Tag Design

Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.

Why Publishers Hate iOS7

For an Apple design, the Newsstand icon looks decidedly juvenile. But what’s worse for publishers is that there is now no visual reminder within the Newsstand icon that there are publications inside, waiting to be read. On top of that, in iOS7 users can now hide the Newsstand icon inside a folder. The once-special treatment that Apple gave publishers in order to encourage the distribution of magazines to the iPhone and iPad had apparently vanished, at least in terms of visual prominence.

Now, Fleishman is worried that, without the visual cue, readers might be forgetting that his publication even exists. “I get email regularly from readers who say that they forget that issues come out,” he says.

This confirms a behavior that I’ve noticed in myself: I’m reading The Economist less frequently than I have in the past. It used to be a weekly read, and I thought it was one of my more durable habits.

Funny how much a design change can do.

See what I’m talking about.

Nudges, FTW

Interesting stuff here. The basic idea behind a “Nudge”: build a set of automatic but reversible actions into a system to encourage good behavior. Here’s Cass Sunstein, author of Nudge, in an interview with New Scientist:

How do you design a nudge?
It’s a problem-centered approach, rather than a theory-centered approach. So if we had a problem of excess complexity making it hard for people to make informed choices, the solution would be to simplify. If people aren’t enrolled in a program because it’s a headache to sign up, automatic enrollment seems like a good idea.

Is nudging generally preferable to strategies like taxes and prohibition?
The advantage of a nudge is that it’s more respectful of freedom of choice. It always belongs on the table, but if you have a situation where, say, polluters are causing health problems, some regulatory response is justified—a criminal sentence or a civil fine.

See what I’m talking about.

Dave Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design

It’s remarkable how applicable this list is to strategy, especially the kind that impacts a large number of people in an organization. My favorite is rule #2:

To design a spacecraft right takes an infinite amount of effort. This is why it’s a good idea to design them to operate when some things are wrong.

There’s more humor in this list than there is in Kelly Johnson’s list, and more about the specific workings of a design team. Read them all. I suspect you’ll enjoy #32, and I believe a majority of our work in the future will build upon the truth contained in #15.

NB: I love a list of rules. I hope that someday I can have a list of rules that people attribute to me. Even if that list of rules is about burger-eating.

See what I’m talking about.

Make Things For People

This one’s near and dear to my heart.

And it hurts when companies get it wrong.

So it’s exciting to see it done so, so well.

Muji’s just released a set of iPad apps that parallel their products, that align with the values they hold dear, and that extend their brand into new places: a free calendar app that synchronizes with Google (and happens to be the hottest calendar app I’ve seen), a paid notebook app that is a digital addendum to their paper products (and happens to be the hottest note-taking/drawing/importing/whatever app I’ve seen), and a free app to help streamline travel.

Granted, they’ve also got an app that promotes their products in a catalog, but generally speaking their apps are made to help people live their lives better. Not to sell product. Not to deliver a message.

And guess what? They work. I downloaded ‘em all and they’re rad. The travel app won’t replace anything for me, but the calendar app is a definite keeper, and the notepad is unbelievably sick.

I sketched the above in about 20 seconds. And that interface is definitely, probably swissmiss approved (elegant and makes sense), and delightfully logo-less.

Anyway, this is how you make things for people. Now you know.

Size Does Matter: our Web 2.0 Expo Talk

Size Does Matter – Click to view on Slideshare

Alex and I were fortunate enough to be able to present something at Web 2.0 on Thursday of last week, and I’m happy to report that it went off without a hitch. We spoke about a topic that we’ve both been passionate about for quite some time: that a focus on smallness is the way when it comes to developing and understanding marketing ideas.

In the talk we step through nine connected examples from a variety of industries, sciences and arts, all supporting the idea that conceptual smallness is a defining factor for success in today’s economy. It starts with the idea of differentiation, which at least for us is a constant driver to create incredibly specific things. The way we see it, if people have millions of things to visit, look at, and purchase, whatever we make has to be f*cking awesome if it’ll get any attention. Not groundbreaking at all, I know, but we continually see examples of products and marketing things designed for massive, anonymous audiences. So at least some people aren’t getting the picture.

The nine stories go something like this:

  1. People think they’re really special. And not necessarily with good reason.
    We found an article by Christopher Hitchens a while back that talked about the “narcissism of the small difference,” an idea that in places of great conflict, the belligerents tend to share a very tiny differentiating factor that’s caused the hostility between the groups. Without getting into that here, it points to an important human truth: that we think we’re really special, and really different from other people, even though we’re all pretty much the same when we get down to it.
    Which gets us to a design problem.
  2. Specific, localized design wins.
    Based on an article that we found in The Economist, Panasonic was in a pickle last year, posting a ¥52BN loss in the second quarter. Remarkably, they decided to take their design department and spread them around the world – from 98% designed-in-Japan in 2009 to 15% in 2010 – with incredible results. By designing electronics that took into account local needs (energy efficient A/C units in India, where it’s hot, and fancy-looking ones in China, where they’re a status symbol), their emerging-market sales led them to an ¥82BN profit gain in Q2 2010. It’s easier than ever, and less expensive, to design things that are particular to an individual environment.
    Which takes us to rodents.
  3. When competition increases, organisms tend to get smaller.
    These two chaps, Lomolino and Perault, studied patterns among rodents in temperate rainforests. They found that as the habitats for shrews shrank over time, the body size among the sample shrank as well. Which makes sense, right? If the habitat is smaller, food supply goes down, and those animals with a smaller “caloric budget” are better able to survive. Our interpretation: habitats for ideas and products are shrinking in response to competition. Which doesn’t have to be a bad thing…it just means that it’s okay for there to be a Foursquare, a Gowalla, a MyTown and a Facebook Places in the marketplace. It also means that we shouldn’t expect $100M valuations for products that are easily imitated and tweaked for an audience or a space.
    Which takes us to Fiji.
  4. Small doesn’t have to mean unsuccessful.
    Alex found this crazy study by a fellow called Godfrey Baldacchino (from whom you can get a Masters of Arts in Island Studies) that talks about the relative success and failure of innovation and business on island nations. Apparently most islands are hamstrung by a lack of resources, a dependence on trade agreements, and isolation from other thought leaders. But the study holds up Fiji as an example of how to get by: steal thought leaders from other places, luring them with your island charms; create deeper relationships with customers by not only telling them that your coconut soap is excellent, but by showing them where it’s produced and introducing them to the folks that make it; and reframe value propositions in terms of rarity and distinction from competitors (see Fiji water). Our message here: be like an island nation. Embrace your constraints (in fact, add new ones if you’re a huge company and can do whatever you want) and use them to create smaller, more focused things than you would have otherwise. Because a constraint-free environment is an environment that fosters inaction.
    Which brings us to a core human failure.
  5. In all things – politics and poverty included – we tend to be awed by the big picture.
    When people look at income stratification around the world, they tend to see things in continental terms, or even more broadly in terms of Worlds (First, Second, Third), Groups (Developed, Developing, Under-Developed) and Divisions (North/South, Rich/Poor). Obviously the segmentation is much more detailed than that – see Gapminder – and it’s my contention that a great deal of the failed development projects around the world are a result of “big” thinking: applying something that worked in one country to the problems of another, without seeing the little reasons why the problems differ. Without going off on a rant, it’s important that we avoid the Mashable-promoted population-based thinking to substantiate our clients’ “need” to get onto a new platform. It’s great that Facebook has half a billion people, or that Foursquare had a whole shitload of checkins last night, but that’s not really what’s valuable. It is valuable to find the small groups within these platforms that exhibit similar behaviors. For instance, the 450 people checking into schools every morning might be exceptionally valuable to a company that makes digital research tools. And so on. Unfortunately, most big organizations aren’t set up to talk to very small groups of people, stemming usually from some inability to measure the impact of those people on their bottom line.
    Which brings us to microfinance.
  6. Microfinance uses highly specific objectives and payment terms to enable smooth flows of capital from one person to another.
    I think we can all agree here that Microfinance is a big, positive development made possible by digital tools. But in our view, it’s the mental models they use/support that lead to their success and the comfort people have in the use of the system. Donors feel good because their contribution tends to be small and the terms of the use of their money are made very clear. Further, the results are clearly communicated back to the donor/sponsor, completing a feel-good feedback loop that’s absent from most “big” charity. This is a model worth adopting. It’s not that big charity is bad, it’s just that it’s almost always unclear where a donor’s dollars are going, how they’ll be used, and the specific returns they’re creating.
    Which brings us to the real reason why banner ads suck.
  7. We all know banner ads suck. But they mostly suck because they’re in big, anonymous places.
    We found an old study on banner ads that attempted to qualify what makes them work and/or not work. And while it was from 2003, it points to an important truism: adding interactivity, animation, emotional appeal, and incentives didn’t bolster an ineffective ad; however, better targeting did have a measurable impact. On the whole, among the 10,000 ads studied, the B2B-focused ads tended to be in more targeted, smaller locations. And they did way better than the B2C ads, which showed up on big sites, trying to garner the attention of the masses.
    Which brings us to the failure and success of Joshua Bell.
  8. No matter how good your product is, if you put it in front of a big, lame audience, it’ll fail.
    This one’s pretty simple, and I think is explained particularly well in Alex’s slides. So I’ll keep this brief: when Joshua Bell performs in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall, he sells out the place at an average ticket price of $100; when he played as a busker in a D.C. metro station, he made $32. Don’t try to be all things to all people, and don’t try to get an uninterested, anonymous audience interested in your shit.
    Which brings us to the rise of focused, premium content.
  9. When it comes to media and entertainment – things people want to watch, read and hear – the more focused, the better.
    This one started when I heard Jimmy Wales speak at the New Museum a few months ago, where he brought up the idea that if media is used as a performance metric, people are getting smarter every year. Turns out this is the thesis of Steven Berlin Johnson, who uses the evolution of popular culture (viewed through the lens of TV) to show that people today desire media that is complex and intellectually challenging…even if not in the traditional sense. And I can dig that. I Love Lucy reruns, for me, are unwatchable and feel generic, while Seinfeld, Curb, Arrested Development, the British version of The Office and even It’s Always Sunny continue to be fascinating. To me (and I’ve not read Johnson all the way through), it’s focus that makes them great. All the aforementioned watchables are intently focused on the needs of a particular audience… in the same way that NPR and The Economist (and even Monocle, in its own special way) continue to deliver a consistent and unique experience year after year. And financially… it seems to make sense. In the midst of a continuing crisis for the media industry, NPR has doubled its market share and The Economist made $92M on a circulation of 1.4M. They’ve clearly got it going on.

And that’s it! All the examples, we feel, provide useful fodder for the argument that a sense of conceptual smallness is the way of the future. Hope you fine folks at Web 2.0 enjoyed the talk.


For further reading on this topic, check out these awesome Planningness decks.

The first is from Mike Monello (Campfire) and Griffin Farley (BBH) on Propagation Planning.

Thinking not about the people you’re reaching, but about the people they reach: that’s what we’re trying to get to. Totally dig.

To that end, here’s a redesigned version of a couple of their charts.

The second is from the smart fellows at Made By Many:

I rather like the idea of a Minimum Desirable Product. It’s almost exactly what we’re arguing for in our talk.

Redesigning Foursquare’s User Pages

Click the image to enlarge!

Redesigning things is fun. I’m no designer, but I thought it might be nice to try my hand at redesigning the Foursquare user page, particularly with regard to how one friend views another friend on the site. Based on some things that I know are possible from a programming standpoint, I’ve also suggested some feature additions to the site.

For a look at how it normally looks, go here, to my page.

Thanks to Marisa, Johanna, Mike, Alex and Ana for talking to me about this and helping me vet potential additions to the design.

1. Get a map!

I think a map would be a real nifty addition to a product that is about location. Don’t you? Clicking on the angle quote (sorry type nerds!) would collapse the stats. I could see adding points to that bar, and comparisons to the rest of the users: “Top 20%!”. I’ve created four views for the map:

  • Mayorships – obvious
  • Frequented – places I go a lot, but am not the mayor
  • Shared – places that the viewer and I have both been to at some point
  • Tweets – my tweets that have geolocation added to them (hidden if a user doesn’t use Twitter or doesn’t geotag their tweets)

2. Similarity!

I feel like Foursquare should be able to tell me how similar I am to others on the site, based on our check-in habits. I love how Last.FM does this. To take this further, a cheeky message could be applied to different levels of similarity: 100% alignment could be “Long-lost twin.” (H/T Mr. Arauz.)

3. Feeds!

Why couldn’t Foursquare pull in my Flickr feeds like Dopplr does? And based on checkin time (and geotagged photos!), it should be able to at least guess where I took those photos. And why not just show my recent tweets, instead of a link to my twitter profile?

4. Likes, Tips, Suggestions!

If I’m looking at a friend’s profile page, I should be able to see what they’re most into at a glance. I probably already know—based on pings, etc.—but a quick digest of their venue preferences might be pretty cool. And it would be completely rad if Foursquare could let my friends in on a place that I’ve never been before, and suggest that they take me to that spot. Not only is this great for dates, but it’d be awesome for helping me make decisions on where to go. And hey, couldn’t somebody sponsor that spot? I think they could.

Do you like this? Should I change it? What would you change?

Let me know in the comments.

F*ck Yeah German Products!

I recently bought two German-built products that made me intensely happy.

One is this pen, the Kaweco AL Sport. $70.

The other is this safety razor, from Merkur Solingen. $35.

Both exhibit qualities that I appreciate in items.

  • You can take them apart. In fact, in the case of the razor, it must be taken apart in order to be used. This makes me feel like a sniper in a very specific way: the careful assemblage of parts in order to build a tool that helps me complete a task feels particularly Bourne-esque.
  • They both feel very German, in the same way that German car doors close in a particular way, and even how their cars’ Oh Jesus handles fold up without a snap, but rather with with a slow glide. The snap of the pen’s push-button-bit is particularly pleasant.
  • They are both composed almost entirely of metal. The pen is made from aluminum, and the razor from chromed steel.
  • Their design is considered, but simple. I did not choose the alternative, better-promoted safety razor—from Baxter of California—because it wasn’t designed with the user in mind. The handle was longer (bad in a safety razor, where maneuverability is key), and the head was designed in a way that made it very easy to cut oneself while changing a blade.
  • They both have odd names that are fun to say. Mer • kur  So • lin • gen. Ka • we • co.
  • They’re both from old companies that are hard to find on the internet. Merkur (Dovo) has been making razors since 1906, and Kaweco’s been in the pen business since 1883.
  • They are effective, if non-standard items. There’s nothing I like more than doing things differently from the rest of the world, especially if that way is clearly better. Having a pen—a pen that you use, that goes with you from place to place, that isn’t some standard Bic or Uni-Ball—means you never have to buy another pen. Refills are all you need, and they’re cheap. And they’d seem to be better for the environment. Razor refills are astonishingly cheaper than Gillette refills, and the packaging is at least 100 times less intense. Again, better for the environment, and better for the pocketbook. Also, I can attest to this: the shave is WAY better with this razor than I ever achieved with a Gillette Mach 3.
  • Both have somewhat nutty, ugly packaging. Especially in the case of the razor, which comes in a cardboard box. It did feel a bit like I was getting a tiny Harry Potter wand, however, when I opened the box upon returning home. But both of them are proof positive that you shouldn’t always pay attention to the pack.

See why I feel like a sniper with this thing?

Seriously, though, I appreciate that they don’t spend time or money on the box. And while we’re talking about the environment, this is way more friendly than your normal razor packaging, right?

Ask Focus on Energy

I wanted to take a moment this morning to go back through the last project I worked on at my last place, which happened to go live on my last day in Chicago. Not only did it go up on time (Jim Vogel is the world’s best project guy), but it’s probably the piece of work that makes me smile the most in looking back. It was one of those strategy + design + development projects that just went perfectly, with everyone feeling good. Wisconsin Focus on Energy is a non-profit energy initiative that helps people figure out all manner of efficiency & comfort-related issues, and they wanted to do something on the internets that let people ask them questions.

On hearing this, we were pretty psyched; while question-asking is a pretty fertile ground, it’s been worked-over a bit. There are plenty of great sites where you can ask a question and get a pretty good answer. Heck, there are even tools out there that serve to eliminate any bit of digital conversation that might arise (Let Me Google That For You being my favorite example). But we felt there was some space for a more personal type of digital interaction, where people could ask Focus’ experts a question and get a personal, public reply. Thus: AskFocusOnEnergy.com.

I had it in my head that this site had to be simpler, better looking, and more personal than every other Q + A site out there, and with some key features in mind, I whiteboarded something that didn’t change much through to implementation, apart from getting a lot better looking. That’s the benefit of the user-experience/strategy person being in with the design/development folk.

ask focus wireframe sketch

And here’s the final version of that page:

final question + answer page

I was lost on what to do with the homepage, design-wise, other than it had to have a bunch of questions (to make it look “full” when people got there), needed to have a high degree of visual cool without using any Flash, but also needed to be simple.

homepage by ashley potter

Thankfully, Ashley killed it.

answer suggestion

Happily, the system suggests answers for you when you submit something.

And you can get all the content on Facebook, Vimeo, and subscribe in a reader of your choice.


focus vimeo

focus reader

And they’re sharing their best tips on Twitter as a second kind of helpful content.

focus twitter

I’m pretty stoked about this, not just because the is cool, but also that they’re updating content frequently, and they’re moving toward making the web a genuinely conversational service medium rather than a messaging channel. And while I don’t know the metrics on this initiative, I’d be willing to guess it’s growing over time, rather than dropping to nothing when the promotional radio/print/outdoor stops.

Nice work, everyone.

How Design Can Help the Homeless (Lo-Fi Blog 7)


We have a lot of panhandlers here in Chicago. And street musicians. I like to give them money when I have it, but I hardly ever have cash.

Seems like Visa, Amex or Mastercard could create some little handheld devices that would tie to a special savings account, allowing passers-by to give money, even if they have no change. Click for a photo of my design, if you can’t see it above.

What it is:

  1. Hand-held debit/credit-card processing device for homeless people, street musicians, etc.
  2. Deposits directly into a special savings account with a decent interest rate
  3. Features a USB port for recharging at ATMs, shelters, grocery stores, etc.
  4. Easy denomination selector on the top of the device, elastic strap on the back

Why it’s cool:

  1. Makes it super easy to give money (and receive money)
  2. Cash can be used to buy things that aren’t necessary (booze, cigs, drugs, comic books), and the special savings account makes it more secure
  3. Donators can track your charitable contributions online
  4. Comes with a special debit card that would reject purchases of booze/cigs/comics
  5. That card would get the users some cool discounts to encourage good spending habits (marketing opportunity)
  6. Banks or other organizations could match (partial or whole) the contributions made in an entire city, or by donations made from a given bank’s customer base

All of y’all out there, what do you think?

exitcreative: Site Redesign

I just re-did my plain HTML homepage to show some of the work I’ve been doing of late.

Over the last week I was a little bored at night and this is the result. I tried to keep it clean and simple. Hope y’all like it.

It’s at http://exitcreative.net/.
Oh… and I turned 26 on Saturday.