One of the benefits of writing DesignAday is that I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of you. I spent a pleasant evening Friday night with Rohan Singh, a bright MHCI graduate student at CMU. He has been following the blog for a few years, but hadn’t realized until very recently that I lived in the Pittsburgh area. He asked if I’d be willing to meet him for coffee and let him pick my brain. I was more than happy to do so.

We talked about my job and the kind of work I do. We talked quite a bit about the value of visual design skills and how to improve them. We talked about what agencies are looking for in new hires, the importance of good writing skills, and the need for soft skills. We discussed data visualization, the genius designer mentality of traditional graphic design, and the need for critique when teaching yourself a new design skill. We touched on books about typography, Nathan Yau’s blog, Flowing Data, and the courses I’ve taught at WVU. We even discovered that we have both done work for Eaton. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, and Rohan was most appreciative.

I guess there are two points I want to make that were inspired by the meet up:

  1. If you have questions about design, don’t be afraid to ask someone that you respect. There are a lot of us that are willing, even eager, to impart our knowledge and experience on those new to the field.
  2. There is a huge value in, and great need for, professional designers sharing their expertise with students. If you are a faculty member, take advantage of those of us that are willing to share. If you are a professional who has the opportunity to share, please be generous with your time.

Free Advice

Hey, all of you newly graduated designers looking to land a job, here are a few suggestions from someone that is looking to hire.

Proofread your résumé. What’s that? You say you already did? Well, do it again! You missed something. Don’t claim to be “detail oriented” and then tell me that you designed landscapes to meet costumers needs.

Include the URL to your online portfolio on your résumé. I do want to read your résumé, but I’m more interested in seeing your work. No online portfolio? Build one. Not only am I going to take a look at your work examples, I’ll be checking out your HTML and CSS.

Don’t just show me finished artifacts. I’m most interested in your process. I want to know how you approach a problem, generate ideas, and document your work. I don’t expect you to be as good at it or as thorough as I am—not even close—but I do want to see that there is something to build on, rather than starting from scratch.

IxD Podcasts

I’ve posted lists of books, journals, and blogs for the IxD n00b; it’s about time I do the same for podcasts. It takes a lot more work to publish a regular audio show than it does a blog, so there are a lot fewer of them, and fewer still with professional-level production values. Here is my recommended set, in alphabetical order. There are others, but these are the ones to which I subscribe and know to be of value. Of course, you are always welcome to add your own recommendations in the comments.

Adaptive Path
Adaptive Path’s podcast has 103 episodes spanning from 2006 to 2012. 5 of the episodes are videos. However, all of the episodes more recent than 2008 are other podcasts featuring their people. So, I’m considering this one defunct.

Boxes and Arrows
This is a prolific podcast that has been running regularly for several years. The production values aren’t at a professional level, but the content is excellent, made up mostly of interviews and conference presentations. Their coverage of the IA Summit is thorough, having included all of the presentations in past years.

Design Critique
Tim Keirnan encourages usable products for a better customer experience. He does so by reviewing products that he has purchased and used for significant periods of time. He also conducts interviews with user experience practitioners, authors and educators. With 97 episodes since 2005, there is a lot to listen to.

Design Matters
Debbie Millman’s podcast isn’t specifically about Interaction Design; it’s about all types of design, or rather, all types of designers. Debbie conducts interviews with “industry-leading graphic designers, change agents, artists, writers, and educators.”  It’s certainly my favorite design-related podcast. For an in-depth review, see my earlier post.

Lunar has been podcasting about product design since 2005. They don’t have a regular schedule, and there can be long gaps between episodes, but they have a good selection of discussions, interviews, and critiques with a smattering of video episodes. 

The Prepared Mind
Chris Gee’s podcast was the first design podcast I subscribed to back in 2005. Unfortunately, it only lasted six months, topping out at 13 episodes. Oh, but what a fine set of podcasts they were. I include them here as a nostalgic tribute.

Radio Johnny
Johnny Holland’s podcast only started in 2010, so it doesn’t have quite as large an archive as most in this list, but you can expect to find interviews with a lot of the names you have become familiar with through IxDA, IAI, and the general UX community. The audio quality isn’t particularly good, but the content is worth it.

UIE Brain Sparks
It should be no surprise that Jared Spool has the most prolific podcast in this list. Only the last 100 episodes are listed in iTunes, but this one has been going in earnest since 2006. There are tons of interviews, discussions, debates, and segments from conference presentations. Continue encouraging their behavior.

Gerry Gaffney has been conducting interviews with UX practitioners since 2006. There are 66 episodes as of this writing. The audio quality is typically rather poor, and I find this one to be the least exciting of the podcasts listed here, but there is still enough valuable content that I remain subscribed.

99% Invisible
Both the newest and best produced podcast in the list, Roman Mars’ brief exposés are entrancing. While not specifically an IxD podcast, it is 99% relevant. Check out my review from a couple weeks ago. 

Design Vocabulary: Combo Box

A combo box is a graphical user interface widget that combines a text field with a drop-down list. It allows the user to select an option from the list or type in their own. It is common to hear people refer to a drop-down list as a combo box, but this is technically incorrect. Unfortunately, the combo box is not one of the standard web browser form widgets, so designers have developed a number of patterns to replicate its functionality.

  • It is possible to overlap a drop-down list with a text field so that it looks like a combo-box and then use JavaScript to enter selections from the menu into the field.
  • A graphic can be placed to the right of a field, visually mimicking a combo box. In this case, clicking the graphic will cause a previously hidden div to be displayed under the field, resembling a drop-down list, and clicking text within the div will enter it into the field.
  • Rather than mimicking a combo box, a drop-down list and field can be used in concert by including an “other” option in the list. When “other” is selected, the field is displayed or enabled.

Combo boxes are often enhanced with dynamic behaviors, such as auto-complete or the ability to learn custom entries and include them in the list.

Design Vocabulary: Learnability

Having written about both Discoverability and Findability, I feel obligated to address Learnability as the next vocabulary term.

Learnability is not a term specific to Interaction Design. Dictionaries will provide definitions such as “the condition of being learnable” and “the ease with which something can be learned.” That’s clear enough, but the term does have more specific meaning when used in the context of Interaction Design. Here’s a definition from Usability First’s glossary:

a measure of the degree to which a user interface can be learned quickly and effectively. Learning time is the typical measure. User interfaces are typically easier to learn when they are designed to be easy to use based on core psychological properties, and when they are familiar. Familiarity may come from the fact that it follows standards or that the design follows a metaphor from people’s real world experience.

Tristan Louis breaks learnability down into five components:

  1. familiarity
  2. consistency
  3. generalizability
  4. predictability
  5. simplicity

While I would consider learnability to be a component of usability, it is often discussed in contrast to usability. For example, Jeff Atwood’s article, Usability vs. Learnability, quotes a passage from Joel Spolsky’s book, User Interface Design for Programmers:

It takes several weeks to learn how to drive a car. For the first few hours behind the wheel, the average teenager will swerve around like crazy. They will pitch, weave, lurch, and sway. If the car has a stick shift they will stall the engine in the middle of busy intersections in a truly terrifying fashion.

If you did a usability test of cars, you would be forced to conclude that they are simply unusable.

This is a crucial distinction. When you sit somebody down in a typical usability test, you’re really testing how learnable your interface is, not how usable it is. Learnability is important, but it’s not everything. Learnable user interfaces may be extremely cumbersome to experienced users. If you make people walk through a fifteen-step wizard to print, people will be pleased the first time, less pleased the second time, and downright ornery by the fifth time they go through your rigamarole.

Sometimes all you care about is learnability: for example, if you expect to have only occasional users. An information kiosk at a tourist attraction is a good example; almost everybody who uses your interface will use it exactly once, so learnability is much more important than usability. But if you’re creating a word processor for professional writers, well, now usability is more important.

Now, I get what Joel is saying here, but I don’t believe he has his terminology quite right. I think he is using learnability where he should be using intuitiveness, and that may just have to be my next Design Vocabulary entry. If you sit somebody down in front of a UI for the first time, you will be testing how intuitive it is to use. If you want to test for learnability, I suggest that the test must be repeated over a number of sessions. Michael Wilson corroborates this claim in his informative article on the subject, When is Learnability More Important than Usability? That said, intuitiveness could really be considered as the ultimate achievement of learnability: the shortest possible learning time.

Michael also lists the factors that will most likely result in a user spending the time required to learn a given user interface:

  1. Importance
  2. Frequency
  3. Cost
  4. Alternatives
  5. Simplicity

All of these cited articles are useful in understanding learnability, but Justin Mifsud has the most complete perspective. In The Difference (And Relationship) Between Usability And Learnability, he explains that many writers “tend to over-emphasize on highlighting the distinction, yet they fail to discuss the relationship that exists between usability and learnability.” He goes on to site definitions put forth by IEEE and ISO, which classify learnability as a sub-characteristic of usability, on par with understandability, operability, and attractiveness, as well as Jakob Nielsen and Ben Schneiderman’s classification, which lists learnability as one of five parameters that define usability, its siblings being efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction.

Design Issues

There’s one week left in the masters-level class I’ve been teaching. It is mainly a seminar-style course with a few complimentary projects. The semester was organized into seven units. These are the readings that my students were required to write responses to and then discuss in class. This is a good survey of the current state of design theory.

Defining Design
Beautiful Diversion - NextD Journal
Are Designers The Enemy Of Design? - BusinessWeek
In which design is subjected to Lakovian analysis -
Defining Design -

Design Leadership
Design Vision
Managing is Designing? Exploring the Reinvention of Management - NextD
Design Vs. Design Thinking. - BusinessWeek
Leadership Is THE Strategic Issue - AIGA

The Design Landscape
What is graphic design? - AIGA
What is Industrial Design? - IDSA
What is IA? - IAI
Definition of IxD - IxDA
Designing for Interaction - Dan Saffer (pages 2-8 and 20-22)
Ladder of Fire: Unpacking Advocacies - NextD
IA Summit 09 - Plenary - Jesse James Garrett
What is Design? (Yes, all 10 definitions!) - Demystifying Usability
Why Does Interaction Design Matter? Let’s Look At The Evolving Subway Experience - FastCompany
10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design - Mashable
What is service design? - Design Council
Engine Service Design
Richard Buchanan Keynote – Emergence 2007 « Design for Service
An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research - Dubberly

Design Methods
The students researched specific methods individually and presented them to the class, rather than having assigned readings, but I did provide the following resources as starting points.
Stories - Boxes and Arrows
NASA - Process: User Centered Design Methods
Use our methods - Stanford 
Design methods - Design Council

Design & Business
AIGA Center for Practice Management - Trademark Basics for Graphic Designers
AIGA | Aquent Survey of Design Salaries
Intellectual Property: What does “Work for Hire” mean for designers? - AIGA
Why Does My Firm Own Everything I Do? Intellectual Property & You - Core77
The State of our Contracts - AIGA
American Firms Now Embrace Design, But They’re Aging Fast. What’s Next? - Co. Design
The Cost of Frustration - UIE
No Accounting For Design? - Fast Company
Dos and Don’ts for Designers Dealing with Business - Core77
On Being T-Shaped - Core77
Ten Ways to Measure Design’s Success - BusinessWeek

Social & Organizational Change
Hourschool: Learn from your network, one hour at a time. - AC4D
AIGA | Design for Good
Redesigning America’s Future
Introduction: Design and Organizational Change - Richard Buchanan
Marc Rettig - How to Change Complicated Stuff - IxDA Library
RED Paper 02: Transformation Design
The Designers Accord
Navigating a Sea Change - Lauralee Alben

Design Ethics
AIGA | Ethics and Social Responsibility 
AIGA | Logo Warehouses, Crowdsourcing, and a Lack of Understanding 
AIGA | What’s the harm in crowdsourcing? 
AIGA | AIGA position on spec work 
AIGA | Design Business and Ethics 
AIGA | AIGA urges the Obama 2012 campaign to reconsider its jobs poster contest 
What is AIGA’s position on spec work? And how are ethical standards determined?
AIGA Standards of professional practice
Ethics in the Design Field - Webdesigner Depot
The Politics of Desire and Looting - Design Observer
"This is what I have learned" by Milton Glaser
First Things First 2000
First Things First 1964
In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design — AIGA

Design Education
Design Research and Education: A Failure of Imagination? - Core77 
Why Design Education Must Change - Core77 
Teaching Social Innovation - Austin Center for Design
What this Country Needs is a Good Five-Year Design Program - AIGA

Design Vocabulary: Discoverability

Unlike the word findability, which I covered last week, discoverability can be found in the dictionary as “The quality of being discoverable.” Also unlike findability, it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia entry, but instead is included as a section under usability. This section doesn’t really explain discoverability, asking questions that are more about learnability, which I’ll address another day. 

So if Wikipedia is no help, and the dictionary only states the obvious, where can we find a relevant definition of the word? I found a deck on SlideShare posted three years ago called Designing for Discoverability by Steve Mulder and Joanne McLernon of Molecular. Just as my discussion that touched off this series on design vocabulary, they define it in contrast to findability.

Findability = the quality of a known item to be locatable on a web site

Discoverability = the quality of a known or unknown item to be noticeable on a web page

They are drawing a distinct line here between the two. Findability is about searching for something within the scope of an entire site (or other body of content, like the entire web), while discoverability is about noticing something within the scope of a single page (or screen). They go on to list the components of discoverability:

  • Position
  • Context
  • User Expectations & Conventions
  • Design
  • Text & Labeling

Design is further broken down into:

  • Real Estate & Size
  • Visual Miscommunication
  • Color & Imagery
  • Typography
  • Animation

That all makes sense to me, but if we’re going to accept this dichotomy, we need more evidence of its general acceptance within the UX community. Scott Berkun, author and speaker, wrote an essay in August of 2003 titled The myth of discoverability, in which he begins by stating that “Discoverability is often defined as the ability for a user of a design to locate something that they need, in order to complete a certain task.” After dispelling the myth that a good user interface makes everything extremely discoverable, Scott goes on to explain how you decide what to make discoverable, the difference between discoverable and discovered, and how you make something discoverable. He has his own, quite similar list:

  • Real Estate
  • Order
  • Expectation & Flow
  • Consistency

More recently, in March of 2011, Suzanne Ginsburg, consultant and author, published an article in UX Magazine titled The Evolution of Discoverability. Her definition is near identical to Scott’s: “the ability for users to locate something they need to complete a certain task.” Suzanne takes an inventory of strategies for improving discoverability as found in iPad apps.

Given the evidence, I think Dan Saffer’s postulate is correct. Findability is regarding content, while discoverability is regarding functionality. 

Design Vocabulary: Findability

Findability is not a word you will find in a standard dictionary. It does, however, have a Wikipedia entry, where it is defined as “a term for the ease with which information contained on a website can be found, both from outside the website and by users already on the website.” Wikipedia gives credit for coining the term to Alkis Papadopoullos in his article, Findability: The Key to Enterprise Search, published in April of 2005. I don’t believe that is correct; read on.

Wikipedia goes on to say that the term was popularized by Peter Morville, who defined it as “the ability of users to identify an appropriate Web site and navigate the pages of the site to discover and retrieve relevant information resources.” In fact, a few months after Alkis’ article, Morville published the book Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. One would presume he had been writing the book for longer than five months. Peter maintains his own blog on the topic at, where he says, “Findability refers to the quality of being locatable or navigable. At the item level, we can evaluate to what degree a particular object is easy to discover or locate. At the system level, we can analyze how well a physical or digital environment supports navigation and retrieval.” It is also on his blog that I found a prominent link to his article, The Age of Findability, which is dated April 29th of 2002. In this article, Peter states that, “Findability isn’t limited to content. Nor is it limited to the Web. Findability is about designing systems that help people find what they need.”

What I’ve found in my research is that the common use of the word is in relation to searching for content. It is used heavily in discussions about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), writing for the web, and various content-searching user interface approaches. This is how Jakob Nielsen uses it in his article Use Old Words When Writing for Findability, and there are many related articles to be found on Boxes and Arrows. However, it is also used in reference to functionality of user interfaces that provide access to content, as is the case in the article Findability, Orphan of the Web Design Industry by Aarron Walter, available on A List Apart.

Design Vocabulary

I had a brief discussion over Twitter today with Dave Malouf triggered by a question tweeted by Dan Saffer:

“Is it safe to say FINDABILITY is regarding content, while DISCOVERABILITY is regarding functionality?”

I agreed with him, as long as visual design was being included as part of “functionality.” Dave, however, thought we were making an arbitrary distinction. The disagreement, as it turned out, was based on a contextual understanding of the use of these terms within Interaction Design and Information Architecture literature. I, and I assume Dan as well, based on his postulate, generally understand findability to be dependent on attributes of content, such as its structure, vocabulary, and metadata. These attributes make it easier or harder to find specific, desired information within a larger body. The term is most often used in relation to search and filtering of content. Discoverability, on the other hand, is more often used in reference to the discovery of functionality within a user interface. Dave did not have the same associated meanings with the terms, which rather surprised me, as I expect we have a fair amount of overlap in the design knowledge we’ve been exposed to.

This got me thinking about design vocabulary, especially in the context of the IxDn00b series I’ve started. There are a lot of terms, like findability, that didn’t used to be words, but were invented to allow us to more clearly discuss our domain. I’m going to begin a series here on DesignAday that will explore design vocabulary, from today’s technical jargon to our terminology from the origins of our trade. I think I’ll have fun doing the research, and I hope you will enjoy the fruit, and perhaps learn something.

Company Blogs

A couple weeks ago, I posted a list of IxD blogs and mentioned that company blogs would be posted separately. Then several things occurred, such as the release of the iPhone 4S with Siri and Steve Job’s passing, that I had to write about. Today, I’ll continue my IxDn00b series as promised.

You can often learn as much or more about an Interaction Design firm by reading their blog as the rest of their website. Many design firms are making significant contributions to our body of knowledge, and anyone new to the field should be taking advantage of these outstanding learning opportunities. This is a list of blogs from some of the top firms in our industry, but it is by no means a complete list. Find a firm you are interested in, and they will likely have some interesting things to say.

Adaptive Path
This is a very prolific group. Every member of the firm takes a turn, and it is all quality content. This list is alphabetically ordered, but I’d put them first anyway.

It’s not surprising that one of their larger categories is Personas, but with fifty categories and over twenty contributors, you can bet there is plenty of breadth and depth to be found in their archives. 

I honestly don’t know much about this experience design consultancy, but their blog, Putting People First, is one of the best sources for user centered design news on the web. 

More than just a blog, Frog gives us Design Mind, an entire online journal with articles from their printed magazine, videos, a podcast, a monthly newsletter, events, and 32 blogs. They take publishing seriously.

With an archive stretching back to 1999, IDEO’s blog contains mostly news about the firm: events, awards, speaking engagements, and the like. The thing is, they author enough content for other publications, it fills their blog too. Be sure to check out the By IDEO page, too. 

Kicker Studio
Are you interested in touch, haptics, gestures, physical interfaces, and robots? This ain’t your grandpa’s Interaction Design blog.

Lunar has a very academic approach to their blog, and I mean that in the very best way. They know what they’re talking about, and they express it very clearly. They also have an outstanding podcast. 

With categories ranging from Smart Textiles and Wearable Technology, to Organizational Design and Health Innovation, Method is a diverse firm with a blog to match.

Get wonderful insights into the process of designing software from the design firm turned product developer. Signal vs. Noise, their blog, regularly lays out the decision making that goes into the tiniest of details.

Smart Design
“Our design leadership is reflected not only in the work we do, but in how we engage the design community, participate in public dialogue, and share expertise and insight with the world at large.” Yep, that covers it. 

I don’t know of anyone else that has the volume of usability anecdotes that Jared Spool can rattle off the top of his head. Need convincing of the value of good design? Jared’s got the goods, and he shares them on his blog, Brain Sparks.

Like IDEO, this is more a news feed than a blog, but it provides links to good work and thoughtful writing.