How-to create the perfect case study

(Originally posted on Medium on November 4, 2015)

In order to figure out what should be included in a portfolio case study, let’s dive into a little bit about the point of the case study. The traditional portfolio only presents finished work, often work that never came to fruition or it was produced in a sub-optimal way, not the way the designer intended. The popular wisdom around design portfolios even suggests that designers show the work in the way they intended instead of what was actually made! But that’s actually a terrible idea. Here’s why:

A finished thought experiment doesn’t tell me anything about the most important skills it takes to be an effective designer. Is it your ability to choose colors and set type? Nope. Those are a given. Anyone coming out of any design program or even people with natural talent can do that. And with all of the tools available to designers now, like color pickers, and the fact that it’s impossible (or at least a waste of time) to perfectly kern a dynamic interface, these are commodity skills.

So if design ability is a given — the cost of admission, not a competitive advantage — then what are employers looking for? Is it mastery of software, like Adobe and Sketch, or programming languages? Nope again! With resources like youtube, Udemy, Udacity, Code Academy, and a slew of others, a smart person can learn enough of any one of those programs to be proficient in an afternoon. The idea of software proficiency as a skill is outdated. These shouldn’t even be on your resume. It’s like listing “typing” and “arithmetic.”

Alright, alright. So we now know that a case study is not designed to showcase your innate design chops or your photoshop skillz. What’s left?

A case study is the best way for a potential employer to get a feel for what it would be like to work with you. The skills that will set your apart are things like cooperation on teams, autonomy, speed of work, process, ability to take feedback, making smart compromises, and more. Everything in your case study (and on your portfolio for that matter) should be in service of one of these attributes.

Now that we know the “why” of the case study, let’s dig into the “what.”

The anatomy of a great case study:

  • The goal: Was it merely a brand refresh to bring the company into the 21st century? Was there a conversion problem from free to paid customers? Was this to improve signups? Retention? Comprehension? Reduce support tickets? Churn? Explain why this project even happened.
  • The challenges: Why was this a hard or interesting problem? A case study without any challenges doesn’t tell me much. This is where you get to showcase your problem solving, teamwork, and negotiation skills.
  • Your role: Be really upfront here. No one wants to play the guessing game of “well, what did this person *really* do on this project?” If we’re left wondering, we’ll often automatically assume you didn’t do all the work. And with no clues, it’s really hard to make a bet that the skills you brought to the table are the right ones.
  • The thing: At this point, it’s good to show the thing to give some context to what’s coming next.
  • Process: Now how did you get there? This will be the longest section of the case study, and that’s okay. This should include everything from the quick conversation you had in the kitchen to sketches, wireframes, color explorations, and everything in between. That being said, this should just be a hodgepodge of “process” photos (an artistic photo of you drawing on a whiteboard juxtaposed to a haphazard wall of brightly colored post-it notes). There should be some sense of story arch here — “we did this, which led to this, then this, then we had to backtrack to this because of new information x.” Remember: the point of the case study is to get a glimpse of how we might all work together.
  • The thing again: This time with more of the thing! Now is the time to show intricacies of the final design and talk about how they fit into the whole.
  • Outcome: A small blurb about whether or not the project was successful. If not (which is totally okay!), why not? What did you learn, good, bad, or just interesting? This may sound small or dumb, but this is secretly one of the most important sections of the case study. Employers want to know that you’re constantly learning and that you have the capacity and humility to evaluate whether a project was successful or not and the self-awareness to articulate what they would change in the future.
  • Next steps: Don’t just leave them at the end of the page with nothing else to do. The easiest thing to do from here is to exit. You want to direct viewers to other parts of your portfolio, your social media accounts, writing, or something else that highlights you and gives them a better sense of who you are.
  • Bonus: I love testimonials (and so do hiring managers!) I like to sprinkle them in all over, and that includes case studies. If you have a great blurb to include from someone who worked with on this project, this is a great way to get that in front of a hiring manager in a context that makes sense (and not just a string of praise or a LinkedIn recommendation.)

This is the basic anatomy. Obviously, you should add and subtract to certain areas to suit your work. For example, a link to a working app or website, video of someone using the product, user research results, and any additional artifacts (like a custom font or icons) would be good additions.

Now I want to hear from you:

Do you have any more specific questions regarding the construction of your portfolio, portfolio prevention, or design interview? E-mail me questions directly at I respond to every one.

Finding the Perfect Fit

(Originally posted on Medium on October 22, 2015)

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen made by designers looking for jobs is trying to be everything for everyone. It’s so tempting in today’s market to sell yourself as the Unicorn — UX / UI / Visual / Prototyping / Front-end / User researcher / Product / Interaction hybrid designer of mythic proportions. That’s what everyone’s looking for, right?


Here’s why:

Last week I mentioned that companies and startups are finally starting to realize the value of design in their process, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it. At startups especially, they’re bootstrapped, they only have 3 open seats before they run out of spending power. What they think they want is the Unicorn designer, the one who can do it all. Why hire just a designer when you can get a Developer, a Designer, and a Researcher! — 3 for the price a one! It sounds like a steal, but what they don’t realize when they hire someone with that diverse skill set (they’re rare, but yes, they do exist) is that they’re actually hiring 1/3 a Developer, 1/3 a Designer, and 1/3 a User researcher.

Doesn’t the fact that one person can do everything end to end mean that they save on coordination costs?

Yeah, that’s true. However, when one person is constantly jumping around from task to task like that, they’re actually wasting a lot of time and cognitive overhead. I’m sure everyone has had the experience of getting into flow — that euphoric state when the world melts around you and time stands still. In this state, you’re a machine of productivity. And I’m also sure that everyone has had the experience of spending all day switching from task to task, window to window, spending tons of time a brain power just trying to remember “what was I doing again?” At the end of these kinds of days, you often feel like you were busy all day but didn’t really get anything done. That is both not a good feeling and not particularly efficient.

Startups who hire the unicorn soon learn that they need to hire another person to support them, often another unicorn or a person who does just one thing really well, essentially relegating the original unicorn to the other. This is totally okay. Sometimes that’s what you need to do in the beginning. But it’s important to understand that when you hire 1 person, you get one person’s worth of work no matter how you slice it.

So what does that have to do with you, the designer? If they think they want the unicorn, shouldn’t you be the unicorn?

Not necessarily. I don’t code. I can code. A little. But I don’t enjoy it, and I’ve vowed never to do it again. However, early in my career, I thought I needed to be the hybrid developer/designer in order to get a job at a startup. And that’s bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong — if that’s you and that’s what you like to do, then by all means, go for it! You are best suited to work at a very small startup, which needs scrappy people who can pick up the slack wherever it is. But if you’re not the unicorn, you shouldn’t sell yourself as one. That’s the perfect way to get stuck in a job you hate, one where you can’t possibly perform well, or worse, never get a job at all.

What’s the solution?

Figure out what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and lean into it. Hard.

This might not happen overnight. You will need to be exposed to many disciplines, working styles, and company types to figure out what works for you and what really, really doesn’t. This doesn’t mean you need to work at many jobs before you figure out what works — reading voraciously, talking to people, and a little self-reflection works just as well, and it’s much faster!

Once you’ve determined the type of designer you are, make sure everyone else knows it, too. Instead of trying to show a wide range of skills, pick a few and let them shine. It should be obvious to anyone looking at your portfolio projects, bio, and social media what you do. Sure, you wont be attractive to those companies who aren’t looking for what you do. And that’s great! Talking to them would be a waste of both your time. What’s better? Mildly attracting lots of people, many of whom aren’t a good fit, or really magnetizing the select few for whom your skills are the perfect match?

No brainer.

On the other end, you should be exclusively looking for these roles. This can be tricker because, as mentioned, a lot of companies don’t know exactly what they’re looking for or they don’t know the exact job title to use. Have you ever seen a startup post looking for an Interactive Designer? Yeah, that was written by someone who doesn’t have a clue what they’re looking for.

So, you might be wondering, if the company doesn’t even know what they’re looking for, how can I possibly figure it out?! They don’t it, but they often leave clues. Here are a few:

1) Read the job description.

Even if the job title doesn’t sound like you, the description might reveal that what they’re looking for is exactly what you do! Be sure to look at the written description for clues, the responsibilities, and the expected experience level. Of those, the most weight should be paid to responsibilities, followed by written description, and take the previous experience with a grain of salt. Now, sometimes those postings are vague or, worse, expect a unicorn designer of mythic proportions. These are often a waste of time, to be honest, but if the company really interests you, then it might be worth trying to find more.

2) Read about them.

Many companies, even some startups, will have internal design or product blogs. These are often specifically for the purpose of recruiting, which means they’re designed to attract the exact type of people they want to hire. So if reading about their most recent redesign makes your heart go pitter patter, this might be an organizational fit. But if it instead induces eye rolls, it’s probably not the right place for you. You can also read articles from news outlets and other sources to get a sense of their values (what do they emphasize?) and culture.

3) Talk to someone.

With LinkedIn, Twitter, Angel list, and other online communities, it’s often easy to find a connection to a company you’re interested in. Try to get an intro to a designer who already works there or someone close to the design function (developers or product managers are good). Ask to have coffee and chat about what it’s like to work there. You can gain valuable insights to their current design process, how design is viewed internally (super important!), and more about what they’re looking for.

Ultimately, it’s more worthwhile to put your time and effort finding the right place for you rather that changing yourself to fit in a place. Both of you will be happier and more successful in the end. So do your research and trust your gut.

Next week we’ll discuss the exact steps you can take to figure out what you’re good at, what you like doing, and how to use that to find the perfect company.

Design Team of One

(Originally posted on Medium on April 28, 2014 and on Stemmings in January 2014)

For the last year and a half I’ve been the only designer at a startup. Super fun, right?! Well, yeah, actually. But it’s not without it’s challenges, too. When I accepted the job, I had a lot of excitement about the opportunity to build out the design from the ground up, but also a lot of anxiety about being responsibly for so much on my own. There were challenges that I knew were coming, as well as a few that took me by surprise.

I’ve compiled a list of the biggest lessons I’ve learned (or have been reinforced from being a design team of one.

Prioritization is key

In order to move things forward, I have to be ruthless in my prioritization.What MUST be done? What needs to be done first? Is it more important that this urgent thing gets done or that this important thing gets worked on? You can design and redesign for weeks, or months, before you’re pressed to ship. You have to learn when to push for time and when to ship. You have to learn that maybe these ads don’t have to be beautiful because you need to spend time designing the information architecture for the dashboard. You need to develop a keen sense for what your most important tasks are so that when everyone is asking for your time, you have a way to prioritize your day. And if you don’t know what’s most important? Ask! Which leads me to…

Ask questions

No one expects you to know it all. If you don’t understand the product expectations or the technical limitations, don’t be afraid to ask. You won’t look stupid if you ask for clarification or explanation. And sometimes, you’re not the only one who doesn’t know the answers, you’re just the only one who spoke up or the only one who thought of the question. It saves everyone time in the long run if everyone is on the same page.

Say “no”

As the only designer, I have a lot of agency. I also have a lot of people asking for my time. Although I’d love to do everything for everyone, it’s become very clear that that just isn’t possible. I’m a people pleaser so saying no to someone’s request is very difficult but very necessary. Getting things done often means not getting other things done. Often times the people making the requests don’t know what else is on your plate, and, of course, everyone thinks their own requests are the most crucial/urgent/important. You are the one who knows how much time you have and how long things take. Be firm. Your time is valuable, and everyone benefits when you’re spending it wisely.

Learn to let go

You don’t have time to nitpick over every detail. With responsive and mobile and devices of every shape and size, there’s just no way to design for every possibility. You spend your day in the weeds instead of on the more high level, more important stuff. You need to be able to let little things slide. I’m not saying to produce sloppy work. Of course not. I’m saying evaluate your priorities. Is getting every single state pixel perfect worth another week of your time? Or is shipping a new product more important?

A lot of designers (myself, sometimes, included) can feel protective of their work. We don’t like to show things unfinished or in the early stages because we’ve been taught that pixel perfection is the expectation. However, it’s so important to get feedback early and often, not just from other designers, but from everyone who has a stake in the product. Working with developers, product managers, marketers, and everything in between is actually one of my favorite things. The team is always greater than the sum of it’s parts because domain knowledge and different ways of thinking can combine in such unexpected and delightful ways.

Trust your developers
You probably haven’t thought of everything, every state, every possible error. You can either train your developers to come running to you whenever this comes up, or you can trust them to make some decisions on their own. This, obviously, needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis — not every developer can make those decisions well. I am fortunate to work with 2 front end devs that have a pretty good visual and ux sense. They are able to make small decisions and I sign off on them. If it’s something a little bigger, they ask first, often including their idea for a solution. Many times, I decide that their solution works, sometimes with a few tweaks, and I always explain my reasoning. Over time, their ideas get better and I trust them to make bigger and bigger decisions.

Pick your battles

As a designer, you have your own area of expertise, so don’t be afraid to make some executive decisions when they’re very important. Just be sure to pick your battles wisely. You might have designed a beautiful new interaction that would be perfect and lovely but it will take an extra week to implement. Is it worth it? Remember that you’re the only designer, which means you might be the only one going to bat for design decisions. If you waste your influence on this decision, that might be that you have to concede the next one. Be sure that what you’re fighting for matters be flexible with the rest. Being kind and understanding of your developer’s time will do a lot with building trust and allies for the things you decide to fight for.

Find designers outside

One of the most surprising challenges I found to being a solo designer was the lack of … well, designers. It’s easy to take the feedback from designer colleagues for granted. Asking someone for quick feedback or getting a small suggestion as someone walks by your desk might not seem like much until it’s suddenly gone. Don’t get me wrong, my non-designer coworkers give great feedback and collaborating with them is immensely helpful and rewarding, but there’s something to be said for design critiques and nitpicking about typefaces (and if you knew me 2 years ago you might believe that a pod person has taken over my body to type this, but no! It’s me, I promise!). If you don’t get “expert” design advice inside your office, make a point of meeting other designers, reading creative blogs and articles, and finding inspiration online and in the world.

So that’s it. Those are the most important lessons I’ve learned being a design team of one. I think a lot of these lessons are applicable to non-solo designers, and, heck, even to non-designers! I’m still learning new things, and I don’t always follow my own advice, but the journey has been rewarding and enlightening so far. I’d love to hear more about your own tips for working alone. And to everyone, good luck out there and keep being awesome.

Behavior Design 101

(Originally posted on Medium April 28, 2014 and was based on my talk for K-Startup)

The basics of how to design products that change people’s behavior.

A lot is written about User Experience design, but today, let’s talk about Behavior Design—specifically how to use Motivation, Ability, and Triggers to shape your users/customer’s behavior.

First things first:

What is User Experience Design?

UX (or User Experience) design is just that: proactively and thoughtfully designing the way your user interacts with your product. But it’s also much more than that. UX Design can affect people’s behavior, it can affect decisions they make, and it can affect their emotions and happiness as well.

What is “behavior change”?

Do I expect you to get people to all start walking on their heads or quacking like a duck or something? No (duh). What I mean by “behavior change” can be small, like encouraging a user to click a “like” button, or large, like getting people to care about saving the environment.

How do you change a behavior? What makes anyone do anything?

BJ Fogg, a professor of Behavioral Psychology at Stanford, has a model of human behavior that says it takes 3 things for someone to take any action:Motivation, Ability, and a Trigger. What that means is someone has to want to take the action, be mentally, physically, and monetarily able to take the action, and be triggered to take it, either by remembering to do it or being prompted somehow.

Here’s an example:

I have a problem. I need new running shoes. I want to buy new shoes because my old ones are worn out. I have #1, motivation. So let’s say I go to, and I look for running shoes. I find the shoes I want, I look at the price. It’s well-within my budget and they already have my credit card and shipping information saved. We’ve checked off #2, ability. And finally I see the big “Buy with 1 Click” button. Boom, #3, trigger, click it. And I’m done. Easy.

In this example, it was really simple for Amazon to get me to buy the shoes because I was already motivated, I knew exactly where to go and how to solve my problem. I had the money, the time, and the mental energy to click the button and complete the purchase. But not everything is that easy.

Here’s another, somewhat similar example problem:

I’m not really a big runner, but I think I’d like to get into running. So I casually decide I should probably get some running shoes. Since I’ve never done this before, I’m not even sure where to go to get good running shoes. I look at different stores online, and I find an online shoe store that specializes in women’s running shoes. I browse around for awhile, until I find a pair that I think are pretty good, I don’t really know. Then I see the price tag. $150!?!?! I had no idea these were so expensive. I’m a little on the fence about this already, but I decide, a little hesitantly, to go through with the purchase. After searching the page, I finally find the “buy” button, and at this point I’m getting frustrated, It takes me to a giant form, where I have to fill in my billing address, shipping address, credit card information, terms of service, email, password. Gah! I don’t have time for this. I close the page.

In this example, the company failed to convert me. I had some motivation, though not a ton, it was difficult to find the trigger, but I did find it, However I didn’t really have the ability, in money, time, and cognitive energy.Remember, we need all three to be successful, and although you might not be able to control all three, sometimes it’s enough to just increase one or two of these factors.

How do we increase these factors?

In order to be effective at dialing up any of these three, you really have to understand your user. This is where user research, empathy, and diving into the brain of your user comes into play.

There are two types of data: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative data is numbers, it can be counted. You can see how many people are dropping off at what point or how many more people click on the orange button rather than the green. It will tell you “what” is happening, but it can’t tell you “why.”Qualitative data is conversations and observations. Qualitative data tells you “why.” You use this data to find patterns and aha moments.

Qualitative data comes from user research, which should be part of validating any new product or feature idea and a few more times during the process to test that the solutions you’re building are working. There are a lot of different types of user research, enough to fill a whole other talk. I’m not going to go into specifics of how to do user research, but there are a ton of resources about that online. What I’m going to talk about is what you’re looking for and what to do with it once you’ve gathered some.

Let’s go back to the online shoe store and look at how they might have used research and psychology to increase my motivation, ability, and trigger.

Start with the “whys”

  • Why am I on this website? To buy running shoes.
  • Why? Because I think I’d like to start running.
  • Why now? Because my friend just uploaded a picture of me from high school on Facebook and I was shocked to see I’ve gained more than a few pounds.
  • Why running? Because I want a form of exercise that doesn’t require a gym membership.
  • Why? Because I travel a lot and don’t want to spend that money, especially if I won’t be around to use it much.

This isn’t much, but already there are so many goodies. Let’s see what we can do.

#1 Motivation

My motivation maybe doesn’t seem like something you have any control over, but you do. How? You have to understand not only the users problems, but their desires. To be clear, in order to meet a minimum required bar, you must figure out the users problems and convince them that you are the best way to solve them. To convert this type of user, they are already motivated to some extent. This doesn’t increase their motivation to solve a problem (but it could increase the likelihood that they go to you to solve it.)

To increase motivation, you have to figure out the desires they don’t even know they have.

When I first came to the website, I kind of wanted to running shoes. My problem wasn’t that I needed running shoes I could just as easily have gone without (and ultimately, I did). My problem was that I wanted to exercise without going to a gym. In this case, the shoe store’s competition is other shoe brands, sure, but it’s also other forms of exercise, like swimming, Zumba, rock climbing; it’s diet; and it’s me deciding not to do anything at all. To win me over, they need to convince me that running is the best solution to my problem.

To appeal to me, specifically, they could show images of fit women running through the streets of exotic locations. Testimonials of how this woman loves to travel and the first thing she does when arriving in a new city is go for a morning run through the streets, beautifully lit by the soft light of dawn, peaceful and serene. Tell me how light the shoes are, how easy they compress to pack! I’m inspired. I want to be that woman. I can see myself running through quiet city streets, making these shoes my trusted travel companions.

You’re not selling shoes—not really. You’re selling a lifestyle, a story I can tell about myself, and a desired outcome.

If I believe that these shoes can give me the lifestyle of my dreams and solve my problem? At this point, I’m very motivated.

You can do this for pretty much anything. For a productivity app? My desire is to be an almost super human productivity machine, accomplishing more per day than anyone thinks is possible, impressing my boss and getting a promotion. For a mobile game? I want to be social, to interact with my friends by playing a popular game; or maybe I want to be seen as unique, playing an indie game with off-beat art; or maybe that I’m skilled and smart, by playing only super challenging games and sharing my incredibly high scores.

Figuring out how to push these buttons comes from asking the “whys” until you uncover some useful insights about your customers dreams and desires.

#2 Ability

Ability means a lot of things. To go back to BJ Fogg’s model, there are 6 types of ability: Money, Time, Energy, Social Pressure, Familiarity, and Brain Cycles.

Money, Time, and Energy are pretty self-explanatory. The rest are a little trickier.

Social pressure: am I conforming to the norm? Is this going to cause me embarrassment? Will people lose trust in me if I make this decision

Familiarity: Am I already familiar with this such that it wouldn’t be hard to learn. Would it be a mental burden for me to learn?

Brain cycles: (Otherwise known as mental energy.) How much hard thinking is involved, do I have the mental energy to commit to this?

A person’s ability is factored by whatever they have the least of.

If I don’t have enough money, it doesn’t matter how easy to use or popular your product is, I don’t have the ability to buy it. If I don’t have any time, it doesn’t matter how cheap or familiar I am with it, I don’t have the ability to do it.

Ways to alleviate each of these factors:
Money: make your product cheap or target only people who have a lot of money.
Time: make it fast (or support a paying model which speeds it up) or only target people who have plenty of time*.
Energy: make easy to use physically.
Social pressure: present social proof (logos, testimonials, recommendations).
Familiarity: make it similar to something they know, follow paradigms, don’t reinvent the wheel.
Brain cycles: make it simple and easily understood.

Now, increasing ability can be tricky. There’s no way to increase all 6 types of ability and maintain a business. You’ll have pick and choose. How do you choose? By understanding your user! (Sensing a theme?) Is your target demographic college students? They probably don’t have a ton of money, but they’re more willing to take the time to grind or share on their social networks (they’re not going to get fired for playing candy crush!). Or is your target Engineering Directors of enterprise companies? They probably don’t have a lot of time and they don’t want the shame and possible punishment for making a wrong, untested choice, but they have a nice, hefty budget.

In the shoe store example, I didn’t have a ton of money or time, and I wasn’t familiar with the product so learning about it took a lot of mental energy. If they had required less mental energy from me to fill out the form by breaking it into several sections or letting me pay with a service like PayPal, I might have completed the purchase. They could have offered me a deal to subscribe to their newsletter to get 15% off on my first purchase. Or maybe I’m not even their target audience, so they don’t care that I didn’t buy the shoes. Maybe they’re targeting wealthy housewives who don’t mind paying top dollar to the best quality shoes.

It’s just as valuable to know who you aren’t targeting so you know not to optimize for them. The key is to think about what your audience has and what they don’t have. Try to alleviate any extra hurdles.

Just as important as convincing me that your product will solve my problem, is letting me know that it won’t require anything of me that they can’t give.

#3 Trigger

The trigger is what makes me take an action. Whether that’s signing up for a product, hitting a like button, or opening an app. Something has to happen to trigger that action.

Sometimes a trigger is external, like a button or a notification. Sometimes it’s internal, like boredom or a nagging urge to do something.

External triggers are easier. Making sure the button you want your user to click is easily visible at the right moment is a good start. If I have to search for functionality that I need, I’m not a happy customer. Also, how can I take advantage of a feature if I don’t know it exists?

Triggers can also be reminders, like e-mail newsletters or push notifications, they remind me that you exist and the best ones entice me to come back.

But external triggers can be more nuanced. Want me to make an in-app purchase? I might know that I can buy more currency in your mobile game, maybe I can even see the button. But most of the time, I’m probably not highly motivated to do it. If you’re smart about it, you wait until I’m just about to achieve the next level and all I need is just one more item, but I can’t afford to buy it. A modal dialogue prompting me to make the purchase could be all it takes to gain a paying customer. But tread carefully, because too many of these can be annoying and cause me to stop playing entirely. That’s not what you want to trigger.

Internal triggers are more difficult. They require conditioning your user—internal triggers are the way that you always go to Google when you need to search something or you mindlessly open Instagram while waiting for the bus. Internal triggers require your product to be widespread and your users to be what Nir Eyal calls “hooked.” When someone says they’re “addicted” to Facebook, this is what they mean. Using Facebook satisfies some internal itch for them.**

Another way to produce internal triggers is by using “gamification” techniques. Human beings feel an internal urge to check off boxes, fulfill tasks, complete sets, and gain social standing. Using these in games is obviously beneficial, but when used sparingly and appropriately, this can be affective in non-game products as well. LinkedIn effectively uses the metaphor of filling up a progress bar to get users to fill out their profile, and more recently Facebook has been leaving empty spaces on your profile with prompts like “What movies have you seen?” to get users to fill out these sections.***

So there you go. Human beings are complex and sometimes we don’t even know what we want or why we do the things we do. Studying behavioral psychology and techniques can give you an edge up on your competition. These are the basics of using Motivation, Ability, and Trigger to better understand and better serve your users and customers.

*Generally, the biggest constraints are time or money. When someone doesn’t have one, they’re willing to make up for it with the other.

**If you want to learn more about creating “addictive” products, I highly suggest reading “Hooked” by Nir Eyal?

**Granted, I find this highly annoying.

Don’t Blame Flat UI for your Design Problems

(Originally posted on Medium May 2, 2013)

Flat design has been embraced by many designers in the last year or so, and the trend is only picking up speed. There are even rumors that Apple—who is known, almost infamously, for their use of skeuomorphism in their native apps—is shedding the leather textures and heavy drop shadows for a lighter, flatter look for their upcoming release of iOS 7.

With every trend comes backlash. And boy are there some designers (and developers, and product managers, and great aunt’s neighbor’s dentist’s kids…) who really hate flat design.(“But how will my users know it’s a button if it doesn’t glimmer like the harvest moon?!” they cry.) The most recent bit of backlash is the assertion that flat UI, while it may look simpler, does not in fact make an interface easier to use.

Today, I read a retweeted tweet (say that 10 times fast) that stated “Flat UI makes interfaces 'look' simple as there are less distinct elements to look at. It does nothing for actual simplicity though.”

I disagree for several reasons.

First, yes it does. Literally making something look simple makes it simpler to look at. If a user doesn’t have to navigate textures and drop shadows and fake stitching embellishments, it’s much easier for them to find what they are actually looking for (unless of course what they’re looking for is a perfectly recreated digital version of a wallet/clipboard/journal/envelope/some kind of steam-punk-I’m-not-really-sure-what-the-f***-that’s-even-supposed-to-be-metalic-thing). Most users don’t care if your background is subtly and artfully textured to look like paper. Most of them wont even notice. They also don’t care that your buttons look like tiny pieces of candy that light up delightfully when they are hovered over. Most of them wont see your hover effects anyway as more and more of the internet is being consumed on mobile devices.

Things users do care about: understanding what you do; understanding how to do what they need to do; finding the information they need; trusting that you know what the f*** you’re doing (especially if they’re giving you something like their credit card info or even their email address.) You provide them these things by making your site/app easy to navigate, easy to understand, and intuitive to use. Making if look “simple” goes a long way in doing this.

Second, if your product is hard to figure out when all of the glossy, crunchy, shadowy lipstick is taken off, then you didn’t spend enough time structuring your pig in a way that makes sense. Your call-to-action doesn’t need to shine, blink, and appear to hover an inch above the page in order for it to stand out. It should stand out because of the hierarchy you’ve set up on the page.

Your product is easy to use because you designed information to be easy to find, because it’s in the exact place the user is looking for it, because your text is clear and easy to read, because you crafted a user a flow that pulls them through the process seamlessly. In an era of so many devices, you cannot rely on drop shadows, gradients, or colors (anyone use the web on a black and white kindle?). You cannot rely on bells and whistles to make your product usable.

Last, your users are not stupid, you’re just lazy. Your users will not sit, staring at their screen, befuddled because your buttons don’t have the glassy exterior of a marble. If you’ve done your job, they can do theirs easily, and they’ll love you for it.

Flat UI may not be your design style of choice. That’s fine; there’s a time and place for every aesthetic, and the world would be boring if everyone used the same one. But do not blame Flat UI for adding complexity to your product. You did that. The beauty of the Flat movement is that it is exposing the problems we’ve been trying to hide with brushed metal textures and cut paper’d edges. If your product is a hog, gussying it up wont make it any less swine.

In-House Manifesto

(Originally posted on Medium October 3, 2013)

When I graduated from college, I thought my ideal career track would take me to IDEO or Cooper—agencies whose work seemed to be the pinnacle of design.

At the same time, I was almost exclusively applying to in-house design jobs. You might say that I was a recent college grad and it was a recession so I was willing to go after any job I thought I could get. You would be right! However, as I searched through job description after job description, I realized that I was not excited by agency jobs, but by in-house design positions at companies doing cool stuff.

Recently, I reflected on my preference for in-house design. When researching for this piece, I found that most articles that purport to compare and contrast agency vs. in-house design regularly gloss over the parts that I think make in-house design so much more fulfilling. The perks they come up with are job security, regular hours, and benefits. Blech. These are seriously the lamest “perks” I’ve ever heard. No wonder no one thinks in-house design is cool. To do my part to make the design world a better informed (and perhaps a better overall) place, I present the real benefits to in-house design:

The In-House Designer’s Manifesto

You Choose What you Work on

One of the biggest misconceptions about working at an agency or as a freelancer over in-house is that you get more freedom to choose the projects you work on. This is bullshit. I mean, yes, agencies and freelancers, assuming they’re good enough and well-known enough to have their pick of clients, do get to be choosy. But so do you. As an in-house designer, you choose where you work. No one is forcing you. You can work for a company that you’re excited about. And you get to work there all of the time! Not just adjacent for a few months. If you’re passionate about the product or service you’re working on, you’ll produce better work and you’ll be happy to do it.

Inside Information

Working from the inside, you are intimately familiar with your company. This sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked. You know your product or service better than an outside agency. You understand the company behind the product, where the company is, and where it’s going. You know what will and won’t fly with customers and stakeholders. You understand how what you’re designing fits into the bigger picture, the product road map, the brand as a whole. You know what’s important, so you can balance your time and effort accordingly.

Aligned Incentives

Your goals and the company’s goals are aligned. I cannot stress how important this is. The goal of a project is to increase conversions, help the customer complete a task, attract enterprise customers, whatever it is. The goal is not to win design awards. While sometimes these disparate goals lead to the same result, they are often mutually exclusive. Increasing conversions often means making a “sign up” button clash with the page. Simplifying the process so customers can understand it in 10 seconds or less often means removing some pretty decoration. This type of design is necessary and really rewarding, but it’s not going to be featured in Communication Arts. When your goal is to help your company succeed, you’re more enthusiastic to make these compromises, whereas an agency has no incentive to do so.


One of the main reasons I wanted to stay away from design agencies was because I can only take so much of “creatives.” I never self-identified as an “art person,” and I often find a lot of self-proclaimed “artists” unbearable. Sorry, but it’s true (for me at least.) Being a designer at a company, you get to work with lots of different types of people: engineers, PR, human resources, illustrators, product managers, you name it. Collaborating with different groups is still one of my favorite things. You can learn a lot from people who are different from you, who think about the world differently, who go about solving problems from a different angle. These people also have inside information that you might not have. And you have access to them all the time. Just walk over to them or pick their brain over lunch. Cross-disciplinary teams are my jam.

You Have Influence

As a designer or a member of a small design team at a large company, you are the expert on design. You’re not just a cog in the giant design machine. Sure, there’s the “clients from hell” stereotype of awful higher-ups with terrible design sense who shit all over your work, but that can happen just as easily with clients at an agency. If you’re working with quality people they’ll understand that you have the expertise to make design decisions. Not everything can, or even should, be in your control, of course. Sometimes business decisions override design decisions. However, if you’re a trusted member of the company, you have more leverage to fight for what you think is truly important.

Opportunity to Iterate

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. You’re essentially never going to get everything right the first time. This happens whether you’re a design agency or in-house. Agencies come in, do a large project or overhaul, and just as quickly, they’re gone. Whether or not their design had the desired impact makes no difference. The beautiful part of working as an in-house designer is that you have the opportunity (you say obligation, I say opportunity!) to make it better, iteration by iteration. You get to see your work evolve and change with the company. You can also see how your work is directly impacting the company, which is pretty cool. Analytics are addictive.

I’ve come to realize that I’ll never work for Landor or Frog or Pentagram or Fuse Project. I respect the work they produce. Sometimes, I still daydream about IDEO and Cooper, but ultimately, I’m happier and produce better results from the inside.

A few years ago, no one at a design conference would think in-house design was cool (except when it’s for MTV, I found out, which is ironic because it’s actually not that cool on the inside.) Now, as start-ups are gaining more mainstream popularity and making design a higher priority, designing in-house for companies like Facebook or Pinterest or Square is becoming cool. I think this trend is awesome and that, ultimately, it will produce a better, more thoughtfully designed world for all of us. Cheers to all you in-house heros.

PS: If by some chance you’re Alan Cooper and you’re reading this, I’m so sorry and I love you and maybe I could reconsider and are you offering?