Weaponized

A bit jarring to see one of the tools of my trade — customer journey maps — pop up in this article about the 737 Max and Boeing’s efforts to manage customer “anxiety” about their totally safe airplane that’s killed 346 men, women, and children. (So far.)

Screenshot of Boeing presentation including a (bad) customer journey map, via the New York times article.
Screenshot of Boeing presentation including a (bad) customer journey map, via the New York times article.

I’ve been trying to imagine how it will feel to have worked on this when the next one crashes, to have employed “human-centered” design techniques to gaslight people about the safety of an airplane that you, the UX designer, have fuck-all first-hand knowledge of. It seems not great! I’ve created my share of design tools and frameworks and it would make me just sick to my stomach to see something I’ve made weaponized like this against users.

Meanwhile, this nonsense:

[A] company website dedicated to updates on the Max was being designed with “improved usability” and “stickiness” to “encourage more time on site and repeat visits,” phrases commonly used in the communications business.

Repeat visits! LOL. Love to bookmark my favorite websites about airline safety and check back often for updates.

Sometimes the box is more fun

One of the first times I presented on ecosystem mapping, an attendee shared an image of their own map they’d been inspired to create. It was interesting, colorful, and information-rich. But also? It wasn’t what I’d call an ecosystem map. At first I worried about the quality and clarity of my presentation. But others shared back diagrams that hewed more closely to my method. So then I laughed, and decided to be delighted.

The more methodized a discipline becomes, the easier it gets to tell someone they’re “doing it wrong.”1 But who would have been wrong in this scenario, really? Order your cat a new cat tree from Amazon and they’re just as likely to play with the box. I don’t think this means we shouldn’t have cat trees or boxes. And good luck telling a cat what to do.

The attendee borrowed tips on diagramming and thinking visually and did their own thing with them. That’s great! I’m not a genius, my methods aren’t gospel, and for all I know, what they made was more useful than anything they’d have gotten out of my more rigid approach. I’m happy building trees, but sometimes the box is more fun.


  1. I get more mileage out of “Tell me about how you use Tool X” than “That’s not how Tool X is supposed to work.” This attitude doesn’t always come easy, especially with my own methods, but I’m glad when I find my way to it.

A smaller toolkit

“The more you know, the less you carry.” – Mors Kochanski, wilderness survival expert.

Writing and sketching. Card-sorting. Diagrams. Interviews. Spreadsheets. Workshops (guided ideation and synthesis). That’s my toolkit, more or less, for most design problems.

The further I get into my career the more affinity I have for simple and sturdy intellectual tools that can be applied to any number of situations. Give a skilled survivalist a knife, good shoes, and a bit of rope, and they’ll be just fine.

A Year of Writing for Designers

Print and ebook editions of my book Writing for Designers.
Print and ebook editions of my book Writing for Designers.

My first book, Writing for Designers, was released by A Book Apart one year ago today.

Personally, much of the past year has been a blur. I experienced a profound loss in December in the death of my mother, a scant 68 days after the book was first released. Reflecting on a year since the release of Writing for Designers has been investigative for me, in a way. I barely remember being some of these places, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten others.

But the book has brought many wonderful people and experiences into my life, and I’m grateful to have had it as a bright spot, however dark the background.

Here’s what a year in life of the book looks like:

  • October 16, 2018 – Release day. The ebook becomes available for purchase.
  • October 16, 2018Content Strategy MPLS/St. Paul meetup webinar. Delivered my first iteration of How to Get the Writing Done, the talk I reverse-engineered out of the book (and previous workshops) to make the lessons appeal to an audience of more than just designers.
  • October 16, 2018 – Release party. I bought some food and drinks and hosted friends and a few strangers at the Stray Dog restaurant in my neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis.
  • October 18, 2018A List Apart article goes live. They published the introduction chapter to Writing for Designers as a preview, and lots of nice folks tweeted links and quotes.
  • November 13, 2018UX Book Club Chicago meetup. To my knowledge, this was the first book club to feature Writing for Designers. I popped down for an in-person presentation and Q&A at the very cool headquarters of Solstice.
  • November 28, 2018 – Recorded User Defenders 059. Had a chat with Jason Ogle on a special edition of sorts of his excellent User Defenders podcast. It was released a few months later.
  • November 29, 2018 – UMN Technical Writing presentation. Shared How to Get the Writing Done in a webinar with folks involved in the technical writing program at the University of Minnesota.
  • January 29, 2019Print edition released. A Book Apart put together a way to order ebooks from the Briefs series as print-on-demand paperbacks. This was a lovely surprise not long after the ebook release.
  • February 7, 2019IxDA presentation. Delivered a breakout session of How to Get the Writing Done in the Cinerama theatre at Interaction 19 in Seattle.
  • February 19, 2019Gather Content webinar. Part book promo, part Confab promo. Lots of great Q&A after an updated presentation of How to Get the Writing Done.
  • March 3, 2019AAF CRIC meetup. One of my first road trips after bringing the truck up from Arizona in January! Shared How to Get the Writing Done with a crowd of folks in marketing, advertising, PR, and tech. (And came home with a great bottle of Cedar Ridge whiskey!)
  • May 5, 2019Prime Academy presentation. Been dropping in to visit the UX cohorts with some regularity at this educational bootcamp, and this time I brought in How to Get the Writing Done (and lots of free copies of the book in paperback).
  • June 6, 2019Content Design NYC meetup. Shared How to Get the Writing Done and a few copies of the book with this rad and fairly new content design meetup at Kickstarter’s HQ in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

And next week, I’m heading to PUSH UX in Munich to present a full-day workshop based on Writing for Designers and an updated version of the How to Get the Writing Done talk on the main stage.

The book has an acknowledgments section, to which I will now say “ditto!”. I also shared a thread (or tried to, anyway) of quotes and reviews and other nice things folks have shared since the release this morning on the @DesignersWrite account.

At the top of this article, I called Writing for Designers my first book. That’s on purpose. I don’t know what’s next for Writing for Designers, but I do know that another book is next for me. I was glad to learn that I could get something like this done, and I learned a lot from doing it (from various difficulties and failures as much as any successes).

On to the next one.

The map in your head

I’ve written four articles now about content ecosystem mapping. I’ve coached clients through producing them, I’ve led workshops on them, and I’ve given many talks about them (and their big brother, concept models).

A point I stress over and over, but is hard to make stick, is that the activity of making the map is more important than the map itself. This article brought it to mind again for me recently:

In Inuit tradition, the act of making a map was frequently much more important than the finished map itself. The real map always exists in one’s head.

Being able to make a map means that you understand something well enough to map it. Much like writing, mapmaking reveals where you don’t understand things quite as well as you thought you did. I encourage organizations to map their content ecosystems because, very often, there are many different maps in many different heads.

Mapmaking is effortful, and requires a different set of skills than organizing information into lists and spreadsheets. So I run into many people who are dismissive, even rudely so, saying things like “I just don’t get how you would use this thing.”

“How to use the thing” is something I cover in detail, and is also something that the mapmaker needs to decide for themselves. But it’s also just kind of the wrong question. The point of a content audit is to understand your content better, not to make a giant spreadsheet. The point of content ecosystem mapping (and organizational modeling in general) is to better understand your current state, and to better align on the truth of that shared reality with others.

The Inuits of Greenland primarily used their maps as storytelling devices:

[They] used carvings in a certain way—to accompany stories and illustrate important information about people, places, and things. A wooden relief map would have functioned as a storytelling device, like a drawing in the sand or snow, that could be discarded after the story was told.

I love that so much. Imagine carving a whole damned map just to tell a story and then saying, “well anyway, enough about that” and throwing it on the fire. You can always make another; after all, the real map is in your head.

Scout rush

Screenshot of Ape Out gameplay.

I find that I have less interest in (and time for) video games as I get older, which is too bad in a way as they are a great source of inspiration for design patterns and UX writing.

Lately, I’ve been playing lots of Ape Out on Nintendo Switch. You control a great ape escaping from simple mazes while trying not to get shot. The only controls are move, grab, and shove. It’s hard, but in a fun way. It reminds me of playing the Scout role in Team Fortress 2. You’re fragile, but powerful, and the only way to survive is to just go for it. To ape out, if you will. (I see what they did there.)

Everyone is talking about the procedurally-generated music score, which is very cool, but I think my favorite thing is just the overall minimal approach to the design. For instance:

  • It keeps track of your time, and how many times you die (you’ll die a lot), but those numbers aren’t persistently visible on the interface while you’re playing.
  • Level names are are integrated into the scene itself.
  • New enemies and obstacles are introduced organically — no tutorials.
  • There’s nothing to configure or mess with. It’s the first console game I’ve played in a while where I didn’t feel like I had to go into the settings and change something.

In a way it reminds me of a well-designed presentation. There’s just one bold simple thing to focus on at any given time, with occasional moments to rest and reflect with a bit more detail and data on the screen. The simple (and creative) color palettes contribute to this feeling as well.

My design takeaways: you don’t have to show everything you know, and sometimes it’s more satisfying to let a user try something and fail on their way toward learning it rather than trying to explain it to them first.

Unambiguously mine

My book is in print now. Available in print, anyway. Print on demand. I have a printed copy. (I don’t want to get “you wrote a text”-ed about my book and its relationship to paper. But I digress.)

I did not know this was going to happen when I agreed to write for the Briefs series, so it’s been a delightful surprise. I’m glad it happened relatively soon after the original release of Writing for Designers, too.

I’ve been sharing my thoughts on writing and content and design with the broader UX world for almost a decade now. Long enough to see ideas from my talks and tweets and blog posts get … upcycled, let’s call it … into other people’s talks, tweets, even books. Not maliciously, often not even consciously, I imagine. But it happens. So it’s been nice to be able to look at a thing I’ve made and say: “Yes. This is unambiguously mine. I made it and it exists and it happened and here is the proof.”

A lot of things I’ve done are kind of…squishy. Spaces. Events. Programs. Campaigns. Concepts. All things I’ve enjoyed, but not things I can stick directly on a shelf. I’d collect trinkets; a DMMC lighter, a Gross Domestic Product poster, a Market Day button, “Speaker” badges from umpteen conferences. But trinkets get dusty, and untidy, and they aren’t the thing, just a reminder of it. My dad always talked about how satisfying it was to look back after a day of laying brick and be able to see your labor. (He also liked to take circuitous routes through Omaha so Mom and I could see his labor, too.)

So this is what I’m brainstorming now. How can I render and represent my labors? I’m getting more photos printed, for starters. Even hung a couple up in my apartment. Vain? Sure. Inspiring? Also yes.

I’m incredibly grateful to everyone that’s ordered a paper copy of the book, especially those who already bought the ebook back in October. If you’re one of them, please consider sharing a photo of it on your desk, bookshelf…hell, even on top of your toilet tank. It’s very motivating, and I can always use a bit more of that.