Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Design

My Interview on User League

Jordan Koschei on User League

I was interviewed for User League, a new online publication from Dave Martin, principal designer at Automattic.

This quote sums up what I believe about design:

I like to think of design as a form of hospitality — we’re creating digital environments in which our users will live for a time. Those environments should make our users feel comfortable and confident, and enable them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. A good product gives the user superpowers without drawing too much attention to itself. It’s better to leave the user thinking, “Hey, I’m awesome” than “Hey, that product’s awesome.”

Thanks, Dave! Head over to User League to read the full interview.

An Anecdote on the Importance of UX Research

“Can you make sure they add sounds to the next version?”

I’m standing in an aisle of a Wal-Mart in suburban Florida, scrambling to open up my notebook as the rest of my team walks out the door onto the bus. I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on, but the guy in front of me looks frustrated, so I’m pretty sure he’s about to tell me something valuable.

It’s the end of 2015; I’m doing UX work at a small agency, mostly for Fortune 500s who are trying to make their internal tools a little less horrible to use. On this project, I’m traveling around the country with a small team, shadowing merchandisers from a brand-name consumer-goods company as they drive to different stores and stock the shelves with their product. It’s just me, my project manager, and three consultants from a gigantic consulting company.

We’ve just finished shadowing this particular merchandiser and are getting ready to leave for our next stop. I’m the last one out of the aisle, and the merchandiser we’ve been observing pulls me aside.

“I’m not sure if you can do anything about this, but I’m having an issue with our new app, and I think other people have been having an issue too.”

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Design is a Form of Hospitality

Design is a form of hospitality.

Done well, design should be welcoming. It should invite users into the world it creates, making them feel at home. This is true for websites, apps, books, posters, album covers — you name it.

Most design is about reducing friction: reducing the friction to find information, to connect with friends, to share your thoughts, to consume more content. Reducing friction is a form of hospitality.

Not all design is meant to reduce friction, of course. If you’re designing an interface for a missile defense system, you probably want to increase the friction around hitting the big red button. Making people feel comfortable — giving them appropriate guardrails that reduce the fear of making mistakes — is a form of hospitality.

Making users feel like they know what they’re doing is a form of hospitality.

Giving users a pleasant place to spend their time is a form of hospitality.

Making tasks easier so users can get back to their real lives — their homes and hobbies and families — is a form of hospitality.

Creating mechanisms that deliberately addict your users is not hospitable.

Luring your users into behaviors for the sole purpose of generating data that you sell to third parties is not hospitable.

Purposely obfuscating the way your product makes money is not hospitable. Purposely obfuscating the meaning of your privacy policy is not hospitable.

Transparently providing a service and charging for it is hospitable.

This is why hotels are hospitable in a way that casinos are not.

Let’s seek to design hotels, not casinos.

Two Beautiful Bibles

The Story of Redemption Bible
One of my new favorite things: the exquisite Story of Redemption Bible, illuminated with illustrations that look like etchings.

Having been a Christian for years, I own several Bibles. I appreciate that this is a luxury uncommon in the history of the faith; for a long time, it was rare to own a single Bible, and for longer than that it was rare to access to Scripture aside from hearing it read aloud. And there are still places on earth where owning a Bible can get you thrown in jail or worse.

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Productized Services

A podcast episode got me thinking about Productized Services — basically, taking a consulting service, standardizing the way you provide it, and selling it as a product.

Services are more flexible, but less scalable. If you’re a web designer who builds WordPress sites for clients, there are only so many projects you can take in a year, but those projects can be as custom as your clients need. You can charge more, because it’s your time and your expertise that are being sold, and those aren’t fungible.

Products are more scalable but less flexible. Instead of building custom WordPress sites, maybe you offer website setup and maintenance, with a starting fee to establish a website and perform minor tweaks on a WordPress theme, and a monthly maintenance cost. You charge less because there isn’t as much room for customization — you’re charging for the website itself, not your time and expertise creating it. However, you can sell more, because your process is systemized and can be performed more quickly, and you can train others to follow your procedures and help you.

As a service, the onus for setting the scope falls on the demand side. (“What do my clients/customers need?”)

As a product, the onus for setting the scope falls on the supply side. (“What do I offer my clients/customers?”)

It isn’t usually this cut-and-dried, and I sure hope you aren’t building WordPress sites for clients in 2019 unless your services are reallllly niche or special (we have SquareSpace now). But I think this is a good example for how productized services differ from regular services.

Apps, Stop Infantilizing Your Users

I’m getting tired of that cutesy, flat-shaded, CalArts-style aesthetic that so many apps seem to have adopted.

Headspace Website
This is the homepage for Headspace, a meditation app designed for adult humans.
Duolingo App Store Page
Duolingo is a great app. This character looks like it came from a startup promo video with ukelele music in the background.

These feel just a few steps removed from Clippy to me. Am I just getting cranky in my old age, or are there a lot of apps that infantilize their users, as if we wouldn’t be interested in a product if it didn’t look like it was designed for toddlers?

Digital Terroir

Hello, CatskillsConf! This is the written version of my talk, given on October 20, 2018 at 4:00pm. There might be some slight differences between the written version and the spoken verison. All images are from Unsplash, except for the Hudson Valley image, which I took myself from the top of the tower at Mohonk.

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The Generosity of Making

For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?

Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

This quote is about making food, but I think it goes for making anything: artwork, music, or even an app.

It’s easy to get caught up in the abstract side of what we do, but it’s so important to remember that behind every email answered, line of code committed, and pixel pushed are the people we’re doing it for.

Asking the Right Questions

So much of my design career has hinged on writing. My first real exposure in the design industry came from writing opinion pieces for The Industry; my first job in a design agency came after the CEO read something I wrote and asked if I’d be willing to sit down and talk.

I’ve been writing less lately, since product work takes up most of my day and I jealously guard my personal time otherwise, but it feels good to see something I wrote in-the-wild occasionally.

You can read the post here: Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Building an Online Community

You are the framer of the Constitution in this world that you are building. You are the Abraham in the series of begats.

I’m a big fan of Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale. In the most recent episode, featuring Caterina Fake (of Flickr fame), they discuss how cultures form in online communities. Social networks become their own “civilizations,” and the founder is “the Abraham in the series of begats,” carving out the culture and mores which will define the community.

Masters of Scale title card

This idea has been on my mind a lot since I launched the Hudson Valley Talentbase. The early tone of the community sets the tone for the entire project — attract trolls early, and it becomes a platform for trolls. Shut them down, and they’ll congregate elsewhere.

Talentbase is still young, and there are only a handful of users that I’d consider “active,” but I’m already seeing the seeds of what the community could become. Some users are engaging with the platform in interesting and unintended ways — using the “Post Your Work” feature to post nascent ideas, for instance, or using it as a blogging function. The norms are already being set. I’m no longer the one controlling the experience — I’m just setting up the framework and watching how users interact within.

My fear of setting the wrong tone early was part of the reason I first launched it as an invite-only platform. I wanted the initial population to be made up of people I trusted, and the people they trusted, so that I could establish Talentbase as a place to showcase high-quality work and have high-quality conversation. Hearing two well-pedigreed social media founders discuss this exact idea is validating.

Some other ideas I found interesting from the episode:

  • Towards the beginning of Flickr, there was a large userbase in the United Arab Emirates, but also a large number of photos of Britney Spears with a bare midrif. Those turned out to be mutually exclusive populations — by allowing the midrif photos to continue, Flickr caused their UAE userbase to migrate elsewhere.
  • There’s no such thing as an objective platform. Every online community stands for something, based on the rules it chooses to enforce, but only some communities know what they stand for.
  • Every founder of a social network understands what lines can’t be crossed. Only some of them vocalize those boundaries and codify them for the rest of the community.
  • Near the beginning of Flickr, Caterina Fake made a point of greeting each new member personally. This is a great idea for making a community feel personal (though I’d be tempted to automate the initial contact, and then respond personally to those who answered.)

It’s food for thought for anyone starting an online community. What tone are we setting, and how will it propogate throughout the platform?

Designing for designers is like cooking for chefs

I like reading books written by chefs and food critics. One common theme is that they bemoan what happens to their social lives — nobody wants to cook for a famous chef or critic, so the dinner party invitations dry up. Who’s going to cook a meatloaf for Ruth Reichl?

On the other hand, chefs and food critics have sophisticated palates, so a chef cooking for other chefs can take risks they couldn’t when cooking for a general audience. That’s the tradeoff — more risk of criticism, but more possibility for appreciation.

So it is with designing for designers:

Pro: You can get away with things when designing for designers that you couldn’t otherwise. You can assume that your audience has nice Retina displays and powerful GPUs that can handle all the hairline typography and parallax scrolling you can throw at them. You know they’re using a standards-compliant browser — no IE7 here — and it’s likely they’re on a Mac or an iPhone.

You can assume your audience knows what common icons mean without including explainer text — not a safe assumption for a general audience — and that they’ll understand UI shortcuts like the hamburger icon and share button.

You can afford to experiment, since your audience is more likely to be intrigued than turned off by strange layouts and weird effects. Assuming we’re talking about a website, they’ll probably stick around long enough to try to figure out how you implemented anything too far outside the mainstream.

Con: Your audience will notice every out-of-place pixel, every less-than-ideal interaction, and every decision you punted on. Designers can’t turn it off – it just happens. Your audience will notice the minutia about your type choices, color choices, layout choices. Things that would pass with a general audience won’t slide with designers.

(On the other hand, designers will sympathize with other designers, so while they’re more likely to notice errors they’re less likely to be abrasive about… oh, who am I kidding. Designers love to nitpick each others’ work.)