What can UI designers learn from a baby’s face?

In the presence of a cute baby, you would be hard-pressed not to smile even on your worst day. Have you ever wondered what it is about them that melts your heart; ever thought about possibly capturing this cute-factor in your user interfaces?

Cute baby

Spare a moment to really look at the picture of the baby above and then look at this guy:

Patrick Wilson

By now you must have felt the different ways your body responded to the two pictures, even though the two people may be total strangers to you.

So, what is it about the faces of babies that makes us smile, or gives us the yearning to interact with them? Ted White, my lecturer at the time who later became my mentor taught me a valuable lesson in one of his lectures when he said, “you can’t create a user experience, but you can create the situations that can enable the user experience you desire”.

Being a budding user experience designer, that statement shook my world- I had to learn more, I had to know how he came to that idea. Where that journey took me is an article for another day.

Today, Ted’s statement makes a lot of sense and I will share the few characteristics I presume prime total strangers to smile at the sight of babies they don’t know.

# Innocence is captivating

We find new people a little harder to trust, we remain cautious until we have ascertained that they will not hurt us. This kind of feeling is absent with children because we know they won’t hurt us.

Applying this to the interface:

–       Interfaces should take the blame for things going wrong and assure the user that it is safe to engage with them.

–       User interfaces should never seek more effort/information then what is reasonably comfortable for the user. Ever heard somebody say: “what do you want from me?” You’ll rarely hear that said in a pleasant tone.

# Small is cute

Being less harmful, babies are also small and thus appear more vulnerable and therefore people are somewhat drawn to protecting them. This draws you closer.

Applying this to the interface:

–       As little, yet as much as necessary. This is the mantra of minimalist designers. Minimalism can be understood as a design philosophy where the simplest and fewest elements and content are used to create the maximum desired effect. And so were babies created; as such our interfaces should have no obstacles between the user and the experience we are laying the foundations for.

# Babies’ guards are low

Babies are forever handing out olive branches; as long as you don’t present a threat to them- a baby will accept you and acknowledge you in kind.

Olive Branch


Applying this to the interface:

–       There is a never-ending debate in the usability circles/forums regarding “intuitive” interfaces, one side arguing that nothing is intuitive and the other camp surprisingly arguing that a nipple is the only intuitive interface and that everything else is learned thereafter. Being aware of this debate (regardless of your camp) is important because UI designers need to be aware of the learned things that users already know so that we could make use of interface metaphors to reduce the learning curve of the user interface, in effect lowering our guard.

# Strong emotions are contagious

Babies cry and yell in joy at the top of their lungs, they share all their emotions indiscriminately.

Applying this to the interface:

–       Be passionate about your message and remember that a great interface is selfless, does not draw attention to itself and is devoted to serving a specific purpose for the person using it.

–       Find the right tone of voice for your interface and stick with it. Among other contributing factors to choosing your tone, the most notable is determined by how you want to be remembered. It is about crafting the personality to go with the look.

What other things have you found in your world that light up your soul? Share them with me on Twitter @uxtshepo and we can draw more parallel UX discussions.

Make love, art and live free

Tshepo Lehutjo


UX lessons learnt from the film Spirited Away

The 2001 Japanese animation “Spirited Away”, has been one of my favourite films for quite some time.  The brainchild of the amazing  Hayao Miyazaki , from studio Ghibli, it is not only beautifully crafted animation, but the plot contains a lot of valuable life lessons. To summarize the storyline: 10-year old Chihiro becomes trapped in a forbidden world of gods and magic when her parents take her to investigate the other side of then tunnel. In order to survive, Chihiro must work and make herself useful, and find within herself the courage and resolve she needs to save her parents and escape from a world where humans are despised.

 Let’s start with the similarities between Chihiro as a character and my experiences as UX designer:


Fear of the unknown

Fear of the unknown - Spirited Away

Chihiro doesn’t want to move to a new town. She doesn’t want to explore the other side of the tunnel. She is a scared, weak child, clinging to her mother. Unbeknownst to Chihiro, she has inherent maturity and wisdom, which she only discovers once she is pulled out of her comfort zone and has to deal with the spirits as Sen.

Working in the digital realm, you find yourself constantly scared of what you are undertaking. Most projects involve new technology. How do you estimate? How can you know what problems may surface? Can’t you just do a similar project to the last one, where everything is predictable and you know what to expect?  Do you have to work with different devs, product owners, etc? The answer is, in short, yes. Origin Interactive has not done the same work twice. It’s what we pride ourselves on. It’s not nearly as scary as a spirit bath-house might be to a 10 year old girl. But in the end, you fall back on the wisdom and maturity you’ve had all along, and the product turns out great.


Optimism, trust and empathy

Trust and empathy - Spirited Away

Throughout the tale of Spirited Away, it is Chihiro’s sense of trust and her optimism that helps her conquer. Even in the face of evil, she strives to understand WHY the other characters act the way they do. As with the spirit No-Face, she has empathy for his loneliness and allows him to follow her despite the fact that he ate half the bathhouse.

When you are part of a great and talented team, optimism and trust comes easily. But we all have had the “unreasonable” clients, or incapable development, etc. I have found that if you try and understand the WHY for people’s behaviours, it is much easier to find a solution or reach launch point. Empathy is a core value in UX, in my opinion. Understanding what users want and why, understanding the business goals,  understanding the pressures your client is under… empathy gets you invested in the end-goal and in most cases produce amazing results.


Never forget your true name

Never forget your name - Spirited Away

The witch Yubaba takes a part of Chihiro’s name, turning her to Sen. This is how Yubaba controls people. By signing the contract to work for Yubaba, Chihiro gives away her identity and becomes someone else.  Throughout the course of the tale, Chihiro manages to remember her real name, which in the end frees her.

We all take on various roles on the job. User Experience has been coined a Jack-of-All-Trades profession quite a few times over the last few years. Though some would believe it is at the detriment of the trade, I believe it is a necessary characteristic to any good UX. To know as much as possible, and to deal with as many people as possible, ensures a good solution. This means a UX has to be a dev, or a product manager, or a project manager, or a user, or a CEO.  Be who you have to be to ensure everything is covered, but at all times, know that you stay a UX at heart.


The power of the bla-bla          

Bla Bla - Spirited Away

Chihiro’s saving grace in the first part of the film, is her ability to choose her words carefully and say only what is important. Other characters like Yubaba and Kamaji try and distract her from her true purpose with random questions and comments. But their trickery fall on deaf ears. Chihiro wants a job, and keeps asking for it.

It’s easy, especially in the first phases of a project, to get caught up in the bla-bla. We have all gotten pulled in by the temptation of a revolutionary, all encompassing amazing product that will rule the world. Or the opposite happens. Instead of over-delivering in promises for the solution, you find your ideas being shot down, restricted. Developers kick back on every bit of functionality you want to add, clients are upset by the budget. In the end, it’s all bla-bla. You know, as a UX, what to do to make a solution that fits all requirements and more.  Just do your job, and keep asking for what you need.


Stick to the rules, be respectful

Stick to the rules - Spirited Away

Early in the film it is clear that Chihiro’s manners and sense of right and wrong is her saving grace. Despite the fact that her parent’s gorged themselves on food they did not pay for, she refuses, saying it is stealing. This saves her from being turned into a pig. Later on, it is her respect for the hierarchy within the bathhouse that leads to great reward.

Rules are made to be broken, and in our industry it is very easy to confuse “revolutionary” with “let’s disregard everything and make something unusable”. We have all seen the end-results when usability and standard practice takes a back-seat to conceptuality. Again, it is about striking a balance. If you are respectful of the end goal and the users’ needs, and push within those limits, the results can be great.


Hard work pays off

Hard work pays off - Spirited Away

In the end of the film, Chihiro’s hard work, values and dedication to her cause ensures her parents’ freedom. She returns to the real world more prepared for the adventures ahead, and more aware of what she is capable of.

The reward of sticking to your guns, and bearing through the tough bits is something we are all familiar with as digital professionals. Every project is in itself an adventure, where you meet new characters, protect the ones you know, and have a goal you aspire to. Of course we all have our own work-flows and methodologies. And nothing is ever set in stone. The appeal of user experience, and the reason why I love it so much, is that it is a practice that can be applied to anything and everything. Don’t be scared, empathise and trust, understand, know yourself and the team’s capabilities, avoid the bla-bla, and push the limits within the boundaries of usability. A fool-proof recipe for any UX-adventure!





TechEd Africa 2013

South Africa’s premier technology event for IT Professionals and Developers, TechEd Africa, was held from 16-19 April 2013 at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban.  Offering the most comprehensive education across Microsoft’s current and soon-to-be-released suite of products, solutions, tools, and services; the four days were jam packed with more than 1 000 learning opportunities and hands-on training, 500 unique breakout sessions with Microsoft speakers and industry experts, and more than 200 self-paced labs created by product experts.

TechEd2013 Windows 8 Application

Translating the application from the Windows 8 desktop and tablet devices to Windows 8 phone was a new challenge we embraced with fervor

Due to Origin Interactive’s close relationship with Microsoft SA, we were asked to do the User Experience and Visual Design of the Windows 8 application for TechEd Africa 2013. Using the framework provided on www.tech-ed.co.za, we set out to create an application that would aid delegates not only before the event, but during as well. Pre-event users had the option to check all sessions, speakers, and schedules, and book their days accordingly to ensure that they got the most out of the experience. During the event the apps came to life with Twitter feeds, live alerts, as well as the ability to comment and review sessions you had just attended. Translating the application from the Windows 8 desktop and tablet devices to Windows 8 phone was a new challenge we embraced with fervor . Using the Metro principles and style guidelines, the solution was slick, yet playful, with a modern African feel.

TechEd2013 Application Agenda Page

Pre-event users had the option to check all sessions, speakers, and schedules, and book their days accordingly to ensure that they got the most out of the experience

If you attended the conference this year and made use of the app, we would love to hear your thoughts on it. Fire away in the comments below!

Once upon a time…

“Stories are the most powerful delivery tool for information, more powerful and enduring than any other art form” – Nancy Duarte

When people ask me what I do I say “Oh, I manage stuff in the studio. I write a couple of headlines now and then.  Edit web copy. You know, that kind of thing”.  But to be honest, I write stories.

When I’m managing resource distribution throughout a project, I’m writing that project’s story. How and when it started, and why it ended the way it did. When I’m checking wireframes for consistency, I’m helping our User Experience Consultants and Information Architects ensure that the flow of the story they are writing for the User makes sense. What may seem like small, silly things to check  like button labels on a website or mobile application, they are all part of the bigger story called User Experience Design.

When starting a project, we look at it from the User’s perspective. We start with the basic questions:

User Journeys

“Right, I’m here now. What are you going to do?”

  • “How?”
  • “Where?”
  • “Why?”
  • “What?”
  • “When?”

From that we develop our “characters” or as we like to call them in UX: personas. We then create journeys for our personas. Which are like storylines or plots. When the plot thickens, the user’s journey develops more steps. If they take the left fork in the road as opposed to the right fork, what happens then?User Experience Consultants have to consider all the variables that make up the end user’s experience of your product. In order to do this, we make use of Storyboards.

Storyboards are a great way to collect your thoughts. To visually represent what you are thinking, to other team members and clients. It is a low-risk, very important step in the UX design process that helps make sense of our thoughts. We all remember fairy tales, movie plots and songs. Why? Because they tell a story. We are hardwired to remember them. Being human with a sense of curiosity helps us to relate to these stories. We all want to know what happens to our heroes and heroines.

Storyboarding Sketch

There’s nothing like a good old fashioned whiteboard, coloured markers and post-its when creating a storyboard

So the next time someone asks me what I do, I am going to say, “I write epic novels. I write about you, me and that guy over there. How we are all related. The common thread that binds us together. The shared goal that drives us. And how we are going to get there.”

Content strategy vs information architecture

Hey, I saw a discussion on an UX forum about the difference between information architecture and content strategy. The discussion confused me, what do you think?

I hadn’t really thought about it. But my natural knowledge-sharing instincts woke up, before I knew it, I said ‘No problem, I’ll do a session and write a post on it.’

Since then I’ve realised even though I’ve been responsible for content strategy and information architecture over the years and I have a thorough understanding; it’s not necessarily easy to explain.

The short answer

Both content strategy and information architecture deals with how users interact with information in a digital space. But the focus is different.

Content strategy focuses on the delivery, governance and planning content creation.

The term, information architecture, is used in multiple fields, which makes it hard to give a short definition. But essentially it deals with the design of an information space and to ensure that users can easily find what they’re looking for.

Content strategy

Strategy: a plan of action designed to achieve a vision. It’s about gaining a position of advantage over competitors. (Or the best way to advance to a specific goal.)

  • Content strategy concerns itself with the entire editorial content development process.
  • Content analysis: roughly describing metadata, taxonomy and search engine optimisation
  • Content planning: defining content requirements across the system
  • Ensure content is readable, understandable and also findable, shareable and actionable
  • Content strategy is continual; it runs through planning, design, implementation, launch and carries on as an operational task as long as the product is used.
  • Involves an editorial process, with different professionals having responsibility and sign-off for deliverables.

Information architecture

Information architecture involves itself with the organizing and labeling in information products to support findability and usability. It looks at search and navigation systems

  • Enables users to complete tasks by providing choices
  • Show enough information to let users access areas of interest
  • Accommodate future growth in content and functionality
  • Information architecture aims to provide a good experience to all users
    • Ensures that different user types, goals and requirements are accommodated
    • That includes what the majority of users are interested in Allow successful user journeys for fringe user types
  • Access points: ensure users can access the product from different starting points and complete their tasks
  • In addition to business requirements, site goals, user requirements and user journeys: information architecture has input from different strategies.
    • The information architect has to ensure that the requirements from content strategy, marketing and business are also met.
  • Information architecture doesn’t follow a specific process but uses various mechanisms and tasks – depending on the requirements of the system – to arrive at a solution

United we stand

For me, the point is, let’s keep pushing user experience design to incorporate areas of expertise, any and all fields, that is necessary to have kick-ass digital products.

That’s how we’ll continue to create meaningful digital experiences.

“User experience is a focus, a thread that runs through all of our disciplines, and which no discipline owns or controls”.

– The UXsters

Further reading

How content strategy fits into the user experience – Nick Finck

Content Strategy and UX: A Mordern Love Story – Kristina Halvorson

What is User Experience and User Experience Design?

experience design is about making emotional connections with people

In today’s information society, we’re spoilt for choice and bombarded with information. There is nothing we can’t find, buy or diagnose online. The world is literally at our fingertips.

Websites, applications and other interactive digital mediums have become progressively complex as our industry’s technologies and methodologies advance. What used to be a one-way static medium has evolved quite rapidly into a very rich and interactive digital experience.

Although production and development methods continue to advance, the success of a solution still hinges on a few emotionally driven triggers; How is it perceived, Is it easy to use, Does it meet needs and expectations and Is it an enjoyable experience. Subconsciously users will base their evaluation on these factors and decide whether to become regular users or not.

User Experience (abbreviated as UX) can be explained as the feeling or impression created when interacting with a company, its brand or service and how this is communicated and perceived by users within the digital realm. Whether this impression is emotional, like loving a brand and consequently loving everything it does, or one of approval when something works the way it should, it’s all about how it meets users’ needs.

So what makes people wait inline for 25 minutes for that cup of coffee? Sure, the coffee is probably good, but no cup of coffee is that good…

User experience embodies not only the product itself, but also the user and the context in which the product is used. And as User Experience is a subjective feeling, it cannot actually be ‘designed’. Instead, we design for the experience a user has, reinforcing and enabling a positive brand experience.

User Experience Design (abbreviated as UXD or UXDesign) can be explained as affecting all aspects of the user’s interaction with a product: how it is perceived, learned, and used. User Experience Design is how the elusive and invisible concept of User Experience is made tangible.

User Experience Design is a broad discipline, starting at inception and affecting the whole lifecycle of a project or a business. It is not just a step in the process, but is intrinsic and parallel to every other process and underpins all aspects of the project delivery.

User Experience Design promotes outstanding experiences, rather than simply preventing usability problems. We, the shareholders in our own everyday experiences, want User Experience to contribute to a higher quality of life by designing for pleasure rather than the absence of pain.

It’s about understanding your users, solving their problems and crafting amazing digital experiences. Done well, it’s the difference between good digital solutions and great ones .

So how do companies differentiate themselves in the competitive arena they operate in when everyone is promising the same thing? How do you keep your customers from dumping you for the next thing?

The answers is simple; User Experience Design.
Good User Experience Design = Happy Users

Happy users become your brand advocates and are more likely to recommend your services. They’ll be less likely to desert you when things occasionally go wrong. And if you really do a good job, they’ll even dedicate time to help you grow and improve your services by contributing ideas and valuable feedback.

In summary, happy users generate return on investment. Unquestionably, spending the time and effort crafting an amazing User Experience is definitely worth it.