A Few Scenarios for Practicing UX

I’ve had some friends ask how they might go about getting a UX design job. The short answer is make things & develop a portfolio. The longer answer involves culturing a mentality and mastering process. But sometimes it’s hard just to think of things to make. Design is not art – it can’t just exist for the sake of existing. It must solve a problem. Let’s imagine up some problems to solve.

1. A library wants to engage with kids as they first walk into the children’s book department. They plan to install a series of large touch screens. What would the goals of the engagement be? How can the library experience be enhanced for kids aged 5-10 through using technology? Make assumptions, develop personas, interview questions, user story map, wireframes, comps, prototype.

2. An insurance startup is developing a mobile app that allows users to quickly log incident details, take photos, and capture all relevant details. Assume ‘green pastures’ for all technology needs and fabricate incidents to illustrate usage. What factors will be considered in establishing a user flow and interface? How can visual identity not only serve to make a brand impression but to facilitate user actions? Develop personas, interview questions, user story map, wireframes, comps, prototype.

3. A pet store / museum / aquarium is developing a tablet experience for kids / adults / customers to buy / learn about the live creatures on display. Choose a set of parameters and make reasonable assumptions. What are the viewer’s goals as they are using the tablet? What are they trying to achieve, and what does the store / museum want them to care about? How does the content (live animals) change the way you present information? Personas, wireframes, you know the drill.

4. Happy John’s Burgers is a revolutionary, human-less food experience. Each table is a 6-10 person food preparation center and users wield a custom joystick to select their preferences. HJB needs a menu experience that should incorporate gestures, facial / voice recognition, and brings custom precision to the ordering and paying experience. How does the software inform users what options are available? How does the human-less environment change the way the software is designed? What frustrations would users be likely to experience, and how might you provide solutions in advance? How can look and feel impact the customer experience?

5. You are in the year 2350 in a crowded, heavily polluted city, and most people sleep in sleek glass climate-controlled bed-pods. When lying down, a screen appears above you. How can these futuristic bed-pods-screens provide a useful, comforting experience that users will spend many hours in at a time? Using voice and gesture controls, users can control their environments. How else can these pods provide utility to users? Perhaps they also serve as an entertainment center, or as an external screen for the user’s personal devices. Wireframe this experience, low fidelity. Find billionaire, pitch, repeat.

Other useful activities for developing a UX mindset:

  • Organize the hell out of your grocery list. How are products dispersed through the store, what items are grouped together, and why?
  • Walk into the entrances of 10 stores in a mall, pause, and inspect. What user actions are visible from your standpoint? How much of the user journey is evident from that point – is at least the next step indicated, or some directionality given? How is this achieved? Apply this to supermarkets, amusement parks, hospitals.
  • Screenshot and tag examples of design precedent everywhere you see it. Icon styles, dropdown/flyout styles, interesting bits of layout or typography, compelling uses of color. While UI design often requires a good amount of originality, it’s unwise to reinvent wheels needlessly – rather, it’s critical to use existing norms and conventions enough so that users can immediately recognize elements and understand what’s going on.
  • For all of the scenarios presented above, revisit them through the lens of accommodating users with disabilities. Decent article about that here.
  • Each of these projects should take you two weeks or more. Rushing a process won’t make you learn faster. If you need more work, work on two projects. Separate your work into phases, and keep yourself constrained. Get a Gantt chart going if it helps. If you run out of work to do in a phase, start a new sketch document and try to wireframe Wikipedia’s home page without looking at it. What do you think the designers at Wikipedia chose for the home page to present? What do they want people to use it for, and what would users want to use it for? What assets does Wikipedia have to display? What does Wikipedia want from its users, and how do they obtain it?

Hope this helps someone!

A Short Story

*caution: graphic, and entirely fictional; all resemblance purely coincidental.  

Max Suleman was an average sort. A mild strength for numbers, a mild weakness in history and writing, a very average body that provided very average results on tennis courts and rugby fields. He was generally friendly, though thoroughly boring once you got to know him. His parents were just the same: run of the mill, salt of the earth Americans with decent careers and decent interests. As an only child of working parents, Max grew up under the wing of no less than two-dozen nannies, most of whom took care of him for a few months and then moved on to find greener pastures. If this had any psychological effect on Max, he wasn’t aware of it, nor was he ever annoyed or frustrated by the revolving door of caretakers. Sure, he liked some of them more than others, but when his favorite babysitter from the second half of his ninth year left without saying so much as ‘goodbye’, he remembered shrugging, and shrugging again, and since then, he must have shrugged no less than ten thousand times.

Max turned twenty-two only a few months ago. He went to a four-year community college and majored in Applied Data Analysis. He was proud of his studies but would readily admit that he felt very little passion at all for data analytics. Very little passion, he would say. “Almost none. None, really. I just don’t care what triggers the uptick in user engagement, even if it’s for something cool like a healthcare app or.. or whatever. Why should I care so much about what everyone else does? I don’t want anyone caring that much about what I do.”

Max needed a job. He had been a grocery bag stuffer and a house-painter in his off-hours during his years in college. He wasn’t desperate — his parents made sure that he left college with no debt, a fact that he tried very hard not to take for granted every time he saw them. But he could do the basic math, and the math said that he needed a job.

He applied for a few jobs. A few weeks went by and his bank account was still looking fine. “Good thing I painted those houses” he would mutter to himself while he read through job listings. He felt that he should probably make use of his degree. Even though he didn’t care much for data analytics, he saw the salaries and weighed some pros and cons and decided that he should probably make use of his degree. He got a job doing marketing at a local furniture store. Seriously, a furniture store. He couldn’t have cared less.

Three months later, Max had mastered the art of furniture store social media marketing. Strangely enough, he found that he was quite good at furniture marketing, and the store owners were quite pleased that his activities had helped to boost sales almost 25%. If Max enjoyed the praise, he didn’t let it show, but that wasn’t very hard for him because in all honesty, he couldn’t have cared less. “Great! So another business has made a bit more money because I’ve spent most of my time doing things to make sure they would make more money. Revolutionary, totally radical.” Once in a while, he would consider a hypothetical: If I were to be really happy and doing things that I cared about, what would I be doing? After a few seconds of consternation, he would arrive at the same result. “Nothing. I would be doing nothing, and that would make me happy because then I have nothing to do, and then I could do… nothing.”

One morning, on minute six of the twelve-minute drive to his office, he heard a story on the radio about some crazy gunman who walked into a church and killed some people. He never listened to the news – he didn’t care – he had been flipping through channels when it snuck into his ears. It planted a seed.

“Prison!” He exclaimed to his windshield. He looked left and right, making sure no-one heard his bizarre outburst. And then he kept thinking. “Prison! Ok, so there’s a social structure and ringleaders and some dangerous folks, but… there are different sorts of prisons, right? Low, medium, high security… and really, what do people do in prison all day? What can they do? I suppose they can read, or write things, or do exercises in their cell, but really they must do not-very-much. They might even do nothing. Nothing at all.” A seed had been planted.

Max read about being in prison after work for the next three weeks. He looked at the crimes that people committed and what sorts of prisons they got sent to. He even picked his top 5 favorite prisons, which was a very odd thing for him to do because he had never had favorite anythings before, or at least not since that babysitter left. He felt strangely energized by the strange plan that was forming in his head. He even drove three hundred miles one Saturday morning into the next state where a chrome-buckled cowboy at the State Fair would be able to sell him a gun.

It was the day of, and his plan was perfect. All he had to do was get arrested for something illegal enough to do a few years in the clink. Five, ten years… of sweet, sweet nothing. He woke up before his alarm went off, wide eyed and giddy, almost forgetting to bring ammunition on his way out the door. Fourteen minutes to the bank in town center, a few short strides with a duffel bag over his shoulder, and all of the pieces were in place. He stood in the center of the grand entrance and took a breath. Here goes.

He unzipped the duffel, grasped the gun, cocked it while still in the bag, and then hoisted it above his head like they do in the movies. For the first time in a dozen years, he yelled, screamed to the room, “THIS IS A ROBBERY! EVERYBODY DOWN”. He smiled to himself calmly, and, aiming blindly at the ceiling, pulled the trigger, one, two, three, four, five times.

And the great chandelier from the grand entrance came a-crashing down, right on top of the huddled mass before him. Hundreds of pounds, probably thousands, he thought to himself as he was tackled and shackled. “Some people just died”, he thought to himself while he was in the back of the police cruiser. “I just.. caused some people to die,” he said out loud while sitting in the police station, attracting angry glares from the officers around him. Still shocked, he looked at the nearest officer and said with more astonished bemusement than horror, “I didn’t mean for anybody to die. I didn’t need to kill anyone! I just wanted to go to prison for a while!”

It turned out that five people died under the weight of the great chandelier, and all five of those people were from the same family, which included three young children and their grandmother. Only the mother, who had asked her husband to take the kids with him to the bank that morning, survived, and it turned out that this poor mother, now childless, was a member of the state judiciary committee and was known for her dedication to family values and a fierce pragmatism focused on cost-effective capital punishment. Max was sentenced to death, and died one year and two months later, after spending one year and two months in prison doing — nothing.

AMC Amazing

I always get a little sentimental around times of change. I think most of us grow attached to routines and stability and comfort, but as a young person with a career in mind, comfort is the enemy of growth, and growth is the capitalist imperative that we’ve all internalized to determine our self worth, so I’m very excited to grow. But before I go about growing, I’d like to chew on these last months and consider how they’ve been.

I’ve spent the last 11 months working at an AMC dine-in theatre. I took the job for money. I chose a job that was outwardly unrelated to my desired career path so that I could focus on Sealed and maintain a separation of work and work. AMC never followed me home nor demanded unreasonable overtime, and it generally provided a steady income that was earned through tolerable work that ultimately proved to be generally worthwhile. I suppose I’m using a lot of qualifiers — “tolerable”, “ultimately”, “generally” — and that’s because it wasn’t a perfect solution and I did have frustrations. But that’s less interesting to talk about than what I gained from the experience, which ultimately proved to be quite a lot.

I think this will work best as a list. OK Buzzfeed, I’ll comply:

1. I learned how to talk about food.

Those of you who know me know that I am not a “foodie”. It’s not that I don’t enjoy eating, because I often do. And it’s not that I don’t respect the institution of eating, because it can be a fabulous art and is often an excellent facilitator of friendships and shared experience. But I tend to tire quickly of foodie conversation — I think it’s low on Maslow’s hierarchy of conversation — and I don’t have particularly acute senses of smell or taste. AMC, however, has shown me some light. Good food makes people happy, and happy people tip well. Hmm, is that the takeaway? Nah, it’s more than that. Food is simultaneously an intimate and personal preference and also a need that is shared by literally everyone. Presenting a food option, replete with colorful language and confidence in the product, and then witnessing the payoff as people leave happy, has actually provided a level of base satisfaction that I didn’t imagine I would value. There have been dozens of picky kids and finicky old folks that I have proudly schlepped orders of crispy brussels sprouts and oreo shakes that have left their consumers happier. I don’t sneer at happiness. That shit’s important.

2. I met a crew of generally wonderful people.

Of course there’s a qualifier there, as saying ‘most people are wonderful’ is infinitely easier to defend than ‘everyone is wonderful’. But part of the reason I chose to work in Framingham was to meet different people. I grew up in Whitebread, MA, and went to college in Privilegeton, CT, and frankly never had much of a chance to get to know people with different ethnic and class backgrounds. To my AMC friends reading this, that’s not why I value you, because now I know you, but it was at least part of why I chose not to work in my hometown.

I like to pride myself in my ability to empathize and listen. I have a persistent curiosity for life stories, and I have visceral respect for people who are true to themselves. I felt lucky hundreds of times through my time at AMC to share small conversations with my coworkers who I saw achieve, struggle, rally, succeed, laugh, cry, recover, and continue. The array of life circumstances among the 30+ coworkers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing is vast. My admiration for many of them grew consistently as I learned more about their situations. Many of them display outstanding characteristics that I have absolutely learned from. I wish I felt comfortable naming names, because the sensitivity, charisma, resilience, and competence I witnessed from this random group of humans impressed me regularly and I did not always share how it affected me. I am grateful for many micro-lessons in humanity and respect, and I take comfort in the idea that ‘life is long’ and perhaps we’ll know each other again.

3. I grew my non-dominant outgoing side.

I served according to a simple mantra. I’d walk into a theatre and think, “Time to be friendly!” It’s so simple that it reliably cut through any noise or anxiety or frustration that I might have felt. To be outwardly friendly is to prescribe to a well-defined set of norms that put people at ease, keep conversations light and playful, and keep my own mindset calm and focused. Perhaps it’s a symptom of youth, but I think that so often, we’re focused on appearing smart or competent or profound that the comfort of the people we’re talking to goes entirely unconsidered. Friendliness is potent. For me, it requires effort — an elevated but restrained energy, a dedication to clear communication and eye contact — and it results in, again, happiness. My guests see the effort I put into making them feel comfortable and they smile and sit back, relaxing in pamperedness and ease of situation. And then, for me, anyways, the reptile-human in me mirrors their emotion and suddenly I’m happy too, smiling at their happiness and basking in the simplicity of the exchange. Customer service is rewarding on a micro-scale like few other activities, up there with board games and beer pong and sex. I get a thrill out of it, and refining those careful cues has been reliably rewarding for me.

4. I gained an intimate understanding of a carefully engineered guest experience.

I am a designer, which means that I enjoy considering the design decisions that lead people to a desired outcome. In my opinion, AMC does a really, really good job. Most every aspect of the AMC experience is carefully engineered, from the box office to the recliner seats to the managerial hierarchy.

Every decision is aimed at giving the guests power over their experience. They reserve their seats, which are then theirs. They have a button attached to their seat, which gives them the power to summon (me) whenever they choose. They have a menu at each seat that is broad enough to satisfy whatever categorical urge they feel: concession, appetizer, full meal, dessert, full bar. They get free refills and prompt service. Managers swoop in and fix problems as efficiently as possible. Ordering and payment is accomplished with a handheld device that gets the details squared away before the show even begins. I never had the privilege of sitting in on a high level AMC corporate strategy session, but my hypothesis is that people who feel like they are in control will worry less, relax more, and therefore enjoy the moviegoing experience that much more. Noticing the details of how AMC strives to empower its guests helped me to understand why I took the actions I took, why I followed the guidelines set by corporate, and gave me renewed respect for the importance of institutional design.

I loved many aspects of working at AMC. I’ve de facto memorized a hundred ads and previews that are often incredibly artful. I’ve eaten my body weight in free popcorn and seen more than my share of free movies. Serving Deadpool and Zootopia and The Revenant was an absolute blast, and I have more respect for Bad Moms and its overworked Chardonnay-swigging clientele than I ever thought I would. So for all of the benefits I’ve derived, thanks AMC, it’s been real.

I’m not quite ready to announce my next step, but I’m thrilled to announce that a next-step does in fact exist and will be beginning in the next few weeks.


Patriarchy porn, guy shows, and Trump

This should be fun. While I like to stay up-to-date with the news happenings of the world, I haven’t posted on Facebook or created any snarky T-shirt designs or really voiced any opinion publicly about the state of our United Circus. But today I will! For those of you who are lazy or in a rush, here’s my TL;DR: Unable to come to terms with the rise of strong and career-minded women and their perceived (and actual) loss of utter global/family dominance, white men in particular have, en-masse, retreated to their safe haven narrative: that despite all the odds and soundly reasoned arguments, a single champion can, by force of will and character alone, save the day and bring salvation to everyone and their trusty friends.

This is a narrative that is incredibly prominent in film & TV. Think The Expendables and every movie starring any of those guys. Guy movies, where there’s a brief exposition, a lot of fighting, a moment of dramatic doubt (are we really the good guys?), and redemption / get-the-girl. While there are cultural differences that are contextually important, most martial arts and many Bollywood movies also rely on this narrative, seen most recently in Sultan, where the guy fights bigger and bigger and BIGGER guys until finally, he gets the girl (but not without loss, can’t forget the loss).

With the slightest bit of shame I’ll reveal that I love guy movies. LOVE ’em. While I might have a somewhat unique attachment to them as they’re representative of a shared activity with my dearly departed dad, I also plainly revel in the gore and simplicity and numbness of the genre. I’ve been guilt-watching Spartacus, Gods of the Arena, which is a new age guy show on steroids: heavily emphasized blood spatter, porn-level nudity (they never, ever skip the sex scenes) and the quintessential revenge story of Spartacus leading a slave rebellion against the Roman empire (all because the Romans killed his wife and one true love, how dare they). There are some nifty ‘progressive’ elements to the show including some strong female characters and prominent and normalized guy-on-guy action, but what it really is is the perfectly engineered opiate for the male lizard-brain and a perfect encapsulation of the male safe-haven narrative. I don’t have to think, or worry, or feel anything but trust that Mr. Muscles will whip the odds and triumph over loss, no matter how great.

Given the enormous and enduring popularity of this genre, I can safely assume that I’m not alone. In fact, I’d wager that I’m part of a beer bulging, underachieved, hopelessly optimistic minority of men that wish they were heroes and wear angry blinders to any contrary fact. Yes, fantasy portrayal is healthy and normal. Hollywood knows well that wish fulfillment is addictive. Lusting for ‘simplicity’ is initially well and good but just slightly deeper, deeply problematic as ‘simplicity’ in this narrative relies on a single male hero who don’t need nobody except for that one time he cried. Patriarchy porn is insidious and pervasive in all of these shows, and the problem is that they’re so popular.

This explains Trump. For so many beer bulging buffoons addicted to their ‘simplicity’ and irrational optimism, Trump is the perfect white-guy-hero. He’s the greatest hero, really, just terrific. He’s great with facts, he knows all the facts, he’ll make the best facts. There’s no argument here, just the best argument, there’s no point in even trying.

Watching Trump succeed is essentially watching Spartacus with just as much blood and nudity and much higher stakes. In an era where women are empowered and increasingly successful, traditional masculinity is flailing out of control, yearning for ‘simpler’ times where women knew their place and men were universally respected just for being men. Of course these are anachronistic views that should be gently led to the yard for slaughter, but that is only part of the takeaway. Men are struggling to be masculine and equal, where masculine has traditionally rejected equality. I’m not a redpiller nor a Trumpian nor a machismo sympathizer, but this struggle is an actual and dire problem for huge numbers of men. It’s my armchair speculation that this shift has a strong tie to middle-aged male suicide, which is no fault of women or feminism but a symptom of changing times and an uncomfortable redefinition of what it means to be a man in society.

So I feel pity for Trumpeters and alarm at their success. Lizarding out and blankly watching Jason Statham transport flashy Audis back and forth is fine and casually patriarchal, but incredibly problematic when huge numbers of such lizards are rallied together to storm the White House. I might strive for simplicity and continue to enjoy my guy shows, but we’ve come too far to welcome ‘simplicity’ back into our world.



Why Sealed

I’ve feared this day for quite some time. After many months of teasing the world with what could have been empty promises, Sealed is done and ready, or at least done enough to deliver the core experience that I dreamt up almost two years ago. But before I press the ‘publish’ button and write a trendy announcement post on Medium, I want to explain a little bit about why Sealed, why now, and why me.

In the hours after learning that my father had died by suicide in January 2012, I quickly began to register that that event would be part of my story from then on, one of those formative experiences that would probably go on to affect future decisions and reappear thematically even without conscious effort. Immediately I became frustrated by the situation because I felt that that event was singularly sad and bad. Nothing good should come of it. Nothing should be born of it, no silver linings nor unexpectedly useful side effects. I felt viscerally disgusted by the idea of ‘using’ the suicide to tell my story or achieve any goal, let alone putting it on social media and owning it as part of my shrink-wrapped virtual identity as a differentiator from all of the other twenty-something white guys out there. Somehow it felt different from the classic son/daughter-of-a-cancer-survivor who, after a terrible dark period, rallies to bring new hope and light to the cancer survivor community in all of its happy-faced, bike-riding Facebook glory. I think that’s what we all know as stigma, but to me it presented as instinctually sacrosanct.

And yet here I am, claiming my story and brandishing it about, all the while squirming fervently because it still feels wrong. But the truth of the matter is that Sealed arose in large part because of the conditions I’ve just described, and so it is very much a part of the story if I am to tell it.

My dad was a warm and effusive person who had a deep pit of loneliness at his core. When people ask me why he killed himself (as rarely as that does happen), I often say that he died of loneliness. Despite his salesman’s gregariousness that led him to befriend people left and right, he ultimately displayed negative behaviors that pushed people away and left him very much alone. It’s easy to play the blame game here but the truth is that my father was abused early and often, even as a toddler, and the demons he kept were beyond any of our control.

But I grew up seeing his demons and I tried very hard to help swat them away. I could see his loneliness and for many years I took every action that I could think of to help keep it at bay. Teenaged Alex wasn’t quite so thoughtful about it, but that’s my demon to keep. Listening and analyzing and trying to help have become core tenets of who I am today, that damned silver lining.

Sophomore year in college was already a time of extreme turbulence in my life as I was undecided between pursuing a pre-med track and this other thing, ‘entrepreneurship’, as I first really contemplated it after watching Ray Kurzweil’s Transcendent Man, which was full of big, definitely optimistic viewpoints. Between a tough but sure bet of a medical career and a tough and unsure entrepreneurial path, I decided to keep my options open but ideate, and ideate vigorously.

I spent a year and a half having ideas, which was a lot of fun but not very productive, until I took a step back and noticed a theme in my scribblings: time, our struggle with it, and how our struggle has changed in the context of our modern tools. I hate that I have relatively few videos of my dad talking, and none where he directly addresses me. Mid-senior year I had the idea for a personal digital time capsule. A friend suggested making it social — messages that you send but are locked at first, until the time arrives for it to unlock. So I badgered my friends and family about it and even co-led a student forum exploring entrepreneurship studies and thus began the hustle, the struggle as a non-iOS developer to bring an iOS app to market.

That’s a different story, that’s the how, which I’m sure I’ll circle back to and talk about at some point. For now, I wanted to clarify the why: Sealed is an app that allows people to give other people things to look forward to. It’s a relationship tool, a way to be a proactive human and make a small dent in your friend’s loneliness quotient. It can be a gesture or a means of communication; if you receive a message that will unlock in three years, the content of the message doesn’t even factor into the equation for three years. Instead, you’re left with the simple knowledge that, in three years, you’ll see something sent by that person three years ago. Taken as it’s meant, this is an earnest, hippie-dippie, karmic expression of my desire for people to be good to each other, to be there for each other, and to be mindful about each other’s loneliness and how dangerous it can be.

I’ve struggled to communicate these intentions through branding and design, but overall I’ll be proud to present Sealed to the world.

Very soon!

Stay tuned.