On Human-Centered Technology and Pragmatic Idealism

Yesterday, a friend asked me about UX and why do I care so much about it.

As I’ve described before in a contest entry about valuable design outcomes,  I would like to believe that advocating for UX is an exercise of pragmatic idealism. 

In recent years, I realized that I can’t be one of those people who can “change the world” by being an outspoken activist or by building a non-profit organization to promote a certain cause. We seek solutions to the world’s biggest problems, you see, only to find out that they’re merely band-aids.

After taking stock of what I can and can’t do, it dawned on me that in order for me to help change the world (so idealistic, yes?) using my strengths,  I would have to be more realistic. Employing pragmatic tools and methodologies is a good start.

This is where advocating for user-centered technology comes in.

Technology doesn’t have to make us “less human”. The supposedly cold, soulless AIs and bots are already here, but I’m still hopeful that we can create technologies that will not take  “humanity” out of us.

Man and Machine Working Together

There’s a lot of talk about the impending man vs. machine doom, but what if we aim for man and machine working together?

The more we advocate for user-centered tech through user research, the more it will help us understand each other. Understanding begets empathy. Empathy begets kindness.

When you put technology out there with empathy as one of its cornerstones,  the chances are high that people will treat their fellow humans the same way.

For instance, when you’re effortlessly booking a ride home from a tired day at work via a ride-hailing app, you’re less likely to get grumpy by the time you get home. This might mean that you’re less likely to snap back at your partner who didn’t even bother to cook dinner. In short, you’re going to be more patient and kinder.

Imagine if you were having issues using the ride hailing app. You’re probably going to project your anger and frustration to your clueless partner. And the cycle of hatred and indifference begins.

It sounds tad simplistic but I’m banking for now on the school of thought that before we seek solutions to the world’s biggest problems like terrorism, world hunger, corruption etc, why don’t we start with the idea of  treating each other with compassion, kindness, and openness?

Technology is a pragmatic tool that can help us accomplish this idealistic goal, don’t you think?

How to Find True Love by Running Your Own Design Research

The Problem:

There are a lot of assumptions about True Love. Does True Love exist? Is it even possible?

This design research aims to find out which assumptions are right or wrong, demystify True Love, and eventually build a prototype based on user needs.

User = could be you or someone you know

Let’s get into it!

The Process:

We are going to use Gooogle Ventures’ Design Sprint methodology.

You will need the following:

  • Paper and pen
  • Sticky notes
  • Whiteboard and whiteboard markers
  • An open mind and heart
  • Friends and family members who genuinely care about you as testing participants (at least five of them, you’re going to be the 6th tester)
  • People you don’t know (to avoid bias and encourage objectivity) who will go through the design sprint with you. They can also act as moderators and observers on testing day.

Day 1 – Understand

  • Reflect on what true love means to you.
  • What does success in finding true love looks like? How will it be measured?
  • Identify potential candidates that signify true love to you. Perhaps, we’re thinking about objects, pets, or even actions here. Who says true love= people?

At this point, the single most important question to reflect on is: What Does True Love Look Like to Me?

Day 2 – Diverge

Explore possible answers to What Does True Love Look Like to Me?

  • Sketch solutions.
  • Create mind maps. Make a storyboard. Don’t limit your ideas for now.

Day 3- Decide

  • Identify potential pitfalls/conflicts in your proposed solutions. Too introverted? Too loud? Too smart? Too perfect? Too stoic? Too idealistic?
  • Eliminate solutions that sound good in paper but not really doable in real life.
  • Narrow down your list of candidates/solutions to MVP (minimum viable product). Vote with team members and choose one solution for prototyping.

Day 4 – Prototype

  • Build your low-fi prototype. You can use Keynote instead of code. What’s more important for now is you write real content instead of placeholder text. This will help you communicate better with your research participants using your task scenarios.
  • Next, create your usability test plan. Pay special attention to your test script.
  • Finally, take note that a good usability test plan should outline who takes care of what on testing day.

Day 5 – Validate and Learn

Day 5 is your BIG DAY! You’re finally going out there, test your true love prototype with yourself and your participants, and identify what works/what doesn’t.

  • Assure participants that this testing activity is not about them. You are not gauging their specific skills or qualities. These lines are incredibly important:

“We are testing the prototype, not you. You can’t do anything wrong here. Do whatever feels right to you while tinkering with the prototype. Don’t be afraid of saying things that will offend us. We want your honest feedback as much as possible because we want to build a True Love product that will help address your needs and pain points.”

  • Apart from paying attention to your participants’ answers, observe for non-verbal cues. Encourage them to think out loud too. This applies to you as well when it’s your turn to test the prototype.
  • After testing, say thanks to your participants. You can also give them tokens of appreciation or incentives.
  • Debrief with your team at the end of the day. Depending on the results of your test, you can either continue building your True Love product based on the responses you’ve collected or pursue further testing. 

Or you can just forget it altogether. 🙂

Why a Copywriter Like Me is Showing Up in UX Meetups

Besides frequently asked about my decision in trading my 9-5 desk job for self-employment as a copywriter, friends often find it strange that I talk a lot about UX when I’m not a designer, product manager, or even a web developer. I repeatedly get asked the following: 

  • You’re a copywriter, why the sudden interest in UX?
  • UX is all about design, right? What do words have to do with visuals?
  • Why are you showing up in UX meetups? Everyone’s either a developer or designer. You’re probably the only copywriter in the room. Are you even in the right meetup?

I got an anonymous tip that a kitten dies of starvation every time I fail to give out a decent response to these questions. So I came up with this part-FAQ page, part-love letter to friends and family who are curious about my sudden tweetfest about UX. The kittens are definitely worth saving!

Why the Sudden Interest in UX?

Dear friends and family,

It started when one of these marketing agencies I’m freelancing for asked me to ghostwrite a blog post* on what sets great design apart from good design.

While going through design websites to gather references on the subject, I was running out of meaty points and examples to write about. Put simply, I was at a loss about good versus great design.

It was tempting to dial 911 and request for someone who’s in charge with writer’s block. But I got myself together, thought about Stephen Pressfield’s take on writer’s block in his book The War of Art (this is just Resistance disguised as writer’s block!), and decided to put on my professional writer hat.

So I turned to a designer friend via email, and asked (or maybe pestered him a bit) for examples of products or services that perfectly illustrate what it means to have good versus great design.

His reply was:

Great design is humanistic and solves problems. Check out IDEO and their YouTube channel.

So I made my way to the IDEO website and stumbled upon the concept of design thinking for the first time.

As I went through their content on design thinking, my initial thoughts were:

  • So people actually do this? And it’s a job? I’ve found my calling!
  • This is psychology, product design, and business development rolled into one. Cool stuff!
  • How do I become one of these folks?

By the time I submitted my ghostwritten post, I already had a bird’s eye view of the design thinking process. My curiosity further led me to the UX design rabbit hole.

Design Thinking is Figuring Out the Right Problems to Solve

My designer friend was right. Good design is product-centric and aims to impress. Great design, on the other hand, is user-centered and helps solve problems.

Design thinking is the process of spotting the right problems to solve. The problem itself doesn’t have to be associated with design in a visual sense.

For instance, you can apply the design thinking methodology to solve problems that’s been bugging you or mankind— from rekindling a lackluster relationship to coming up with better healthcare information system in an hospital.

If you like the idea of coming up with a Friday date night prototype that meets your needs (and your partner’s of course), you are going to like design thinking. 

In fact, design thinking is the same process that shoe designer Tinker Hatfield employed to create the famous Air Jordan shoes. In a Mental Floss feature  about Air Jordan’s conception, Foster Kamer narrates:

Hatfield stood up and started asking Jordan questions. He asked him to recall what he’d said earlier about the shoe’s height, its weight, about his Italian shoes and leather patterns. Hatfield started showing the sketches to Jordan, who was beginning to warm up: For the first time, someone had actually paid attention to what he wanted and needed. Jordan asked to see the sample.

In hindsight, design thinking begins by paying attention to problems.

What Does UX Have to Do With Design Thinking?

Let’s backtrack a bit and understand what UX means.

Smashing Magazine defines it as:

User experience (abbreviated as UX) is how a person feels when interfacing with a system. The system could be a website, a web application or desktop software and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI).

Those who work on UX (called UX designers) study and evaluate how users feel about a system, looking at such things as ease of use, perception of the value of the system, utility, efficiency in performing tasks and so forth.

So how do you study and evaluate users like shoe designer Hatfield did?

You go out, talk to your users via research, empathize, define the problem, ideate a solution, prototype, test, and implement. Rinse and repeat.

This is what design thinking is about.

Am I starting to make sense now? Are the kittens going to be safe?

So What Do Words Have to Do With UX Design?

If UX design is about delivering better products and experiences via design thinking, what do words have to do with it?

Why am I showing up in UX meetups when I’m neither a UI designer or software/web developer? I’m supposed to rub elbows with digital marketers and not with the product development folks, right?

The more I learn about the design thinking process and the importance of user research, the more I got hooked on figuring out how I can incorporate the methodology, user research to be specific, into my copywriting toolkit.

I intuitively knew that words matter too in solving problems and designing better user experiences.  And as a copywriter,  I have this knack of creating multiple what-if scenarios in my head. It turns out that this constant what-ifing (and sometimes destructive overthinking) can be put into good use in UX design. Hurray!

As UX Designer Susan Stuart explains in Why UX Design is a Lot Like Writing:

To sum up, when looking for someone to lead the design of your complex application, look for enough visual sensibility to lay the foundation in a “blueprint,” but consider giving weight to experience with writing (and psychology), where the designer has a strong imagination for characters, actions, scenarios and general “what if-ing.”

From what I’ve been learning, it looks like content strategy and information architecture are the subsets in UX that closely resemble what I do as a copywriter and content marketer. Figuring out the right words to say is the common denominator of both fields. They both deal with language, information, and content.

Can You Call It UX Writing?

These days, what is often referred to as UX writing is writing interface copy, mainly in the realm of product development, with user research thrown in the mix.  This is what John Saito of Dropbox described in 2016 when he wrote about what he does for a living:

As UX writers at Dropbox, our goal is to make sure every word we write makes sense. One wrong word can break a user’s experience. A vague button label or unfamiliar term can easily frustrate users.

 In 2014,  Jessica Collier also wrote about this new-ish field that’s shaping up to be a mix of writing and design—Narrative UX.

Jessica writes:

Design, in other words, is narrative. Yet the actual writing that a person sees when using an app is rarely the result of careful consideration. For all the lip service paid to storytelling in the tech industry, we pay little or no attention to the language that goes into product design. So what happens when we finally realize that reinventing ourselves as storytellers necessitates bringing writers into the design process?

And last month, UX Booth wrote about UX writing and referred to it as the “new job in town”. 

As UX Booth’s Kristina Bjoran writes:

It may seem like a bit of a fad but writing-focused user experience designers will be a critical part of the way we design for experiences from here on out.

Whether it’s a fad or not, I’m thrilled to learn that folks who do words (and not just code and pixels) are gaining more recognition in their role in designing better UX.

Whatever label or name it gets — narrative UX, UX writing, content design etc — they all have the same goal:  find the right words (and speak the same language) to help users solve a problem, while taking product and business goals into account at the same time. User research helps accomplish this purpose.

As I once tweeted, I would like to think that UX writing is the lovechild of user research and copywriting.

Saving kittens by answering one question at a time,

*It turned out that the ghostwritten post I did on Great vs Good Design got the highest number of organic traffic for the specific quarter that it got published. 🙂


My Favorite UX Research Resources

Self-learning is easy these days.

Digging through library archives or interviewing (stalking if you like) an expert used to be standard practice. Now that there’s Google and tons of online courses available, you do a bit of google-fu and voila — You have 5184965 search results to sift through!

But there’s one downside: It means you have to wrestle with information overload. This is what I’ve been grappling with the past month while learning  the ins and outs of user research.

And it looks like I’m not alone.

Ana, another usability researcher in training mentioned the same struggle in one of our email correspondence. I found her blog when I was looking for more information on Steve Portigal’s book Interviewing Users and I emailed her with “Hello, we’re on the same UX research boat. Mind if we share notes?”

After several emails sent back and forth, we both agreed that there’s just too many resources out there.

To avoid burnout,  feeling overwhelmed, or even give up on the learning process itself, I’ve decided to stop hopping from one UX resource to another and just stick with the following resources.

UX Mastery

UX Mastery is a community of both newbie and seasoned usability folks.

Besides the forums and blog posts, I like the fact that they have regular AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions with experts.

My recent favorite was an AMA with Laura Klein (author of UX for Lean Startups). I’ve also noticed that some senior members give detailed feedback to research portfolios. Plus, the UX Mastery team reviews new books and UX courses in detail.  (Hat tip to Ana for recommending UX Mastery!)

Speaking of UX courses, my second favorite resource is..

User Experience (UX): The Ultimate Guide to Usability and UX Course on Udemy by David Travis 

I’m just starting out and I’m impressed with David’s first set of lectures. I’d probably write a full review once I’m done with it.

My main goal in doing this course is to help me transition from theory to hands-on experience with research because the course requires me to complete several tasks. Hopefully, this will help me come up with a  decent portfolio.

While going over the course, I noticed that David is quick to reply to queries. No wonder the course has rave reviews from former students and the UX Mastery crew.

The UX Sisters

The team behind this blog are two former colleagues at HubSpot’s user research team. What I like about The UX Sisters is their focus on providing tips and hacks on usability testing, one of the research methods that I’m particularly keen about.

This blog post on getting quick user feedback during usability tests is one of my favorites.

Additional User Research Resources

On top of the aforementioned resources, I occasionally browse the Nielsen Norman Group site to catch up on UX reports and insightful posts. And of course, there’s A List Apart, the User Testing blog, and the Dollars to Donuts podcast.

Learning styles vary. What works for me may not resonate with you and vice versa. The takeaway here is to experiment and figure out which resources will help you connect the dots.