You are here


Microcopy in the age of the glance

Seth Godin - Fri 26th May 2017 18:05
People rarely read to the end. And they almost never spend as much time reading your words as you spend writing them. Which makes it ironic that the little phrases we use (in designing a simple form, or when we...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

“What about endogeneity?”

Seth Godin - Thu 25th May 2017 18:05
Ask this question often. Several times a day, at least. Endogeneity is a fancy term for confusing cause and effect. For not being clear about causation and correlation. It's one reason why smart people make so many mistakes. We think...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Lowering the bar

Seth Godin - Wed 24th May 2017 18:05
Raymond Loewy coined the term MAYA to describe Most Advanced Yet Acceptable when it came to futuristic design. The thinking goes that people (the amorphous term for the lumpen masses) won't accept something too advanced, so we ought to lower...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Facts are not the antidote for doubt

Seth Godin - Tue 23rd May 2017 18:05
Drink enough water and you will cease to be thirsty. And yet, a doubting person can be drowning in facts, but facts won't change a mind that doesn't want to be changed. More facts don't counter more doubt. Someone who...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Choosing your fuel

Seth Godin - Mon 22nd May 2017 17:05
The work is difficult. Overcoming obstacles, facing rejection, exploring the unknown--many of us need a narrative to fuel our forward motion, something to keep us insisting on the next cycle, on better results, on doing work that matters even more....        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Just words

Seth Godin - Sun 21st May 2017 19:05
How about, just bullets, just diseases, just starvation? The whole "sticks and stones" canard is really dangerous. When a stone gives you a bruise, it's entirely possible you will completely heal. But when a torrent of words undermine your view...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Say one thing at a time

Seth Godin - Sat 20th May 2017 18:05
I know, you might not get the microphone back for a while. And I know, you want to make sure everyone understands precisely what went into your thinking. Not to mention your desire to make sure that everyone who hears...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Three ways to add value

Seth Godin - Fri 19th May 2017 18:05
Tasks, decisions, and initiation... Doing, choosing, and starting... Each of the three adds value, but one is more prized than the others. Tasks are set up for you. Incoming. You use skill and effort to knock em down one at...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Emotional labor

Seth Godin - Thu 18th May 2017 18:05
That's the labor most of us do now. The work of doing what we don't necessarily feel like doing, the work of being a professional, the work of engaging with others in a way that leads to the best long-term...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

What Henry Ford understood about wages

Seth Godin - Wed 17th May 2017 18:05
Every time Ford increased the productivity of car production (in one three-year period, he lowered labor costs by 66% per car), he also raised wages. Not merely because it's the right thing to do. He did it because well-paid workers...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Web Maintainability Industry Survey: How Do We Maintain?

a list apart - Wed 17th May 2017 02:05

A note from the editors: As a community, we can learn so much from discovering what other developers are doing around the world. We encourage everyone to participate in this very brief survey created by Jens Oliver Meiert. Jens will share the results—and an updated guide to web maintainability based on the findings—in a few weeks.

How often do we consider the maintenance and general maintainability of our websites and apps? What steps do we actively take to make and keep them maintainable? What stands in the way when we maintain our and other people’s projects?

Many of us, as web developers, know very well how to code something. But whether we know just as well how to maintain what we—and others—have written, that is not so clear. Our bosses and clients may not always think about maintenance down the road, either.

As an O’Reilly author and former Googler, I’ve been studying the topic of maintainability since 2008—and we have yet to gather our industry’s views on the subject. To help us all get a better picture of how we maintain and how we can maintain more effectively, I set up a brief, unassuming survey (announcement) and kindly ask for your assistance.

The survey aims to collect specific practices and resources—in other words, your views on current practices (both useful and harmful) and everything you find helpful:

  • What helps maintenance?
  • What prevents maintenance?
  • What resources do developers turn to for improving maintainability?

The outcome of the survey and an updated guide to web maintainability will be published in a few weeks on my website, (and noted on my Twitter profile). Thank you for your support.

Categories: thinktime

Fait Accompli: Agentive Tech Is Here

a list apart - Wed 10th May 2017 00:05

A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Chris Noessel's new book, Designing Agentive Technology, AI That Works for People, available now from Rosenfeld Media. For a limited time, ALA readers can get 20% off Chris's book by using the code 'ALADAT' on the Rosenfeld Media site.

Similar to intelligence, agency can be thought of as a spectrum. Some things are more agentive than others. Is a hammer agentive? No. I mean if you want to be indulgently philosophical, you could propose that the metal head is acting on the nail per request by the rich gestural command the user provides to the handle. But the fact that it’s always available to the user’s hand during the task means it’s a tool—that is, part of the user’s attention and ongoing effort.

Less philosophically, is an internet search an example of an agent? Certainly the user states a need, and the software rummages through its internal model of the internet to retrieve likely matches. This direct cause-and-effect means that it’s more like the hammer with its practically instantaneous cause-and-effect. Still a tool.

But as you saw before, when Google lets you save that search, such that it sits out there, letting you pay attention to other things, and lets you know when new results come in, now you’re talking about something that is much more clearly acting on behalf of its user in a way that is distinct from a tool. It handles tasks so that you can use your limited attention on something else. So this part of “acting on your behalf”—that it does its thing while out of sight and out of mind—is foundational to the notion of what an agent is, why it’s new, and why it’s valuable. It can help you track something you would find tedious, like a particular moment in time, or a special kind of activity on the internet, or security events on a computer network.

To do any of that, an agent must monitor some stream of data. It could be something as simple as the date and time, or a temperature reading from a thermometer, or it could be something unbelievably complicated, like watching for changes in the contents of the internet. It could be data that is continuous, like wind speed, or irregular, like incoming photos. As it watches this data stream, it looks for triggers and then runs over some rules and exceptions to determine if and how it should act. Most agents work indefinitely, although they could be set to run for a particular length of time or when any other condition is met. Some agents like a spam filter will just keep doing their job quietly in the background. Others will keep going until they need your attention, and some will need to tell you right away. Nearly all will let you monitor them and the data stream, so you can check up on how they’re doing and see if you need to adjust your instructions.

So those are the basics. Agentive technology watches a datastream for triggers and then responds with narrow artificial intelligence to help its user accomplish some goal. In a phrase, it’s a persistent, background assistant.

If those are the basics, there are a few advanced features that a sophisticated agent might have. It might infer what you want without your having to tell it explicitly. It might adapt machine learning methods to refine its predictive models. It might gently fade away in smart ways such that the user gains competence. You’ll learn about these in Part II, “Doing,” of this book, but for now it’s enough to know that agents can be much smarter than the basic definition we’ve established here.

How Different Are Agents?

Since most of the design and development process has been built around building good tools, it’s instructive to compare and contrast them to good agents—because they are different in significant ways.

Table 2.1: Comparing Mental Models A Tool-Based Model An Agent-Based Model A good tool lets you do a task well. A good agent does a task for you per your preferences. A hammer might be the canonical model. A valet might be the canonical model. Design must focus on having strong affordances and real-time feedback. Design must focus on easy setup and informative touchpoints. When it’s working, it’s ready-to-hand, part of the body almost unconsciously doing its thing. When the agent is working, it’s out of sight. When a user must engage its touchpoints, they require conscious attention and consideration. The goal of the designer is often to get the user into flow (in the Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi sense) while performing a task. The goal of the designer is to ensure that the touchpoints are clear and actionable, to help the user keep the agent on track. Drawing a Boundary Around Agentive Technology

To make a concept clear, you need to assert a definition, give examples, and then describe its boundaries. Some things will not be worth considering because they are obviously in; some things will not be worth considering because they are obviously out; but the interesting stuff is at the boundary, where it’s not quite clear. What is on the edge of the concept, but specifically isn’t the thing? Reviewing these areas should help you get clear about what I mean by agentive technology and what lies beyond the scope of my consideration.

It’s Not Assistive Technology

Artificial narrow intelligences that help you perform a task are best described as assistants, or assistive technology. We need to think as clearly about assistive tech as we do agentive tech, but we have a solid foundation to design assistive tech. We have been working on those foundations for the last seven decades or so, and recent work with heads-up displays and conversational UI are making headway into best practices for assistants. It’s worth noting that the design of agentive systems will often entail designing assistive aspects, but they are not the same thing.

It seems subtle at first, but consider the difference between two ways to get an international airline ticket to a favorite destination. Assistive technology would work to make all your options and the trade-offs between them apparent, helping you avoid spending too much money or winding up with a miserable, five-layover flight, as you make your selection. An agent would vigilantly watch all airline offers for the right ticket and pipe up when it had found one already within your preferences. If it was very confident and you had authorized it, it might even have made the purchase for you.

It’s Not Conversational Agents

“Agent” has been used traditionally in services to mean “someone who helps you.” Think of a customer service agent. The help they give you is, 99 percent of the time, synchronous. They help you in real time, in person, or on the phone, doing their best to minimize your wait. In my mind, this is much more akin to an assistant. But even that’s troubling since “assistant” has also been used to mean “that person who helps me at my job” both synchronously—as in “please take dictation”—and agentively—as in “hold all my calls until further notice.”

These blurry usages are made even blurrier because human agents and assistants can act in both agentive and assistive ways. But since I have to pick, given the base meanings of the words, I think an assistant should assist you with a task, and an agent takes agency and does things for you. So “agent” and “agentive” are the right terms for what I’m talking about.

Complicating that rightness is that a recent trend in interaction design is the use of conversational user interfaces, or chatbots. These are distinguished for having users work in a command line interface inside a chat framework, interacting with software that is pretty good at understanding and responding to natural language. Canonical examples feature users purchasing airline tickets (yes, like a travel agent) or movie tickets.

Because these mimic the conversations one might have with a customer service agent, they have been called conversational agents. I think they would be better described as conversational assistants, but nobody asked me, and now it’s too late. That ship has sailed. So, when I speak of agents, I am not talking about conversational agents. Agentive technology might engage its user through a conversational UI, but they are not the same thing.

It’s Not Robots

No. But holy processor do we love them. From Metropolis’ Maria to BB8 and even GLaDoS, we just can’t stop talking and thinking about them in our narratives.

A main reason I think this is the case is because they’re easy to think about. We have lots of mental equipment for dealing with humans, and robots can be thought of as a metal-and-plastic human. So between the abstraction that is an agent, and the concrete thing that is a robot, it’s easy to conflate the two. But we shouldn’t.

Another reason is that robots promise—as do agents—“ethics-free” slave labor (please note the irony marks, and see Chapter 12 “Utopia, Dystopia, and Cat Videos” for plenty of ethical questions). In this line of thinking, agents work for us, like slaves, but we don’t have to concern ourselves about their subservience or even subjugation the same way we must consider a human, because the agents and robots are programmed to be of service. There is no suffering sentience there, no longing to be free. For example, if you told your Nest Thermostat to pursue its dreams, it should rightly reply that its dream is to keep you comfortable year round. Programming it for anything else might frustrate the user, and if it is a general artificial intelligence, be cruel to the agent.

Of course, robots will have software running them, which if they are to be useful, will be at times agentive. But while our expectations are that the robot’s agent stays in place, coupled as we are to a body, that’s not necessarily the case with an agent. For example, my health agent may reside on my phone for the most part, but tap into my bathroom scale when I step on it, parley with the menu when I’m at a restaurant, pop onto the crosstrainer at the gym, and jump to the doctor’s augmented reality system when I’m in her office. So while a robot may house agentive technology, and an agent may sometimes occupy a given robot, these two elements are not tightly coupled.

It’s Not Service by Software

I actually think this is a very useful way to think about agentive tech: service delivered by smart software. If you have studied service design, then you have a good grounding in the user-centered issues around agentive design. Users often grant agency to services to act on their behalf. For example, I grant the mail service agency to deliver letters on my behalf and agree to receive letters from others. I grant my representative in government agency to legislate on my behalf. I grant the human stock portfolio manager agency to do right by my retirement. I grant the anesthesiologist agency to keep me knocked out while keeping me alive, even though I may never meet her.

But where a service delivers its value through humans working directly with the user or delivering the value “backstage,” out of sight, an agent’s backstage is its programming and the coordination with other agents. In practice, sophisticated agents may entail human processes, but on balance, if it’s mostly software, it’s an agent rather than a service. And where a service designer can presume the basic common senses and capabilities of any human in its design, those things need to be handled much differently when we’re counting on software to deliver the same thing.

It’s Not Automation

If you are a distinguished, long-time student of human-computer interaction, you will note similar themes from the study of automation and what I’m describing. But where automation has as its goal the removal of the human from the system, agentive technology is explicitly in service to a human. An agent might have some automated components, but the intentions of the two fields of study are distinct.

Hey Wait—Isn’t Every Technology an Agent?

Hello, philosopher. You’ve been waiting to ask this question, haven’t you? A light switch, you might argue, acts as an agent, monitoring a data stream that is the position of the knife switch. And when that switch changes, it turns the light on or off, accordingly.

Similarly, a key on a keyboard watches its momentary switch and when it is depressed, helpfully sends a signal to a small processor on the keyboard to translate the press to an ASCII code that gets delivered to the software that accumulates these codes to do something with them. And it does it all on your behalf. So are keys agents? Are all state-based machines? Is it turtles all the way down?

Yes, if you want to be philosophical about it, that argument could be made. But I’m not sure how useful it is. A useful definition of agentive technology is less of a discrete and testable aspect of a given technology, and more of a productive way for product managers, designers, users, and citizens to think about this technology. For example, I can design a light switch when I think of it as a product, subject to industrial design decisions. But I can design a better light switch when I think of it as a problem that can be solved either manually with a switch or agentively with a motion detector or a camera with sophisticated image processing behind it. And that’s where the real power of the concept comes from. Because as we continue to evolve this skin of technology that increasingly covers both our biology and the world, we don’t want it to add to people’s burdens. We want to alleviate them and empower people to get done what needs to be done, even if we don’t want to do it. And for that, we need agents.

Categories: thinktime

User Research When You Can’t Talk to Your Users

a list apart - Wed 03rd May 2017 00:05

It’s not breaking news to say that the core of UX, in a vacuum, is talking to your users to gather insights and then applying that information to your designs. But it’s equally true that UX does not happen in a vacuum. So what happens when you don’t have the budget or the timeline to run user tests, card sorts, or stakeholder interviews? What should you do when your company doesn’t want you bothering the paying customers who use their software? In short, how do you do UX research when you can’t get direct access to your users?

While the best methods for gathering user insights entail first-hand research, there are other ways to quickly glean qualitative data about your users’ wants and needs—beyond the usual lightweight guerrilla user testing options.

For a start, companies that are new or have a smaller digital footprint can benefit from things like forums or even competitor reviews to get a better sense of the users in their industry vertical. And for more established companies, customer service logs and app reviews can be invaluable for learning what users think about specific products. Let’s check out a few techniques I like to recommend.

App reviews

When products have a mobile app component, I start looking at reviews posted on the App Store or Google Play. The key, in terms of user research, is to focus on the substance of what the user is saying, as opposed to the rating (i.e., one star to five stars). For instance:

  • Is the user simply disgruntled or are they asking for a tangible feature to be added to the product?
  • Is the user truly thrilled with some aspect of her experience using the app or is she just a brand loyalist?

While reviews do tend to be rather partisan, keep in mind that users are most likely to leave feedback when motivated by an emotional reaction to the product. Emotionally-driven reviews—whether positive or negative—tend to be outliers on the bell curve, so the next step is taking all those reviews and distilling them into tangible insights. Let’s face it, when you want to improve the featureset and functionality, a general reaction to the entirety of an app doesn’t tend to be particularly actionable. Here are a few questions I always start with:

  • Are there missing features users want to see?
  • Do users seem confused by aspects of the UI?
  • Are they complaining about bugs or performance issues that are popping up and making the app unusable?
  • Do people really love a hidden feature that was put in as an afterthought with minimal prominence—something we should consider placing more front and center?
  • Does it seem like people understand how to use the app or do they need a tutorial on first open?

Also, it’s important to remember that feedback on an iOS app may or may not be applicable to an Android app (or mobile web experience), and vice versa.

Customer service logs

Customer service and help center personnel are on the front lines with your users, helping them with specific struggles they encounter with the usability of your products. In other words, they’re constantly learning how users see the product and go about using it.

Since user information can be sensitive, the first thing to try is asking whether service calls and contacts are being logged. If so, ask whether it’s possible to get access to the records for user research purposes. If there are no logs, or if you are unable to get access to them, see if a few brief stakeholder interviews with customer service team members is an option. Use the interviews to learn which types of problems and complaints they routinely field.

Given the nature of customer service and the purpose of help centers, it’s likely that much of the feedback will be negative. Even so, these logs can still provide excellent data. In particular, the feedback can help illuminate policies and business practices that are creating a negative user experience, not to mention identify the points at which they occur during the user journey. And remember, your user experience is about more than just the design of your app and website.

Contact form emails

“Contact Us” forms and messages can be rich with direct input from your users. Obviously, the first things to look for are complaints about an aspect of the site itself. For example, are users struggling to find a feature or getting confused by a certain page on the site? Beyond that, the forms themselves can relate to aspects of the user journey that are problematic.

If a brand or company does not have this feature for gathering site visitors’ opinions, it’s relatively easy to add a contact form, in terms of development effort. However, it’s important to note that if you have a contact form on your site, someone should be actively monitoring it and responding to users.

Industry forums

While the likes of Reddit and 4Chan have given the world of online forums some questionable connotations, the truth is that many online forums are also excellent sources of information about how digital products are operating in the wild, and how specific products and trends as a whole are influencing users. The research insights might be less obvious, but they’re easy to spot if you’re looking for them.

A look at the Apple TV Apps section of Mac Rumors reveals that many users of the 4th generation Apple TV have a problem with the YouTube app not fading out video titles when a video is playing. Similarly, a brief review of the Delta Airlines thread on FlyerTalk shows that users have questions about everything from Economy Plus seating to the Delta and American Express credit card. Reviewing this information could help Delta retool the content strategy and information architecture of their mobile app to address questions more clearly.

Many forums are industry specific, and therefore not applicable to every situation. There are just as many out there, however, that specialize in spanning numerous industries. Ars Technica covers virtually any sort of traditional tech product. For video games, IGN offers helpful feedback from players about everything from game length and storyline to controls. For nutrition and exercise,’s BodySpace forum is a top online destination for users to discuss nutrition and exercise. Of course, not every forum offers in-depth discussions regarding specific apps, websites, or even companies, but each provides great sources of information about what motivates and interests consumers in that industry vertical.

Multi-topic forums can be searched for company- or product-specific threads. Reddit (despite its aforementioned reputation) features thriving, engaged communities of actual users talking about topics of value. Quora offers an almost scholarly approach to the format, with many users possessing strong subject matter credentials to validate their expertise.

Reviews of competitors

Perhaps your brand or product is new in the market and there’s not yet enough data from any of these sources to be actionable. So what then? Find out what your potential users have to say about the competition. If you want to launch a car service, see what users say about Lyft and Uber on the App Store. Want to improve Jet? Read reviews of Amazon Prime. Do you work for InstaCart? Find out what users have to say about Fresh Direct.

In summary

There’s still no substitute for actually talking to your user base, whether that’s initial research in the form of stakeholder interviews or testing design iterations, but even when that’s not an option, there’s no excuse for not gathering feedback from your users.

Good UX design should always be based on user insights, not assumptions about best practices or what might translate from other products and industries. So go find out what your users are saying. From Yelp! to Glassdoor to App Store Reviews, consumers are readily sharing their opinions about businesses of every size, in every industry.

Categories: thinktime

The thing about bananas

Seth Godin - Mon 01st May 2017 18:05
About half of all the bananas consumed worldwide come from the same tree. Not the same type of tree. The very same tree. The Cavendish, which has no seeds, is propagated by grafting or cloning. Which means that they're all...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

The unfairness (and wisdom) of paint

Seth Godin - Sun 30th Apr 2017 19:04
Repainting your house the same color it already was feels like a waste. It's a lot of effort merely to keep things as they are. But if you don't do it, time and entropy kick in and the house starts...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Empathy is the hard part

Seth Godin - Sat 29th Apr 2017 18:04
The rest is mechanics. We're not wired to walk in someone else's shoes, it's not our first instinct. Showing up with empathy is difficult, hard to outsource and will wear you out. But it's precisely what we need from you.        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Taking it for granite

Seth Godin - Fri 28th Apr 2017 18:04
Look around for a second. Those bedrock institutions, the foundational supports you take for granted--they rarely last forever. Nurturing and investing in the things we need and count on needs to be higher on the agenda. Things that appear to...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

You go first

Seth Godin - Thu 27th Apr 2017 18:04
That's the key insight of the peer-to-peer connection economy. Anyone can reach out, anyone can lead, anyone can pick someone else. But if you wait for anyone, it's unlikely to happen. It begins with you.        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Save as draft

Seth Godin - Wed 26th Apr 2017 18:04
Is that a habit? If your instinct is to publish, to share, to instruct, to give away, to engage and to put it into the world, then 'save as draft' is a rare thing. On the other hand, if you...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

And then we got bored

Seth Godin - Tue 25th Apr 2017 18:04
Six missions after Apollo 11 amazed the world by going to the moon, Apollo 17 was the last trip. It fell off the cultural radar. Flying to the moon, driving around and getting back safely wasn't interesting enough, apparently. And...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime


Subscribe to kattekrab aggregator