Do We Still Need Machines to Do the Work So We Have Time to Think?

This is a quote from an old IBM Design documentary:

“We need machines to do the work so we have time to think”

It’s noble, and inspires us technologists to create better machines to do our daily monotonous work so we have time to think about more noble efforts, more serious problems to solve, and become better humans.

The problem, I think, is that while we’ve succeeded in creating machines that do the work giving us the opportunity to think, we still don’t. It takes effort to think, and a lot of us just don’t want to take that effort. Further, since our new smart machines provide an endless stream of mildly interesting information, games, or even ‘IT administration’ activities like downloading apps, cleaning up messages, reading detailed logs, and other mundane activities, we have ample opportunity to do a new kind of time-wasting work that fills up any time intended for us to think, while at the same time giving us an excuse not to have to think because we were ‘being productive’.

Unlike my dog. For her, she LOVES to learn new tricks and she enjoys thinking hard and figuring out what I want her to do. Teaching her tricks is mentally exhausting for her because she has to think, but she loves it. I love it, too, because I have to think to always be one step ahead of her to reward her, guide her, and when we’re both thinking towards the same goal, it builds our relationship.

I wonder why we waste these “think opportunities”? Is it because our problems are too big? Na. Is it because we are afraid of the companionship we will build together? Maybe. Is it because we’re exhausted? Probably.

Or, is it simply that the machines we’ve built give us unprecedented access to information and ideas but fail in the one primary purpose that these machines were invented in the first place? Did we lose sight that that these machines were built so we actually have time to think?

Is it now that after all this time we realize that quote was wrong…or at least incomplete…that it’s not about the machine but about the experience the machine offers? It’s not the machine’s fault we’re still not thinking. Rather, it’s the user experience those machines deliver that fail in achieving the true goal.

We need time to think. To become a better version of ourselves, to build a better version of today. But thinking takes effort that not everyone is up for.

Maybe our new machines need to be like personal trainers…guiding us to think even though we don’t really want to at that second…forcing us to discard the ‘productive’ activities like sifting through email, logs, playing casual games, and forcing us to think through hard problems. Maybe our interfaces need to ask, “Why are you doing this? Is it helping you solve the difficult problems on your list? As you do this activity, here is a space to list ideas, ‘a-ha’ thoughts so you can build on them later”

Then, at the end of the month, just like a personal trainer, our machines help us look back at all we accomplished…and how much we actually did think.

What do you, well, think?


Corporate Creativity

I thrive on being creative. I love creating music and words, and I have been known to wonder out loud how awesome it would be to have a job where all I do is focus on being creative. I quickly point out how poor I could be, but I would be happy…I would be creative!

But if I were to be honest, I AM in a job where all I could do is focus on being creative. Am I creating my own music? No. But in a world that is built around reality and responsibility, I think I may have one of the more creative jobs around. While that may surprise you, it certainly surprises me! I desperately want to be creating, writing, educating and helping people, and many days go by that I lose focus and struggle through some very unrewarding periods of my work. I forget that my creative outlet is there if I just turn and focus and decide to push through the distractions that tend to paralyze me…

If I look back on 2013, what did I do? I created very popular user experiences, I wrote articles and traveled the world educating users how to get more out of what we delivered.

Also, I invented.

Inventing at IBM is one of my most creative moments at IBM. This year I was fortunate enough to have 11 patents issued in 2013.

I only mention this to encourage you to be creative in your work…to think of how you, too, can improve the world around you by being creative in whatever you do for a living. Whether we like it or not, our workplace is where we can have the most impact on others because it’s where we spend the most if our time.

If interested, here are my 11 issued patents in 2013 (You can read the details here):

Highlighting related user interface controls

Replicating changes between corresponding objects

Determining a score for a product based on a location of the product

Moving deployment of images between computers

Dynamically resolving fix groups for managing multiple releases of multiple products on multiple systems

Future system that can participate in systems management activities until an actual system is on-line

Management of actions based on priority levels and calendar entries

Content identification and retrieval based on device component proximity

Disc with embedded flash memory and disc drive (not a duplicate)

Disc with embedded flash memory and disc drive

Copying segments of virtual resource definition to create and deploy a virtual resource on a physical resource

How about you? How do you stay creative in your workplace?


Isn’t “Horrible UX” A Bit Harsh?

Last time I wrote about my experience at B&H web site and how the “Horrible” user experience eventually saved me $500 and cost B&H $2000.

I wanted to dig in a bit to why I used “Horrible”. After all, a LOT of what I experienced was actually pretty great! It all comes down to how B&H violated the six themes of user experience, and the expectations they set up through those user experiences all with one simple message:


As a refresher, here’s how I wrap my head around user experience: User Experience is composed of six themes: Presentation, Navigation, Relevant Scenarios, Trustworthy Feedback, Initial Bring-up, and Connectivity.

Killer User Experience Themes

Each theme acts like a door. Each door needs to be interesting enough to the user that the user takes a small risk to walk through. The responsibility for the product (and the designer) is that the door through one theme sets the user’s expectations for how the user will experience the next theme.

It’s this failure of handling expectations that made this web site’s user experience horrible. Let’s take a look at how B&H did on each theme:

Presentation: A
B&H’s web site had a great presentation. The home page is easy to look at, has some nice graphics reinforcing what it offers, and I start to build trust that they know what they’re talking about after scrolling down the home page.

Navigation: A
B&H simply helps me navigate to what objects and tasks I want to perform. I searched for iMac, and instantly found it. I also saw “Used” and “Refurbished” and found older ones but decided on a new one (not to mention a nice menu bar at the top showing the kinds of items they sell from video to photo to computer to recording gear…they’re experts at everything!)

Relevant Scenarios: A+
Right next to my iMac was “Add to Cart”, and what makes it an A+ is that instantly after I added it to the cart, I was surprised by being offered free software and discounts on photo editing software I was wanting to buy but didn’t even know they sold.

Trustworthy Feedback: A
I saw my items being added to the cart, saw the total, and I was pumped! I was completely sold not only on the product I was buying but in the way that B&H led me through the transaction with expert reviews, peer reviews, and fast performing “Added to Cart” response.

Initial Bring-up: B+
I had no problems getting started with the web site, but there was a small point of confusion where it didn’t remember my ID so I couldn’t get to my ‘wish list’ as simply as I expected. No biggie. In the end I was led through.

Connectivity: A … then F
I moved between devices and since it offered a user account, I could connect from anywhere and the web site offered instant chat and other features I could have tried.

…and then it told me it couldn’t connect to the check-out process.

Now I actually think this is on purpose, but I can’t think of why. They might as well offer a “Buy from Amazon Instead” button on the dialog above.

I did envision one possibility: I imagine a dimly lit basement in the B&H warehouse downtown New York. A young, but strong intern stands in the basement of B&H with sweat rolling off his back as he turns a heavy crank. His muscles are sore, covered in grime, and quivering in exhaustion. Next to him is a two-story rusty mechanism with 12′ gears slowly turning while creaking and complaining at each crank. Above is a sign that reads, “Turn To Activate Your Internet Checkout Subroutine”, and since he’s the only guy strong enough to turn the mechanism, he needs a few hours each Saturday to rest.

Other than that possibility, I just don’t get it.

This experience does strongly validate the importance of the WHOLE user experience. Companies can invest a ton of money in how a product looks, navigates, that it is relevant to the user, gives feedback, and is simple to get started. However, if the back-end fails at the most crucial point, if the whole reason for the web site’s existence is off-line, everything ounce of investment was a waste of money and the whole user experience is a failure.

Even worse, it lost a customer (at least for that day).

I think that’s why I called it a horrible user experience.

How about you? What do you think the most important part of a user experience is?

Why I Loved This Horrible User Experience

I own a recording studio, and while I’m quite happy with what I’ve recorded and released, I knew it was time to upgrade my studio computer as well as recording software. After many months of research, I decided that my core computer would be a new iMac with 27″ display.

I searched and found the cheapest price new was at B&H Photo and Video for $1695. Awesome! I love their web site and also look there quite a bit for camera stuff. I added the iMac to their cart, found I could buy extra memory, Applecare, and Lightroom 5 at a discount when I bundled it all together. The total came to $2010, just below my budget. Satisfied, I clicked “Check Out”, and I got this message:

“Shopping Cart is down for maintenance…it will be open in 4 hours 27 minutes”

What? This is the Internet! It never closes! I was hoping to get on the last truck so it would ship that day, but since our band was playing that evening, I had to leave it for later.

An hour later, as we were setting up, we started talking and I was reminded about Apple’s refurbished section. “Of COURSE!” I said, “I get refurbished iPhones and iPods from Apple!” I couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked that option out.

When I got home later that night, I went to the Apple refurbished store and found the exact same iMac for $1529!!

I was pumped $170 less! I ordered it right away (after clearing the iMac from B&H’s cart). I then searched forums and found that for recording work, the 8GB of memory should be enough for what I want to use it for, and if it wasn’t, I could add it later. I also found I could add AppleCare later if I wanted, and then found I could get Lightroom for $113 on Amazon…only $30 more than the bundle.

In the end, I saved nearly $500 and didn’t have to hit my budget limit. I was thrilled!

B&H? They lost $2000!!! …and a bit of trust.

So the moral to the story? There’s actually 2:

To the Seller: If you have a web site that brings in money, NEVER put it in maintenance. And if you do, bring in a backup, or at least keep it running during a high traffic time.

To the User: If you encounter a bad user experience, use it as an opportunity to try something different. You may end up a lot happier with what you find and it may save you time and money!

How about you? Have you ever had a similar experience like this?

Killer UX – Go For The Gasp!

Over the years, I’ve grown into an evidence-based designer. While I wish I could ‘cowboy’ along and just design on the fly, I know that the best designs are a result of extremely focused, dedicated, and iterative work.

…and this image is not only filled with evidence, it floods me with emotion:


Not only because it’s my daughter, but because it is evidence of hundreds, or most likely thousands of iterations to refine her ability to do this leap. I’ve seen her in pain, bleeding, so worn out she could barely walk to her bed, but her passion for showing her most excellent work pushes her to do the best she can…and do it with a smile.

I’ve seen her practice, and even seen her perform this live, but I audibly gasped when I saw this photo.

…which makes me think: What would it mean to our users…how filled with emotion would our users be if they audibly gasped when they saw our designs?

I imagine they would be filled with emotion, loyalty, and some may even be aware of the effort it took to craft a user experience like the one they are seeing.

I guess it comes down to this: Are we passionate enough about our craft to refine and iterate our design until it floods our users with emotion?

I hope so. I’m certainly going to make a run for it in 2014.

How about you?

Need Purpose In Your Designs? Create An Empathy Map

Maybe it’s the industry I’m in, or maybe it’s my age, but the past year I’ve really been searching for purpose in my work.

You see, my designs don’t help feed the poor or cure cancer (although we at IBM are trying!), so many times I stop and wonder what “Noble Purpose” my work has on my fellow humans around me.

…and then I participated in IBM Design Thinking.

…and found a way to have empathy for my users.

It’s really simple: Create an empathy map.

We identified who are user was, drew 4 quadrants on the wall and simply asked ourselves, “What is Satish saying, doing, thinking, and feeling?”

The doing and saying and even thinking was nothing new…but writing what he was feeling and adding it to a sticky on the wall…I could finally start seeing my purpose.

You see, Satish works really hard. But he feels trapped in his work because he’s always reacting to data center emergencies. Now he’s getting pressure to add new services and to be quite honest, he’s scared. He’s scared of failing, of getting it wrong, of not being valued by his boss, his team. If he only had software that could guide him, educate him, and help him deliver these solutions with ease and speed…without messing up, he would instead feel confident, valued, content, and even happy.


In one day I learned that the work I do does have purpose…I can change a person’s outlook on life…and in turn possibly how he reacts to his kids, his wife, his friends. My designs can save him time…time he can spend playing music, playing with his pup.

No, my designs might not cure cancer (yet), but my designs can help Satish have a better life.

…and that’s a pretty noble purpose.


UX Review – Musical Instrument Museum – Phoenix, AZ

How many times have you truly been surprised at a user experience? Not in the “I can’t believe they shipped this piece of junk”, but in the “I’m giddy with delight…I want to bear-hug the lead designer of this project!”?

It just happened to me at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.

As I described in my design session “How to Craft (and Measure) a Killer User Experience”, a user experience goes far deeper than just shiny objects and fancy artwork. User Experience, at least the way I’ve come to understand it, includes six themes, or doors, the user walks through (Figure 1): Presentation, Navigation, Relevant Scenarios, Trustworthy Feedback, Initial Bring-up, and Connectivity…and they are all essential to create a killer user experience.

Killer User Experience Themes

Figure 1: Killer user experience themes

 So how was the experience at MIM? Let’s dig in…

My wife and I walk into the MIM, and pay for our tickets. Unlike the Louvre, the audio guides (earphones and device) come with the ticket. A small thing, but nice!

We walk to a nearby gallery filled to the rafters with guitars…my love language. After studying my favorite (Figure 2, a Paul Reed Smith Double Dragon), we walk up stairs to the museum.

photo 1

Figure 2 – My favorite guitar

We put our headphones on, and as we walk to the first display, we suddenly start hearing what these instruments from 19th century Africa sound like. The audio connects seamlessly and synchs so we can hear, and see on the TV how they play the instruments as well.


I can’t tell you how delightful that was. No numbers or channels to figure out, no fancy touch-screen to palm and screw up, nothing. The mere act of moving closer to the TV automatically immerses us into the musical culture right in front of us (Figure 3).

Figure 3 - An awesome display

Figure 3 – An awesome display blending sight, sound, and history

Their attention to detail was impressive. For example, as I walked towards the display, the music faded in at a smooth, natural rate…reinforcing that this whole experience should be a leisurely stroll through the music of the world. As I walked away…or as the device switched between two nearby TV audio signals, it calmly faded, and once out, the next audio faded in. This reinforced that the designers knew experiencing the music was the top focus, rather than just making sure the technology worked. I actually expected an abrupt beginning and end, but instead I was gently waved goodbye by the display I was leaving and warmly greeted by the display I was approaching.

As a side note, it was almost erie to take my headphones off and hear complete silence..even though hundreds of people were strolling throughout the museum.

What the designers at MIM figured out is how to provide an effortless connection to experience musical instruments from around the world. I mean effortless…walking closer to a display activating the audio? With nothing for me to dial in? And not having to share audio with others or have 198 displays blaring its own audio for all to hear? Yes, effortless.

Was it perfect? Nope. But pretty darn close. There were a few times that I could not sync to the TV. 98% of the time the device worked flawlessly, but when it didn’t I did feel a bit at a loss. Since there were minimal controls on the device (start, stop, volume), the only thing I could try was to press stop and start in hopes it would re-synch. When that didn’t’ work, I’m sure I looked a little funny doing a little 2-step as I moved farther away then closer to the display in hopes it would synch up 🙂  I even found myself waving the device towards the TV and wondering if the ‘front’ of the device should be pointing directly at the TV or not.

Of course, as I write this, my wife asked, “didn’t you see the transmitter at the rim of the display that listed the order of artifacts?”

One other minor issue had to do with the “Relevant Scenarios” and “Navigation” user experience themes. Being a musician, I wanted to play these awesome instruments…like these from South Africa. (Figure 4).

Figure 4 - These were screaming for me to play them!

Figure 4 – These were screaming for me to play them!

The problem was, I wasn’t told about the “Touch-It” lounge downstairs until we found it later. It would have been awesome to have a little “Touch-It” logo next to the display label for that instrument…so I knew instantly I could either play it or something similar to it later on.

So, with these “Hintervision Killer UX” themes, let’s see how MIM did:

Presentation: A
Navigation: A-
Relevant Scenarios: A
Trustworthy Feedback: A
Initial Bring-up: A+
Connectivity: B+

Overall:  KILLER!

I realize that user experience is usually referring to software interfaces, but I think we all agree that more and more interaction with our environment does not have a detailed screen to look at. The designers at MIM should be awarded with their awesome, relevant, delightful, and in the end, killer user experience.

How about you? Have you visited the Musical Instrument Museum? What did you think?


Star Trek, AC/DC, And Your Killer User Experience

I compose music (Listen here), and years ago I took a film composing workshop. The teacher was Ron Jones and if you don’t know him, you know is music from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He scored the first few seasons including the awesome season 3 finale “The Best of Both Worlds”. He said the key to being a great composer is to always ask this question:

“What’s The Main Thing?”

Meaning, at any moment in time, any measure, any beat, ask yourself:

“What is the ONE thing you want your listener to pay attention to?”

He explained that while humans think we can hear lots of different things at once, when it comes down to it, we really focus on one thing…and if a composer isn’t thinking about the “main thing”…and crafting the music to make the “main thing” stand out, then the listener might focus on something else and not really hear what the composer thinks is most essential to that moment in the song.

The “main thing” in music may surprise you. You might think it’s the melody or the lead guitar solo, but in a rock song, the “main thing” might be the rhythm guitar. In a dance song, the “main thing” might be the snare or kick drum. The “main thing” could change measure by measure from guitar riff, to snare, to vocal, and so on. For example, take the song “Back in Black” by AC/DC. (Note: for those that now categorize me into a certain genre, again, take a listen to what I write…it might surprise you)

Anyway, AC/DC’s Back in Black. That song has one of the best intros in any song. If you listen, the intro quickly moves from string mutes/high hat, to the guitar riff, then adds bass and off it goes into the vocal. But listen again. The “main thing” is actually the snare. Notice how the guitar riff stops so the snare can breathe…there’s nothing interrupting that glorious “SMACK” as the snare (and guitar) set the tone, beat, intensity of the whole song.

The “Main Thing” in Your UX may also surprise you.

While our instinct as creative designers is to want to show off all the cool graphics, colorful gauges, and awesome capabilities your product has, you need to ask yourself,

“What’s the main thing?”

Or more specifically,

“What is the ONE thing you want your user to pay attention to…to focus on?”

It may force you to dim, remove, or alter the flow of your designs so that the user is delighted with how easy your interface is to use; not because there are so many awesome capabilities to choose from, but because they instantly see what they need to focus on.

For example, in our newest PowerVC product, we have all kinds of cool capability, pretty gauges, data, and graphics giving the user much-needed information on how to manage their virtual machines. However, when users are first starting out, the “main thing” is none of that…it’s simply a “Plus” icon guiding users to add hosts, storage, and network. Nothing else should have the users’  focus.

Focus on Most Essential

I truly think we’re only tapping the surface of what this simple question could do to our user experience. I’m excited to see how much more we all can improve our products by asking this single question.

How about you?

What’s the “Main Thing” in your user experience?

Don’t Do What Users Expect

I know. Seems stupid. “Greg, you’re an idiot”, you say. Well, hear me out.

If you’re like me, as you think through what your product needs to deliver next, the first thing you try to answer is,

“What are customers complaining about?”

…and then work to solve those exact problems. While that does help our users a bit, if we’re on our game, we step back and try to answer,

“Why are customer complaining about that?”

That usually gives us a much better solution that not only solves their immediate problem, but also may solve many related problems. We have a chance to meet or even exceed their expectations since the solution is just better.

But what if we took one more step back and asked,

“Is the way customers want to accomplish their goals really the best way?”

…along with,

“Is there a different perspective we could offer that would completely change how fast/better their goals could be accomplished?”

…and quickly finish with,

“…and how can we solve it with new technology that’s just emerging?”

If we did that, I think we could start hearing the kind of customer feedback we all really want…

…not “Neat. That helps my current need”

…not “Cool. That saves me time to accomplish my current goal”

…but we could start hearing,

“Wow. This is incredible. I didn’t even know that was possible!”

I’m starting to think that taking the extra effort to not only understand our users’ goals, but also think of how to accomplish them from a unique perspective that’s different than everyone else in the market, combined with using new, innovative technology, can truly deliver a killer user experience.

What do you think? What products have you used that don’t meet or exceed your expectations because they completely blew you away because you were in awe at how incredible the product was?


Killer UX Tip #37: Love Your Awesome Developers

It’s not very often we start on a brand new product, but when it does, it gives the whole team a chance to craft a killer user experience.

While I’ve mentioned several times how I go about designing a killer user experience, but, when it comes down to it, its success truly depends on how focused our development team, executive team, and user research team are on delivering an outstanding user experience.

I am thrilled with the UX of our newest product: IBM PowerVC.

Take a peek here:


Because not only did we do our best work on the design, the entire team was driven to deliver the best user experience possible. Is it perfect? Nope. But based on the time we had and the resources we had available, I think it’s pretty great (and so do the customers who have previewed it…which is our ultimate goal).

The design team iterated over and over to polish, change, alter, restart, and finish a fantastic design that the development team could deliver.

The development team was relentless in its pursuit of outstanding UX. We had healthy debates about the best way a widget should behave, what tasks were most relevant to our users, even how the artwork should look. And lets face it, without awesome developers, even your best designs won’t benefit anyone.

The executive and product management team was the fuel that drove this relentless pursuit of great user experience. Even for us in the design community, it’s tempting to take the easy way in order to make a deadline, but this time there was a constant mantra “Focus on the UX” from the very top.

Take a peek, and let me know what you think.

Oh, and here’s a question to leave you with? How do you say thank you to your developers when they deliver your designs?


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