Blog

29 May 2014

Design thinking meets urban planning

By David du Plessis

The psychologist Rom Harré wrote that ‘the primary human reality is persons in conversation’. It’s a validating idea for design thinkers and user-centred designers because we do a lot of talking, and listening, to find the emotional touchpoints between people and products.

With Harré’s quote in the back of my mind I joined a World Design Capital 2014 co-design workshop, teaming up with members of the community, city officials, and fellow designers to talk about regenerating the Gatesville Central Business District and the Lansdowne Civic Precinct.

The co-design workshop was structured as an end-to-end design thinking process, and for many participants it was their first encounter with design thinking. But the premise of the day was that everyone is a design thinker, and we were encouraged to participate in conversations structured by the primary design thinking stages of:

  1. empathy, context and ideas,
  2. creating a vision,
  3. prototyping and iteration.

Empathy, context and ideas

First up, members of the community told their stories, setting the scene and context for the workshop. Next, they brainstormed the challenges faced by the two sites in their community, followed by a card sort and voting session to identify and prioritise the key issues.

*Voting in progress to whittle down prioritised issues.*

Voting in progress to whittle down prioritised issues.

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16 May 2014

Global Accessibility Awareness Day

By Steve Barnett

Yesterday was Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Accessibility means making sure that people can get all of your content quickly and easily, regardless of the any disabilities they have, the device they’re using, or the type of connection they’re on. The Flow team took time out to do some of the participation activities (Go mouseless, enlarge your fonts, use a screen reader) that the GAAD site suggests. We came away with a renewed appreciation for making our work accessible. That means keeping this in mind from the Content Strategy phase all the way through to front-end development. Here are some more details of the things we found out.

Go mouseless for an hour

We put aside our mice and trackpads, and used only our keyboards to interact with our computers. Figuring out the basic ways to navigate was relatively easy, but time-consuming. For things that we couldn’t figure out, we found that we had to know the right technical terms when searching otherwise we wouldn’t find the search results you needed.

It can be very difficult to target a particular link. The tab order of links may take you all around the page, but you might never hit the link you actually want. Most pages have a lot of links, which only makes it worse. Google calendar was particularly guilty here: you can tab all around the calendar, but not individual entries. It seems like the only way to edit an entry directly is to search for it first. On top of that, quite a lot of sites don’t use :focus styles: you can’t see what you’ve got highlighted, so you don’t know what you’re clicking.

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8 May 2014

Ideas, life and design

By David

The toughest part for me growing as a designer was learning to let ideas go. I now appreciate that ideas are unstable, sometimes they need to change and grow, move on to other people, or simply fade away again. It is a realisation that has made me comfortable with not being right, but confident to stick with ideas that I believe in – my own or those of others – when they start changing.

Cennydd Bowles hits a similar vein in Letter to a Junior Designer where he writes:

In time, the distinction between idea and iteration will blur.

Now I see ideas as starting points for design journeys to be shared with others.

And I realised that becoming a better designer means thinking less about design, and honouring my life experiences as central to what I have to offer as a designer. Doing other things allows my design intuition to breathe again. Cennydd hits the nail on the head once again:

Finally, there may come a point when you realize you’re better served by thinking less about design. Work and life should always be partially separate, but there’s no doubt that the experiences you have in your life shape your work too. So please remember to be a broad, wise human being. Travel (thoughtfully) as much as you can. Read literature: a good novel will sometimes teach you more than another design book can. Remind yourself the sea exists. You’ll notice the empathy, sensitivity, cunning, and understanding you develop make your working life better too.

I reminded myself recently that the sea (still) exists – and it looks wilder, and more inspiring than ever.

7 May 2014

6 reasons why one-colour branding can be bad for usability

By Debré Barrett

We often work with corporate brand guidelines that specify in detail what the brand is about: from fonts and colours, to how you’re allowed to use the logo on a T-shirt.

skype-forbidden

Skype explains how not to use their logo. 

These guidelines usually contain a single page for how the brand should be represented on the web, which is fine – it means the web designers have some room for interpretation.

But there is one frequent oversight in brand guidelines when it comes to web use: not enough colours.

If your branding specifies only 1 colour, or 1 colour with black or grey, a variety of usability problems can happen.

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22 April 2014

What do we do when we do what we do?

By David

I’m quarter of the way into, what I hope will become, a Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice. Overall the course content has challenged my thinking on many fronts – but the concept that I think about most is: What do we do when we do what we do? Ray Ison attributes it to Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist and philosopher.

Ison writes:

Too often we inhabit a taken-for-granted world where our ways of doing things are not questioned. Questions like this that invite critical reflection on our circumstances are not common. 1

To understand what this means, it helped me to revisit practice.

What is practice?

Ison describes practice as a practitioner P, with a framework of ideas F, a method or methodology M, engaged in a situation of interest S. Let’s call it the PFMS practice system.

Why is this relevant?

When appreciating practice in the context of digital design, I’ve noticed that design decisions are often method M driven. Designers starting out – and a few seasoned veterans – focus on method, which is understandable as new methods for doing the same things tend to recur in cycles (for example, HTML5 attempting to recreate the world of Flash). Clients like to be shown new stuff, and business analysts often ask, ‘where is the wow factor? – which is often something visually tangible.

But focusing on method obscures the frameworks F underpinning, and influencing, our work. Frameworks are an equally important dynamic in our practice system, and it needs visibility in language.

All four elements in the PFMS practice system exist in a dynamic relationship. Change in one, causes change in the other, and the changes can have unintended, and surprising, consequences. This is why it is important to hold a conceptual model of what practice is in mind when engaged in projects. And based on feedback from a project, it may be necessary to modify the dynamics between PFMS in a way that is context sensitive.

This opens up a new awareness where we appreciate our own performance in the PFMS system, acknowledging that who we are has a direct bearing on situations we are in. Based on this feedback we can adapt our approach. Ison describes this shift as a move to reflexive practice – where we shift from simply being in, to becoming critically aware of our being in situations.

When looking at practice in this way it becomes clear that over-focusing on methods – at the expense of frameworks – may mean that areas of potential remain hidden, and lost to projects, our clients, and ourselves.


  1. Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World

22 April 2014

For the love of hamburgers

How necessary hamburger icons are is one of the conversation topics around the Flow coffee fountain. Chris expresses some of his thoughts in: Mmm, I do like hamburgers… with a side of off screen canvas

“Off screen canvases are the best option that we have at the moment to get the nav out of the way, and its not going anywhere soon.”

21 April 2014

On running, fonts, and meditation

By David

With the emergence of web fonts, and grid systems for responsive design, UIs are beginning to look like well designed print designs. I have a copy of Designing Books: Practice and Theory – an out of print hard to read European style book of design theory – flipping its pages inspires me to re-think designing for screen. 1

I’ve been wondering if web designers were making the print design connection, then I came across Mike Kruzeniski – How Print Design is the Future of Interaction. The article is recommended reading if you’re unfamiliar with print design, or its history.

All of this has been rekindling my love of fonts untill I discovered Simon Garfield’s Just My Type: a book about fonts, which has caused my type-love to burst into flame again.

But besides design work, I also use fonts as meditation objects when I run by playing a kind of type trumps game. Let me explain.

I’ll visualise a counter in a particular font, say Akzidenz Grotesk, and have it repeat in cycles of 10 or 20, usually driving the counter with my footsteps, and focusing on the detailed anatomy of the characters.

When my mind wanders I’ll switch fonts to regain focus. This helps me to forget about time and distance.

After a run I usually write down a few notes, which is surprising, because when I run I try to meditate on letters and not thoughts, but somehow meaning persists.

For me, this highlights the importance of fonts as containers of thinking – we should not underestimate the role of fonts in mediating our cognitive processes. And with the arrival of web fonts, typography on the web can finally come of age, allowing the creation of experiences with wider, more subtle, meanings.


  1. As is the work of Jan Tschibold.

21 April 2014

Reading vs. Streaming

By David

Spritz

I’ve always viewed speed reading with suspicion. Then I discovered Spritz – a text streaming app – and for an avid reader, with a preference for books, it takes some getting used to.

The premise seems to be; with so much to read – read faster.

To me it’s a simplistic response to distraction and information overload.

From the Spritz website:

When reading, only around 20% of your time is spent processing content. The remaining 80% is spent physically moving your eyes from word to word and scanning for the next ORP1. With Spritz we help you get all that time back.

Being human does involve a lot of repetitive physical positionings before we can start doing something: chewing, for example, before we swallow food – activities that can be framed as time lost. I guess we are going to have to live with it. 2

And even if I could, I don’t think I’d want to read Catcher in the Rye in three hours – I’d feel physically sick – and I’d miss the point of reading fiction, which to my mind means finding emotions on the page, and allowing it to reshape our internal emotional landscapes.

But hang on, I hear you say: text streaming is not for reading fiction, what about business reading? Surely this is an area where reading faster will help, just think of all the emails we need to get through…

Considering the scale of the challenges before us, I’d counter that business, or professional reading, requires the greatest care. Reading faster is not the answer. A different kind of reading is required, and it starts by deciding what to read, how to interpret, and how to respond.

We are not mechanical machines; we are emotional machines. To be different to what we are we need a different biology. 3

I’m not arguing against being productive, but as a species, if there is anything we need to do more – it is doing less of wanting to do more. 4

The productivity-movement is selling their ideas on the premise that by doing things more ‘efficiently’, ‘time’ will open up for ‘other’ things.

But for me, traditional reading is one of those ‘other’ things, and no better way to invest ‘time’. Even if, in a mechanical context, I’m wasting 80% while doing it.


  1. ORP: Optimal Recognition Position

  2. Enter the rise of mindfulness.

  3. Behaviour has an impact on biology – but how committed are we to adopt new behaviours that we know we should?

  4. In a climate change world this can be interpreted as a type of ‘productivity’.

26 March 2014

The differences between the Android and Apple App stores

By Chris Metcalfe

I’ver recently been thinking how I decide whether I should buy an app or not. And I have found that this choice is different in iOS and Android:

http://chrism.co.za/app-reviews-google-play-and-the-apple-app-store/

6 March 2014

Designing journeys from the hamster’s point of view

By philbuk

Want to be “customer-centred?” Instead of designing from a birds-eye view, use journey maps to design each step as the customer would experience it.

On Saturday mornings, we occasionally build mazes for the kids’ pet hamsters out of Duplo. This is fun for everyone, including the hamsters who get a chance to come out of their cages and stretch their little legs.

As the architects of the mazes, we come up with various features that make the mazes more interesting to us. Rooms full of tasty treats at the end of long and complicated tunnels. We even did an elevator once. Here’s a typical maze…

A maze for the hamsters, made of Duplo bricks and viewed from the top

The hamsters have different ideas. They rarely go for the tasty treats because they are rarely aware they exist. From their perspective, the maze looks like this… The hamster's view of the maze. Just a few walls and a left or right turn.

As you can see, it’s pretty hard to tell where the rewards will lie. To the left? Or the right? That’s all the hamster can see. Very often, the hamsters choose to escape from the experience altogether. (It’s amazing how tall you need to build the walls to stop this. That’s a lesson in itself.)

The hamster pops out the top of the maze and stops playing.

To make a successful maze that the hamster will run around in, we have to appreciate that the hamster can’t see the whole maze at once. They can only live through the experience of it step by step. And if a given step isn’t easy and clearly rewarding, then they won’t take it – even if there’s a mountain of popcorn waiting for them just a little further on.

As Flow has worked with various corporations in South Africa, it always seems to come down to the same key activity: Helping teams think through “what would our customer want to do next”.

The simple act of viewing an experience step by step, as a customer would, solves squabbles, uncovers points of pain, and drives out simple new ideas that make things work better for everyone. Without doing this, business units and dev teams tend just to think about the component parts and how to click them together. And customers are faced with fragmented experiences that range from irrelevant to downright bizarre.

A sample scenario/simple journey map

The tools I’m talking about are just personas, scenarios, and journey maps here – techniques that are as old as the hills. But they’re still fundamental, and if you do them earnestly and intelligently they make all the difference.