user experience design

Choking People Made Me A Better Designer

Some days I run out of work at 5 PM to go choke people. Not to be rude. I let them choke me, too. I am a student of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art that promotes the idea that a smaller, weaker person can beat a larger, stronger person through skill and technique. And yes, sometimes chokes. I love the art. I love the science. There is so much to understand and it keeps me fascinated. I often see the similarities between my 9 to 5 and my version of happy hour. My job as a designer at Amazon is challenging. What I do for fun is equally challenging. Work hard, play hard. There are so many lessons in fighting that are relevant to my life and to my job. But three in particular stand out for me.

Lesson number one: calm down. When I first started training, I would physically exert myself to the point I would burn out in a matter of minutes. Like pushing against a brick wall, all my effort was getting me nowhere. You’ll never learn to control other people if you can’t control yourself. Early on, my instructors told me many times to slow down. What they were actually telling me to do was to think more about the problem at hand. Take time and analyze the opportunities as they arise. So in time, with the right direction, I began to understand how to slow down and apply pressure only where there can be forward movement. Attack the weak spots and defend with minimal effort.

As a UX designer, I am sometimes pulled into conversations where someone has already framed the problem and is telling me how to solve it with their solution. I know an impulsive response when I see it. This is where I take a step back and consider all angles before deciding how to solve the problem, because I have learned that when you get in a hurry and allow someone to press you, you make mistakes.

When you’re tired and a 225-pound athlete is crushing down on you, trying to pull your arm out of socket, it’s easy to lose your wits and give in to the pressure. But I find that if you steady your mind, you’ll be better equipped to defend yourself. You focus on survival first, slowly working your technique to get back to a position of neutrality. Then you attack.

Lesson number two: seek efficiency. So often we hear this message. The idea seems easy enough to grasp, but often slips through our fingers. When fighting, efficiency is a matter of applying the appropriate leverage at the appropriate time. Anything else becomes a waste of your energy, the most precious commodity you have in a fight. Worse, inefficient movement exposes you to counter attack.

When designing an experience, our principal goal is to create an efficient experience. Any online task we ask a user to complete should contain the minimum number of steps they can cognitively manage. Sometimes there is an argument about needing to add more things to a design. But more often in my experience, I find people wanting to take too much away. There are essential steps you can’t combine or remove. Try cutting out a few essential steps in a Jiu-Jitsu technique, and you’re going to lose. Too few steps is just as inefficient as too many.

Lesson number three: learn to fight by fighting. When I was much younger and training in Karate, I thought I was learning to fight by punching the air. There were all these theories about how to defeat your opponent in a given situation. Yet, no one was regularly testing these techniques, and no one seriously questioned them.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques can only be fully understood when you learn to use them on someone who is fully resisting. You find some things work for you and others that don’t. It is a test-based mentality. When something fails, you ask, “What did I do wrong? Are there details I am missing?” The challenge is that you are reacting to a living thing rather than just the air, and not everyone reacts the same way. So you adjust your technique and try again.

Creating a user experience is no different. It’s easy to get lost in a world of theory and opinion without testing and feedback. Even the most educated guess is still a guess. But seeing how people react to a situation will keep you headed in the right direction. I am fortunate that I practice two disciplines that pursue a higher truth through testing. For me, it’s a cornerstone of both.


I train at the Gracie Barra Ballard academy just north of Seattle. Stop by for a free intro lesson!


Usability and Development Time

After recently finishing a wire frame process, I was congratulated by a project manager who announced my contribution to the team as having saved development time. Hmm, well that’s true and I’ll take the compliment, but there’s a lot more going on than just  that.

Without wireframes, I have seen development stumble down a path with a very myopic set of solutions when facing problems as they arise. The usability process always looks toward the big picture, the experience from start to finish. Factoring in cognitive and hierarchical task analysis, benchmarks and stats, and let’s not forget good old fashioned creativity and you do more than just help the process. You build a product that at worst saves users time and at best becomes a cornerstone of success.

One thing I know is if you don’t make things easy to use, people don’t use them, end of story. User centered design doesn’t guarantee success, but without it the probability of failure skyrockets. With it, there is the potential to destroy your competition.

When the iPod was released it was just another MP3 player, but the usability they put into that device made it something special. From September last year, Apple says it has 73.8 percent of the market, followed by 18 percent held by “other”, SanDisk at 7.2 percent and Microsoft at 1.1 percent share— With their closest competitor 55 percent behind them, I can guess they aren’t forced to spend hours and hours attempting to prove the ROI on usabiliy.

Anyway, saving development time is good. Realizing that the discipline can make or break you is better.

Good Web sites don’t win design awards or Addys

We all know what a good Web site looks like. Just look at the ones you use everyday. Google, Facebook, Yahoo (Yahoo! If you’re on your third cup of coffee), and eBay. Here’s a complete list of the top 100, With the billions of dollars of business that is done on these sites, you bet your ass they are paying attention to user experience design and digital marketing. But that type of design and marketing isn’t something advertising agencies do well. So the reason why the best sites don’t win Addy awards is because they were not designed by ad agencies.

Most advertising shops don’t think about branded utility and creating meaningful conversations, they push ideas that win awards. If it’s not pretty or clever enough to win an award, they won’t dream it, much less pitch it. Everyone in adverting knows it’s about the awards; they just keep that fact to themselves when selling to their clients. Now, not all advertising shops and advertising creatives are the enemy of the Web, I have seen really strong interactive work from a few, but it’s not typical.

So who should be designing Web sites? Well, interactive shops and marketing agencies have been creating the sites you use on a regular basis. These are places that know how a site functions and what it does is infinitely more important that how it looks. Information design takes just as much creative talent and thought as creating pretty pictures. I would argue more, actually.

Adverting agencies have added interactive capabilities, pulling talented interactive people into the mix. Don’t be fooled by this. True interactive people in advertising are often treated like a necessary evil. They get ignored when they have ideas and are wholly disrespected. Everything they do is subject to the approval of someone who is unqualified to judge their work.

For an interactive to get respect at an advertising agency, he must abandon user centered design. And that designer must be prepared to have his site taken down after 3-6 months when the user base drops off to nothing. I say this because I can think of one individual who has done just this. And yet, for the stream of failed interactive experiences, his agency just loves every potential award winning site he designs. I guess that will work for them as long as they can misguide their clients.

Think an advertising agency would have developed an idea like blogging, an online auction, or social networking? Not a chance, those ideas came from interactive people, not advertising people. Advertising’s structure and focus is best used for that commercial you DVR past or possibly the banner ad you don’t look at and never click on. I would have thrown newspaper ad in there, but in 5 years those won’t exist.