Posts Tagged ‘design’

Visual Design is about more than making things look pretty

by Hang

To say “design is about making it look pretty” has finally become a faux pas within Silicon Valley. To utter it brands you as the worst kind of n00b. Instead, people have adapted to this shift by saying “Interaction Design is about making work well, Visual Design is about making it look good”. This seems to be the new status quo and it’s easy to mistakenly hold this impression if all you’ve ever worked with are bad Visual Designers. Good Visual Design is about clear and effective communication and it involves everything from understanding who you are communicating to, what message you want to communicate and then how to effectively deliver that message.

To demonstraJaco, over at the guestlist blog, has an excellent time lapse video of the design of the guestlist front page which, IMO, convincing demonstrates how visual design encompasses so much more than making things look pretty:

Timelapse of Homepage Design from Jaco Joubert on Vimeo.

How should designers best take advantage of the current design shortage?

by Hang

About a month ago, I asked on Quora Why is there such a stunningly short supply of designers in Silicon Valley right now? This question lead to an amazing amount of high quality discussion, both in the answers to the question and in followup questions that it spawned. This question was also what provided sufficient impetus for Brian Gupton & I to start the Product Design Guild. Coming full circle, a followup question was asked today, What are some ways a designer could best take advantage of the short supply of designers? In answering it, I took the time to delve into a lot of the reasoning behind starting the Guild in the first place and also everything I had been learning since then. I thought it would be valuable to replicate this here:

In a market based economy, the most obvious short term tactics for a designer right now are:

  • Ask for more money
  • Ask for more responsibility

I’m going to argue actually that these are actually detrimental moves in the long run and that extreme imbalances in demand can, paradoxically, be bad for both designers and the design profession as a whole.

Demanding more compensation purely due to market conditions and not because you’re getting better as a designer means that you’re increasing the value captured:value delivered ratio. As this ratio approaches 1, you become an increasingly bad deal for smart companies and only companies ignorant enough to be overpaying for design are willing to hire you. This is an ultimately unsustainable practice which sours companies on the value of design and sets back the progress we’ve been making over the last few decades, demonstrating the importance of design as a a competitive business advantage.

You can see this happening already. Enthusiastic but way too junior designers are being offered “Lead (and only) Designer” roles at hot startups for lack of more experienced candidates. This may sound like a fantastic deal to the designer in the short term but they’re ultimately not ready for that role. The design that they produce are unrefined and immature, not delivering value to the company commensurate with their responsibilities. This ends up with both sides being unhappy and delivers a “poor user experience” to the company that impacts how they treat design in the future.

Instead, I counter-intuitively have the following advice: figure out a way to increase the total sum value of design in the world as a whole and your slice of the pie will rise commensurately.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues in the past month as we’ve been setting up the Product Design Guild. I’ve spent time talking to designers, entrepreneurs & investors and trying to understand how the Guild can best serve to help designers flourish.

What I think this means for designers in more concrete terms is:

  • Fight for design to have it’s rightful seat at the table. One advantage of designers being a hot commodity is that we can fight for real political change or threaten to walk. Rather than focusing on salary, focus on impact and choose companies which understand and respect design and let designers have the necessary independence & influence to make a meaningful change in the product.
  • Set aside time for education and self-improvement. As more and more responsibilities are piled on designers, it can be tough to carve out “non-productive” educational time. With tight deadlines approaching, it’s easy to efficiently crank out something you already know how to do for this next release and save the long term stuff for a later date. Except that later date is never going to come and you’ll realize that it’s 5 years later and you’re still churning out the exact same designs you were 5 years ago with your now rapidly obsoleting skill set. Designers need to push back against demands on their time and assign equal importance to growth as production. Use the clout you have now to fight against overly aggressive ship dates and over-demanding bosses. Take time to attend design events, read broadly, pursue creative hobbies and generally living an interesting & meaningful existence.
  • Leverage your talent as much as possible. This means focusing on trying to do more with what you have and being as efficient and effective as possible. Part of what differentiates experienced practitioners from novices in any field is a grace of action and conservation of motion. Only the minimum amount of effort is needed to accomplish a task and every action is streamlined down to it’s very essence. Be diligent about figuring out the most effective way to accomplish something. Learn all of the tricks and techniques that most effectively leverage the talent that you have. To this day, the best way of doing this is focused exposure to great talent. Jared Spool talked about this at the Warm Gun conference last month, junior sushi chefs in Japan go to work for master sushi chefs, doing scut work. Even though they never make sushi until very late in their apprenticeship, simply being around and observing master sushi chefs do their work is essential experience for becoming a master sushi chef. Similarly, junior designers should figure out a way to be exposed to experienced designers and simply observe how much more effortless design is when experience is gained. Without this knowledge, junior designers don’t even know what to strive for.
  • Recruit more great designers. It may seem paradoxical that bringing more competition for your job helps you in the long run but the demand for great designers is so extreme right now that even increasing the supply fourfold would not measurably affect your bargaining power. The current market is also extremely inefficient. In talking about this, many people both outside and also inside Silicon Valley are completely unaware of the extreme demand for designers. There are many capable designers locked up in big companies right now or working in other cities that could be persuaded to take the leap if given the right push. Similarly, there are a lot of people in product management, engineering, art & content production that have design aspirations but no clear path to becoming a designer. Recruiting all of these people into the design profession by selling how it’s both satisfying and rewarding can is only going to influence the power of design.
  • Take care of the design ecosystem. Historical trends in the last decade have not been kind to the design ecosystem. Design school education is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the fast paced and unique needs of Silicon Valley. Smaller team sizes means that many designers are now working as the sole designer on a team, without the ability to collaborate or learn from other designers. Even for companies that can still afford to maintain a design team, lower job loyalty means that mentorship becomes a losing economic proposition. Taking away productivity from your senior designers for mentorship only to have your junior designer take off and apply that learning at their next company makes you feel stupid the second or third time it happens. Where are we going to get our next generation of designers if this continues to be the case? The only way to fix this is to take time to contribute back to the design eco-system. If you’re a senior designer, take the time to mentor junior designers, even if you never directly benefit. If you’re a junior designer, work in co-operation with other designers instead of in competition. For designers overall, push to be less proprietary about your work and offer to share what you can with anyone who is interested.
  • Finally, spread the message. One designer, working alone can make an individual difference. One designer, mobilizing a thousand can affect real change. To make companies take notice and effect meaningful reform in the role of designers can only happen if the hear a clear and consistent message, coming from all angles. Designers are in a unique position right now where they hold a lot of potential power due to the extreme demand for designers. We should be taking advantage of this to make design a valued and sustainable profession that can keep us all happily employed in the long run.

The Product Design Guild is our attempt at addressing the issues that I’ve just outlined. Our ambitions are small to begin with but everything I’ve articulated is something that’s very much present in our thoughts as we figure out how to grow and develop the guild. If you’re interested in finding out more or want to participate, I encourage you to visit I believe we’ve managed to strike upon a very compelling concept and I’m passionate to see the Guild affect meaningful positive change in the design ecosystem.

Announcing: The Product Design Guild

by Hang

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a small side project which I’m finally ready to announce:

The Product Design Guild is a space where designers bring in the work they’re doing in their everyday jobs and engage in a collaborative design process with other designers.

To find out more & sign up, please visit:

If you can, I would appreciate it if you could pass this on to any designer friends you may know, especially those in the bay area who are freelancers or working as the sole designer at a startup. We are hoping to making this a resource that improves both the quantity & quality of designers in the Valley.

Guest post: Viewing the Internet as a third place

by Hang

I was invited by Nina Simons of the wonderful Museum 2.0 blog to contribute a guest post for a book club discussion on “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenberg. I’d been meaning to read that book for years now so I jumped at the chance.

Check it out:

Oldenburg’s book is important because it managed to put into words what many people only knew as a gut feeling or intuition. It dissected out this one important aspect of our public spaces and said “look, a pub is not just an economic institution for exchanging alcohol for cash, it also serves a vital social function.” What’s more, he demonstrated how certain social spaces either helped or hindered this social function and provided a framework to understand why certain pubs are great good places and others, lifeless drecks.

The User Experience of Comics is abysmally poor

by Hang

I read quite a few web comics. Every once in a while, I’ll be introduced to a new one and I’m reminded anew at how horrible the user experience is of the web comic experience as a new user. I’ve not yet found a web comic which I feel even has a barely acceptable user experience.

From the most trivial to the most radical, I present some suggestions:

  • At the very least, have at least one place on the page where the previous/next comic button always resides. That way, I don’t have to continually hunt for the link on every comic. Either make the comics a fixed size and put it below the comic or just add it above the comic.
  • Keep your actual comic above the fold. I don’t want to have to scroll down every time I visit your page. If you want to have stuff above your comic, use HTML anchors and anchor the next/previous links.
  • Use an AJAX preloader to load the n adjacent comics. Currently, it takes me more time waiting for your comics to load than it does to read them. This is unacceptably inefficient.
  • Allow me the option to display more than one comic per page. I would love to be able to take in comics a week or month at a time.
  • Create a consistent API access to your comics so that I can use desktop software to consume it rather than do everything through the web browser
  • Make available a .zip file of your entire archives so I can just download the images to my machine and use whatever image viewer I want to view them.

I would love to see web comic authors start thinking much more about the user experience of comic reading and doing something to fix this abysmal ecosystem.

Mozilla Presentation on Space & Narrative: Designing for Social Interaction

by Hang

On March 18th, I was invited to Mozilla to present some of the work I’ve been doing on Social Interaction Design.

In the talk, I discussed how the software industry has traditionally adopted a tool-builder mentality when it comes to thinking about the design of software. I argue, instead, that it’s more correct to think of social software as spaces rather than tools and that this demands a new approach to thinking about how to design social software. When people interact in social spaces, they are engaged in the communication of “narratives” and that social software needs to be designed with narratives in mind, rather than features. I talked about what it means to design for narratives, a design methodology that allows the analysis of any piece of social software from a narrative perspective and demonstrate several novel social designs that have come out of my thinking.


Space & Narrative: Designing for Social Interaction from Xianhang Zhang on Vimeo.


Unfortunately, due to the lax nature of my documentation, this video currently serves as the most complete and representative sample of my work although I’m working hard to publish all of this stuff in articles and essays.

Find out more

  • If I’m just the person you’re looking for, and you would like to hire me for your company, as of March 30th, 2010, I am available. Shoot me an email at [email protected] to get in touch with me.
  • If you would like to invite me speak about this or other, related topics, and you are in Seattle or San Francisco, shoot me an email at [email protected] and we’ll try to work something out.
  • If you would like to invite me to speak somewhere other than Seattle or San Francisco and you’re willing to pay travel expenses, shoot me an email at [email protected], especially if you’re in New York/Boston.
  • If you’re interested in reading more about my work, check out my portfolio at the Bumblebee Labs Site.
  • If you want to be updated about my thoughts on Social Interaction Design and other techy stuff, subscribe to the Bumblebee Labs RSS Feed or the twitter account.
  • If you enjoyed the presentation or thought I missed something crucial, post a comment on the blog and I’ll endeavor to respond to it ASAP.
  • If you want to read my thoughts on philosophy, atheism or ideas, check out the other facet to my blog, Figuring Shit Out.
July 23 2009

What the Chrome OS could be

by Hang

Google’s ChromeOS is heavy on vaporware and light on details at the moment which leaves fertile room for random speculation. Most of the guesses I’ve been reading are really kind of boring so I’m going to sketch out what I think a truly exciting ChromeOS cold be.

I’m extrapolating my guess from three pieces of data:

1) The Chrome moniker is deliberate
2) It’s targeting netbooks for a reason
3) Google has in it’s DNA, the instinct to play David to Microsoft’s Goliath (cf. Google Docs)

Netbooks are great in theory but as soon as you buy one, you run into all of the classical frustrations of owning more than one PC, namely: trying to keep all of your various files, bookmarks & settings synchronized. Sure, you can get your files synchronized and there’s probably a firefox plugin to synchronize bookmarks and probably another one to keep your open tabs in sync and… blargh, who could keep up with all that? My hypothetical ChromeOS solves this by simply saying all your netbook is is a portable browser window. You won’t be able to run photoshop, notepad or even a command prompt. Instead, the only thing running will be Chrome.

But, at a stroke, synchronization is no longer something you have to think about. ChromeOS won’t be an OS in the traditional sense. It’ll just *be* the Chrome browser window you have running on your desktop. Open a new tab on your desktop Chrome, a new tab will appear on your netbook Chrome, half compose an email, go sit in a park and you’ll magically have that half email for you to resume work on, get halfway through a game of Bejewelled and go finish the rest while you’re on the throne. For the first time, you’ll be able to stop in the middle of something, move to a completely different machine and be confident that you can resume exactly where you left off.

What would be so brilliant about this move is that it enters into a space that Microsoft can’t replicate. ChromeOS works, not by doing more than Windows, but by doing less. ChromeOS correctly recognizes the tradeoffs inherent in netbooks. Would you like to run photoshop on a netbook? Maybe once in a while. But what you would really like much more is never having that pit of the stomach feeling when you realize that presentation file is on your home desktop and you’re in Iowa with the work laptop.

Will the real ChromeOS be anything like what I’ve sketched out? Well, here’s hoping…

The killer app for iPhone 3GS

by Hang

You heard it here first folks, the killer app for the iPhone 3GS will be augmented reality. Two features in the new release makes the iPhone 3GS the perfect augmented reality platform. First, the inclusion of an onboard compass and second, the opening up of the API to full camera controls.

Almost everyone except developers were unaware of this but the iPhone 3G SDK painfully crippled the camera by forcing you to use the provided Apple API to take pictures (this meant no real time computer vision could run on it except when Apple conveniently didn’t notice you bypassing their allowed APIs). Now that the APIs are open, expect to see a bunch of innovative computer vision apps (face detection, object detection, tracking).

But the second breakthrough is that the compass finally provides a braindead 6 Degree of Freedom (DOF) estimation. Any rigid object in space can be defined by 6 parameters. 3 spatial ones and 3 rotational ones. The iPhone 3G could estimate 5 of those 6 parameters acceptable well with GPS providing rough spatial data, the acceleromter providing fine spatial data as well as the direction of gravity. The compass provides the final, missing degree of freedom that allows for complete pose estimation.

Augmented Reality needs to know two things: Where is the sensor and where is everything else. Once you know that, you can do all sorts of really cool shit. I have no idea what will eventually come out, that’s one of the exciting things about bringing this technology to a mainstream audience, but I can point to some interesting research directions that seem plausible:

  • Instant 3D modelling of everything: Wave your iPhone around an object and it’ll figure out how to create a crude 3D model of it in memory.
  • Interactive furniture arranging: Go to the store, scan a bunch of furniture you want to buy, go home, drag and drop virtual pieces of furniture in your living room to figure out which piece should go where.
  • Interactive tour guide: You’re walking through New York, you see a cool building, take a photo of it and all of a sudden you know it’s the flatiron building and you’re reading a wikipedia article about it.
  • Photosynth the entire damn world: nuff said.
  • AR Quake: nuff said.
  • History view: Point to a space and if there’s a security camera pointed at it, be able to review what happened at that spot at any point in time.
  • Invisible Ink: Leave messages on walls which only your friends can see. Send them on an easter egg hunt.
  • Virtual Ping Pong on the phone: Use the phone screen to see a virtual ping pong table and then swing the phone to make a hit
  • Physical, virtual avatar conferencing: Replicate the real world cocktail party acoustics in a virtual physical space. Cocktail parties are great because they allow the spontaneous formation of ad-hoc small conversation clusters within a larger conversation. Online tools do a poor job of replicating that dynamic but if we could bring physicality back into it, we might be able to bring some of this dynamism back into online conversation.
  • A million goddamn screens: This was a project I personally worked on that unfortunately, never got to far but has a dear place in my heart. Conventional computing is predicated on screens being expensive but if you stick a tracking marker onto a piece of paper, you can turn it into a screen. What would computing be like if you could produce screens out of some cardboard and a laser printer that could be any form factor and would cost 10 cents a pop? How would this help with information overload? Imagine you have a screen in the corner that represents the pile of unread emails. If you want to read an email, drag it onto a new screen. Important emails that you need to reply to each get their own seperate screen which you keep neat and tidy by arranging them in a pile. If you want to send a file to your coworker sitting next to you, you can drag it onto a screen and then physically hand him the screen. You can have a screen for each individual participant in an IM/voice/video conferencing and pulling the screen closer means you want to be alerted but pushing it away means you want to ignore them. What could you do if you had access to a million goddamn screens over the course of your lifetime?

Are some of these examples wildly unrealistic and totally unable to work in real life? Of course, they come from research inspirations. But they demonstrate the enormous power of augmented reality which is about to be unlocked within these next few years as developers grapple with just what’s possible with Augemented Reality.

Mechanical Turk changes how we understand labor

by Hang

Being on the bleeding edge of progress means you see new technologies come out all the freaking time. Some of them are truly worthless and can be safely ignored. Most of them will be intriguing but ultimately what you would expect. A very few of them have the potential to surprise the hell out of you and those are the ones worth keeping an eye on.

About 20 years ago, the surprising thing of the day was using commodity hardware to build supercomputers. Before that point, the way to make supercomputers better was to utilize every hertz of processing power through custom hardware and clever software. The revolution of commodity hardware was not in the engineering, it was in the shift in thinking. The new way to solve hard problems was to just design simple, less efficient algorithms and throw more hardware at the problem. That shift changed not only the types of applications that could be built but also the way we think about building apps. The reason Mechanical Turk is worth keeping an eye on is because its about to do something similar for labor.

When Amazon released its iPhone app my entire understanding of what was possible changed. You load up the app, snap a picture of an object, Amazon will use Mechanical Turk to find the closest Amazon equivalent and, within about 5 minutes, you can buy it for one click. The application itself was a beautiful usage of Mechanical Turk but more interesting is how a shift in thinking had to occur before it could even be imagined. That Amazon is releasing this app for free but paying for human labor means  their business model relies on human labor being cheap enough to hide in the margins. At the same time, the user experience is only compelling because the search results come back before you’ve left the store so Amazon needs to assumes the pool of available labor as essentially infinite to deliver that experience.

Once you’re able to get over that hump of believing that human labor can only be an expensive, limited resource, an entire vista of compelling applications open up. Here’s one I came up with today in a conversation with a collegue: Calorie tracking sucks because of the data entry problem. You need to manually enter in every single thing you ate and that requires far more organization than most people have. Why not just snap a photo with your iPhone and let a Mechanical Turker figure out what you ate? How do you solve the reliability problem? Have every picture looked at by at least three Turkers and only accept it if at least two agree. When labor becomes that cheap, its smarter to be dumb and throw more human hardware at the problem.

Does that mean Mechanical Turk will do to human labor what the commodity hardware & cloud computing did to server farms? Of course not, the analogy is instructive, not a direct mapping. What it does mean is that we as a society are going to experience several “everything we knew was wrong” type moments and that the labor market of 2039 will look as different from today as supercomputers did in 1979 and those who are the first to recognise this change will be the ones who have the best chance of exploiting it.

April 4 2009

Web appropriate footnoting

by Hang

I’ve never liked sites that replicate the paper-based conventions for footnoting. The entire point of the web is that it’s non-linear and multi-dimensional. Does anyone know of any good tools (or website) that have footnotes in-place in the text which dynamically expand when you click on them?

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