The Myths of UX Design/ Product Design/Whatever They Call It This Week

As with my other “myth” article, it starts with me reading an essay, frothing at the mouth a bit, running out of characters on Twitter and ending up here where I can type more than 140 characters.

Like the previous essay, this will be short, sloppy and probably full of typos. Oh and incomplete. Super incomplete.

My credentials for this rant: I was a designer (IA/IxD/UX), as a Product Manager, I worked with UX Designers and managed not to murder them, I managed UXDs as both a Design Director and as a GM, and now I’m teaching them at CCA. I have the disdain one can only have for one’s own people.


#1 “UX designers focus almost entirely on interfaces”

This myth is prevalent because it is often true. There are dozens of job listings for a UX/UI designer as if the company doesn’t care what you call yourself, as long as they get an interface out of it. But pretty is as pretty does, and a UX designer must design that pretty interior NOT just the exterior.

A UX Designer owns designing the experience of the product, excluding marketing and customer service.

I emphasize designing, because their partners Product Management and Engineering share product strategy and execution.

UX Design does NOT “own” the user experience. Product Management does.

I emphasize excluding because while the user’s experience includes marketing, support and more, the UX Design does not typically touch this and this might be why the title is confusing and messy and a bunch of folks are moving to Product Designer these days. People want to who do it all call themselves Service Designers. It’s a thing, look it up.

User Experience Design is the design of:

  • The Concept Model, which teaches the user (and often the team) how to think about the system’s organization and use.
  • Interaction Design: how the system behaves including feedback systems.
  • Information Architecture: how data is ordered and expressed as information to users.
  • User Interface (UI): how the user accesses all the glory listed out above, including affordances such as buttons and dropdowns. 
    Sometimes this job is shared with graphic design and copywriters, other times you’re it. (Side note: if you don’t have a writer on staff, please don’t make the engineer write error messages. Words are part of the UI and you should be good at it.)

Got it?

If you ONLY design the interface, call yourself a UI design and stop confusing people.

#2 You can’t Design an Experience

I don’t want to go down this rabbit hole, so:

  • Disneyland
  • Per Se/French Laundry
  • Lord of the Rings trilogy (I’m not discussing the Hobbit movies with you either)
  • GAMES! Monument Valley, Journey, Dance Central, even Dots and Threes. Go read about MDA.

And that is just a short list experiences people have designed.

Are we done here?

#3 UX Designers are the User Advocate

This is such a dangerous one.

  1. It suggests that it’s the designer’s job, not everybody’s job. In great companies, everyone is the user’s advocate.
  2. It places the design in conflict with the business, instead of both collaborating to find a solution that serves the user and the business.
  3. It can create a sense of entitlement and disregard to other’s insights, for example marketing, data mining, or customer service who see other aspects of the user’s experience. (I have seen this)
  4. Yes, sometimes you are the only person at the company who cares about the user. But that's probably because they are a bad company, and they will probably go out of business so might as well start job hunting now.

You are not the user advocate; everyone is. You are the designer. Enjoy! you still get to make people’s lives better.

#4 UX Designers make things pretty, like Apple.

See #1.

Also, see iTunes.

When everyone suddenly wanted to be Apple, they went out and got their own UX Designer to sprinkle some happy experience-pixie-dust on their product.

  1. Pretty is not enough.
  2. Sprinkling some UX on things is a pig-lipstick exercise.

If you want things to be good, they have to good from the inside out. Start with a core team of UX designer, engineer and product manager, and empower them to all serve the user and the business by making something that’s good from architecture to interface.

If you can’t be bothered to make something good, go hire a black hat marketeer to rebrand your rotten apple as “organic partially-fermented high-anti-oxidant apples.”

#5 The UX designer doesn’t exist, because no one can do all that.

… no one can do all those things as well as a team of specialists.

But a small company, or even a small team in a big company has ONE HEADCOUNT. So no, they aren't going to hire a information architect and a interaction design and a visual designer and a user researcher. And honestly, stop explaining the difference, because the servers are melting down and revenue is free fall and the CEO is breathing down her neck.

Anyone running a small team is going to hire a UX Designer, and hope to high heaven that one person is good enough at enough of those things to get the job done. If the person hiring (I’m picturing a product manager/GM or a cofounder) is smart, they’ll know what that UX person should be great at, and what that person can be “good enough” at. She may need a UX Designer who has great interaction design skills or understands databases but makes ugly interfaces. He may need a UX Designer who has mad graphic design chops and decent UI skills, because it’s a fashion app. Anyhow, the engineer read Don Norman’s book and won’t shut up about usability so that’s covered.

UX Designers are never good at everything, but they are good at one thing and decent at a couple more, and that’s enough for most jobs.


There was one more line in Raph’s article that bugged me, and since I have never heard it anywhere else, I can’t really call it a myth. But I can still rant.

UX is about clarity that hides complexity, and game design is about clarity that teaches complexity.”


UXD and GD must both always be “clarity that teaches complexity.” Because Excel is hard. And Microsoft Word is hard (talk about hiding complexity!) And photo management and music management and OS design and so many things are hard. Our current tools are just as complex as games, and to hide their power is a waste of the work of engineering. More importantly, it’s a waste of a chance to make our users into badasses, as Kathy Sierra says.

UXD can learn so much from Game Design. It can learn about progression and mastery and the joy of flow. But Game Design can learn from UXD; it can learn about transparent interfaces, crisp feedback and supporting core tasks, be they work or play.

Which brings me back to the title I gave this rant. I often wonder why game design is game design, but UX Design is web design/interaction design/information architecture/product design/software design.

I think, I suspect, that it’s because the role is still too generic. What UXD’s design “anything?” How can anyone be truly great at that?

I’m far from sure that interaction design or information architecture is much better. Search design is not the same as recommendation engine design and occasional use scenarios or different from daily use scenarios. How can anyone be great across so many contexts?

Perhaps the future is a world where we have Digital Tool Designers and Search Designers and Social Network designers. Maybe the future is focusing on a problem space rather than an aspect of the work.

I do know the changing titles, roles and specialties is annoying and frustrating to me, and I actually care. Is it any wonder people are hiring for “UX/UI?” Rather than complaining, perhaps we should just talk to those folks and help them make good product rather than correct their terminology.

It’s no myth that something is broken here, and I hope this essay sparks some ideas about how to fix it.

— ❤ —

I wrote this book and IT‘S NOT ABOUT UX DESIGN. But it’s a fun read (look at my Amazon reviews for proof!)(I don’t even know half those people!) and it has a lot to do with getting a diverse group of people to work together toward a common goal.

Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results
How do you inspire a diverse team to work together, going all out in pursuit of a single, challenging goal? How do you get your team to commit to bold goals? How do you stay motivated despite setbacks and disappointments? And what do you do when it looks like you’re headed for failure?
Next Story — Why Key Results Need to Be Results
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Why Key Results Need to Be Results

If you know nothing about OKRs, please start here: Art of the OKR. Or buy my book, Radical Focus. I think it’s rather good.

An Objective is the goal you wish to achieve in a given time frame (typically one quarter.)

“Customers love us so much, they are our best sales team.”

Key Results are the metrics that change if we succeed. When creating Key Results, I look at the objective and see if there are words that could be quantified. In the example above, love becomes NPS and sales becomes referrals.

KR: NPS >80

KR: Referrals +25%

KR: “How did you hear of us” survey results: Friends and Family up 20%

Each of these key results answers the question, “if our customers were our sales team, what numbers would move?”

Sometimes when setting your OKRs, you come up with a key result first. For example, your CEO demands that revenue grow to 500K/mo. You need to ask yourself (or your CEO), what does that number tell us? We’re ready to raise a series B? Visitors are becoming customers? Users are screaming “take my money, please!” Every number has a story to tell, and that story is your objective. Once you have your objective, you can ask yourself if there are other good metrics to watch. Let’s say it was “ready to raise the next round.” You might choose retention, conversion or engagement numbers for the other KRs.

Having three key results is not required, but it is a good way to triangulate success. Retention balances revenue, so your team isn’t just squeezing a few bucks out of customers for a short term lift. Let the objective and key results inform each other.

Pipeline> Roadmap

Next, you come up with hypotheses around how to move these numbers. This becomes your strategy for achieving the objective. It can be anything from revamping the customer service process to better self-service help.

Now you can come up with the projects/tasks you need to accomplish in order to make those key results move. I call them tactics. It’s critical to come up with as many tactics as possible. Quantity leads to quality. These become your pipeline. I prefer pipeline to roadmaps. It’s important to stay nimble in if you want to hit your key results.

Sequence Your Tactics

Rate each tactic for:

  • effort
  • impact
  • likelihood of working

Now stack rank. The top of the list has low effort/high impact/likely to work. The bottom has shots in the dark.

Then comb through the top items for learning dependencies. i.e. “even though we’re not sure this will work, it is low effort and we’ll learn things that reduces the risk on this likely but high effort project.” Start with low effort/low impact /medium confidence if it will teach you that it’s worth doing a high effort/high impact/medium confidence.

Treat each tactic they way you treat a lean startup experiment. Measure, measure, measure.

Goals are fixed, strategy evolves, tactics change often.

Now you have a stack ranked pipeline, and it replaces your roadmap. Each time you try a tactic, you measure your KRs. If they don’t move, reorder the pipeline.

You need this freedom so you can evolve your strategy for achieving your objective.

Why Can’t Project Completion be a KR?

If you make a Key Result a project, you are locked into it even if it doesn’t work. Let’s pretend your OKRs look like this.

“Customers love us so much, they are our sales team.”

KR: New Self-service help area

KR: Love-driven marketing place, with tv commercials

KR: Customer service completes sales training.

It is completely possible to achieve every single one of these and not have any number you care about move. Revenue could stay flat. Acquisition could go down. Retention could do a belly flop. Once your team is checking to do lists instead of watching metrics, you’ve institutionalized self-delusion. You are also micromanaging, which is the easiest way to drive away A-players.

OKRs Allow Companies to Scale

Marty Cagan used this wonderful quote in his forward to Radical Focus

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what you need done and let them surprise you with their results.” 
 — General George Patton

Executives should set inspiring objectives with difficult key results, then trust their people to find a way to make those results a reality. As a leader, you can coach people, you can advise people, and you can review progress but you must not dictate tasks. Many new managers struggle to stop being product managers and become true leaders. As your team grows to 200 or 500, imagine deciding what every single person does with each day. It’s ridiculous.

You don’t scale. A goal-driven learning organization does.

Questions Turn Task into Results

When frontline teams set their OKRs, they will stick tactics in there. Engineers, designers and product managers are solutions people. If you spot a project in an OKR, ask a few questions.

  • Why this project? Why is important?
  • What will accomplish? What will change?
  • How do you know if it’s successful?
  • What numbers will move if it works?
  • How does that tie into the company’s objective?

If you get an OKR from your reports that looks like this:

O: New Self-Serve Help Area

Kr: Better search

Kr: New FAQ

Kr: Forums

You can help it become this

O: The company helps our customers succeed when they are struggling.

KR: “Did this help” rating rises 15%

KR: Problem resolved rating on FAQ improves 30%

KR: Peer-to-peer help forum has DAU of 2K

If a result is a result, you can change your tactics until the numbers move. If a result is a project, you have locked yourself into achieving it, even if you find out it’s the wrong approach.

Also, buy my book. :D

Next Story — Beyond the Slide
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Beyond the Slide

It’s 2006, and I’m sitting in the office of my pal Rashmi’s company, Uzanto. We’ve been chatting about her business, then she leans forward and whispers conspiratorially, “We’ve started on something new. It’s Youtube for PowerPoint.”

“Oh cool,” I replied. “I think people might like that!”

Six years later, when SlideShare was acquired by Linkedin, it hosted nine million presentations, and had 29 million people perusing those decks.

People do like that. Peoples like slides.

While I’m happy for Rashmi, I worry about us. As well as SlideShare’s meteoric rise, the most popular books on presenting — Slide:ology and Presentation Zen — are distinctly slide-centric.

How is it we’ve become so obsessed with slides?

“Slides break the connection between the presenter and audience. Only use them when they document an experience firsthand in a way that beats verbal description.” Jeremy Donovan, TEDx organizer

Slides are not a presentation. If slides are done well, they are a visual accompaniment to the spoken presentation. Each slide should reinforce the talk’s ideas in a way that makes those concepts memorable and accessible.

When done poorly they are a series of bullet points made to help the speaker know what to say. They can serve as a talk’s CliffNotes, but when used on stage they distract from the speaker’s words. So the rise of SlideShare makes me nervous. It means the norm is that slides suck (albeit in a useful way.)

Why do we have slides?

They are NOT supposed to be notes for the speaker. Those you make on index cards. A slide deck should complement the speaker’s message. I’m not against slides; roughly 2/3rds of our brain is involved in visual processing of one sort or another. It seems wasteful to not take advantage of that. But slides are not the heart of the talk nor are they the only way to bring a talk to life. If you have to give a speech and your first act is to open PowerPoint, you're doing it wrong.

If Not Slides, Then What?

If we put on a play, we help our audience visualize with costume, sets and props. Why not more often in presentations? The big names do it. Nancy Duarte discusses the importance of having a S.T.A.R. moment: Something They’ll Always Remember. Her clients often accomplish this with props.

For example, Michael Pollen wanted to tell people how much oil they were consuming when they consume fast food. He could have done this with a chart, or even a clever turn of phrase, like “every Big Mac requires a quart of oil to make.” But instead, he takes his time and slowly pours actual oil into glass after glass as he described each step of burger processing.

Pouring disgusting black goo in drinking glasses is visceral — more powerful than a pie chart and more memorable than a metaphor.

Other effective S.T.A.R. moments include Bill Gates releasing a jar of mosquitoes into the TED auditorium, Jill Bolte Taylor picking up a real brain in gloved hands, and Steve Jobs pulling an iPod Nano from his jean’s watch pocket.

And who can forget Al Gore on a forklift in “An Inconvenient Truth?”

Using props and dramatic gestures may sound uncomfortable at first, but it’s critical to get past that. Once you agree to step on stage, you are a performer.

A presentation is not about you. It’s about your audience's journey. And your job is to do what it takes to make that person’s journey pleasurable and engaging, finally arriving at the destination you’ve chosen, be it to awareness, knowledge or a shift in opinion.

“Don’t become a caption to your own presentation.” — Richard Saul Wurman

What Else Can We Do?

I had just wrapped up a short workshop on storytelling techniques, and was helping to tidy up the conference room. A conference volunteer dashed into the room, and held a USB stick up. “I’m here to collect your presentation!”

I smiled, and gestured to the walls, covered with flipcharts. “I don’t think it’ll fit,” I grinned.

The volunteer’s smile faded away into confusion.

“I’m sorry, I live drew this talk. I don’t have any PowerPoint.” I continued.

“The organizers like to provide slides for people who can’t make every session,” The volunteer’s phrasing suggested a memorized script.

“I’m afraid you just had to be here!” I replied sunnily. “Tell you what, I’ll email them an essay on the topic.”

There are a growing number of us live-drawing our talks. With the rise of sketchnoting and visual thinking, more people than ever have enough visual literacy to represent their ideas on paper… or flipcharts, or a projected ipad.

In Draw Your Future, Patti Dobrowolski uses a massive paper canvas to illustrate her talk. She draws out each key idea as she explains it. Sketchnoters have been live sketching talks other people give for some time, but Patti drew her own, and it’s incredibly effective.

Here’s why:

  • Audiences LOVE to watch people draw. Bob Ross taught us that. I have no idea why drawing is so mesmerizing, but I know from my travels that if I stop and sketch, someone will come and rubberneck. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good drawing or a bad one, if you are drawing, people will watch you like a mongoose eying a cobra.
  • You can see the entire talk. With slides, you can only see one slide at a time, and you have to reply on the audience’s memory to make connections. Patti’s giant canvas approach (pioneered by Dave Sibbert)gives the audience the ability to see all the points at once and how they are related.

I teach an entrepreneurship class at California College of the Arts, and my students have to present every single week. One group bravely tried a different style every week. My favorite week was the one where they drew the entire presentation out on a long whiteboard in our classroom.

Jenny, Sergio and Essie rock the whiteboard as they give their “Lessons Learned” presentation.

They used many of the smart tricks used by live sketchers everywhere:

  • Predraw parts of your canvas. Having a layout guides your talk and provides a blueprint. Pre-drawing acts both to remind you what’s next and to tease the audience with a glimpse of what’s to come.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t draw everything, draw the key points. Use recognizable icons.
  • Practice every drawing. You can’t figure out how to draw an envelope or a shopping cart for the first time when you are on stage. Plan what you will draw and how you’ll render it. Practice until it’s effortless.
  • Use a limited set of colors. Switching markers takes time, can look awkward, and results in a messy canvas anyhow. Restraint is your friend.

You don’t have to be any good at drawing to use it to support your point. Check out Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why.”

He only draws circles. They aren’t even good circles. They are more of ovals. And his handwriting and spelling is atrocious. IT DOESN’T MATTER. His message is clear and memorable. His drawing bangs home his points.

He does a lot with very little. You can too.


You can Live-draw your talks two different ways: on the wall or projected on screen.

On the wall.

First, make sure you have a wall. This may sound funny, but most stages don’t have a wall to hang a large sheet of paper on. You can use a flipchart easel, but it shakes.

Graham Shaw

Graham Shaw hugs his flipchart. You can see him doing it in his TEDx talk, Why people believe they can’t draw — and how to prove they can.

This presses the easel down, giving it stability. It also keeps him from turning his back on the audience.

There are times when the walls are not an option.

At Stanford, I teach in a room in Lathrop Library that is full of pillars blocking the sightlines. Luckily, it also has monitors on every wall. If I draw on the whiteboard, my students crane their necks and struggle to keep up. If I project, everyone can see.

You may also get a room with no viable walls, or a hotel that will not let you hang anything on the walls (I have had this happen.) You may have to project your drawings.

Projected Drawing

If you want to project your drawing on screen, you can either use a document camera or a touch-screen device. Drawing on a touch screen is harder and less precise. A document camera is a way to turn any piece of paper into an overhead projector (remember those!) You can watch Dave Gray use it in this video.

Dave swears by his Elmo. I love my Ziggi. I have also used the ultra-compact Hovercam as well, and it’s only slightly more awkward but much smaller and lighter. It’s great to have a document camera in your pocket for explaining things remotely as well as on screen.

Dave and I both use big index cards and Sharpies to sketch. The thick pen makes the drawings easier to read, and keep you from getting fussy. Veronica Erb pre-draws some of her Index cards, using some as you might use slides and creating the others on the spot.

You can also use your tablet or other touch device. Cameron Moll wrote up his experience presenting with 53’s Paper app.

What’s Best?

When I gave my Story workshop, I gave it twice. The first day everything went as planned, and I used a document camera to project my drawing as I sat at a table at the top of the room.

The second day my computer decided it didn’t want to talk to the projector. Or the projector didn’t want to talk to my computer. But since I had flipcharts for the exercises, I got up and drew on the walls instead. Thus by accident I discovered the many advantages of paper on walls.

  • You can see the entire talk at once, as I mentioned earlier. I’d draw on one flip chart, then put it up next to the previous one, creating a trail through my ideas. When it came time to do exercises, the attendees could easily refer back to previous examples.
  • You are up and interacting with the audience, rather heads down at the table. When at the whiteboard, your body language is open, rather than closed, and that invites the audience to interact with you. Look at these two photos taken at one of my Design Thinking Workshops. In it, I use everything: slides, whiteboards and the document camera.
Look how much more inviting the presentation is when i’m up at the whiteboard.

When I teach the fundamentals of drawing, the document camera is perfect, because it reduces people’s anxiety. I’m not “watching” them. A flipchart or whiteboard is much better for encouraging questions and discussion.

Live drawing is engaging, entertaining and interactive. I think it’s got slide beat hands down.

“PowerPoint is like being trapped in the style of early Egyptian flatland cartoons rather than using the more effective tools of Renaissance visual representation.”
Edward R. Tufte, Beautiful Evidence

Can’t We Please Use Slides?

Sure! I still use slides, especially when I have to give a talk on short notice. Slides are still the easiest way to illustrate your ideas. And there are a ton of books on how to make them good slides, from Slide:ology to Presentation Zen.

But consider this: How many slides?

Lots of folks give their talks with no slides. They just talk. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King did fine without a slidedeck.

Just talking is a viable strategy.

At the last IA Summit, Cory Doctorow gave a talk with one slide. It was of a “Internet of Things” rectal thermometer. That thermometer helped make many of his points.

Many speakers are no longer finding an image for every single point. Instead, they show a black slide, which makes the screen seem to go dark. You can use three, five or twenty slides, and “go dark” when you want the audience to focus on your words alone.

Scott McCloud has over a hundred slides in his talks. He believes firmly that imagery reinforces message, and less is not more.

His daughter Sky’s is even more vertigo-inducing. You cannot look away, every moment is full of vision and ideas.

The right number of slides depends on you, your style and your story.

Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog

A presentation is first and foremost a performance. It’s your job as a speaker to find a way to make your points as effectively as you can. If you start with your message, you’ll know what the right way to express it is.

Next time you are asked to speak, don’t open PowerPoint. Instead grab a pencil and a stack of Post-its and get your ideas organized. Then, when you know what you want to say, decide how to say it. Maybe it’ll be drawing. Maybe it’ll be juggling! Or maybe you’ll make a deck. And it will be a good deck, with just the right number of words and pictures.

Your audience will thank you.

You may also want to read:

In Praise of Q&A

The Secret to a Great Presentation

Next Story — In Praise of Q&A
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In Praise of Q&A

At a recent conference, I ran into the organizer at the first coffee break of the morning. She was fuming.

“They keynote.” She growled.

“What? It was a strong talk.”

“She ran short! It was a 20 minute talk!”

“She did Q&A and we ended on time.”

“She ran short! It was half a keynote! It could have been a disaster!”

“But it wasn’t.”

Being a conference organizer is stressful.

If a speaker runs short, it’s a problem. Had the keynote speaker not taken Q&A for another 25 minutes, the attendees would have headed out to the morning break. The food and coffee wouldn’t have been fully set up yet, so attendees would complain. Any goodwill created by the first session would have dissipated as people began to check email and make phone calls.

When speakers run long it’s worse. The entire day can be disrupted, resulting in late lunches and receptions and crabby attendees. A speaker’s job is to land her talk within 5 minutes of the designated ending.

The solution to running short or long is simple. Plan to to hold a Question & Answer session at the end of the talk. If you have a 45 minute talk, you can plan to give it in 35 minutes. If you run long you’ll just answer fewer questions. If you are nervous and talk quickly, you answer more.

Yet it’s become fashionable to skip Q&A. I think this is a mistake. It’s a disservice to the audience and to yourself.

I made the exact same mistake as the keynote speaker in my story the first time I performed The Executioner’s Tale. I gave a 20 minute talk in a 45 minute slot. But there were a ton of questions at the end, and like the keynoter above, I used rest of the slot to answer them.

The questions themselves were a revelation. I learned all the places in the talk where I was unclear and where I might elaborate. The audience taught me how to make my talk better.

Own Your Q&A Session

Maybe it’s my love of improv, but I always enjoy Q&A. I like to break down the weird barrier between me and the audience, and really get to talk to them.

Here’s some ways to make it run smoothly.

  • Give the audience time to form a question.
    Time runs differently on stage. What seems like an eternity onstage is only seconds to the audience. I know a speaker who says, all in one breath, “OkAnyQuestions?I’veClearlyStunnedYouIntoSubmission.ThankYou!” and dashes off stage like the hounds of hell are chasing her.

People in the audience need a moment to gather their thoughts. Try warning the audience that Q&A is coming, e.g. “We’re going to have Q&A now. Please line up at the microphones in the aisles. If you have any questions about my key points, X, Y or Z, I’d love to hear them!”

An economics professor I know gave me the advice, “Get good at being comfortable with uncomfortable silences. Be patient, and let students think.” It’s the same for audiences.

I wait for a full ten seconds, counting silently, “One-mississippi, Two-mississippi…” because I know what feels like ten minutes to me in the spotlight is only seconds to them. Then I look at the audience, to make sure no one is starting to raise their hands tentatively. If I see the half-lift, I give a smile and nod to them to encourage them.

  • Answer the question you wish you were asked.
    In my years speaking, I’ve been asked incoherent questions, rude questions and off-topic questions. Luckily, in a previous job, I was given media training. The only thing that stuck was the old adage, “answer the question you wished you were asked.”

When asked a stinky question, I ask myself, if that was a good question, what would it be? Then I answer the good one. If I badly misread the questioner’s intent, they’ll stalk me down at the pastry table during the break. It’s more important to respect the needs of the room full of people listening to my answer. Which leads me to…

  • Don’t let the questioner become the presenter.
    If someone is taking the scenic route to the question, you have every right to interrupt and ask “I’m sorry, maybe I’m confused. Could you restate your question?” If someone says, “This is more of an observation than a question,” you can stop them after the first sentence or two and say, “that’s fascinating, but I know there are a lot of folks with questions and I’d like to get to as many as possible. Let’s talk further after?” It’s even easier when there is a line for the mic you can’t point to as proof. 
    It is your responsibility to the audience to manage the folks who wish they were the one on stage.
  • Don’t turn Q&A into debate.
    If the questioner has control of the microphone, he may choose to disagree with your answer or want to ask follow up questions. I’ve seen a question turn into an attempt to get free consulting. Out of respect for the audience, don’t let anyone be a microphone hog. Answer one follow up question if you wish, but then use the same explanation, “I want to make sure I get to as many people as possible.” If they disagree, I recommend saying “Thank you for that. Any other questions?”
  • Visibly enjoy the questions.
    Most of your questioners are from people who loved your talk and want to learn more. They are your acolytes. Treat them well, and they’ll become your fans. Very rarely is a questioner an interrogator or a spotlight thief. Smile, listen closely, and treat each person your new friend. Keeping it classy makes it safe for others to ask questions as well.
  • End on a high note.
    When I’m doing Q&A, I’ll seek to finish on an inspiring or hopeful answer. Then, even if I have a few more minutes, I’ll wrap there. It’s good to leave folks feeling good.

David Nihill, in his book “Do You Talk Funny” recommends having a final slide where you sum up your key points that you return to after Q&A. This allows you to finish with a prepared final word. I haven’t tried it, but I will…

A year after my unfortunate delivery of The Executioner’s Tale in 20 minutes, I gave it again in South America. I finished neatly at the 35 minute mark and asked if there were any questions. No one raised their hands.

Damn, was I going to end ten minutes early? Would that be okay?

I looked at the audience and saw they were leaning forward, clearly engaged. I wondered if the lack of questions was a cultural issue. Were they afraid to ask a question in English?

So I asked them, “Do you want to know what the most common questions I get about OKRs?”

The audience roared out a yes, and I ran a one-woman Q&A session. I knew what people always ask about OKRs from previous Q&A sessions, and I had good answers. When I finally said my thank yous, the room thundered with applause.

Give a Q&A a Chance

No talk is perfect. Every audience is different, and you can’t predict with 100% certainty what they understand and what they won’t. Give people a chance to get clarification.

You are not a robot. You can’t give the same performance perfectly every time. Some days you’ll drink too much coffee and talk too fast. Other days you’ll be tired (or jetlagged) and run long. Some days it’s the guy who speaks right before that will run long. You might be able to destress the organizer with your masterful use of Q&A.

Don’ t be afraid of Q&A. Don’t throw away its many benefits. Be brave and let your audience talk back to you.

You might learn something.

Next Story — Is this my interface or yours?
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Is this my interface or yours?

A piece about perspective

The evolution of My Computer

Remember back in the day when Windows had a My Computer icon? It was a glorious little icon that represented all the stuff you had on your computer—all your programs, all your work, all the digital pieces of you.

In later versions of Windows, Microsoft changed the label of this icon to Computer, then changed it again to This PC. Did they change it because “my” was misleading? Inconsistent? Unnecessary?

This little change got me thinking about a bigger question: Why do products sometimes label things as my stuff, and sometimes label things as your stuff?

What do you call your stuff?

As you tap around from app to app, you’ll see that there’s no standard way to refer to the things that belong to you within an interface. Some say it’s my stuff. Some say it’s your stuff.

YouTube and Google Drive call it “my” stuff. Spotify and Amazon call it “your” stuff.

If you’re designing an interface, does it matter whether the words are written from the user’s point of view or the product’s point of view? I think there’s a subtle difference, and it all depends on how you want your users to feel while using your product.

“My” point of view

By using “my” in an interface, it implies that the product is an extension of the user. It’s as if the product is labeling things on behalf of the user. “My” feels personal. It feels like you can customize and control it.

By that logic, “my” might be more appropriate when you want to emphasize privacy, personalization, or ownership. And maybe that’s why My Computer worked well years ago. Back then, a computer was almost always a single-player experience. People usually didn’t share files, and all their stuff felt safe inside that one little icon.

Mine. All mine.

“Your” point of view

By using “your” in an interface, it implies that the product is talking with you. It’s almost as if the product is your personal assistant, helping you get something done. “Here’s your music. Here are your orders.”

By that logic, “your” might be more appropriate when you want your product to sound conversational—like it’s walking you through some task. Whether it’s paying bills, scheduling an appointment, or filling out tax forms, many products help people do things faster, smarter, and more easily.

Nowadays, computers and apps are even taking on the persona of a personal assistant. They have names like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. They help you take notes, remind you to buy milk, and read emails out loud to you.

Hey Siri, can you change my baby’s dirty diaper?

Many different apps, including Medium, give you recommendations. In my mind, I think of this like a personal assistant hand-picking stories for me to read today. I think this trend will only become more widespread, and we’ll probably see more and more apps using “your” instead of “my.”

No point of view

As with most things in design, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that works for every situation. But one thing that many products do nowadays is to just cut out words like “my” or “your” whenever labeling things that belong to the user.

No mention of “my” or “your” here.

And maybe this dropping of the “my” is the exact same approach that Windows took when it decided to change My Computer to Computer.

Unfortunately, cutting out “my” or “your” doesn’t work 100% of the time. Sometimes you really do need to differentiate the user’s stuff from someone else’s stuff. For example, in YouTube, you can’t just say “Channel,” because it’s not clear whether that’s referring to your channel, channels that you’ve subscribed to, or channels that YouTube is recommending to you.

Just using “Channel” won’t work in this context.

And maybe, just maybe, this is why Windows eventually changed Computer to This PC. It was because Computer was too ambiguous on its own, and they needed to clarify that they were referring to this computer.

Putting it all into perspective

Up until now, I’ve mainly been talking about the things that belong to you in an interface. That’s just a small fraction of the words that you’ll come across as a user. What about things like button labels, instructions, settings screens, and so on?

There are widely differing opinions on this, but here are the general guidelines I like to follow:

  • When to use me: Use I, me, my, or mine when the user is interacting with the product, like clicking a button or selecting a checkbox. But only add these words if you absolutely need to for clarity.
  • When to use you: Use you or your when your product is asking questions, giving instructions, or describing things to the user. Just imagine what a personal assistant might say.

“Our” point of view

Before I wrap up, I have to mention one more point of view that‘s pretty common out there: our point of view. This is when products use “we,” “our,” or “us” within the interface.

From Chase Bank’s homepage

By using “we,” “our,” or “us,” they’re actually adding a third participant into the mix — the people behind the product. It suggests that there are real human beings doing the work, not just some mindless machine.

If your product is selling people-powered services like cooking, designing, or cleaning, “we” adds a human touch. “We’re here to help.” “See our services.” Knowing that real humans are there, behind all those windows and boxes, can help the user feel a little more at ease.

On the other hand, if your product is an automated tool like Google’s search engine, “we” can feel misleading because there aren’t human beings processing your search. In fact, Google’s UI writing guidelines recommend not saying “we” for most things in their interface.

What’s your point of view?

I wrote this story because I’ve seen this question come up time and time again from designers, developers, and writers. Why do we use “my” here? Why do we use “your” there? And yet, I’ve seen very little of this documented externally in style guides.

Do you have your own guidelines for dealing with perspective in an interface? If so, I’d love to hear your point of view.

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