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!

Digital junk drawers

There’s a joke that having a writing deadline is the best way to get your house clean. Personally, I channeled this form of productive procrastination into digital spaces while getting to a finished first draft of the book. This was also partly out of thoroughness and desperation — “I know I’ve thought thoughts about this before, did I write it down? WHY DIDN’T I WRITE IT DOWN?”

During this procrastinatory polishing, I cleaned out and killed:

  • An old Scrivener project for the book that I started before the contract was official
  • An old GitHub repository for the book I never really made use of
  • Various text drafts in orphaned folders from when I imagined tackling a similar topic as a self-released iBook in 2014
  • My entire personal Evernote archive
  • nvAlt and thousands of associated text files
  • A work-specific journal in Day One with a few hundred entries
  • Several misc. folders of app screenshots
  • Dozens of mindmaps that had built up in iCloud that I thought for sure I’d need again but were all junk
  • Thousands of junk bookmarks in Pinboard from some social media automation I set up back in the day
  • Two underused IFTTT accounts
  • Six or so novelty Twitter accounts I’d never updated after the first month
  • And lots of other things I’ve already forgotten about

I also processed through a dozen or so analog notepads and small paper notebooks.

Most of this stuff was garbage. Just noise. With ever-bigger hard drives and near infinite cloud storage, our digital closets can be as big as we want them to be. But I’ve found that that’s not without a psychic cost. I felt like I was trying to do my work inside of a giant junk drawer. The elegant chamfered aluminum edges of a closed MacBook Pro can bely just how untidy things really are within.

Cleaning out my digital workshop out in this way helped me feel more productive with the tools that I did still have, and allowed me to approach my use of them with a clearer purpose. I actually use Pinboard now, for instance, and it’s become part of my blogging workflow and book marketing workflow. Bear — which I used to replace nvAlt, Evernote, Apple Notes, and an analog notebook of lists — has fewer notes than any one of those collections had previously, and is actually useful to look at now.

Feeling like I had permission to do this was one of the biggest side benefits of writing a book. Having a very specific project, with a signed contract and a due date, eliminated other possibilities (in a good way), which eliminated excuses to hoard digital things, and gave me more actionable clarity on what was still valuable. “Is this going to help me write this book? How about the next one? No? Then it’s gone.”

(Don’t worry — my PUGS PUGS PUGS folder is still growing exponentially.)

Office LEGO* decorations

In a move that, surprisingly, I had nothing to do with, some communal building blocks showed up at the office last month. They’re Brickyard brand, not official LEGO. The quality is decent, especially compared to Mega Bloks, the awful knock-offs of my youth. The corners and edges are sharper … I think these would be even deadlier to step on barefoot!

I’ve built a few holiday decorations with them, and find the restricted palette, so to speak, very refreshing. My personal LEGO collection has been built over almost 30 years, and builds sometimes get hung up when I try out every conceivable piece and configuration to accomplish a particular aim. There’s a lesson in here, to be sure.

Frankenstein was inspired by one I found on Pinterest – I added the Universal-studios-era neck bolts. I looked at a few dozen LEGO turkey designs online and didn’t really have the parts to do any of them, so these are mostly improvised.

I feel most hamstrung by the lack of 1x width plates — the smallest plate is 2×2. Gotta start scheming on Christmas already…