Don't Just Be "Nice"

“No one is hiring you to be their friend. They’re hiring you to design solutions to problems.”

– Mike Monteiro, “Design Is A Job”

He’s right. In order to be the best designers we can be and make a living doing it, we’re going to need the reputation of fighting for the best solution, even if it means disagreeing with our clients. This is not something I’m good at.

As I considered why this is, I realized that for much of my professional life, I’ve worked with a lot of stubborn clients, or with clients whose relationship with the agencies I’ve worked for were very precarious. The client’s budget was a considerable portion of agency revenue, so working with them was like walking on egg shells. Not ideal in the least. And after interacting with clients like that over time, I think I have developed a subtle apathy that Monteiro is making me reconsider.

I basically only offer what I think is the better, correct solution if I think a client is willing to listen. If they don’t give that impression, I don’t waste my breath. I would give them what they paid for—some “deliverable”. If clients requested design changes that took away from the design or usability, I would just make them. They were paying the bills, and if they didn’t value/respect my opinion, I wasn’t going to fight to make them listen. Because I also don’t want to be considered an asshole, and left with two options, I’d rather be “nice” and give the clients what they want, rather than come off as an arrogant know-it-all.

Swinging the pendulum in the other direction gives you that. Designers who feel so superior that they belittle their clients. They are the pixel hipsters. They can’t be challenged and assume their solutions are always the best. They can’t hide their sarcasm and condescension.

So I went with “nice”. Giving the client what they asked for, regardless of what I thought. I think that’s not necessarily hard to come to that conclusion, that resigned mindset. But I’m also challenging myself and anyone who has reached this place. It’s cowardice. There is a third way! Being pleasant is still possible; we can still be easy to work with. But we can also still speak our minds and challenge our clients’ reasoning for changes they request or get them to reconsider how the project goals align with their company’s overall mission, etc. It will mean a few hard conversations, I know. But this feels like one of those life-lessons that trying to be honest with what we think is always going to mean for healthier interactions down the road, as well as a greater sense of inner peace as we live our lives.

I was a design hypocrite. I was giving clients what they wanted to hear (“Sure, we can make that logo bigger!”) while inside thinking something completely different. Monteiro called me out on it, so now it’s time to keep digging in, re-engaging with projects and making better stuff.

Touch Interfaces: Information as Water?

In The Mobile Book by Smashing Magazine, Josh Clark says,

“A crucial step of designing a forward-looking touch interface is to identify how to reimagine your information and data as a physical object.”

On the surface, this is an important observation. We have been growing more and more adept at designing for our mouse-and-keyboard internet world, but that is quickly changing. The last couple of years has begun to show deep cracks in the landscape of what sorts of devices users are viewing our content on, and Clark’s quote is extremely insightful in outlining one of the key ideas that needs to shift as we design our websites and applications.

I agree with all that, but if you’ll indulge me, I want to explore a question that’s a bit more on the metaphysical side, a bit more “big picture”.

What is information?

When you take a step back from the internet, what is it? If you strip away all the visual elements—the images, the layout, the typography, etc.—what’s left? What is the content that we’re wrapping up in all this interface design and sending through the cables and wifi signals? It’s our thoughts.

I  think, therefore, information.

Initially, humans merely spoke to each other, revealing their thoughts to one another via conversation. Once the words were spoken, they were lost. They could be repeated, sure, but those words in that conversation, in that instant, were gone for good. With written word, suddenly those thoughts became immortal. So now, outside of ephemeral human conversations, we have these ghost-like conversations that are always possible. Once something is written down, it becomes half of a conversation that is always waiting and available to be entered into whenever a willing reader steps into it. And ever since then, it created the medium on which these half-conversations exist. Rocks in caves, scraps of tree bark, long scrolls, pages of books, and now on glowing screens.

We’ve been having these conversations through pages for a long, long time.

The printing press and type-writer mechanized the writing process, so we got used to a keyboard to speak through. Then, instead of typing with ink onto paper, we split that medium into glowing screens and computer memory. Memory is immaterial at this point. But now, these screens are taking on an almost infinite number of sizes and dimensions and resolution. The screens no longer simply display our thoughts that we’ve typed, they respond when we touch them.

So, back to Clark’s quote. The information or data he mentions is just our thoughts, our half of a conversation. Whether it’s advertising, editorial or entertainment, the information on these screens is one person’s or a group of persons’ thoughts. Thoughts are inherently NOT physical objects. The content on our sites or applications, minus the visual containers it comes in, is immaterial.

My question is, can we do what he suggests? Can we strip away the medium on which our users are consuming our information and envision our content as something physical?

I think it is possible. But it will not be easy, nor will it be simple. Physical objects inherently have physical properties. If our information has color, it will be inaccessible to someone who is blind. If our information sounds soothing, it will go unheard by our deaf users. If our information can be grabbed, it will be out of reach of some of our users that have lost or do not have control of their limbs, etc. As we step courageously into this quickly-approaching, mobile-saturated internet world, we have our work cut out for us. Audio, touch-screen, motion-sensing, facial recognition, camera input… the list of ways that users can interact with our information, our thoughts, is ever-growing.

I think Clark is right, about re-imagining our information as a physical object. But because our content is actually not physical, and only becomes physical when it is displayed, rendered, spoken through some kind of device, we will need to acknowledge that the closest physical object our information will ever resemble is water, filling the container that holds it in ways unique to that container.

How do we abstract our thoughts—our content—from whatever types of containers it might someday fill?

Designing for Touch Devices

I’ve been reading Smashing Magazine’s “The Mobile Book” and in the chapter about Designing for Touch, there’s a section about hybrid devices that sparked my interest. Here’s the quote:

“One layout has to win, though, and as with every other touch device, the winner should always be the thumbs. As it turns out, hybrid users begin to prefer thumb use over time, with expert users going nearly all thumbs, reaching them in and out of the screen from the edges to drive interaction. Once again, thumbs are the primary utility pointer.”
I’m not sure what kind of studies have been done on this, but if it’s true, I think I know why. It makes sense, but took a moment for me to step back and pay attention to what I was doing subconsciously. If you have a tablet handy (maybe you’re reading this on one!), consider how you’re holding it. I typically hold my iPad Mini with my right hand, in portrait orientation, and I hold it in the lower part of the iPad. This leaves my thumb free to comfortably reach and interact with the most of the screen without too much effort. However, if I hold the tablet in my left hand and use my index finger, I technically have more freedom to interact with the screen with much less effort.
So why do thumbs win out over using our index fingers? If we have more range of motion with our index fingers, why do we prefer our thumbs?
I think it has to do with the fact when we’re gripping a tablet with the same hand that we’re using to touch the screen with, we unconsciously provide resistance against the screen. As we tap with our thumb, the other fingers behind the device are responding with support. It’s the whole “opposable thumb” thing. Pretty ingenious. Whereas, when we use our index fingers, the device is propped up on something or in our lap. The simultaneous support that happens when we use our thumbs is not there. If we hold the device with our other hand, the support might be there, but it’s making our brain do extra work to coordinate those muscles to sync with the actions of our index fingers. The littlest details matter apparently!
Understanding why we prefer using our thumbs over our index fingers will help us both device interfaces more intuitively as well as be able to communicate with clients why we want to put buttons or navigation elements in the areas that are more natural for thumbs versus what may be more natural for index fingers.
That’s my take on trying to understand the conclusion from the quote above. Do you have any other insights as to why we generally resort to using our thumbs over our index fingers on touch devices?