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Why We Need Less Design “Alternatives”, but More Design Iterations

February 17th, 2017

It’s so familiar in the life of designers, that a coworker, or somebody who owns the project, to say something like, “can you explore more alternatives?”, or “can we present 3–5 alternatives, and let the boss picks one or two?”.

I am one of those designers who believe less and less in “more” and “alternatives”, instead, I believe in a focused yet continuous iteration of one problem or flow.

There are some reasons why design alternatives are bad for the design process.

“Design alternatives” are often insecure, indecisive and wasteful ways of presenting and consolidating on designs.

Consider the following scenarios:

Inability to define priorities. I want to include feature A, B and C. I don’t know which one should be incorporated first. Should I even include all of them? Heck, why don’t we just provide 5 alternatives each sporting different sets of features? Who knows the boss or client might like it?

Lack of user insight. The user might want the ability to shuffle the list of images. Or they might not. Or they might. Heck, why don’t we present 10 alternatives at how we might do this?

Design or product bias. “Well, I did this for my previous company and it worked great!” — well yeah, what about this product you’re doing now? “It certainly is cool to do a visual collage of these! The customers will love it! You know I love it!” —well yeah, are you the customer? Why do you think a visual style works better than the rest? Oh heck, we can always prototype 5 more collage alternatives. Or even worse, “I don’t like this design. Try something else.” OK, you’re the customer.

In the end, presenting multiple alternatives of a design would usually end up in:

Combination fatigue. “Can we combine this cute picture of a monkey with a big type all over it, and then add some augmented functionality in it? Oh, don’t forget that correct blue tinge on the eyes of the monkey.” Suddenly, we’re not speaking the language of the users, but more of personal taste and heavy assumptions.

Micromanagement. Designers have reasons why they do something, be it from technological, cultural or time constraints. It is wise to give them problems, but never micromanage their answers. Even more, if you’re already taking part in nudging or nitpicking the visual elements. Never do that. Depart from the problem, always.

Design by committee. This is the worst, absolute worst thing that can happen in any design or product. While democracy is good, design needs decisiveness and ownership by the designers. There are some design choices that need to be made to assure that the design has empathy to the users, more than the business goals, more than personal goals. And this is achieved by trusting the designers a bit more.

What is a good alternative? Here’s what I am proposing:

Design one thing at a time, then iterate. Depart from clarity, focus, and insight for the users, business and other goals. But mostly, it should be the users first. Create one version of one thing, then explore more at the pace of one iteration at a time.

Set the key question and answer. At the very beginning, set the key question. What am I trying to do? What is the user trying to accomplish? Then, set a few key answers, and follow that strictly.

Focus on the experience, not the visuals. Visuals can come later, and they are the domain of the designers. Focus on the experience, the flow, the information architecture, and nail them down first. Then you can talk visuals.

If things fail and you need alternatives anyway: limit to 2, and be deliberate in the reasoning why you need the alternatives. Never combine features just because you like both things. It has to come from the user’s key question and answer.

Introducing DesignBits

January 4th, 2017

Introducing DesignBits, design courses delivered to your email inbox.

Many people want to learn design, be them programmers, copywriters, businesspeople, marketers, or even designers themselves who want to polish their design skills, but the problem is they don’t have the time to engage in a full-fledged design course, nor read books in their free time. We want to solve this problem by delivering snack-sized design lessons straight to their email inbox, in a specific period of time.

This is a paid lesson, so that I can focus on the quality, and will be in the format of emails, sent 8 times every week over the course of 8 weeks for every course. That’s about 8 week’s of weekend learning. Each email will be a concise length, complete with pictures and links to outside resources if any.

Ready to take the next step? Here is the course I am offering right now.

TYPOGRAPHY 101

USD99.00 for 8 weekly emails

In this course, you will learn the basics of typography. Get to know why typography matters. Learn the basic type anatomy, compositions, choosing typefaces and typeface pairing. Here’s a preview of what’s coming:

  • Week 1: What is Typography?
  • Week 2: The Anatomy of Type
  • Week 3: Weights & Styles
  • Week 4: Kerning, Tracking & Leading
  • Week 5: Glyphs, Hyphenations and other “Strange Things”: Get Familiar with Them
  • Week 6: Typographic Pairing
  • Week 7: Typographic Hierarchy
  • Week 8: Recap of the Course, Closure

Deadline for registration is January 30, 2017.
Course starts February 1, 2017.

Click on “Buy Course” to register!





Building a Design Culture: An Idea

September 30th, 2016

First up, disclaimer: I had no experience in building a design team from scratch, although I had managerial experience very briefly, and not in a very large team. That said, this idea is something that needs more experimentation and validation. However, I am pretty comfortable at sharing this to you.

I always found that companies everywhere are struggling with the idea of design. They are confused as how design should be positioned and treated. Mostly, they are part of the “production” process in which it is perceived to be a very mechanical mean to achieve something, and certainly, more often than not, they were not part of the stage where a business or product gets formulated. Most of the briefs we have as designers always come from such people called “stakeholders”. They probably had meetings in the ivory tower or somewhere in the mountains and only after they have a pretty solid idea of what they want, they begin to hire designers (and engineers, project managers, product managers, and the whole team saga).
This presents us designers a very nerving situation where our problem-solving skills are limited to answering the client’s predefined needs. We don’t have the opportunity to challenge the needs, the wants and the vision of the “clients”, because, well, uh, they paid us to do this job?
In the end, people always think designers are just the same as mechanics, and even worse, drivers on a car who don’t get to decide where to go. After all, that’s how business works, right? I pay you and you do work for me as I wish!

As a designer myself, I face constant challenge everyday where most of my design work is mostly client-driven, and this thing, although fun in some regards, is highly dependent on the quality of the client and the product. Once you lose passion or face a problem in that particular environment, you are tempted to move on. Thus, many designers I know are constantly job-hopping or going freelancing. They’re on the constant search for that “perfect environment.”

Thus, I am offering a little bit of solution here, both for companies or clients and the designers themselves.
For companies or clients, I think you should provide designers a room for mistakes. Even if you have a solid product idea, expect to get challenged. Challenge is good for your product to be improved. It also shows that your designers get excited and want to contribute more than just answering briefs. Even better: present your design team with a set of problems than a set of solutions. For example:

We need to find a safe & feel-good way to pay online.

That’s completely a different perspective than if we present the designers this brief:

We believe prepaid cards are the best way to pay online. Data X shows this is how it’s done in the US. We want to try here. Can you design an app for that?

The key difference is that one is an open-ended question, and needs research and validations, the latter one is already a conclusive statement (if not to say assumption).

It’s certainly easier to make-pretty a shitty idea, and if the product fails, blame it all to the designers & engineers who “didn’t do a great job”, and continue moving on to the “team search”, than if you engage your team to continually challenge your ideas and assumptions. You’re paying them to make your product better and loved, not to do what you say.

“But, I don’t have time for a trial and error. I have investment money pouring in with a strict schedule.”

Let’s think about this for a moment. This is actually where we all fail. The whole ecosystem is broken. We need to fix it. How do we fix it? By having a decency to convince our investors to have a bit of a breathing space to formulate the best product experience. It’s your job as a stakeholder.

Better yet, a fundamentally good business is always about bootstrapping. Start small. Nobody can build PayPal overnight.

As for designers, it’s our job to continually fight and make things better in every endeavour we take. Sometimes we have to lose it out, but don’t forget that we need to think beyond mechanical work. It is about building our confidence in defining and pushing for the product design process that works and benefits the users at first.

The idea is: A well-designed product is potentially a well-destined business.

Coaching Design Thinking at 1000 Digital Startups Movement

August 22nd, 2016

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About two weeks ago I’ve had an excellent opportunity to coach discerning startups on design thinking, based on the Google’s Design Sprint methodology. The startups are part of the 1000 Digital Startups Movement in Indonesia, where Kibar, the organizing entity, aims to collaborate with the government and partners to coach startups into incubation. It was done in Bukalapak‘s headquarter in Kemang.

They feel like there’s a missing link between idea and incubation or funding, which is the coaching part.

Here are some photos from that event.

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Learning UX from a Pair of Shoes

August 22nd, 2016

This is not a paid endorsement. It’s a journey that I’ve been through. A surprisingly good journey as a customer who bought a pair of shoes. With this pair, I also learned a great deal about good design and user experience.

Meet Skechers GOWalk for men & women. I believe they’re the most comfortable shoes of all the shoe pairs I’ve purchased in my lifetime. If there’s really a good way the metaphor “best bang for your bucks” could relate to, it would be this.
I’ve had a great deal of experience with shoes. Being an avid walker in some points in my life, I have always considered a good pair of shoes a good investment.

By “good”, I always looked at the durability and look.

Although, honestly, in my first forays into shoe shopping, I’ve always looked for the “look” first. Would it look good on me? I didn’t like thick soles. I didn’t like mocassins. I didn’t like slip-ons. I wanted to look cool. I wanted that cool, expensive brand.

But then, many brands failed me. Either they were uncomfortable in the long run, because of rigid design, stiff soles or irritating materials; or they simply have quickly gone out of fashion, or after localising their local design work, the “good design” has simply been gone. Replaced by awkward, tacky and mainstream designs that are out there everywhere. Even the more expensive brands like Campers didn’t impress me in the long run. They were making my heels painful to wear after hours of use. For a more “polished” look, I also have some slip-on or tied leather shoes. But again, these formal shoes are never for longer use. They’re either expensive or good-looking, but never comfortable in the long run.

One more thing: laces. I used to think laces were cool, until I had a baby. More often, you don’t really have time (or want to) tie your shoe laces. It’s not a difficult thing, but something I’d rather not do, especially when I’m in a rush. In the morning, when I am about to go to work, I’d rather spend a little more time with the baby than doing shoe laces. In other people’s homes, I don’t want to find a place to sit just to tie and untie my shoe laces. It’s becoming a cumbersome chore.

So, I’m in the look out for a good pair of shoes that are comfortable for longer use and more intensive walk or run, don’t have any laces, a relatively good material and a relatively good-looking shape. Design-wise, it should not be focusing on fancy, but rather on function and timelessness.

Skechers GOWalk is a wonderful invention that solves most of these problems.

Skechers GOWalk is a casual shoe product that is made of “a lightweight FitKnit mesh”, “memory foam padded heel” and “high rebound cushioning for comfort and durability”. That’s what they write here.

What those mean and how they make me feel are actually hard to describe in details.

In essence, a combination of those really fit my feet and habit well. It feels like walking on a soft, slightly bouncy mat everytime, without losing your momentum or speed. After fivehours standing or walking, you don’t feel any pain at all, unlike the other shoes which have a flatter sole design, where your heel almost instantly interacts with the floor or surface.

The best thing about it is it’s a slip-on, with flexible entry, which means you can just get your feets inside both easily without having to fix or tuck the back of the shoes. One or two slips and you’re off. No fuss.

If you feel like liberating your feet for a while at work, feel free to do so easily. Slip on anytime swiftly if somebody fetches you for a meeting. Take it off easily again if you’re in a meeting room that requires you to free your feets.

Because it’s not a sandal, you can wear it for client meetings, no problem.

It’s this flexibility and “non-intrusive-ness” that appeals to me over a long run.

So far, it’s the best one-size-fits-most shoes that I’ve purchased in my lifetime. Design-wise, it might not impress the very discerning designers or hipsters, but they do have more options if you wish.

My wife actually bought a pair first before me, and I was not convinced the first time. A doctor that we went to for my wife also wore one and he said it will be the only pair of shoes he’ll ever wear and buy. A guy on the plane asked my wife where to buy one of hers because he thought it looked very comfortable. A best friend also wears one.

I think it’s how good design should be: invisibly good. Something that removes a barrier to your life, not add to it. Something that don’t necessarily be noisy in advertising or growth-hacking, but just enough so that it gets noticed. More importantly, it inspires other people to use it, and love it.

Just Start Creating

August 14th, 2016

Sharing is easy. Commenting reactively is even easier. It’s easier to be a passive-reactive audience on the internet and feel smart about it. Except, you are not. You are not smart doing that.

Anything is a canvas.Start creating. Start a blog or a vlog. Start populating your Medium account with a more meaningful writing. Start posting more daily content to your Instagram. It’s fine, just do it. Now.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by what other people would say about you. Believe me, they don’t care. Some of them, or a few of them, would only care at certain points, and that’s when you start to touch their lives and minds. Until then, nobody cares.

Just do it. Forget about loves and likes. Forget about stats, growth-hacking, and all that thing. Just do it.

Do it with love. Do it like you have no end. You can pause anytime, but it’s not about getting rewards from other people. It’s about getting rewards from within. When you stop expecting for recognitions from other people, you have peace.

There’s no peace like this. The peace of doing something just because you like it. It’s a luxury!

We’re in the world full of people encouraging consumptions. You can consume, but the input should be balanced with the output. Get inspired by the consumptions, and get it out with productions. Create. Initiate. Go out there.

As you go, you’ll learn about why it matters more to live by what you create than what you think you deserve. You learn about what you are, what you love doing, and what you should do then. You learn about doing all these things in fun and in responsibility. There’s something about creating that pours joy into your everyday life.

Take that picture. Write that idea. Assemble those footages. Write that code. Design that interface. Sing that song. Then, share it with the world.

The Case of Design Sprints

August 14th, 2016

I’ve been following up on the design sprint quite intensively in the past few months, particularly because one of my clients agreed to have it after we offered it, because they didn’t know what to do with their product, and needed our help to jumpstart a revamp. Secondly, I’ve been in a volunteer in a national-scale movement to generate a new spring of startups through a series of mentoring sessions, and finally, incubation.

As a designer, I am sure loving the idea of spearheading design in every possible opportunity, especially the idea of integrating design in the core of businesses. I must say I agree that one of the ways for it is through design sprints. However, I must say that we shouldn’t explicitly conclude that the only way to enforce design thinking is through design sprints, nor the idea that it is just another “gimmicky” effort for make-believe.

A specific counterargument I’ve had about design sprints revolved around the idea that any method or process is useless. You know, that “anti-process” movement. Especially, when you “talk to only five testers in the end,” versus the idea of rolling out a feature or minimum viable product over thousands of users, or doing A/B testing in a quick successive way. That design sprints are a “waste of time”, because “we’ve kind of decided what we want to do.”

I must say this to you: Design sprint is only one method of many. It sprung up lately because it is a very lean activity to jumpstart and validate an idea. As you know, idea is cheap, because most of them are assumptions, and we need to validate those assumptions.

The argument against design sprints

If people argue that “it’s a waste of time” and think they’d rather launch the product first and see the feedback from the people who use the product, then I’d say, be it. Launch your product, and see.

Especially, if you have the time, energy and money to do it.

I suspect Google isn’t trying to force everyone to use design sprints, but I perceive it as a way to democratize design so that everybody in the company, regardless of their roles, can contribute to the design decision. For many years, designers have been in the “sit-in” and silent role. It’s a position where other people constantly question why a design decision made.

Imagine this situation: a CEO comes with a brief for a product concept. He constantly blurbs out amazing data and facts—combined with his enduring experience, most likely 15 years in the “industry”—that this product idea will make the next big thing. Sure, he got that investment money and ready to roll. He just needs everybody below him to see his wisdom and look up to him, and do as he says. The engineers, the designers, the PMs, the business guys, all come in and are obliged to take a nod to the Big Vision.

The “resource” team would do their “magic” and roll things out as the Big Vision tells it. No questions should be asked.

The product launches, after millions of dollars spent, and somehow, it delivers, but only in mediocre scale. What went wrong? “My team is terrible,” I believe that would be somehow in one of those train of thoughts by the CEO.

This is where design thinking should come in and hopefully save the day. The CEO could ask everybody to assess his Big Vision and try to see what would work better. Better yet, the idea by the team then will be validated by the users quicker. From 10 possible directions, they could narrow to 3, and their chance of failure is reduced, or at least, they are trying to answer a better question.

Now, if the CEO doesn’t mind spending millions of dollars to validate his idea, then by all means, skip the design sprint part. I am not going to argue against your business model.

Design sprints have been designed to reduce the wide varying answers for the very basic business & product question: will this work for my customers or people who will use my product? It will not produce the correct one, nor the God-forsaken the destiny of your product, but it will help you reduce your choices into the better ones. Nothing guarantees success!

The 5-day format is also designed so that it can be executed in a short period of time, with the most-readily available tools and space, and with the most compact composition of participants as possible. It is just the right size. It is basically a solid answer to the worry that “design thinking takes a lot of time and my company doesn’t have the time or resource to do that.”

Why is it so structured?

Designers and engineers probably think the way the sprint is structured look very rigid, because they’re used to thinking quickly, acting quickly and the most dangerous thing of all: jumping into solutions and conclusions before understanding the problem. I believe, this also applies to businesspeople as well.

Design sprint is designed so that we can all follow the proper problem-solving flow, one thing at a time, so that we find clarity every single day. It is pushing people outside their comfort zone: the easy way, the jumping-t0-solution way, the non-fussy way. Dive deep into the problem, and let it sink over nights. By the end of the sprint, we all find a common understanding, a common clarity.

It is also structured in a way that it accomodates every single type of personality. Every meeting that I’ve been always focused on the extroverts. The worst meetings are when the bosses are the extroverts. The bad meetings are when one of the staff is an extrovert and he pushes his thinking to everyone. With a voice. So loud. Cutting every conversation. This is truly bad for the team.

Design sprints have varying dynamics of ideation: sometimes it’s speaking, sometimes it silent work, sometimes it’s zen voting an idea. Or, call it “brainwriting” if you will. It makes sure that everybody gets listened to. Nobody gets in a way, regardless of their position in the company. A VP of Engineering will not push his opinion against designers just because he talks louder.

I am thinking that while design sprints are not perfect, and that there are many other methods, they are quite versatile and adaptable. If the team is not comfortable with 5-day duration, I’ve seen cases where people do it in 3 days. Although, I must say that, if your team is just starting a design sprint tomorrow, I’d highly recommend that it will be the 5-day one, and see whether the pattern fits your team. If your team is experienced enough and can think through quicker, 3-day sprints are fine.

Just make sure one thing is being done: validating with customers. Without this, your sprint is just another “self-satisfying” session with no purpose to serve the people who will use your product.

Unless you don’t care about the people who will use your product, or you just have a lot of money and time to burn.

Speaking, Mentoring and Judging at Google Android Hackathon

May 30th, 2016

Google Android Kejar Hackathon 2016

I was glad that I got invited to speak, mentor and judge startups at Google’s Indonesia Android Kejar 2016 hackathon last 25-26 May 2016. It focused on education technology (“edtech”) and we saw 31 startups from all across Indonesia come to the 2-day event to solidify, build and test their idea. The first day was mentoring & speaking session from me, where I spoke about Designing with Empathy. Designing is hard, but there is one best starting point: your users. For a moment, forget about technology, business and design, and focus on the user’s pain points. This way, your product will evolve closer to solving your user’s daily problems.

I also had a chance to speak with the startups and it was great to see a wealth of ideas and the drive to make them happen. The youngest participant was a team of 13-year & 14-year old students from Semarang.

In case you’re curious, here’s the deck that I presented.

Speaking at Tech In Asia DevTalk 2016

February 4th, 2016

Tech in Asia DevTalk 2016

I’ve had the privilege to speak about design thinking and process at startups at Tech in Asia DevTalk 2016 at Bukalapak.com’s new office in Kemang. About 100+ people came in, out of 400+ people who registered but waitlisted. I was one of the two main speakers at the event. The other one is Devita Mira Lestari, a UX Researcher from Bukalapak.com.

I spoke about how to best implement design thinking and process in agile environment in startups. Here’s the deck I shared that night.

Thank you Tech in Asia for the golden opportunity!

Speaking at Google HackFair 2015

December 14th, 2015

I spoke at Google HackFair 2015 as one of their talk session speakers. It was full-house and engineers, designers and businesspeople attended that event. I gave talk on how to reduce friction in user experience to help achieve a smoother user journey.

Google HackFair 2015

Here’s what I presented on that day: