Thursday, 12 July 2012

Aaron Walter newsletter issue 3

Issue 3: A tweet from Doug Bowman sparks thoughts on finding balance between reacting and thinking.
Aarron Walter

On My Mind

Issue 3

This tweet from Doug Bowman, Twitter's Creative Director, floated across my monitor this week:
Go ahead and A/B test the hell out of your UI. Leave your fate to the world. We'll put it on your gravestone. Your kids will be so proud.
As you may have discovered in a link buried in last week's issueDoug has some experiencebattling folks who trust data more than design intuition. It's a different way of thinking about design, and while data can be a useful tool to understand user behavior and the perceived success of an interface, it can set you on a path of reaction rather than thinking.
A/B testing can tell you which design gets more clicks or conversions, but it can't tell you which design is more attractive, communicates your message best, or conveys your brand values best. It can only confirm or refute a hypothesis, but in order to have a hypothesis you must take a break from feedback gathering and spend time considering your goals, strategy, and their relationship to your craft. Innovation won't happen in an A/B test.
We reach decisions through a balance of empirical facts and emotional response. Why are you wearing that shirt you have on? Partly because it will serve you well given the forecast, and maybe it'll be appropriate for the social situations you expect to encounter today. But you probably had dozens of other options in your closet that would have met these criteria. So why that shirt? When more than one option is logical, emotion will dictate the final choice. You're wearing that shirt "because it felt right".
That's how we make decisions everyday, all day. Not by calculating the thermal protection of a garment and comparing in a spreadsheet. And guess what, great designers know this and they listen very closely to their gut feelings. Do you think FallingwaterGuernica, or theVolkswagon Beetle were A/B tested? Hell no. The Aeron chair, now one of the most successful chair designs in history, was reviled when it was released because it looked so different from other office chairs. It didn't fit into the common cannon of beauty for furniture. Had customer opinion been the deciding factor on whether to launch the product, it would have been a complete failure.
Great design starts with an opinion, and a personal perspective. It's not born from a metric-shit-ton of data but by principles you define and trusting your gut. That's not to say there's no room for listening to customer feedback to correct mistakes or discover ways to improve. It's something I do everyday with my team. But that process needs to follow design vision, not direct it.
Doug's tweet was timely, as I've recently found myself caught in a cycle of processing and reacting to data.

I'm Caught in a Trap

I read a boat load of customer feedback. Every time someone makes a suggestion, every time someone closes an account, every bit of information learned from our support team, every bit of information we gather through interviews and usability testing, I read it, consider how we might respond, and then work with a team of smart folks to try to make our applications better. It's a luxury to have so much feedback, because it means people care about the things we make. That feels good.
But parsing all of this information plus analytics and feedback from colleagues can become a full-time job. I like learning about our work, but I really like making things with my team. To strike a balance, I've set some parameters for myself on how I dig through feedback, and I'm experimenting with some tools to automate the process.
First, I simply defined time limits for reading all of the feedback.
  • Read feedback in one session per day (about 30 minutes to an hour)
  • Instead of addressing all feedback as you go, flag the important stuff to define what's wheat and what's chaff
  • If there's feedback related to stuff I don't work on, relay it immediately to the appropriate folks
As crazy as it sounds, just telling myself the maximum time I could spend a day on this activity helped tremendously. Once I've narrowed things down to critical issues and valuable ideas, I automate the logging and sharing of that info with colleagues.

Automating the Search for Signal in a Sea of Noise

As emails with important feedback land in my inbox, I star them in Gmail and assign a "worthy ideas" label. A script checks my Gmail account every five minutes for emails with this label, and forwards it on to an Evernote email address, tagging it and directing the content to a special notebook. The video below will walk you through setting up Gmail to automate forwarding.

You can add #tagname and @notebookname to your email subject line to let Evernote know where to direct your imported content (Example: Fwd: Recipe for Bouillabaisse @Recipes #soup #fish #french). Evernote notebooks can be shared with colleagues (note: a paid account is required for this feature), so you can make sure everyone has the same, curated list of feedback that they can add to or edit as needed. Once that feedback is in Evernote, you can search common keywords, and add additional tags that will help you discover patterns in requests that could point to broader issues in your design.
Non-digital feedback from colleagues, clients, and a support team can be logged on Post-It Notes and grouped by topic on a big wall in an affinity diagram. With Evernote on an iPad, you can easily compare feedback on the wall in an affinity diagram to the digital feedback you've cataloged in Evernote.
Affinity DiagramThis workflow is still an experiment, but requires minimal setup and very little investment to try out. Do you have a different process you use to slog through tons of information? I'd like to hear about it.

Lessons Learned

I think this little lesson about design decisions and data holds within it a metaphor for life. If you're always reacting to people and situations, you're living in your lizard brain asking "Should I fight or should I run?", not your cerebral cortex in which you think about deeper meaning and examine the broader landscape of time. It's like you're always looking down, staring closely at the minutia but never lifting your head to understand context. That's dangerous. If you do that, life will live you instead of you living life.
At a conference in Las Vegas in April, I gave a talk about branding, personality, and creating an honest, respectful relationship with customers. In that talk I showed Holstee's manifesto video which guides the lives of the people in the company while serving as the value system for the business.

Valerie Letens, a designer from Belgium, was in the audience and was so moved by the message of the video that she quit her stable job to work independently.
"I guess I have to thank @aarron for showing me the @holstee manifesto at #FILive. It made me quit my job and start as a freelance designer.
Sometimes a brief jolt is all it takes to remind us we should be making the decisions in our lives, and listening to our gut.

If You Found This Interesting

If you found this soliliquy about design thinking interesting, then you'll probably want to read my book, Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart.
Do you have opinions about design and the balance of empirical data and gut feeling? I'd love to hear your perspective. Shoot me an email.

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