User Experience News

Here’s a collection of user interface news, as aggregated by AllTop. I take no responsibility for the content, but it’s usually very good.

Design Just Ate My Software: How Designers Are Leading the Product Revolution

You Want A Phone, But You Don't

You don't really want just a phone graphic

When my son started middle school, he asked my wife and me for a phone. Since he was going to be walking to school, Lisa and I decided yes to this luxury. Our reasoning was not because he was now older or more responsible but because we wanted to be able to contact him! When I offered him one of my old Nokia handsets, which is still a great phone, he nearly lost his life. 'That's a dinosaur Dad! It's as useless as a flip phone!'

For a kid, having the ability to contact your parents is not the reason to ask for a phone. My old Nokia or StarTac handsets were cool phones in their time. Call quality was great but let's face it, predictive text? That's an alien concept to anyone whose baseline is a smartphone. Who remembers trying to text, while waiting and hoping for a 28.8 kbps internet connection handshake to happen? Hmm...do you want to go back?

Some very successful people still rock the flip phone! But let's face it, this is not a product or a fashion accessory that will come back into vogue for the masses. It's not what people want when they ask for a phone today.

Enter the Experience Era

The experience era graphic

Experiences like this get me thinking about what makes us use one product vs. another. And, how has our appreciation of innovation changed from an end user perspective?

Mobile phones are now multi-use devices. We don't say 'where's my entertainment, communication, and personal or business computing device?' What we want is a device that delivers all these needs wrapped in best experience possible. Yes, most of us have morphed into needy people. We need to be productive, efficient, entertained. We expect things to work. We expect and from a consumer perspective, demand a great experience in the process.

How Did We Get Here?

Leaders of Silicon Valley progression

Hardware engineering and companies like Fairchild Semiconductors started off the Valley ecosystem. Mike Markkula, an angel investor and the second CEO of Apple, made his mark at Fairchild and Intel. He worked in marketing, but he had a degree in electrical engineering. Historically, product leadership in companies such as Fairchild and Intel centered around Hardware Engineers. Having engineers as the Product Managers' made sense due to the complexity of their products and the innovation they were driving. Building a chip requires a level of experience that's lost on many from a software programming perspective.

The rise of the business and then the home computer started to bring software into its own. The ascension of the Software Engineer and their leadership era began. Companies like Microsoft and Netscape began to shift the pendulum. Bill Gates may have started off as a programmer, but it was his business focus and leadership that made Microsoft.

When the internet made its way into our homes, MBA's got into the product leadership act to try to sell us more stuff. The big portals like AltaVista, Yahoo, and others introduced more aggressive digital marketing systems. Ads were everywhere! The 'business person' now drove the product definition with more and more ad units.

But then we saw the revenge of the nerds. Google was born, and data accumulation with better algorithmic search became king. With targeted ads and more efficient algorithms, the programmers returned with their analytical efficiency. Organize the data, sell more ads. Computer Science grads become the new ad men and also the Product Leads. In 2001, Larry Page tried to fire all managers with technical reports. The reason? Engineers should not be supervised by people with limited technical knowledge.

Next came a kid in a hoodie. Mark Zuckerberg was a program engineer but he also heralded in the concept of a company being a product. Facebook had learned from all the waves and companies that have come before it. Engineering was not enough. Ship product enhancements that focus on connecting people through news and experiences.

Lastly, no timeline about consumer product cannot refer Apple; the former outlier turned golden child. There's no denying that Apple makes great products. Their first foray was not a success, and it was Microsoft who rescued them with a 0m cash injection. Apple is, however, a great product design company. Their products are easy to use and reflect their focus on the user first, not as an afterthought. No product manuals needed. In many ways, Apple took engineering, design, and marketing to another level. Apple Product Leads understand the overall package and convey the experience to be created. It's a formula that worked, and many try to emulate.

Design Is the Differentiator

The world is now wired for great design and craves the speed and simplicity of a great experience. Successful products layer complexity to ensure a low cognitive load for users. People demand a great experience whether in work or personal situations. This is an evolution in the mindsets of both the manufacturer and the consumers. People such as Simon Sinek have talked about this concept and starting with why as opposed to the what or how. This evolution towards the experience also leads to a need for new types of product leaders. The question is no longer, does it work but how can the experience be better for the user.

Humans are visual creatures, remembering more about experiences and feelings, than written details. We've all heard about the importance of storytelling and bringing people on a journey. So, how has the role of the product leader evolved and where is it all going?

Who's Behind the Wheel Now?

Designers have been passed the baton graphic

The pace of change in the world of tech continues to speed up. People have more choices than ever before. Loyalty is fleeting! People want everything to be well designed and to reflect who they are. Apple got people to appreciate the experience created by their products. Today, apps, products, or websites need to have the best experience or people will move on. Design driven companies are outperforming the market. Just look at the success of businesses like Slack, Airbnb, and others.

If you were going to design a house, who would you want to be the lead, the builder or the architect? This brings up a lot of interesting questions from a software product creation perspective. If the product experience is now the differentiator, who should be leading the product charge? Who is most qualified to balance all the key factors required to build a product and business?

This journey leads us to a group with limited experience in leading, but loads of potential. A group that lacks the alumni network at executive levels. A group that does, however, bring new and essential skills to the table. Please welcome the Designer to the Product Leadership table. Hardware Engineers, you built and continue to build amazing objects. Software Programmers, we'll continue to need your skills to make features operational and efficient. Business person, you taught us how to be more revenue focused. But, times have changed again, and this isn't a revenge of the nerds' situation. Yes, software may eat the world but this is more introspective. Design just ate your software!

Designers, the baton is being waved in your face to become the Product Leads. You can create the businesses and the experiences people will care about.

It's up to you to take it. Are you up for it?

FullStory: Gain Insight From Watching Users in Action

Creating the best user experience calls for more than following best practices. You have to see what users are actually doing on your site to find out where the real problems are.


Help! We (Think We) Need to Hire a Content Strategist

Those of us working in content strategy know that it is a rich and complicated discipline. We understand, of course, that there are different types of content strategists. But we need to remember that outside of our content strategy bubble, the discipline is still pretty new to colleagues and clients. As the discipline matures and more companies are looking to hire for content strategy, how can companies educate themselves on how to use our specific skills?

I’ve recently been on the job market. And so I’ve spent a lot of time wading through content strategy job listings and meeting with hiring managers. My experience suggests that people beginning to actively hire content specialists frequently have little understanding of what their companies need beyond a title. I would even estimate that about half of my interviews over the past few months have consisted of talking through and refining job descriptions with those sitting across the table from me.

Hiring managers at agencies, brands, and startups would do well to hire based on the type of work they want to focus on—not on a price tag or a title. Like experience design (which content strategy is sometimes folded into), content strategy has subspecialties. Some strategists veer more toward the UX side: user research, content maps, content modeling. Others specialize in PR and native advertising (social media, influencer outreach, and content discovery); still others focus more on content management systems and governance.

Some content strategists even overlap with digital strategists (considering the audience, conversion, and the larger digital ecosystem), but then also do some of the more tactical, executional work to bring these digital ecosystems to life. Others may specialize in search and organic growth. Increasingly, former journalists have started to position themselves as content strategists, using their expertise with long-form and mid-length content to cash in on the boom in native advertising work and branded content creation.

And let’s not forget how industry and categories figure into the equation. For example, if you are an ecommerce brand hiring a content strategist for a website relaunch, you may want a content strategist with past experience in ecommerce working on your site, given your specific conversion challenges. Similarly, for highly regulated spaces like financial services, healthcare, or alcohol, a content strategist with past experience navigating these categories makes sense.

If you don’t practice content strategy, talk to someone who does

For any company trying to make their first content-strategy hire, the most logical place to start is talking with a real live content strategist. I don’t mean that you should reach out to a content strategist on the pretense that this is a position for them and then use an interview to pick their brain (and waste their time). For starters, that’s not very nice; furthermore, you don’t want anyone spreading the word that your company doesn’t know what it’s doing and may not be the best place to work.

No, I mean that you should formally engage a content strategist as a consultant. Have them talk to your team, take a look at your business, help write up an accurate job description, and even start recruiting through their network for the specific position you seek to fill. Chances are they know a lot of good people in their community who would be a perfect fit for the role.

Too often, I’ve seen job descriptions written by someone who is obviously not a content strategist and interviews conducted by people who don’t really understand the discipline. This is likely because, depending on the organization and the kind of content strategy work you do, your role could easily sit in Strategy, Creative, UX, Product, Communications, or PR. And if you’re a content strategist more focused on measurement and SEO, a case could even be made for Analytics. While I understand why this occurs, it ultimately means that the candidates won’t be as strong as they could be.

For companies that already have a content strategist or two on staff, it makes sense to engage them as well, even if they’re in a different location or less senior than the role for which you are currently hiring. I guarantee that the kind of feedback they give you will be invaluable.

Don’t look for “unicorns”

Banish the word “unicorn” from your vocabulary—along with, for that matter, “rock star,” “ninja,” and any other ridiculous buzzword of the moment. I’ve worked in the content sphere long enough to know my own strengths and weaknesses. For example, while I’ve certainly worked on content strategy projects that required information architecture, metadata, and taxonomy expertise, I know that my sweet spot lies more in editorial strategy. I’ve learned to position myself accordingly.

Unfortunately, today’s job market sometimes views such candor as a weakness. Ours is a culture that rewards confidence. Indeed, a survey of over 400,000 hiring professionals revealed that confidence is one of the top three traits that employers say they are looking for in new hires. This is particularly true in the tech space, where much has recently been made of the confidence gap and how it negatively impacts women. As a result, during the hiring process, people can feel pressured to claim that they can “do it all” just to nail down the job. And when a hiring manager doesn’t fully understand what they are hiring for, compulsory confidence can be especially problematic.

The thing is, as a hiring manager, you should be skeptical of anyone who claims to do it all. Someone with over five years of experience who says they can do both structural content strategy and editorial content strategy equally well is likely inflating the truth. And while there may be a tiny constellation of people out there who really can do everything, it probably won’t be for the per hour you are offering. Be realistic when you hire. Remember, you aren’t hiring for sales or new business; you’re hiring to get a job done. Don’t fall for the slickest kid in the room—you may find yourself with a mess on your hands.

Ask to see deliverables

As you decide to move forward in the process with a candidate you’ve vetted, rather than giving them a test or a lengthy spec-work presentation, a great way to see if they’re up to the task is to request a package of some of their past deliverables. Here are some deliverables to look for based on the type of content strategist you are hiring for:

  • Website relaunch: content audit, comparative audit, content matrix, editorial guidelines
  • CMS redesign: taxonomy and metadata recommendations, content models, site maps, workflow recommendations
  • Content strategist for an online magazine: editorial calendars, voice and tone outputs, content briefs
  • Content strategist with social-media focus: social editorial calendars, examples of social content, measurement reports
  • Content strategist with SEO and analytics expertise: SEO recommendations, analytics audit

Where do we go from here?

Knowing that you “need” content strategy at your company is one thing; hiring the right kind of content strategist to suit your needs and goals is another. Stop wasting your and your prospective hires’ time. Ask an expert for help, stay realistic about your hires, and request the appropriate deliverables. Making an informed decision about whom you bring on board will set you and your team up for success.

 

Unchanging Gears

Illustration by Nate Otto

John Stallworth has been selling hardware and fixing bikes at his shop on Chicago’s South Side for 50 years, helping to anchor a neighborhood that’s struggled with population loss and divestment. John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop is the kind of old-fashioned business that’s happy to sell customers two nails instead of a whole box. The store’s motto is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Today more than ever, the neighborhood needs John Stallworth and his business.

https://medium.com/media/fa5e1f6b89902a342cb501d4ef1d3f02/href

Transcript

WAILIN WONG: A couple months ago, John Stallworth had a customer show up at his hardware store on Chicago’s south side.

JOHN STALLWORTH: He came in and wanted a key made. The key is a dollar seventy five cent. We don’t take a credit card for less than ten dollars, so he says, “I don’t have no cash, I don’t have no cash.” I said, “Take the key and bring me my money back whenever you in the neighborhood.”

WAILIN: John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop has been open since 1952, and it still operates with the mentality of an old-fashioned neighborhood store where the owner trusts his customers to come back with the money they owe him. For John Stallworth, it’s not about nostalgia or charity. It’s good business sense.

JOHN: You got to, you know. If you don’t trust, and mainly for a small amount like that, I mean, it’s a plus on both hands. If I make the key, and if I don’t let him go with the key, there’s nothing I can do with the key. The key’s already made. So my chances of him bringing it back and making him a better customer is let him go ahead with a dollar and seventy five cent and really he came back and he really thanked me for it, so I know he’ll be back. I know he’ll be back.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, the story of a hardware store that helps keep its neighborhood together — literally, in some cases, and also in less tangible but crucial ways. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

JOHN: This store opened in 1952 under a gentleman by the name of Hank and at that time, of course I was just a little, small kid. But when I started working, my first job was I was working for uh a small, real small hardware store and he was so small that many times he had to send over here to buy inventory to be able to take back and sell. I used to take my bike and come over here and buy different products for him to take back, so one day Mr. Hank asked me did I like to work for him and I started working for him at 17 years old. I told him that, you know, I can fix bikes and he says okay, come on. So we start just doing tube changes and stuff like that. I worked for Hank from that point up until 1969, when Martin Luther King got killed and then his wife and his family said, “We gotta move, we gotta get out of here.”

WAILIN: Hank wanted John to take over the store, but he didn’t offer any financial help. When John applied for a loan through the Small Business Administration, he got turned down because he couldn’t put up enough collateral. That’s when the owner of a nearby grocery store, who had known John since he was a child, stepped in to help.

JOHN: I always felt that I should be in the business. I loved it. It’s something that I wanted to do all the time, but at that point I didn’t realize that I needed money to be able to do inventory and when we finished with the loan and everything, I didn’t even have money to buy my license, so the guy that put the store up for collateral, he loaned me starting-up money, he loaned me, you know, to get my license and all of that.

WAILIN: John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop is located in the south side neighborhood of Englewood, where John has spent his entire life. When he took over the store in 1969, Englewood had a vibrant retail district at the intersection of 63rd Street and Halsted, not far from John’s shop. He remembers competing with seven to 10 other hardware stores in the area. John prided himself on having the best selection and service. The store’s long-time motto is: If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.

JOHN: We came up with that probably when I first opened, 1969, and uh I had a customer come in, says “You know, every time I come in here, you got what I need. That’s why I say I always go to John. He got it, he got it.” So I said at that point, I need a slogan. So I said, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” and I been using that ever since.

WAILIN: John’s competitors slowly faded away over the decades, leaving him as the lone independent hardware store and bike shop around for several miles.

JOHN: I’m probably the oldest black hardware in the city, period, you know, and at one point I had a lot of competition with hardwares. Not black, but just hardware in general and they all closed down. We had a True Value, we had an Ace, you know, and they all gone and I’m still here.

WAILIN: There were other economic forces at work in Englewood. The development of nearby shopping centers drew traffic away from the retail district around John’s store. The neighborhood, which decades earlier had attracted middle class African American families, started to suffer from foreclosures, population loss, poverty and crime.

JAMAL JULIEN: I grew up in Chicago, on the south side, and, you know, the Chicago that I grew up in, is substantially different than the Chicago that exists today.

WAILIN: That’s Jamal Julien. He went to high school in Englewood and he’s the co-founder of Slow Roll Chicago, an organization that uses the bicycle as a literal vehicle for social change. They organize bike rides through neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides, where infrastructure like bike lanes and access to bikes lags behind the more affluent north side. In Jamal’s view, cycling is closely linked with not just individual health and recreation, but sustainable economic development.

JAMAL: If the community is walkable and bikeable, that means that there’s a local grocery store that I can patronize. There’s a local restaurant that I can patronize. The school is in close proximity and so that’s, that’s a different type of living. You know, if everything is outside the community, that means the community doesn’t have a tax base and the tax base is what drives or funds infrastructure projects. That’s what funds education and so we need a lot of these resources to be in the community so that the communities are healthier and more sustainable.

WAILIN: John knows how important the bike repair services are both to the neighborhood and to the future of his business.

JOHN: Bike is one of the things that keeps me afloat now ‘cause when the first store that came along was a Home Depot and he put a hurt on me, and then the Lowe’s came along and they put a hurt on, and now is Menard’s is all right here in my same little area, so it ended up being more of a bike shop than anything. I was selling bikes at that point but then the Walmart came in and the bikes that they sell was, you know, too cheap and I couldn’t compete because I didn’t believe in selling a real cheap bike, so then I ended up stop selling bikes. Total repair now, service, that’s all I do for bikes, yeah. I had one guy, he brought his bike in and I told him it’d be a couple days before he could get it. He said, “No, that’s my transportation to work. I gotta have my bike.” My son and I, we close at six. We was here until eight o’clock fixing bikes because people said they needed their bikes, so I don’t mind staying over, you know, and fixing them.

JAMAL: If I’m in Englewood or if I’m in Roseland or Chatham or any of these communities that have suffered severe divestment and reallocation of resources and things like that, well, if I’m a kid, where do I go get air in my tires? Even things like that. Like when I was a kid, you’d go to the bike shop or you’d go to the gas station and you’d get air in your tire. And now the air costs a dollar fifty, two dollars and it used to be free, you know, so if I’m low to moderate income, I can’t afford some of these things.

WAILIN: It’s difficult for John to compete with the big hardware chains on price, so he puts his effort into service, whether it’s extending his store hours, letting a customer pay for a key later or spending extra time to troubleshoot a problem in someone’s home.

JOHN: When I said service, I still will sell ’em two nails if they want two nails. Home Depot you gotta buy the whole package. Realistic, you make as much if not more money because for one screw you can sell it for a little bit more. A person willing to pay you 50 cents for a screw, but they don’t need a whole package that they got to pay two dollars for, you know, so it works out. I’m able to tell ’em how to fix what they need fixing and Home Depot can’t do that and the Menards. With these modern cameras and stuff, they bring in a picture and says, “I got this here and I don’t know how you should do it.” And most of the time, I’m able to look at it and determine what they got going on. I had a guy last week, he came in and says, “I got a, uh, leak coming in from this wall, you know, I’m not sure where it’s coming from.” And I looked at the picture and I said, “That’s got to be a foundation leak” because they said it only happens when it rains.

WAILIN: John Stallworth Junior, who goes by Johnny, has put his own spin on his father’s customer service. Johnny attended college in Louisiana and ended up staying down south for 16 years. When he returned to the family business around 2004, he introduced a touch of southern hospitality, something he had observed at Walmart stores in Louisiana.

JOHNNY: When I first came back, you know, I tried to greet everyone when they come in the door, you know, let everybody know “Hey you here, we recognize you, we might be a little minute getting to you but if you just be patient, we’re gonna take care of you.” You know, and the more comfortable they are, the more they’ll shop, you know. A lot of times, customers will say, “Hey look man, let me get up out of here because I’m gonna find something else to buy.” Hey, take your time, you know, buy as much as you like.

WAILIN: Johnny’s been working at the store since he was a child because his father always said when you’re old enough to walk, you’re old enough to work. Today, he handles the retail store while his father oversees a general contracting business, which was started in 1977 after an electrical fire destroyed the shop.

JOHN: The fire department called me. I was at home in the bed and then came down and couldn’t do anything but stand across the street and look at them putting the fire out. It was a sad day. I had insurance but the insurance was not sufficient to put the business back together. So at that point I said, “Well, I can put it together myself,” so I started a contracting business in 1977 and I put my business back together, and from that point when I been doing my own construction also. In a way, it was a blessing because I was able to expand. I went all the way to the alley. I ended up with probably another 600 square feet of space, so it worked out real good.

JOHNNY: He got with some friends that really helped out. Everybody pitched in and they got it back up and running. That situation, even though I was young then, um, that situation there kind of put in my mind that maybe I don’t wanna work for anyone else neither, you know, I wanna do my own thing.

WAILIN: The contracting business does small fix-it jobs all the way up to larger-scale building projects, and John gets a lot of customers and referrals from his church, where he’s a deacon. Between the contracting, the hardware store and the bike repair, the Stallworths run a business that’s essential to the health and future of their neighborhood. Their customers are looking to fix up their homes or businesses, or build new ones. They need bikes to get to work, for exercise, or for their kids. The continued survival of John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop is a bulwark against economic blight and a beacon for other Englewood residents working to improve the neighborhood. Here’s Jamal Julien of Slow Roll Chicago.

JAMAL: If we create this perception that it’s crime-filled, it’s dangerous, it’s violent, once the local proprietors close, no one is gonna be attracted to come in. And so if somebody like John were to close, it’s over. It would totally be over. Nobody’s gonna go in there to fill that void, that space that he’s holding down right now. What we would have is John’ll close down and then you know, everybody will have to go to the Lowe’s or the uh, the uh, I call it Homeboy Depot, you know? And, and that money is never gonna return to the community.

WAILIN: Johnny sees encouraging signs in Englewood. A Whole Foods is about to open, and some locally owned businesses are popping up too. If people return to Englewood, reversing decades of population declines, the Stallworths will be there to help them with their homes.

JOHNNY: You’re providing a service to the community that’s like everyday living, they have to deal with it, you know, whether you’re renting, whether you’re at home, there’s always something breaking at the home, whether there’s a flush lever, uh, whether it’s a sink knob and it’s those small inconvenience that if you can provide that product for the customer, then they’re happy. Same way with the bike business, if you can get a child at a young age, bike breaks down, they’re disgruntled, you know, their parents and them come in and look, my bike is in this condition and I want to ride. And when you repair that bike, it makes that child so happy, you know, and a lot of times they don’t forget that. They get older and they know “Hey look, I remember this bike shop when I was a kid, they took care of me so now I’m an adult, they still take care of me.” So it’s just the fact of helping people with everyday living.

WAILIN: John Senior has no plans to retire. After our interview, I was on the expressway going home when I spotted the van for the Stallworths’ contracting business in the next lane. I peeked over and there he was in the driver’s seat, heading to another job.

JOHN: I love what I do. That question was just asked to me the other day by one of my contracting customers and uh she buy a lot of condo units in this building and she uses me to do all of her work and she asks me, she says, “John, how old are you?” I said, “I’m 70.” “How much longer you gonna be working?” I said, “Until the Lord calls me home.” She said, “Be realistic, because we want to buy these condos but no one know nothing, so you fix everything and if something happened to you, we don’t know what we gonna do.” You know, I enjoy what I do, as long as my health let me, I’m gonna keep going.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. You can listen to all our previous episodes at thedistance.com, on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also love it if you could rate and review our show on iTunes so we can climb those charts and get discovered by new listeners. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.


Unchanging Gears was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

 

Read the responses to this story on Medium.

40 Hours to Prototype

When her team was given one week to design and test a new product, Monika Adarsh's and her team was shocked. Still, they followed the 5 phase design sprint pioneered by Google Ventures, and made it work, and now she shows us how.

Intel’s Todd Harple proposes new toolkit for fashion designers

nyfw15_dress2Fashion designers must integrate software, sensors, processors and new synthetic and biological materials into their toolkit, argues Intel anthropologist Todd Harple. “A fourth industrial revolution is set to change fashion, resulting in a new materiality of computation that will transform a certain slice of fashion designers into the “developers” of a whole new category of […]

The post Intel’s Todd Harple proposes new toolkit for fashion designers appeared first on Putting people first.

Here’s What May Sound Like a Crazy Idea

Build a command line option into your next user interface. Some of you techies may be reading this and thinking, “Yes! I live in a command window all the time on my computer.” Well, I’m not really thinking about you as my target audience. I’m talking more about applications used by everyday people outside the...

Balloon Olympics

Balloon OlympicsThis is a little late as the summer games are over, but it’s fun and visually inventive enough that I…

Hey! Write awesome emails with Basecamp

And GIFs!

Before I worked on Basecamp’s support team, I freelanced as a writer and editor. One of my less glamorous gigs was contributing to a textbook teaching non-native speakers how to write business emails in English. Language stuff aside, I’d be researching emoji or “netiquette” or how tone rarely transmits over text, and catch myself thinking, “doesn’t everyone already know this?”

Now that I respond to emails all day, I can safely say: no, a lot of people don’t know how to write a good electronic message. Because they weren’t taught how. Folks who would never call themselves writers are thrown into a world in which most communication is done through text, and, in many cases, their livelihoods depend on it. Unfortunately, unlike my limited readership, most people aren’t handed a textbook when they sit down to craft emails.

That’s where we come in! Basecamp’s support staff write hundreds of emails a day, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. At the time of writing, 93 of our last 100 customers were happy with our replies, saying things like “easy to follow”, “quick, simple and to the point”, and “the perfect response”. So I thought I’d take some time to share what we’ve learned about writing clear, efficient, effective emails.

Before I begin, let me say that we appreciate all of your emails, because they mean that you are using our product and either want our help using it better, or want to help us out, by giving us a heads-up about a possible bug or improvement. We treasure in particular messages from non-native speakers, whose English is almost certainly better than our Spanish, German or Chinese. Please keep sending us emails, and if you would like to get really good at writing them, follow these tips.

̶S̶i̶r̶/̶M̶a̶d̶a̶m̶
̶D̶e̶a̶r̶ ̶S̶i̶r̶s̶
̶T̶o̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶m̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶m̶a̶y̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶c̶e̶r̶n̶
Hey!

“Dear Sir/Madam” is how we used to begin communications, back when we had to scratch our messages on dead trees with pointy sticks filled with liquidised vegetables. Back when being formal mattered. Back when we believed there were only two genders, and that it was important to assign a person to one or the other.

That was then, and this is now. Now we say “Hey!” or “Hi”. Or, “How’s it going wonderful Basecamp helper unicorns?”. Imagine you aren’t Writing An Important Letter, but walking up to a stranger and introducing yourself — only you’re blindfolded and can’t see what kind of body the person inhabits. Actually, that sounds kind of scary — forget that. Just be friendly, be informal, be cool.

DON’T USE ALL CAPS

You would think that everyone would know this by now. YOU WOULD THINK THAT.

Get to the point!

Everyone on my team reads upwards of 100 emails a day, more like triple that if you count the ones we scan to see if they’re spam, out-of-office replies or something else that doesn’t need our full attention. So please, get to the point. As quickly as you can.

Say what you need up front (right after your friendly salutation!), before getting into the specifics. Try to let the reader know: here’s what the issue is, here’s what I want you to do about it, and here’s all the info you need to get it done. We all wish we had time to read epic tales sewn through with plot twists and colourful characterisation, but we don’t. Keep it moving, people!

Paragraphs are your friend

There is nothing more disheartening than opening an email to see a dense block of unbroken text. OK, there are far more disheartening things, like war, famine and injustice, but we’re talking about email here. And sometimes email will screw with you, removing all the formatting and mashing your carefully-chosen words into a single stream of consciousness. You can’t always control the output, but you can be mindful about what you put in — and aim for it to be as legible as possible.

Use paragraphs. Even better, make every paragraph a single sentence, each of which makes one discrete point.

That’s how I write most of my emails now, because this way they’re most easily understood.

I’m doing it right now — doesn’t it look nice?

Writing this way forces you to consider everything you’re setting down.

Think about the person on the other end, the person who has to read this, and ask yourself:

Could this section be clearer or more concise?

Should that part come before or after this part?

Do I need to include this at all?

Try to avoid this:

And aim for this instead:

Don’t tell us it’s urgent

You know how we feel about “ASAP”. If you’re writing to Basecamp support, we’ll get back to you in a matter of minutes, because we want to keep you happy and productive. And anyone else you contact will be working to their own set of priorities. If you’re up against a specific deadline, or you need this thing dealt with before you can do that other thing, by all means say so. But words like “immediately”, “URGENT” or (ew) “ASAP” aren’t going to speed things up.

Be you

So far, so prescriptive. But writing is always personal. It’s your voice, and we want to hear from you. So forget everything you were taught in Business English 101 (but remember everything you learned here 😉) and drop us a note from a living, breathing actual human. Ask us to “take care of” something, rather than “actioning” it, and we’ll respond in kind — with the real words that real people use. And probably an emoji or two. 👍

Attach photos of your pets!

This is special advice for when you email Basecamp. Your CEO or divorce lawyer may not appreciate an attachment of your dog in a Halloween outfit — unless they’re really cool. But, no matter what size or shape of animal you have, we want to see it! There are times when you need to be strictly business, and there are times when you need to sign off your correspondence with this:

Happy emailing — we look forward to hearing from you 🙂

If you’re emailing with clients, Basecamp 3 includes a special feature to help keep everything on the record. And when you’re working with your team, you’ll have a bunch of different ways to communicate, from message boards to chat rooms to private messages. Find out how we help you collaborate and communicate better, by signing up for a free Basecamp account.


Hey! Write awesome emails with Basecamp was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

 

Read the responses to this story on Medium.

The Art of Designing With Heart

How to make useful, friendly software for real people.

One of the things I love about making software is that it’s a deeply mental exercise, chock full of heady processes, abstractions, and interconnected pathways.

You can fill your brain with the practical nuts and bolts side of it—research, strategy, prototyping, programming, UI, operations, and more. Lots more.

And if that’s not enough? Indulge yourself in metrics and performance. Every last detail can be tested, quantified and optimized to the fullest. Get high on KPIs and keep your eyes on your ROI!

The problem is…with so much to think about, and so many logistics to obsess over, it’s easy to forget the reason you’re doing any of this in the first place:

🚨️ YOUR SOFTWARE EXISTS TO HELP PEOPLE! 🚨

Designers usually call this notion User Experience or Empathy. I think those names stink. They’re buzzwordy and vague enough to mean different things in different contexts.

I think we should call it what it really is: Designing With Heart.

This isn’t something that’s the responsibility of one specific team in your company, or one step in a process that you can check off. It’s a core value that informs every decision you make.

Here’s what that means in practice.

At the other end of all your strategy and metrics and tech, there are real people. Living, breathing people — who are busy dealing with their weird life, arguing with their kids, trying to figure out what’s for dinner.

When you build software, you’re painstakingly inventing a machine that stands in your place, feigns sentience, and interacts with these people on your behalf so they can accomplish something meaningful.

Your software is not just a bunch of code and UI you smushed together. It’s also a compilation of your best ideas, your best intentions, your desire to help others, your compassion, your feelings, your soul.

Your software is YOU.

(That is, if you believe in the art of it. And you should, if you give a damn about doing it right.)

When you see things in this light, you’ll notice that a lot of software is dull and lifeless.

Consider your bank’s website, or your insurance company’s billing system. They’re probably cold and impersonal. That’s because the designers treated their job as a mechanical sequence: they took a set of requirements, invented imaginary personas, wrote user stories, and sprinted their way through the work until the requirements were met. All head, no heart.

Capital One’s “sign in” page.

Now, you might think it’s fine for a bank site to be plain and transactional. After all, banking is literally a set of transactions.

But compare that to the experience you’d have with a nice bank teller (if you can still remember what that was like.) The teller smiles at you, asks how your day is going, double-checks that your math is right, offers to help with something you might have forgotten, and gives you a lollipop! 🍭

That’s a transaction with a bit of heart.

OK, so let’s say we want our software to take the place of the bank teller. That means it should ideally provide the same humane, helpful service that they did. But how?

One option is to anthropomorphize the interface and stick some personality into it, which results in UI that’s funny, folksy, clever, sarcastic, or cartoonish.

Poncho the sassy weathercat sends you messages that say “Zzz Zzzzzzz” and “Purrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

I think this only works in small doses, because humans have a low tolerance for bullshit. Unless you’re really good at it, jokey and cutesy stuff gets irritating quickly. That’s even worse than just being mechanical, because it’s a waste of time. It’s usually better to cut to the chase.

So if mechanical is bad, and excess personality is also bad…Then what’s good?

The sweet spot is right in the middle. Good software is friendly, casual, approachable — but also serious, gracious, and respectful. Just like a pleasant real-life experience you’d have at a local business.

Achieving this sounds difficult (it is) but there’s an easy trick that helps a lot.

When you’re designing something, imagine you’re sitting in a room, helping a real person with the task at hand. What would you say to them? How would you explain this screen or feature? What advice would you give? What would you tell them to do next?

Say the answers out loud, and then write down what you said. Now you’re 80% of the way there!

If you were helping someone in person, you wouldn’t be austere or formal. You wouldn’t use buzzwords or jargon or business-speak. You also wouldn’t drop HOT SARCASTIC JOKE BOMBS on them and distract them with goofy asides. You’d watch what they do, see where they get stuck, and walk them through it. You’d speak from the heart.

This common sense technique helps you see the forest for the trees. If you struggle to explain something out loud, it’s probably not clear enough. That insight leads you to ask questions like…

  • Can we make this interface simpler or more direct?
  • Can we reduce or eliminate the choices someone has to make?
  • Are we using natural, casual language to explain things fully?
  • Is this design respectful of a person’s time and attention?
  • Is this something I would personally enjoy using?
  • Did we take any shortcuts that benefit US instead of THEM?
  • Did we make any incorrect assumptions?

Now your design will inevitably end up clearer and friendlier. That makes your customers happier and more efficient, so they can stop fiddling with software and get back to dinner with their argumentative kids.

That should be the underlying motivation for your work. Not tech, not styling, not stats, and not money. Helping people comes first. The rest follows.

Designing With Heart doesn’t just apply to making a product, either. It can also guide your marketing, advertising, and sales work.

For example, let’s say you want to increase the number of paying customers for your product. (Who doesn’t?) That’s a business-first problem, not a people-first problem.

If you only think business-first, you might blast out canned promotional emails, or show “BUY NOW” callouts all over the place, or interrupt key workflows with interstitial popup ads.

The Wall Street Journal asks you to buy before you’ve even arrived.

These techniques may well be useful for increasing raw business performance, but they can be annoying and smarmy to customers. That’s the opposite of what we want. So how do we reconcile the difference?

Easy: think about people again!

There’s nothing inherently bad about clearly communicating the value of your product, making it easier to buy it, spreading your message to new audiences, or even asking for referrals or reviews — as long as you do so in a way that’s considerate, honest, and at the right moment.

Don’t interrupt people when they’re in the middle of something, nag them incessantly, or hard-sell them into doing what you want. If you ask for a favor, make it worth their time by thoughtfully explaining why you need their help, and perhaps offering an incentive in trade.

Follow this approach and your promotional efforts won’t just benefit you, they’ll benefit people too.

There’s one more thing you can do to Design With Heart: don’t be afraid to reveal yourself.

People develop emotional connections to other people—not machines.

When your customers can see who’s behind the curtain, and when you speak to them with honesty and authenticity, they’ll be more likely to identify with your message and approach.

Nate Kontny’s Highrise updates always have a personal touch.

If you built something because you fundamentally care about helping people, and you intend to have their back…say it! Put your name on it, tell your story, show your face, and stand behind your work. Share your real personality rather than trying to graft a fake one onto an inanimate program.

Your customers will respond in kind — and that’s the most rewarding thing of all. 💞

Curious for more examples? Check out these ideas put into practice inside Basecamp 3. And if you ❤️ this post about ❤️, please hit the ❤️ button below or give me a shout on Twitter.


The Art of Designing With Heart was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

 

Read the responses to this story on Medium.