Pictures are so Iconic

person holding photo of single tree at daytime

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the VIMM method of evaluating the intuitiveness of a product’s design. If you understand the types of issues users face when working with a product, from there you can form a plan to reduce the mental stress and create a great user experience. Interestingly one simple technique that addresses potentially all 4 of the VIMM areas is the use of pictures, or in the case of digital products – icons.

In 1971, Allan Paivio published what he called the “dual-coding” theory. In his research, he argued that humans process information into memory via 2 separate “channels” or pathways in the brain. Those 2 separate pathways are distinguished between imagery and verbal information.

The interesting thing here is that we can look at a picture, particularly if it has a caption or label, and store it in memory on both channels. This greatly improves a person’s ability to later recall that image and it’s meaning.

The implication here for product design is that by using icons effectively, we can reduce visual, intellectual, and memory load placed on a user. Product designers think about making user interfaces where the most salient information or tasks are easily identified. In so doing, we simplify the difficulty in understanding how to interact with an application and can even reduce the number of steps it takes to do something. I would argue the same thing is true of emojis. A single image to convey a variety of emotions that might otherwise be awkward or time consuming to convey.

Paivio’s work led to what’s now known as the “Picture Superiority Effect“. It’s not fully understood or at least agreed upon (when is it ever in academic psychology?) why this is but there is plenty of demonstrated evidence that it does work. And early studies on metaverse applications suggest a material improvement, as much as 33%, in retention of learning material which could mean that the combination of 3d, video, and pictures all lessen cognitive load.

In 1927, some ad exec Fred Barnard made the statement “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Little did we know how ahead of his time ol’ Fred was.

Let’s Get Real

yellow arrow led signage

One of the challenges any organization with more than 1 person faces is alignment. In this sense alignment refers to clarity in what the objective is and how it will be carried out. One of the reasons this clarity gets lost has to do with a strange phenomenon where a small misalignment in leadership creates much larger gaps throughout the organization. This translates into politics and other counterproductive traits – the opposite of a functional, empowered team. Another reason this happens though has to do with poor communication or what Patrick Lencioni simply referred to as “leadership blather”.

Here’s an example from his book “The Advantage“:

“Mission Statement: ________ incorporated provides its customers with quality _______ products and the expertise required for making informed buying decisions. We provide our products and services with a dedication to the highest degree of integrity and quality of customer satisfaction developing long-term relationships with employees that develop pride creating a stable company spirit.

As bad as it is, it’s hard to deny that this statement seems fairly ordinary.” It’s not that different than many mission statements I’ve seen but the funny thing is, this is from the fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin featured in the sitcom The Office.

Part of the problem stems from leaders that aren’t willing to have real conversations or speak sincerely. I would argue that while that ability may not be natural in everyone it can be developed and is a trait the best leaders understand as critical to their team’s success. It’s easier to throw around jargon and MBA sounding phrases but to create real alignment, the communication has to be real, vulnerable even.

Lencioni goes on to describe 6 questions you should be able to answer:

  1. Why do we exist? [Start With Why]
  2. How do we behave? [An Organization is often defined by the worst behavior it’s leadership allows]
  3. What do we do? [Make a mantra, not a mission statement – Our product team mantra: “Innovative Insurance Transactions”]
  4. How will we succeed? [OKRs & KPIs]
  5. What is most important, right now? [Prioritization, what will you say no to?]
  6. Who must do what? [It’s a basket ball team, not a golf team]

Not easy to do but in the process of gaining clarity on these questions, there’s vulnerable messy dialogue that takes places. If done well, that closes gaps and creates a healthy organization equipped to perform at a high level!

How Heavy is Your Cognitive Load?

multiethnic students doing homework together in library

Design Psychology has many facets to it but understanding them helps us think about “user experience” from a human centered perspective. This is helpful as it maximizes our chances at making a great UI/UX and human centered interactive design. One of the concepts that informs this approach is that of cognitive load.

Cognitive load refers to the working memory resources a person has while working to complete a task. The VIMM model, which I heard about from an interview with Thomas Watkins explains 4 things to keep in mind when thinking about cognitive load.

  1. Visual Load – This refers to the things you see when looking at something like a screen. Things to avoid so you don’t increase visual load are clutter (too much on a screen), long ungrouped content, and too many calls to action.
  2. Intellectual Load – The amount of thinking a user has to do when interacting with your application is also important. Hear the idea is to avoid inconsistencies in behavior of objects, missing navigation, bad copy and content that lacks context.
  3. Memory Load – Don’t overestimate the amount of complexity people will put up with. Their memory will often not perform well enough. Avoid complex processes, workflows that require memorization (as opposed to intuition), and lack of transparency in where the user is within a task or workflow.
  4. Motor Load – This refers to the amount of actual action a user has to take at any one time or to complete a task. Stay away from designs that required too many steps/clicking, requiring very precise hovering or positioning, and excessive HCI switching (meaning the need to go back and forth between mouse, keyboard or other peripherals to complete something.

Naturally there are tradeoffs to these concepts and as Einstein famously said, “[you can] make everything as simple as possible but no simpler”. But by keeping these concepts (and many others) in mind you increase your chances at creating a great design and ultimately a great user experience.

Neil McElroy: The Product OG

I’ve often thought of Product Management as a relatively new role in world. While it’s true that digitally it is, the idea and approach, it turns out, isn’t at all.

Neil McElroy was working for Proctor & Gamble in 1931 and wrote a job description that would change the “top-down” approach to a method creating product or “brand” teams as he called it. In just a 3 page memo he laid the foundation for what would later become known as product management.

Product guru Ken Norton wrote a great summary of the important points of McElroy’s job description. One of the things he pointed out was that changing the perspective of the company to a view that was customer-centric as opposed to company-centric was critical. As Norton pointed out the job description had these important parts:

“(a) talk to customers and uncover their problems

(b) develop a product that solves the problem

(c, d) create a channel strategy and sales collateral to sell the product

(e) track the right metrics, iterate, and drive profitability”

Like so many great ideas, quotes, and adages, McElroy’s ideas have stood the test of time. He would later go on to influence the founders of HP with his product perspective! Before the internet, before ubiquitous computing power, the framework that would shape how many innovate was laid described on a typewriter, nearly100 years ago!

The Product Manifesto

concrete dome pathway

There’s a team of product managers working on a “Product Manifesto” meant to frame the tenets of product management and innovation. The idea is that this will help people of all experience levels in becoming better product managers. It’s also meant to help with product managers and working with stake holders who often don’t understand how to work with a product team. It includes vision setting, strategy and problem understanding.

One of the people working on it is Victoria Ku who’s a Product Manager at AirBnb. She was recently on the Product Podcast to share some insights and experience and there were 4 really interesting points she made.

  1. Product Management is inherently ambiguous – The role acts as a generalist and there’s no one, clear, way to do everything. But this allows for flexibility and a fluid approach. Maintaining this fluidness even as you scale is important. It allows creativity and a broader arrange of ways to contribute. It’s okay to have some structure, pillars and principles but guard against making dogma and process more important than innovating.

2. Problem > Solution – Many others, myself included, have written about this concept. In Victoria’s words, problem focus and avoiding the rush to solutioning is the “root of innovative success.” Stay married to the problem but open minded on the solution.

3. Scaling Agile is Hard – Agile struggles and sometimes falls apart in large, cross-functional organizations. Interoperability from teams becomes challenging. It leads to hybrid models and lacks consistency.

4. The generalist nature of the role makes it prone to burnout. Find the areas you can be more flexible and avoid taking on too many roles. Stress means success is failed way of thinking. It’s easier to fall into a hole than it is to climb out of it. There’s a great piece on building resilience by recharging here. In short, burnout suppresses creativity and the ability to innovate.

You can check out the whole interview here.

Emotional Stimulus, OMG

I broke my own rule this week. Too many factors came together and I didn’t make time to read nor listen to anything new or noteworthy. Here’s “re-share” of some thoughts on big decision making from last year. Back to the routine next week!

 I was contemplating a tough decision to make last week and went back to some notes I had on making “big decisions”.  It may sound obsessive that I have a notes to consult and maybe that’s not for everyone but it does light up the analytical side of my brain and helps me break something down.  If you’ve never studied the physiology of psychology, part of the challenge we face is that all stimulus comes in through our senses and has to pass through our limbic system (where emotions happen) before it gets to the higher-order thinking part of our brain.  So, this framework is a set of steps/questions to ask that help make better decisions:

  1. Find expert advice (reference material) on the subject – it’s foolish to simply think we “know it all”.
  2. Get the facts or due diligence – uninformed optimism isn’t good for your marriage, personal or professional relationships.
  3. Ask for advice – it’s wise to learn from experience but wiser to learn from someone else’s.  Life’s too short for you to make all of the mistakes.  Last week I wrote about humility allowing us to put the ego aside to seek learning – same concept here.
  4. Set a goal.  Likely you’re making a decision about something you picture in your future – this is the dream.  Dream + Date = Goal and helps you not stay in this analysis stage too long.
  5. Think about the “cost” or cons of the decision and remember this: It is ALWAYS easier to get into something than to get out of it.
  6. Plan for problems or consider them.  At the summit this year the former Navy seal talked about preparation and that’s where this comes in.  You can’t solve tomorrow’s problems today but if you’re prepared you have a better chance.  You can’t solve for everything up front or you would never make a decision.
  7. Be a little braver than you think you need to be – our fear of something is almost always worse than the thing itself
  8. Step out in faith.  Courage is the ability to move ahead despite fear.

The Art of the Guy

clear light bulb

Guy Kawasaki is a legendary marketing guru that helped Apple distinguish the Mac and other products in the early 80’s. He went on to become a VC, speaker, author, and evangelist for many great tech companies. I recently revisited his speech on the Art of Innovation. Here’s a recap of his 10 errr 11 tips on how to innovate.

  1. Make Meaning – Similar to Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” concept, aim to make meaning or make a difference. The best companies make meaning and the money follows. If you start with a focus just on making money it’s much more difficult.
  2. Make a Mantra – Mission statements are often cold and inaccurate. He uses the Wendy’s mission statement as an example of what not to do (Wendy’s: To deliver superior quality products and services for our customers and communities through leadership, innovation and partnerships.) What they should say is something like “Good food fast” or “Affordable Tasty Food”.
  3. Jump the Curve – Incremental developments have a place and happen but real scientific revolution happens when you jump to a new order of thinking or problem solving.
  4. DICEE – Go DEEP with innovation, in an INTELLIGENT way, that COMPLETELY solves a problem in a way that is EMPOWERING and ELEGANT. Those 5 traits make great product in any industry.
  5. Be Crappy – Perfection is the enemy of good enough. If you wait until perfection to ship, you’ll get beat by the competition every time. Don’t ship crap, but understand some blemishes will be there.
  6. Let 100 Flowers Blossom – Try many ideas and don’t be afraid to pivot. Netflix started as a shampoo subscription company. 3M invented sticky notes. Many great companies were made by allowing their clients to guide them to new ideas often very different from their original vision.
  7. Polarize People – Innovation often polarizes people. Ad agencies hated Tivo because people could fast forward through commercials. Candle makers were afraid of the light bulb and on and on. If you’re disrupting something, some people won’t like it.
  8. Churn Baby Churn – build v1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and keep iterating as quickly as you can. Don’t listen to the naysayers who think it’s impossible – keep chiseling away at the problem you’re solving.
  9. Niche Thyself – Be valuable and unique. Not one, not the other but both.
  10. Perfect Your Pitch – Master your sales line. Make a great introduction and have an “elevator” spiel. In 20 seconds, state why your idea matters.
  11. As a bonus, Guy shared his thoughts on presentations with the 10/20/30 rule. Make no more than 10 slides, speak no more than 20 minutes, use a 30 point font. For font size, take the oldest person you expect to be in the audience and divide their age by 2 which is how he got to 30. So if you’re pitching to class of high school students you then you can go with 8 point!

Simplicity+Design = User Experience

person holding a chalk in front of the chalk board

In doing research this week for a presentation, I came across a man named Frederic Tudor. He lived in the early 1800’s and would become known in Boston as the “ice king”. Back at that time, no method existed for providing cooling needed to keep food from spoiling and Frederic Tudor is credited with having started the ice industry.

The ice industry consisted of crews of people that would cut large blocks of ice from from lakes. The blocks would then be shipped via horse drawn wagons, rail and barges to be used for keeping food good during transit. Frederic Tudor wasn’t the only “ice dealer” but certainly the largest and the pioneer of an industry that would, at it’s peak employ nearly 100,000 people.

Most competitors in the industry were focused on how to make electric ice saws and ship ice faster. What none of them saw coming was the invention of refrigeration systems and the ability to make ice from machines. In less than 2 decades this industry would be no more.

History is full of examples of companies that failed to innovate and see where new, better solutions to the problems they were solving would come from. Polaroid missed out on digital cameras. Blockbuster missed out on streaming content. IBM missed out on personal computing.

What’s talked about much less though, are the companies that get beat by competitors offering nearly the same product, but done so with greater user experience. There are some great examples of “build a better mouse trap” stories where simply improving functionality, design and simplicity to create a user experience so much better that they changed the landscape of their industry. America Online lost to a host of broadband focused companies. Yahoo would lose to Google. MySpace lost to Facebook. Nokia and Blackberry (and others) lost to Apple and the iPhone. The power of User Experience is so strong that it’s the equivalent to a paradigm shifting innovation in terms of it’s disruptive capability in the marketplace.

So what makes a great User Experience? Interactive Design defines it as “[experience] that meets a user’s needs in the specific context where he or she uses the product”. It’s a pretty vague definition and I don’t say that to pick on the author of that explanation but rather to point out how difficult it is to define. Defining great UX is like trying to nail Jello to a wall. It’s tough to do but yet we all know it when we “see” it. Next week I’ll share some more points about what make for a great User Experience. But the message here is to never underestimate the impact that great UX can have as innovative force in and of itself.

Eat. Sleep. Research. Repeat.

top view photo of people near wooden table

True confession from a Ph.D. dropout: It took me a long time to appreciate and [somewhat] understand the beauty, art and nuance to qualitative research. For some reason the “engineering” side of my mind wrestled to come to grips with this approach compared more specific experiment-collect data-analyze, or quantitative methods. What I later came to realize was that, particularly in behavioral spaces, quantitative research isn’t as deterministic as it might sound. Sure, when you’re observing what two chemicals do when they’re combined it might be but humans are complicated. Certainly there’s a place for all methods but done well product research interviews can take you on an amazing journey of learning.

At a high level there are 2 types of research – Generative and Evaluative. At, they define them as follows:

Generative – Research that helps develop a deeper understanding of users to find opportunities for solutions and innovation

Evaluative – Research that assesses a specific problem to ensure usability and ground it in wants, needs and desires of real people.

I recently listened to an interview with Amy Chess, UX Researcher for Amazon with some great advice on conducting research. I took away 6 key points.

  1. Research questions are what you want to learn or decisions you want to make. Interview questions are what you’ll ask participants to get those answers but they’re not the same questions. If your interview questions are too specific, they take the user out the role of user and into the role of designer. Ask things like “what would you expect to see here” or “what would you expect to happen next” and not “tell me what order these 5 tabs should be in” for example.
  2. Start with the research question you want to answer first, then worry about methodology. This sounds very meta but it’s the same concept as starting with the problem in mind not the solution.
  3. Generative research should be to learn not validate what you already think you know. It’s often the unexpected gems that come up that lead to a truly novel learning.
  4. The research should be anchored to a decision you need to make or a problem you want to unpack. There is a sweet spot between breadth and narrowness of research. By tethering your interview questions to your research question and decision to be made we maximize potential learning and this won’t happen if you’re fixated on a solution more than the problem.
  5. If your struggling to get started, ask the product team “what are the things that keep you up at night?” [regarding product/user interaction]. “What are the big debated points amongst the team or stakeholders?”.
  6. Research is continuous. It should lead to more questions and more areas to explore and is ongoing. There’s a tendency of a lot of companies to think we can go out and ask a few questions and then go back into a cave and build something but this learning and refinement of what we know is ongoing. You can’t exercise for a month and expect to be in shape 12 months later anymore than you can interview for a month and expect to have a great understanding 12 months later.

There’s a time and a place for every research method. In my own experience though, generative qualitative research has been the birthplace of the most ideas that led to products and innovation.

The Oracle of Omaha

close up photography of owl

When I was a kid, my grandfather was the first person to talk to me about investing. Years later he turned me on to Warren Buffett, the legendary CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. In particular I made a point to read his annual letter to shareholders. I only ever owned Berkshire shares indirectly through mutual funds. And truthfully I don’t spend a ton of time analyzing individual stocks. But I still read the shareholder’s letters from Buffett because of wisdoms and the clever ways he gets his points across. The 2021 letter was released late February and you can see them all here. Here are 6 of my favorite “Buffettisms”.

  1. Quality > Quantity – Some people let their need for control get in the way of make the smartest choice. Buffet writes “owning a non-controlling portion of a wonderful business is more profitable, more enjoyable and far less work than struggling with 100% of a marginal enterprise.”

2. The Importance of Planning – Successful people from speakers to Navy Seals talk about the importance of planning and being prepared. Buffett had this very simple explanation: “Only when the tide goes out do you see who’s been swimming naked”

3. Career Advice – Buffet urges people to “work 1) in a field you like and 2) with people you like. Economic reality may prevent either of those for some time but that should be the quest.” As Mark Twain once wrote, “do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. But Buffett’s addition to that to include with people you like really resonates with me.

4. On Teaching – He believed that teaching was great when successful for the students but also great for the teacher due to the Orangutan effect: “If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly.”

5. Being Bold – Though conservative in many ways, he’s never been afraid of making a bold move if he believed in it. More often than not he’s been right. “Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold,” Buffett wrote in 2016. “When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons.”

6. Hope and America – While we can and should always strive towards continuous improvement, often cynics become the loudest voice and decry how bad things are as if today’s problems are new. Buffet offers this perspective: “Throughout my lifetime, politicians and pundits have constantly moaned about terrifying problems facing America. Yet our citizens now live an astonishing six times better than when I was born. The prophets of doom have overlooked the all-important factor that is certain: Human potential is far from exhausted, and the American system for unleashing that potential – a system that has worked wonders for over two centuries despite frequent interruptions for recessions and even a Civil War – remains alive and effective.”.