There’s been no shortage of articles in recent months about the millennial generation, their approach to technology, and how your business will have to reach them on their mobile devices if you want to succeed in the coming decades.

Like this recent one on Wired, most articles of this nature go a little something like this:

“Millennials are immersed in their phones and oblivious to the world around them. They demand that products and designs be bonehead-simple, because they’re too impatient to learn anything else. They have some cute, somewhat redeeming qualities in regards to their connectivity to one another and passion for social justice. Yet, overall, we will have to deal with their inability to focus and work hard. You must fear the millennial, because they are coming of age, and there appears to be nothing that anyone can do to help them mature. You’ll need to adapt.”

And, if you think that thinly-veiled condescension is exaggerated, let me assure you that it’s not off by much. From the article linked above:

You’ve seen them walking around shopping malls, college campuses and summertime social gatherings — those packs of sleepy-eyed teens with their heads down and eyes glued to their smartphones. Even though they cluster together in groups, you notice they don’t make direct eye contact or utter any sounds to each other except to share a video or Tweet, since each is immersed in his or her own text message conversation or social media exchange. One might even be sending a text to another only a few feet away. Whether we like it or not, the zombie apocalypse is upon us and unlike the movies dedicated to this popular genre, the millennial generation will prove to be the most influential, distracted and finicky demographic in history when it comes to technology use.

I use hyperbole and sarcasm with the best of them, but I’m seeing a pattern emerge: contempt for millennials.

Contempt for your target market will sink your business.

Does it not take tremendous value to look past rude customer service at a store you walk into?
Or, put another way: do you love to give your business to people who think you’re dumb, but will take your money?

That’s just the outer layer of the onion, my friend. You can’t just attempt to deal with it because you want to grow your business and a generation is coming up you don’t like. You can’t just fake a smile and friendliness. It’s deeper than that.

Grok Your Users and Their Motivations

There’s endless exploration that can be had when we talk about understanding users and where your product or service or content fits in, but the point here is that assuming Millennials are impatient, aloof, uncaring, lazy, or shallow simply because of their age is unhelpful. This is the same trap we fall into when we overextend the utility of marketing personas and use them to assume how people will act based on demographics.

You have more in common with people who have the same motivations you do than those that are just your age, your ethnicity, in your field, or who live in the same area you do.

For more on this concept, read up on job stories, which help us understand people on a deeper level. In short, job stories help us explore a users’s circumstances, motivations, and expected outcomes. Getting in touch with users on this level is what creates raving customers.

People called millennials are no different. Their circumstances, motivations, and expected outcomes are different than yours, but that doesn’t make them nonsensical. You’re going to need to understand your target audience no matter what decade they were born in.

So, if you want to reach anyone in that age group, the first step is not attributing behavioral tendencies to all of them.

The second step is finding your target market within that age group by looking for problems you can solve.

It’s no different than traditional ways to find product-market fit—unless you bring an attitude of prejudice along with you. You’ll just need to have more conversations with customers, read more of what they read, go where they go, and validate your assumptions.

Write off an entire generation at your own peril. Millennials have a nose for businesses that do.

September 12, 2014 — 1 Comment — In Blog, Entrepreneurship, UX

You don’t have much time to engage someone on the other side of a website or application.

Users move quickly without fully understanding all the tools at their disposal.
Visitors make judgements in 1/20th of a second.
People do not RTFM.

How impatient! How careless! How shortsighted!

Hold on, though.

You’re a user, a visitor, a person, too. Would you describe yourself as impatient, careless, and shortsighted? Of course not!

You’re not impatient; you just had things to do that day.
You’re not careless; you were just trying to get something done for your boss.
You’re not shortsighted; you just haven’t had time to look for new features yet.

Or, put another way: that person who cut you in line the other day was rude, but when you cut people in line, it was because you needed to meet a friend. You’re not rude!

We tend to attribute others’ behavior to internal characteristics in a phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error. We have a hard time identifying and remembering situational factors with others when we think their actions were intentional, and that hard time is well-documented and heavily researched.

Not helping this at all is something called actor–observer asymmetry, in which we tend to give ourselves more of a break. We much prefer that every action we take—especially negative ones—not be considered a reflection of our inner state of being.

We’re all a work-in-progress, am I right?

And yet, as people who work on the web, we’re often required to infer causality from another person’s actions. Whether it’s looking at bounce rates in Google Analytics or performing a task-completion analysis in UX work, the goal is still to understand what’s causing a particular action.

We want to manipulate the actions of others’—let’s not avoid saying it. As long as it’s benign, and you’re not misleading anyone for your own gain, let’s admit that this is acceptable. It’s pretty much the foundation of traditional sales tactics.

So, getting past the moral implications, we’ve got to understand how we tend to attribute behavior in order to more correctly…attribute behavior.

Intentionality

In observing behavior (again, as simple as looking at your blog stats), people will distinguish between intentional and unintentional events.

For an action to be judged as intentional, it “must be based on a desire for an outcome, beliefs about the action’s relationship with this outcome, a resulting intention to perform the action, and skill and awareness when actually performing it” (source). Intention is seen as a choice and commitment to act as a result of the actor weighing beliefs and desires.

So, once we’re settled on something being intentional, we go through an interesting process of explaining the behavior—at least, according to the folk-conceptual theory. Explanations break down into three modes: reason, causal history of reason, and enabling factor.

Reasons

Reason explanations are the most common, as they’re easy to map to a desire for an outcome as well as beliefs that the action leads to the outcome.

“She wants a new pair of jeans [desire], and she thinks Amazon is the right place to buy them [belief].”

We try to reconstruct the subjective viewpoint of the actor and string together the rationality that led to the action. It’s important to remember that, in doing this, we’re mostly guessing and, often, projecting ourselves onto that viewpoint. For instance, I would tend to guess that she bought jeans from Amazon because it’s easy to find what you’re looking for and buy it there. The jeans were probably reasonably priced as well. But I don’t know.

Causal History of Reason

The causal history of reason explanation mashes the “nature vs. nurture” argument together into one clump. It’s an attempt to explain what led up to the action based on anything from personality to upbringing to circumstances.

So, using the previous example:

“She bought jeans from Amazon because she’s lazy.”

I might think there are obviously better ways to buy jeans, so I attribute her behavior to things that have happened to her previously. But, note that this assumes that she never considered those factors herself; she didn’t consciously note to herself that she was lazy, and thus decide to buy from Amazon because of it. I assume intentional action, but absent (or irrelevant) rationale.

Enabling Factor

Lastly, this rare mode of explanation assumes the actor had motives and, instead, clarifies how the action was successfully performed.

“She bought jeans from Amazon because she has a Prime account.”

Beliefs and Desires

Both beliefs and desires are necessary to something to be perceived as intentional. Sometimes one implies the other, as in assuming that a user is sending an email about an event because that users wants event attendees. However, in many cases, it’s easy to create tons of implied assumptions when a belief is presented as a reason.

Thus, even if we can get past something broad like this:

Liberals do this because they hate the rich.
Conservatives do that because they hate the poor.

We can still end up with something like this, which has most of the same assumptions:

Liberals do this because they believe the rich are above the law.
Conservatives do that because they believe the poor are lazy.

Or, expressing the same idea with a desire reason:

Liberals do this because they want to let the rich know they are not above the law.
Conservatives do that because they want the poor to know their laziness is unacceptable.

Politics makes for easy hyperbole because it’s basically satire in disguise. It helps make the point: if you identify with one of these groups, you likely reject the broad characterization I presented. But you’re much more likely to have at least approached thinking about the other group in that manner.

Observation

We tend to judge others’ actions in one light and ours in another, because we have an interest in self-presentation and have better access to our reasoning (obviously).

For instance, one interesting study looked into how people make sense of others’ self-portrayals in social media when they seem inconsistent with their impressions.

Subjects rated the inconsistencies of acquaintances as more intentionally misleading, more hypocritical, and less trustworthy relative to the inconsistencies of friends. In addition, the types of attributions people made for online behavior depended on the perspective of the person providing the explanation: People explained their own online behavior more favorably than the online behavior of both friends and acquaintances.

You see, we have great reasons to show the best side of ourselves, but all those other people are engaging in hypocritical behavior.

Further, we often base those great reasons on beliefs more than desires, which we also tend to state as fact. For instance:

“Why did she buy the jeans from Amazon?”
“She wants a new pair of jeans, and she thinks Amazon is the right place to buy them.”

“Why did you buy the jeans from Amazon?”
“Amazon is the right place to buy them.”

And that’s if you can manage to get past the assumption that she did it because she was lazy.

Acknowledging this tendency and understanding modes of explanation helps us more accurately understand the behavior of others. Biases can be counteracted with some effectiveness simply through awareness of them. You can dive into the assumptions you’re making based on your observations and make more informed judgements.

And, wouldn’t you like to make more informed judgements of people anyway? Wouldn’t you like it if others make better judgements of you?

Focus on making yourself a better observer; get the added benefit of being a better human!

August 29, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, UX

I could never overstate how much I’ve learned from other designers and user experience professionals.

Yes, I read their blogs and their books. I attend their presentations. But, I’ve learned the most from being in community with others—working alongside them, having casual conversation, and lending a hand.

WordPress has such a large community that it’s been easy for me to find places to plug in; I’ve mostly enjoyed WordCamps, which are extraordinarily cheap compared to most conferences. I get a chance to learn from and engage with others on a frequent basis.

The design/UX community, especially in Atlanta, is a little harder to hop into sometimes. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar: the only chances you have to get into a community are meetups that happen at night.

If you’re like me, you’d rather not give too many of your nights away. So, you end up sacrificing those opportunities in the name of personal balance.

Mornings: The Secret Sauce

amUXI’d thought about taking a shot at doing something about this in Atlanta for some time, but never felt like I had the support I needed to do it. Now, that problem’s been solved by not just having a support network, but working with a UX team at Pardot that’s full of people wanting to solve the same problem.

So, we’re giving it a shot. amUX will be a monthly, morning meetup focused on the design and UX community. We’ll provide coffee, breakfast, and a chance to chat before we hear from a diverse range of speakers.

If you’re in the Atlanta area, come join us on the first Wednesday of each month at 8:30 at Atlanta Tech Village. If you’re not, stay tuned—we’re planning to record each week and post it on amUX.org.

Let’s see if we can’t do something about making this community better together.

August 22, 2014 — Leave a comment — In amUX, Blog, Meetups, UX

tl;dr

I’ve compiled some great links and discussions on the merits of the hamburger icon (some of which include actual research), and I have an alternative to propose.

menu-alt-512As much as I can hate something that’s just a part of a graphical interface, I hate the hamburger icon.

If you’re unfamiliar, the hamburger icon are those three horizontal bars that you’ll find in the top corners of mobile apps, and increasingly on mobile websites. It usually represents a shortcut to a menu of some sort.

I hate it because it’s an example of designers assuming too much about what users will intuitively understand. Icons should help users find what they’re looking for faster, while taking into consideration the space given. This much discussed grouping of three bars doesn’t necessarily have a great track record of doing that.

Context

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 7.41.30 AMThis icon was, in fact, originally designed to represent a hidden menu, which is probably how it started getting used to represent off-canvas mobile menus.

I designed that symbol many years ago as a “container” for contextual menu choices. It would be somewhat equivalent to the context menu we use today when clicking over objects with the right mouse button.

Its graphic design was meant to be very “road sign” simple, functionally memorable, and mimic the look of the resulting displayed menu list. With so few pixels to work with, it had to be very distinct, yet simple. I think we only had 16×16 pixels to render the image.

Its history is duly noted—no one made it up out of thin air. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s doing an adequate job. In fact, two decent tests have at least given some merit to the idea that the icon isn’t performing well despite its near ubiquity (Test 1, Test 2, Test 3).

Solutions

Many people have recently written about the pitfalls of the icon and what can be done to make things clearer.

But, the thing that’s driven me craziest about this icon is that it doesn’t take much more space to use the word “Menu,” which users definitely understand.

My good friend, Matt Smith, wrote about it recently, and gave the example of putting the icon in a bounding box with the word “Menu.”

menu

Getting there!

Now, Adrian Zumbrunnen recently explored improving the hamburger icon, and showed how the same idea Matt presented could be worked into a slick interaction.

Hamburger1

Even better! It gives the perks of context but saves the space.

But, I have one more argument to make. We can use a better icon for what this button actually does on mobile devices.

Replacement for the Hamburger Icon

These two icons more closely resemble what happens after a user taps or drags the icon. The icon with the dots on the left would be used on the left side of the screen, and vice versa for the right one.

It’s close to what exists now, so it wouldn’t be a huge stretch for users (they obviously haven’t all acclimated anyway), and it’s more in line with the mobile interaction. Whereas the original icon represented a totally hidden menu, these new icons represent a menu that’s technically hidden, but is really just off the canvas.

We ought to do better by our users than just relying on the precedent set for us by other designers. I’d love for this to be discussed and considered. I’d love to need to make this icon for people, or just begin seeing it soon. I’d love to see something like it, but better than what I’ve thought of.

I would just like to see us try.

July 4, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Design, Mobile, UX

Creating websites visually—without coding—is a reality today. Tools have advanced significantly. The concerns over code quality are, at least, diminishing.

You can now work with WordPress themes and plugins that will let you “drag and drop” elements of the layout. Building and customizing design has never been easier, and it will only continue to get easier.

Most of these tools were—initially, at least—built for designers to bypass or supplement development.

But, that functionality has successfully entered the sphere of the end user. Now, many of these tools promise “anyone” can build a website themselves, without code.

And I’m all for innovation, but, do you understand website design?

This is not a whiny post about paying designers. The word itself has become diluted. I’m talking about the practice that these visual tools enable: designing for something. Do you know how to do that?

Illusion of Explanatory Depth

obama-not-badIf you’re making this face, let me explain why what I’m asking is valid and not pretentious.

Humans are highly skilled at discerning cause and effect. We can discern causal relationships fairly easily, so we’re quick to judge objects’ relation to one another. This is good for us from a survival standpoint, but it can betray us.

However, while we are very good at inferring cause and effect, we do not always understand the mechanisms underlying causality. In fact, causality has been described as a “cognitive illusion”. Much of our understanding of cause and effect is based on associations, without a true understanding of how events are really related to one another.This lack of understanding is referred to the as the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. People may believe they have an understanding of mechanistic relationships because they understand one event causes another, but when asked to explain that relationship, they fail.

So, we might be fairly good at attributing causality when observing an event, but that talent makes us think we can reverse-engineer it.

Most people don’t make a decent living at design because they’ve managed to fool everyone around them. They do so because they understand the mechanics of how design works.

Designing for Ourselves

One thing that a good designer knows how to do is eliminate their own biases—consciously and often. And I’m not talking about just doing some basic research; I’m talking about after research and expertise have been exhausted.

In the absence of detailed information, we all work from assumptions about who the user is, what he or she does, and what type of system would meet his or her needs. Following these assumptions, we tend to design for ourselves, not for other people.”

Human Factor: Designing Computer Systems for People by Richard Rubinstein and Harry Hersh

Designers are good because they, first, know how to gather objective information to base a design upon, and then, they have a stockpile of informed “assumptions” about users. This is why many designers can make decisions seem like common sense—or even easy.

So, the less experienced in understanding these assumptions you are, the more quickly you’re going to run out of them. And the more quickly you’re going to tend to design for yourself.

Are Visual Website Building Tools Bad?

No, unequivocally. Blaming a tool is dumb, and you can’t blame companies for marketing their products to a market that’s ready to buy it.

And yet, their presence makes it tempting for just about anyone to start designing things “the way I want it”. That may be 100% fine if your website is for yourself. But, if your website is for other people (e.g. any business), the way you want it should have little-to-nothing to do with it.

I’m not suggesting you have to hire a designer for everything. But I am putting you on notice that it’s not as easy as moving things around until you make the “not bad” face.

If you’re set on using a visual tool and not hiring someone to help you, you owe it to your business to do these one or two things:

Work from Templates

Find existing templates for the visual tool you’re using, or look for common layouts amongst successful products like yours.

The temptation is to differentiate yourself by not looking like everyone else. That intention is duly noted, but you ought to make real sure that everyone wasn’t already doing it better than you’re about to do. Design is not a response.

Start Learning Design

Build a base of design understanding. Pick up The Principles of Beautiful Web Design or Responsive Web Design. Try to dissect designs from companies who you know are doing well because of their online design (i.e. a purely eCommerce site).

“I don’t think this is necessary.”

Fair enough. Maybe you’ll get lucky, and what you like in a design will also work for other people. Maybe you’ll see data that appears to affirm your decision, so you’ll attribute causality to your design.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m just saying you’re leaving your design to the chance that your preferences connect with people well enough to support your business.

If you don’t want to leave your business to chance, get expertise by hiring someone or exposing and counteracting your own biases.

June 13, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Design, UX, WordPress