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Design a Magical Product

Design a Magical Product

Yesterday I took part in a workshop on Design Thinking. The exercise that fascinated me most was when we paired up with strangers to create a product for them. We started by empathizing with the “customer” by talking to them. My partner was international and was carrying all these receipts in his wallet for reimbursements and filing taxes back home. He clearly needed a product that digitally scanned receipts but also was able to provide the physical copies on demand in case of a tax audit.

elfWhile ideating and brainstorming on how to solve this problem, I wrote down standard solutions like pre-stamped envelopes, pocket receipt scanners, and more. But I also wrote down “Magical receipt reading elf.” It was not a serious brainstorm, and indeed I had already started to cross it out when my partner latched onto the idea. “It’s perfect! It can eat my receipts and scan them and then if I need the physical receipts in the future it can regurgitate them on request.”

Yes, a magical receipt digesting elf (MRDE). With an MRDE, you don’t have to worry about carrying all your receipts. You can load them digitally into your accounting software. And, if the IRS comes knocking, you can have the elf regurgitate the receipts, sorted by date and itemized.

It’s a perfect solution to a common problem. It’s innovative. It would fly off the shelves. Problem is, it’s magic!

Magic Comes First

That got me thinking about magic, and especially Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. About what people have always said about Apple products, that they are like magic. And what they mean by this is that good products “just work.” They don’t ask questions of you or require your permission. They function as an extension of yourself.

Good products are one step down from magic without being magic themselves. So why not use magic in the design process? Why not design elves, fairies and spells before designing MVPs, prototypes and demos?

Our magic elf was of course not possible to build…or was it? A pocket-sized receipt scanner and storage unit is not completely unthinkable. If the magic elf that performs these functions is a perfect solution to this common problem, certainly a slightly less magical mechanical solution would be an ideal MVP.

By using a Harry Potter approach, you are no longer constrained by what’s feasible. You are only constrained by what the user wants and needs. All iterations on the magical product can be done on paper. Only when your magic spell is written, do you step down and think about how to make the magic real. I think in most cases there would be a way to do it. And if there isn’t, then start thinking about what technology you would need to be invented (or invent yourself!) for it to be reality.

I’m going to try to apply “magical thinking” to product design from now on. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, wingardium leviosa!

October 8, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
UX in Sandwich Making

UX in Sandwich Making

I was with my friend, on line at a local submarine sandwich shop, watching the man behind the counter make sandwiches. He was a samurai. His moves were methodical and precise. Mustard on the bun. Salami slices. Onions and peppers evenly spaced and flattened. Toaster oven. Next sandwich. He was a one-man assembly line.

italian-deli-submarine-sandwich-04We were behind a guy in his 20’s who ordered an Italiano, the sub we were going to get. The friendly sandwich samurai happily assembled the sandwich and when he was done, folded it tightly, cut it in half, then wrapped it. When it was our turn, we ordered the one big sub for two, and the sandwich artist did the exact same process to build our identical sandwich. However, this time, he folded it, wrapped it in paper, and then cut it in half.

Years of working in tech, and the best UX I’ve seen is in the simple and seemingly unimportant gesture of cutting after wrapping a sandwich, so that two people could easily split it, and cutting it before wrapping for one, no questions asked, all brilliant use cases seamlessly accounted for.

This is what UX means. It is the attention to customer needs, even if those needs go against normal conventions. It is the meeting of those needs with the best possible assumption, and making their day just a little bit easier. It’s providing the same great product but adding that extra detail that makes the product worth buying again.

Thanks for your attention to our customer experience. We’ll be back.

January 21, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
My Top Ten Internet Gripes

My Top Ten Internet Gripes

Ok, girls and boys, time for some venting about the state of the internet today. Let’s look at some problems that we all face on a regular basis–dare I say first world problems?–and maybe some ways they can be fixed.


1. Facebook Grammar

This has been a problem from the beginning. Nothing gets my goat more than seeing a generalized plural pronoun used out of laziness, especially when Facebook has the gender information that would make the proper pronoun instantly accessible. If the user has identified herself/himself as female/male, why not say “X has updated her/his profile picture”?


2. Country Drop-down Menus

They are on every website, and it’s getting to be enough, people. Why should I have to wade through 150 sovereign nations to find my own country, especially if that country is the biggest market for the website I’m on? Why can’t websites at least auto-select my country so I don’t have to click and scroll, or click and roll, or type “U-U-U” like some MS-DOS hacker to find the United States? There is a good solution to this problem here, but I’m interested in even better solutions. Or, not having them at all.


3. Google’s Two-Tier Drive/Docs

Since Google’s transition to Google Drive, it would make all the sense in the world to have one drive. One drive for one group of folders. However, Google doesn’t see it this way. Instead, Google splits their drive into “My Drive” and “Shared with Me.” It may seem like a natural split, except that I can never remember whether docs I am collaborating on were docs I created or docs which were shared with me. And why should it matter? What’s worse, when you search for docs, it only searches inside the active folder. Which means often I am searching twice in the same search box for the same document.


4. Forgot Password Scripts

We get it already! If you forgot your password, you click Forgot Password, then you get an email with your password information and maybe a reset link, then you click reset, then you go to the site, then it asks you to create a new password, then half the time it asks you to log in again with the password you just created (why?), then it sends you a NEW email telling you your password has been successfully reset, and if it wasn’t you that you should call them and tell them. Why all this trouble? What’s so hard about resetting a password? If someone hasn’t already, someone should build a better plug-and-play solution. Or I should 🙂


5. Loading Gifs that Don’t Load

I know it’s because the gif is loaded with the site assets and only replaced after the AJAX call to the server returns data, and sometimes the backend is broken or you lose the network at a crucial moment, but for users, this is the internet equivalent of Apple’s spinning rainbow of death. The fact is, users don’t know or care why it isn’t working, they just see that there’s content that should be there, and isn’t. It’s frustrating, and it would be simple to fix–don’t have a loading gif onload, but instead only show it while data is actually loading. Or not have a loading gif at all.


6. Pinterest Rip-Offs

You’ve seen them all over the place. Pinterest had a cool liquid multi-column layout, so now every site on the internet needs to adapt that style. The reason it works for Pinterest is because it’s precisely what the Pinterest community needs. It doesn’t work for your blog, or some random photography site, or Plus, it’s unoriginal and it stinks. Make your own shitty layout, and leave original design to…not you. See here for a list of Pinterest ripoffs.


7. “Share this Purchase” Requests

We know you want to make your ecommerce site “social,” but no one, ever, is going to be enthusiastic about posting their purchases on Facebook. Not only is it in bad taste to brag about your new $200 three-slot toaster to an unwieldy group of fake friends whose preferences and tastes are unknowable, it’s also not realistic to think that these posts will result in any conversions. It’s best not to insult the intelligence of your buyers and leave these requests out entirely.


8. Facebook Open Graph

The proliferation of auto-shared Open Graph actions is out of control. My Facebook feed no longer provides any useful information and instead shows me a litany of useless, and sometimes embarrassing, information about my friends. For certain things, like music and offers, it’s kinda cool, but for everything else it stinks of desperation for Facebook and the advertiser in question. On this note, Facebook tricking people into sharing all their content by replacing “Authorize App” with “Okay, Watch Video” isn’t cool. Full disclosure: I am partially responsible for this, having brought Ustream to Open Graph in April.


9. Late-Loading Site Content

You’ve been there. The page starts loading, and you see a link you want to click, so before the page is finished loading, you attempt to click it. But just at that moment, some banner slides in from the top of the page and pushes everything down. So instead of clicking “Benghazi militia captured outside Tripoli,” you click “Doris Day impersonator dies from bike pump beating.” The worst perpetrator of this practice is CNN, which insists on telling you you’re using the US edition and asks if you want to make it the default (what else would I want?).


10. Unwanted Noise

This is a common frustration. My computer should not make any noise I don’t want it to make, and therefore, any website that is creating unwanted sound is a complete nuisance. Sometimes I’ll have my speakers on and one of those annoying talking heads greeting me will start babbling, or a preroll ad for a car will start zooming, and before you know it, everyone at the office is pissed. The only time I need my speakers is for a video or music that I voluntarily turn on. Everything else is a distraction. There are some workarounds to this but nothing that is that satisfying. I would put auto-playing video in this category as well.

October 26, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More