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.

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.