like invoices, sign-in screens tend to look like sign-in screens, newsletters tend to look like newsletters. Square green stop signs aren’t especially effective, and texting someone “I Love You” isn’t the same as writing it in the sky.

Using fake text like Lorem Ipsum helps me get a feeling for the impression the form of my content will give to my reader. It’s the pencil sketch before I lay down ink, the hummed melody before I write the score.

Importantly, I have to have a rough idea of what I’m going to say for this to work. That’s where the “death to Lorem Ipsum” people get hung up. Placeholders are not the place to start, true, but they’re a perfectly reasonable intermediary step as you iterate through the words and visuals in your design work.

I also use Lorem Ipsum in tandem with protocopy. Protocopy is lo-fidelity writing — quick dashes of text to capture your intent without worrying about making it perfect (or even good). You might find something like this in my comps:

explain when user will get first bill after subscribing and monthly rate ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Etiam consectetur mollis urna sed lobortis!

Or I might rough out the text of a wireframe with Lorem Ipsum and put quotes and bullets and inputs alongside it that I know I want to reference to do that particular bit of writing, using the placeholders as a to-do list of sorts for any given comp.

Lorem Ipsum is also helpful when I’m exploring constraints. If an area has a 500-character limit, for instance, I can drop in 500 characters of Lorem Ipsum to see what’s possible. Is that a paragraph? Two short paragraphs? Can I make a bulleted list work in 500 characters? And so on.

No approvals on placeholders!

If you do use Lorem Ipsum, caution is warranted. A good rule of thumb for a team would be that no design no design is done until you’ve done the writing. No words = no approvals. Having a rule like that in place gives individual designers and writers more flexibility in how they approach their work on the way toward done — including, if they like, using Lorem Ipsum.

UX Book Club Meetup at Solstice

My friend Michael Metts came out and snuck a few nice photos.
My friend Michael Metts came out and snuck a few nice photos.

Recently back from an overnight trip to Chicago to speak with their UX Book Club. My book Writing for Designers was the featured book, and they hosted a Q&A style event with the author, who is me! This was the first time I’ve been at an in-person event specifically because I wrote a book. I thought I’d be more nervous about it but I never really was, just excited. Blind dates and conference talks are more stressful.

Getting to Chicago

When I first started speaking and embarking on my current career in earnest, around 2012, I was always looking at events like this and wondering: how does that work? Logistically and financially, I mean. Are authors getting paid to do Meetups? (LOL, no.) Are publishers paying to send them there? (LOL, no.) Are authors making enough on book sales from these appearances to justify the cost? (LOLOLOL. No.) For my niche industry book and where I’m at in my career, none of those things were the case. Turns out it’s just a lot of asking people nicely for a bit of help.

As part of the pre-launch marketing for my book, I sent lightly-customized emails to several hundred people (about half of my LinkedIn connections) to say a bit about the book and ask for help. My friend Cate Kompare, a lovely human that I coincidentally met at a different UX book club in Champaign-Urbana many years ago, replied to say that her employer Solstice has been hosting more events, and asked what it would cost to get me out there. I quoted a modest appearance fee for a private event, and said that I could also do it for just travel reimbursement for a public event. They were able to do the latter, and Cate coordinated co-presenting it through the UX Book Club Chicago. Kristina and Brain Traffic have been very supportive, and were happy to handle invoicing my expenses and giving me the time to get down there.

I smashed the trip right into my work schedule. I had a conference call Tuesday morning up until I needed to leave for the airport, and did a bit of work in the afternoon at Solstice before the Meetup started. I was back in the office around 11:30 the next day, and right back to work.

They had a desk set aside for me with some goodies and I got to play-act working at a big company for a couple hours. Someone even came up and introduced themselves thinking I might be a new employee, which was sweet.
They had a desk set aside for me with some goodies and I got to play-act working at a big company for a couple hours. Someone even came up and introduced themselves thinking I might be a new employee, which was sweet.

The flight was about $250, the hotel about $175, and three Lyft rides totaling around $80. I paid for food on my own and took the light rail and bus home from the airport to land closer to the $500 in travel expenses estimate I’d given Cate. (And if I’m not in a hurry, I prefer taking the train home anyway.)

Being the author

I have to admit I was pretty delighted to see this pop up on Google while grabbing directions to the office.
I have to admit I was pretty delighted to see this pop up on Google while grabbing directions to the office.

A couple of days before the event, Cate asked if I’d want to set up a merch table or other sort of display. A totally smart question that caught me off guard. Shit! It’s an ebook! I don’t have, like, a thing! Luckily I still had some A Book Apart buttons and stickers from my launch event in Minneapolis. I made a little display of them and some of my Brain Traffic business cards next to the pizza laid out for the meetup. I’m thinking I might want to get a little poster in a photo frame and a newsletter sign-up sheet on a clipboard, maybe some postcards, for future events. It’s not all that important if people even sign up or take your card, but it does help to make things look more “official” and put together.

Years of Confab experience has made me good at not acting like my picture is being taken while very aware that my picture is being taken. I really enjoyed the conversations during and after the event as folks were genuinely interested in UX writing, not just content strategy.
Years of Confab experience has made me good at not acting like my picture is being taken while very aware that my picture is being taken. I really enjoyed the conversations during and after the event as folks were genuinely interested in UX writing, not just content strategy.

Cate and Shane (one of the Meetup organizers) prepared some excellent questions. There were also great ad-hoc questions from the audience. I tried to stick to my guns of only answering questions I felt like I could really answer, and saying “I don’t know” for the rest, but I did feel a pressure I haven’t really felt before to be the expert. I don’t think this was a good instinct, necessarily, but I did feel liberated to speak with a bit more passion and conviction than maybe I have in the past. If people don’t like my answers they can yell at me on Twitter! I know I turned around at least one question about content testing that I don’t have as much experience with to the audience.

Ten times more

On Back to Work, Merlin has talked several times about the “ten times more” metric. The gist is: look at something in your life and ask if you’d want ten times more of that. For instance, I had a bit of fun buying and selling vintage clothing at pop-up markets and filling orders on Etsy, but not so much fun that I wanted ten times more of it. Realizing that made me it easier to let go of when it became too much.

So that’s what I’m chewing on now, after an event like this. Do I want ten times more writing books, going to meetups, talking to people who care about this stuff as much as I do? I’m leaning towards yes.

Extremely grateful to Cate, everyone else at Solstice whose names I’ve already forgotten (sorry!), Shane and the Chicago UX Book Club, and everyone who came out. Let’s do it again sometime!