4 March 2014

The warning message that did the exact opposite of what it was meant to.

By Chris

After my phone had an altercation with the floor, I had to revert to my spare. A Windows Phone,  Nokia Lumia 800. It had been a while since I had updated the software and found out that I could only update my phone to Windows Phone 7.5. I downloaded all the necessary files, connect the phone to the computer and click update. After about 30 seconds I saw an image displayed on the phone that I considered to mean that there was no connection between the computer and the phone. Obviously my first reaction was to unplug it and plug it in again to see if it made a connection. Turning on and off the phone and starting the update again all resulted in the same image.

Google to the rescue. I found out that the image actually meant: ‘Do not unplug the phone!’ It seems so obvious now. Of course that’s what it meant. Feeling a bit idiotic I finished the update, but not before taking a picture of the image to make sure it was not just me. Asking a few friends and colleagues what they thought the image meant, made me realise that it was not only me that had misunderstood.

I have not been able to find out if they have changed this image for Windows Phone 8, but lets hope so.

Windows phone warnng message


24 February 2014

Android design guidelines, UX and product management – a recipe for success at 22Seven

By Philip Langley

22seven has been on a mission to help South Africans get control of their finances and their long-awaited new Android app is out to help. By securely connecting to your bank accounts, home loans and investments and categorising your transactions, they make it easy to see patterns in your spending. Flow has been working with 22seven for some time and we’re helping them usability test the new app.

I’ve been using 22seven for about 6 months now and I’ve found it enormously helpful to know how little money I have. Just the fact that I can check my balance without having to log in to three different bank accounts is worth the R25/month fee. And as an fanatical Android user, I’m so glad to finally see such a well-designed app being made in South Africa.

money hub

I spoke to 22seven Android developer Alex Koller about how they made their app a success. He told me it was a combination of user-centred design process, good product management, and sensible use of the Android Design Guidelines.

User-centred design

22seven’s process included:

  • User research. 22seven have been getting to know their users via research and usability test for months and all of that insight was available to the Android team when they started development.
  • Building a disposable app to explore concepts. Doing a concept design phase (in code – that’s their medium) meant they could explore the best ideas without being tied down to their first one.
  • Prioritising the core functions that users need most. Good software does a few things well rather than lots of things badly.
  • User testing and iteration both in closed beta (with a private Google+ community using the Android beta test platform) and in usability tests at Flow.
  • Using Google Analytics for usage data. The app logs key metrics which the team checks regularly.

user testing 22seven android app

Android Design Guidelines

The 22seven app is also successful because it makes good use of the Android Design Guidelines. Jakob Nielsen, the original usability guru, says: “Users spend most of their time on other websites,” and the same is true of apps. Android users get used to interaction patterns from other common apps, so when your app follows the same patterns, users know how to use it from the moment they touch it.

Making use of the design guidelines also makes apps feel like more native to the OS. “If you want your Android users to hate your app, then convert from iOS.” says Alex Koller. Even Foursquare, who were doing the best job at maintaining a single design from Android and iOS, has acknowledged this. Their latest Android app features a navigation drawer.

The key guidelines 22seven used when building the app:

  • The navigation drawer showing both top-level and secondary navigation options. At Flow we’re seeing that not all users have got the hang of using this yet. But with all of Google’s apps using it and with Samsung’s upcoming use of it, we’re confident that it will become second-nature.


  • Action bar holding global functions like add bank account and specific functions like categorise transaction.
  • Multiselect to enable people to select and categorise lots of bank transactions. Here 22seven didn’t stick to the guideline completely. 22seven know that the best way to categorise transactions is in batches, rather than one at a time.  So they’ve made it that a tap OR a long tap on a transaction will trigger multiselect mode. There’s a clear rationale behind their choice and it works really well at teaching people the best way to categorise in 22seven.


Alex points out that sticking to the guidelines also meant that they could use standard UI components. If you don’t re-invent the wheel, you save a lot of time.

The new 22seven Android app is a great example of how to do it right, using a user-centred iterative process and standards compliant design.

Download the 22seven Android App. Tell us what you think on Google+ or Twitter.

16 November 2013

Flow helped a medical entrepreneur secure a R1million innovation award

We’re glowing with pride that our concept and interaction design helped Dr William Mapham, a doctor with a vision, to win the first prize at the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Awards 2013. He’ll use the R1 million prize to fund the creation of his app.

Dr Mapham wanted to create an Android app to improve the diagnosis and referral process from rural clinics to hospital ophthalmologists. By making sure the correct information reached the hospitals they could help the right people to get cataract surgery at the right time, and avoid blindness.

Dr Mapham approached Flow for help with refining the concept and creating an interactive prototype.

We worked with Dr Mapham on personas and scenarios to get understanding and agreement of who would be using the app, and what they would need it to do. We worked iteratively, improving the scenarios until they reflected a story that was practical for doctors at Tygerberg and quick and simple for nurses in regional clinics.

4 persona summary cards including the primary nurse and doctor personas, Sister Nkosi and Doctor Deseta

We designed the app, starting with a map of all the screens, then creating a clickable prototype to run on Android. Making a prototype and viewing it on a phone enabled us to iteratively improve the design. About 13 iterations later, the app was in decent shape – easy to use, even for people with limited experience in ophthalmology.

A map of the eye app showing all the screens and how they link together, on a single big chart

A screen from the app showing how to do a pupil response testA screen from the eye app, showing how you should position the patient's eye in the frame

Now that Dr Mapham has secured funding he can get the app developed. We’ll help him with the visual design and with final usability tweaks.

Dr. Mapham’s feedback: “R1 million! I still can’t quite believe it. Thanks for all your team’s work!”

Dr Mapham - proud 1st prize winner of the SAB Innovation Foundation Awards

Congrats to you, Doctor! It was you vision, optimism and determination that made it happen.

Read more about the awards on BizCommunity…

24 October 2013

Taking down Facebook, piece by piece

By Rian

About a year ago Chris Dixon wrote a great post called Some problems are so hard they need to be solved piece by piece. It was based on an old Andrew Parker post The Spawn of craigslist about how Craigslist is getting beaten not by another similar company, but by niche startups going after their business piece by piece. Chris writes:

Startups that have tried to go head-to-head against the entirety of Craigslist (the “horizontal approach”) have struggled. Startups that have tried to go up against pieces of Craigslist (the “vertical approach”) have been much more successful (e.g. StubHub, AirBnB).

Andrew’s chart got me thinking about Facebook, and it looks like something similar is happening in the social media space. There are, of course, many ways to cut this, but here’s a possible view of some of the startups and companies that are going after different pieces of Facebook:

A few thoughts on this:

  • Messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, and Viber are not just replacing 1:1 messaging, but group messaging as well. In fact, I keep hearing stories of people saying that WhatsApp has replaced Facebook entirely for them. They just create specific interest groups on WhatsApp and share photos and updates that way.
  • Private social networks like EveryMe and Path might appear to be dead, but they’re sleeping giants. For those who want a little bit more than what WhatsApp can offer, Path is the perfect replacement to cut down on cruft while maintaining a small, meaningful network in an environment that’s designed to share everyday experiences. There’s no pressure to only share smart/funny/happy things, like there is on Facebook. Sharing what you’re eating for lunch is ok, because on Path you only connect with people who care about that stuff. It’s more about growing real-life relationships than maintaining virtual ones.
  • Photos are moving to Instagram more and more (and don’t count out products like Flickr and VSCOcam’s grid). Of course, Facebook now owns Instagram, which looks like a great decision more and more every day.
  • Glassboard remains small, but appears to be the preferred business version of Path, especially at industry conferences.
  • The spread of links is more difficult to pin down, since they’re shared in so many different ways. I put a Twitter logo on the chart above, but I think what we’re seeing is more of a trickle down from one network to the next, something like this:

The Facebook funnel

Things worth knowing about start on sites like 9gag and 4chan (and others that I’m not brave enough to visit), as well as RSS feeds (yep, not dead yet). From there it spreads to reddit, where the best stuff goes on to Twitter. Eventually — usually about 2 weeks later — a few of the best memes find their way all the way to Facebook.

The question is, what happens when people start moving up this funnel, away from Facebook to Twitter, to reddit, or even further? Then they won’t need Facebook to find interesting links any more, because Facebook is basically just a filter for links you can find sooner elsewhere.

But that’s not the only scary part. Here’s the other interesting thing. When you take away all the things on Facebook that can possibly replaced by niche products, you’re left with this:

Facebook ads

Apps, and ads.

How long can a company sustain itself with that type of content?

Facebook is in a classic position where, as a dominant provider of horizontal social services, it is in danger of being taken down piece by piece by several vertical players who provide specific, narrow experiences very well. Facebook has become a social media firehose. It won’t be replaced by another firehose, but by a bunch of different cocktails that users can customize as they please.

23 October 2013

Turn criticism into critique for better designs

By Rian

Getting feedback is an essential component of good design. No matter how smart we are, we are going to get too invested in our solutions, and we need the help of knowledgeable outsiders to nudge us in the right direction. The problem is that feedback sessions can get out of hand quickly, because we’re just not very good at providing (or receiving) feedback. We are prone to seeing the negative parts of someone’s ideas first, so we often jump straight into the teardown. This puts the person who is presenting their designs in defensive mode right away, which usually starts a negative spiral into unhelpful arguments and distrust.

There is, however, a better way. In an interview on criticism and judgment, French philosopher Michel Foucault once laid out the purpose of any good critique. In his view, criticism should be focused not on what doesn’t work, but on how one can build on the ideas of others to make it better:

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would fight fires, watch grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes — all the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Keeping this purpose in mind, I particularly like the process used by Jared Spool and his team at UIE. The team uses this specifically for design critiques, but it can be applied generically to any kind of feedback session. Here’s how the process works:

  • The person presenting their idea/work describes the problem they are trying to solve. If everyone agrees on the problem, the team moves on. However, if there isn’t agreement on the problem that is being solved, some discussion is needed to clarify. Hopefully this step isn’t needed, though.
  • Next, the presenter communicates their idea or shows their work to the team. The goal is not only to show the finished product, but to explain the thought process behind the idea or deliverable. The presenter should remain focused on how the idea will solve the problem that everyone agreed on.
  • The first step in the feedback is for the people in the room to point out what they like about the idea. This isn’t a gimmick to set up the “crap sandwich” method (you know — start and end with something positive, eviscerate in the middle). Instead, this step helps to highlight what direction is desirable as a solution to the problem.
  • Critique follows as the next step, not as direct attacks or phrases such as “I don’t like…”, but as questions about the idea. Team members ask if a different solution was considered, what the reason was for a particular choice, etc. This gives the presenter a chance to respond if they’ve thought through the issue already, or else, make a note to address the issue for the next iteration.
  • At the end of the meeting, the team reviews the notes — especially what everyone liked, and what questions they had. The presenter then goes away to work on the next iteration of the idea.

Let’s not forget that as designers we are responsible for making sure feedback sessions happen, and that they happen in a respectful and useful way. Scott Berkun has a great set of ground rules about critiques that are worth remembering:

  • Take control of the feedback process. Feedback is something that you should make happen, because that’s how it happens on your terms and in a way that improves the product. If you just wait for feedback to happen to you, it’s going to happen in meetings where you’re not prepared, you’ll be on the defensive, and the focus will shift off product to politics.
  • Pick your partners. Some people are better at giving feedback than others. Find feedback partners who have the relevant experience you need to make the product better.
  • Strive to hear it all, informally and early. Don’t wait until the product is nearly finished before you get feedback. Discuss ideas, concepts, and sketches way before you discuss comps and working code.

If we change our approach to provide critique, not criticism, we’ll be able to build on the best ideas of others, and iterate faster to better products. So remember: design like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong.

23 October 2013

Not all UX deliverables are bad

By Rian

Amen to everything in Mona Patel’s article The Lean Agency:

While being lean is awesome, being innovative means that spending time and money on smart research and devoting ample time to thinking through the problem space can sometimes mean the difference between a good design and a great design. Our focus is not just on making something usable, but on creating value for a business and really impacting people’s lives.

And a double Amen to this:

Yes, agencies typically end engagements with deliverables. But, we don’t charge our clients just for the deliverables. We charge them for the value that we provide and the objective insights, fresh perspectives, and innovative solutions that we offer. We provide an innovative vision for an exceptional user experience in the form of an artifact, or deliverable. The presentation of our insights and recommendations in a solid deliverable can often be the tipping point for organizations seeking to change their product or experience for the better.

This is how we work at Flow as well. And especially since we started using Expanded User Journey Maps, good deliverables have become the difference between a successful and unsuccessful project.

22 October 2013

The role of ethnography in the success of Starbucks

By Rian

I realise it will ruin some of my coffee street cred to say something positive about Starbucks. However, their use of ethnographic research outlined in Maria O’Connell’s Not Just Coffee: Starbucks’ Rise to Success is commendable (and clearly successful):

Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers, seeking what it was that they wanted from a coffee shop. The overwhelming consensus actually had nothing to do with coffee; what consumers sought was a place of relaxation, a place of belonging. They sought an atmosphere.

The round tables in a Starbucks store were strategically created in an effort to protect self-esteem for those coffee-drinkers flying solo. After all, there are no “empty” seats at a round table. Service counters are built out of natural materials like warm woods and stone, rather than plastics and metals, to create a homier atmosphere.

It’s still so frustrating to see how many companies embark on their redesigns or MVPs without doing contextual research first. You might get the usability of your product right, but without utility, it will still be useless. As Milica T. Jovanovic points out in Better safe than sorry:

Startup culture is using a bunch of clichés to tell (mostly) young people that it’s ok to invest an enormous amount of time and energy into something and then let it fail. Well, it’s not ok. It’s bollocks. There is nothing wrong in investing your time and effort into something you are passionate about, but you can make sure that the risk of failure is as small as possible.

In short, do your research first!

Related reading from the Elezea archive: Coffee, sense of place, and designing whole experiences

21 October 2013

There and back again: my journey from iPhone to Galaxy S4 and back

By Rian

I just got back from an intense but amazing trip to Iran. Every morning when I woke up, this is the first thing I saw:

On the way I home I started writing a post called “iPhone as travel companion”. It was going to be centered around that home screen animation, and how it makes me feel more connected to the people I care about the most while I’m away on business trips. But I was tired, so I only wrote a couple of sentences and then fell asleep (ok, I watched Man of Steel, but that’s kind of the same thing as falling asleep).

When I arrived back in Cape Town, the first SMS I received was from a Samsung PR company:

Hi Rian, this is [redacted] from [redacted]. Your friend [redacted] contacted us and suggested we give you a Samsung Galaxy S4 for a 2 week review to change your mind about how you feel about fruits. Please let me know when and where I can deliver the device to.

A part of me thought, maybe this is fate. Maybe my undying devotion to iPhone is misplaced and this is the universe telling me I should take a trip to a Galaxy far far away (ugh, sorry). So I responded that I’d be happy to try out the device. And I was serious, too. I vowed to try to make it my default device for 2 weeks, and I decided to put my iPhone post on ice until I’ve had a chance to make the Galaxy S4 part of my daily routine.

So I went where no Apple user has gone before (ok, I’ll stop with the awful space movie tie-ins now) and strapped the S4 to my person for a few days. At first, there were some things I liked:

  • Active widgets are great. Seeing a live weather/calendar/mail/etc. view means you don’t have to go into apps to get important information, and that’s really useful.
  • The Gmail app is SO much better on Android than on iPhone.
  • Ok, I guess that’s it.

However, after a while everything started to annoy me about the device:

  • Above all, the scrolling is enough to drive you insane. I opened several apps side by side on the iPhone and Galaxy S4 — Path, Instagram, Facebook, etc. — and flicked my finger on the screens at the same time. iPhone: smooth scrolling, graceful stop. S4: constant choppiness while scrolling (sudden stops and starts), and then it comes to a screeching halt as if someone suddenly slammed on the breaks. The physics of it just feels all wrong on the S4.
  • The screen is too big for one-handed usage. No matter how hard you try, your thumb can’t reach the top parts of the screen, which makes this a two-handed device (well, there’s the bizarre “tiny screen” mode, I guess…). That might be ok for some, but for me it just resulted in frustration and a sore hand.
  • I couldn’t find apps to replace the ones I rely on every day. Sure, the native Twitter, Instagram, and Path apps are fine. But once you go deeper than surface level, the quality apps just aren’t there. Even beyond niche apps I was looking for (like Day One, Notesy, and Reeder), I couldn’t even find a decent calendar app. Now, it might exist, but I just gave up after a while of endless paging in the Google Play store.

Every time I use an Android device it completely lives up to its name: it’s like interacting with a very smart robot. The problem is, that’s not what I want. I want something that connects a little bit more with who I am. And that’s what the iPhone gets right.

So, back to my trip (which you can read about here). My iPhone became my lifeline. I woke up with Rise. I spoke to my family on Skype. I kept up with close friends on Path. I stayed connected through Reeder and BBC News. And yes, I’m sure there are equivalent apps on Android that could replace the ones I use every day on my iPhone.

But here’s the thing.

I don’t want to change. iOS is comfortable. It’s familiar. It keeps improving without changing too much. It feels better — more personal. I know that’s subjective and not quantifiable, but look at that unlock motion effect above. It’s not about accessing a folder. It’s about opening a door to connection. It’s my favorite business travel companion, and you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

P.S. Google, please make the Gmail iOS app as good as the Android version.

15 October 2013

Slow down and refine

By Rian

I recently added a Hario Coffee Kettle to my favorite way to brew coffee at home (Chemex). And I realized that every tool I add to my coffee making routine makes it take a little longer, and taste a little better. I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, wondering if there is a deeper lesson in there somewhere. And then Craig Mod published Pull back, which made it all fall into place:

I want them all to slow down. I want to whisper in their ears: pull back for a second. Just for a moment. Stop and refine. Refine and refine. [...]

In refinement and iteration you finally get to know the thing you made. Really know it. Understand how bad it is. How great it could be. How much potential is still left unrealized. And within each iteration you move the thing forward; sometimes better, sometimes worse.

This is how it is with coffee, life, and yes — design. We can choose to make something and move on as soon as it’s done (Remember, The Biggest Lie in Corporate America Is Phase 2). Or we can choose to slow down, refine, and take the time to make things better. I think we should try to do more of the latter.

14 October 2013

On product validation through deception

By Rian

In How I Made $4000 Selling A Product I Didn’t Have one entrepreneur explains how his new startup deceived users into thinking the product already existed (even though it didn’t). They did this so that they could collect credit card details to validate whether or not users would actually pay for the product. You should really read the whole post, but here’s a key section:

It doesn’t feel good to deceive prospective customers (or anyone for that matter). I didn’t like this bit. Then again, is there really a big difference between this and in putting up a landing page to test a new idea? I don’t know. I think if your intention is right (i.e. your heart is in the right place), then this deception is more of a white lie.

Is this what it means to be a lean startup these days? It’s at worst fraud, and at best an extremely dark pattern. I get the need for validation before launching a product — I’m a big proponent of it. But the user-centered design and Lean UX methodologies both give us great ways to do validation in an ethical and honest way: through prototype testing with potential target customers.

Prototype testing helps us find out if a product is useful before we launch it — whether it has good utility as well as good usability. Sure, it doesn’t give us absolute validation on whether or not someone will actually pay for it, but that’s unfortunately part of the danger and excitement of creating software. Or are we really at the point where we agree with the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles when he said, “Profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception”? I hope not.

I just don’t think deception of any kind is ok, even if “your heart is in the right place”. This isn’t user-centered, it’s persuasion. And as Cennydd Bowles put it in The perils of persuasion:

What privileges the designer [or the entrepreneur] to dictate desired behaviour? And since we’re for hire, does that mean we’re ethical relativists, bending people toward whatever agenda lines our pockets?

Profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception.

This isn’t really a post about one entrepreneur’s methods. I’m more interested in where the line is here, and I think this is crossing a very dangerous one. Where does this approach end? At what point will we, as users, constantly have to worry that every time we enter our credit card details online it might be for a product that doesn’t actually exist? Even if it isn’t fraud, that’s not the type of relationship I think we should build with our customers.

Incidentally, I recently watched Mike Monteiro’s excellent talk at Webstock called How Designers Destroyed the World. It’s embedded below — please watch it. But I’ll close with this quote from the talk that I find very relevant to this discussion:

We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas.

We’re responsible for the work we put into the world. We always have a choice to be honest or deceitful. And we have to consider how those choices add up in the long term. That’s our job.