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.

Talking to myself to others

The recording is up from my How to Get the Writing Done webinar this week for Gather Content. I think it’s a good one.

Leading a one-to-many webinar is a strange affair. Me, alone in my office, wearing a headset, talking out loud at what I hope is a normal volume to an audience of unseen someones in unseen places all over the world.

I’ve done a half-dozen or so of these things now. It’s getting a little easier. I have to be extra-attentive to my pacing and energy on a webinar, as there’s basically no feedback. Am I talking too fast? Too slow? Am I speaking in a normal register? Normal volume?

A few things that seem to help:

  • Standing. If I can pace a little it feels much more natural.
  • Gesturing. No one can see me, but I still move my arms around and point at things as if I’m on stage. I think this helps with the energy level.
  • Pausing. This is a hard one; if you’re not talking nothing is happening. I have to remind myself it’s important and good to pause, to breathe, to let important points hang in the air a little.

Now I just need to stop asking “right?” so much. Right? It’s crazy.

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.

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!

Creating shared understanding is part of your job as a designer

Making sense of things is effortful, which is why so few teams slow down to do it. So people are always asking me:

How do I sell this sensemaking technique/approach/tool to leadership?

The question takes a lot of forms. How do I get permission to interview stakeholders about the goals for their content? How do I prove the ROI of creating a map of all the sites and channels we maintain? What are the specific benefits of documenting the vision for our product?

To those questions and more, here’s the real answer that I want to give, but don’t, because it would make me sound like a snarky asshole:

You have to become the kind of designer who wouldn’t ask that question. (Or else you need to work somewhere you wouldn’t have to ask that question.)

If an activity will increase understanding — either your own, or that of the people you’re working with — you don’t need to sell it, you just need to do it.

If a process is so rigid that every sensemaking activity, every mark you make with a marker, every minute in front of a whiteboard, must be accounted for in a burndown chart, something has gone seriously wrong.

In most organizational cultures, no one has to ask permission to pull you into a one-hour meeting or bend your ear over the cubicle wall if they are stuck or confused or “just want to touch base” or “make sure we’ll all in sync”. Conversation alone can be a sensemaking activity, yes, but it’s a grossly inefficient one. Yet as soon as something more formal/visual (and therefore more efficient) starts taking place, many practitioners feel like they need to get a permission slip.

This can stem from leadership failings within an organization, but I also find that it’s often an artificial restriction practitioners place on themselves. The most successful designers (and writers, and developers, and product owners) that I know are focused on sensemaking from the get-go, and are constantly seeking greater clarity and alignment with the people they’re working with in ways formal and informal alike.

Consider asking forgiveness rather than permission the next time you’re feeling stuck on a project and want to try something new. Plan workshops. Draw pictures. Make maps. Write things down. Schedule interviews. Ask questions. Start making sense.

stopit, Golden Principles, and the Golden Bridge

One my favorite talks I give is about making Dale Carnegie’s 9 Golden Principles for Being a Friendlier Person an accessible idea for UX designers. The first principle is often one of the hardest to adhere to, both IRL and on the web:

Never criticize, condemn, or complain.

When a user does something we perceive to be “wrong” — either in the moral sense, or in the sense of how we want them to use our software — our first instinct is often to tell them, directly, that they are wrong. You clicked the wrong button. You typed your password wrong. That’s not enough digits for a phone number. You sent horrible racist memes to a female journalist. And while it might feel good in the moment to tell someone they are wrong, especially when we are experiencing moral outrage, it’s often not very helpful. Nobody likes to be criticized, even if it’s well-deserved.

You can be right or you can be effective, but you can rarely be both. Being “right” implies that someone else is “wrong”, which creates an adversarial relationship, which tends to discourage people from doing what you want them to do.

I’m thinking about all this again because of some great nuggets I found about the stopit policies developed at MIT in the early days of managing their online community. There‘s good stuff in the original UseNet post from 1994, and this 2012 paper about building successful online communities.

The stopit mechanisms, as they came to be known, were based on a simple proposition: Most offenders, given the opportunity to stop uncivil behavior without having to admit guilt, will do so. The stopit mechanisms thus were designed to do two things: to discover computer misbehavior rapidly, and to communicate effectively with its perpetrators.

In one of the best examples, users who posted harassing material were shown that material and asked to check if their account had been compromised and if they were aware it was being used in this way. In many cases, users who definitely posted the bad stuff themselves went in and changed their passwords anyway, and stopped their bad behavior. Amazing.

When we let them save face by pretending (if only to themselves) that they did not do what they did, they tend to become more responsible citizens with their pride intact. We lose the satisfaction of seeing perpetrators punished, but we reduce misbehavior and gain educational effectiveness.

In my observations of social media culture, that “satisfaction of seeing perpetrators punished” gets a lot of people up in the morning and drives a tremendous amount of activity. Lots of folks being “right”, but not necessarily effective. Community policing of bad actors can only go so far.

It’s an idea you can trace back further than ol’ Dale Carnegie, even. As Sun Tzu encouraged: Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.