Being a user-centered designer means that you deliberately seek out the stories, data, and rationale behind your users’ motivations. You endeavor to keep user concerns at the forefront of every design decision, and regularly conduct research and collect data.
But collecting facts about users isn’t the same as knowing your users. Research and data need to be regularly aggregated, analyzed, and synthesized into a format that is both understandable and accessible at critical moments. You need to turn user facts into user wisdom, and one of the most common methods for doing this is to develop user personas.
Type “how to build user personas” into your favorite search engine and you will get thousands of results outlining different templates and examples of personas. Across the tech industry, personas “put a human face on aggregated data,” and help design and product teams focus on the details that really matter. Studies have shown that companies can see 4x the return on investment in personas, which explains why some firms spend upwards of $120,000 on these design tools.
However, while it is common for design teams to spend considerable amounts of time and money developing personas, it is almost as common to see those personas abandoned and unused after a while. Everett McKay, Principal at UX Design Edge, has pointed out that user personas can fail for a number of reasons, such as:
- They do not reflect real target users.
- They are not developed with product goals in mind.
- They are not embedded into team processes.
I agree with everything McKay suggests, but I would add that personas fail largely because of one common misconception: the false idea that once you build a persona, you’re done. As designers, we know that the first version of a product is never perfect, but with multiple rounds of design and research it can be made better. Personas are no different.
To recover personas that have become lifeless, here’s how you can iterate on them with periodic research and use them to achieve tangible goals. The following steps will help ensure you see value from the investment you made developing them in the first place. Let’s put your personas (back) to work and incorporate them into your design and development process.How a persona dies
Let’s imagine you work at a company called Amazing Childcare that creates tools to help parents find childcare options for their children. Let’s also say you have the following data and statistics for AmazingChildcare.com:
- 82% of customers are between the ages of 30 and 35, and 73% of those are female.
- The most common concerns around finding childcare (as reported in user interviews) are cost and quality of care received.
- AmazingChildcare.com has a homepage bounce rate of 40%.
- Customer satisfaction survey shows an average satisfaction rating of 6.5 (out of 10).
While this data is interesting, it is hard to process and assimilate into your design practice. You still need to go through the arduous work of understanding why the majority of users are who they are, what problems they are trying to solve, and how you can better meet their needs. So, you decide to create a persona.
The persona you create is Susan, a 34-year old working mother of a two-year-old. She is interested in finding a qualified nanny that has passed a background check. Susan, like all freshly made personas, is a much more thought-provoking platform for crafting design solutions than a spreadsheet of numbers. She is someone we can imagine, remember, and empathize with.
This is the point in the story when Susan dies.
At first, the design team enjoys thinking about and designing for Susan. Having her “in the room” is thought provoking and interesting, but over time, Susan is talked about less and less. She starts to feel irrelevant to the products you’re building. You realize that Susan has “died,” leaving a lifeless, zombie Susan sitting in her place. You consider all the research and work your team put into creating Susan and wonder “what went wrong?”
The problem is that your personas remained static and unmoving while the company, Amazing Childcare, grew and changed.Review, research, repeat
As your product and marketing strategies change over time, so do your target users. In our example, Amazing Childcare may have started with a large user base of parents looking for full-time childcare options for their toddlers, but over time, the demographic changed. Now, it’s most frequently used by parents of school-age children looking for one-time, “date night” babysitters. When this happens, your original personas—like Susan—are no longer useful for thinking through design problems. Unless you periodically validate your personas, you’ll be responding to old assumptions (based on your outdated personas) rather than who your customers really are. In other words, your real-world users changed, but Susan didn’t.
To remedy this, you should regularly conduct persona research, using a variety of methods to evaluate whether your personas still reflect:
- The most common demographic, budget, and purchase scenarios of your users
- The main behavior patterns of your users
- The motivations and goals of your users.
You can conduct your persona research on a schedule, such as once a quarter, or you can opportunistically work it into the usability research you already do. Either way, you need to make a commitment to keeping your personas relevant.
If we go back to our example at Amazing Childcare, your personas would change based on the new research. Susan may still be a valid persona for your company, but your research would show that she no longer represents its core users, and should therefore no longer be your primary persona. Based on the updated research, you could develop a new persona named Beverly. Beverly is a 42-year-old mother of a 10-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl. Unlike Susan, Beverly is interested in finding an inexpensive babysitter for occasional date nights with her husband. You would use Beverly to think about the needs of the core user base, but only use Susan when you’re designing tools that directly cater to the demographic she represents.
It is natural and necessary for personas to evolve and change; personas like Susan can drift out of the limelight of “primary persona” and make room for new friends like Beverly. Your ecosystem of personas should be as dynamic as your ecosystem of users, and regular persona research will ensure that they evolve in sync.Set goals
Personas can help you do more than think about and design for target users. They can (and should) be used to help you reach real, tangible goals. Goals that reflect ways of increasing business, creating better user experiences, or both, will help you update your personas and develop your product. Even if you are not sure what is possible to achieve with personas, you should make an attempt at setting goals. Goals (even unachievable ones) provide a means for tracking the return on investment of your efforts.
To get started, try using this format from Tamara Adlin and John Pruitt.The Persona Lifecycle Goal or issue How things are today How we want things to be tomorrow Ways to measure change Description A problem you would like your personas to solve. A description of the current state of affairs. A description of the “first step” in achieving your goal. A description of analytics, research, or other methods you can use to measure progress.
Figure 1: Tamara Adlin and John Pruitt’s Essential Persona Lifecycle format
For each goal, you will need to identify how you’ll measure progress toward that objective. You may need to create surveys and interview scripts for some, while for others, you may need analytics tools.
Here is an example of a persona goal we could set at Amazing Childcare.Amazing Childcare Persona Goal Goal or issue How things are today How we want things to be tomorrow Ways to measure change Use our primary persona to drive feature development. We have just started our business and believe users like “Susan” (our primary persona) will want certain features (like nanny search and background checks) to be truly satisfied. However, the Susan persona needs to be validated and tested. We want to thoroughly research and validate our Susan persona and better understand how Amazing Childcare can meet our primary users’ needs. We can validate the Susan persona and measure customer satisfaction through a series of surveys and interviews. We will know we’ve succeeded when the next feature release increases customer satisfaction with Amazing Childcare.
Figure 2: Example persona goal for Amazing Childcare
Once you have created a set of goals for your personas, you can evaluate them as part of your regular research plan. If you find that you’re falling behind on any of your goals, you can research and recalibrate your personas based on the metrics you care about.
For instance, if we evaluated the Susan persona in the ways we’ve outlined above, the data we would uncover indicates that Susan doesn’t actually represent the majority of our users. We would then reevaluate our personas and ultimately develop our new primary persona, Beverly.Putting personas (back) to work
While research and goal setting are good practices, in and of themselves, the real benefit of personas can be seen when you put them to use. Here are some suggestions for how to incorporate personas into your design practice:
- Start putting the face of your target persona at the top of every sketch, wireframe, and prototype. Encourage others to do the same.
- Put a comment in every product story or ticket that states the target persona for that feature.
- Shake up regular design meetings by asking a few people to roleplay as your personas. Throughout the rest of the meeting, have them look at every new design through the lens of their assigned persona.
- Conduct a workshop. Activities such as Persona Empathy Mapping reinvigorate and add detail to personas.
One of my favorite ways to utilize personas is to write scenarios in which they are the main character, then use them to explain research results. For example, let’s say we’re evaluating a new interface for the sign-up and login process on our website. Instead of presenting raw numbers (e.g., “10% of new users couldn’t find the sign-up interface”), we can present the data in a scenario, providing a way to understand a design problem that goes beyond statistics. Here is an example:Beverly came to the Amazing Childcare website to evaluate whether the company would actually be useful in helping her find reliable babysitters for her family. She decides that she would like to try the product and wonders if there is a free trial available. She searches the content of the web page for the words “free trial” or “sign-up,” but is unsuccessful. She does not think the “login” button applies to her, since she is a new user and does not yet have an account. She does not think to click on the “login” button, so she fails to find the new-member sign-up interface.
In the example above, we’re using Beverly to describe feature requirements, usage statistics, and study results. The benefits of using personas to explain these components is that you are simultaneously making messy and complex details easier to understand, and forcing yourself to deeply consider who you’re really designing for. According to Alan Cooper, you should “[d]esign each interface for a single, primary persona.” Focusing on a persona like Beverly forces us to define the parameters of what our design should accomplish and helps us ultimately evaluate its success.Keeping personas alive
Developing personas and keeping them alive can be difficult. Without regular care and feeding, they can waste away and your investment in them will be lost. In The User Is Always Right, Steve Mulder described it best:“It’s very easy to create personas, then think your work is done. But just having personas doesn’t mean people will accept them. Just accepting the personas doesn’t mean people will remember them. Just remembering the personas doesn’t mean people will actually use them. Your job is to keep the personas alive so they show their worth.”
To ensure your personas are accepted, remembered, and used, you need to be the persona advocate on your team. As the persona advocate, you need to:
- Regularly conduct persona research.
- Set goals.
- Make sure there is always a place for your personas at the design table.
With creativity and persistence, you can cultivate a suite of well-researched, battle-tested user personas.
While being a persona’s advocate may seem like a lot of work, it’s worth doing. Personas are more than just a document, they are an experience. Taking the time to draft a set of user personas, use them, evaluate them, research them, and refresh them, forces you to consider who your users are, what their goals are, and how your product fits into their lives.
If you’re ready to become the persona advocate on your team, here are some additional resources to help you along:Books
- The Essential Persona Lifecycle: Your Guide to Building and Using Personas by Tamara Adlin and John Pruitt
- The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web by Steve Mulder
- Persona Building—CaliberMind Lesson by Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek
- Introduction to User Personas by Silvana Churruca (the UX Lady)
- A Closer Look At Personas: What They Are and How They Work by Shlomo Goltz
- Core Ideas About Personas and The User Experience by Jeff Sauro
Jeremy Keith once observed that our fixed-width, non-responsive designs were built on top of a consensual hallucination. We knew the web didn’t have a fixed viewport size, but we willfully ignored that reality because it made our jobs easier.
The proliferation of mobile devices forced us into the light. Responsive web design gave us the techniques to design for the rediscovered reality that the web comes in many sizes.
And yet there is another consensual hallucination—the idea that desktop equals keyboard and mouse, while phones equal touch.
It’s time to break free of our assumptions about input and form factors. It’s time to reveal the truth about input.Four truths about input
- Input is exploding — The last decade has seen everything from accelerometers to GPS to 3D touch.
- Input is a continuum — Phones have keyboards and cursors; desktop computers have touchscreens.
- Input is undetectable — Browser detection of touch‚ and nearly every other input type, is unreliable.
- Input is transient — Knowing what input someone uses one moment tells you little about what will be used next.
In the early days of mobile web we created pitfalls for ourselves such as “mobile context.” We’ve since learned that mobile context is a myth. People use their phones everywhere and for any task, “especially when it’s their only or most convenient option.”
When it comes to input, there is a danger of making a similar mistake. We think of a physical keyboard as being better suited to complex tasks than an onscreen keyboard.
But there are many people whose primary access to the internet is via mobile devices. Those same people are comfortable with virtual keyboards, and we shouldn’t ask them to switch to a physical keyboard to get the best experience.
Even for those of us who spend our days on computers, sometimes a virtual keyboard is better. Perhaps we’re on a plane that has started to descend. In that moment, being able to detach a keyboard and work on a touchscreen is the difference between continuing our task or stowing our laptop for landing.
So who are we to judge what input is better? We have no more control over the input someone uses than we do the size of their screen.Becoming flexible
Confronting the truth about input can be overwhelming at first. But we’ve been here before. We’ve learned how to design for a continuum of screen sizes; we can learn how to adapt to input—starting with these seven design principles.Design for multiple concurrent inputs
The idea that we’re either designing for desktop-with-a-mouse or touch-on-mobile is a false dichotomy. People often have access to multiple inputs at the same time. Someone using a Windows 10 laptop or a Chromebook Pixel may be able to use the trackpad and touchscreen concurrently.
There are many web pages that detect touch events and then make incorrect assumptions. Some see the touch events and decide to deliver a mobile experience regardless of form factor. Others have different branches of their code for touch and mouse and once you’re in one branch of the code, you cannot switch to the other.
At minimum, we need to ensure that our web pages don’t prevent people from using multiple types of input.
Ideally, we would look for ways to take advantage of multiple inputs used together to create better experiences and enable behavior that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.Make web pages that are accessible
When someone uses a remote control’s directional pad to interact with a web page on a TV, the browser sends arrow key events behind the scenes. This is a pattern that new forms of input use repeatedly—they build on top of the existing forms of input.
Because of this, one of the best ways to ensure that your web application will be able to support new forms of input is to make sure that it is accessible.
The information provided to help assistive devices navigate web pages is also used by new types of input. In fact, many of the new forms of input had their beginnings as assistive technology. Using Cortana to navigate the web on an Xbox One is not so different than using voice to control Safari on a Mac.Design for the largest target size by default
A mouse is more precise than our fingers for selecting items on a screen. Buttons and other controls designed for a mouse can be smaller than those designed for touch. That means something designed for a mouse may be unusable by someone using a touchscreen.
However, something designed for touch is not only usable by mouse, but is often easier to select due to Fitts’s Law, which says that “the time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target.”
Plus, larger targets are easier for users with lower dexterity, whether that is a permanent condition or a temporary one caused by the environment. At the moment, the largest target size is touch, so this means designing touch first.
As Josh Clark once said, “when any desktop machine could have a touch interface, we have to proceed as if they all do.”Design for modes of interaction instead of input types
Gmail’s display density settings illustrate the benefit of designing for user interaction instead of input types.
By default, Gmail uses a comfortable display density setting. If someone wants to fit more information on the screen, they can switch to the compact display density setting.
It so happens that these two settings map well to different types of input. The comfortable setting is touch-friendly. And compact is well suited for a mouse.
But Gmail doesn’t confine these options to a particular input. Someone using a touchscreen laptop could choose to use the compact settings. Doing so sacrifices the utility of the laptop’s touchscreen, but the laptop owner gets to make that choice instead of the developer making it for her.
Vimeo made a similar choice with their discontinued feature called Couch Mode. Couch Mode was optimized for the 10ft viewing experience and supported remote controls. But there was nothing that prevented someone from using it on their desktop computer. Or for that matter, using the standard Vimeo experience on their TV.
In both cases, the companies designed for use cases instead of a specific form factor or input. Or worse, designing for a specific input inferred from a form factor.Abstract baseline input
When we’re working on responsive web designs at Cloud Four, we’ve found that the labels “mobile,” “tablet,” and “desktop” are problematic. Those labels create images in people’s minds that are often not true. Instead, we prefer “narrow,” “wide,” “tall,” and “short” to talk about the screens we’re designing for.
Similarly, words like “click” and “tap” betray assumptions about what type of input someone might use. Using more general terms such as “point” and “select” helps prevent us from inadvertently designing for a particular input.
The Pointer Events specification normalizes mouse, touch, and stylus events into a single API. This means for basic input, you only have to write your logic once.
Pointer events map well to existing mouse events. Instead of mousedown, use pointerdown. And if you need to tailor an interaction to a specific type of input, you can check the pointerType() and provide alternate logic—for example, to support gestures for touchscreens.
After baseline input has been wrangled, the fun begins. We need to start exploring what can be done with all the new input types available to us.
Perhaps you can find some innovative uses for the gyroscope like Warby Parker’s product page, which uses the gyroscope to turn the model’s head. And because the feature is built using progressive enhancement, it also works with mouse or touch.
The camera can be used to scan credit cards on iOS or create a photo booth in browsers that support getUserMedia. Normal input forms can be enhanced with the accept attribute to capture images or video via the HTML Media Capture specification:<input type="file" accept="image/*"> <input type="file" accept="video/*;capture=camcorder"> <input type="file" accept="audio/*;capture=microphone">
Make your forms easier to complete by ensuring they work with autofill. Google has found that users complete forms up to 30 percent faster when using autofill. And keep an eye on the Payment Request API, which will make collecting payment simple for customers.
Or if you really want to push the new boundaries of input, the Web Speech API can be used to enhance form fields in browsers that support it. And Physical Web beacons can be combined with Web Bluetooth to create experiences that are better than native.Make input part of your test plans
Over the last few years, test plans have evolved to include mobile and tablet devices. But I have yet to see a test plan that includes testing for stylus support.
It makes intuitive sense that people check out faster when using autofill, but none of the ecommerce projects that I’ve worked on have verified that their checkout forms support autofill.
We need to incorporate input in our test plans. If you have a device testing lab, make input one of the criteria you use to determine what new devices to purchase. And if you don’t have a device testing lab, look for an open device testing lab near you and consider contributing to the effort.The way of the web
Now is the time to experiment with new forms of web input. The key is to build a baseline input experience that works everywhere and then progressively enhance to take advantage of new capabilities of devices if they are available.
With input, as with viewport size, we must be adaptable. It is the way of the web.
This spring I spent almost a month on the road, and last year I delivered 26 presentations in eight different countries, spending almost four months traveling. While doing all of this I am also running a business. I work every day that I am on the road, most days putting in at least six hours in addition to my commitments for whichever event I am at. I can only keep up this pace because travel is not a huge stressor in my life. Here are some things I have learned about making that possible, in the hope they are useful to anyone setting off on their first long trip. Add your own travel tips in the comments.Before you go
During the run-up to going away, I stay as organized as possible. Otherwise I would lose a lot of time just preparing for the trips. I have a Trello board set up with packing list templates. I copy a list and remove or add anything specific to that trip. Then I can just grab things without thinking about it and check them off. I also use Trello to log the status of plans for each trip; for example, do I have a hotel room and flights booked? Is the slide deck ready? Do I know how I am getting from the airport to the hotel? This way I have instant access to the state of my plans and can also share this information if needed.
It is easy to think you will always have access to your information in its original form. However, it is worth printing a copy of your itinerary to keep with you just in case you can’t get online or your phone battery runs out. For times when you don’t have physical access to something at the moment, take photos of your passport and car insurance (if it covers rentals), and upload them somewhere secure.
Your travel may require a visa. If your passport is expiring within six months of your trip, you may want to get a new one — some countries won’t issue a visa on a passport that is due to expire soon. You can in some cases obtain pre-authorization, such as through the American ESTA form for participating in its Visa Waiver Program. This might have changed since your last trip. For example, Canada has introduced an eTA system as of March 2016. I’ve traveled to Canada for ConFoo for the last four years - if I attend next year, I’ll need to remember to apply for this beforehand.
Tell your bank and credit card company that you are traveling to try and avoid their blocking your card as soon as you make a purchase in your destination.
Make sure you have travel insurance that covers not only your possessions but yourself as well. Be aware that travel insurance will not pay out if you become sick or injured due to an existing condition that you didn’t tell them about first. You will have to pay an increased premium for cover of an existing issue, but finding yourself with no cover and far from home is something you want to avoid.
Make sure that you have sufficient of any medicine that you need. Include some extra in case of an unscheduled delay in returning home. I also usually pack a few supplies of common remedies - especially if I am going somewhere that is not English speaking. I have a vivid memory of acting out an allergic reaction to a Polish pharmacist to remind me of this!
I also prepare for the work I’ll be doing on the road. In addition to preparing for the talks or workshops I might be giving, I prepare for work on Perch or for the business. I organize my to-do list to prioritize tasks that are difficult to do on the road, and make sure they are done before I go. I push tasks into the travel period that I find easier on the small screen of my laptop, or that I can complete even in a distracting environment.
When booking travel, give yourself plenty of time. If you are short of time then every delay becomes stressful, and stress is tiring. Get to the airport early. Plan longer layovers than the 70 minutes your airline believes it will take you to deplane from the first flight and make it round a labyrinthine nightmare from the 1980s to find the next one. On the way home from Nashville, my first plane was delayed due to the inbound flight having to change equipment. The three-hour layover I had chosen meant that even with almost two hours of delay I still made my transatlantic leg home in time. Travel is a lot less stressful if you allow enough time for things to go wrong.Air travel tips
Try to fly with the same airline or group in order to build up your frequent flyer status. Even a little bit of “status” in an airline miles program will give you some perks, and often priority for upgrades and standby tickets.
If you want to take anything of significant size onto the aircraft as hand luggage, the large roller bags are often picked out to be gate-checked on busy flights. I travel with a Tom Bihn Aeronaut bag, which I can carry as a backpack. It is huge, but the gate staff never spot it and due to being soft-sided, it can squash into the overhead compartments on the smaller planes that are used for internal U.S. flights.
Have in your carry-on an overnight kit in case your checked luggage does not make it to your destination at the same time as you do. Most of the time you’ll find your bag comes in on the next flight and will be sent to your hotel, but if you need to get straight to an event it adds stress to be unable to change or brush your teeth.
If you plan to work on the flight, charge your laptop and devices whenever you can. More and more planes come with power these days - even in economy - but it can’t be relied on. I have a BatteryBox, a large external battery. It’s a bit heavy but means I can work throughout a 10-hour flight without needing to plug in.
On the subject of batteries, airlines are becoming increasingly and understandably concerned about the fire risk posed by lithium ion batteries. Make sure you keep any spare batteries in your hand luggage and remove them if your bag is gate-checked. Here is the guide issued by British Airways on the subject.
A small flat cool bag, even without an icepack, works for a good amount of time to cool food you are bringing from airside as an alternative to the strange offerings onboard. I usually pop a cold water bottle in with it. London Heathrow T5 has a Gordon Ramsay “Plane Food” restaurant that will make you a packed lunch in a small cool bag to take on the plane!Get lounging
Airport lounges are an oasis. Something I didn’t realize when I started traveling is that many airport lounges are pay on entry rather than being reserved for people with higher class tickets or airline status. If you have a long layover then the free drinks, wifi, power, and snacks will be worth the price - and if it means you can get work done you can be making money. The LoungeBuddy app can help you locate lounges that you can access whether you have airline status or not.
There is another secret to airline lounges: they often have a hotline to the airline and can sort out your travel issues if your flight is delayed or canceled. With the delayed flight in my last trip I checked myself into the American Airlines lounge, mentioning my delay and concern for the ongoing leg of the flight. The member of staff on the desk had the flight status checked and put me on standby for another flight “just in case.” She then came to let me know - while I happily sat working in the lounge - that it all looked as if it would resolve in time for me to make my flight. Once again, far less stressful than trying to work this out myself or standing in a long line at the desk in the airport.Looking after yourself
If you do one or two trips a year then you should just relax and enjoy them - eat all the food, drink the drinks, go to the parties and forget about your regular exercise routine. If you go to more than 20, you won’t be able to do that and also do anything else. I quickly learned how to pace myself and create routines wherever I am that help to bring a sense of normal life to hotel living.
I try as much as possible to eat the same sort of food I usually eat for the majority of the time - even if it does mean I’m eating alone rather than going out for another dinner. Hotel restaurants are used to the fussiest of international travelers and will usually be able to accommodate reasonable requests. I do a quick recce of possible food options when I arrive in a location, including places I can cobble together a healthy packed lunch if the conference food is not my thing. I’ll grab a sparkling water from the free bar rather than another beer, and I’ll make use of the hotel gym or go for a run to try and keep as much as possible to the training routine I have at home. I do enjoy some great meals and drinks with friends - I just try not to make that something that happens every night, then I really enjoy those I do get to.
I’m fortunate to not need a lot of sleep, however I try to get the same amount I would at home. I’ve also learned not to stress the time differences. If I am doing trips that involve the East and West Coast of America I will often just remain on East Coast time, getting up at 4am rather than trying to keep time-shifting back and forth. If you are time-shifting, eating at the right time for where you are and getting outside into the light can really help. The second point is not always easy given the hotel-basement nature of many conference venues. I tend to run in the morning to remind myself it is daytime, but just getting out for a short walk in the daylight before heading into the event can make a huge difference.
I take care to wash my hands after greeting all those conference-goers and spending time in airports and other places, and am a liberal user of wet wipes to clean everything from my plane tray table to the hotel remote control. Yes, I look like a germaphobe, however I would hate to have to cancel a talk because I got sick. Taking a bit of care with these things does seem to make a huge difference in terms of the number of minor illnesses I pick up.
Many of us in this industry are introverts and find constant expectation to socialize and be available tiring. I’m no exception and have learned to build alone time into my day, which helps me to be more fully present when I am spending time with other speakers and attendees. Even as a speaker at an event, when I believe it is very important for me to be available to chat to attendees and not to just vanish, this is possible. Being at a large number of events I often have seen the talks given by other speakers, or know I can catch them at the next event. So I will take some time to work or relax during a few sessions in order to make myself available to chat during the breaks.
If you are taking extended trips of two weeks or more these can be hugely disruptive to elements of your life that are important to your wellbeing. That might be in terms of being unable to attend your place of worship, meet with a therapist, or attend a support group meeting. With some thought and planning you may be able to avoid this becoming an additional source of stress - can you find a congregation in your location, use Skype to meet with your therapist, or touch base with someone from your group?Working on the road
Once at your destination, getting set up to work comfortably makes a huge difference to how much you can get done. Being hunched over a laptop for days will leave you tired and in pain. My last trip was my first with the new and improved Roost Stand, along with an external Apple keyboard and trackpad. The Roost is amazing; it is incredibly light and allowed me to get the laptop to a really great position to work properly.
Plan your work periods in advance and be aware of what you can do with no, or limited internet connectivity. In OmniFocus I have a Context to flag up good candidates for offline work, and I also note what I need to have in order to do that work. I might need to ensure I have a copy of some documentation, or to have done a git pull on a repository before I head into the land of no wifi. I use Dash for technical documentation data sets when offline. On a ten-hour flight with no wifi you soon realize just how much stuff you look up every day!
If traveling to somewhere that is going to be horribly expensive for phone data, do some research in advance and find out how to get a local pay-as-you-go sim card. If you want to switch that in your phone, you need to have an unlocked phone (and also the tools to open your phone). My preferred method is to put the card into a mobile broadband modem, then connect my phone to that with the wifi. This means I can still receive calls on my usual number.
The possibility of breaking, losing, or having your laptop stolen increases when it isn’t safely on your desk in the office. Have good insurance, but also good backups. During conferences, we often switch off things like Dropbox or our backup service in order to preserve the wifi for everyone - don’t forget you have done this! As soon as you are able, make sure your backups run. My aim is always to be in a position where if I lost my laptop, I could walk into a store, buy a new one and be up and running within a few hours without losing my work, and especially the things I need to present.Enjoy the world!
Don’t forget to also plan a little sightseeing in the places you go. I would hate to feel that all I ever saw of these places was the airport, hotel, and conference room. I love to book myself on a walking tour. You can discover a lot about a city in a few hours the morning before your flight out, and there are always other lone business travelers on these tours. I check Trip Advisor for reviews to find a good tour. Lonely Planet have “Top things to do in…” guides for many cities: here is the guide for Paris. I’ll pick off one item that fits into the time I have available and head out for some rapid tourism. As a runner I’m also able to see many of the sights by planning my runs around them!
Those of us to get to travel, who have the privilege of doing a job that can truly be done from anywhere, are very lucky. With a bit of planning you can enjoy travel, be part of events, and still get work done and remain healthy. By reducing stressful events you do have control over, you can be in better shape to deal with the inevitable times you do not.
Not too long ago, I was part of a panel at the launch event for TechLadies, an initiative that encourages women to learn to code. Along the way, I mentioned a bit about my background as an athlete. As we were leaving to go home, the woman next to me jokingly asked if I was a better basketball player or a better developer. Without missing a beat, I said I was a better basketball player. After all, I’ve been playing basketball for over half my life; I’ve only been coding for two and a half years.
We’ve probably all come across the stereotype of the nerdy programmer who is all brains and no brawn. I’m a counterexample of that cliché, and I personally know developers who are avid cyclists or marathon runners—even a mountain climber (the kind who scales Mount Everest). And yet a stereotype, “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image,” often comes into existence for a reason. Think of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. Think of any number of mainstream dramas featuring wan (usually white, usually male) programmers staring at screens. Many so-called knowledge workers are too sedentary. Our lives and work stand to benefit if we become less so.
Now, no one likes to suffer. And yet when it comes to exercise or training, it’s too easy for us to think that fitness is all about self-discipline—that we just need to have the willpower to persevere through the agony. But that’s not a good strategy for most people. Unless you genuinely find pleasure in pain and suffering, you have to want something badly enough to endure pain and suffering. Ask any athlete if they enjoy running extra sprints or lifting extra weights. Even Olympic medalists will tell you they don’t. They do it because they want to be the best.
My point is this: forcing yourself to do something you don’t enjoy is not sustainable. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of running. A little ironic coming from someone who used to play basketball full-time, maybe, but the only reason I did any running at all, ever, was because competitive basketball required me to. When I stopped training full-time, I simply couldn’t muster the energy or motivation to get up and run every day (or even every week, for that matter).
So I had to come up with a different game plan—one that required minimal effort, near-zero effort, and minor effort. You can do it, too. No excuses. Ready?Minimal effort
I’m pretty good at talking myself out of doing things that require extra effort to get ready for. For example, going swimming requires that I pack toiletries, a fresh set of clothes, and goggles. Then I actually need to make it to the pool after work before it closes, which means I have to plan to leave the office earlier than I usually might, and so on. Guess what? Eight out of ten times, I end up telling myself to go swimming next time.
By contrast, I commute to work on my bicycle. Yes, it helps that I love to ride. I thoroughly enjoy swimming, too—just not enough to overcome my laziness. But because cycling is my main mode of transportation, I don’t even think about it as exercise. It’s just something I do as part of my day, like brushing my teeth.
The “while-you’re-at-it” technique works very well for me, and maybe it’ll work for you, too. In a nutshell: build healthy habits into things you already do. Kind of how parents hide vegetables in more palatable stuff to get their kids to eat them.Near-zero effort
Let me list some simple activities that involve minimal effort, but have significant returns on investment. Consider these the minimum viable products (MVPs) of healthy habits.Drink more water
Most of us have been told to drink eight glasses of water a day, but how many of us actually drink that much? The real amount of water people need on a daily basis seems debatable, but I’m going to make the bold assumption that most of us don’t drink more than one liter (or around four glasses) of water a day. And no, coffee doesn’t count.
This means that most of us operate in a mildly dehydrated state throughout the day. Studies done on both men and women have shown that mild dehydration negatively impacts one’s mood and cognitive function. Given that our work requires significant mental acuity, upping our water intake is a minimal-effort lifehack with significant benefits.
Note that people often mistake thirst for hunger. Studies have shown that we’re notoriously bad at distinguishing the two. Assuming that most of us probably don’t drink enough water throughout the day, odds are that you’re not really hungry when you reach for a snack. In fact, you’re probably thirsty. Don’t grab a can of soda, though—drink water.Move more
A study done on the effects of sedentary behavior revealed that long periods of inactivity increase one’s risk of diabetes and heart disease. The study also mentioned that encouraging individuals simply to sit less and move more, regardless of intensity level, may improve the effectiveness of diabetes-prevention programs.
Think about how you can incorporate more movement into your routine. Try drinking water throughout the day. Not only will this reinforce the “drink more water” habit, but you’ll also find that you need to get up to go to the bathroom more often. And going to the bathroom is…movement. Note: do not refuse to go to the bathroom because you think you’re “on the brink” of solving a bug. That’s a lie you tell yourself.
Since you’re getting up and sitting down more often, you might as well sneak some exercise in while you’re at it. Instead of plonking down in your seat when you get back, lower yourself slowly over the course of five seconds until your butt touches your chair. You’re building leg muscles! Who needs a gym? The point is, all the little things you do to increase movement add up.Don’t eat while you work
It might surprise you to know that being aware of what you put in your mouth—and when you put it there—makes a difference. I know many people, not only developers, who eat lunch at their desks, balancing a spoonful of food in one hand while continuing to type with the other. Lunch becomes something that’s shoveled into our mouths and (maybe, if we have time) swallowed. That’s no way to appreciate a meal. Make lunchtime a logical break between your coding sessions. Some folks may protest that there’s just no time to eat: we have to code 20 hours a day!
First of all, it’s impossible to be efficient that way. A study (PDF) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has shown that taking a deliberate break can reboot focus on the task at hand. It offsets our brain’s tendency to fall into autopilot, which explains why we can’t come up with good solutions after continuously staring at a bug for hours. Tom Gibson wrote a beautiful post explaining how human beings are not linear processes. We are still operating on an industrial model where emphasis is placed on hours worked, not output achieved.We need to aim for a healthy “Work Rate Variability” and develop models of working that stop making us ill, and instead let us do our best. Tom Gibson
Also, by actually bothering to chew your food before swallowing, you eat more slowly. Research has shown that eating slowly leads to lower hunger ratings and increased fullness ratings. Chances are you’ll feel healthier overall and gain a fresh sense of perspective, too, by giving yourself a proper lunch break. Such is the power of minimal effort.Use a blue-light filter at night
Personally, I’m a morning person, but most of my developer friends are night owls. Everybody functions best at different times of the day, but if you’re someone who operates better at night, I recommend installing f.lux on your desktop and mobile devices. It’s a tiny application that makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to ambient light and time of day.
Melatonin is a hormone that helps maintain the body’s circadian rhythms, which determine when we sleep and wake up. Normally, our bodies produce more melatonin when it gets dark. Scientists have found that exposure to room light in the evening suppresses melatonin during normal sleep hours. Research on the effects of blue light has shown that blue light suppresses sleep-associated delta brainwaves while stimulating alertness. Because it doesn’t make sense, given socioeconomic realities, to ask people to stop working at night, the best alternative is to reduce exposure to blue light.Minor effort required
If you’ve already started incorporating zero-effort health habits into your life, and feel like putting in a bit more effort, this section outlines tactics that take a little more than zero effort.Walk
When I started writing code, I found myself glued to my chair for hours on end. You know that feeling when you’re debugging something and obstinately refuse to let that bug get the better of you? But I realized that my efficiency decreased the longer I worked on something without stopping. I can’t tell you how many times I worked on a bug till I threw my hands up in frustration and went for a walk, only to have the solution come to me as I strolled outside enjoying the breeze and a change of scenery.
Walking doesn’t require any additional planning or equipment. Most of us, if we’re lucky, can do it without thinking. The health benefits accrued include a reduction of chronic diseases like stroke and heart disease. Try this: as part of your attempt to have a better lunch break, take a walk after you’ve properly chewed and swallowed your lunch. It limits the increase of blood sugar levels immediately after a meal. You’ll get fitter while you’re at it.Stretch
I don’t know about you, but sitting for long periods of time makes my hips feel tight and my back tense up. The scientific research on the exact effects of sitting on the structural integrity of your hip flexors seems to be inconclusive, but I know how I feel. A lot of us tend to slouch in our chairs, too, which can’t be good for our overall posture.
If you find yourself craning your neck forward at your desk, with your shoulders up near your ears and back rounded forward, news flash! You have terrible posture. So what can you do about it? Well, for starters, you can refer to a handy infographic from the Washington Post that summarizes the ills of bad posture. The TL;DR: bad posture negatively affects your shoulders, neck, hips, and especially your back.
Slouching for prolonged periods causes the soft discs between our vertebrae to compress unevenly. If you take a sponge and place a weight on one side of it and leave it there for hours, the sponge will warp. And that’s exactly what happens to our discs. As someone who has suffered from a prolapsed disc, I can tell you that back trouble no fun at all.
Here’s another thing you can do: stretch at your desk. You don’t have to do all of these exercises at once—just sprinkle them throughout your work day. The improved blood circulation will be a boon for your brain, too.Sleep
Most of us don’t get enough sleep. I hardly know anyone under the age of 12 who goes to bed before 11 p.m. Maybe that’s just the company I keep, but there are lots of reasons for not getting enough sleep these days. Some of us work late into the night; some of us game late into the night. Some of us care for children or aging parents, or have other responsibilities that keep us up late. I live in Singapore, which ranks third on the list of cities clocking the fewest hours of sleep: six hours and 32 minutes.
Sleep deprivation means more than just yawning all the time at work. Research has shown that the effects of sleep deprivation are equivalent to being drunk. Insufficient sleep affects not only your motor skills, but also your decision-making abilities (PDF) and emotional sensitivity (PDF). You become a dumb, angry troll when sleep-deprived.
Changing your sleep habits takes some effort. The general advice is to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, and to try to aim for seven and a half hours of sleep. According to Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire, our sleep cycles run in 90-minute intervals. Waking up in the middle of those cycles makes us groggy. Wiseman offers tips on how to sleep better.Resistance training
By “resistance training,” I don’t mean hefting iron plates and bars at the gym (though if you like to do that, more power to you). If you enjoy the privilege of able-bodiedness, try to make vigorous physical movement part and parcel of your daily life. Ideally, you’ll have the basic strength and coordination to run and jump. And to be able to get right up without much effort after falling down. You don’t have to be an elite athlete—that’s a genetic thing—but with luck, you’ll be able to perform at least some basic movements.
Our own body weight is plenty for some rudimentary exercises. And it doesn’t matter if the heaviest weight you’re willing to lift is your laptop and you couldn’t do a push-up if your life depended on it. There are progressions for everyone. Can’t do a push-up on the ground? Do a wall push-up instead. Can’t do a basic squat? Practice sitting down on your chair very slowly. Can’t run? Take a walk. (Yes, walking is a form of resistance training). And so on.
There are two websites I recommend checking out if you’re interested in learning more. The first is Nerd Fitness by Steve Kamb. He and I share a similar philosophy: small changes add up to big results. He covers topics ranging from diet to exercise and offers lots of resources to help you on your journey. Another site I really love is GMB fitness. It teaches people how to move better, and to better understand and connect with their bodies.Wrapping up: slow & steady
There is only one way to build new habits: consistency over time. That’s why it’s so important to do things that take minimal effort. The less effort an action requires, the more likely you are to do it consistently. Also: try not to make drastic changes to all aspects of your life at once (though that may be effective for some). Regardless of whether you mind change in your life or not, almost any change introduces stress to your system. And even constant low-grade stress is detrimental. It’s better to start small, with minor changes that you barely feel; once that becomes a habit, move on to the next change.
We spend hours maintaining our code and refactoring to make it better and more efficient. We do the same for our computers, optimizing our workflows and installing tweaks to eke out those extra seconds of performance. So it’s only right that we put a little effort into keeping our bodies reasonably healthy. Fixing health problems usually costs more than fixing bugs or machines—and often the damage is irreversible. If we want to continue to write great code and build cool products, then we should take responsibility for our health so that we can continue to do what we love for decades to come.